Dr. Robert Benne (Director of the Center for Religion and Society, Roanoke College, Salem, VA) and Dr. James Nestingen (Professor Emeritus of Church History, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN)
Dear ELCA Members,
Has our church lost its center? Since the early days of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, there has been no shortage of people willing to tell you what they are against. What are we for?
Criss-crossing the congregations of our church, it doesn’t take long to run into differences and with them, deepening divisions. Some of the differences are historic, rooted in the church bodies that came together to produce the ELCA. Some of them are regional—like long separated cousins, Lutherans are recognizable but have a different look in Virginia, Pennsylvania, Minnesota and California. Untended, aggravated by additional factors, these long standing differences have proven divisive—in issues like the ELCA’s ecumenical policies and more recently, sexuality.
For a variety of reasons, the ELCA’s leadership—nationally and in many of the synods—has proven unable to lead our church through the divisions to our common center in the gospel of Jesus Christ and our callings. For all the talk of inclusiveness, hard experience has demonstrated that the ELCA is profoundly exclusive—particularly for those who express their faith biblically, in catechism and hymnal, as traditional Lutherans. With this has come the deep sense, expressed by theologian Carl Braaten in a widely distributed recent letter, that the church has drifted into a “liberal Protestantism” that has lost its zeal for Christ and his mission.
In spite of this drift toward liberal Protestantism, we believe there is hope for the ELCA. There is much health in the church, especially at synodical and congregational levels. Regardless of what happens at the Churchwide Assembly in Orlando, there will be efforts to organize a large association of congregations, pastors, and laypersons who want to re-center the ELCA on the Gospel as it is understood in its own constitution.
On September 27-29 a meeting of representatives of many grass-roots organizations in the ELCA will take place in Kansas City. Those organizations agree in general with the analysis offered above and are committed to making the kind of changes in the ELCA that will assure the pre-eminence of the classic Gospel in the ongoing life and mission of the ELCA. The meeting will result in proposals for a “big-tent” association that will then be forwarded to the WordAlone Conference, November 6-8 in Brooklyn Park, Minn. That group will receive and consider these proposals in preparation for the founding of a new association. The enclosed brochure states in a general fashion the characteristics of such an association, as yet unnamed. Though the exact agenda of such an association is not yet defined, it will no doubt address the issues that have been elaborated in this letter.
If you are ready, please begin now to participate in the formation of an association as outlined in the enclosures or watch for announcements about the organization of such an association after November. If you as individuals and congregations share some of the concerns we have outlined, as well as our hopes for constructive change in the ELCA, please be alert to these developments.
Dr. Robert Benne
Dr. James A. Nestingen