Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Greatest of These Is Hope?

If you live in the Des Moines area, you've probably heard of Lutheran Church of Hope. It is the fastest growing and largest congregation in the ELCA. It's also the largest church, regardless of denominational affiliation, in Iowa. Much of Hope's ministry is highlighted by local media outlets - so even if you're not interested in church, you are likely aware of its existence.

A mere mention of the church's name in Lutheran circles is likely to cause a strong response. Some will speak enthusiastically about Hope's rapid growth in the past 20 years...their dynamic and passionate pastoral staff, especially Pastor Mike Householder...their multi-sensory worship experiences...their small group ministries...their ability to inspire and mobilize their people for mission and outreach. Others will speak critically that Hope's growth is too rapid...that their Kingdom Expansion is more like corporate takeover...that they don't regularly participate in ministries that aren't Hope-sponsored...that it's a club for trendy, young, suburban Christians (a.k.a. "Hopesters")...that they are the place where disgruntled congregants flee to when times get tough at other churches.

For my part, I admire much of what Hope says and does. Most mainline congregations complain that they don't have any young people; Hope goes out and finds them and gets them involved in the life of their congregation. Most of their new members are un-churched. They are willing to embrace tradition without being enslaved by it. Hope is clear about what it teaches and what is expected of Christian disciples. Often, when I become upset at things that Hope is doing, my resentment is rooted in jealousy. However, there are a few times that I think that what they do is simply wrong.

One example is Pastor Mike's public responses to the human sexuality votes at the 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly. In the months leading up to the vote, Pastor Mike was clear that this wasn't a core issue, but a secondary one. He often indicated that Hope was "threatening to stay" in the ELCA, even if they disagreed with the voting outcome. In the days that followed the assembly's decision to allow people in "publicly accountable life-long monogamous same-sex relationships" to serve as ELCA pastors, Householder became more outspoken. His quotes appeared on television stations and newspapers (not to mention blogs and YouTube videos) about how God's Word wasn't up to a vote and how the ELCA had strayed from Scripture. Hope chose to withhold their benevolent giving to the SE Iowa Synod and ELCA Churchwide ministries in protest of the Churchwide assembly votes. Pastor Mike has since softened his public outcry on this issue, recently saying, "I don't think it's fair the church gets reduced to this issue. The source of our unity runs a lot deeper than a political or social agenda. What defines us as a church, first and foremost, and what holds us together, is Jesus."

Hope's About Us page features a link to Pastor Mike's Q&A response to the Churchwide assembly. It addresses all of the major questions and concerns that people (on both "sides") have expressed. As with most things Hope-related, I'm completely on-board with much of what he says. That said, there were a few items that I take issue with, including:

"Hope receives no money from the ELCA."
They may not currently receive ELCA funds, but as a mission congregation of the ELCA, Lutheran Church of Hope exists because of the ministry of the synod and Churchwide bodies. They are withholding funds from the same organizations that started Hope in the first place.

"The ELCA churchwide assembly does not accurately represent the prevailing view in our denomination."

With what information does he make this claim? The people who attend the Churchwide assembly is as close to a representative sample of the ELCA as you can find. That group consists of 40% clergy and 60% lay people that gather every two years. The members of the Churchwide assembly are different every year. Anyone - including members of Hope - is able to be elected as a delegate to the Churchwide assembly.

"If the prevailing view taught throughout the ELCA (in our congregations) changes and aligns with the ELCA churchwide assembly votes, or if we could no longer teach and practice what we believe the Bible compels us to do regarding sexual boundaries, then we would have to ask whether or not Hope and the ELCA can continue to be church together. We are not there yet."

Adding "yet" seemed petty and presumptuous, as though to say, "we intend to leave someday, but not today."

"Unless we are going to insist that women who pray today in church wear head coverings (and there’s no applicable biblical reason to do so), then for the sake of biblical consistency, we can not insist that Paul’s command for the first-century Corinthian church to separate from sexual sinners applies to us, and certainly not to the relationship between Hope and the ELCA. That would be “proof texting” – a very dangerous game for Christians to play, and one that ultimately diminishes the significance of God’s Word in a church (picking and choosing Bible texts to support our causes, rather than letting the full text and context of a particular passage compel, challenge, and guide our lives). "
The argument could be made that people who say that the ELCA has strayed from Scripture are doing this very thing - "proof texting" - to make their argument of why openly gay people can't be pastors. This ignores the possibility that two people can read the same section of Scripture and come to different conclusions; which just might be the work of the Spirit. Who gets to decide which Bible passages carry more weight than others?

"Q: What about Abraham or Solomon, who had multiple wives and concubines? What about David, who committed adultery?
A: The Bible describes these relationships, but does not bless them. God does not bless polygamy. God does not bless adultery. God does not bless premarital sex. God does not bless homosexual behavior. God does not bless any sexual behavior, outside of marriage, at any point in the Bible."
God may not have blessed those relationships, but God DID bless the people in those relationships and equipped them with gifts for ministry. Abraham, Solomon, and David fulfilled the dual roles of king and priest and were blessed by God to be a blessing to others. Even if God won't bless homosexual sex, can't God bless those people for pastors?

"The Bible is not silent about homosexuality, so we can’t be silent or pretend that God really has nothing relevant to say about the matter. Homosexuality, like it or not, has become a major social issue in the world today, and God has a word that needs to be included in the conversation."
True, but the Bible points to much bigger issues than sexuality. There are over 2,000 verses in Scripture that talk about caring for the poor...and six or seven that talk about homosexual sex. Why not use Hope's massive following to fill the city with cries for feeding hungry, clothing naked, healing sick, visiting imprisoned (a.k.a. "social justice"). Jesus never talked about homosexuality. He did talk about divorce, though. Where's the public outcry for the ELCA's acceptance of divorced pastors?

"There are several other Lutheran denominations, as well as Lutheran “movements” or “alliances”... (and then he lists several groups with a paragraph-length explanation for each one)"
If Hope isn't interested in leaving the ELCA and wants to focus on unity, why mention groups that are causing denominational fracture? Doesn't this promote the schismatics' cause and stir up congregational enthusiasm for exploring non-ELCA options?

"All people, pastors at Hope included, are sinners. Being a sinner doesn’t disqualify a person from being a pastor. Being an unrepentant sinner does. Repentant sinners acknowledge their sinful behavior, seek forgiveness, and do not claim by words or actions that their behavior is God blessed and therefore something that should continue. On the other hand, pastors involved in same gender sexual relationships are involved in ongoing, and therefore unrepentant, sin.... For the sake of order and consistency, unrepentant sinners are asked to step away from church leadership positions."
The notion that everyone confesses and repents of every sin they've ever committed is ludicrous to me. There's no way to know the ways in which we sin daily just by being part of a sinful world / culture / community. What if even the simplest aspect of suburban American living is sinful? The food we eat...the water we drink...the fuel we put in our cars...the 2,000 square foot houses. I could argue that all of it is sinful, and yet we continue to live that lifestyle, refuse to discard it, and don't repent of that sin every moment. When Lutherans confess our sins, we confess "things known and unknown." I believe God's grace is sufficient to cover all of our sins, even the ones we don't repent of.


These are some the disagreements I have with Pastor Mike; but they're not deal-breakers. I don't hate Hope or its people. My family is very close with people who are members at Hope. I see them as brothers and sisters in Christ, partners in ministry. Not enemies.

I pray that people at Hope feel the same way about people in the ELCA.

I argue theology with my friends all of the time. They are still my friends.

My sisters and I disagree on a variety of things. We are still family.

At the invitation of Lutheran Church of Hope, the SE Iowa Synod Assembly will be held there in May. I, for one, will be curious to know how that goes. Perhaps it will be a step towards unity, not division.

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