ELCA – LCMS – NALC – WELC – and the Holy Spirit


Luke 12: 49-56

The ELCA has a new presiding bishop. May the Holy Spirit work through her to bring in the kingdom of God during her term in office.

Luther RoseYes, I believe the Holy Spirit can work through a woman in a leadership role in the church. I also believe the Holy Spirit can write Holy Scripture through errant men.

It’s still a question in my mind whether the Holy Spirit can work through the divisiveness of denominationalism. We’ve tried for five hundred years and it only gets worse.

But that’s a cynical remark rather than a true opinion. To my Lutheran brothers and sisters of all opinions, please forgive me. We should call it “opinionalism” rather than denominationalism.

Why do I take time to talk about this? Because the fires of divisiveness hinder the work of sharing God’s love in a broken world.

The ELCA has elected a new presiding bishop who will lead this branch of Lutheranism for at least the next six years and that is sure to stir up the fires of opinionalism within our tradition.

Defensiveness started minutes after the election. On a Facebook group (primarily made up of ELCA clergy), the shields were being raised. Unfortunately when you raise a defensive shield, you tend to shoot a few arrows or throw some stones, too. I recognized my own face in some of those comments.

We understand we will be criticized by those (not only Lutherans of different opinions, but Catholics, Baptists, Church of Christ, etc.) who don’t think the Holy Spirit can work through a woman in the role of presiding bishop. I leave that problem up to the Holy Spirit. That’s not my point.

This post is about unity and harmony. It isn’t a criticism of my ELCA peers as much as it is a sermon to myself.

I grew up LCMS. My father was a LCMS pastor, as were both my grandfathers. None of them lived to see me finally speak from a pulpit. It took the Holy Spirit 53 years to prepare me for the call to Word and Sacrament.

I didn’t fly through the process. The Holy Spirit dragged me screaming and kicking.

I didn’t go through the LCMS ordination route. I went by way of the ELCA. Why?


After getting married and leaving the safety and protecting arms of my father’s denomination, my wife and I attempted to go to a LCMS church everywhere we moved. I tried to be faithful to my conditioning.

But those congregations were always outside the community in which I was living. We had to drive away from people we saw in the grocery and on the soccer fields, etc.

We were a young family. We wanted to go to church and become part of a community. So we checked out the Lutheran churches nearer to us. It wasn’t their theology that drew us. It was their nearness, their proximity to our daily lives.

We wanted to be active in a church. We didn’t want to simply show up for services. We hungered for positive relationships in a new community.

Theological correctness isn’t as cheering as the voice of someone you are helping fold bulletins for Sunday services. Theological correctness doesn’t fill the hole in your heart when your partner deserts you or claims his/her eternal reward. It doesn’t bring you a bowl of soup when you’re sick or lift your spirits when you’ve been handed a pink slip at work.

I confess that I can be cynical. I used to blame my cynicism on having grown up LCMS, but I changed my mind quickly after I left. There are as many ELCA cynics as anywhere else. I’m starting to assign blame for that negative quality to my German roots rather than my religious roots.

But it’s not fair to isolate it to Germans either. Cynicism is a type of defensiveness. It’s futilism spawned by grief.

What kind of grief? Grief at the absence of relationship, the loss of peace, the loss of harmony, the loss of unity within the Body of Christ. We can’t fix a broken and hurting world when we are broken and hurting ourselves. We can’t tell others how to get along if we can’t talk to each other.

So I invite all Lutherans to honor their grief. To acknowledge their loss, for Christ is within us.

I invite all Lutherans (and fellow Christians) of all opinions to stop placing the words on the pages of the holy book – of which there are diverse opinions – ahead of the pain and despair that is real and in the world…much of it coming as a result of the absence of love and reverential relationship.

Martin Luther said the words on the pages of Scripture were dead words if the Holy Spirit was not in them. The fruits of the Spirit are peace, joy, love, hope, goodness, kindness, patience, gentleness, self-control. If these fruits do not arise from the words on the pages, if they do not guide us toward harmony and unity, then are they are Spirit-filled?

That will take a few Bavarian beers to sort out and to determine whether our differing opinions are the threat to eternal salvation that we pretend it is.

It’s not our theology that separates us. It’s our fears and our insecurities. And our futilism. There’s not much hope that we’ll agree on everything. But there is hope if we see Christ in each other.

And if there’s hope, the Holy Spirit is present.

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Here are a few quotations that deal with denominationalism:

1. From Martin Luther:

“I ask that men make no reference to my name, and call themselves not Lutherans, but Christians.  What is Luther?   My doctrine, I am sure, is not mine, nor have I been crucified for any one. St.   Paul, in 1 Cor. 3, would not allow Christians to call themselves Pauline or Petrine, but Christian.  How then should I, poor, foul carcass that I am, come to have men give to the children of Christ a name derived from my worthless name?  No, no, my dear friends; let us abolish all party names, and call ourselves Christians after Him Whose doctrine we have.” – Hugh Thomason Kerr, A Compend of Luther’s Theology (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1943, p. 135)

Martin Luther, “A Sincere Admonition by Martin Luther to All Christians to Guard against Insurrection and Rebellion” (1522), in Luther’s Works, 55 vols., ed. Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut Lehmann (Philadelphia and St. Louis: Fortress and Concordia, 1955-1986) 45:70-71 [hereafter LW].

2. From John Wesley:

“Would to God that all party names, and unscriptural phrases and forms which have divided the Christian world, were forgot and that the very name [Methodist] might never be mentioned more, but be buried in eternal oblivion.” – John Wesley, Universal Knowledge, A Dictionary and Encyclopedia of Arts, Science, History, Biography, Law, Literature, Religions,          Nations, Races, Customs, and Institutions, Vol. 9, Edward A. Pace, Editor (New York: Universal Knowledge Foundation, 1927, p. 540)

3. From Charles Spurgeon:

“I look forward with pleasure to the day when there will not be a Baptist living!  I hope that the Baptist name will soon perish, but let Christ’s name last forever.” – Spurgeon Memorial Library, Vol. I., p. 168

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