The Voice of a Dissident

by Rev. Dr. Lothar Schwabe

photo of Rev. Dr. Lothar Schwabe

Rev. Dr. Lothar Schwabe

Presented at the Solid Ground Conference “THE FAILURE OF DISSENT AND NEW BEGINNINGS”, Calgary, Sept. 21, 2011

Take heart. Be of good cheer
John 16:33
“In this world you will have troubles. But take heart (be of good cheer, KJV) I have overcome the world.”

At this conference on “The Failure of Dissent and New Beginnings” I am with fellow dissidents who, like me, have failed to have our ELCIC remain loyal to the Bible and treat it as the only source of its doctrines and actions.

We are totally dependent on what God has chosen to reveal to us in what we know about God. That is why the Bible is so important for us.

I believe that our God is so enormous, so unimaginable, and so multi-dimensional that our human mind is incapable of objectively perceiving and analyzing God. We simply cannot comprehend God. I agree with Paul, “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?” Romans 11:33-34 (NIV)

God reveals himself to us in the inspired Word of God. That is all we have.

What God has revealed to us in Holy Scriptures does not even make much sense. It does not make sense to humans because it comes out of the mind of God which is far greater than any human can comprehend.

  • Grace does not make sense.
  • God’s love for sinners does not make any sense.
  • Forgiveness does not make any sense.
  • Miracles do not make any sense.
  • Christ’s death on the cross for our sins does not make any sense.
  • The Trinity does not make any sense.
  • God’s mercy does not make any sense. The laws of nature do not reveal any mercy to us. Just try to jump off a twenty story building and hope for the law of gravity to show you some mercy.

Holy Scriptures have a message that is radical, amazing, and defies all human logic. Human wisdom could never come up with something like “Saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.”

What God has revealed to us often does not make any sense to us because God, like his peace, passes all understanding. We cannot comprehend this mind-boggling divine reality. We can only believe.

Actually, it is the heresies that make sense. All heresies are products of the human mind and therefore always make sense. Arians made sense in their claim that Jesus was just a human being. Antinomians make sense.

It also makes sense the church should be inclusive and not exclude homosexuals from being ordained, even though some parts of the Bible have something else to say about homosexuality. Jesus did not talk about homosexuality. Therefore it makes sense to ignore all that Jesus said about marriage being between a man and a woman. This all makes sense and sounds reasonable. The problem for us is that the revealed Word of God has something different to say about homosexuality.

Sin makes a lot of sense. It makes no sense to tell the truth all the time because it gets you into deep trouble. Greed makes sense and not only on Wall Street.

My point is that what makes sense and sounds reasonable is not always right before God. On the other hand, teachings from the Word of God that may sound foolish are right. That all is very confusing to intelligent people who have been trained to reason and think logically. Our choice is to follow the wisdom of the world and human intelligence or to believe what Holy Scriptures say.

Paul must have confused a few intelligent scholars when he said,

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing,
But to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
The intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”
Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar?
Where is the philosopher of this age?
Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?
1 Corinthians 1:18-20 (NIV)

The human mind has a great way of messing things up. Humans can rationalize anything. Luther knew that and cautioned about “die Hure des Verstandes”, the whore of reason. Unfortunately many of our brothers and sisters in our ELCIC have decided to follow the wisdom of this world.

God is not an object that can be studied objectively. Theology must approach the Word of God with humility and respect and stand under the Word and not over it. The wisdom of this world must not take control of Holy Scriptures. Article II of our Constitution is good and it is very Lutheran.

We are totally dependent upon Holy Scriptures to know anything about God.

No theological tower of Babel can penetrate the heavens to get a glimpse of God.

That is why Lutherans (Sola Scriptura) along with Christians of other denominations have such high respect for the Bible as the inspired Word of God. Yes, God spoke through people and also through a mule. But it was God who spoke.

Luther insisted that we have to let the Bible speak for itself and take the Word of God for what it says.

Those who won the vote told us, “but we have to interpret the Bible”. True. However, anybody who knows more that one language and is able to interpret will know that an interpretation is not valid if the translation says the opposite of what it means in the other language. It is simply a wrong interpretation when it says the opposite of what Romans 1:26-33 and 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 say.

There are four critical “Ifs”:

  • If the Bible is the revealed Word of God, then we cannot mess around with it. We have to take it or leave it.
  • If the Bible is not the revealed Word of God but a human product, then the teachings of the church do not carry any divine authority.
  • If our knowledge of God is not based upon the revealed Word of God, then everybody can make up their own God.
  • If reason is the ultimate authority, then faith has no substance and you can believe whatever you like.

The Constitution of the ELCIC (Article II) treats Holy Scriptures as divinely inspired (Article II, Section 3) and authoritative for what we believe and do. But our current ELCIC treats Holy Scriptures as either a human product that can be decided upon by a single majority vote at a National Convention or at best as a mixture of divine and human products which gives the National Convention the right to decide which is which. This is the critical point at which we, the dissidents, tell our church, “You are wrong and our Constitution is right.”

To say that this is just a work in progress and that our individual congregations can state their own position in this matter is simply a political ploy. It is an act of damage control in an attempt to prevent congregations from leaving the ELCIC. There has been a paradigm shift in the ELCIC. It is no longer the church we knew. That is why we are here.

Our ELCIC did not hate homosexuals when it refused to ordain homosexuals or marry them until the last National Convention. It did so because of our understanding of Holy Scriptures. As a pastor of the ELCIC I have never witnessed a refusal to minister to homosexuals. We wanted to be faithful to the Bible.

Our National Bishop and Synodical Bishops were not homophobic when, in 1991, they affirmed the Social Statement on Sex Marriage and Family (1970). They took their stand because of Article II of the Constitution of the ELCIC which confesses the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be the “only source of the Church’s doctrine and the authoritative standard for the faith and life of the Church.”

Like our former Bishops, we are not homophobic; we just want to be faithful to the Holy Scriptures. That is why we are here.

With its new theology, our church has become less of a Lutheran church and more like the United Church of Canada or even the Unitarian Church. It must be a real problem for other Lutheran Churches like Lutheran Church Canada to relate to the ELCIC as if it were still a Lutheran Church in its confessions and actions.

So we are now in a church that consists of two groups of people: Those who believe what the Word of God says and those who believe what the Word of God should have said, according to their opinion.

With its recent decision, the ELCIC no longer takes the Bible as the sole source of the church’s teachings and actions. That cuts to the very core of what we believe.

What hurts is that we all had so many social relations through our church; so many friends and connections. Now even some families are divided.

The vote was 61% to 39%. People like us are in the minority. Can the majority be wrong? In Nazi Germany the majority of Christians were wrong and people like Bonhoeffer were right. Group-think can do marvellous things. People have a psychological need to belong to the majority and to please their superiors.

Yes, we are a minority. But the majority that voted for the changes at the last convention is a huge minority among all the Christians in this world.

The 5.6 million strong Mekane Jesu Church of Ethiopia is cutting its ties with the ELCA and forming a strong relationship with the North American Lutheran Church. Worldwide, our ELCIC is on the outside of Lutheranism and of all Christianity.

Many of us are grieving. I have even shed tears. What shall we do now? Where shall we go? Some dissidents may stay with the ELCIC and test the claim that the ELCIC is a loving and welcoming church, open to embrace diversity with hearts filled with love. You might then conclude that this love includes us dissidents who enrich the diversity of the ELCIC.

Many others simply cannot do that anymore. They are looking for a new beginning. The greatest loss to the ELCIC will not be the congregations which will now take their votes to leave the ELCIC. The greatest loss will be the individual faithful members who will now leave their ELCIC congregation and find another church home, or who will simply give up on their church. No amount of damage control can prevent that.

As a dissident member of the ELCIC, my message to leaders and pastors of my church is, “You have abandoned the Word of God and are on a path of destruction. Repent or you will perish.”

My prediction is that, unless my church repents and returns to honour its Constitution, the ELCIC will dwindle and end up merging with the Anglicans. This may be the only way to get rid of Article II in our Constitution. That article is unalterable and cannot be changed as long as the ELCIC exists. A merger with the Anglicans requires a new constitution and would be a way to get rid of Article II. That is a very attractive solution to the constitutional problem.

What does the Word of God have to say to us who are likely gathered like this for the last time?

Be of good cheer. The real church, which is a spiritual and not an organizational entity, is as alive as ever. My ecclesiology has changed. Leaving a denomination does not mean leaving the church. It may simply mean a fresh start as it was in the case of Martin Luther. Those who left the Roman Catholic Church during the Reformation did not leave the Church of Jesus Christ. We are not dividing the real invisible Church.

The Holy Spirit is active, still calling and leading and guiding those who gather in the Name of Jesus; building the real church.

Be of good cheer, take heart, have courage!

Jesus promised not to leave you. You may go different ways and seek different church families. Some of you want to be in a Canadian Lutheran Church like CALC or LCC. Some will find a home in NALC or LCMC. It is important that we do not compete but support each other in the cause to stand up for the authority of Holy Scriptures. We all need each other and must work together.

These are good times for the Church of Jesus Christ. Our congregations will not have all that many lukewarm Christians anymore.

You will be with people who are not going to church because it is a tradition. Yes, there will be some hurt. That always comes with disturbed human relations. I personally find that to be true. Smile. Be of good cheer. God is with you! There are good days ahead for you because they are God’s days.

The failure of dissent? Perhaps our witness was not in vain. New beginnings or another reformation, a reshaping, forming something different, a forming of a new wine skin? If it is God’s will, the Holy Spirit will guide you. May God have mercy on us all.

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