The Heart of the Reformation
David R. Weiss – October 28, 2009
Last August the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) changed its policy to allow for blessing same-gender couples and ordaining persons in committed same-gender relationships.
Since then very few “official” Lutheran voices have dared to publicly celebrate and rejoice in the good news this offers to our gay and lesbian members (and to their families and friends as well). Our leaders prefer to downplay any real significance to this policy change—which is a bit like pretending that when the early church began recognizing Gentiles (non-Jews) as fully Christian without needing to become Jewish in diet and practice, it was “no big deal.” Right.
They keep saying “nothing has changed.” Individual churches continue to have final say over whose relationships are blessed in their sanctuaries and who is called to serve in their parishes. Churches unconvinced that homosexuality is part of the diversity of God’s creation can continue to call it an abomination if they prefer. So, in this sense, I suppose nothing has changed.
However, for some folks things clearly have changed—and not for the better. The most vocal Lutherans these days are threatening to take their wallets, their memberships, and occasionally their entire congregations elsewhere. They say that in August the ELCA jettisoned its understanding of sin, its respect for the Bible, and its fidelity to the Lutheran confessions. Yikes.
So, what’s a Lutheran to do if you’re actually pleased by the August actions? Short of posting my words on the door of every ELCA Lutheran church, I’ll settle for having my brief say in three short points here in print. (You can certainly post the column on your own church door if you wish!)
1. We have not chosen to ignore sin. In good Lutheran fashion we see sin as broken relationship, whether with God, our fellow humans, or the world. And for all of us our understanding of what specifically constitutes sin has changed in every era. Ninety years ago—at a good Lutheran elementary school—my grandfather’s left arm was literally tied to his desk to keep him from “sinning” by writing with “the devil’s hand.” There are a lot of specific behaviors that used to be seen as sins, but which we now realize don’t break relationship with God or anyone else. We may not all agree on that list, but it’s a cheap shot to say that we’ve dismissed the whole notion of sin. We haven’t. And to say otherwise is to bear false witness against your neighbor, which is, by all accounts, sin.
2. We have not rejected the Bible. Luther was himself a Scripture scholar; he was no biblical literalist. Though he hardly had access to all the knowledge that today’s scholars enjoy, he used all the scholarship at his disposal, and through it he heard genuinely good news in the Bible. In a similar way, through scholarship and prayer we’ve been convinced that there is yet more good news to proclaim. In a very Lutheran way, we respect the Bible too much to think that it’s best understood by just reading the words off the page. For Luther the Bible only becomes “God’s Word” when it offers life. He would be outraged to see the Bible used like a club to batter people. In such a scenario, Luther would say, “that’s not the Word of God, it’s just a heavy book being used to inflict harm.”
3. We have not forsaken the Lutheran confessions. The heart of the Reformation, “the doctrine by which the church stands or falls,” as Luther wrote, is “justification by faith.” To people dreadfully anxious about their salvation, Luther declared that our behavior—whether good or bad—had nothing to do with fixing our relationship with God. God fixes the relationship … as a gift. For many of us right now, the words of those who are angry about the changed policies seem determined, in a very unLutheran way, to make one whole category of people eternally anxious about their salvation. The Reformation was about ending that anxiety, not institutionalizing it. We believe that being true to the confessions means using the principle of “justification by faith” to ask afresh in every era, “what shall we say now in order to be life-giving today?”—and then to make sometimes difficult and daring choices in response. We say this is entirely in character with the Reformation.
So, to those who say that the ELCA betrayed its own Lutheran heritage last August, I beg to differ. The heart of the Reformation is alive and well among us. It’s about grace and welcome offered as a free gift to people otherwise made anxious by social and religious forces. And this year, both long overdue and also at long last, from the heart of the Reformation I’m saying to my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, “Welcome home.”