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There is a divide among American Christians. Less a disagreement between Catholics and Protestants — or other divisions of doctrine and theology — the difference turns on culture, and relates to a fundamental difference in worldviews that transcend the old schisms. In short it, is a matter of orthodoxy, with non-denominational evangelicals and cafeteria Catholics on one side, and traditionalists on the other. It has been talked about within the various churches for decades, but affects almost all of them in the same fashion, and reflects larger trends in the culture that mirror political parties.
A recent conversation on the Member Feed turned to the matter of how Christians consider each other with respect to true worship and doctrine. Along the way, member Gary McVey asked:
My “local” [Lutheran parish] is affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America [ELCA]. To folks in the know, are they in or out?
Well, in or out of what, precisely? “Orthodoxy,” I say. There are Lutherans, and then there are Lutherans.
I think the ELCA Lutherans have a good foundation: the words in the “resources” page of the ELCA website are good. But there are many ELCA parishes that have pursued non-orthodox approaches to the Bible, and there are ELCA parishes that — on casual observation — are hard to distinguish from those of Universalists. While some ELCA parishes are still orthodox, they have become a minority. Several more orthodox ELCA parishes have broken away in recent years and set up new networks of congregations.
In 1998, I cut a syndicated column out of a newspaper, and have shared it a number of times over the years. (Yes, real paper and real scissors. I know: how quaint). Still available on the Internet “Ten Years of Reporting on a Fault Line” by Terry Mattingly begins:
Back in the 1980s, I began to experience deja vu while covering event after event on the religion beat. I kept seeing a fascinating cast of characters at events centering on faith, politics and morality. A pro-life rally, for example, would feature a Baptist, a Catholic priest, an Orthodox rabbi and a cluster of conservative Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and Lutherans. Then, the pro-choice counter-rally would feature a “moderate” Baptist, a Catholic activist or two, a Reform rabbi and mainline Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and Lutherans.
Similar line-ups would appear at many rallies linked to gay rights, sex-education programs and controversies in media, the arts and even science. Along with other journalists, I kept reporting that today’s social issues were creating bizarre coalitions that defied historic and doctrinal boundaries.
Later in the same piece, Mattingly describes James Davison Hunter, a professor at the University of Virginia, who is credited with coining the term “Culture War”:
The old dividing lines centered on issues such as the person of Jesus Christ, church tradition and the Protestant Reformation. But these new interfaith coalitions were fighting about something even more basic — the nature of truth and moral authority. … [Hunter wrote] “Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America,” in which he declared that America now contains two basic world views, which he called “orthodox” and “progressive.” The orthodox believe it’s possible to follow transcendent, revealed truths. Progressives disagree and put their trust in personal experience, even if that requires them to “re-symbolize historic faiths according to the prevailing assumptions of contemporary life.”
That’s what I was seeing at all of those rallies and marches. And that’s why, whenever I covered separate meetings of Catholics, Jews, Baptists, Episcopalians or whatever, I almost always found two distinct camps of people fighting about the same subjects.
Ask any big question and this issue looms in the background. Is the Bible an infallible source of truth? Is papal authority unique? Do women and men have God-given roles in the home and the church? Can centuries of Jewish traditions survive in the modern world? Can marriage be redefined? Is abortion wrong? Can traditionalists proclaim that sex outside of marriage is sin? Are heaven and hell real? Do all religious roads lead to the same end?
Many in the orthodox camp disagree on some of the answers, but they are united in their belief that public life must include room for those who insist eternal answers exist. Meanwhile, progressives are finding it harder to tolerate the views of people they consider offensive and intolerant. This is not a clash between religious people and secular people, stressed Hunter. This is a battle between two fundamentally different approaches to faith.
And so it is in Lutheran circles. The ELCA are the progressive Lutherans who take a “poetic” approach to the Bible and the historic documents of the Lutheran faith. I belong to the LCMS, where we are the traditionalists; we insist that eternal truth is revealed in the Bible, which is to be trusted as the revealed Word of G-d.
That said, I increasingly find that I have more in common with theologically-conservative Catholics and Baptists than I do with most ELCA Lutherans. I enjoy spirited exchanges with a Baptist preacher friend: we can go hammer-and-tongs over chapter and verse. In contrast, few ELCA Lutherans of my acquaintance are willing to engage this way, as they aren’t sure that faith should be “confined” by what the Bible says. They aren’t sure that what is true for me is also true for them. These arguments strike me as slippery and I lose patience.
My answer to Gary is this: I am not saying that the ELCA is “out” of orthodox Christianity. But if you want to investigate the claims of orthodox Christianity, expand your search beyond that ELCA parish and include some orthodox, traditionalist churches. At one level, it almost doesn’t matter which among those you pick.