Church-Based Theology

What is your compass? The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) is making a rapid—though unconstitutional—shift to church-based theology.

Church-Based TheologyGrowing up in a Lutheran parsonage with five brothers, we argued philosophy and theology…a lot. Sometimes we could resolve a question, sometimes not. The winning move was simple—logic and the Bible. As an adult I have discovered Christian traditions that navigate theology by a different compass. This came into focus for me in two conversations, the first on a jet and the second in a restaurant.

As the plane prepared to take off, my white-bearded seatmate was reading Latin Scriptures. I asked if he were a Catholic priest. No, he was an Orthodox priest, formerly Episcopal. His path of discipleship, leadership and church migration was a fascinating tale. He left the church he had known for a church where he could serve with integrity. I expressed my admiration.

I asked him about a growing trend in Lutheranism—praying for the deceased in funeral services. I grew up without this practice, but two recent hymnals (1978 and 2006) have added such prayers.  I mentioned Hebrews 9:27, “People are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment.” He responded matter-of-factly, “Our people have always prayed for the dead.” In his mind, long-time Church practice validates something. He described the Church as preceding Scripture. The Church is his primary authority, his compass. He has a high view of Scripture, but he does not subscribe to the Reformation cry, “Word Alone” or “Sola Scriptura.” I understand his position of church-based theology.

A few months later I sat down with a national leader of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) for a delicious lunch and vigorous conversation. We munched and discussed church policy and theology—without reaching consensus. After an hour and a half, he succinctly summarized our positions: “We differ because your theology is more biblically based instead of church based.”

“That’s because the ELCA requires biblically based theology,” I said. “The ELCA Constitution declares that the Bible is the ‘Word of God and the authoritative source and norm of its faith, proclamation and life.’ The ELCA Constitution does not allow us to have church-based theology.” (See Constitution of the ELCA 2.03, 7.22, 20.21.01, 20.51, 20.53.A11, excerpted below.)

He attempted to cite Martin Luther to support church-based theology. I repeated that the ELCA Constitution does not allow church-based theology; the Bible is our authoritative source and norm for faith, proclamation and life. He smiled and held to his position. My compass is the Bible; his compass is the church (when it decides in his favor).

How widespread is church-based theology as the compass among ELCA leaders? Our common confession in the ELCA affirms the Incarnation and Virgin Birth as declared in the Apostles Creed (Constitution of the ELCA 2.04) and in Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2 (2.03). However, bishops and confirmation curriculum reject the compass of Bible and Creeds for church-based theology. ELCA leaders misrepresent their operational values.

Bishop Mike Rinehart leads the Gulf Coast Synod and was second in balloting to Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton for that office. He published a pointed rejection of the Incarnation and Virgin Birth to prepare his pastors for preaching in Advent. “I certainly do not believe they [the ‘nativity stories’ of Matthew and Luke] are ‘historical’ in any modern understanding of historicity…. I think that the stories are made up.” (The article was written by Rinehart’s chosen assistant, Rev. Don Carlson.)

The Synod Constitution, however, requires that a bishop “teach…in accord with the Confession of Faith of this church” (S8.12)—including the Incarnation and Virgin Birth. Rinehart’s published rejection of biblical theology and ELCA Constitutions does not appear to raise an eyebrow among ELCA leaders; ELCA leadership embraces his church-based theology.

HereWeStand confirmation curriculum sows similar seeds of doubt and undercuts these foundational teachings in teaching the birth of Jesus, saying, “Luke is more like a storyteller than a historian.”

Ministers and bishops are welcome to embrace church-based theology as their compass, but the ELCA Constitution requires that they give up their ELCA credentials if this is their “Here I stand.”  They could minister honestly in a body with Church-Based Theology.

This church accepts 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.” (Constitution of the ELCA 2.03)

“An ordained minister of this church shall be a person…who accepts and adheres to the Confession of Faith of this church…. An ordained minister shall comply with this church’s constitutions, bylaws, and continuing resolutions.” (Constitution of the ELCA 7.22)

“Ordained ministers shall be subject to discipline for:
a. preaching and teaching in conflict with the faith confessed by this church….
d. willfully disregarding the provisions of the constitution or bylaws of this church.” (Constitution of the ELCA 20.21.01)

 “The recall or dismissal of the presiding bishop, vice president, or secretary of this church and the vacating of office may be effected:
a. for willful disregard or violation of the constitution and bylaws of this church” (Constitution of the ELCA 20.51)

 “The recall or dismissal of the bishop, vice president, secretary, or treasurer of a synod of this church and the vacating of office may be vacated: 1) for willful disregard or violation of the constitutions.” (Constitution of the ELCA 20.53.A11)

 “As this synod’s pastor, the bishop shall be an ordained minister of Word and Sacrament who shall:
a.  Preach, teach, and administer the sacraments in accord with the Confession of Faith of this church.
” (Constitution for Synods of the ELCA S8.12).


About Ben Unseth

Executive Director at Project Understanding (2014-2017), social service agency in Ventura, CA
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Church-Based Theology

  1. B. J. Slinger says:

    May God continue giving you opportunities to share his trust with conviction.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s