28 Hot Takes About The State of the ELCA for Reformation Day
Below is a reduxed, modified FB post I made a couple of weeks ago. Given that tomorrow is Reformation Day, I’d like to share it more widely via this blog, but you are also welcome to visit that post (hyperlinked here) to see the conversation—and there was one!—generated there.
I know I’ve been a bit off grid lately—life has been awfully busy, mostly for wonderful and good reasons (a link to one of them below!).
But publicly quiet though I may have been, privately or in smaller corners of my little world, I’ve been actively musing and in conversations about many a thing related to the present moment within the ELCA.
As I watch the stakes of the 2024 election grow higher and higher, coinciding with a rise in Christian nationalism (and the rise of Christian nationalists, like our new Speaker of the House, as detailed here and here and here), anti-semitism, hate against the 2SLGBTQIA community, climate crises, and the reduction of women’s rights and safety…well, public theologian that I am, it’s in my vocational bones to look at the role, state, and trajectory of the ELCA.
In a word, I have thoughts.
Happily, if you’re a Lutheran, October is the season of Theses, and tomorrow, Reformation Day, is when we go positively bananas about them.
I don’t have 95 of them laying around, but I do have 28, and I’d like to throw them out for your consideration.
Theses 14 and 22-24 are the crux, so to speak, of the matter, and I hope to return to them in another blog (especially 24).
With that, and with some gulps, I offer:
28 Hot Takes About The State of the ELCA
1. Despite the Lutheran well-deserved fixation on the forgiveness of sins (and with all due respect to Luther and his 95 Theses, especially today), the gospel is not, actually, that our sins are forgiven.
2. The gospel is that Jesus is risen.
3. To say otherwise reduces the good news of the gospel to one consequence—forgiveness—and therefore makes its message relevant only to sinners.
4. While, yes, we are all sinners, it turns out that life is messier, more multi-layered, and far more nuanced than just that singular claim.
5. Left at forgiveness, those who are sinned upon, or those who grieve, or those who linger in fear, or who are lonely, or struggle, or suffer under systemic evils, and (all too often overlooked) even creation tormented by human harm; all of these and more are untouched by a gospel that is only about the forgiveness of sins.
6. Instead, the risen Jesus—the gospel, that is—frees us to see death in all its forms, and then (to quote Luther from his less-sexy-than-the-95-Theses-but-way-key Heidelberg Disputation) to “call a thing what it is,” namely to renounce that which is not of God, to tend to those who mourn or suffer, and, in Jesus’ name, usher in comfort, hope, justice, an announcement of grace and something new.
7. Precisely, I believe, because Lutherans have been historically focused on justification rather than justification and justice, the ELCA is now struggling and, I believe, dying.
8. Our focus on forgiveness rather than a broader notion of the gospel both sustains and sanctions the structure of the ELCA, a structure undergirded by white supremacy.
9. We who benefit from white supremacy like forgiveness waaaayyy more than we like repentance.
10. In recent years, we have seen increased irritation and anger from many ELCA members, people who are dismayed by the renewed attention to justice raised by rostered leaders. Such a focus has no place in the pulpit, they say, because they come to church to hear that Jesus loves them and that they are forgiven.
11. We would be wrong to dismiss their anger or diss them, because in all fairness, generations of Lutherans have come to church to hear that we are justified, period. There’s been little to no emphasis on justice. The reasons for that are many, but among them:
a. Luther’s context of rebuking indulgences, hierarchy, and any work as a way to salvation still shape our identity even 500+ years later;
b. Righteous justice work has been misidentified as works righteousness.
c. Allergic to anything that smacks of works, and content with a social, political, and religious system which has largely benefitted people with similar privilege, it’s—consciously or not—to the benefit of most Lutherans to be quite fine with focusing on forgiveness.
d. (To be abundantly clear, forgiveness is a Word, has a Word, and offers good news that needs to be heard!).
12. For these reasons, among others, many ELCA members are understandably caught off guard by hearing something not only new, but often threatening to their way of being and their self-understanding, and many are therefore angry.
13. Meanwhile, ELCA rostered leaders are increasingly restless, stressed, and leaving ministry, because they find themselves enmeshed in a system that calls them to leadership in the service of Jesus, but which structurally and systematically undermines their call to do exactly that. (It really is a crisis)
14. Under our present system, because rostered leaders are aware of congregational and missional dependence on rich supporters—many/most of whom have reason to be offended and off-put by Scripture’s relentless proclamation against power, privilege, wealth, and economic justice—rostered leaders have complicated and conflicted motivations not to preach and teach justice along with justification.
15. Despite promises yoked to both baptism and ordination, there are real reasons—not at all base, but very real—for rostered leaders to fear severe and harmful financial and conflictual repercussions were they to steward their broader vocational and baptized identities.
16. These very same vocational and baptized identities, more fully embraced, could, in real time, affect the viability and (superficial, anyway) peace of their congregation(s). This truth undermines the communally understood commitment of rostered leaders to build up the congregations or contexts to which they are called. Think church mortgages, heat, electricity, staff salaries, choral music, Sunday School materials, and missions beyond the congregation: all and more are put in jeopardy if conflict rises and offerings drop.
17. Too, rostered leaders know that to preach the social and political implications of a gospel far broader than the traditionally limited Lutheran equation of gospel with forgiveness will engage personal risks, risks like:
a. having to leave their call (which could affect not only their own life but also the lives of related loved ones);
b. facing no guarantee of another call in the vicinity or at all;
c. and receiving little to no assured denominational financial support for the consequences of their faithfulness.
18. These competing claims are taking immeasurable tolls on the mental, emotional, vocational, and spiritual well-being of rostered leaders.
19. We Lutherans are swell at swirling the concepts of saint and sinner, the already and the not yet, the both/and of life. But for some reason or another, we remain quite comfortable with making strict binaries out of law and gospel, and (very much relatedly) the prophetic and the pastoral.
20. However, (as but one biblical example) Mary’s song—which announced the advent of Jesus, the one who grounds our gospel—announced law and gospel right along with the prophetic and pastoral truths that wealth and privilege oppress the rich as much as they do the poor.
21. The same can be said of white supremacy, which (albeit in different ways) harms white people as well as those who are not. Likewise, patriarchy suffocates men as it does women. And so forth.
22. But somebody needs to tell them. That rostered leaders hesitate doing so is not only a sign that our structure is beholden to the wealthy, the white, and the patriarchy, and that our system holds captives servants who individually rail against the same, but it also signals that en masse we don’t understand or trust our own theology which (ostensibly) proudly transcends other binaries.
23. When we avoid preaching and teaching boldly against the various interests of the privileged, powerful, and rich—callings in keeping with Scripture’s consistent and overwhelming message against economic inequality and other injustices—we participate in the oppression of the poor and marginalized.
24. Also, by insulating the privileged from the clarion and chronic Scriptural calls for solidarity with the Least of These and against injustice, we also oppress and dehumanize the wealthy by transforming them into mere objects and tools for our own institutional needs.
25. The painful binds described here illustrate that the structure of the ELCA reflects and fosters an institutionalized theology of glory (e.g., the size and financial resources of a congregation, and the overt lack of conflict, are signs that God is at work) rather than a theology of the cross (if we pick up our cross and follow Jesus, we -actually- run the real risk/probability of—at least initially—having fewer people, way way way less income, and uncomfortable conversations).
26. No amount of tinkering with this system will transform its love of glory into love of the cross. It needs to be dismantled and begun anew. And we need to look to womanist, black, mujarista, liberation, indigenous, 2SLGBTQIA, and Dalit theologies, not just for inspiration but for transformation.
27. The ELCA dedication to a theology of glory, which is a theology of white supremacy, will be its undoing.
28. Paradoxically, a theology of the cross says that this undoing might be exactly a sign that God is at work, bringing into being something as of yet unimagined, and something more consistent with and worthy of our Lutheran theology, a theology which, in a word, rocks.
We sit on the eve of Reformation Sunday.
It’s a high feast day to Lutherans, that’s for sure.
We say, of course, that Luther didn’t start out to begin a new church. He wanted to reform the one already there.
True though that is, I think that saying that makes us feel less bad for all of the chaos that ensued ;-).
But still, at the end of the day, in fact, Luther…well, he pretty much started a new church.
Again, the word ‘catholic’ means ‘whole,’ or ‘universal,’ which, in a general-sweep sort of way, is why pre-Luther there was the Catholic Church, and post-Luther there was the Roman Catholic Church, annnnnnd the Lutherans, annnnnd later every other denomination or clusters of belief we have, which are all part of the catholic Church.
The ELCA is not The Church.
But it is a church.
And it might be that a reformation, as in a Systems Tweak with a capital T, isn’t enough.
It could be that this Reformation Day, we within the ELCA would benefit by considering the possibility that our present structure undermines the work of the Church.
Fortunately, we are Lutherans, and we know that church structure isn’t salvatory—for that matter, neither is church.
But as the Church, we believe that the gospel, namely the good news that Jesus is risen, is.
And we believe that the import of that salvatory news isn’t just—or even mostly, and some would say at all—about what happens after you die.
It has everything to do with what happens when we live, and how we live.
That’s because the gospel is that death doesn’t win, not in any single form, even death that manifests in the form of a system that centers the rich, marginalizes the oppressed, and in so doing, oppresses even the wealthy too.
Our theology is, we are, better than that, and there’s no better opportunity for Lutherans to consider that possibility than on Reformation Day 2023.
(And to the good news, and more to this on another later post: David and I have begun a business on Karl’s behalf. Karl, as many/most of you know, suffered a traumatic brain injury almost 20 years ago. We are determined to honor in every possible way Karl’s joy, fortitude, and love of service and people, including by way of discovering a vocation that provides meaning and purpose. To that end, we’ve begun Karl’s Wheelhouse, which you can find on FB, and also online under Two Lugs and A Nut Workshop. I invite you to check it out! *insert proud mama emoji*)
(Another plug that might be shameless but is certainly on point: if you want to take a deeper dive into my thoughts on the above, check out my book I Can Do No Other: The Church’s Here I Stand Moment, published by Fortress Press).