The largest Lutheran denomination in the United States appears to be on the brink of a schism as the result of differences among members. Sentiments have become divided over the organization’s movement away from strict, evangelical, Bible-based fundamentalism, and towards a more egalitarian acceptance of women and sexual minorities. The split highlights the growing theological chasm between those who cling devoutly to Biblical authority on one hand, and those who believe in social justice and vindication for scorned “sinners” on the other. Of course, the fundamentalists are right, for the Bible told them so—or are they?
The split came one step closer 27 August in a Protestant megachurch in Ohio, at a meeting of conservative Lutherans. In a preliminary vote, 199 congregations belonging to the Lutheran Coalition of Renewal (Lutheran CORE) voted to break away from the Chicago-based Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), creating the much smaller and more conservative North American Lutheran Church. 136 congregations refrained from voting, awaiting the second vote to make the split official. (Ironic how the ELCA contains the word evangelical, but turns out to be less preoccupied with notions of scriptural authority.)
The underlying motivation for breaking off from the ELCA is a devotion to Biblical teachings. Lutheran CORE activists treat the Bible as the source of all moral instruction and criticize the ELCA as straying from this “one-and-only” holy book of “truth”. Paraphrasing Paull Spring, the bishop of the brand new fundamentalist offshoot, Andrew Welsh-Huggins of the Associated Press reports that conservative Lutherans have “serious concerns about the ELCA’s movement away from holy scriptures as the final authority for church beliefs”. However, ELCA members—who tend to believe that the Bible is not the inerrant word of God, but rather a collection of texts composed by imperfect human beings—argue that the church’s goal should not be to stick stubbornly to hierarchical scriptural teachings, but to adapt to new, more egalitarian social paradigms.
One of the social policies adopted by the ELCA is a renewed commitment to dismantling old-style ecclesiastical patriarchy and fostering gender equality. But for Spring, the gender-neutral language used by his more liberal cohorts—such as the substitution of “Creator” and “Savior” for “Father” and “Son”—is just one example how the church has gone astray by stripping away the purported maleness of the Judeo-Christian God. Referring to gender roles and how they should be determined, Spring asks, “Is it holy scripture, which Lutherans have always confessed, scripture alone, or is it supposed to be some combination, that as well as some mood of the times?” For Spring, the answer is clear: the role of women should be determined by books authored by males which were deemed authoritatively divine centuries later by early Church fathers—who were male—and who were somehow divinely inspired by God to make a determination which very conveniently happened to give dominion to males. Of course, there was not yet an official Christian canon to dictate the divine inspiration of these bishops in the first place, but the convenient thing about blind faith is that one can ignore such logical conundrums and render one’s sheep prostrate simply by preaching louder, harder, and more passionately, and by employing rhetoric more shrewdly than ever. The notion is that if it has always been this way (as established so conveniently by these early church fathers) it therefore ought to remain this way. This, however, is an is/ought fallacy: just because something has been a certain way does not mean it should be, because does and should are not interchangeable. Of course, blind faith does away with this logical problem, too. Just preach harder, and sweat a lot, precious Bible in hand.
But perhaps the straw that broke the camel’s back is the ELCA’s ordination of ministers and other clergy members who are gay. Even some fundamentalist Lutheran congregations allow women to be pastors—as long as they preach from a holy book that dictates male domination of women. It is hard to make this exception for non-celibate gay pastors. (After all, it is hard to ordain somebody in a church whose holy book commands that that person shall be put to death.) As Welsh-Huggins reports, the vote by Lutheran CORE members was motivated largely by “the ELCA’s decision to move gay pastors into its fold”, and this move, which made the ELCA “the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S. to allow noncelibate gays into its ranks”, proved to be “the tipping point for many Lutherans”. But for the Lutheran CORE and its new North American Lutheran Church, they are only following the teachings of the holy Bible, which, of course, we have just demonstrated are perfectly sound and divinely inspired, a legacy preserved by heterosexual males who certainly do not have positions of power to protect. Perhaps this new denomination can go yet a step further and truly fulfill God’s will by ordering that all adulteresses, or people who touch pig-skin, be put to death. After all, this too is commanded in their “divinely inspired” book. But why has this not yet been done, one might ask? No worry—they will pull something of their sleeve to help them out of this pinch.
Despite all of the arguments against the North American Lutheran Church’s split from the more socially progressive ELCA, there are surely a host of convenient excuses to obscure their fundamentally irrational and ill-conceived resistance to gender equality and homosexuality. But one stands out above the rest. Quite simply, the Bible says so—no matter how hard one thinks about it. And, of course, the church fathers who compiled the Bible just happened to be the voice-pieces of a ventriloquist father-god. Remember—don’t think about it. Just believe.