ELCA: foreshadowing a UMC future?

From UMVoices, October 10, 2018: Carolyn Moore is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. She has served the good people of Mosaic Church in Evans, Georgia for 15 years. She has been married for 32 years to Steve Moore, a high school history teacher. This piece originally appeared on her personal blog. Reposted with permission.

Image by Skull Kat

A colleague and friend, Reverend Dave Keener, witnessed this firsthand during a similar crisis in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA). Reflecting on the eventual division in the ELCA and its similarities to the current crisis in the UMC, Reverend Keener notes that something similar to the One Church Plan (OCP) was adopted by the ELCA in 2009. “The term they used was ‘bound conscience,’” he writes. “The assembly was assured that the theological and biblical positions of traditionalist and progressives alike would be respected. This did not happen.”

Soon after the vote, it became clear to the traditionalists that there was in reality only one acceptable position and it wasn’t theirs. Since the decisions of 2009, the ELCA has intentionally become more progressive and the traditionalists who remain in that denomination have been marginalized (most exited at the height of the crisis, forming the North American Lutheran Church, or NALC).

It may be helpful to take note of what happened within the ELCA in the aftermath of their adoption of a plan similar to the OCP. These reflections come from my Lutheran colleague:

  • Massive loss in membership. In the seven years after the decision to go against the historic teaching of the church, the ELCA lost over one million members. They continue to decline but have not released numbers since 2016.

  • Massive loss of income. In the first few years after the vote, the ELCA was forced to lay off hundreds of workers and experienced significant decreases in all areas of funding. Their current income for denominational expenses is less than it was in 1987, the year it was organized.

  • Global impact. Many churches in other parts of the world broke off formal ties with the ELCA — especially in Africa and the East.

  • Loss of confessional identity and loyalty. It was no longer possible for local pastors to recommend that members who were relocating find an ELCA congregation since there was no longer unity in biblical teaching.

  • Theological education. Since the vote, the ELCA has slowly purged itself of orthodox seminary professors. They have had to merge two of their seminaries for financial reasons and have removed one seminary president at the urging of progressive advocacy groups.

  • Diversity. One of the battle cries for the ELCA in making their decision was diversity, inclusion, and welcoming. Ironically, according to a Pew Research study last year the ELCA is now the second least diverse and multicultural denomination in the USA (96% white). The least diverse is the National Baptist Convention which is 99% African American.

  • Theological drift because of lack of accountability. Since the 2009 decision, the denomination has continued to drift. With its decision, the ELCA lost its ability to speak credibly to any issue. In saying that it doesn’t really matter what the Bible clearly states they reduce it to one resource among many and not God’s revelation to His people. Everything becomes a matter of opinion and soon the scripture has no authority for life. Congregations preaching various forms of universalism are becoming more and more common. · Generational impact. This article explains how quickly theology can drift in just one generation, once the theological core of a tribe has been removed.

  • Evangelism and discipleship. See point #1 for stats on the loss of membership and attendance. As my friend notes, “Once biblical authority and historical teachings are removed, universalism and cheap grace are not far behind” … and neither breeds evangelistic urgency.

We owe it to ourselves and the thirteen million who call themselves United Methodist to learn from our brothers and sisters in other tribes who have may have tried too hard to hold together what isn’t theologically compatible. May God give us both grace and humility to go where he leads and to refuse the spirit of fear.