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Church, see the whole spectrum

by Dr. Frederick W. Baltz (WordAlone board member, Galena, Ill.)

August 13, 2008

photo of Dr. BaltzThe Evangelical Lutheran Church in America manifests bright spots, dark spots and gray areas. We do no one any favors if we ignore the good that comes from ELCA churches and even ELCA structures.

Think of World Hunger. Think of the congregations that are started. Think of the nursing home beds provided with the help of this denomination--more privately owned nursing home beds than provided by any other organization in the nation. God has been at work in this denomination. God has been at work in the congregations. God has been at work in individuals’ lives. God has called people to the ministry and they have said yes, as have the churches these pastors serve. The true Gospel is preached in ELCA congregations and the Sacraments are rightly administered.

No wonder some cannot understand our critique as anything other than ill-motivated fault-finding, the continuation of that church-splitting, anti-clerical, negative behavior that has, we’ve been told, been with the church for generations and must always be opposed by good church members.

The fact is that members of the WordAlone Network and other reform-minded organizations have been active in this denomination and its predecessors at a high level of involvement for a long time, so they can see beyond the bright spots to the dark spots that also exist. Further, they realize the dangers posed by gray areas. Since this denomination in our experience often discourages any who would bring criticism, we are in the difficult position of (1) being obligated to bring that criticism nonetheless, and (2) having to guard against becoming jaded so that we do not recognize the good that God is doing through this denomination. We work to reform it, not to leave it.

What the future brings for the ELCA will depend on whether those vested with authority listen to the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions, or decide to follow other voices instead. One thing we do not have to prove to anyone is this: the ELCA has been in a state of almost perpetual decline, and the decline has worsened in recent years. The decline coincides with leadership that has moved the ELCA away from its Lutheran heritage through the imposition of an historic episcopate, and through years of so-called study with recurring votes on whether to change our biblical standards for ordination. (We have no “consensus” yet we are told. But if the vote ever goes the other way, to revise our ordination standards, will we continue to search for “consensus”?) What occupies the time and energy of the denomination is not first of all the proclamation of the Gospel, but other things, and that is where the gray areas are to be found. The priorities themselves are wrong. Something important must not be allowed to eclipse something most important.

It seems to me that one of the very bright spots in recent memory is the Book of Faith Initiative, which is an ELCA program to encourage us all to read and study the Bible. If people in the churches have new encounters with the Bible, that benefits all of us. The Spirit speaks through the Scriptures. Let’s thank God for all the times and places that will happen because of the Book of Faith Initiative.

On the other hand we see reports of: former bishops taking part in irregular ordinations of persons who defy the proscription against homosexual conduct, a new bishop signaling that there will be no discipline against those who do not comply with the present expectations, and of other looming actions that show no regard for the biblical teaching on this issue. We ask ourselves: What would happen if WordAlone members were to defy the ELCA Constitution in such a way by ordaining individuals not approved by the church? And we think we know the answer.

I continue to believe that WordAlone churches and churches led by WordAlone pastors must lead the way for faithful, biblical ministry for the rest of the ELCA. If the ELCA could in any way stop us from faithfully ministering, then I would vote to leave. But as it is now the denomination cannot force on any church its misguided priorities, its relinquishment of the Lutheran heritage or the violation of biblical requirements for leadership. It may not always be possible for me to remain with this denomination, but it still is now. I have friends who cannot understand that, but the WordAlone Network is committed to remaining in the ELCA. There is no expectation on my part that things will be reformed quickly, if at all. But God’s call is to faithful witness, and in the meantime, to unite with other like-minded Lutherans to preserve and proclaim the Word of God.