Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
Many of us have brothers or sisters, parents, siblings, children, or dear friends within the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA). And as I've recently posted (here), recent decisions made by the ELCA in convention have made us stop, and think, and pray. How do we respond appropriately?
Luther writes these helpful words about the 8th Commandment in his Large Catechism:
This commandment...forbids all sins of the tongue by which we may injure or offend our neighbor. "Bearing false witness" is nothing but a work of the tongue. God wants to hold in check whatever is done with the tongue against a neighbor. This applies to false preachers with their blasphemous teaching, to false judges and witnesses with their rulings in court and their lying and malicious talk outside of court. It applies especially to the detestable, shameless vice of backbiting or slander by which the devil rides us. Of this much could be said. It is a common, pernicious plague that everyone would rather hear evil than good about their neighbors. Even though we ourselves are evil, we cannot tolerate it when anyone speaks evil of us; instead, we want to hear the whole world say golden things of us. Yet we cannot bear it when someone says the best things about others.
At least one conclusion is clear: It is NOT appropriate to lump all pastoral or lay members of the ELCA into one group and say that they are all faithless, heretical, or even in support of the recent decisions.
But then, Luther also writes this:
So you see that we are absolutely forbidden to speak evil of our neighbor. Exception is made, however, of civil magistrates, preachers, and fathers and mothers in order that we may interpret this commandment in such a way that evil does not go unpunished. We have seen that the Fifth Commandment forbids us to injure anyone physically, and yet an exception is made of the hangman. By virtue of his office he does not do his neighbor good but only harm and evil, yet he does not sin against God's commandment because God of his own accord instituted that office, and, as he warns in the First Commandment, he has reserved to himself the right of punishment. Likewise, although no one personally has the right to judge and condemn anyone, yet if they are commanded to do so and fail to do it, they sin as much as those who take the law into their own hands apart from any office. In that case necessity requires one to report evil, to prefer charges, to give evidence, to examine witnesses, and to testify...Just so, the authorities, fathers and mothers, and even brothers and sisters and other good friends are under a mutual obligation to reprove evil wherever it is necessary and helpful.
So...while we do not use the ELCA's decisions as an opportunity to backbite, or gossip about the people within the ELCA, there is an appropriate response.
Pastors have been called to teach the truth and to point out error. In today's devotional writing in the Treasury of Daily Prayer, St. Augustine writes these helpful words:
How many and vehement rebukes did Jeremiah preach against the sinners and wicked ones of his people. Yet he lived among them, he entered into the same temple with them, celebrated the same mysteries; he lived in that congregation of wicked men, but by his preaching "he came out from among them." This is what it means "to come out from among them" (Isaiah 52:11); this is what it means to not "touch the unclean thing." It means not consenting to them in will and not sparing them in word. I say this of Jeremiah, or Isaiah, of Daniel, and Ezekiel, and the rest of the prophets, who did not retire from the wicked people, lest they should desert the good who were mingled with that people.
Not consenting to them in will and not sparing them in word.
Clearly, the truth of the Scriptures MUST be taught, and where error exists, that must also be taught.
So while we must not judge the heart of the individual within the ELCA, their recent decisions give us an opportunity to CLEARLY CONFESS the truth of the Scriptures.
1) The Scriptures don't just contain the Word of God--they ARE the Word of God--every jot and tittle.
2) The Scriptures don't conform to an ever evolving society or culture, the Scriptures create a culture, a people of God, by the power of the Holy Spirit.
3) God is righteous, just, and jealous, and will not tolerate sin.
4) God is merciful to us poor sinners and has punished His own Son for the sins of humanity.
5) Jesus' righteousness is now credited to poor sinners, and is applied through the proclamation of the Gospel in Word and Sacrament.
6) The Law of God is to convict the impenitent (unrepentant) sinner, leading him or her to repentance.
7) The Gospel and all its comfort is to be given to the penitent (repentant) sinner, assuring him or her of the forgiveness of sins Christ by His death and resurrection.
Clearly, the ELCA has practices that are in error: Approving openly gay and lesbian pastors, having full fellowship with Methodists, Episcopalians, Reformed and others, ordaining women into the Pastoral Office, and practicing open Communion. But these only symptoms of a more foundational misunderstanding about how to interpret the Scriptures. And as a result of a faulty understanding of the Scriptures, the clear will of God is being obscured.
When the Law of God is minimized, the Gospel is diminished--that is what we grieve.
And so we pray:
Lord, Have mercy on us! Give us the courage to teach teach and preach, and to receive Your Word in its truth and purity. Reveal the sin that lives within and drive us to repentance. Comfort us with your gracious promises of forgiveness, life and salvation in Jesus Christ. Grant us the strength to clearly confess the truths revealed in the Holy Scriptures, that Your kingdom may continue to be extended too all the earth; through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.