Upon reading that the United Church of Christ has just observed its 50th anniversary I was reminded of an observation my father had made back at its formation. A committed churchman and evangelical Christian, Dad's comment of the merger between the Evangelical and Reformed Church and the Congregational Church was direct. "It will never work. They are too different." I was only an adolescent young man at that time but I shared his interest in the larger Church and, eventually, a similar conviction about the UCC. My father felt the old "E and R" should have joined the Lutherans. They had more in common, historically and theologically, than the Congregationalists. (But then he wasn't sure that his Augustana Synod should have merged with the United Lutherans back in the early 1960's and he would be aghast at the developments in the ELCA.)
Now these many years later, the utopian, man-made organic unions, touted as the work of the Holy Spirit, are falling apart. While visiting a small town in North Carolina a year ago I learned that on that Sunday a UCC congregation had voted to leave the denomination. More recently, while attending a WordAlone Board meeting in York, Pa., the host pastor shared that a local UCC church had left for the Evangelical Covenant Church. Meanwhile the ELCA, observing its 20th anniversary this year, is at risk in some ways of sliding into apostasy.
There is a new "great divide" in which individuals and congregations have to decide whether to be tied to denominations where "less is more." They are the ones doctoring hymns, scripture and whatever theological integrity they had to suit what Karl Donfried of Smith College calls the "theology of acceptance."
Back in 1997, in the heat of the full communion discussions between the ELCA and Episcopalians, an Episcopal leader made a comment that cemented my opposition to the, then, Concordat agreement. In a revisionist reference to the Bible he said, "It's our book. We can do what we want to with it." As I have thought about this statement, I believe it has or could have the weight of a prerequisite conviction for many mainline denominations that would be in full communion with each other. Not "Jesus is Lord," or "the Way, the Truth and the Life." But, rather, "Can't we all just get along?"
It echoes the words of the 60's songs, "Everything Is Beautiful in Its Own Way" and "We Can Change the World." It is the mindset of believing in a generic god, if at all, in a time in which radical Islam says it hates us, "not so much because we are Christian but because we are not Christian enough!"
In the vernacular of Philadelphia, those who act crazy or irrationally are asked, "What are you smoking?" I want to ask that of our ELCA leadership and its full communion partners. Their flight from confessional responsibility, sometimes denied, reminds me of the lament of Paul to the Galatians in the 4th chapter. "Now, however, that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits? How can you want to be enslaved to them again?"
Is there really anything in the Christian messages that needs fixing? I don't think so. But many of us feel betrayed by a generation sworn to uphold the Word of God. Our only captivity, our only calling, our only life is in lifting up God's saving Word, Jesus Christ. There are no anniversaries, by churches that matter, without Him.
"I'm coming back to the heart of worship," the Christian song goes, "and it's all about you, Jesus."
You fall, finally, the way you lean.