Cutting, pasting and whiting out the Bible to fit your worldview
By Gena Mangiaratti
Last summer, following years of questioning the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) on its adherence to the Bible as the final authority, members of the largest Lutheran denomination in America made the decision to disaffiliate and become members of a new denomination, the North American Lutheran Church (NALC).
The NALC was established on Aug. 27, 2010, at a convention in Columbus, Ohio, where more than 1,000 orthodox Lutherans from the ELCA, as well as supporting Lutheran Churches in Africa and Eastern Europe, gathered to approve its constitution.
Last year, the ELCA lifted a ban on openly gay and lesbian members serving as church professionals after the action won a vote of 559 to 451 in the denomination’s church-wide assembly in Minneapolis, Minn. Citing that Bible scriptures name same-sex relationships as a type of sexuality that is unpleasing to God, Lutherans in the new denominational body feel this statement in addition to past actions by the denomination are indicative of the ELCA’s drift from scriptural authority, the fundamental core under which Lutheranism was formed during the Protestant Reformation.
“People can get things wrong—so can bishops, and so can church presidents and anybody else, but the Bible is the Bible,” said Ryan Schwarz, a member of the executive council of the NALC. “That is very fundamental for us as Lutherans.”
Lutheranism was formed as a breakaway from the Catholic Church in the 1500s on the grounds that the Church was adhering to the authority of the pope over that of the scriptures. The ELCA, headquartered in Chicago, was formed in 1988 at a convention in Columbus, Ohio, when three Lutheran Church bodies in North America united. Today, the ELCA consists of 4.8 million members and about 10,500 congregations in the United States and the Caribbean, according to the ELCA website.
Schwarz emphasizes the authority of scripture as one of the fundamental principles on which Lutheranism was formed. He cited that the ELCA had been drifting from scriptural authority in several ways, including a decreased emphasis on starting new churches and in modifying scriptural readings by eliminating militaristic-sounding passages and references to God as a “He.”
“We see that as not faithful to the Bible to change the scripture to fit our own current views or whims,” Schwarz said.
At the ELCA church-wide assembly of 2005, there had been a recommendation on providing a procedure that would allow pastors in committed same-sex relationships to become church professionals. That fall, a group of Lutherans who had for a while been skeptical of the ELCA’s direction held a meeting in Kansas City. They formed the Lutheran Coalition for Reform, or Lutheran CORE, a reform group with the goal of working within the ELCA to change its direction. Their first priority was to restore the ELCA’s emphasis on the authority of the Bible, said Pastor Steve Shipman, secretary of Lutheran CORE. When reform of the ELCA proved to be too difficult a year ago, the group turned its efforts toward forming a new denomination—now the NALC.
The ELCA’s new teachings on sexuality became the last straw for many people, Schwarz said. The homosexuality issue, with its controversial place in today’s politics, has gathered the most attention in the press.
While Schwarz feels that the Bible is clear in its stance on sexuality, he realizes that it can be difficult for many people to understand.
“If you have a heart, it’s kind of hard to know somebody who understands themselves to be gay and have to say to them that I believe the Bible teaches that homosexuality is wrong,” Schwarz said. “But we believe that the Bible actually teaches that over and over.”
Lutheran CORE, now called Lutheran Coalition for Renewal, today continues as a fellowship of congregations who, while they may or may not be part of the NALC, are in agreement with its tradition. Some members of Lutheran CORE, like Shipman, are in disagreement with the direction of the ELCA but for various reasons, such as loyalty to current ELCA congregations, have chosen not to leave the denomination. Shipman said he could not serve his congregations as a member of NALC.
Through efforts such as holding meetings each year and using common materials where possible, Lutheran CORE aims to allow for continued unity between NALC congregations and those who have chosen to stay with the ELCA.
“We’re trying to avoid that decision to separate [from] becoming a chasm that eliminates relationships with those who’ve stayed,” Schwarz said. “That would be, in our perspective, sad and would also be contrary to the goal of Christian unity.”
A Question of Murder
Rick Bair, an ELCA pastor at the St. Luke Lutheran Church at Cornell University, feels the fracturing that led to the formation of an entirely new denomination did not happen suddenly. The ELCA was formed out of three predecessor church bodies that were in different portions of the United States and had their roots in different countries. The bringing together of these formerly distinct groups has led to a body with somewhat differing opinions, Bair said.
Some Lutherans currently feel that members of the Church are bound to their particular understandings of scripture through their relationship with God. This concept is often referred to in ELCA documents as “bound conscience” and is traced back to concepts in the Bible and statements made by Martin Luther in his trial for heresy, according to the ELCA website.
“I as your pastor cannot, should not, try to bind your conscience on any issue,” Bair said. “Given what you have from scripture, the Holy Spirit—you are free.”
The ELCA’s social statement of the August 2009 convention states that the church has not yet reached consensus on where the Bible stands on same-sex relationships and that all members are encouraged to “live out their faith … with profound respect for the conscience-bound belief of the neighbor.”
Bair feels the scriptures about same-sex relations might not actually be condemning the relationships themselves, but rather the effect they had during the time the scriptures were written.
Through his study of Hebrew texts, he said, Bair understands there previously to have been a different biological understanding of how life is produced. The male, he understands, was believed to supply all 46 chromosomes to the offspring—rather than 23 as understood today—and the woman supplied none, functioning only as the carrier to which the “seed” was being planted. In relationships between two men, the seed would therefore be wasted. Because the culture at this time was more difficult to survive in, the lack of opportunity that relationships between two males provided to produce life was a grave concern. Bair also notes that there is a lack of scripture regarding relationships between two females.
“Is this an issue that we would see from our perspective as sexual morality, or is it an issue more of murder?” Bair questions. “Does, therefore, the condemnation [have] to do with a lack of responsibility for producing the next generation rather than some mutually-agreed adult relationship?”
A Similar Path
Having undergone a similar breakaway is the Episcopal Church —the U.S. branch of the Anglican Communion, which is under the Church of England. Members of the Episcopal Church disaffiliated and in 2009 formed a new denomination called the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA)—six years after the Episcopal Church ordained Bishop Gene Robinson, who is openly gay and lives with his longtime partner.
Like Lutheranism, Anglicanism was formed as a breakaway from Catholicism in the 16th century over the Catholic Church’s submission to papal authority above the authority of the Bible.
Bryan Jones, an Episcopalian pastor at St. Luke’s of the Mountains Episcopal Church in La Crescenta, Calif., believes that in the tradition of the Episcopal Church, each generation has the “freedom of conscience” to work toward finding what it means to be a Christian based on scripture, while holding that the Bible is a “human product.”
“It’s both human and divine, and you can’t separate the two, and you can’t take every verse literally,” he said. “But overarchingly what it teaches is that we’re to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves, and overarchingly the ministry of Jesus was always about including those people that others would want to exclude.”
Members of the breakaway church disagree with the idea of treating the Bible as a human product that can be re-interpretted. Debbie Kollgaard, communications director of St. Luke’s Anglican Church, a breakaway congregation that recently joined the ACNA, feels that choosing which verses to follow as written and which not to is ultimately ignoring the fundamental authority of scriptures and therefore the main reason to be Christian.
“It really goes down to … who do you say Jesus Christ is? Is he the son of God?” Kollgaard said. “What do you say scripture is? Does it have authority? Is it the word of God? Or is it just a nice collection of writing?”
She feels that by condoning the ordination of a bishop who is in a same-sex relationship, the Church leaders are making a clear digression from scripture.
“What they’re saying is that the Bible doesn’t have authority and what Jesus did on the cross doesn’t really mean anything,” she said.
Shipman recalls that the homosexuality question was not always a key issue and believes the breakaway from the ELCA would have happened one way or another. He said he is unsure why an issue of same-sex relations seemed to be the breaking point.
“It is probably a part of the answer that sexuality and sexual ethics really do help to define the nature of humanity and that our culture has lost its moorings on a lot of matters regarding sex,” Shipman said via e-mail. “It is also a very visible manifestation of a religious viewpoint that seems to many of us to be the exact opposite of the teachings of the Bible.”
But he has yet to come across an answer he deems acceptable.
Shipman said, “Some questions will best be answered by historians in several decades, after the smoke has cleared.”
Gena Mangiaratti is a sophomore journalism major who founded the Church of Loveism. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.