Local News: First Presbyterian Church of Jackson is recruiting ladies who are interested in volunteering at Gateway Rescue Mission on Wednesdays from 11 a.m to 12:30 p.m. To sign up, or to learn more about this ministry opportunity, contact Margaret Tohill at (601) 353-2916 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Earlier this month, in an article posted on Presbyterian News Service, (“Lutherans elect Elizabeth Eaton first female presiding bishop of ELCA”), Sarah Pulliam Bailey reported that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) has elected Elizabeth Eaton to be its first female presiding bishop. Eaton’s husband is Rev. Conrad Selnick, a minister in the Episcopal Church. As is the case with Selnick’s denomination, the ELCA is on the decline, along with most other mainline churches in America. What is the reason for decline?
1. The recent decline in mainline denominations
The article said that though the ELCA has been losing members almost every year since 1987, since 2010, the church has lost about 500,000. The ELCA’s former policy requiring ministers to either be married (one man-one woman) or celibate was formally changed in 2009 under the leadership of outgoing presiding bishop Mark Hanson, and soon afterwards thousands began leaving. The denomination still has about four million members, making in the largest Lutheran denomination in the U.S. The second largest is the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. This trend is traceable in the PCUSA as well, which has lost half its members since 1983. The Episcopal Church ended the 1990s roughly half the size that it was at the beginning of the decade.
2. What happens when denominations are untrue to their own confessional standards
It’s true that some conservative evangelical denominations look at women’s ordination itself as indicative of liberalism and unorthodoxy (the Presbyterian Church in America, for example), and therefore would be dismissive of Elizabeth Eaton from the outset. However, it is possible for denominations to be led by women and still retain a solid evangelical identity. Consider, for instance, the Wesleyan Church, whose superintendent is Dr. Jo Anne Lyon. If evangelicals are leery of what Elizabeth Eaton’s leadership might mean for the ELCA, it is not necessarily because they are baised against her gender; it may very well be concern over her idealogy.
It’s hard to forecast what the future holds for the Evangelical Lutheran Church, just as it is hard to predict what the future holds for the Presbyterian Church USA or any mainline denomination in America today. The ELCA has much to commend itself—an openness and ecumenical spirit sometimes lacking in more conservative Lutheran circles, a rich history rooted in the Lutheran theology of the Reformation era, and the Augsburg Confession, which is the church’s official confessional standard. The sad thing, though, is that the ELCA (and the PCUSA, for that matter) is losing its foundation, no longer adhering to what it claims to believe.
What’s causing so much disarray in the ELCA is hardly a debate about sexual behavior. That is merely what gets the most press. What is happening in the ELCA and so many other churches is that reverence is slipping for sacred Scripture. Churches are compromising the historic Christian view that the Bible is God-breathed revelation that is relevant and authoritative for the church today. Churches that once patterned themselves on the teachings of Scripture are giving lip service to Scripture and this leaves them having a watered down version of Christianity to offer people. When the sanctity of Scripture is compromised, the gospel itself—which is God’s means of drawing people to himself—gets compromised. It is little wonder, then, when numbers decline.
3. Conclusion: Humble love for truth needed
In the wake of the recent schism in the ELCA, a new denomination has formed called the North American Lutheran Church. Whenever such schisms occur, there is always a possibility for good and bad to result. The good thing may be that people who are committed to Lutheran theology and want a context where they can really be evangelical and Lutheran (which, of course, is what the ELCA’s name implies) may have a new outlet in the new NALC. God may draw people who have adopted false views of Scripture back to reverencing it for what it is—the word of the Lord.
The bad thing may be that the new denomination will become reactionary, known more for being against the ELCA that it is known for being for the gospel of Jesus Christ. When new denominations are birthed out of controversy, there’s always a temptation for bitterness to manifest itself. May God draw those who’ve departed from orthodoxy back to the truth and may God keep those who do adhere to the truth from ever adopting a haughty spirit.
If we haven’t been tempted to believe false things, or haven’t yielded to the temptation when presented with it, this is not because we are such good people. This is God’s gracious gift to us, not anything we’ve done for God, which we could take personal credit for. It is God who draws people to truth and keeps them in it. When we walk in truth, it’s thanks to the Good Shepherd, not because we’re such great sheep. Realizing this should keep conservative Lutherans (or Presbyterians, or whatever the denomination is in question) from a bitter Us vs. Them attitude. Jesus is the Truth, and it is he who establishes truth in human hearts. If we are walking in truth, let us thank God for putting us on that path, but let us never, like the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable, conceitedly “thank God that we are not like other men”. That sort of spirit is hardly compatible with evangelicalism, or Christianity of any sort.