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Progressive Christianity’s Suicide, ELCA Edition

There’s a crisis at United Lutheran Seminary in eastern Pennsylvania. It seems that around 20 years ago, its new president professed a totally mainstream (at the time) Christian view about homosexuality. [1] Excerpts:

A Lutheran seminary in eastern Pennsylvania is facing a leadership crisis due to a belated disclosure that the president of the LGBTQ-affirming school once directed an organization that said gay Christians should change or at least resist same-sex attractions as a temptation to sin.

The Rev. Theresa Latini, the first president of United Lutheran Seminary, which has campuses in Philadelphia and Gettysburg, now repudiates the philosophy of the group she worked for, saying it was “fear-based, controlling, and particularly marginalizing of LGBTQ+ persons.”

But many alumni and students are expressing dismay that she never disclosed this part of her work history — more than five years of work as director of the group OneByOne, beginning in 1996 — to the search committee that interviewed her.

Rev. Latini said in a Feb. 21 statement that she is committed to working with the seminary in “actively identifying and resisting homophobia and heteronormativity.”

More:

Bishop Kurt Kusserow of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, who was on the presidential search committee, said given the seminary’s stances on sexuality, Rev. Latini’s decision to withhold this part of her work history “is in retrospect evidence of poor judgment.”

He noted that the denomination remains committed to unity among people of different views on sexuality.

change_me

“I don’t think at the time we would have imagined the emotional response of the seminary community,” he added. “That is part of the changing world that we’re in,” in which such a work history would now be seen as deeply offensive.

ELCA is so “committed to unity among people of different views of sexuality” that one of its seminaries has been thrown into a spasm of angst over the fact that its president once held mainstream Christian views that she has long since repudiated. More recently, the seminary board chairman resigned over the controversy, which is spreading: [2]

A joint letter from the Lutheran Students of Harvard Divinity School and the Union Theological Seminary noted that many Lutheran students at those two institutions finish their pre-ordination studies at United Lutheran (and previously did so at one of the two seminaries that merged). The letter said that this tradition has been “jeopardized by the past statements of President Latini and the recent, deceptive actions of the ULS board.”

So now they believe that Theresa Latini’s cooties will have retroactively infected them? Wow. Progressive Donatism in our time.

Anyway, three weeks ago, the seminary fired Theresa Latini.  [3] So, blue skies ahead, right?

Not really. Last year, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported on the circumstances that led to the creation of the new seminary [4]:

For decades, Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia and its denominational counterpart in Gettysburg tried to repair the 153-year-old split that created two religious-training institutions 140 miles apart.

Efforts to join the schools under one banner in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America repeatedly fizzled — until the pressures of declining enrollment, dwindling finances, and rising costs were too powerful to fight. Between 2005 and 2015, enrollment declined from 420 to 275 in Philadelphia, and 305 to 138 in Gettysburg.

In July, they will become one: United Lutheran Seminary. The new entity will maintain two campuses, though each is likely to shrink to a fraction of its current size in the not-so-distant future. The staff and budget will be smaller, the curriculum transformed to reflect new demands on clergy and lay ministers.

So, roughly a 50 percent enrollment collapse in a single decade.

But never fear, United Lutheran Seminary is doubling down on wokeness. A reader points out these workshops — the only ones — at the seminary’s spring convocation [5] this month:

Awesome. The reader, an ELCA pastor, adds:

Those who run this liberal old line seminary are confounded why no one comes to their seminary anymore. They also lament that that they have few candidates for ordination. There is no way I would ever attend any of these alumni workshops or send a candidate there. As a result pastors are beginning to meet locally to figure out how we can form and train candidates for ministry locally. The old line ELCA seminaries are captured by the spirit of the age and will not be around in any sense of being a seminary in a decade or less.

In other words, orthodox ELCA pastors are taking a kind of Benedict Option for themselves, to save the tradition from its suicidal institutions. Smart.

UPDATE: Reader Charles writes:

I’m friends with some people who were in the middle of this particular witch hunt on facebook. It was unbearable to watch. I’m not going to dig it up, but there was an article in which someone reported the president musing with one of the board members about how God works in such funny ways as she recounted the transformation of her views on sexuality. The way I understood the story from the blog posts and articles I read at the time (a few weeks ago), the problem was not necessarily the president’s nondisclosure during the search process, but the board’s long term nondisclosure once various members of the board found out.

The level of scorched-earth policy I witnessed from people who all seemed to be ECLA was eye-opening to me, to say the least. The person they were targeting was _on their side_. In fact, the person was more on their side than they’re on their own side, because this person saw enough reason to come from a commitment to the other pole to join them. Who’s to say she’s not actually far more committed to redressing the sinfulness of conversion therapy than they are?

I thought about bringing up points like this in the facebook threads because everyone in the situation seemed to have completely lost any sense of perspective, but didn’t as I realized that the entire discussion presupposed such a level of “insider status” that trying to offer any reason outside of that decision matrix was doomed to fail.

The whole affair definitely let me know what other people would personally think of me for holding conservative views on marriage and sexuality. They couldn’t forgive someone trying to lead them 20 years after she last held the opposing views, so what chance does a person in the present have for surviving unscathed? It was almost as if that was the point, to make a public example out of her. “See what we think of your kind!” the whole episode seemed to shout.

See, this is why you must never, ever “dialogue” with these people. It is always a trap. As soon as they have you in a place where they have power over you within the church, they will destroy you.

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64 Comments To "Progressive Christianity’s Suicide, ELCA Edition"

#1 Comment By Brendan from Oz On April 5, 2018 @ 8:27 pm

“Where orthodoxy is optional, orthodoxy will sooner or later be proscribed.

This assertion is a foundation for totalitarian tyranny, and I therefore oppose it. I will also oppose any move to proscribe orthodoxy, so long as adherence is voluntary.”

From [6]

“With the older orthodoxy it is possible to disagree, as in having an argument. Evidence, reason, and logic count, in principle at least. Not so with the new orthodoxy. Here disagreement is an intolerable personal affront. It is construed as a denial of others, of their experience of who they are. It is a blasphemous assault on that most high god, “My Identity.” Truth-as-identity is not appealable beyond the assertion of identity. In this game, identity is trumps. An appeal to what St. Paul or Aquinas or Catherine of Sienna or a Church council said cannot withstand the undeniable retort, “Yes, but they are not me!” People pack their truths into what Peter Berger has called group-identity kits. The chief item in the kit, of course, is the claim to being oppressed.”

It depends on what the orthodoxy is as to whether it is totalitarian or not.

#2 Comment By anon On April 5, 2018 @ 9:24 pm

[NFR: Are you kidding me? One of the main points of the book is that it’s folly to assume, as many of us have, that all will be well if we have our “personal relationship” with Jesus and vote for the “right” candidates. Whatever book you read, it’s not the one I wrote. — RD]

No, I got that, but it doesn’t address the actual point I raised.

Your book does a fine job of outlining many of the challenges that distract us from becoming holy, but it seems to me that it does not address how to prevent Benedict Option groups and communities from falling into a “Christ agrees with my ideas” trap.

There is a reason that Popes and Patriarchs alike run afoul of those with agendas, and often it is because Popes and Patriarchs are trying to guide their flocks back to putting Christ first rather than the agenda first, and of allowing Christ to inform their culture.

Consider this: There hasn’t been a Pope in my life who wasn’t told by traditionalist Catholics to shut up about economics, or by liberal Catholics to shut up about birth control. When the Bishops spoke of a “seamless garment” pro-life approach to things it was the anti-abortion right that rejected the concept because they feared it would water down their political agenda.

It’s possible for a Benedict Option community to be primarily about becoming holy, of course, but it’s also possible for it to settle for asserting that Christ agrees with the agenda of the community’s founders or leaders.

Your book is a social and cultural work, of course, not a theological one. As a result I don’t see anything in “The Benedict Option” that prevents the same problem that results in such rot from arising among its practitioners.

#3 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On April 5, 2018 @ 10:10 pm

(I write this a bit archly, because in my part of the world the response I’ve rec’d from “conservative” ELCA folks to the question of why they don’t join, say, the Missouri Synod, is either [1] But they’re fundamentalists! or [2] But they don’t ordain women, and we could never join a church that doesn’t ordain women!)

Apparently then, there is a need for a conservative Lutheran denomination that affirms that God created man male and female, that homosexuality is objectively disordered, that women are full participants in the life of the church, including ordination, and that Jesus is Lord. Such a church might even be open to examining Genesis for indications that God knew about evolution long before Darwin began to suspect it. Or not.

That shouldn’t be a tall order. Both the course of the Protestant Reformation and the plain meaning of the First Amendment clearly allow for such a church to exist.

I can testify from personal experience that WELS is not nearly so awful as the adults in my parents academic circles seemed to believe. I grew up hearing that “Missouri Synod Lutherans believe everyone is going to hell except them, even other Lutherans, and the Wisconsin Synod is even more exclusive.” I had been in non-communicant fellowship with a WELS church for a couple of years before I began to suspect that these were the dreaded “Wisconsin Synod” Lutherans I had heard about in my childhood.

#4 Comment By Elijah On April 6, 2018 @ 7:06 am

“What do you think they [SJWs] will do then? I mean, I assume they’ll find ways to become even worse, but it’s still an interesting thought experiment.”

I think the problem is that a church is a voluntary association; you can get up and leave and never return or even go join a different church that doesn’t subscribe to such nonsense. If these lunatics are in charge at public schools, government, your childrens’ schools and so on, you have a different problem. Opting out becomes a bit more difficult.

That said, I cannot imagine what many of these ‘Seminary SJW’ types will do when the churches are empty. What other field could they go into where they have a given audience?

#5 Comment By Fran Macadam On April 6, 2018 @ 9:45 am

Bill Bauer,

Common sense has become uncommon.

#6 Comment By William Tighe On April 6, 2018 @ 10:10 am

“Apparently then, there is a need for a conservative Lutheran denomination that affirms that God created man male and female, that homosexuality is objectively disordered, that women are full participants in the life of the church, including ordination, and that Jesus is Lord. Such a church might even be open to examining Genesis for indications that God knew about evolution long before Darwin began to suspect it. Or not.”

There are at least two such bodies, the “North American Lutheran Church” (NALC) which was founded in 2010 in response to the ELCA’s approval of homosexual pseudogamy a year earlier and which consists largely of former ELCA-ites (and their Canadian counterparts); one might state that it is more or less the ELCA with its clock turned back to 1988 (when the ELCA was founded); cf.:

[7]

The second is the “Lutheran Congregations for Mission in Christ” which was founded in 2001 in response to, and rejection of, a “concordat of intercommunion” between the ELCA and the Episcopal Church by which the former accepted – in binding practice, although not in “ecclesiological theory” – the latter’s ideas about the “historic episcopate” and restricting the performance of ordinations to bishops only; cf.:

[7]

There may be some other American Lutheran “microsynods” that fit the bill also, given that there are so many of these in the USA today:

[8]

#7 Comment By William Tighe On April 6, 2018 @ 10:12 am

POSTSCRIPT

This should have been the second link in my immediately preceding post:

[9]

#8 Comment By James On April 6, 2018 @ 9:17 pm

I used to belong to a mainline church in Idaho that disavowed any of the denominational craziness going on back east and for the most part stayed orthodox. When I confronted the pastor about why our church stayed in a denomination that was polar opposite of what the majority of the church member’s believed, his answer floored me. It was simply because he was vested in the denominations retirement account and he risked losing it if he went independent or joined a more conservative denomination.

Another reason some of these old churches stick around in a denomination that is dying.

#9 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On April 7, 2018 @ 9:52 pm

It depends on what the orthodoxy is as to whether it is totalitarian or not.

You miss the point entirely Brendan. It is not orthodoxy that is totalitarian. The statement “Where orthodoxy is optional, orthodoxy will sooner or later be proscribed,” is a call for orthodoxy to be mandatory. That is what would be totalitarian. To paraphrase one of Mao’s better lines (one he unfortunately abandoned rather quickly), “Let a hundred orthodoxies compete!”

There are at least two such bodies…

Fine well and good then. Problem solved.

#10 Comment By John On April 10, 2018 @ 1:04 am

Bravo for this insightful article! I think the title hits the nail square on the head: this is a trend of ecclesiastical suicide, of self-destruction, so protecting the children and the bystanders becomes an issue too. As these fringe fanatics attack any expression of Biblical truth within their reach, how do we keep the escape routes open for the survivors, and even further, how do we disciple them in the Gospel?

As hard as it is now to evangelize in the former Soviet Union and China after 80 years of nationalized atheism, can we imagine how hard it will be to evangelize in America after 80 years of nationalized humanism? 40 years ago, we replaced Billy Graham with Habitat for Humanity; isn’t it high time we declared that Christianity is NOT humanism in a pulpit?

#11 Comment By Chris On April 19, 2018 @ 11:09 am

I’m guessing this will fall on deaf ears, but Rod, you are the author of “The Little Way of Ruthie Leming” so I believe, at your heart, you are a kind man. I hope that kind part of you can take this criticism in a compassionate way.
[10]

#12 Comment By Paul On May 13, 2018 @ 3:55 pm

My only objection to her selection in the first place is that she’s Presbyterian.

Why was a Calvinist chosen to lead a LUTHERAN seminary in the first place?!

#13 Comment By Jay On May 28, 2018 @ 4:49 am

But they don’t ordain women, and we could never join a church that doesn’t ordain women!

It seems kind of “homophobic” for churches to be totally against (and aghast at) the ordination of homosexuals… but be totally in favor of the ordination of women. Both are relatively new “inventions” of the liberal “church”- and neither has any historical precedent or Biblical support. So why do they accept women, but not homosexuals? I have yet to find a Lutheran denomination that insists on Biblical inspiration (fully inerrant and authoritative as God-breathed Word of God) and ordains women. Therefore, there is nothing to stop the ones that are considered “conservative” off-shoots of the ELCA (NALC and LCMC) to, someday, becoming what the ELCA already is. Either the Bible is God’s Word (all of it)… or it isn’t.

#14 Comment By Seamus On November 7, 2018 @ 5:26 pm

Query: Would the seminary have fired her if she had failed to disclose to the search committee that, 20 or so years ago, she had worked as an S&M dominatrix? Or is that a stupid question because it assumes that a candidate for appointment as president of a mainstream Protestant seminary might feel a need to conceal his or her BDSM past?