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What Has Gone Wrong in the ELCA?

Pr. Bryan Anderson

April, 2011

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A Closer Look

The sexuality votes of the August 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly were only the tip of the iceberg.1 Underneath this was the true problem—a crisis of authority of God’s Word.2 The crisis dates back to the birth of the ELCA and results in numerous problems affecting the governance, mission, and core theology of the ELCA. This resource paper seeks to highlight the key issues and offers the open-minded-reader source documents to investigate the matter for themselves.

A few years into the life of the ELCA the Rev. Dr. David Preus (the last president of the American Lutheran Church, one of the three churches that merged in 1987 to form the ELCA) wrote of his concerns with the new church.3 To briefly summarize, Preus made the following statements:

  1. Great efforts are needed to show that the ELCA honors and values the traditions and loyalties of the previous church bodies.
  2. Missionary priority has diminished while commitment to an agenda for social and political action has increased. The national church is seen as accepting the world’s agenda.
  3. There is a strong feeling that there has been serious erosion of biblical authority, that the Bible is not being used seriously as the norm for faith and life.
  4. Congregations do not feel they are perceived as the basic unit of the church. Congregations feel like cash cows to be milked.
  5. Synod and national church are increasingly viewed as government…rather than as the congregation’s extended mission arms.

Unfortunately despite such warnings the ELCA ship continued down this course with most of her passengers asleep, completely unaware of any problem. An inevitable collision took place however, when the ELCA voted to change fundamental scriptural teaching at the 2009 Assembly. At least the approved social statement on sexuality was honest enough to admit, “This conclusion differs from the historic Christian tradition and the Lutheran Confessions…”4 The shock of the impact has woken many of the ELCA passengers, including entire congregations, already resulting in the loss of hundreds of churches and well over a quarter of a million members in only a little over a year’s time with associated double digit cuts in churchwide staff and budget.

Looking back, able theologians had already identified the causes behind the disaster. Any conscientious ELCA member should consult two recent book length treatments5 and several key essays.6 In a paper entitled, “Why There Must Be New Beginnings,” Dr. Robert Benne makes a convenient tally of ten key points.7 We summarize his arguments below:

  1. The ELCA has ignored the clear meaning of Scripture, the testimony of the whole Christian moral tradition, the wisdom of its predecessor bodies, and the voice of the ecumenical church in the world today with regard to the issue of homosexual conduct.
  2. The ELCA has replaced the Gospel of redemption with the Gospel of inclusion. This fits Niebuhr’s famous indictment of liberal Protestantism; “A God without wrath brings man without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”
  3. A flawed polity has prevented biblical and theological guidance from being properly exercised in the ELCA.
  4. The ELCA has replaced evangelism with social ministry. A particularly painful decision has been its refusal to do pioneer missionary work.8
  5. The current theological education system, which is more typical of liberal Protestantism, should be left for a more orthodox Lutheran intellectual and practical tradition.
  6. A suffocating political correctness has plagued the ELCA from its very beginning including a hypersensitive feminism. Various “isms” taken together have been so absorbed by Augsburg Fortress (the ELCA publishing house) that it is scarcely recognizable as a Lutheran venture.
  7. The ELCA has striven for inclusivity and diversity at the expense of genuine catholicity.
  8. The church’s flawed notion of being a “public church” has resulted in the presiding Bishop and various advocacy centers presumptuously attempting to speak from and for its members on matters of public policy.
  9. Up to the present time the ELCA has only pursued ecumenical interest in other declining, sectarian Protestant bodies while simultaneously ignoring more orthodox and evangelical traditions even among its Lutheran family.
  10. The ELCA headquarter buildings in Chicago are pretentious and bloated with unnecessary staff and program.

Perhaps the best way to document the crisis of authority of God’s Word in the ELCA is to critically examine the newly published ELCA hymnal, Small Catechism and Study Bible. We proceed with the new hymnal, Evangelical Lutheran Worship (ELW). Matthias Flacius, a 16th century Lutheran reformer commented, “Liturgical changes will be the window through which the wolf will enter the evangelical fold.” Rev. Norman Olsen has prepared a helpful critique of the ELW.9 Below is an abbreviated sampling of some of the main concerns:

  1. The Trinitarian name of God revealed in the Holy Scriptures has been demoted to the position of mere option in ELW.
  2. The ELW introduces without biblical warrant the sprinkling of the congregation with water for baptismal remembrance as a substitute for confession and absolution.10 Should confession and absolution ever be optional?
  3. The problematic use of the Eucharistic Prayer carries over from the Lutheran Book of Worship. This needlessly obscures Christ’s gift to the congregation reversing the scriptural direction of the meal.11
  4. Masculine references in prayers, hymns, liturgical texts and especially the Psalms are consistently emended. Most shocking is the treatment of Holy Scripture where the Psalms are rewritten resulting in the denial of messianic references and the proclamational intent of the inspired biblical authors.12

Other grievous changes are evidenced through the study of the hymns. Almost two hundred new hymns appear in the ELW. The emphasis on social activism is quite apparent at the expense of more traditional themes. Familiar LBW hymns are either lost (Onward Christian Soldiers, The Son of God Goes Forth to War, Stand up Stand Up for Jesus, God of Our Fathers) or supposedly offensive lines are removed from others (For All the Saints, Lift High the Cross) because militaristic themes are apparently intolerable. My Country Tis of Thee didn’t make it into the ELW. Was it too nationalistic? The emasulination of the hymns that consistently occurs in all but a few cases is best seen when comparing ELW 858 to the revised text offered in ELW 859. Finally, the scriptural theology of several hymns is completely rewritten. Contrast LBW 464 with the unbiblical universalism now taught by the revised version in ELW 758.

Overall the ELW lacks a consistent fidelity to reformation theology and associated worship principles. While there are some fine elements there is sadly much chaff among the wheat. The entire process leading up to the printing of ELW was a rather hasty endeavor and was approved at the 2005 Churchwide assembly with the final product sight unseen. Now generations of Lutherans will sing, speak and pray unbiblical theology into their hearts and minds.

Lutheran families have universally cherished the Small Catechism for centuries as a family devotional and instructional aid. Virtually every confirmand has been instructed with this simple biblical summary prepared by Luther so long ago. It may come as a surprise to know the only version still available in print from Augsburg Fortress is the revised 2008 edition. We shall only mention three of the most glaring changes:

  1. 1) The revised explanation of the sixth commandment is an obvious nod to the rejection of the scriptural teaching that marriage is between one man and one woman. It opens the doors to the new “contextual” interpretation with its text, “We are to fear and love God, so that we lead pure and decent lives in word and deed, and each of us loves and honors his or her spouse.” That replaces the traditional husband and wife language used for centuries.
  2. 2) The same desire to eliminate masculine references to God is present in the new catechism. Because of such hypersensitivity we get, “I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord…” That small but significant emendation depersonalizes the first person of the Trinity in contradiction to the teaching of Christ and we loose the clear connection with the First Article.
  3. 3) The Second Article of the Creed is further altered when the once footnoted textual option becomes the norm with, “He descended to the dead.” Such contradicts Article 9 of the Formula of Concord and is a wink to the universalistic theology fast creeping to dominance in the ELCA.13

Finally, a few observations on the ELCA Study Bible are in order. When compared to other study Bibles this offering is more popular and devotional with decidedly liberal content in its introductions and notes. Without much exception it consistently takes the popular liberal positions in regards to authorship of the Bible’s 66 books and virtually all of the more controversial scriptural passages. Contrasting moderate or conservative views are seldom, if ever, mentioned yet there is room for quite radical opinions, well outside mainstream scholarship. This has been documented by the Rev. Paul McCain of Concordia Publishing.14 He points out that some of the explanatory notes deny the original intent of the scriptural passages. In other instances commentators seem to intentionally ignore biblical texts, which do not suit new positions. The sad result is the promotion of universalism and the endorsement of homosexuality.

For example, in commenting on Matthew 28:16-20 the ELCA Study Bible says, “Jesus includes in salvation people who do not believe in him or ever know about him.” That is the exact opposite of clear scriptural teaching from the mouth of Christ and his disciples (compare John 14:6 and Acts 4:12). Thankfully some of these obvious problems were corrected in a second printing but thousands of uncorrected copies of the study Bible are now in perpetual circulation to the spiritual peril of their users, especially our teens and children. Much more orthodox understanding of scripture is advocated by other ELCA theologians.15 Their voice, though present, is significantly downplayed in this ELCA offering. While there are some particularly excellent contributions and features in this Bible it proves to be quite an uneven patchwork of mostly liberal theological opinion.

In conclusion, if your eyes were opened by the controversy surrounding the 2009 assembly you are not alone.16 Many from within the ELCA as well as Lutherans from without are in protest.17 The Rev. Dr. James Crumley (the last bishop of the Lutheran Church in America, one of the three churches that merged in 1987 to form the ELCA) recently commented, “I conclude that there is no evidence based on the text of scripture which permits or mandates the change as stated in the new policy adapted at the assembly. The action was unconstitutional and violated a part of the Confession of Faith. On that basis, the appropriate question is whether the ELCA is still without question a faithful and confessing church.”18 Even the Roman Catholic Church warned the ELCA of the potential consequence of changing its biblical understanding of sexuality and marriage.19 We can only gasp in light of the position we find ourselves in. Luther’s conscience was not bound to itself but instead the Word of God.20

This paper has attempted to point the open-minded reader to a volume of literature seldom referenced by official ELCA publications. After carefully reviewing this evidence you are invited to make a prayerful consideration as to your personal stance. Is the ELCA ship taking on water or should we relax in our deck chairs? Some congregations are relaxing with great enthusiasm. You should visit some of their websites to judge for yourself.21 Also, pay close attention to the developing situation at ELCA colleges and seminaries.22 Here is where our future congregational leaders and pastors are found.

Wherever God leads you please do not write off this serious matter as a mere difference of opinion on homosexuality. If anything, the debates surrounding such are quite minor compared to the long list of ills plaguing the ELCA. And please also know that one does not have to be a “bigot” or “unloving” to hold fast to biblical teachings concerning sexuality.23 There was also a lot more going on than an in-house theological debate.24 If you should reject the new direction of the ELCA you won’t find many friends among the Bishops, so do be careful.25 Simply remember two things. First, we didn’t leave the ELCA, the ELCA left us. And secondly, if you don’t stand for something, you fall for everything.

Let’s stand on the solid rock – the Word of God. All other ground is sinking sand (or ship).


1  Back

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4 (page 18)  Back

5 Is the ELCA Lutheran? by C. Goble and By What Authority?: Confronting Churches Who No Longer Believe Their Own Message by the WordAlone Network. Back

6 (see “Two Opposing Theologies in the ELCA” pages 5-8), (see “Replacing the Center with the Periphery pages 5-8),,  Back

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10 (see 4.7.1 “Practices without a particular promise”)  Back

11 This serious problem is further discussed in the recent book, Reclaiming the Lutheran Liturgical Heritage by Rev. Dr. O. Olson. Back

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16 See a running tally of congregations voting to leave the ELCA  Back

17,!news&article=39,,,,  Back

18 (page 2).  Back

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21,,, <>  Back

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24 (see page 4)  Back

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