From a Chapter on the ELCA Today: Transdenomination to Transgender

New Light Shed on Reformation Historical Markers – Contemporary Focus on Unity

In Philadelphia, August 1997, the Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) approved a “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification” which results from years of Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialog aimed toward healing a historic disagreement that marked the 16th century Reformation. In 1517, posting 95 theses on the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg, Germany, Martin Luther rejected Catholic Church dogma, including the idea of “buying” God’s acceptance with good works. Luther asserted one of the most basic tenets of Lutheran theology — the belief, expressed in Paul’s letter to the [1] Ephesians 2:8-9, that our justification in the eyes of God is based upon the gift of God’s grace, through our faith. The Roman Catholic Council of Trent condemned as “Lutherans” those holding the doctrine of “justification by grace through faith” and Luther was excommunicated by the Pope and ostracized by the Emperor. It was not Luther’s intention to start a new church. However, with the assistance of princes and the timing of the printing press, a territorial church outside of the domain of the Pope resulted, along with a Germanic literary language. In addition, Luther translated the Bible into the language of the masses, and a series of reform movements, including those of Zwingli, Calvin and others followed.

The ELCA is the second of 123 Lutheran churches worldwide to make a decision on the joint declaration. The {Lutheran} Church of Sweden has already approved the statement, and all member churches of the Lutheran World Federation [2] are expected to respond to the declaration by mid-summer 1998. In order for the joint declaration to take effect, it is also dependent upon Roman Catholic approval. However, in 1962, Vatican II sounded a conciliatory tone to Lutherans, opening dialog in recent decades signaling not only that unity is possible, but that each church can enrich its own faith through their joint declaration.

The ELCA also approved “full communion” with the Reformed Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the United Church of Christ (UCC). As the churches of the Reformation focus on a unity not officially recognized since the Reformation, the ELCA also rejected “full communion” with the Episcopal Church at this time. Nevertheless, they further committed themselves toward seeking that ultimate goal of full communion with the Episcopal Church and other churches in the near future. Current issues of concern to Lutherans include the Episcopal tradition of authority given to bishops, especially as relates to ordination.

Granted, the Anglican historical traditions involving ordination and clergy are a separate issue, but as a result of its own theology, as well as “full communion” with the Reformed churches, Lutherans will be examining their own traditions of authority and ordination, in any case, since the sharing of pastors is included in that “full communion” also. The other Reformed traditions have already lifted any double standards towards its gay and lesbian children who aspire towards religious vocations, while ELCA policies officially state that “practicing homosexual persons are precluded from the ordained ministry.” Obviously, and especially in light of Lutheran theology itself, the Lutherans must reckon with their own conditional regard for persons of the same sex who make up their families, children, and individuals who aspire to serve the beloved churches of their youth as adults, but were instead cast out alone into the cities of the world of anonymity to fend for themselves. Will Concerned Lutherans live their faith through a new examination of their works which could provide a safe place for all God’s children? Perhaps in the expanded community of believers, ELCA churches of the Lutheran World Federation, uniting with other Reformed brethren, will renew their commitment to “justification by grace through faith” — hopefully abandoning any discriminatory or voyeuristic focus upon sexual and gender content of constituent families and homes. In the ever emerging world of global ecumenism, may we ever examine our own works in the light of God’s grace through our faith, as we look upon all our brothers and sisters — strangers, angels, family — through the eyes of the Christ or G-d Within. Then surely the brethren will commit themselves to honor the call to ministry even of gay and lesbian persons. With renewed commitment, enriched by their own and other traditions, Lutherans will likely move beyond such conditional policies which contradict their own theological roots, embracing the integrity of God’s grace and creation for ALL children of faith. When that happens I will probably regret that the homophobic self-righteousness and hypocrisy of the churches had driven me from the midst of the land of which I was most familiar. No doubt, I join with all those of kindred faith in a new age of recognition of our shared unity, rather than the separation and colonialism, inherent in Christendom’s past.

Disclaimer: I wish to make it very clear that I disdain both Paul and Luther’s sexism (hetero-or-otherwise), their homophobia, anti-Semitism and any other bigotry and self-righteousness; but they, like each of us, must be seen in the context of the times. Examination in such a context suggests need for much continued dialog — beyond race, color, ethnicity, religion, gender,and sexuality – beyond our understanding of that which it means to be a Christian or not, beyond that which it means to be a Jew.