Interview: Rev. Mark Chavez – Top Issues in the ELCA

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the nation’s largest Lutheran denomination with 4.9 million members, began its Churchwide Assembly today in Florida. The weeklong gathering, which comes around once every two years, is the highest legislative authority in the church and the only body that can make changes to the denomination’s laws.

Much attention has been placed on this assembly because delegates will be voting on three recommendations on homosexuality that took nearly four years to draft. The three recommendations call on the church to: remain united despite theological differences on homosexuality; uphold the prohibition against gay marriage blessings, but give bishops and pastors discretion in deciding how to minister to gay couples; and affirm the church ban on ordaining sexually active gays but allow exceptions for persons in committed relationships.

Pro-traditionalists and pro-homosexual groups have both rejected the recommendations for its “middle ground” stance on the critical issue.

The following are excerpts from an interview with Rev. Mark Chavez, Director of the Word Alone Network – a fellowship of confessing, evangelical, churches within the ELCA. Rev. Chavez explains why he opposes the sexuality recommendations, and what to look out for during the weeklong Churchwide Assembly.

What are some of the issues that will be brought up in the ELCA Assembly?

We are concerned about four or five issues, and honestly any one would be more than enough for a single assembly.

The one getting the most attention is on sexuality, but there are other issues, such as a new proposed hymnal, the restructuring of churchwide offices, mandatory racism training, and a change in the way church council members are elected.

And the homosexuality issue?

Then of course, there is the sexuality issue. There are three recommendations, and everybody understands what’s at stake for the third one - that there is a possibility of ordaining a homosexual, but unfortunately, not many understand the other two. The first two recommendations are really slipper.

The first one essentially says, “let us sacrifice truth and the authority of scripture, and let’s agree to disagree.” The second one looks on the surface like it’s agreeing with our 1993 Conference of Bishops statement, but that statement has been interpreted to mean there will be a local option, and many people will not understand it.

What is local option?

What local option does is it keeps whatever denominational policies and standards are in place, but essentially allows local churches to do what they want in the matter. So in regards to same-sex blessings, though we don’t have a technical statement, the 1993 Bishops statement says same-sex marriage should not be recognized. However, under local option, it allows any local church to do what it wants to do with no further action taken to stop them. This is why it would be really destructive for the denomination because in plain language, the church is officially saying it’s okay for some people to engage in sinful behavior, and it’s okay for local churches to bless sinful behavior.

When people read the 1993 statement, they only read the first sentence, which states that we shouldn’t be blessing same-sex unions. But the last part of that statement says there should be appropriate care for homosexuals. What bishops meant of course was that we welcome all sinners to the church, but that last sentence has been twisted around for the last 10 years to mean you can go ahead and bless same-sex unions if you want.

That’s why not many people will understand this second resolution, and people from both sides will vote for it because they don’t really know what it’s saying.

Can the resolution be amended or clarified?

The only people who have a voice and a vote are the 1,018 delegates. Those 1018 people are the only ones who can speak and propose an amendment. But yes, it is possible for a voting member to make changes or amend recommendations. We have voting members there who will be amending.

Do you think this will be at the forefront of all business sessions this week?

Unfortunately, yes. There are several other major issues to be considered this week, but most of the attention will be on these three recommendations because the secular media is focused just on this. In the past, most people didn’t even know about the decisions this church takes, but on this one many people have found out. The media has been helping us.

But another reason why is that the ELCA churchwide leadership is proposing that we should say it’s okay to sin and completely contradict clear Biblical witness in both the Old and New Testaments. There are enough ELCA members who will be objecting to this.

But people on the pro-homosexual side are also quote Scripture.

Yes, they do. But in the end, what they’ve essentially done is cut out most of the pages of the Bible. They often speak of the “living word” or the “Living Christ” as opposed to the “dead letter.” They so sharply distinguish the risen Jesus Christ from the revealed Jesus Christ from scripture that He gets pitted against the Bible. That’s why they say what’s much of what’s been in the Bible isn’t correct anymore.

They really say that?

Some have been honest enough and bold enough to just come right out and say God is repenting of what he once said. Of course anytime you separate the Living Jesus from the inspired word of God, you will be free to turn the living word into anything you want it to be. So Jesus just becomes someone who loves everybody just the way they are without speaking a word about the law, repentance or transformation. It then becomes all gospel and all love without any law.

We’re all sinners, and we need to repent. That’s the orthodox Christian understanding of the gospel. Our inclination as sinners is to reject God’s word over us, and there is nothing new about this debate; we are essentially creating an idol and putting him as Jesus.

You mentioned other issues?

Yes, one of the other topics is a proposed new hymnal, which introduces changes in the language that are contrary to Christian beliefs because there is a radical feminist agenda behind it. Also, some of the marriage services can be used for same-sex couples because the new provision never instructs a “man” or “woman” but rather “this couple” and “that couple.” If you believe in homosexual unions, you can use this for that kind of service.

Will church funds be used in producing this hymnal book? Will it replace the old book?

No, only the development fund will be funded by offerings from churches. The actual cost of printing will be borne by the churches that decide to buy it. And nobody will be forced to use it. The problem is that a lot of pastors will be saying it’s a great hymnal, and after you use the hymnal enough, you may start to believe it as well.

You mentioned earlier about restructuring churchwide offices?

Yes, a resolution is calling for us to eliminate current commissions and divisions and in their place put in five program units. Part of this will be justice commission that will be elevated to hold the highest authority because it has policing authority over the other churchwide bodies and assemblies.

This policing group will be enforcing a goal of having the ELCA people be made up with up 10 percent people of color. The program , called multi-cultural ministry, will be the highest of the authority unit so we can become a multi-cultured church. It will also enforce mandatory racism training and make sure the other programs are reaching that 10 percent goal.

There are so many problems with this approach, not the least of which is that it treats people of color as a means to an end rather than sinners also need to come to Christ. The other problem with it is that Lutheran churches in North America have always been multicultural in a sense that it had many Scandinavians and Germans. There has always been cultural diversity and ethnic diversity in the ELCA, but everyone who is white is treated as though they are all the same.

Word Alone was planning to create a splinter group within the ELCA, right?

Yes, but the feedback we had from our members was that people did not want to take an additional step to make a separate synod. However, they did approve an intermediate step to make an association of confessing churches.

This is a major step. What our movement wants to do is pull together the evangelical Lutheran churches and begin working together for the proper mission of the church. This may mean we can support missionary work with independent Lutheran agencies, or tell the Churchwide offices that we will not follow in a wrong path. Essentially we will be picking up the things that have been neglected.