Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, or ELCA, is, as of 2020, the largest American Lutheran Denomination. It was established in 1988 by the merging of three other Lutheran Denominations, the American Lutheran Church, Lutheran Church in America, and the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches. At the time, there were over 5 million members. The membership in the ELCA is significantly older than the US population as a whole For example, there are more ELCA members aged 70-74 than members aged 45-59 in the ELCA, though 45-59 year olds are more than double 70-74 year olds in the US population. We’ll look at several more statistics nearer to the end of this video.
As Lutheran Denominations, Historically the doctrine of the churches and denominations that have now come together into today’s ELCA followed the Lutheran Confessions. The ELCA’s website says the following:
The ELCA’s official Confession of Faith identifies the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments (commonly called the Bible); the Apostles’, Nicene and Athanasian Creeds; and the Lutheran confessional writings in the Book of Concord as the basis for our teaching. ELCA congregations make the same affirmation in their governing documents, and ELCA pastors and deacons promise to carry out their ministry in accordance with these teaching sources.
So officially, the ELCA is still connected to these Lutheran Documents. However, the ELCA doesn’t enforce adherence to the confessions, and many ministers would take stances on issues that are in disagreement with the confessions.
The ELCA’s theological discernment team produces “The Journal of Lutheran Ethics.” Kathryn Kleinhans wrote in the 2011 article in the journal, “Sources of Authority in the Lutheran Tradition: Back to the Future” the following:
The image I have frequently used with students to convey this systemic understanding of Lutheran theology is the image of software. Inputting different data into a computer program yields different results, and yet these results are no less authentically an expression of the program than the earlier results. What Lutherans need to say today will not always be the same as what Luther and his fellow confessors said in the sixteenth century. Nor should it be. But that need not make it any less authentically and confessionally Lutheran.
Kleinhans also says,
It is precisely in the process of interpreting and applying our Lutheran confessional heritage in new contexts that reason and experience play a role, not as external sources sitting in judgment over the Scriptures and the Confessions but as important resources for us as we wrestle with the Scriptures and the Confessions in order to bring forth new blessings in our day.
At the end of the journal article, she summarizes it this way:
In the mutual conversation and consolation of fellow Christians, we need to confess not only our theology but our Unfertigkeit, our unfinishedness; and we need to come together particularly in common confession — both of sin and of faith — in worship. And in lifting up this vision of common Lutheran confession, I must also confess the painful knowledge that this very vision of a committed but unfinished Lutheranism means that some of our fellow Lutherans will not join us at the table.
Examples of those Lutherans that won’t join the ELCA at the table are the theologically conservative Lutheran denominations in the United States, such as the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, and the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod. The ELCA’s acceptance of reading the confessions in a living way, and taking a historical-critical view of the scriptures has led to these denominations to distance themselves from the ELCA.
However, at the same time the ELCA has been moving toward allowing the modern conceptions of scripture and life to have an influence on their theology, other Traditional Mainline denominations in the United States have done the same, and so the ELCA has opened full communion with these groups that prior to their willingness to overlook denominational distinctives, would have shunned joining with Lutheranism. For example, the ELCA is in full communion with the Presbyterian Church USA, Reformed Church in America, United Church of Christ, the Moravian Church, and the United Methodist Church. This means that these churches work together, members between them share in communion, and ministers can freely move between congregations of each denomination, among other agreements.
Because of this, to try and explain the theology of the ELCA by referencing the literal meaning of the confessions they hold to would be anachronistic. There are parts of the book of Concord that most in the ELCA would disagree with the literal meaning, so instead we need to look at the published positions of the church and things written by its ministers.
Even so, realize that in the denomination today, you would be hard-pressed to find a theological position that would get a minister kicked out, so some of the generalities that we’ll be giving as the positions of the ELCA will not hold true for every ELCA congregation.
As we discuss the doctrinal positions of the ELCA, let me quote a few more articles from ELCA voices to give examples of the acceptable range of thought on the historicity of the Bible.
Rachel Wangen-Hoch writes in “Incarnation and the Holy Innocents” in the Journal of Lutheran Ethics,
It is tempting to get caught up in questions of historicity in this text. Did Herod the Great actually murder all of the boys ages 2 and under in Bethlehem? Did Jesus, Mary and Joseph flee to Egypt? Did the Magi actually travel from the East, stop in to see Herod, and then go on to greet Mary and son at the house where they stayed? Wouldn’t Josephus at least have noted the first of those remarkable events?
However, delving into questions of historicity in the birth narrative, especially this portion of it, quickly leads to missing the point entirely. My preaching professor at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, Dr. Tom Rogers, said something I’ll never forget. When folks ask if the illustration or story you tell is “true,” respond honestly, “it happens every day.” In the case of a massacre of innocents and a flight of a family as political refugees into a foreign land, this is indeed the truth. This is the world God became flesh in and still dwells with us in.
Niveen Sarras writes in the Journal of Lutheran Ethics article “A Palestinian Feminist Reading of the Book of Jonah”,
I argue that the narrative of Jonah itself is the key of interpretation equally important to the character of Jonah himself. It could be interpreted as a symbol, proverb, fiction or tale. The author uses hyperbolic language, such as describing Nineveh as “the great city”, or having a fish swallow Jonah, and making Jonah remain in the belly of the fish for three days. The use of hyperbolae becomes apparent when one considers questions such as: How could Jonah breathe in the belly of the fish? If the fish was a whale, can we find a whale in rivers like the Tigris or Euphrates? These descriptions invite us to concentrate on the theme behind the book, not the detailed expressions.
An article from the ELCA’s website in 2009 said,
From about A.D. 80 to the present, most Christian faith groups, including Lutherans, have taught that Jesus was conceived by his mother, Mary, while she was still a virgin. […]
While it remains official and normative for the Evangelical Lutheran Church today, it has not closed the doctrinal debate over Jesus’ conception for many Lutherans, and by inference that includes ELCA members. […]
When we confess in the Apostles’ Creed that Jesus was “conceived by the power of the Holy Spirt and born of the virgin Mary …,” and in the Nicene Creed that Jesus is “the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father …” we are not making a gynecological assertion. We are saying that God entered into Christ and, in him, is fully revealed to humankind. This is God’s graceful act of reconciliation with creation and humankind’s redemption.
It’s safe to say that very few theologians in the ELCA would hold to an inerrant view of the Bible, and so acceptable views on most issues can be very broad.
The Trinity is typically affirmed, as opposed to Unitarianism, however In April 2020, the ELCA twitter account tweeted “Mother God, you have fed us with the nourishment of your spiritual food. Raise us up into salvation and rid us of our bitterness, so that we may share the sweetness of your holy word with all the world.”
Christ’s Deity is also commonly affirmed, and most mentions of the Virgin Birth to people on the pews would be in the affirmative, but nonliteral understanding of the virgin birth is acceptable.
Even the Resurrection of Christ as a literal event, though frequently affirmed throughout ELCA material, can be taught as less than literal. Pastor David Nichols of Mount Tabor Lutheran Church writes,
Ancient stories of “Why is this so?” and “How did this come to be?” that taught wisdom applicable to the common good and to humankind’s role in living for the common good were replaced with empirical evidence-based reporting of natural phenomena devoid of subjective ethical imperatives. Humankind fell in love with objective analysis and began exclusively calling that Truth. This set up a completely unnecessary dichotomy, I believe, regarding the notion of Truth. For example, in modern ELCA interpretation of the Bible we use the “both/and” approach. We empirically analyze the context of the ancient story for what that can tell us about what does not apply today, and we ask “What is the symbolic truth within it?” What is the story trying to tell us about who God is, and what God expects of us? This is called the post-modern approach to Biblical study and it’s how I do it. But we post-moderns get bogged down in asking “is this Real?” Did it “really” happen? That’s the wrong question to ask of a symbol. Post-modern humans say if it isn’t “Real” in a factual scientific sense, then it must not be a believable Truth. But the question of belief is not whether it’s objectively real or not. The question of believable truth is about whether or not it promotes the common good. In essence, whether or not it “rings true” for us; whether or not it promotes the highest calling of humanity to be steward, protector, and promoter of the well-being of every single species on the Earth.
The story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is a calling to humanity, to us, to again fulfill our highest purpose as stewards of the common good. It is the story of what God’s compassion looks like: the story of divine compassion rooted in the human story, calling the human species to look at how we are living and to aspire to be more.
On sacraments, The ELCA says, “Lutherans have two sacraments: Holy Baptism and Holy Communion”, and
“For Lutherans, a sacrament:
• is something Jesus commanded us to do;
• uses a physical element—something we can see, touch and sometimes taste; and
• is connected with God’s promise, the word of God, which gives faith.”
Baptism is usually for infants, but unbaptized adults may be baptized as well.
Immersion, Pouring, or sprinkling are all valid modes,
The 2013 ELCA document, “How is Language Used in Worship” speaks of the baptismal formula, saying:
According to the ecumenically received baptismal formula, Holy Baptism is administered using water and the name of the Triune God — Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Conference of Bishops, in their 1991 statement
on the trinitarian baptismal formula, upholds this name as the name in which this church baptizes.
The ecumenical church is presently engaged in discussions seeking to expand and enrich language used to address the triune God. Such discussions eventually may produce additional formulations. Until then, the current baptismal formula continues to be the only one recognized in the ELCA.
Church liturgy and material on baptism affirms that it is part of salvation. The article on the ELCA website from Melinda Quivik, “Butter in the Sunshine – The Fragility of Faith and the Gift of Baptism” says
The church should be proclaiming God’s welcome: Here is new life for you. Free in the waters of baptism! Here is food for the journey. Free at the table of the risen One! Luther wrote: “Baptism signifies two things –– death and resurrection, that is, full and complete justification.” In short, baptism saves.
An ELCA thanksgiving for baptism includes the line, “Praise to you for the water of baptism and for your Word that saves us in this sacrament.”
ELCA churches may practice confirmation, also called “Affirmation of Baptism.” The liturgy goes this way:
You have made public profession of your faith. Do you intend to continue in the covenant God made with you in holy baptism: to live among God’s faithful people, to hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper, to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed, to serve all people, following the example of Jesus, and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth?
Each person responds:
I do, and I ask God to help and guide me.
A worship resource on the ELCA website on the elements of communion says,
Congregations of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America express unity but not uniformity in their communion practices. While there is diversity in our practices, many Congregations use bread and wine
The resource goes on to suggest white wine over red wine, and allow the use of non-alcoholic wine especially in cases of health issues. Bread can be leavened or unleavened, and it may also be in the form of a host or wafer.
Another resource guide says that the common cup, individual glasses, and intinction, or dipping the bread in the wine, are all acceptable options. It also states, “We believe that Christ is fully present in one kind,” referring to the belief that even if just one of the elements is consumed, such as the bread only, that both the body and blood of Christ are present in the one kind.
Common practice is to receive the elements standing or kneeling at the altar or at stations.
The ELCA resource, “Declaration on the Way: Church, Ministry, and Eucharist” says of the presence of Christ,
Lutherans and Catholics agree that in the sacrament of the Lord’s supper. Jesus Christ himself is present: He is present truly, Substantially, as a person. and he is present in his entirety as Son of God and a human being.
Catholics conceive of this presence of Christ as being brought about through the transformation of the original substances or central realities of the eucharistic bread and wine into the substance or reality of the divinized body and blood of Christ
by what Thomas Aquinas and the Council of Trent refer to as “transubstantiation.”‘ Lutherans traditionally affirm that Christ is truly present “in, with, and under” the bread and wine, but do not usually speak of a transformation of the elements
Most ELCA congregations practice open communion. Some may limit communion to baptized individuals, but many do not. Some may require the individual claim to be a Christian, but others don’t require this either.
The 66 books of the Old and New Testament make up the ELCA’s Bible, but the ELCA’s revised common lectionary does refer to the acopcryphal or deuterocanonical books in some readings.
As we have already discussed, the ELCA’s view on scripture is not one of inerrancy, and use of the historical-critical method is all but a given. The 2014 Pew Research Center’s Religious Landscape Survey showed that among members of the ELCA polled, 20% say the Bible is the word of God and should be taken literally, 42% said it is the word of God, but not everything should be taken literally, and 29% said it is not the word of God.
The 2014 Pew Research Center’s Religious Landscape Survey showed that among members of the ELCA polled, 66% affirmed human evolution and 30% said humans always existed in their present form.
An article on the ELCA website says,
The ELCA has not officially taken a position about evolution. The ELCA teaches that the scriptures witness that all of life is a gift of God. However, the scriptures do not say, for example, how God’s creating word, “Let there be…,” brings creatures into being.
An article hosted on the ELCA website by David Rhoads says,
Also, from a modern scientific point of view, we are kin to other creatures of nature, sharing commonalities of mind and body, DNA, and the environment. Humans are mammals, higher primates, and more. We have evolved with all plants and animals. We are embedded in Earth and its systems. This is what we know of God’s incredible creation in our time. And it is consistent with what the Bible has told us about the understanding that the ancients had about the relationship of humans to Earth.
Over 2,400 ELCA leaders signed “The Clergy Letter – from American Christian clergy: An Open Letter Concerning Religion and Science”, a pro-evolution statement that says in part,
…the overwhelming majority (of Christians) do not read the Bible literally, as they would a science textbook. Many of the beloved stories found in the Bible – the Creation, Adam and Eve, Noah and the ark – convey timeless truths about God, human beings, and the proper relationship between Creator and creation expressed in the only form capable of transmitting these truths from generation to generation. Religious truth is of a different order from scientific truth.
ELCA articles and documents affirm a belief in original sin.
What about the ELCA’s beliefs on salvation? There is a diversity of beliefs.
Michael Stolzfus in the Journal of Lutheran Ethics writes,
On the matter of salvation, everything depends on God. To ask why some people are saved and others damned is to display the pride so characteristic of humanity’s sinful condition, the unwillingness to let God be God.
Jen Krausz, writing for the ELCA Faith Lens Blog on the story of Jesus and Nicodemus in John chapter 3 says,
In these verses, Jesus explains to Nicodemus that everyone who wants to see God’s kingdom has to be born again. The word “again” can also be translated “from above.” This is a spiritual birth, the beginning of a relationship with God through Christ that is meant to develop throughout our lives. It’s not some kind of one-time decision for Christ, after which we can elevate ourselves above all the “non-believers.” Like every label, it’s been twisted, sometimes by the media and sometimes by those who call themselves “born again.”
The ELCA’s living Lutheran website article “by the Light of Grace”, written by Timothy Wengert, is very informative on the views of some in the ELCA on salvation, heaven and hell. Wengert embeds several key quotes in the article, which emphasize life now over the question of the afterlife:
“Since God is not a place, and the absence of God is also not a place, we can help people focus on their relationship with the triune God and their lives now, rather than focus on fears and the question ‘Where will I go when I die?’ ” — Roger Willer, ELCA director for theological ethics and ELCA churchwide liaison for faith and science
“I don’t hear people being concerned about getting to heaven or going to hell—someday. I hear people concerned about how their faith is making a difference in their daily lives and the lives of their neighbors.”
—Tracie Bartholomew, bishop of the New Jersey Synod
“The biblical writers seem far less interested in what might happen to us after death and far more interested confessing God’s presence in our lives right now, an abiding presence that will accompany us throughout all of this life and into the one to come.”
— David Lose, a pastor of Mount Olivet Lutheran Church, Minneapolis
Wengert himself closes out the article as follows:
We might better say about heaven and hell that, yes, they exist, but that whether they are full or empty is up to God, not us, which is why we both confess in the creed that Jesus (not human beings) will “come to judge the living and the dead,” and sing with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, “Goodness is stronger than evil” (ELW, 721).
Meanwhile, leaving the judging where it belongs, in God’s hands, we wait. And yet, at the same time, these remarkable pictures of life after death in the Bible provide exactly the comfort for us that Jesus intended: “Today, you will be with me in Paradise.” On the basis of that promise, we, too, can desire to depart and be with Christ, while at the same time praying with the early church, “Maranatha—Come, Lord Jesus!”
What about the views in the ELCA as it relates to the doctrines of grace, or the five points of calvinism? It’s safe to say that you aren’t going to find many ELCA churches where anyone will bring up things like Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, et cetera, whether to affirm or condemn them. Historically, Lutherans accept Total Depravity, and reject the other four points of TULIP. We discuss that in more detail in the video on the Confessional Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, here on the Ready to Harvest channel.
The ELCA does not teach entire sanctification.
The charismatic movement did touch the ELCA. Many ELCA members participated in the conferences and work done through the International Lutheran Renewal Center, an organization that promoted Charismatic theology and experience in Lutheranism. In 2014, the organization closed down, though the Canadian branch continues. Their website states,
The charismatic renewal was a gift from God to the church. All of us benefitted from it in one way or another. Its time has passed. Much of what was controversial in the movement is now accepted as the norm. But in some ways the crisis has worsened. Apostasy is rampant. The need for a personal relationship with Jesus has never been greater.
There are those in the ELCA who hold to charismatic theology in one form or another, but most would be either opposed to it or not consider it relevant.
There is very little to be found in ELCA literature on the topic of end times, or Eschatology. You would likely be hard-pressed to find an ELCA minister who would take the eschatological passages in the Major Prophets or Revelation as literal, like would be found in some forms of fundamentalism. The assumed position is amillennial if by default, because nobody is talking about a millennium.
Rick Barger writes in Living Lutheran,
Our hope in the promised eschaton takes seriously —but not always literally—the amazing images offered by the biblical poets. […]Despite the claims of the popular “left behind” genre of theology, God does not pluck a select group of people from the earth, abscond with them to another place and abandon the world. Rather, God comes and dwells with us, swallowing up death forever and bringing joy without end. In the meantime—a period in which we experience God’s promised future “already but not yet fully”—we are to live as if God’s reign were finally established.
The ELCA is mostly opposed to Christian Zionism. A decent amount of space has been dedicated in the Journal of Lutheran Ethics over the years to discussing the matter. Also, ELCA Global Mission Continental Desk Director for Europe and the Middle East, Reverend Robert Smith, writes the following:
We can boldly name Christian Zionism as a theology of glory that anticipates the destruction of all persons not adhering to its ideology. In it there is no hope for reconciliation or the redemption of this world—only escape from it while it is cleansed through the unleashing of evil and its eventual cleansing by a returned Warrior Christ. It is not a vision of hope, but a vision of injustice; it is a threat. I believe that we have something vital to say as Lutherans, both in response to the challenge of Christian Zionism, and also in the larger sphere of North American religiosity.
While there are still some in the ELCA who view homosexuality as sinful, this is not a position of the denomination.
In September 2003, the Task Force for ELCA Studies on Sexuality presented the report, “Journey Together Faithfully, Part Two: The Church and Homosexuality” and a companion document, “BACKGROUND ESSAY on BIBLICAL TEXTS for Journey Together Faithfully, Part Two: The Church and Homosexuality.” The following is from the concluding statements of the latter document:
As far as we can tell, the biblical writers knew nothing about “homosexuality” as a sexual orientation. The concepts of “homosexuality,” “homosexual,” “heterosexuality,” and “heterosexual” are modern, first articulated in the latter part of the nineteenth century. As strange as it may sound, it can be said that the Bible teaches nothing concerning homosexuality.
2. Having said that, however, the Bible does have
things to say about sexual relationships between men
and women and between persons of the same gender.
In regard to the latter, the “fault line” between interpreters is a narrow one, but it is very real. On the one hand, there are interpreters who—on reading the texts with care—conclude that, even if the passages in
Genesis 19:1–11 and Judges 19:16–30 are set aside
(or at least placed on the periphery), the remaining passages speak clearly of same-gender sexual relationships as inherently prohibited. One need not narrow the matter down to any particular kind or kinds of same-gender sexual relationships. The relationships are themselves “against nature” and contrary to the will of God expressed in creation from the beginning. Other interpreters—on reading the texts with care also—conclude, however, that the same passages pose challenges. Those in Leviticus seem to be the clearest at the purely descriptive level, but as the discussion above has shown, some interpreters question their relevance beyond their time and place. There is a broad consensus among interpreters that the term arsenokoitai (1 Corinthians 6:9; 1 Timothy 1:10), used by Paul and by the author of the Pastorals, is based on the two texts in Leviticus, but that would not necessarily mean that the Leviticus passages are picked up as normative for Christians in the New Testament. It is possible that whoever coined the term (Paul or a predecessor) used it in a general way to refer to a specific type of samegender activity that was highly visible and repugnant in his own time. In the final analysis, “the etymology of a word is its history, not its meaning.”
3.The difference between interpreters should not be understood as a conflict between those who seek to be “true to Scripture” and those who seek to “twist the Bible” to their own liking. The disagreements are genuine. Nor is one approach intrinsically more “conservative” and the other more “liberal.”
In 2009, the Churchwide assembly voted in a 559-451 vote to “open the ministry of the church to gay and lesbian pastors and other professional workers living in committed relationships.”
The same assembly adopted the 48-page document “A Social Statement on Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust.” After describing marriage between a man and woman, the statement goes on to say,
Recognizing that this conclusion differs from the historic Christian tradition and the Lutheran Confessions, some people, though not all, in this church and within the larger Christian community, conclude that marriage is also the appropriate term to use in describing similar benefits, protection, and support for same-gender couples entering into lifelong, monogamous relationships.
The statement also says,
…this church opposes non-monogamous, promiscuous, or casual sexual relationships of any kind. Indulging immediate desires for satisfaction, sexual or otherwise, is to “gratify the desires of the Á esh” (Galatians 5:16–19). Such transient encounters do not allow for trust in the relationship to create the context for trust in sexual intimacy.
Despite that statement, some in the ELCA don’t hold that viewpoint, such as ELCA Bishop Leila Ortiz, who has spoken positively and affirming of polyamory.
In 2013, the first openly gay bishop was ordained in the ELCA, And in 2015, the first ordination of a transgender individual through the regular ordination process took place when Asher O’Callaghan was ordained at House for All Sinners and Saints, the church pastored at the time by well known ELCA pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber.
In the decade since the ELCA voted to allow openly Gay and Lesbian ordained ministers, many churches left over the issue. In the largest such exodus, the North American Lutheran Church, or NALC, was formed in 2010, with one of their doctrinal positions being disapproval of same-sex sexual relationships. There are now 424 churches and 142,000 members in the NALC.
Today, the ELCA on the whole is open to the Gay community. Banners on the denominations website display the LGBT flag The Lutheran Coalition for Renewal, a organization representing confessional Lutheranism and traditional viewpoints on human sexuality in recent years has been denied from having booths at denomination-wide ELCA assemblies.
On June 24, 2020, ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton said in a video honoring pride month, “We celebrate all year round for the many gifts and the ways that this church and this country have been enriched by the gifts of LGBTQIA+ people. Our congregations are stronger. Our communities are more vibrant. There’s still more work to be done and we will do it.”
In the ELCA, divorce and remarriage are not covered in church documents, though some of the bodies that later merged in to the ELCA addressed it. It may be said generally that a person getting divorced or remarried in the ELCA is not a matter of discipline, and that the church would be permissive of it.
In 1990, the ELCA produced a document called “Vision and Expectations”, a document on how clergy in the ELCA were to behave. It was modified a few times over the years. In March 2020, the ELCA voted to remove the document from use altogether. One of the reasons given was that “Vision and Expectations has been misused as a juridical document and continues to be a source of great pain for many.”
One of the things covered in Vision and Expectations was divorce. The document said,
An ordained minister who is married is expected to keep his or her marriage inviolate until death, to cultivate love and respect for her or his spouse and to seek marital counseling when it is needed. It is recognized that due to human sin and brokenness, in some cases the marital relationship may have to be dissolved. Should an ordained minister and spouse separate or seek to divorce, the counsel and guidance of the synodical bishop is to be sought. Similarly, should an ordained minister decide to marry following a divorce, the counsel and guidance of the synodical bishop is to be sought.
It was also stated,
“It is in marriage that the highest degrees of physical intimacy are matched with and protected by the highest levels of binding commitment, including legal protection. It is in marriage that public promises of lifetime commitment can create the foundation for trust, intimacy and safety.” Single ordained ministers are expected to live a chaste life, holy in body and spirit, honoring the single life and working for the good of all. A married ordained minister is expected to live in fidelity to his or her spouse, giving expression to sexual intimacy within a marriage relationship that is mutual, chaste and faithful.
Today, views on sexuality by clergy can vary to a great degree. The church is no longer in a place where any position on human sexuality would lead to discipline.
Listen to the following clip from ELCA minster Nadia-Bolz Weber on the podcast “a tiny revolution”.
[podcast clip – watch video to hear what Bolz-Weber said]
On abortion, in 1991, the ELCA made a social statement on abortion, which is still used today. The statement says, in part,
Induced abortion, the act of intentionally terminating a developing life in the womb, is one of the issues about which members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America have serious differences. These differences are also found within society.
The statement also says,
Because we believe that God is the creator of life, the number of induced abortions is a source of deep concern to this church. We mourn the loss of life that God has created. The strong Christian presumption is to preserve and protect life. Abortion ought to be an option only of last resort. Therefore, as a church we seek to reduce the need to turn to abortion as the answer to unintended pregnancies.
Later in the statement it is said,
This church recognizes that there can be sound reasons for ending a pregnancy through induced abortion.
Some of those reasons listed are rape, incest, threat to the woman’s life, or extreme fetal abnormality. The statement also says,
This church opposes ending intrauterine life when a fetus is developed enough to live outside a uterus with the aid of reasonable and necessary technology.
On the legality of abortion, it is said in the statement,
What is legal is not necessarily moral, and what is moral should not necessarily be enacted into law […]Members of this church hold different opinions about the role and extent of public law and regulation in relation to abortion. The spectrum of disagreement ranges from those who believe all abortions should be prohibited by law, except to save the life of the mother, to those who oppose any law seeking to regulate abortion, except to protect the health and safety of the woman. […]The position of this church is that government has a legitimate role in regulating abortion.
[…]Because of our conviction that both the life of the woman and the life in her womb must be respected by law, this church opposes:
· the total lack of regulation of abortion;
· legislation that would outlaw abortion in all circumstances;
· laws that prevent access to information about all options available to women faced with unintended pregnancies;
· laws that deny access to safe and affordable services for morally justifiable abortions;
· mandatory or coerced abortion or sterilization;
· laws that prevent couples from practicing contraception;
· laws that are primarily intended to harass those contemplating or deciding for an abortion.
The 2014 Pew Research Center Religious Landscape Study found that 65% of ELCA members polled were in favor of abortion being legal in all or most cases and 32% believed it should be illegal in all or most cases.
ELCA churches can vary in worship style. The ELCA document “How is worship traditional? How is Worship Contemporary?” offers the following guidance:
Much debate and conflict has affected the church when it comes to what changes in worship and what stays the same. This has been true especially in the so-called “worship wars.” The two camps have been given the unfortunate labels “traditional” and “contemporary.” On the positive side, such “wars” have happened because the church, as a whole, genuinely cares about its worship. We often disagree most fiercely over things that matter the most to us.
Some assemblies will continue to worship with predominately one style at one service and another style at another service. Sometimes the arrangement is very practical in nature; it might be easier to ask musical leaders to participate in one service on a weekend rather than two or more. Yet one must always consider how the entire assembly is exploring the richness of multiple musical expressions.
• Music from all styles can be welcome in worship. What is central is that the musical style serves the gospel. It is not the music, finally, that is central; the
music points to the assembly gathered around Word, Bath and Table.
• The voice of the assembly is the primary instrument in worship. Both organs and praise bands can obscure this; both can support and uplift it.
• Encourage participation rather than performance. Musical Leadership serves the assembly when it strives for participation by the whole assembly.
• Involve all ages in all kinds of music. Refrain from making assumptions about musical preference based upon age.
While it cannot be said that the ELCA is opposed to alcohol, as it has not made any statements prohibiting its use, and the Lutheran tradition has historically been one where drinking alcohol has been accepted, The ELCA does have a practice of screening investments it makes and has made a policy on investment in production or marketing of alcohol. The document “Alcohol – Social Criteria Investment Screen” says,
Given its inordinate effect on life expectancy, alcohol abuse represents a public health issue. Historically, the ELCA’s predecessors have expressed concern about the widespread misuse of alcohol.
[…]The ELCA shall not knowingly make any investment in firms which are involved in (e.g. 10% or more of revenue is derived from) the production or marketing of alcohol products for human consumption.
On the whole, the ELCA does not teach a necessary or required tithe, that is, giving 10% of ones income to the church. However, there are those in the church that do tithe. Margaret Payne, writing in the Journal of Lutheran Ethics in 2012 said,
Slavish adherence to any legalistic requirement can fool us into thinking that we are earning holiness and blind us to the reality that our law-keeping might actually stand in the way of spiritual growth. And yet the tithe as a spiritual discipline is vastly underappreciated by modern Lutherans. I believe that if we boldly reintroduce the challenge to tithe, personally embrace the conviction of its worth, and then do it, we will provide abundant resources for God’s work in the world as well as invigorate our experience of life in Christ.
In 2016, the ELCA voted 751-162 to call on the U.S. government to end all financial and military aid to Israel until Israel “compl[ies] with internationally recognized human rights standards”, freezes settlement construction on occupied Palestinian land, and for the church to adopt an investment screen to avoid profiting from Israel’s Occupation.
Let’s now discuss the church polity of the ELCA. First, let me clarify that many completely independent Lutheran denominations call themselves “synods”, such as the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod, Evangelical Lutheran Synod, or Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod. Despite this, those bodies are totally independent denominations, just like the ELCA is. The ELCA uses the word “Synod” to refer to a district or geographical area. There are 65 synods in the ELCA.
Each synod has a governing bishop. Churches may call their own ministers with the help of the synod, and may leave the ELCA altogether, taking property with them, if the church votes to do so by a two-thirds majority.
Every three years, the ELCA holds a church-wide assembly. This is the primary decision-making body, and consists of voting members, both ordained and laypersons from the congregations.
The church holds to belief in the priesthood of all believers, although some within the ELCA were worried that this would be compromised when the ELCA entered full communion with the Episcopal Church, and consented to following apostolic succession practices in installing bishops.
Deacons are ordained, both men and women. This is not necessarily a transitional role to another office. An ordained minister is typically called by the title of pastor. Most pastors serve in local congregations.
Bishops serve as senior pastors over synods in six-year terms, which may be renewed. The idea of a bishop no longer being a bishop clashed with the apostolic succession view of Anglicanism at the full-communion agreement. This was resolved in the document used to certify the agreement, titled “Called to common mission”, which says on the matter,
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America agrees that all its bishops chosen after both churches pass this Concordat will be installed for pastoral service of the Gospel with this church’s intention to enter the ministry of the historic episcopate. They will be understood by The Episcopal Church as having been ordained into this ministry, even though tenure in office of the Presiding Bishop and synodical bishops may be terminated by retirement, resignation, disciplinary action, or conclusion of term. Any subsequent installation of a bishop so installed includes a prayer for the gift of the Holy Spirit without the laying-on-of-hands. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America further agrees to revise its rite for the “Installation of a Bishop” to reflect this understanding.
Both men and women may serve in any role within the church, including pastors, deacons, and as bishops. The current presiding bishop of the ELCA is a woman.
Clergy may be married, at all levels, to another person of any gender.
The ELCA is in full communion with several other US denominations, allowing exchange of ministers, and full recognition of those church bodies and their sacraments as legitimate. The denominations are the Presbyterian Church (USA), Reformed Church in America, United Church of Christ, The Episcopal Church, The Moravian Church, and the United Methodist Church.
The ELCA is part of the Lutheran World Federation, National Council of Churches, and World Council of Churches.
This chart from the ELCA shows membership trends from 1988, when the denomination was formed, through 2015. You can notice an increase in the decline when many churches broke off in 2009 over the issue of homosexuality.
According to this chart from the ELCA, In 1990, there were 65 ELCA “megachurches” defined by having 801 or more members. That increased to 74 by 1995, then 81 in 2000 and still at 80 in 2005. But in 2010 there were only 56 and only 41 in 2017.
The same chart shows the number of churches with 351 to 800 members declining from 717 to 241, and churches with 151-350 members going from over 2,900 to only 1,200. Meanwhile, in 1990 only 1,957 churches were in the “Small” category, with only 1-50 members. The 2017 numbers show 3,676 churches in that category.
This Chart shows the year of origin for ELCA churches. The vast majority are older than the denomination itself, originating from previous Lutheran church bodies. A large number predate the 1930s, and there was a boom of church plants from around 1950 through 1970. Recent decades are seeing very few lasting churches.
The continuing decline in ELCA membership is similar to the decline in membership with its full communion partners, which is discussed on my channel in the video “The decline of mainline churches in America.” The next question to ask would be, what will these churches do about it? I think it is very likely that in the decade of the 2020s, we will begin to see serious consideration between many of these denominations into creating a new United Church body, merging together to combine their numbers.