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The ELCA and Bankrupt Lutheranism

By Pastor Paul Fleischer, July 1989

An acquaintance regularly passes along to us The Lutheran, the magazine of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). We peruse its contents, since we are not unconcerned about what is being said (written) and done in “mainstream” Lutheranism.

The contents of the magazine are indicative to us of how far from traditional (biblical) Lutheranism the ELCA has fallen. The profile of Lutheranism painted in practically every issue is more and more unrecognizable to us as deserving of the Lutheran name. Concern for doctrine in general and doctrinal discipline in particular is almost non-existent in the ELCA. The thrust is clearly in the direction of liberation theology and social gospelism. There is a strong movement toward bringing the newly-formed church body into both the National and the World Councils of Churches, whose primary thrusts are political and social.

The ELCA is unapologetically ecumenical. We would say unionistic. When doctrinal matters and issues are addressed (for example in the “Letters to the Editor” column in The Lutheran—an indication that lay-people who pose the questions have doctrinal concerns), the responses given often bring to mind St. Paul’s warning against smooth and deceptive speech (cf. Rom. 16:18). The old slogan “agree to disagree agreeably” for the sake of outward church union is now rephrased as “reconciled diversity.” In spite of the fact that there is lack of agreement on what is believed and taught, altar and pulpit fellowship is not only deemed permissible but is usually encouraged. Such separation passages as Romans 16:17, 2 John 10-11, 2 Corinthians 6:14ff, and others are apparently considered inapplicable or out of step with the mission of the church in
our day.

Misrepresenting the Bible

In the April 12, 1989, issue of The Lutheran, ELCA head Bishop Chilstrom spends a full page calling for the synod’s August convention to “affirm our Lutheran commitment to the visible unity of the body of Christ.” In an article titled “The Gospel Prompts Ecumenism,” Chilstrom says the synod will be considering a statement which will call on ELCA members to “be ready to recognize points of unity with other churches and even to move toward the final goal of all ecumenical ventures—full communion.” The other churches referred to include non-Lutheran churches such as the Episcopal and Roman Catholic churches, as is clear from previous reports.

God’s Word teaches that the leaven of error, if not checked, is bound to permeate the whole.

The Bible is enlisted as supposedly supportive of calling for and endorsing such ecumenism. The passage quoted is from Ephesians chapter 4: “There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism….” As far as we are concerned, this is a misuse of the passage. It does not call for ignoring doctrinal differences. It speaks of the unity of faith which already exists within the Holy Christian Church, the communion of saints, by virtue of the Spirit’s on-going work in the hearts of believers.

Furthermore, the context in which this Word of God is found hardly suggests the Lord’s apostle is referring to a “visible (our emphasis) unity of the body of Christ” (which Chilstrom asks for) regardless of existing doctrinal differences. Preceding it the apostle calls upon Christians to “keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” Following it, the same apostle warns believers against being like “children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness by which they lie in wait to deceive” (Ephesians 4:14). Hardly is this a call for smoothing over or ignoring doctrine differences to achieve a dishonest form of outward union.

By the way, another favorite passage often used by the ecumenists is the word of Christ in John 17: “…That they all may be one: as You, Father are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me.” The Lord here speaks of the essential oneness He has with the Father, not some superficial oneness. By the same token, the unity He prays for in behalf of His believers hardly implies a glossing over of doctrinal differences for the sake of a superficial outward union. Consider the Lord’s words in Matthew 7:15ff, John 8:31f, Matthew 28:20 etc.

The winds of doctrine have been blowing every which way in the ELCA from the moment of its formation. Since fellowship “with diversity” is the practice within the ELCA itself, it is a small but predictable step for that synod to call for outward union with non-Lutheran churches without the expectation of or demand for doctrinal unity. We say predictable because God’s Word teaches that the leaven of error, if not checked, is bound to permeate the whole.

Misrepresenting the Confessions

After Bishop Chilstrom seeks to enlist the support of Scripture for his cause, he goes on to appeal for ecumenical unity on the basis of “Our Reformation Roots.” He quotes from the Lutheran Confessions, specifically Article VII of the Augsburg Confession (AC). There, according to the Bishop, the reformers insisted that “for the unity of the church it is enough to agree concerning the teaching of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments.” While the latter is a quotation, the question remains whether the Bishop is correctly representing what the reformers “insisted” on.

By the “Gospel” here is meant the entire Word of God, as Jesus used it, for example, in Mark 16:15: “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.” As the Lord Himself explains, what is to be preached is “all things, whatsoever I have commanded you” (Mt. 28:20).

When one reads the Apology (Defense!) of the Augsburg Confession—which is the reformers’ own explanation of exactly what they were insisting upon the in the AC—it becomes clear that the Bishop has missed the point. As the spokesman for the Lutheran reformers, Philip Melanchthon leaves no question that nothing written in the AC has the intent of minimizing doctrinal error.

What is insisted upon in the Apology is that unity in the area of human traditions and rites should not be expected for the sake of outward union. When, it is suggested, unity in indifferent things is insisted upon before union, injury is done to the Gospel and to Christian freedom under that Gospel.

The position of the ELCA has rightly been termed “Gospel reductionism”—reducing the Gospel to the lowest common denominator. This means that joining with non-Lutherans, both in worship and eventually even merging with them, is desirable as long as there is agreement, in a sense, that “Jesus Christ is Lord.” Differences, they say, can then be worked out later through dialogue.

As far as we are concerned, the ELCA Bishop’s misrepresentation of the message of the Lutheran Confessions is but further evidence of a bankrupt form of Lutheranism.

True Lutheranism

True Lutheranism has always accepted all of the Confessions in the Book of Concord of 1580 as correct expositions of the teachings of Scripture. The confessions are thus accepted because they rightly set forth Scripture teaching. Our pastors are all asked to commit themselves to this “because” stance. On its part, the ELCA talks about accepting the historic confessional writings only “insofar as” they rightly interpret the Scriptures.

This stance allows the ELCA Bishop to ignore the very reason the Apology was written—namely, to guard against the very kind of twisting of the Augsburg Confession of which he is guilty.

The following paragraph from the Confessions leaves no doubt where the reformers stood on the matter of unity and union. To it all Lutherans who can truly claim Reformation roots will subscribe:

“…We have no intention of yielding aught of the eternal, immutable truth of God for the sake of temporal peace, tranquility, and unity (which, moreover, is not in our power to do). Nor would such peace and unity, since it is devised against the truth and for its suppression, have any permanency. Still less are we inclined to adorn and conceal a corruption of the pure doctrine and manifest, condemned errors. But we entertain heartfelt pleasure and love for, and are on our part sincerely inclined and anxious to advance, that unity according to our utmost power, by which His glory remains to God uninjured, nothing of the divine truth of the Holy Gospel is surrendered, no room is given to the least error, poor sinners are brought to true, genuine repentance, raised up by faith, confirmed in new obedience, and thus justified and eternally saved alone through the sole merit of Christ.”
(Formula of Concord, XI, para. 95)

Church history has shown that, when churches or entire church bodies become guilty of error in doctrine and practice, the fault most often lies with the leaders. The leaders of the various Lutheran synods which united to form the ELCA have for years been actively promoting an ecumenism which encourages organizational union without doctrinal unity. The current ELCA Bishop is leading his new synod down the same path. We are not surprised, therefore, that mainstream Lutheranism is continuing on the unionistic path it has been traveling. Nor should we be surprised that, before long, it will claim union [in the sense of reconciliation—PF] with Rome itself.

We are alive to witness some of the saddest days in the history of Lutheranism.