Smiley face ecumenism??

by Prof. Tim Huffman (WordAlone board member, Professor Christian Mission, Trinity Lutheran Seminary, Columbus, Ohio)

February 25, 2005

Perhaps the ELCA is ready for a new logo. An obvious choice would be a bright yellow “smiley face.”

It would be relatively easy to retool from the fractured globe now in use—same general shape—and it would be interesting to see how many people would even notice the change. It also would be a logo that reflects some of what the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) actually is and is becoming.

I sometimes hear how great it is that the ELCA has more ecumenical agreements than any other denomination, and that there are more to come, as if this were not cause for concern. Sadly, it is reminiscent of Ado Annie in the musical “Oklahoma.” Ado Annie, who goes to the box social with Ali Hakim instead of her beau Will Parker, is best known for her song, “I Can’t Say No.” With smiling enthusiasm she sings, “I’m just a girl who can’t say no!”

The ELCA is the church that can’t say, “no,” and many do not realize this is not a badge of honor.

Cardinal Avery Dulles, well-known Roman Catholic scholar and a member of many ecumenical dialogues, has said of us, “I always hear you Lutherans saying, ‘yes.’ I won’t know what your ‘yes’ means until I hear you say, ‘no’.”

That was not meant as a compliment!

Roman Catholic scholars engaged in dialogue with Evangelicals in the U.S., and recently with Pentecostals in Sweden, have found it refreshing to engage people who clearly believe something, and who have the courage of their convictions, however much they may differ with Catholic convictions. Their experience with the tepid convictions of mainline Protestants, especially those who can’t say no, leaves them unenthusiastic.

Although Dulles was polite enough not to say what a “yes-with-never-a-no means,” it is clear that it means that theology is considered unimportant, or for post-modern ELCA dialoguers, theology is considered malleable enough to serve any agenda. Some say that is the spirit of our age: let’s not quibble over small theological points, especially when they revive arguments of centuries ago.

Actually, this lapse into a Gospel of Niceness is a departure from the Gospel itself. The Gospel makes claims on people’s lives precisely because it means this and not that, because it means something and not nothing.

The Gospel is not a smiley face.

The Reformation occurred because of theology. Other historical factors were real, but not lasting.

It was theology that lit the spark that traveled over Europe. It was theology that produced the courage to defy emperor and pope, even to death. It was theology that gave our forebears the courage to face armies that tried to wipe out the Reformation and that led many Lutheran ancestors to make perilous journeys to an unknown land—for freedom to worship in accord with their understanding of the Gospel. It was theology that freed the Gospel from its Babylonian Captivity in the 16th century.

Only caring attention to theology will keep the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and not some generic Gospel of Niceness, alive in Lutheran hearts and parishes into coming generations. This is the only real contribution Lutherans have to make, but it is the contribution critically needed.

As a theologian with a special interest in theology in the two-thirds world (Africa, Asia and Latin America), I see many places where the Gospel is blossoming in new ways. Often the settings are not Lutheran, but always Luther’s Reformation-breakthroughs are the taproots of the new flowering of the Gospel. In Anglican and Roman Catholic settings around the world Luther’s justification by faith, Luther’s priesthood of all believers, Luther’s understanding of vocation and other insights of Luther are explicitly affirmed as the source of renewal.

But at home, smiley face ecumenists—looking for acceptance—give away those very treasures to sharper negotiators, who have yielded nothing, for paper agreements.

The Gospel will survive. Luther speaks ever anew. But whether either can survive in a smiley face denomination with a can’t-say-no attitude is a troubling and unresolved question.