ELCA: Lutheran

Part two in a series exploring the nouns in the name of the denomination to which I am a member of: the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

All Hallows Eve, 1519, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenburg, in what would become Germany, and started the Protestant Reformation. He didn’t mean to do that, of course. What he wanted to do was get people talking about certain practices of the Church which he felt were unsupported by the Bible, and contrary to Christ’s teaching. The main one was the selling of indulgences, but he was also troubled by the worldliness and avarice of the Pope and other high-ranking clergy. The Pope ignored Luther for a while, but he wouldn’t shut up, and many of the peasants supported him, so something had to be done. It’s possible, if not probable, that Luther wouldn’t’ve developed his theology as much as he did if he hadn’t had to defend himself against the Pope and Cardinals.

But he did develop it. Luther was generally pretty happy with the forms of the Mass and didn’t change much there. The medieval Church served the Mass in two ways – the wealthy got bread and wine; the peasants only got bread. This was a cost-cutting device: bread is cheap, wine is expensive. They justified it by pointing out that there is blood in flesh, so the bread contained the wine. They also had the doctrine of transubstantiation, which meant that the bread and wine were literally changed into the body and blood of Jesus, though they still looked, tasted and in every way appeared to be bread and wine. Luther said that the bread and wine were bread and wine, though they did contain the real presence of Jesus in a mysterious way. He also insisted that peasants get wine with their bread.

He thought priests should be allowed to marry, that scholastic debates about how many angels could dance on the point if a pin were useless, that the Bible should be translated into the vernacular so everyone could read it, and that the clergy should make some attempt to lead moral lives as an example to their congregations. This all seems pretty reasonable to us now, and none of it was new – other people had floated the same opinions. The new idea that Luther brought was that good works don’t matter – that is, you can’t earn salvation. This was a dangerous idea because the Church had gotten pretty fat on the idea that people had to do good works to avoid Hell and shorten their time in Purgatory. Obviously, the Church had the say in what exactly “good works” were, and they made sure that everybody knew that giving money to them was a very good work. It was actually called the “holy trade”. Rich people could buy indulgences in advance, so they were pre-forgiven for sins they hadn’t committed yet, but intended to.

Luther asserted that salvation, or justification, was an unearned gift of God, and he supported his position with Scripture. There was absolutely nothing, he said, that any human being could do to earn justification. That’s why Jesus was born, lived and was crucified – to do what people could not do. Through Him, the human race was saved – and only through Him. That meant that one could never give a farthing to the Church and still get to Heaven. This is the defining belief of the ELCA.

The Lutheran tradition has not remained unchanged for the past five centuries. The most radical developments have happened in the past fifty years – the time period when all the major Christian denominations have had to face up to their sexism, homophobia and racism. Different denominations have taken different positions, and some – including the ELCA – have been split by disagreement.

The ELCA welcomes everyone. We ordain women and LGBTQ members. I can’t imagine that Martin Luther would’ve been cool with that. The letters of Paul refer to female leaders in the early church, so he might’ve been able to accept female clergy, but the entirety of LGBTQ would have horrified him, and sent him running for his Bible – which he translated into German – to point out that Paul clearly opposed “degrading passions” (Romans 1:18-32), by which he meant anything that would’ve fallen into any of the LGBTQ categories. Luther was a man of his time, and no less a sinner in desperate need of God’s grace than anybody else. He wrote some pretty awful stuff about Jews, Anabaptists and peasants who opposed their own oppression, that the ELCA has since rejected. We’re in the Lutheran tradition, but we’re followers of Jesus. And He said we should love everyone.

So, the Lutheran tradition has evolved in ways that Luther couldn’t’ve foreseen or appreciated. And some would say that the ELCA has lost the way – members of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod would definitely say that – but we haven’t taken any positions that we can’t find Scripture to support.

I was talkin’ with some womenfolk earlier. One of ‘em, a lesbian, said she wanted to find a church, but hadn’t been able to shop around because all the churches are closed at the moment due to COVID19. I asked what tradition she was raised with. She said she’d gone to Catholic and Church of Christ services at various points, but had felt like she wasn’t totally welcome. I was so glad I could tell her that my church was “sorta like Catholic”, and that her lesbianity wouldn’t be a problem. I said I’d be glad to take her to church when they open it back up. She said she wanted to go.

I’m starting to stray into the “C” of ELCA, which I don’t want to do yet. Lemme back up and finish the “L” part. Luther loved music. Here’s a song that he probably wouldn’t’ve enjoyed, but I love it:

Luther’s big premise was that Christians are freed from the Law of Moses, that we are saved by grace alone. He got that from Paul, who goes on and on about it – the only point of Law that Paul holds onto is the Levitican prohibition against homosexuality, which seems a little more like homophobia than logic to me. The ELCA holds onto the freedom part. We also look to the Bible as the authority on anything – but we follow Jesus’ instruction t obey the spirit over the letter. Our Bible is Christ-centered. That means we read everything as related to Jesus, even the old Testament. We use Luther’s Catechism and Small Catechism. We eat pancakes on Shrove Tuesday. It’s true that we’re still a very white church, but we’ve made some little effort to attract people of color.

We’re all about that grace.


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