Know your Lutherans

elcaYesterday we received a note in our story suggestion box from a pastor of the Lutheran Church -- Missouri Synod:

Titles like this drive me crazy!

The title -- or headline, rather -- at the Argus Leader reads:

Lutherans consider gay clergy

Now, it's true that the nation's largest Lutheran branch, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, is considering expanding the clergy roster to non-celibate homosexuals.

It's also true that reporters frequently fail to note that nearly all of the other Lutheran branches in America aren't.

The two largest Lutheran churches in America are the ELCA with about 4.7 million members and the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod with about 2.4 million members. Other Lutheran churches include the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, the Association of Free Lutheran Congregations and the Evangelical Lutheran Synod. And judging from the mail we get, we have readers in every Lutheran church body -- including the Laestadians! Most of the non-ELCA synods and associations are more theologically conservative -- or less likely to change doctrine or teaching on various matters -- than the ELCA. The other church bodies are more likely to believe the Bible is the actual Word of God and treat the Scripture as the final standard by which everything must be believed and taught. The ELCA, on the other hand, encourages methods of interpretation that allow for the possibility that Scripture contains error or is unclear about various doctrinal matters. These different approaches to Scripture explain some of the more newsworthy differences over, say, abortion, homosexuality and the ordination of women.

So while the ELCA and more confessional Lutheran church bodies share the name Lutheran, they have many significant and substantive differences (we didn't even get into confessional subscription or ecumenical fellowships!). And yet most mainstream media stories fail to put the ELCA decisions on homosexuality, abortion or other hot-button social issues in the context of all Lutherans in America. It's very frustrating for pastors and laypeople in other Lutheran church bodies who are frequently confused with the ELCA. Particularly since the ELCA only seems to receive news coverage when embroiled in fights over hot-button political topics.

That Argus Leader story, by the way, is not much better than the headline. It's lengthy and includes tons of quotes but manages to say almost nothing about what's going on in the ELCA.

A much better story about what the ELCA is doing with regard to gay clergy was sent out by the Associated Press. Here's how it begins:

America's largest Lutheran denomination will consider allowing individual congregations to choose whether to allow gays and lesbians in committed relationships to serve as clergy, an attempt to avoid the sort of infighting that has threatened to tear other churches apart.

A task force of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America recommended that course Thursday in a long-awaited report on ministry standards. The panel, however, said the church needs to clarify a number of questions before overhauling its gay clergy policy.

The story does a great job of explaining the four-part process suggested by the task force. We get perspective from people who think the suggestions reject Scripture as well as an advocate of gay clergy who says some elements of the proposal take a step backward because they provide some local autonomy.

But while the lede stipulated that the ELCA was the largest Lutheran denomination, it didn't really explain how the church fits into the larger Lutheran community. To that end, check out how Manya Brachear and Margaret Ramirez handled it with their report, which was published in the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times:

The nearly 5-million-member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which is based in Chicago, is the nation's largest Lutheran denomination.

The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod are separate denominations that accept a more literal interpretation of the Bible and do not ordain gays.

25963195I don't know if "more literal" is how I'd describe the difference in Biblical interpretation but I so appreciate the specific mention. No pastor who believes that the Bible should be taken literally word-for-word would be ordained in my church body, the LCMS. In seminary they are trained extensively in hermeneutics and taught to understand that different parts of Scripture are written as history, poetry, direct prophecy, or illustrative vision. And they should be taken in the context of what they are. On the other hand, we do believe that the literal meaning of a word is to be assumed unless we are given sufficient reason to believe that it should be taken figuratively. That hermeneutical approach is probably "more literal" than the one taken by the ELCA. Anyway, notice that it doesn't take that many words to put the ELCA in context.

The Brachear/Ramirez story is also very thorough and does a great job of explaining what's going on in the ELCA, the process of the task force, but it doesn't get any reaction from the ELCA community. It also has this sentence that I found somewhat odd:

Drawing from Martin Luther's spoken words that spawned the 16th Century Protestant Reformation, the task force called on its members to respect each other's views about same-gender relationships as grounded in conscience.

We're not told which words that spawned the Reformation were used with regard to same-sex relationships. There are many statements and reports, there were a few mentions of Luther's words. One citation is from "The Freedom of the Christian," but that's written rather than spoken. Fans -- and non-fans -- of Luther would be interested in which words we're talking about. Seems silly not to mention which ones.

Please respect our Commenting Policy