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Religion Library: Lutheran

Principles of Moral Thought and Action

Written by: Ted Vial

For the ELCA, the Book of Concord is an important expression of Lutheran belief, but not binding in its entirety on modern Lutherans.The LCMS regards the Book of Concord as true and binding.This is in part a debate about the meaning of the Reformation.Did Luther's reform get it right once and for all, or did Luther initiate a dynamic process of continuous reform?If the latter, to be true to Luther one should not bind oneself to a 16th-century creed.The ELCA ordains women, and has committed itself to the eradication of sexism and gender inequality in the church.

While the LCMS is on the whole more conservative than the ELCA, like all mainline denominations the ELCA also has tensions within between liberals and conservatives.More conservative ELCA Lutherans argue that the Bible is literally true and inerrant, and that if certain passages condemn homosexuality, for instance, or forbid women from speaking in church, then that is divine law to be followed no matter how our own contemporary social context changes.These Lutherans tend to be social conservatives.

More liberal Lutherans argue that biblical authors mirrored the social mores of their own times, and so not all specific rules applied to us. (They point to the patriarchs' practice of polygamy in the Hebrew scriptures, or the forbidding of charging interest, to name just two examples, as social practices that have not transcended their own historical context.)What do transcend specific social contexts are the underlying principles of compassion and justice that take a very different form in our own context. (So, for example, contemporary justice seems to require the equal treatment of women and men, and so liberal churches have begun to ordain women as preachers and bishops.)

Conservatives have argued in response that to follow supposed underlying principles rather than specific written requirements allows one to read whatever behavior one desires into the Bible, thus building a human rather than a divine moral code.There is often more in common between conservative Lutherans and conservatives of other denominations (Catholic, Methodist, etc.) and between liberal Lutherans and liberals of other denominations then between conservatives and liberals of the same denomination.Divisions in Christianity tend to divide down liberal/conservative more than denomination lines today.

In the last decade there have been several shifts in the conservative/liberal split, and new issues that are difficult to fit into these categories, so that it is becoming more difficult to predict where specific Lutherans will come down on some issues.Some conservative churches have taken the lead in fighting poverty and AIDS in Africa and sex trafficking around the world, issues which in a previous generation might seem to fall into a more progressive social justice camp than what one might stereotypically assume about social conservatives.Conservative churches are often more integrated racially than liberal ones.Conservatives are split on global warming, some beginning to argue that the biblical command for humans to act as responsible stewards of the earth requires that we take action to ameliorate human causes.It is no longer clear if being "green" is liberal or conservative.


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