Pastor’s Blog: What’s in Your Confession?

The gospel reading for Tuesday of Epiphany 5 in the Daily Lectionary begins: “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung round his neck and he were thrown into the sea” (Mark 9:42, RSV, “For All the Saints” Breviary, 360). The ESV says “him,” but it applies equally to “her.” Caveat emptor!

Martin Luther urges us to begin our prayers by listening to the Word of God so that the Holy Spirit can work to conform our lives to God’s good and gracious will. Sadly, as Luther knew well, the old sinner in us, the old Adam or old Eve, prays, “My will be done” fervently. This is how one makes a shipwreck of the Christian faith and a mess of a Lutheran denomination and/or congregation.

Let me be blunt. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the Confession of Faith of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America from a Lutheran perspective. It could be stronger in places, but I suspect that merging three major traditions of American Lutheranism in 1988 was so difficult that the confession was tweaked until the merging partner churches could all say, “yes.” Having been ordained into the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches on May 30, 1981, I knew the Missouri tradition that it carried. Welcomed into service in the Lutheran Church in America in August 1982 and officially received in May 1983, I came to know well the LCA tradition into which my mother was born. Serving a “grande dame” congregation of the old American Lutheran Church from 1995-2004, I came to know the old ALC tradition from that parish’s polity and traditions. Having served now for 31 of my 38 years of ordained ministry under the ELCA banner, I can still look myself in the mirror each morning, because the Confession of Faith of the ELCA is yet an orthodox confession. And I teach and preach according to that Confession.

I am as great a fan of Clive Staples Lewis as anyone my age and certainly appreciated his “Mere Christianity” among the body of his works. Saying this one more time, I grew up with a mother from the ULCA but in the LCMS, with a father who was Southern Baptist, and a paternal grandmother and that side of the family mostly Roman Catholic. My almost sister was Episcopalian. I dated Baptist, Church of Christ, and Methodist girls growing up, and my wife grew up in the LCMS but spent adolescence and young adulthood in non-denominational churches pastored mostly by her father. We cover a lot of theological waterfront between us, and so we know what Lewis means by “Mere Christianity.” Of course, Lewis knew you have to pick a confession of faith. You don’t worship in a “Mere Christianity” congregation. There ain’t one!

So, the greatest mess in the ELCA (but by no means exclusively) is that a lot of pastors and lay persons don’t believe what our Confession of Faith states. If I were to make a superficial diagnosis of how we got there, it would be that large numbers of our pastors were not properly formed in this faith before, during, and certainly after seminary. By design to make some of the merging partners happy, bishops were given only advisory status at the national level. And, frankly, many of those since elected to the office of synodical bishop either did not share that Confession of Faith or refused to hold pastors to that Confession of Faith. My present bishop was certainly well trained in the Lutheran tradition by one of the best American Lutheran theologians ever. But there are other bishops who either were not well-trained or simply did not have the requisite equipment (there’s not a nice word) to hold pastors to the church’s Confession of Faith. Why is that? Is it fear of being hypocritical because they also do not share that Confession of Faith? Or is it psychological fear that they will not be liked and reelected? Fearing God seems not to matter.
I have come to understand, sadly, that where there is smoke, there is fire. In other words, if foul-mouthed, heretics are the honored speakers at National Youth Gatherings, it’s because those in authority don’t think there’s a problem. Or, they fail to express outrage. Or, could it be, really, that we are so anxious that we will lose the kids by actually holding fast to our Confession of Faith that we simply act as if it doesn’t matter? Does our Lord’s clear word spoken today in Mark 9:42 not register? How about James’ dire warning in 3:1? “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (ESV). Teachers teach something. What?!

Do so few believe the Confession of Faith of our church that they do not believe what the Scriptures, creeds, and Lutheran confessions teach about judgment? Has rationalism so invaded so many hearts and minds that if Lutheran Christians cannot think something is possible, then they think their subjective reason has the power to trump the Scriptures, creeds, and confessions of our church?

I read an article in the New Yorker about the most influential ELCA pastor in America. The content of that pastor’s words screamed, “This woman does not believe the Christian faith.” Her bishop was quoted as thinking of her as a 21st century Martin Luther. If that’s true, then that bishop is as theologically incompetent a Lutheran Christian as that popular pastor. One parishioner read the article and said, “I needed to take a shower.”

As the late and last bishop of the Lutheran Church in America, James Crumley, remarked when the ELCA approved rostering homosexual pastors with partners: “You are in violation of your own Confession of Faith.” As the longtime Secretary of the LCA, Crumley was more than a little knowledgeable of its Confession of Faith, its constitution, the Scriptures, creeds, and Lutheran confessional writings. But power corrupts!

Back in the mid-1980s, I wrote the late Michael C.D. McDaniel, bishop of the North Carolina Synod of the LCA, inquiring about the possibility of a call in the synod. After having examined my paperwork, McDaniel wrote: “You look good on paper. Of course, anyone can look good on paper. I would have to meet you face-to-face and examine what you believe and teach before I would allow you to serve one of our congregations.” I could not afford to make the trip and so I remained where I was in Texas. God bless him. That was a bishop who understood his pastoral call. I fear we will never see another like him, but I have no doubt that he was welcomed with a “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

If the ELCA does not believe, teach, and confess its own Confession of Faith, why don’t the leaders honestly say so and move to change it quickly? That would be the honest thing to say: “We are not Lutheran Christians.” Let me be blunt. There is no room for liberationist theology in the ELCA’s Confession of Faith, but that’s what has driven this church for years. Professors teach it. Bishops believe it. Pastors push it, and frankly most sheep can’t say what it means to be Lutheran other than to say, “Grace.” I have served alongside of an arch-heretic who lied through three interviews to receive a call and then proceeded to push the liberationist agenda that owns the ELCA. And anything that dishonest is not of God!

I have never viewed the holy ministry as a career. It is a vocation. And so, I will remain faithful to my calling and the vows made on the day of my ordination to the holy ministry. I will believe, teach, and confess as a Lutheran Christian pastor. I am not going to retire anytime soon.

St Matthew's Pastor Sam Zumwalt

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The Rev. Dr. Samuel Zumwalt has worked in churches for 42 years and in May 2018 celebrated the 37th anniversary of his ordination to the holy ministry. He is a member of the Society of the Holy Trinity (www.societyholytrinity.org). In 2004, Pr. Zumwalt moved with his family to Wilmington from Texas, where he served for 23 years as pastor of small, midsize, and large congregations.