June 29, 2008
What's Happening in Our Church?
I Kings 18:21-22
So Ahab sent word throughout all Israel and assembled the prophets on Mount Carmel. Elijah went before the people and said, “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.”
But the people said nothing.
A seminary professor once told his class, “Do not take your problems into the pulpit with you. The congregation has enough of their own troubles without hearing about yours.”
Almost every Sunday I try to follow this counsel. However, today I am sharing a real burden on my heart.
What is happening in the church? This sermon could be preached in many denominations, but I speak today as a pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
I believe it is evident that we live in a divided church. Congregations leaving the ELCA are all telling the same story as they go: “This is no longer my church. We did not leave the church; the church left us.”
Because we love our church, it becomes the subject of conversation in our homes and with our families and friends. We might not always agree on the reason for the division, but we do agree that we are divided.
In the ELCA, we have discussed the fact that some feel we should bless same-sex marriages and ordain practicing homosexuals for years. This is a hot debate at the ELCA assemblies when they meet every two years. At least two assemblies have said no to this issue, but a strong voice in the church keeps the subject alive.
The floor debate reveals that the ELCA is divided, but the division goes deeper than the subject of sexuality. This causes us to ask what is it that is dividing our church?
One day our son, who has been a delegate to a national assembly of the ELCA, handed me an article written by Pastor Scott Grorud entitled, “Why can’t we all just get along?” Then he said, “This article answers the question for me.” After reading the article many times, I agree that it sheds great light on this question, which has been bothering many of us – What is dividing our church?
Pastor Grorud writes, “The division itself in the ELCA has arisen from an entirely different gospel that entered the ELCA as it was formed 20 years ago. It has often been couched in traditional Christian language, but has otherwise borne little resemblance to the Gospel as it has been handed down through the ages.”
Grorud gets some of his material on what causes division in the church from Dr. Philip Turner. Turner says two theologies are at work in many mainline Protestant churches that are causing serious divisions. He labels these teachings as a theology of divine redemption and a theology of divine acceptance. Let me summarize them for you.
First, The Theology of Divine Redemption.
Remember when you were young and attended confirmation classes. You learned about the Christian faith. Do you recall the story of Adam and Eve disobeying God’s command when they ate of the forbidden fruit in the garden of Eden? After my students and I had enjoyed this story, we became very serious and I asked them, “What happened when our first parents were disobedient to God’s command?”The answer was obvious. They sinned. That sin threw them out of a relationship with God, and from that time on all people were born with a sinful nature. Our church calls this the teaching of original sin.
However, in spite of our human sinfulness, God still loved us. So he came into this world in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus suffered and died at the cross as a payment for our sins. On the third day God raised him from the dead. Our Lord offers complete forgiveness to all who will repent of their sins and receive him as their Savior and Lord. They are then restored into fellowship with God. We are one with Christ.
Although we are forgiven sinners, we continue to sin for our nature is still sinful. Human motives and desires are always corrupt. So God calls for believers to strive for holy living according to his Word.
Now, relate this doctrine to the debate on sexuality. If the practicing homosexual will repent of this lifestyle, which the Bible calls sin, they will be forgiven. That person should then be accepted as a rostered pastor of the ELCA.
Second, The Theology of Divine Acceptance.
This theology teaches that sin is not within people, but outside of humans. Sin is found in social norms or policies that exclude people from being fully accepted in their creative goodness. This theology talks about “created goodness” rather than original sin. The sin lies in the policy that excludes people from being fully accepted as they are.
If you relate this to the practicing homosexual, this person should be rostered and fully accepted as they are. It is sin for the church to exclude them.
Professor Turner says that there are five component parts to this theology of acceptance. They are:
1. God is love and God is only love. There is no wrath, judgment, or condemnation for sinners.
2. Significantly, the cross has all but disappeared from this theology. It really does not need it. Human sin has not been a problem, so no solution is necessary. What matters is that Jesus reaches out to those excluded in society, welcomes them and includes them in the kingdom. They are free to be themselves and give expression to their human nature and desire.
3. Since God is love and God is only love, and since Jesus’ ministry was all about love, his followers were to love others in the same way. Again, love is to be defined solely in terms of inclusion and acceptance. The result of this new gospel’s love is not repentance and death to ourselves, but instead love for and acceptance of ourselves because God has accepted and loved us.
4. Given such assumptions, a new purpose then has to be found for the church to exist. Its mission cannot be proclaiming God’s justification of the ungodly, because the gospel of acceptance does not believe that people are ungodly, except to the extent that they exclude people. Instead, the mission of the church is to promote social justice. This is why the ELCA agendas have been so dominated by social and political issues.
5. Finally, the goal of this seeking peace and justice agenda has been to create God’s kingdom – that place on earth where all people would be accepted and affirmed as they are. This theology does not see the world as broken by sin so much so that God had to set forth a new creation.
This new gospel of acceptance has made massive inroads in the ELCA these past twenty years. It is why there can be no agreement on sexuality.
I believe that Pastor Grorud has given us the answer why our church is different from it used to be. This subject has been confusing to many of us. He has helped me immensely, and I pray his article answers some of your questions about why our church is so different from it once was.
Continuing with a quote from Pastor Grorud, “As these two theologies duel for the soul of the ELCA, the response of many of its leaders has been an appeal to the unity we supposedly share. This life-and-death issue has been portrayed as merely a difference of interpretation of Scripture, a healthful diversity that has opened the ELCA to all voices as a family squabble that should not have been allowed to threaten the unity of the denomination.”
Can there be unity? Should there be unity in a church where two contrary gospels are being proclaimed? As long as the ELCA tries to acknowledge two different gospels, we will never be united, it will never be at peace, and it will never settle the issue of sexuality.
On Mt. Carmel, Elijah exhorted the people of Israel, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, then follow him (I Kings 18:21).”
Grorud concludes, “A similar call confronts the ELCA today. If we intend to be a Christian church, we cannot go on limping with two different gospels. We can take our stand at the foot of the cross, or we can follow a different gospel than has been foisted on us by some in the church. But we cannot do both.”
Remember what St. Paul wrote to the Galatians? “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one that called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to another gospel – which is no gospel at all (Galatians 1:6 - 7).”
We thank Pastor Grorud for his hard work on the subject of division in our church. If you would like to have a more detailed copy of Pastor Grorud’s paper, write to Word Alone, Suite #220, New Brighton MN, 55112 and ask for this article, “Why can’t we all just get along?”
While this sermon is quite different from what I usually preach, I pray you will understand why I felt it necessary to help you with an answer to the question, Why is my church so different from what it used to be?
My sermons the next few weeks on Christian Crusaders will show how this new gospel has reached far beyond sexuality. It has raised other disturbing questions such as, Are all people saved? and, Do we need a new Bible?
Rev. Homer Larsen