Unity, glory and cross

by Dr. Dennis Bielfeldt (Professor, South Dakota State University; WordAlone board member)

March 7, 2005

photo of Dr. Bielfeldt

Dr. Dennis Bielfeldt

Cicero once said that the study of history allows us to escape the tyranny of the present. He’s right. Present thoughts, sentiments and orientations become normative when the counterpoise of history is ignored. We see this in our present confusions about sexuality and the church.

Note the ecclesiastical response to the report of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Task Force on Sexuality. Predictably, ELCA bishops and synod staff are out trying to sell the Task Force Report under the guise of the importance of “listening to each other.” They seem to think that if we would but “deeply” hear the voice of the other baptized, we could get beyond the present impasse. They appeal to unity and try desperately to keep the dialogue going.

I don’t believe that a vision of unity grounded primarily in a faithful listening to the other baptized has much in it to excite the theological imagination of deeply formed Lutherans. To believe that it does is to be captive to the tyranny of the present, to be bound to a pervasive ideology of our time that has had little or no role to play historically in Lutheran theology or ecclesiology.

I am speaking of the ideology of inclusiveness and diversity.

It is part of the tyranny of the present to assume that society ought to preserve the rich diversity of subcultures, while nonetheless incorporating those cultures within a larger social whole. Accordingly, America is to steer a path that rejects both rank tribalism and the “melting pot” motif. We are all Americans, yet we should preserve our cultural diversity within our overarching unity. Tribalism is a factional sin against the state, while the melting of all subcultures into a cultural “Americanism” sins against the particular cultures themselves. Definitely, the ideology of inclusiveness and diversity is in the air these days.

Lutherans with historical myopia assume this tyrannous idea without knowing any other options. Accordingly, the Church becomes the inclusive social order in which diverse subgroups or “communities” find themselves. Christian baptism replaces American citizenship as the sufficient condition for unity in difference. We baptized are supposed to “listen to each other,” to listen to those among us with whom we disagree, just as American citizens must listen and reconcile with other Americans holding differing notions of the Good.

Those in leadership positions within the ELCA believe in the goodness and rectitude of their institution in ways analogous to those in leadership positions in America. Just as most of us want America to endure despite a fundamental change in traditional American values, so too do most ELCA Lutherans want the ELCA to survive even through a change in its traditional theological moorings. Just as the greatest obstacle to the future of America is an intolerance that would claim that the other person is “not really American,” so the greatest obstacle to the future of the ELCA is an intolerance that would declare, “You are not really Lutheran.” Americans are Americans by citizenship and Lutherans are Lutherans by baptism. So goes the muddy wisdom of the age.

Where this rosy picture gets cloudy is when someone asks, “Is this true? Are we supposed to remain united in difference? Or are we bewitched by a false picture of things?” Why should we believe that the ELCA, like America, should survive? Why should we think tolerance in the face of opposing theological positions is healthy—or even permissible? Why should we think that theological intolerance is bad?

At the end of the day, when all the sophisticated biblical work has been done, and all the listening accomplished, this question still haunts us: Ought we to consider consensual same-sex erotic behavior to be in conformity with God’s original intentionality for His creation or not? Is homosexual behavior part of the order of creation or not? If it is part of the order, then it ought be celebrated throughout the church, if it is not part of that order, then it ought be proscribed and no “pastoral discretion” allowed that would overturn the proscription.

But to ask the question of the sinfulness of the activity is to be divisive. As long as we do not talk about this issue, we can stay together. As long as we can make this issue merely one of many, we can perhaps continue to get along. But if this issue becomes the issue, all is lost. Because of this, conventional wisdom counsels that we talk with, and care for each other, that we walk, however haltingly, into a common future.

The study of history allows us to escape the tyranny of the present. I believe that we Lutherans have sold our birthright. After all, we factious ones were born as a theological splinter group in an age where unity was all-important. We rested our raison d’etre on faithfulness to the specificity of God’s Word over and against a culture of accommodation. We Lutherans fought with each other on minute theological points throughout the 16th century, and have divided and divided ever since. Why should any Lutheran believe that we ought to manifest unity over the specificity of theological difference? It is in our Lutheran DNA to care deeply about confessional rectitude. Has the notion of unity in-itself begun to function as God for some of us?

While knee-jerk acceptance of ELCA unity, in and despite difference, arises from our unthinking application of the ideology of inclusiveness and diversity to the church, a particular theological justification can and is often given for this unity. We are told that the Church as the Body of Christ needs a united witness to the One who comes to bring the world peace. Accordingly, the Church’s very glory comes in its union for the sake of the one God who appeared in the Christ.

But those Lutherans who can escape the tyranny of the present know another way. They know that the church’s unity has never come in glory, but always in brokenness and suffering. Our Lord died upon the Cross. We, His Church, can do no better than to huddle at the foot of His Cross, in memory and in hope.

We Lutherans have always known that Christian belief is filled with genuine, forced, theological options that cannot be easily mediated either by precise or by sloppy thinking. May God grant us the courage to rediscover our Lutheran DNA and say what is. Why and when did we start thinking that the necessary condition for being a Lutheran is being nice, smiling and easygoing?