Saturday, August 8, 2009
Evangelism vs. Ecumenism in the ELCA
While many still wonder about the seriousness of differences between the two largest Lutheran denominations in the U.S., reading just a little of what comes out of the ELCA would certainly aid in answering this important question. Interreligious involvement forms the center focus of the August issue of The Lutheran, the ELCA’s official monthly magazine, demonstrating how far this Lutheran church body has drifted from its Christian moorings. While the LCMS has attempted for years to keep mission work to the unbelieving at the center of its global efforts, the ELCA, instead, seems to prefer to remain relatively silent on the imperative to preach the Gospel to those who are without Christ. Its preference, instead, remains to further cooperation between all religious groups, concentrating on themes of fairness, justice, and economic equality, while carefully avoiding any implication of the void that comes without Christ.
The Rev. Dr. William Lesher, retired president of the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, in a sidebar article commenting on the Parliament of World’s Religions, with which he now works, demonstrates this emphasis when he remarks that “Our biggest challenge in the world today is ignorance of each other’s faith - certainly our ignorance of what others really believe and equally of what they believe about us.” He is convinced, according to the article, that “there can be no peace on earth until there is peace among the world’s faith communities.”
Certainly understanding among those of different faiths and cultures goes a long way to encouraging open communication and peaceful coexistence. Hopefully no reasonable person would dispute the need for understanding for the sake of avoiding hateful violence and bigoted retribution. Furthermore, many in the Christian community at large recognize the divine mandate to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and shelter the exposed. They also recognize the need at times to join resources and efforts.
Still, if one were to listen to the voices in the ELCA today, one could imagine Jesus himself avoiding any language that required absolute allegiance to Him and His Word (as in “No one comes to the Father, but by me,” or “I am THE Way, THE Truth….”) in the effort to ‘build bridges of understanding’ with the Pharisees and High Priests who tried to silence him. The Savior would have engaged in more of a ‘dialogue’ style of discourse seeking to increase awareness of his points, while respecting the contrary beliefs without any condemnation. For sure his rhetoric would have been ratcheted down several notches, and he would by no means have resorted to the kind of needless violence witnessed in the Temple that day. Finally, would Jesus not have tried to reach out to his opponents with the invitation to join Him in an interfaith team to feed the hungry and clothe the poor while they discussed finer points of theological difference in a more peaceful way? My goodness, He was so ‘black and white’ about his claims!
Toward the end of the article the author mentions a chaplain in Iraq who called looking for resources “to help him inform the soldiers in his care about Muslim beliefs and practices.” “He was looking to obviate misunderstanding and increase respect through awareness, and he evidently understood his search as core to his faith.” Now it is commendable for a person to help others increase respect for those different than themself. However, does one need to educate people on Muslim faith to accomplish this? Is the Christian Gospel inadequate to teach people the need to “love thy neighbor” even if they do not understand the differences of those they meet? Beyond this, did this chaplain carefully avoid any mention of the call in the Koran for retribution against those who disagree with Allah, or of its attitude toward the Christians and the Jews? Did he ‘sanitize’ the theology of Islam to be politically correct and make sure to eliminate any implication of violence in their sacred writings? How did he explain those Muslims who feel a holy call to kill and destroy in the name of Allah? Are they not sincere believers who require understanding as well? Beyond this, did he avoid any need to point out that those who die without Christ die eternally? Or is this only something that would increase misunderstanding?
My fear is that the mission to preach Christ is slowly and methodically being snuffed out in the ELCA in favor of the more preferable ecumenical dialogue. Perhaps they have already arrived at this point. Based on The Lutheran, it appears they are certainly not far away.