Dear Grace Church Family,
I recently received a note from a concerned, grieving member of Grace regarding our December 20 special meeting, in which 98 people voted to remain in the ELCA, while 42 voted to leave the ELCA. I have been counseled that we need to move on, and I believe we do – and yet, we still need to reach out to one another and seek God’s guidance and healing, so we can indeed move ahead boldly and with love, into God’s mission of sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ. Here is my response to the concerned member, names removed to protect privacy:
Thank you for your email message. Thank you for your prayer and concern for Grace. The church to which I hope you’ll return will welcome you with open arms – Grace is a church where all are welcome, especially our good friends in Christ. There is a lot of brokenness and hurt, there is healing happening, and more healing needs to occur on all sides of the conflict. Some members have left; some may come back, and some may not. It is a tragic situation. I grieve every day. And yet, I know that this church (like all churches) is no stranger to conflict: it’s happened before; unless Christ comes in glory soon, it will happen again. It seems that, whenever Grace grows, conflicts well up that push people away, and shrink the congregation back down to a family size. Part of growing as members of the body of Christ is learning how to deal with conflict within our congregation, without breaking fellowship, without pushing newer members (or long term members) away. I am reaching out to our hurting members – at least to those who will let me. But I cannot do it alone, and even together, we have no power to heal without the power of God. Only God through the power of the Holy Spirit can bring us back together and unite us in the mission of sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ. For this I pray; for this I labor; for this I ask your help, through Christ who joins us together. Please read this note in the spirit in which I write it: as a fellow follower of Christ, a fellow child of God, as a pastor, as your friend in Christ.
We obviously see some things differently, so the challenge is to try to see from each other’s perspective. Here is how I see the ELCA. The ELCA is a group of Christian churches, joined together to more effectively fulfill our mission of sharing the Gospel. The ELCA simply is ‘us,’ as individuals and as congregations. The ELCA is not God, nor is the ELCA the only Christian denomination. When I meet with other pastors and lay leaders in the Lakes Area Ministerium, I pray with members of the Vineyard, Christian Fellowship, Community Alliance, Roman Catholic, Methodist, Missouri Synod, and other churches – we’re all Christians, we all follow Jesus. It doesn’t mean we all agree about every issue, but we are united by our faith in Jesus Christ. Beyond that, our different denominational structures are practical ways that congregations join together for mission – they are not divine.
I did not grow up in the ELCA – in fact, Mindy and I became Lutheran in 1996, because we appreciated the welcome we received in an ELCA congregation, and we felt at home in this big church family. The ELCA is a good denomination – together, we do some wonderful things, from Disaster Response, to World Relief, to LSS, to our Bible camps, colleges, seminaries, Christian education curricula, and more. I defend our church’s ties to the ELCA, not because I worship it – that would be idolatry – but because I believe that remaining a part of the ELCA is the best for our congregation, now and in the future. I do not worship the ELCA, but neither do I despise it. I support the ELCA as an expression of the body of Christ, in which I have found a home.
That does not mean that I think the ELCA is perfect – every church is made up of human beings, and we are all imperfect sinners. That also does not mean, for example, that the Churchwide Assembly cannot make mistakes, such as, perhaps, making an important decision on a simple majority vote, rather than taking the time and effort to come to a consensus. We do not belong to a church that gives divine, ‘infallible’ authority to any person or group of people – including to any one human perspective, whether liberal, conservative, or otherwise. We all, indeed, need to always beware of the sin of idolatry – elevating anything in creation, including our own denomination or our own perspective, to divine status and worshiping it instead of God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is tragic that so much energy is wasted on all sides of divisive issues like this – and much of the energy is taken up in putting down our brothers and sisters in Christ, especially those to whom we are most closely related in the family of God. It’s Lutheran vs. Lutheran, Christian vs. Christian, and it makes the Devil happy. I know that that is not your way at all. I have heard nothing from you but heartfelt, loving, prayerful concern for your church family. But I have certainly heard a lot of that kind of talk since last fall.
It is indeed a challenge, sometimes, to be members of a denomination that values and accepts diversity in perspectives, and that stays united – or struggles to – despite differences of opinion about non-core issues. You are welcome in the ELCA, and so am I – and so are all the members of Grace with all our different perspectives. The core, the center of our faith is Jesus Christ, and it is on Jesus that we indeed need to remain focused and stand firm. I take this truth seriously: “In Essentials Unity, In Non-Essentials Liberty, In All Things Charity.” We are united in Christ, even as we disagree about how to interpret and apply Bible verses relating to homosexuality, because those are non-core issues. It is not essential for the unity of the church that we agree about homosexuality. What is essential, as we read in the Augsburg Confession, is this: “It is enough for the true unity of the church to agree concerning the teaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments. It is not necessary that human traditions, rites, or ceremonies instituted by human beings be alike everywhere.”
On the issue of homosexuality, the issue in our church is not about accepting the Bible as the written word of God – we all accept the Bible as Holy Scripture – but about how we understand and apply some verses of the Biblical law. As we see throughout Paul’s letters, disputes about the law are not new to the church, and, as Paul counsels in Titus 3, we ought not to allow disputes about the law to divide us, but instead we ought to be united by the grace of God given us through Jesus Christ our Savior. That does not mean that these issues are trivial or unimportant; just that they are not the core of our faith, and should not divide us.
I realize that you probably see the issue differently. In talking with some of the 42 members of the congregation who voted “yes” to leaving the ELCA, I find this belief expressed to me: “I read the Bible directly, while you (and the rest of the ELCA) interpret it or even distort it based on sinful contemporary culture.” As I see it, this belief states that one’s own view is God’s view, while one’s neighbor’s view is human, sinful, or even demonic, as some members have referred to my perspective. The truth is, we all see through a mirror, dimly. We are all sinners. We are all imperfect. We all read the Bible from our perspectives, which are shaped in part by how we were brought up, our life experiences, and our culture. That does not mean that our perspectives are perfect, or all correct, or all equal. It does not mean that we cannot continue to wrestle with issues, or try to read the Bible together and come to a common understanding. It does not mean that we just accept our culture or how we were brought up as perfect: we submit everything to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the Law of Love for God and our neighbors. It also does not mean that the Bible is unreliable: the Bible is the reliable, divinely inspired witness to Jesus Christ; in the Bible we hear the Law which convicts us and the Gospel which announces our forgiveness and salvation in Christ. But it does mean that we start from a standpoint that no one’s perspective is privileged; no one’s understanding of the Bible is lifted up as if it’s God’s perspective. For example, people who grew up in the old ALC often see this issue differently than those who grew up in the LCA. The difference between them is not that one is more biblical than the other; the difference flows from the different customs, traditions, and culture of those churches and the communities in which they live. Having grown up in neither tradition, but having moved between traditions, perhaps it is easier for me to see this. But no one but God sees from God’s perspective.
I know that I have much to learn from you, and others in this church, who think differently than I do, who read the Bible from a different place. I know that your concerns for our church and for morality in our community and culture are heartfelt, genuine, and important. I do believe that we need each other. We all need to be challenged to see God’s Word and the world through each others’ eyes. If this issue, like other difficult issues, were simple and obvious, then it would have been solved already. I also believe that the road that the ELCA has chosen – the road of working through problems together rather than splitting apart into liberal and conservative branches – is the road less traveled, but it is worth the struggle. Help me to understand your perspective, which is obviously shared by a significant portion of our congregation. I mean it. I come from such a different background, from a different generation. I still cannot fully comprehend the depth of hurt that is felt by some of our members over the Churchwide Assembly’s decisions last year, though I see it often. I still do not see the decisions made as anything but a way to stay together and respect each individual’s, and each congregation’s, own conscience regarding issues of human sexuality; for me personally, the decision would not have been a big deal, except for the controversy it has sparked in our synod and in our church. Help me to understand where you are coming from; please do not give up on this congregation or on me as a brother in Christ. I hope and pray that our congregation can indeed stick together – or come back together – through the love of Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit who unites us as a people of God.
Your friend in Christ,
Pastor Eric Lemonholm