A little over a week ago, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) made big news when, during their Church-Wide Assembly (CWA), they voted to allow men and women in "same gender committed relationships" to serve as pastors. The media reaction was along the lines of, "It's Okay to be Gay in the ELCA." That's true. It is okay, according to their recent decisions. But, what many people missed is that it is also okay not to be gay in the ELCA. According to the ELCA's newly adopted position(s), individual congregations have the right to decide whether or not they wish to be served by a homosexual pastor. If a congregation believes homosexuality is sinful and contradictory to God's Word, it can refuse to call a homosexual pastor.
So, what the ELCA really decided was to allow those congregations that choose to ignore God's clear Word regarding homosexuality the right to do so. The result is that ELCA Congregation A can call a gay pastor, while ELCA Congregation B can refuse to call a gay pastor, and yet, somehow, these congregations can remain in full fellowship with one another, even while holding contradictory positions on what Scripture teaches on this issue. How can this be? "Bound conscience" is the key.
In order to sell the idea that congregations can live together in the same fellowship while holding contradictory views on what Scripture teaches about this or that issue, the ELCA theologians went to work on developing a new and improved doctrinal definition of "bound conscience." Cutting through all the sophistry and eloquent poetic waxing, essentially what this new and improved doctrinal definition of "bound conscience" teaches is that individuals and congregations within the ELCA must respect the positions of others within their fellowship, even if those positions contradict one another according to God's Word. Thus, in the example above, ELCA Congregation B, which believes God's Word condemns homosexuality, must respect, and live in peace with, ELCA Congregation A, which believes homosexuality is okey-dokey. Neither congregation can infringe upon the other's "bound conscience."
This is nothing but the schizophrenia of post-modern thought applied to theology. Everyone gets to define truth as they see fit, and this person's truth is no truer than that person's truth, even if the truths of both are completely contradictory. Actually, in this case, we should say that everyone gets to interpret the Bible according to their own sinful human reason (and personal agenda) and whatever personal truths result are, well, "true," and must be respected by those whose personal truths are contradictory.
Of course, those in the ELCA would remind us that there is a limit to all this post-modern, "bound conscience" stuff. For example, they would be quick to point out that some doctrines of the Bible are non-negotiable, like the doctrine of the Trinity - All member congregations must confess belief in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But, what if I don't believe in the Holy Trinity? How will they be able to make me go against my "bound conscience" on this doctrine, when other doctrines are protected under the "bound conscience" rule? Well, that's easy. It all depends upon what is decided by the majority of the church-at-large when they gather together for their CWA. If your "bound conscience" tells you that the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is false, you should go to work at getting this issue brought before a future CWA, and maybe, just maybe, it will be decided that you are free to reject belief in the Holy Trinity and that all others must respect your "bound conscience" on this doctrine.
Anyway, all of this got me to thinking about my own church body, the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod (LCMS). I wonder how we can speak out against the ELCA's recent decisions, based upon their new and improved doctrine of "bound conscience," when we already follow this same faulty methodology, even if we haven't sophisticated it to the point the ELCA has.
At our 2004 Synodical Convention, the delegates decided to pass a resolution which allows for congregations to employ women in various offices and roles which were formerly forbidden. Women may now serve as elders, lectors, communion assistants, presidents (or chairpersons) of congregations, and in any other lay role or service, so long as that role or service doesn't infringe upon the pastoral office. But - and here's the point, so pay attention! - But, congregations may choose NOT to employ women in these offices and roles if they believe doing so violates God's Word. Thus, LCMS Congregation A may have female elders, lectors, communion assistants, presidents, and so on, while LCMS Congregation B may refuse these offices and roles to women. Each congregation is permitted to determine whether or not women serving in these offices and roles is Scriptural, and all congregations are expected to respect, and live in peace with, one another, even though they hold contradictory views on this issue.
So, my question is: What's the difference between the methodology of the ELCA and that of the LCMS? It seems to me that the only difference is that the ELCA's boundaries are currently a lot wider than the LCMS' boundaries. But, the methodology is the same, isn't it? And, consider this: Both church bodies determine how wide their boundaries will be by majority vote at their national convention/assembly. One wonders where the LCMS will be twenty years from now if it continues to employ this methodology. There are some who believe that women's ordination will never make it into the LCMS, but I wonder how we'll be able to stop it. After all, we already allow contradictory doctrinal positions to exist among us. What, really, is to prevent us from passing a resolution which states that it's okay for congregations to choose to call women as pastors, while, at the same time, congregations may choose not to call women as pastors if they believe doing so violates Scripture? Maybe I'm paranoid, but I don't see how we can prevent this (or other things) from happening unless we rid ourselves of this faulty methodology, which allows congregations to hold contradictory doctrinal positions. So long as we follow the slippery slope of this "agree to disagree" mentality, there's no telling how far we will slide. When the argument is focused on how narrow or wide our boundaries should be, instead of on what God's Word teaches, I believe we have truly lost our way.
With all that said, the LCMS speaking out against the ELCA's recent decisions is, I believe, an exercise of the pot calling the kettle black. Our rebuke is rather bite-less when the veil is lifted and it is revealed that we follow the same methodology, albeit on a much smaller scale (at least, for now).