My Current Denominational Situation

18 October 2006

I attend a church that is a member of the ELCA, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The ELCA is the largest Lutheran denomination in the United States; it is often characterized as left-leaning and heterodox by its more conservative detractors, and as somewhat too cautious on certain controversial issues (e.g., sexuality) by its more liberal critics.

I am currently, slowly, carefully discerning a call to ordained ministry. I’ve frequently had misgivings about the Lutheran Church, and whether or not this call I’m discerning is a call to ordained ministry in the Lutheran Church. The focuses of my concern are Lutheran liturgy, theology, and social stances.

MyChurch is very high church Lutheran, in what I come to understand is not a commonly high church denomination. I’ve heard that some have observed that “it’s a parish church that thinks it’s a cathedral,” and I think that’s a fair assessment. A friend and cradle Lutheran who was raised in rural Iowa felt somewhat uncomfortable by the amount of liturgical ceremony. I am a former Catholic, who in many senses still feels quite Catholic. One fear of mine is that if I pursue ordination in the ELCA, very few churches within the denomination will be comfortable with my views on liturgy. As I wrote in an earlier post, I am not a rigid traditionalist when it comes to how liturgy is done and who can participate in it, but I believe in the fundamental value and power of liturgy. I fear that the comfort I feel in MyChurch is misleading, that few Lutheran Churches have such a rich liturgical life, and that I would feel very alone and out of place during seminary when called to specific churches.

Another topic of concern for me is theology. At ordination, I will, presumably, be asked to pledge to defend and teach in accord with the Lutheran Confessions, specifically the Augusburg Confession. Can I honestly agree to teach and defend documents with which I have some fundamental disagreements? Should I enter candidacy in a denomination whose foundational theology I’m not particularly enthusiastic about? How much integrity is there in going through a process, continually representing myself as “Lutheran enough” or “sufficiently Lutheran,” when, at the heart of things, I’m not really very Lutheran at all?

David Hansen from Postings from Prairie Hill gave his four principles for orthodoxy:

1) The three ecumenical creeds and the Chalcedonian definition of the person of Christ.
2) The canon of Scripture (although I am ambiguous on the duetero-canonical books)
3) The two great dogmas of the church: the Trinity & the two natures of Christ.
4) The third great dogma of the church (the reformation dogma): the doctrine of justification.

I can buy these, but is this sufficient to call oneself a Lutheran? I believe in other things, too, that aren’t particularly Lutheran. I feel that the episcopate is a valuable apostolic tradition; some would even say it is the apostolic tradition, at least in a visible, tangible form. (Some Scandinavian Lutheran churches still practice a more traditional version of the episcopate, but Lutheran bishops in America are a very new thing.) I think, too, that the diaconate is a clearly apostolic and scriptural office; although certain synods of the ELCA are developing the “Office of Deacon,” I wonder if the ELCA will ever recognize a diaconate as is seen in early Church writings. Some other protestant denominations do fall in line more with my ecclesiology, while still recognizing and practicing the priesthood of all believers. My quandry is this: are these things deal breakers?

A third qualm of mine regarding the ELCA are its social stances; I’ll take its sexuality policy as an example. The policy stating that queer clergy are accepted, but only if they are celibate, does not go far enough. In the same way that we should respect those who feel called to celibacy regardless of their gender or sexuality, we should respect those who feel called to marriage and partnership, regardless of their gender or sexuality. I recognize that my ideas are not accepted by many, maybe not even most, Christians, but I feel they are rooted in a radical Incarnational theology, a theology I feel strongly about. Should I pursue ordination in a denomination that does not seem to share that theology?

I’ve spoken with several people —my wife, my pastor, non-Lutheran folks— about my quandary. My pastor and I are embarking on a study of the Augsburg Confession. Some have suggested I explore other options. Others have suggested obedience. I think both of these are valid responses.

Some days, I feel really able to live and serve God as a Lutheran, albiet a slightly eccentric, liturgically old-school, socially radical (Catho-)Lutheran. Other days the idea of having to “talk like a Lutheran” or “act more Lutheran” feels like such a disingenuous way to go through life I want to puke.

Feast: Saint Luke, Evangelist and First Iconographer

Let us praise the godly Luke:
He is the true preacher of piety,
The orator of ineffable mysteries
And the star of the Church,
For the Word who alone knows the hearts of men,
Chose him, with the wise Paul, to be a teacher of the gentiles!

-Kontakion of Saint Luke

Legend has it that Luke was the first iconographer, writing what is known as the Hodigitria or Hodegetria which means “Directress” or “She who Shows the Way.” An example can be seen here.

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15 Responses to “My Current Denominational Situation”

  1. Cathy Says:

    Seems like you have two blog postings in one. However, I think it is important in discerning your call that you are up front with all of the concerns you have. Personally I would want a pastor that has explored all of these areas and question them. I think it allows you to either affirm who you are in regards to your faith/tradition as well as gives you opportunities to see if your beliefs will fit into their pegs. Plus, though I have not been to a Luthern service in a very very long time, I do know it is in communion with the Episcopal Church so it must have an acceptance of the continuum of high church/low church.

  2. Chris Hund Says:


    It may be very jesuitical of me, but I don’t think that obedience means that you have to believe everything that you are told.

    Perhaps your struggle is to engage with the beliefs of the Lutheran church and with the people who don’t think as you do. I am not talking about challenging the dogma of the whole system, but I am talking about showing others an alternative way to think. Let’s take the question of sexuality you brought up. You can be obedient to the church and not preach against what the church believes from the pulpit, the mouth of the church. That would be disobedient. But if someone within the church comes to you and asks your opinion or your advice you can tell them what you feel to be the truth and why. You can also do this through writings like this blog. A disagreement with those in charge does not seem to be disobedience. Would Luther have done what he did if he did not disagree? Or people who reformed religious orders within the Roman church like St. Teresa of Avila?

    Change often comes from the inside. You wouldn’t and shouldn’t try to change the tradition of the liturgy because that is part of what makes being Lutheran, Lutheran, what makes being Methodist, Methodist, etc. But as far as social concerns go, you can make a difference. Social concerns and ideas are not the most important thing of what makes a religion a religion. They have importance but they are not the defining character. And they can be changed. If social ideas weren’t changed then wouldn’t the churches of Europe and the US still be concerned that independent women were witches? There were people, sane individuals like Fredrich Spee, that came in and said that the policy towards witches was wrong, immoral.

    But what about affecting a liturgical change? You say that your church is different from other churches. How did that happen? Was it a result of the laity or the result of a minister who had the idea, presented it to the people, and they liked it? People for the most part are understanding when you win their respect. Times in seminary may not be what you will them to be. But thats because you are learning, you can’t have it the way you want it. Going into another church is like being a student teacher, you are there to learn what that classroom is like, how it runs, how kids react to certain things you do. You already have your ideas of teaching, or your theology, but you bow to the deference of the master teacher in the classroom with you. But when you get your own congregation why couldn’t you introduce things as long as they fell within the guidelines of Lutheranism?

    I am, of course, discussing this in the broadest of terms. I am probably missing many details that I haven’t thought to consider. And I am not a good example about changing things from the inside. I grew up Catholic but after 10 years off but now think I have found a home with the Episcopalians because they are liturgically close to the Catholics but socially more like me. So I didn’t stay in the church of my birth to change things as I am perscribing. However, I am a lay person and not called at this time to a higher office where decisions such as these need to be made.


  3. Cathy,

    The ELCA is in full communion with the Episcopal Church, which makes things more complicated in some ways. Although I did not say it straight out in my post, the church that I feel I should be in is the Episcopal Church, while the church I find myself in is the ELCA.

    Sometimes I find myself wondering, “Why be a crypto-Episcopalian in the Lutheran church?” In many ways that is exactly what I am.

  4. Chris,

    That whole obedient-but-dissenting thing is pretty jesuitical, but that’s why I love the Jesuits.

    I’m never going to find a church that perfectly fits my beliefs, but I’m not really looking for that. I don’t think very much of what I’d be interested in fostering would fall outside of the guidelines of Lutheranism, but I’m afraid that the orthodoxy of my beliefs or practices isn’t what will be seen, and instead people will focus on the un-Lutheran-ness of them.

    If I were preaching in an ELCA pulpit and felt that the topic of sexuality had to be addressed, I could not in good conscience support the ELCA’s position or fail to speak against it. That would be fairly disobedient, but as you pointed out, would there be any Lutherans if a certain portly Augustinian hadn’t been disobedient?

    It’s a pretty complicated issue for me, and you bring up a lot of good points. I continue to try to make sense of what my calling actually is. Perhaps it is to remain in the ELCA, perhaps not. I pray for discernment.

  5. Beth Says:

    Follow your heart, Honey, and all will be well. I really believe this; I think you do too. Love, your wife.

  6. Thanks, Beth. I do believe it. Still, it’s hard to do.

  7. Larry Says:

    I will keep your discernment in my prayers.
    From what you have written and the little I know about you, I have to say that your hesitation surrounding seeking ordination in the ELCA seems to be of God as does the advice for obedience.
    But as Chris points out obedience and absolute agreement is not the same, If I read the Rule of St. Benedict correctly that is also born out in the Rule.
    What I am about to say will be a double standard but I think it is a valid double standard. If you had been raised in the Lutheran church I would say obedience would be to stay in the ELCA and submit to its language and process. However, you have not grown up ELCA and you have not converted to Lutheranism (or so it seems to me given your questions), rather you remain quite catholic, maybe even Catholic. This is not a problem in your current ELCA congregation, it is catholic in the ways you remain catholic and it is liberal in the ways you are liberal (more or less, this is a guess since I am not sure how “liberal you are nor how “liberal” the congregation is). If you are not Lutheran can you seek ordination in a Lutheran Church. The unfortunate thing is that this line of thinking is an impedement to your ordination anywhere, unless you were to convert from one thing to another (which I think is profoundly dificult to do to any form of Protestantism coming from a Catholic or Orthodox background and retaining any sense of catholicity and orthodoxy.)
    Lastly an observation that puzzles me, you are one of several articulate, artistic and ecclesialy committed Christians who are quite convinced they are called to ordained ministry, but who seem far more suited to their artistic or intelectual persuits than ordained ministry, from my own personal experience of them (which is not infalible or necesarily from God so don’t give to much weight to my perception). My sense in these others (I have not spoken with you about this before now so this does nto necesarily apply to you) is that the assumption is that if I am so committed to the church love liturgy and have an itense faith and want to do something in the church then I need to be ordained to do so. My advice to you and they is run run from ordained ministry run as far away as you can, and if God is there ahead of you and says sorry this is it then there is your call. Otherwise you are suited for the oridination that is your and all believers baptism to the ministry of the layity. Odd that in all the empahsis in Protestantism on the “priesthood of all blievers” we have no sense of baptism as ordination to the ministry of the order of the layity, a honorable godly and necesary ministry of the church as important as ordained as an pastor priest deacon or bishop, jsut different function and charism.
    If this does not apply i appologise, but these are my thoughts given my limited knowledge of you and your situation.
    Peace Brother,

  8. Chris Hund Says:

    One way or the other, I have faith that you will make the right decision. You have already come fairly far.

    I know it is taken out of context, but I love the Julian of Norwich quote:

    “…all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

  9. Pastor David Says:

    Jorge –

    Thank you for your honesty and openness about your struggles. I think the church catholic would be better served if more people preparing for seminary asked the questions you ask.

    Allow me to share a few thoughts with you.

    I was born and raised a Lutheran (I am a 4th generation Lutheran pastor). Yet I attended a very anglo-catholic episcopal seminary (University of the South, Sewanee). I sort of consider myself a germano-catholic. The worship experiences have fed me the most have been at places like Sewanee and the National Cathedral. That is not how my church worships. I don’t expect them to have inscense any time soon. But, small changes happen in worship, and I have found myself fed by leading worship in this setting. Give me a chance, say on vacation, and I will worship at a “smells and bells” episcopal church. That does not make me any less lutheran. Indeed, my passion for the liturgy has, in my view, made me a better Lutheran pastor.

    As to the vow to uphold the Lutheran Confessions. Within the Lutheran world, there are those who view this in a variety of ways. There are those who require one to uphold the entirety of the Book of Concord. There are others who only talk about the Augsburg Confession and the Small Catechism.

    I would say that you are — probably — right to question a call to the ministry of Word and Sacrament in the Lutheran church if you have problems with the AC. Not knowing what problems you might have with it, I wouldn’t want to advise you one way or the other on that, though.

    That being said, I didn’t look at the confessions much before going to seminary. And, I was theologically a very different person coming out of seminary than I was going in. It is a mistake to think we need to have all the answers before going to seminary. Seminary is part of the process of discernment, and it is ok to view it as such. We have made it a stigma to start the process and then decide that it is not for you … but if this truly is a process of discernment, than that should be acceptable.

    I could post more about Lutherans and the diaconate & episcopate, but perhaps I have rattled on long enough and should wrap this up.

    Lutheranism is a big tent — especially in the ELCA. There are pastors and congregations of all stripes. But, Lutheranism is not the right answer for everyone.

    I am recently out of seminary, familiar with the anglo-catholic tradition, and also deeply appreciative of the mystery of the liturgy. If you would like to bounce some ideas off of me, or just get more info, leave me a note here or on my blog and I will email you.

  10. As I wrote to you earlier, Jorge, there are things I like about Lutheranism and I would feel at home in pockets of it. I think one way it’s different to Anglicanism and like Rome is it is a confessional church, meaning it’s got a clear-cut set of doctrines, which is why, AFAIK as an outsider with relatively little contact, although ELCA is about as liberal as the Episcopal Church there are congregations that are far more conservative.

    I think I remember reading in Tripp’s or Larry’s blog that you are a parishioner at Reconciler’s host church, which is historically Swedish, so although American Lutherans lost the claim to the historic episcopate/apostolic succession that Anglicans and Swedish Lutherans have, perhaps ‘MyChurch’ retains some historical memory of that and so is more Catholic in ways than other ELCA congregations. (By ‘quite Catholic’ I assume you mean it in the American sense of ‘very Catholic’ and not the ‘7 out of 10’ British meaning!)

    Now to answer your questions. You know my beliefs by now but I hope you also know that I realise I’m not in a position to try and tell you what to do.

    First of all, not to pry but how long have you been a Lutheran? Why did you become one? Some churches have rules against ordaining a new convert to stop infatuated newcomers (not that this is what you are) from jumping into ministry and burning out, or otherwise harming congregations because of zeal not according to knowledge. Second, how well do you really know your new church’s doctrine? It sounds like you’re pretty well acquainted with it. That said, I’m glad you talked to your pastor of course – I’d say take up that invitation and study, study, study the Augsburg Confession and then decide honestly. Third, and this will come as no surprise to you by now, I’d say if you have any reservation (no jesuitical games) about doctrine or morals (as you wrote regarding sexuality) then no, don’t pursue becoming an ELCA pastor. Fourth, and you don’t have to answer here of course but ask yourself, why exactly do you feel called to the ministry?

    Sounds like you’ve got a good support system of people who love you and of course for that I’m glad.

    Onward and Godward.

    John Beeler

  11. Beth Says:

    I know it is, Sugar. xxxooo

  12. Cathy Says:

    I did not want to come out and say it, but what I read between the lines was that it appeared you were more in line with the the traditions of the Episcopal Church. We have several ordained clergy who have come from different traditions for the very reasons you have mentioned. In turn, we have those of the Episcopal tradition that have moved to other traditions for differences in their practices and beliefs.
    A crypto-Episcopalian??? I have never heard of that expression.

  13. Beth, Chris, and Cathy,

    Thank you for your comments; it is good to have correspondents slightly less windy than Beeler, Hansen, and Kamphausen ;).

    Thank you all for your responses.

    And yes, “crypto-Episcopalian®” that’s a Jorge Sanchez original.

  14. revabi Says:

    I am not Lutheran. It doesn’t interest me. Although, my husband’s family is Lutheran, even have clergy in the bunch, and we go to the Lutheran church when visiting. (I thought it was more high church than the high church in some Methodist churches, and it is a country church.)

    However, I started this process as a Baptist. I didn’t know all of its ins and outs when I went to Seminary. And things within the denomination changed radically after I was finished with seminary and well into my career. I made the decision to leave. I then did go to every denomination there was, studied, visited churches, talked to people. It was very painful, difficult time in my life. I chose United Methodist for a variety of reasons, for which I will not go into in this post. But I do want to say this, do I agree with everything they teach or say? NO, Do I press the questions, yes.

    Do I think I am totally Methodist, probably not. I bring some of my Baptist blood with me. I say this to say it is important for you to ask the questions, do as your wife says and follow your heart. One thing I do know is that I am obedient first to God. And when things are crazy in the denomination, which they are right now, I turn and focus on God.

  15. RevAbi,

    Thanks for the great comment.

    In any event, I always do as my wife says, ;). I’m going to follow my heart. If God wants to put up a roadblock, God’s welcome to.

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