ELCA congregation engages feminism, other faiths

Concern: Is the ELCA endorsing a religious group that worships Isis (an ancient Egyptian goddess)?

Response: No. For the past five years Ebenezer Lutheran Church, an ELCA congregation in San Francisco, California, has sponsored an annual “Faith and Feminism” conference. The three-day program for the 2011 conference includes keynote lectures by three feminist scholars, open conversation, singing and opportunities for individual activities, including spiritual exercises such as walking a labyrinth, yoga, prayer and meditation.

Like many other conferences, this series has featured women from diverse traditions, perspectives and experiences. Loreon Vigne is participating in this year’s conference by offering guided meditation as an optional activity at the end of the first day of the conference. Vigne is the leader of a “retreat center, temple, and animal sanctuary” in Geyserville, California, called “Isis Oasis.” Several online blog postings have implied that Vigne’s participation in this conference constitutes endorsement of her religious beliefs by the congregation or by the ELCA. However, this implication misrepresents her participation.

The ELCA states in its governing documents that it participates in God’s mission by “develop[ing] relationships with communities of other faiths for dialogue and common action” and “lift[ing] its voice in concord and work in concert with forces for good, to serve humanity, cooperating with church and other groups participating in activities that promote justice, relieve misery, and reconcile the estranged.” (ELCA Constitution 4.03.f, g)

In this light some ELCA congregations, like Ebenezer Lutheran, have committed to reaching out to women, their families and friends who have been estranged from the Christian church because of experiences of sexism, sexual harassment or gender-related violence. Sponsoring events that acknowledge the reality of these injustices and address these concerns is one effective strategy for developing relationships and working together for the common good in society. Moreover, this engagement offers distinctive opportunities for an authentic Christian witness for those who have experienced ministry distorted by the sins and injustices of sexism. When this engagement includes individuals of other faiths, it does not constitute an endorsement of their entire teaching and practice, much less a capitulation to their beliefs. This engagement is a witness of the Christian faith.

In the ELCA, oversight of congregations, their pastors and other rostered leaders is entrusted to synods. Ebenezer Lutheran Church is a congregation of the Sierra Pacific Synod. Questions or concerns about oversight of this congregation can be directed to the synod at info@spselca.org. Questions or concerns about Ebenezer Lutheran’s overall mission and ministry can be directed to Pastor Stacy Boorn at sboorn@aol.com.

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The ELCA teaches that ‘the promise of the gospel is universal’

Members periodically raise concerns about ELCA ministries or policies. ELCA FactChecker examines these concerns and offers factual responses.

Concern: Does the ELCA teach universalism?

Response: No. Universalism is a general religious or philosophical belief that everyone is saved without regard to God’s promise of mercy in Jesus Christ and confident trust or faith in that promise. The ELCA, however, joins all Lutheran churches in the teaching of the Lutheran Confessions that “the promise of the gospel is universalis (universal).” Christ commanded that this promise be proclaimed to all nations (Matthew 28:19-20): because God loves the world (John 3:16); because Christ is the atoning sacrifice for the whole world (1 John 2:2); and because God has mercy on all (Romans 11:32). (See the Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, article XI.28, for more biblical references for this teaching.)

This confident and joyful trust that the promise of the gospel is universal follows the teaching of the Augsburg Confession that Christ alone saves human beings freely, as a gift, that is, by grace alone through faith alone. The ELCA’s official Confession of Faith states, “This church confesses Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and the gospel as the power of God for the salvation of all who believe.” The ELCA Constitution (sec. 2.02) and Model Constitution for Congregations (C2.02) contain this same affirmation, and ELCA pastors promise to preach and teach the same. 

The ELCA affirms that this teaching — “that we receive forgiveness of sin and become righteous before God out of grace for Christ’s sake through faith” (Augsburg Confession, art. IV) — is the biblical witness concerning salvation. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God — not the result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). This teaching is so important for understanding every other teaching that the Lutheran Confessions call it “the doctrine on which the church stands or falls” and the lens through which all of Scripture is read and interpreted. 

This universal promise of the gospel, proclaimed by the Scriptures and taught by the Lutheran Confessions, gives great hope and joy to Christians. It engenders a confident trust in God — that is, a living faith. Out of this joyful confidence in God, and trusting in the promise of God’s mercy in Christ for all, many Christians, including many ELCA Lutherans, express their hope that at the end of time God will redeem all things, including all humankind in the new heaven and new earth that is promised (Revelation 21:1-5). They share the message of Jesus Christ so that others too can have this joy and hope. 

This hope based in the universal scope of Christ’s saving work is not universalism — a belief based on a philosophical idea rather than a confident trust in God’s free promise in Jesus Christ. Although some Christians worry that the complete graciousness of God’s promise will encourage immoral behavior and irresponsible lives, the ELCA affirms the biblical witness that those who have been joined in faith to Jesus Christ through baptism are “dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:1-11), and that life in the Spirit liberates from sin’s power (Romans 8:1-4). God’s grace in Jesus Christ is trustworthy for all humankind.

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Scriptures are the authoritative source and norm in the ELCA

Members periodically raise concerns about ELCA ministries or policies. ELCA FactChecker examines these concerns and offers factual responses.

Concern: Are the Scriptures the authoritative source and norm of faith and life in the ELCA? 

Response: Yes. The ELCA’s official Confession of Faith identifies “the canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the inspired Word of God and the authoritative source and norm of its proclamation, faith, and life.” This same affirmation or a very similar one is in the constitution of every ELCA congregation (see ELCA Model Constitution for Congregations, sec. C2.03). Every ELCA pastor has promised to preach and teach in accordance with these Scriptures, a promise repeated every time a pastor is installed in a congregation. 

There is more to this affirmation than just words in an official document. Every Sunday in the worship of ELCA congregations and ministries, the Scriptures are read publicly. The Scriptures are used in ELCA congregations for preaching and teaching throughout the week in Sunday school and confirmation, in Bible studies and at hospital beds, in group devotions and congregational planning. The Scriptures shape and form the faith of individual ELCA members in their reading and prayer as they live out their callings at home, at work and in society. In short, the Scriptures saturate the ELCA’s life.

This is the clearest demonstration of the authority that the Scriptures have in the ELCA. The Holy Spirit is using the Scriptures to create, strengthen and sustain faith in Jesus Christ and the life we have in him throughout the ELCA. That is the real authority of the Scriptures, when the Holy Spirit uses them to create faith. That work continues every day, just as Martin Luther explained in the Small Catechism: the Holy Spirit “calls, gathers, enlightens and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth and preserves it in union with Jesus Christ in the one true faith.”

Moreover, the Holy Spirit continues to speak a “new thing” every day, just as Jesus promised to his disciples, the gospel word of forgiveness that makes us new. Again, Martin Luther explained it in the Small Catechism: the Holy Spirit “daily and abundantly forgives all my sins, and the sins of all believers.” Daily renewed by the Spirit’s work with the Scriptures to raise up new creation in Christ who trusts God’s promise confidently, Christians live and serve their neighbors freely.

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The ELCA uses Trinitarian language to name and address God

Members periodically raise concerns about ELCA ministries or policies. ELCA FactChecker examines these concerns and offers factual responses.

 Concern: Does the ELCA use Trinitarian language to name and address God?

Response: Yes. When people are baptized in the ELCA, the words “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” are used.  That Trinitarian name continues to be used throughout the life of ELCA members, not only in the proclamation, prayer and praise of public worship, but also in education for students of all ages, in private confession and forgiveness, baptismal remembrances, prayer and devotions.

These practices follow the ELCA’s official Confession of Faith which names the Triune God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Moreover, the ELCA’s officially approved liturgies such as in Evangelical Lutheran Worship, also use Father, Son and Holy Spirit to name and address God. Finally, the ELCA’s official guides for worship and administration of the sacraments, Principles for Worship and The Use of the Means of Grace, use the same Trinitarian name: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. 

At the same time, there are some Christians who believe it is important to expand the language used to name and address God. The Scriptures include:

  • God (and at least two different words for God in the Hebrew Old Testament)
  • Lord
  • Almighty One
  • Wonderful Counselor
  • Everlasting Father
  • Rock
  • Fortress
  • Shepherd
  • Strength
  • Shelter

There are many more in the Scriptures. Some Christians believe it is important to include words and images that guard against the mistaken impression that God is a male, such as the comparison of God to a mother nursing or comforting a child (Isaiah 49:15; 66:13). Many ELCA members also use other expressions in prayers and songs. One example of several images used side-by-side is the Swedish hymn “Thy Holy Wings” (ELW 613).  Along with images of “rock and hiding place” the hymn also includes an image used by Jesus — the mother hen comforting her chicks (Matthew 23:37).

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ELCA Presiding Bishop tells Orion Samuelson ‘Farming is God-given call’

Some concerns have been raised in various forums about the ELCA Proposed Social Statement on Genetics.  ELCA FactChecker examines these concerns and offers factual responses.

Concern:  Does the ELCA’s proposed social statement, Genetics, Faith and Responsibility tell farmers how to manage their operations and criticize genetically modified organisms?

Response: Not at all. In an interview with well-known agricultural journalist Orion Samuelson, the Rev. Mark S. Hanson, ELCA presiding bishop, said, “Farming is a God-given call and farmers are exercising that call as they feed the hungry in the world, as they care for creation, as they provide for their own families and communities.”

Hanson said the proposed social statement, requested by the ELCA Northeastern Iowa Synod and authorized by the 2005 ELCA Churchwide Assembly, honors the vocation of farming. It does not attempt to tell farmers how to manage their operations, nor does it criticize the use of genetically modified organisms, he said. Instead, it asks people of faith to consider how to use genetic knowledge and its power responsibly through conversation about genetics and its uses in agriculture, medicine and science. It does not suggest what people should believe, Hanson said.

Agriculture and related issues are significant for many ELCA members, Hanson said. He told Samuelson that about 47 percent of the ELCA’s 10,000-plus congregations are in rural communities or communities of less than 10,000 people.

See Samuelson’s interview with the ELCA presiding bishop on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7lFKqaedtFo on the Web. The interview also aired on Samuelson’s March 5 radio broadcast on WGN-AM radio, Chicago. It can be heard at http://ow.ly/4fXNz on the Web.

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Congregation did not leave because of genetics draft only

Some concerns have been raised in various forums about the ELCA Draft Social Statement on Genetics.  ELCA FactChecker examines these concerns and offers factual responses.

Concern: Did an ELCA congregation leave the church because of the content in the draft social statement?

Response: A November 11, 2010 story in The Forum, Fargo, N.D., reported that an ELCA congregation had made such a decision, but it should be noted that prior to the congregation’s decision, this reason was not cited as a concern.  The Forum also raised serious questions about the reasons for such a vote in a November 17, 2010 editorial, “First, read the ELCA statement.” That editorial stated: “There is nothing … to suggest the statement is anti-farmer, anti-science or anti-genetic research and application. It’s not about stymieing new knowledge; rather it’s about how that knowledge is used and what could be the moral/spiritual implications of misuse.”

The editorial continued: “In other words, the ELCA draft social statement is in keeping with church tradition. The church has historically embraced its responsibility to develop frameworks for teaching and deliberating about issues that confront a modern, rapidly changing technological society.”

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Task force members familiar with rural communities, concerns

Some concerns have been raised in various forums about the ELCA Draft Social Statement on Genetics.  ELCA FactChecker examines these concerns and offers factual responses.

Concern: Are members of the ELCA Task Force on Genetics really familiar with the concerns of people living and working in rural communities?

Response: Concerns of people who live and work in rural communities are well represented on the task force. Of the 15-member task force, one is a farmer in southwest Minnesota, and one is a former dairy farmer, state legislator and now a pastor. Several others grew up on farms and currently have family members who are farming, including the bishop of the ELCA Northeastern Iowa Synod who serves on the task force. Others work with farmers and farm issues on a regular basis. All are concerned about agriculture with the conviction that food is a global concern and understand there is no conflict between faith and farming. For a list of members and their expertise, go to www.elca.org/geneticsdraft and click on “Genetics Task Force” on the left side of the page.

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Rural community initiated request for social statement on genetics

Some concerns have been raised in various forums about the ELCA Draft Social Statement on Genetics.  ELCA FactChecker examines these concerns and offers factual responses.

Concern: From whom did the request for the social statement on genetics originate?  

Response: The rural community initiated the request for this statement. The request was initiated by ELCA Northeastern Iowa Synod, which asked the church to provide guidance on a variety of contemporary questions on this subject. The 2005 ELCA Churchwide Assembly authorized an ELCA social statement on genetics, which will be considered by the 2011 ELCA Churchwide Assembly. In addition there have been 48 hearings at which the draft has been discussed, and many congregations and individuals studied the draft and provided input.

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Draft social statement addresses many topics related to genetics

Some concerns have been raised in various forums about the ELCA Draft Social Statement on Genetics.  ELCA FactChecker examines these concerns and offers factual responses.

Concern: Is the draft only about agriculture and genetically modified organisms (GMOs), or does it address other topics?

Response: The draft social statement addresses fundamental questions related to genetic science, plus a number of topics related to ethics in the uses of genetic advances, such as medical technologies, reproductive cloning in humans, the “technological imperative,” investment in genetic knowledge and genetically modified organisms.

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Draft is first step in process leading to final social statement

Some concerns have been raised in various forums about the ELCA Draft Social Statement on Genetics.  ELCA FactChecker examines these concerns and offers factual responses.

Concern: Does the Draft Social Statement on Genetics have any standing as an official social statement of the ELCA?

Response: It is only a draft and does not represent any “official position” of the ELCA churchwide organization or its leadership. The draft is not a final statement. A task force is in the process of revising the text at this time in light of reports from 48 synodical hearings and hundreds of comments received during the comment period on the draft that began March 18, 2010 and ended October 15, 2010.

The revised text from the task force will be released on February 24, 2011. It will be reviewed by the ELCA Church Council in April 2011, which will place a recommended text of a social statement on the agenda of the churchwide assembly. The assembly in August 2011 has responsibility for amending and authorizing the final text. Social statements are adopted through a participatory process and represent the decisions of the churchwide assembly, not the ELCA leadership.

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