Three Lutheran churches on the life issue

Lutheran ethicist Robert Benne attended the March for Life, which occasioned some interesting reflections on how different Lutheran church bodies approach the abortion controversy.

The Missouri Synod had gathered several hundred with whom we marched. Lutherans for Life—an umbrella organization—provided an additional banner under which another couple hundred marched. However, a stunning realization came to me: I saw not one mainline Protestant banner or organized group. Of course, I could have missed them amid the immensity of the march, but it is safe to say they were not there in any significant mass. That was true for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which more and more resembles mainline liberal Protestantism.

The absence of any trace of the ELCA was no surprise to me. Though it had issued a moderately pro-life social statement in 1991, it has never acted on its statement. It had never produced pro-life literature, joined any pro-life organizations, encouraged local congregations to observe the annual pro-life Sunday (this past year on January 20, right before the march) , promoted participation in state or national marches, nor advocated for pro-life policies in any of its state or national advocacy offices. As far as the ELCA is concerned, there is dead silence on the matter. With that posture in place it is not hard to understand why so few from the ELCA participated in the march.

Moreover, its health insurance coverage allowed abortion to be covered without any conditions attached, a fact that brought forth some protest among pro-life ELCA pastors and laypersons and added to the general discontent with the ELCA.

Though bashful about pro-life issues, the ELCA speaks copiously on a host of issues, about which Christians of good will and intelligence generally disagree. Its pattern of support corresponds with the policies of the Democratic Party, but departs even from that liberal pattern on issues regarding Israel. It has a program called Peace Not Walls that outrageously lectures the Israelis on how they should defend themselves from suicide bombers. (Lutherans of all people should be quiet about these matters given their ambiguous history with the Jews.) Further, the ELCA’s Presiding Bishop Hanson joined other liberal Protestants in asking Congress to scrutinize Israel military practices and consider withholding military aid from them.

The Missouri Synod could not be more different. First, it rarely ventures into the public sphere as a church. Second, it wisely limits its public witness to two crucial issues: religious freedom and nascent life. Its most consistent public concern over the years has been the need to guard religious freedom. After all, its pioneers came to this country to escape the coerced union of Reformed and Lutheran congregations in Germany. Further, its schools were threatened by a Nativist movement—including the KKK—that attempted to shut down private schools. Only recently it has won (by a unanimous decision) a case before the Supreme Court (Hosanna vs. Tabor) that preserved the right to continue to hire and fire its parochial school teachers on the basis of its own religious convictions without interference from the government. Its President has also testified against the coercive provisions of Obamacare being applied to church-related social service organizations. This concern for the free exercise of religion also distinguishes it sharply from the ELCA, which has said nothing about these religious freedom issues either domestically or internationally.

Benne, who hails from the ELCA though I believe is involved with the more conservative breakaway group he talks about later, offers some explanations for the difference in the two churches’ stance, citing the ELCA’s quota system in church representation, which gives feminists a huge influence in official church actions.  He also cites some incorrect accounts of the Missouri Synod’s schism in the 1970s that “purged” the synod of liberals–political, as well as theological, he claims, though the issues were actually all theological.  He goes on to slam the doctrinal “narrowness” of the LCMS, complaining that though he was invited to speak at the pro-life conference sponsored by the LCMS, he couldn’t take communion.  He does, though, praise the synod’s approach to public square issues, focusing not on politics broadly but just on the issues of religious freedom and the pro-life cause.  From what he says about  that newly-formed denomination:

Enter the third church in the tale of three Lutheran bodies. The new North American Lutheran Church, whose Bishop and ecumenical officer were introduced at the Life Ministries Conference, is a church that hopes to avoid the revisionism of the ELCA—with its attendant biased witness in the public sphere—as well as the narrowness of the Missouri Synod in doctrinal matters. The NALC organized soon after the 2009 decisions of the ELCA to jettison traditional Christian sexual ethics. It is trying to be a centrist Lutheran church, perhaps the last hope for such a church in North America. Though it is building cordial relationships with the LCMS, there will be distinct limits as to how far they can proceed. But in the realm of public witness by the church and its laity and associations, the LCMS has it right. The NALC might well emulate its commitment to form its laity and witness publicly on two issues:  the protection of nascent life and the exercise of religious freedom. Those are two issues that ought to occupy any serious Christian church.

via The March for Life and the Tale of Three Lutheran Churches – Institute on Religion & Democracy (IRD).

Do you think concentrating on just those two issues is a good strategy? (As opposed to the ELCA, which comments on just about every political issue, except those two?)  Are there other issues that might also deserve a strong activist stand from the church?

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • SKPeterson

    As a former member of the ELCA, I actually appreciated the “copious” social statements the national office produced. I could reliably use those statements to gauge the soundness of my own views on those various issues. If I was 180 degrees diametrically opposed to what the social statement said, I could be reliably assured that my position was probably the correct one. As ELCA social statements were (and presumably still are) a heady mix of idolatry of the state, economic ignorance, and dereliction of coherent thought simmered in a thin pietist broth, they are extraordinarily useful in identification of what a proper course of action should be; if the ELCA says Position A is the best policy, you can be reliably sure that it is definitely not Position A. This is most certainly true.

  • http://theoldadam.com/ theoldadam

    Right, SK.

    The ELCA has devolved i nto the Democratic party at prayer, along with most mainline denominations.

    BTW, unions are a good gauge for knowing what is correct and good ion the political realm. Do and vote for the opposite.

  • Pete

    Great observation, SK – as is typical. Of your observations, I mean. For a long time I’ve felt the same way about the ACLU although about once every ten years or so they get one right.

  • James Sarver

    It is interesting that the author assumes that LCMS “has it right” regarding public witness in spite of doctrinal “narrowness” rather than because of it. If this is the approach of the NALC they will become ELCA.2 in short order. Garbage in, garbage out.

  • Daniel Gorman

    Gene Veith “Do you think concentrating on just those two issues is a good strategy? (As opposed to the ELCA, which comments on just about every political issue, except those two?) Are there other issues that might also deserve a strong activist stand from the church?”

    Your questions are based on the false assumption that the LCMS is less political than the ELCA. That’s simply not true. In recent years, the LCMS has actively lobbied the government on a host of non-abortion and non-religious freedom issues. Here are but a few examples of LCMS political activism:

    1.LCMS Reporter; December 2010: “Lastly, we express our concern as citizens that a move by the government to essentially affirm homosexual behavior within the armed forces will endanger the morale or esprit de corps—the unit cohesion and the primary mission of the military, namely, to prosecute and win the war—of the men and women who serve and willingly place themselves in harm’s way on our behalf.”

    2. LCMS Reporter; October 2008: “The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod Denounces Connecticut Marriage Ruling. . .The state’s high court decision contravenes not only the Judeo-Christian values that have originated and defined the moral compass of this great nation, but also the laws of nature and the natural reproductive process.”

    3. LCMS Reporter; July 2006: “LCMS President Gerald B. Kieschnick and Rev. Matthew Harrison, executive director of LCMS World Relief/Human Care, say in their joint statement. ‘Meanwhile, in order to fulfill our Christian obligation,’ their statement continues, ‘we also request that the charitable act of providing assistance to undocumented aliens not otherwise engaged in illegal activity not be criminalized ipso facto.’”

    4. LCMS Reporter, January 2009: “Nations around the world have called for an end to the violence. The people of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod add their voices to this resounding chorus seeking an immediate bilateral ceasefire and a restoration of peace through mediation.”

    5. Mercy Forever; November 2012″ Please pray for all the Lutheran leaders from The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS), Lutheran World Relief (LWR), Baltimore, Md., and others from throughout the United States, Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania and Mali who are meeting with members of Congress today to encourage ongoing support for the fight to end malaria deaths in Africa by 2015; commit that fighting malaria will be a foreign policy priority; and support the Lutheran Malaria Initiative’s recommendation to provide at least $650 million in FY13 to fund U.S. bilateral malaria programs.”

    The LCMS presumes to tell the government how to fight wars, how to manage marriage contracts, what laws to enact, how to interpret the constitution, how to conduct foreign policy, etc. The real question you should be asking is “Why has the LCMS abandoned its own confession?”

    “Therefore the power of the Church and the civil power must not be confounded. The power of the Church has its own commission to teach the Gospel and to administer the Sacraments. Let it not break into the office of another; let it not transfer the kingdoms of this world; let it not abrogate the laws of civil rulers; let it not abolish lawful obedience; let it not interfere with judgments concerning civil ordinances or contracts; let it not prescribe laws to civil rulers concerning the form of the Commonwealth. As Christ says, John 18:36: My kingdom is not of this world; also Luke 12:14: Who made Me a judge or a divider over you? Paul also says, Phil. 3:20: Our citizenship is in heaven; 2 Cor. 10:4: The weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the casting down of imaginations.” Augsburg Confession, XXVIII

  • SKPeterson

    Daniel @ 5 – I suppose it depends on how narrow a definition you have of a narrow focus on religious freedom or life. I would say that item 1 is questionable. The esprit d’corps of the military is not an appropriate concern of the LCMS unless morale becomes a spiritual issue in which LCMS doctrine regarding the sinful nature of homosexual behavior is proscribed, thereby limiting the ability of LCMS pastors to provide spiritual care to members of the armed forces. In that case then, I would argue that the WELS policy regarding military chaplaincy is the way to go.

    Items 2 and 3 are religious freedom issues at heart. Item 4 is standard Christian witness to advocate for peace. Moreover, the missive was not directed toward the U.S. government, but a request that Hamas and Israel call a ceasefire. Item 5 is a toss up. LCMS is already supporting a malaria initiative, so do they really need to go to Congress? Probably not, but it does let Congress know what LCMS is doing, and hopefully, at least diminishes the probability of the LCMS and any US foreign aid programs would be working at cross purposes.

    So, Items 1 and 5. Probably best to leave out. Items 2 and 3 have direct religious freedom issues, and Item 4 is an entirely acceptable call for a cessation of hostilities, though it is so generic as to be mostly meaningless. Does it fall within the two categories defined by Benne? No. Is it inappropriate? No.

  • Trey

    @Daniel
    The Synod is not the same as the church. You are using them interchangeably with the confessions. The Synod is a man-made institution. Church is made by God’s Word.
    These statements are mainly concerns and prayers. They offer no political policy nor do the suggest the church rule the state.

  • CRB

    Can someone tell me what it is that the ELCA has in the Lord’s Supper, since they are in fellowship with many who deny the real presence of Christ?

  • sg

    The government must not interfere in religion.
    .
    Religion may interject itself into governance as far and as wide and as deep as it may.
    .
    Let’s not confuse the direction of the arrow.

  • Daniel Gorman

    SKPeterson@ 6: “Items 2 and 3 are religious freedom issues at heart.”

    What religious freedom issues? The LCMS did not raise a religious freedom objection to the ruling of Connecticut Supreme Court. What gives the LCMS the right to denounce a judgment of a power ordained of God? According to AC XXVIII, government makes judgments concerning civil ordinances and contracts not churches. Civil marriage is a legally binding contract not a sacrament of the church. As Christ teaches, “Render unto Caesar the things that be Caesar’s.”

    Since when was aiding and abetting of an ongoing criminal conspiracy a religious right? Does the church have a religion right to help criminals escape their punishment? According to AC XXVIII, civil rulers prescribe laws concerning the form of the commonwealth not churches.

    SKPeterson@6: “Item 4 is standard Christian witness to advocate for peace. Moreover, the missive was not directed toward the U.S. government, but a request that Hamas and Israel call a ceasefire.”

    Item 4 has nothing to do with abortion or religious freedom. It was the LCMS interfering in the foreign policy of the United States. The U.S. government decides whether or not the innocent party in a foreign war should be advised to discontinue its lawful attack.

    SKPeterson@6: “Item 5 is a toss up. LCMS is already supporting a malaria initiative, so do they really need to go to Congress? Probably not, but it does let Congress know what LCMS is doing, and hopefully, at least diminishes the probability of the LCMS and any US foreign aid programs would be working at cross purposes.”

    Again, nothing to do with abortion or religious freedom. The establish of foreign-policy priorities is a function of government. It is not the concern of a Lutheran church body.

    LCMS has informed congress that funding LMI is “the right thing to do” (Parable of the Good Samaritan). The LCMS falsely claims that congress is obligated by God’s revealed will to do good works in foreign countries. Congress’s obligations are actually specified in the U.S. Constitution, the ruling power ordained by God. Congress may not spend money for purposes not enumerated in the U.S. Constitution.

    Trey@7: “The Synod is not the same as the church. You are using them interchangeably with the confessions. The Synod is a man-made institution. Church is made by God’s Word.
    These statements are mainly concerns and prayers. They offer no political policy nor do the suggest the church rule the state.”

    When the LCMS presumes to speak in the name of the Christian church, it cannot claim exemption from the Augsburg Confession (e.g., LCMS officers using the title Reverend in political statements directed at the government).

  • SKPeterson

    Items 2 and 3 are religious freedom issues in this way.

    2. LCMS Reporter; October 2008: “The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod Denounces Connecticut Marriage Ruling. . .The state’s high court decision contravenes not only the Judeo-Christian values that have originated and defined the moral compass of this great nation, but also the laws of nature and the natural reproductive process.”

    The devil, as they say, is in the details and the implications of the ruling. Once the Supreme Court (of a state or the United States) makes such a determination, the coercive power of the state can then be turned against religious institutions who would object to provisions of the law based upon their doctrinal convictions. This ruling amongst others has seriously hampered and complicated adoption services handled by religious institutions, and is akin to the objections to the ObamaCare mandates for abortion and birth-control provision. Hence, a religious freedom issue. QED.

    3. LCMS Reporter; July 2006: “LCMS President Gerald B. Kieschnick and Rev. Matthew Harrison, executive director of LCMS World Relief/Human Care, say in their joint statement. ‘Meanwhile, in order to fulfill our Christian obligation,’ their statement continues, ‘we also request that the charitable act of providing assistance to undocumented aliens not otherwise engaged in illegal activity not be criminalized ipso facto.’”

    Key words here: “in order to fulfill our Christian obligation”, i.e. the charitable actions of the Church to care for the poor and needy. The Church here is concerned that the provision of care to persons of questionable immigration status not be subject to interference by the authorities. Basic tenets of the Christian faith involve care for the neighbor, whether that neighbor is legally in the country or not. Again, the coercive power of the state could be used to prosecute those churches, pastors and relief workers who are providing care and assistance in accord with the doctrinal positions of the Church. In this case, the issue is much akin to those provisions that exempt form legal prosecution those individuals who for religious reasons refuse to serve in the military, register for the draft, serve on a jury, or other objectionable request by the state on grounds of religious conviction. Hence a religious freedom issue. QED.

    Your objection to my note on Item 5) is curious. I agree with you that it is not necessary. However, i do not see it as interfering with the foreign policy prerogatives of the U.S. government. I see nowhere in the statement that the LCMS has “informed congress (sic) that funding LMI is ‘the right thing to do’” or that the “LCMS [has] falsely claim[ed] that congress (sic) is obligated by God’s revealed will to do good works in foreign countries.” Moreover, the LMI is happening anyway; the LCMS is suggesting that if the US Congress is going to provide foreign aid funding, that it might be good to devote some of those resources to fighting malaria. It does not say “Give the LMI $650 million because it’s God’s will.” Besides, would you rather the Congress fund Planned Parenthood’ foreign policy initiatives instead? The LCMS position is to advocate for life, which is more accurate than Benne’s narrow “nascent” life definition. This policy is in alignment with that stance.

    Further, I must ask you this: why do you think Benne’s list of two policy positions by the LCMS is the definitive classification? Or do you think that the number of policy positions advocated by the LCMS should be zero? I’m not sure the answer to ELCA activism is to adopt a New Quietism. In regards to 4) I am not sure how a Christian church advocating for peace or cessation of hostilities is a) interfering in the foreign policy of the United States (and in this instance it had nothing to do with U.S. foreign policy, and was merely a call to both the State of Israel and the group Hamas to adhere to a ceasefire, a position that was actually in accord with the foreign policy position of the US at the time).

    Finally you state this, “When the LCMS presumes to speak in the name of the Christian church, it cannot claim exemption from the Augsburg Confession (e.g., LCMS officers using the title Reverend in political statements directed at the government).” What exactly do you mean? What exemption from the AC are you seeing here? I do not understand your objection or your reasoning in regards to the AC and the role of the Church.

  • http://www.cyberbrethren.com Rev. Paul T. McCain

    What I continue to find unfortunate about Dr. Benne’s remarks is that he is really doing little more than posturing for the NALC, his new found church home, by taking pot-shots at The LCMS, while taking his swipes at the ELCA and then he attempts to position the NALC as some kind of “safe haven” for the reasonable Lutheran. The fact is that the NALC has a long way to go in its rediscovery of its Lutheran roots, and in the process, perhaps, they may reach a point where they inquire seriously if abandoning the classic Lutheran position on the verbal inspiration of Scripture was not at the very core of all the theological problems besetting the ELCA today.

  • Daniel Gorman

    SKPeterson@11: “The devil, as they say, is in the details and the implications of the ruling. Once the Supreme Court (of a state or the United States) makes such a determination, the coercive power of the state can then be turned against religious institutions who would object to provisions of the law based upon their doctrinal convictions. This ruling amongst others has seriously hampered and complicated adoption services handled by religious institutions, and is akin to the objections to the ObamaCare mandates for abortion and birth-control provision. Hence, a religious freedom issue. QED.”

    In and of itself, permitting homosexual marriages will have no effect on the religious rights of anyone who condemns homosexual marriage as a blasphemous sin against God. Adoption services, like selling health insurance, is a secular business regulated by Caesar. It is not an exercise of religion under Christ’s kingdom.. In any event, to suggest that the Court should decide this issue on any basis other than Constitutional law (e.g. Judeo-Christian values, natural law, etc.) is to be in rebellion against a power ordained by God (Romans 13:1, 2).

    SKPeterson@11: “Basic tenets of the Christian faith involve care for the neighbor, whether that neighbor is legally in the country or not. Again, the coercive power of the state could be used to prosecute those churches, pastors and relief workers who are providing care and assistance in accord with the doctrinal positions of the Church.”

    Aiding and abetting criminals engaging in an ongoing criminal conspiracy has never been a tenet of the Christian church. It is an invention of modern day Antinomianism. Under the pretext of religious freedom, the LCMS wants to stop the government from punishing evil doers (Romans 13:4).

    SKPeterson@11: “Further, I must ask you this: why do you think Benne’s list of two policy positions by the LCMS is the definitive classification? Or do you think that the number of policy positions advocated by the LCMS should be zero?”

    I was simply reacting to Benne’s fantasy of a politically inactive LCMS. When the LCMS is representing the church, the LCMS should condemn sin, preach the gospel, and leave politics to the politicians.

    SKPeterson@11: “What exactly do you mean? What exemption from the AC are you seeing here? I do not understand your objection or your reasoning in regards to the AC and the role of the Church.”

    When the LCMS is representing the church and not a human organization, its only weapon is the gospel of Jesus Christ. It may not exercise the sword of first amendment rights to petition the government for a redress of grievances. See AC XXVIII.

  • sg

    “It was the LCMS interfering in the foreign policy of the United States.”

    The LCMS and any other group of citizens have an obligation to ‘interfere’ and influence the foreign policy of the United States. We have government of the people, by the people and for the people. We are the sovereign authority. Our government derives its just powers from the consent of the governed.

  • sg

    “The establish of foreign-policy priorities is a function of government. It is not the concern of a Lutheran church body.”

    Oh come on. The policies of the government are the concern of every citizen. In general the members of our church are US citizens. As such, the functions are very much their concern because they elect those making the policies. What is with all the anti-democratic complaining?

  • tODD

    SG (@14, 15), whether you agree with the examples or not, the question is not whether people, as individual citizens may engage their government according to its laws. The question is what the people should do as a church.

    It is one thing for a citizen to give money to a politician. It is quite another for a church to do so as a church — in fact, it is illegal. It is one thing for a citizen to legally petition his government. It is quite another for the church to do so.

    Whenever the church gets involved in politics, it does so to the detriment of its actual job, which is the proclamation of the Gospel. Take a little trip through European history and see if maybe you can find a few examples. I think this guy named Luther maybe had some thoughts on the topic?

  • http://enterthevein.wordpress.com J. Dean

    When the state conflicts with that which God has clearly ordained, the church has an obligation to at the VERY least voice opposition to it, and (within civil means where possible) act accordingly.

  • fjsteve

    J. Dean, when you say “the church has an obligation”, can you define “church”? Church leadership speaking for the denomination, church members acting on behalf of the denomination, or Christians acting on their own conscience?

  • Daniel Gorman

    J. Dean@17; “”When the state conflicts with that which God has clearly ordained, the church has an obligation to at the VERY least voice opposition to it, and (within civil means where possible) act accordingly.”

    The church’s only obligation is to obey her Lord Jesus Christ, “My kingdom is not of this world…Render unto Caesar the things that be Caesar’s…The weapons of our warfare are not carnal.” The LCMS sends forth her “reverends” in clerical collars to meddle in affairs that do not concern Christ’s Kingdom (e.g., military readiness, state marriage contracts, foreign policy, constitutional law, legislative agenda, etc.).

    The LCMS unjustly condemns the state when it fulfills its mandate from God to protect the innocent (Romans 13:4). By advancing bogus claims of religion freedom, the LCMS seeks to restrain the state from punishing evildoers (e.g., joint statement on immigration law, “An Open Letter”, etc.).

  • sg

    “It is one thing for a citizen to give money to a politician. It is quite another for a church to do so as a church — in fact, it is illegal.”

    Yes, ever since … 1954. But saying something and giving money aren’t the same. Even if the 1954 law is an innovation and infringement on the liberty of religious groups. Groups of people also have rights. Individual citizens are not the only ones with rights. Groups also have rights. Any power not specifically enumerated and granted to the federal government by the people in ratifying the Constitution is a power reserved to the states and the people. And plenty of federal power brokers, including LBJ, just hated that.

  • sg

    Whenever the church gets involved in politics, it does so to the detriment of its actual job, which is the proclamation of the Gospel. Take a little trip through European history and see if maybe you can find a few examples. I think this guy named Luther maybe had some thoughts on the topic?

    Luther directly advocated for the state to be involved in religion. Fredrick the Wise and many other rulers officially endorsed churches that did not follow the pope. That was not to the detriment of the Gospel. In fact it allowed preaching of the Gospel without the addition of the works righteousness of Rome.

  • sg

    “Adoption services, like selling health insurance, is a secular business regulated by Caesar. It is not an exercise of religion under Christ’s kingdom.”

    That sounds all well and good now that Christians and the Christian Church have already established such things. Now the secular authorities and atheists can run to the front of the parade and pretend they were leading it all along. Absurd. No secular authority was caring for the sick/poor or orphans. The Christian Church built hospitals and orphanages, oh yeah, and the universities. Those didn’t start as secular concerns of the state. The Christian Church leaned on rulers to support such endeavors. Come on, we all know this. The states were interested in power. They weren’t dispensing charity. Far from it. They were taxing to support defense and wars of aggression. The state was interested in defending its territory and expanding its territory so it could have more folks to tax and have more power.

  • sg


    “The church’s only obligation is to obey her Lord Jesus Christ, “My kingdom is not of this world…Render unto Caesar the things that be Caesar’s…The weapons of our warfare are not carnal.” The LCMS sends forth her “reverends” in clerical collars to meddle in affairs that do not concern Christ’s Kingdom (e.g., military readiness, state marriage contracts, foreign policy, constitutional law, legislative agenda, etc.).”

    Right, so don’t oppose the Nazis in the Reichstag, or hid Jews in your basement because that is illegal.

  • tODD

    SG (@21), you said:

    Luther directly advocated for the state to be involved in religion. Fredrick the Wise and many other rulers officially endorsed churches that did not follow the pope. That was not to the detriment of the Gospel.

    Which is odd, because what I said (emphasis added) was:

    Whenever the church gets involved in politics, it does so to the detriment of its actual job, which is the proclamation of the Gospel.

    And yet your example is of the state defending the church. That’s obviously not what I was talking about.

    You also said (@23):

    Right, so don’t oppose the Nazis in the Reichstag, or hid Jews in your basement because that is illegal.

    Man, I don’t know what your real issue is here, but it’s causing you to construct some flagrantly obvious straw men! I’m not even sure it’s worth replying to such silliness.


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