A Call to Faithfulness, Then and Now

by Rev. Daniel Biles, St. Paul Lutheran Church, Spring Grove, PA


[Editor's  note: This article was written before the ELCA Churchwide Assembly took place, August 17-23, 2009]


By odd, or perhaps divine, coincidence, the ELCA Churchwide Assembly will end on the Sunday on which the Old Testament reading is from Joshua 24:  the renewing of the covenant at Shechem, with Joshua's ringing clarion call to God's people:  "Choose this day whom you will serve, but for me and my house, we will serve the Lord."


Joshua's challenge to the tribes of Israel as they prepared to enter the Promised Land was a call to faithfulness:  faithfulness to the covenant God had made with His people at Mt. Sinai, following their salvation from slavery in Egypt.  Coincidentally, the sexuality statement before the Churchwide Assembly bears the title, Journeying Together Faithfully.  The difference between Joshua's call and the Sexuality Task Force's claim should not be overlooked.  Joshua issued a challenge to the people of God to be faithful to the covenant the Lord had made with them.  The ELCA document presumes that we are "journeying together faithfully."  That is a great, even arrogant presumption, for our faithfulness to the Lord is a judgment only God can render. 


It occurs to me, also, that this summer is the 20th anniversary of a similar Joshua-like call to faithfulness:  the first "Call to Faithfulness" assembly at St. Olaf College in 1989.  That conference was called because many in the newly-formed ELCA feared that the faithfulness of Lutheranism in the United States, and the ELCA in particular, was in doubt.  The keynote speech for that conference was titled by the same name, by Robert Jenson.


I recently pulled that speech from my filing cabinet and re-read it, curious to find out if Jenson's lecture was prophetic of the future of the ELCA.  Alas, as despair might have predicted, it was; the speech was a prescient anticipation of the course of events in the ELCA over the last twenty years.  We have not arrived at this Churchwide Assembly by accident.  We were warned.  A few reflections on Jenson's lecture will serve the purpose of this writing; those interested in the pursuit of faithfulness may wish to re-read Jenson's lecture in full and draw their own conclusions. 





Jenson began his speech with the claim:  "Faithfulness is a uniquely biblical blessing.  [It] arises when we commit our future selves to some particular possibility, as against incompatible other possibilities - when, for example, we choose one man or woman to be the spouse instead of all others."  Only a religion shaped by covenant can call forth faithfulness as its chief virtue.  Only a God who makes covenants with His people can be jealous - and that is to our good, for all true love is jealous of its beloved.  The call to faithfulness to the covenant - Sinai's, our Baptism into Christ - is simply the virtue God's jealousy requires of us.


By contrast, said Jenson, the normal gods of religion shape and fit themselves to serve our wants and needs.  The pagan gods of antiquity "were marvelously tolerant."  So are the modern versions that parade under the banal banner of "inclusivity." 


The particular form this takes, asserted Jenson, is gnosticism:  "Gnosticism appeared in the first centuries of the Gospel's history as the Gospel's inevitable alternative and great test....  Gnosticism of the purest form is as vital in San Francisco or Minneapolis as ever in Alexandria or Corinth ... [it] ‘stays' in Christianity ... to transform its discourse into expressions of ‘our' spirituality or ‘our' suitable God." 


Does any of this sound familiar?




We are called "to be faithful to a particular God among the many candidates... This God has an identity.  He can be picked out and addressed specifically.  A faithful Church is one that is careful to do so."  At its basic level, that means honoring the proper name of God:  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  "A faithful Church would be faithful to these names, and so to the particularity of her God."  This led to the most famous, and for some the only remembered, line of the speech:  "A Church ashamed of her God's name is ashamed of her God."


"Ashamed of her God"?  The ELCA is positively embarrassed about it.  Simply go to most any worship service organized by an agency of the ELCA:  a synod assembly, a seminary chapel service, youth gathering.  Or check out the ELW. 




"Second, we are to be faithful to that individual person by whom God identifies Himself to us, Jesus called the Christ.  That this man is God's self-identification for us ... is the insight which throughout Christian history has distinguished Christianity from its alternatives.  [The] doctrine of the Trinity ... is the great doctrine about faithfulness."  


Gnosticism in the Church can always be distinguished by this:  it finds the historical particularity of Jesus offensive.  "Surely, it is said, God cannot be in any person at all...whatever may be true of the human individual Jesus ... surely the "Christ" of Christianity must be a "Christ-principle...."  That Jesus was a male, a Jew, a friend of sinners, a drinker of wine, that He died on a cross, that He was "hung up on righteousness," or, we might add now, that He taught marriage as between male and female, for life:  all of these and more are attributes of the particular human being Jesus Christ, Who is the Second Person of God, Who is our Lord.  "A faithful Church would at any time or place cherish and flaunt precisely those particularities of the man Jesus, which the religiosi of that time and place were most unwilling to associate with God.  For these will be the marks by which the Church's God will be at that time and place most clearly distinguished from the run of religious offerings. 




The next section of the speech exposed in advance what would become the works-righteous activism that has come to dominate so many quarters of the ELCA:  "We are faithful to God in that we are faithful to the Gospel.... The Gospel is a message ... that ‘One, Jesus the Israelite, is risen from the dead.'  A faithful Church would see the one purpose of her existence in the bringing of this message to the nations and ages.  The Church is permanently tempted to put other commissions ahead of this one ... The Gospel, faithless Christians think, is ‘just words,' whereas we want ‘really' to ‘do' something in the world."  Therein is exposed much of the ideologically-driven political or social agendas operative in the ELCA today.




Jenson identified the norms of faithfulness - Scripture, creed, confessions - as the means to faithfulness.  "God uses them to keep us faithful to Himself."  But, he went on to say, "Canon, creeds, and confessions cannot have their role in God's providence for the Church unless the actual texts are present in the Church's life. ... When the Church has wished to be faithful, it has been concerned with the precise text of Scripture - and of creed and confession - as with life or death. ... A faithful Church would love and read and meditate the very words... But if the text is not there, nothing can be done with it.  Some may wish that the grammatical gender of Israel's God were not masculine, or at least that biblical authors' texts were not so syntactically complex as to need pronouns to make sense.  But neither of these is fact; and readers who rewrite to pretend they are the fact simply rob their hearers of the text of Scripture." 


On this score, the recently-published (and misnamed) Evangelical Lutheran Worship, blithely adopted by most pastors and parishes, is the greater danger to the faithfulness of the ELCA than anything that the 2009 Churchwide Assembly could do.  For it is training us to pray and worship in a language other than that of the Bible.  As Jenson predicted it would, "In wide territories of the Church ... ideology has banished the text of Scripture from the life of the congregations."




One could go on.  Readers may wish to read the lecture in full, if they can find it.  Was Jenson right in what he said?  If yes, what conclusions should we draw for our ELCA today? 


And this Sunday, as the Scripture is read, may we hear Joshua's call to faithfulness to the covenant of our Baptism with fresh ears, as judgment, blessing, and challenge for the ELCA, our congregations, for us all:  "Choose this day which God you will serve." 


Pr. Daniel Biles
St. Paul Lutheran Church
Spring Grove, PA