Friday, October 22, 2010

Bridging the Divide?

A generation ago, Protestantism could be roughly divided into two groups, theologically speaking:
  • Evangelicals. For evangelicals (who would rarely self-identify as "Protestant"), Christianity can be boiled down to the Bible and the Spirit-filled individual.  Everyone who accepts Jesus as Savior is filled with the Holy Spirit and is empowered to interpret the Bible according to its plain meaning and their own conscience. (You begin to see why there are so many varieties of Baptists and Pentecostals...)
  • Historic Protestants.  For historic Protestants, Christianity can be boiled down to the Bible and Spirit-filled tradition.  Everyone who accepts Jesus as Savior is filled with the Holy Spirit and is empowered to interpret the Bible within the boundaries of historic Christianity as expressed in the great creeds and catechisms of the Church (though the specific catechisms may vary by denomination). 
Like any generalization - especially of a complex thing like religion - there are exceptions to this classification.  But for the most part, this division held true, with ecumenical dialogue and cooperation mainly occurring within each group's respective circle of like-minded Christians.

Historic Protestants were generally part of the World Council of Churches and also members of their own "confessional family" like the Anglican Communion, Lutheran World Federation, World Methodist Council, and World Communion of Reformed Churches.  While some visible church unions did occur, historic Protestants tended to cooperate on social justice issues.

Evangelicals, who had rejected membership in the World Council of Churches, organized their own ecumenical confederations like the World Evangelical Alliance and Pentecostal World Fellowship - aimed not at visible church unions or social justice, but cooperation in missions and evangelism.

Now, however, I believe we are witnessing the blurring of these former lines of ecumenical cooperation.  This is the "realignment" of American religion around human sexuality that is erasing the middle ground that historic Protestants used to occupy in the United States.  For example, you now have Lutherans and Anglicans who identify more with evangelicals and Catholics than with fellow historic Protestants who happen to support the ordination of LGBT persons.  This realignment threatens to dismember the former unity over what it means to be "Anglican" or "Lutheran" in favor of a more individualistic interpretation of what "I think" the Bible teaches about human sexuality.

Still, there are voices that are reaching across this new divide as well as the old one.  It just so happens that two of the most compelling ecumenical Protestant voices are Lutherans.

According to an article by the Christian Post, Bishop Mark S. Hanson, president of the Lutheran World Federation and presiding bishop of the ELCA, recently "encouraged Christians to begin the conversation by identifying what they have in common – such as 'we are all sexual beings' – rather than from a position of judgment.  He expressed concerns over emerging conversations in some Lutheran churches about what it means to be truly Lutheran.  'I sense that there is a growing desire on the part of some to look at our rich, shared confessions not as a reason for conversation about how we can live in that confessional tradition, but rather as a way of determining who is truly Lutheran and who is not,' he said, noting that he desires to see full unity among Lutherans themselves. 'That would be an unfortunate breakdown.'  Hanson called for not only affirming the theological and confessional foundations they share as Lutherans, but also for renewing a commitment 'that to be Lutheran is to be both evangelical and ecumenical.'"

Meanwhile, the Rev. Olav Fykse Tveit, a Norwegian Lutheran and general secretary of the World Council of Churches, has concentrated much of his efforts on reaching out to evangelicals and Pentecostals.  Rev. Tveit gave the first ever addresses by a WCC general secretary at the assemblies of the World Pentecostal Alliance and the ongoing Lausanne Congress for World Evangelization in Cape Town, which, according to the Christian Century, originated as "an evangelical counterpart to the ecumenical WCC."
In his address on opening day, Rev. Tveit stressed the need for evangelicals and historic Protestants to learn from each other in order to participate together in God's mission.  "We are called to be one, to be reconciled, so that the world may believe that God reconciles the world to himself in Christ."  "Hinting at a history of wariness be­tween evangelicals, Pentecostals, and the World Council of Churches, he said that 'the distance between Lausanne and Geneva is not very far, and it should not be. Let us keep the road open and the dialogue going.'"  

What do you think?  Can the old divide between evangelicals and historic Protestants be bridged?  Can the unfolding divide over human sexuality be prevented?

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Lutherans and the Vanishing Middle Ground

Lutherans in the Middle
 Lutheranism has long represented the middle ground in American Christianity.  Although initially viewed as outside the mainstream of English-speaking Protestantism, German and Scandinavian Lutherans came to join the ranks of other mainline Protestants - especially in the Midwest or the "American Heartland."

Today, when people think of Lutherans, many think of Garrison Keillor's "Prairie Home Companion" and the bland residents of the fictional Lake Wobegon, "the little town that time forgot and the decades cannot improve ... where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average."  Like their Methodist and Presbyterian cousins, Lutherans are not likely to wear their religion on their sleeves and therefore lack the chutzpah of the megachurches and Pentecostals on their right or the United Church of Christ and Episcopalians on their left.  In other words, Lutherans are "nice" but not especially interesting - which has positioned them solidly in the middle ground of American religious life.

Perhaps because of their place in the middle, the Lutherans have done the best job of any Protestant denomination at working for Christian unity.  When efforts at creating a visibly united Protestant church in America fell through in the late twentieth century, the Lutherans forged ahead with talks aimed at "full communion" - a common confession of the Christian faith and mutual recognition of baptism, ministry, and sharing of the Lord's Supper.   Remarkably, the largest Lutheran church in the country with 4.7 million members, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), has reached full communion agreements with the following churches:
  • Three Reformed churches in 1997: the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Church of Christ (formerly the Congregationalists or the "Puritans"), and the Reformed Church in America (Dutch Reformed roots)
  • The Episcopal Church and the Moravian Church (German Pietists) in 1999
  • The United Methodist Church in 2009

The Vanishing Middle?
Then, last August, the Lutherans (ELCA) shocked Christians around the world at their general assembly by voting to ordain openly gay people in "life-long, monogamous relationships."  What's more, this was not a frivolous, emotional decision - but a conclusion reached after eight years of study and deliberation over the theological issues surrounding human sexuality (a very "Lutheran" way to go about things).  Suddenly, the plain old "Lake Wobegon" Lutherans were receiving international attention as the largest church in the world to officially approve the ordination of homosexuals.

Richard Mouw, president of the evangelical Fuller Theological Seminary, noted that the ELCA's decision was especially "jarring and significant" because "it is viewed as one of the more Reformation-rooted, broadly orthodox denominations and takes its theology's a huge, huge departure for a church like that."  He went on to predict a "new ecumenical dialogue on the right" uniting conservatives opposed to homosexual ordination from across denominations.

Meanwhile, ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson issued a sincere Rowan Williams-esque plea for unity and conversation, stressing that conservative churches would not be compelled to hire gay clergy and imploring Lutherans not to "walk away" from one another.  But those who support the ELCA's decision like Barbara Wheeler, former president of Auburn Theological Seminary, were quick to point out that "if gays and lesbians could stick it out in mainline churches whose official teachings were dismissive of their faithfulness and even their personhood, so can disappointed of the mainline's strengths is to be a 'big tent.'"

It appears, however, that the tent may have stretched to the breaking point.  Only months after the ELCA's decision, conservative members announced a "reconfiguration of North American Lutheranism" and they were splitting to form their own new denomination - the North American Lutheran Church.  "We are not leaving the ELCA.  The ELCA has left us," said one member of the committee to form the new church.  Interestingly, the breakaway ELCA Lutherans decided not to merge with other conservative denominations like the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod or the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod because those churches do not ordain women. 

Now that two major "mainstream" Protestant churches have split, it seems clear that we are witnessing Christian unity in America being "reconfigured" between those who are in favor of ordination of homosexuals and those who are not.  The middle ground that the Lutherans and other mainline Protestants used to occupy in American religious life has vanished.  In a new and increasingly polarized Protestantism, what will Christian unity look like?

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Can a Protestant wear a Crucifix?

The cross is the central symbol of Christianity around the world.  And yet, we Christians are divided on what exactly our crosses look like.  Some, like the Orthodox, have extra lines running through the cross.  Many Reformed Christians favor the Celtic cross, with a circle running around the center of the cross section.  And I can always spot a United Methodist church when driving along the highway by their signature cross and flame.

But the most noticeable difference among Christians when it comes to the cross is whether or not it has the body of Jesus hanging on it.  For most people (at least in this country), the empty cross is Protestant.  The crucifix is Catholic.  Derek Kubilus, a Methodist minister in Ohio and a friend from divinity school, offers his own personal perspective on why Protestants can embrace the "Catholic" crucifix as an important way to "remember the body."

Ephesians 4:4- “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all.”

I can't remember one day in my life when my body did not feel pain. Having been born with an orthopedic problem in my foot, I've awakened every morning of my life with stiffness and pain shooting from my right ankle. Sometimes it gets better throughout the day; sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes my limp is barely noticeable; sometimes I have to walk with a cane just to keep from falling over. So even as a young child, I remember wondering why God would allow me, supposedly one of God's beloved children, to feel so much pain.

Now I've been a Methodist all my life, and I'm well aware that Methodists typically hang only empty crosses from their necks and the walls of their churches. Most people will tell you that it's because the empty cross is a symbol of the empty tomb, that it's a symbol that represents the resurrection of Christ, and not just his crucifixion. All that may very well be true, but I'm not sure it's the whole story.

There's something creepy and morbid about a crucifix isn't there? I mean, who would wear a piece of jewelery shaped like a body dying in agony? Who would hang a beat-up, bleeding man from their wall? What kind of sick person could take inspiration from such a gruesome scene?

Well...I do. Being someone who's body has been wracked with pain, I take comfort in remembering that Christ had a body. I wear a crucifix under my shirt and over my robe because it's important for me to remember that Christ didn't have a body that was above pain, but that his body was just as capable of hurting and bleeding as my own. The crucifix helps me remember that I'm connected to Christ not just through the “one Spirit” but also through my very body. The miracle of Christ, the miracle of God's incarnation in a human body is that the same God who is “above all” is also “in all and through all,” even my own weak, hurting body.

The crucifix also tells me that bodies matter to God, that things like hunger, homelessness, and disease are important to God. Seeing the body of Christ helps to remind me of the suffering bodies of those all around us in the Akron and Cuyahoga Falls communities: those whose bodies are cold because they aren't covered with proper clothes or shelter, those whose bodies are starved with hunger, those whose bodies are addicted to chemicals that are slowly destroying them. Seeing the body of Christ hanging there, suffering, draws me closer to all those who suffer and it encourages me to see Jesus in their struggles, for “that which you have done to the least of these, you have done unto me.”

Finally, the crucifix reminds me that the Church, the Body of Christ still on earth, is called to suffer. Living in our comfortable, wealthy society, it is perfectly acceptable for us to go through our whole lives and only work for the comfort ourselves and our individual families. But the suffering body hanging on the cross so close against my skin reminds me that I'm part of a community that has been called to “bear its cross,” a community which has been called to leave behind comfort, safety, and warm-fuzzy feelings for the sake of God's mission of salvation in the world. It helps me remember that that the world is fallen and that if we are to join Christ in his ministry to transform the world, then we must be willing to sacrifice something of ourselves.

So the next time you see my crucifix hanging from my neck, don't worry, I haven't become Roman Catholic. Just take a second to remember the Body and the suffering God it belongs to.