I am becoming more and more convinced that the most troubling recommendation of the Task Force for Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Studies on Sexuality is the first one—on unity. Of course, this sounds odd to many people. Who can find unity troubling and who would not hope that we “find ways to live together faithfully” in the body of Christ? Wouldn’t anyone (inside or outside the ELCA) hope that this matter would not be “church dividing”? These are not the reasons the first recommendation is most troubling.
What is often assumed by words like “unity” and “loyalty” and “truth” is what’s troubling. Among other things (such as the authority of scripture and the “conscience” issues raised), there is a presumed understanding of the church that is at the root of the first recommendation. The ecclesiology (theology of the nature and constitution and functions of the church) is flawed.
When the churchwide organization is considered an “expression” of “the church” the notion of “church” becomes an abstraction and is reduced to administrative and legislative bodies. Any assumption or assertion that “the church” exists in an office building in Chicago or as an assembly in Orlando and as such is something beyond and something more than believers gathered around Word and Sacrament points to a flawed ecclesiology. Maintaining the unity of “the church” cannot be equated to a vote for the first recommendation from the task force.
Jesus said: “I am the way, the truth and the life.” In him all Christians find our identity. He is our unity. One would hope that the difference between “unity” as faithfulness to—and identity in—Jesus Christ and “unity” as uniformity within a denomination centered on a vote would be clear.
But quite the opposite is happening. This distinction is blurred and even obscured. And when it comes to loyalty—institutions, denominations, organizations and associations have their places. The time and energy we give to them assumes a kind of loyalty. But whatever groups (ELCA, WA [WordAlone], LCMC [Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ]) letters of the alphabet represent, they must clearly claim that our primary loyalty is to Jesus Christ in order to be worthy of our time and attention.
And when it comes to truth—it cannot be some abstract truth that arises from a convention vote said to be given by the Spirit but in reality detached from the Word of God. In the same way, it cannot be reduced to individual opinion, feeling or conscience. As one parishioner recently asserted, revealing the flaws on both sides: “The individual conscience is as legitimate as the collective conscience of the church hierarchy.” Both ends of that spectrum make truth and the conscience hazy abstractions when not attached to their proper source: the Word of God.
Now and in the end, unity and loyalty must point to the One who gives it and creates it. “Sanctify them in truth, your Word is truth.”
Some have said that unity is what is at stake and what must be preserved at all costs in the ELCA. I would agree. But it is a unity that finds its source and goal in Jesus Christ, the Word. And this unity may well come at the expense of institutional disruption, upheaval and, yes, even division. For in the end, the truth is that there is one name above all others. And one day at the sound of that name, every knee will bow.