Norman Teigen highlights an address from ELCA bishop Mark Hanson. Bishop Hansen notes that the issue of (homo)sexuality might be seen as the defining issue for the ELCA, but instead, he wants “the Gospel of Jesus Christ” to define the ELCA.
My first thought is to wonder what he means by “the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” For Hansen, does this include Christ as an historical person, as described historically throughout the second article of the Nicene Creed? Does it include His virgin birth and bodily resurrection as historical facts? I only ask because numerous teachers in the ELCA deny these things. See this book for a well-documented, 15-year old snapshot of those teachings in the ELCA. News reports since that book was published have not shown that things are any better.
But Hansen raises two important questions about fellowship. What does define a body like the ELCA? What does divide it?
In the ELS, we hold that the unity of a church body is (ideally) defined by its unity in doctrine. God-pleasing unity occurs when different people believe, teach, and confess what the Bible says. It’s up to us to figure out who they are by comparing their teaching and their practice to the teaching of the Bible. For us, the teaching of the Bible is critically important, since we apply Proverbs 4:13 in all seriousness: “Take firm hold of instruction, do not let go; Keep her, for she is your life.” For us, doctrine is life. (I make bold to speak for the entire ELS. If its members disagree, they may do so publicly.)
However, a church body like the ELS and the ELCA is really established by articles of incorporation, not found in holy scripture. That means that the body can exist without regard for God-pleasing unity. (In the case of the ELCA, I see many points where its members disagree about fundamental points of Christian doctrine — like the historic points listed in the Nicene Creed.)
So neither the ELCA nor the ELS is really defined by biblical doctrine. They are both church bodies that exist by the will of mortal man. The difference is that the formation of the ELS has (theoretically) bound the synod to observe the biblical principles of church fellowship by requiring that its members and those formally “in fellowship” hold strictly to the biblical teachings. This is accomplished by means of the Lutheran Confessions, which agree completely with holy scripture. The Confessions serve as a means of comparing doctrine to discover whether God-pleasing unity exists.
What defines a synod or “church” like the ELS or ELCA? The answer can be anything, because they are organizations of human origin. Officially, they are defined by their incorporation. In my mind, the ELCA is defined by its sad history of mergers and compromises of biblical teaching. To Bishop Hansen, the ELCA is defined by “the Gospel of Jesus Christ” — whatever he means by that. To others, it is defined by its stance on homosexuality.
Despite the disagreement between these points of view, the ELCA and the ELS are both really defined to the world in general by the aggregate of their words and deeds. They are equally fallible and open to criticism for their faults. The responsibility remains with individuals like you and me to examine their words and deeds in the light of holy scripture. (1 John 4:1, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world.”) That is how God-pleasing unity is discovered.
Bishop Hansen is concerned that if homosexuality defines the ELCA, there will be corporate division. Yet outward division can occur for a multitude of reasons, both good and bad. If some wish to depart from the ELCA about the issue of homosexuality, it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with Hansen’s “Gospel of Jesus Christ.” Lutherans in the ELS accept the Bible’s perspective on homosexuality: that such practices are sinful, so that homosexuality challenges and ultimately can destroy faith in Christ. For anyone who agrees with the ELS, it would make perfect sense to separate from the ELCA, which has contradicted what the Bible says about homosexuality. It would uphold the Gospel.