Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Response to Nestingen on "Being Unchurched"

Rev. Dr. James Nestingen, professor emeritus from Luther Seminary and active with the WordAlone network these days, wrote an article for the WordAlone website about what the changes in the ELCA mean for him and others who disagree with allowing a variety of viewpoints in the ELCA on homosexuality. Here's his article:

I posted this link to my Facebook page with a comment about "Rev. Dr. Nestingen gets to the heart of it: The #ELCA was a bad idea all along. Three cheers for the Old ALC! Hmm..." which was meant to be ironic. A series of comments followed, some not catching my irony. I've now turned my response to Nestingen and my Facebook friends into this blog post:

My beef with Nestingen on this is not personal, but theological. My father studied with him back in his seminary days (to great acclaim) and my faith and love of the Lutheran Confessions surely owes a great debt to him.

Like many committed teachers, Nestingen has not published a whole lot of his work (which took place in classrooms over many decades). I used his writings and his theological approach to the Lutheran Confessional Writings as part of my MA Thesis (MA is in Systematic Theology, emphasis in Lutheran Confessional Theology). What I found as I analyzed the way he uses the documents is that he often intersperses American political philosophy and highly preferences one particular historical branch of Lutheranism which my family shares with him. It's a straigt line from the German Reformation to it's adoption in Norway (subscribing to the Augsburg Confession and Catechisms) to the United States via the Norwegian Synod (and some Haugean pietists thrown in from time to time) that kept Norwegian in worship long into the 20th Century, who formed the core of the ALC and had their stronghold in Luther Seminary (and St. Olaf and PLU). Nestingen again and again seems to refer to this as the "true Lutheran" herritage. This works great for Norwegian American Lutherans (who held a great deal of power in the ALC and less since the merger in 1988), but I just don't see how he can claim this as the predominant form of Lutheranism, or the mainstream of Christianity.

I'm actually OK with Nestingen (and anyone else) holding to their interpretation of the Bible as being against gay and lesbian sexual relationships (I know, this bugs some folks, but see my posting on for my logic). What annoys me about this particular article is the way in which Nestingen uses what the Lutheran Confessions have to say about the Church in a way that to me communicates exactly the opposite teaching than they are meant to.

When the Lutheran reformers crafted the Augsburg Confession they were defending themselves to the Roman Catholic Church (which was ready to boot them for what they had been teaching) and attempting to show that they were really part of the Christian Church. This is definition that Nestingen uses, it comes from Article VII: "Also they teach that one holy Church is to continue forever. The Church is the congregation of saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered." After the split from the Catholics, this became an important point of unity for the protestants, because before the Augsburg Confession, the Church exists only within the bounds of the Roman Catholic Church. To be outside of the institution was to be separated from Christ. The reformers said no, the Church of Jesus is not tied to any human institution--it exists within those institutions, but also outside of it--wherever the Gospel is rightly preached and the sacraments rightly administered.

Nestingen instead flips this around to say that the ELCA (which by his ascertaining is not preaching the Gospel rightly) is THEREFOR no longer the Church. This was not in any way what the reformers were after--they were making a case that the Church could exist outside of its institutional forms NOT that the institutional forms (as broken as they may be) could not be the Church. Later on, the reformers got grumpy, started calling the pope the antichrist and other such nasty things, and started killing people who disagreed with them. But in terms of the Augsburg Confession, anyhow, they were making the case that the Church of Jesus MAY exist within our (or anybody's) attempts at organizing it and it MAY exist outside of these organizations--and really we're pretty poor judges of what God wants anyhow. The ELCA remains the Church even if we just made the stupidest decision ever made in the history of the Christianity. Otherwise, he's claiming that a gay pastor in a relationship (who Nestingen and others sees as an unrepentant sinner) has no chance of preaching law and gospel, offering forgiveness, and leading people to relationship with Christ. This is also not what the Confessions are after either.

Support for this comes in the very next section of the Augsburg Confession (Article VIII) entitled "What the Church is": "Although the Church properly is the congregation of saints and true believers, nevertheless, since in this life many hypocrites and evil persons are mingled therewith, it is lawful to use Sacraments administered by evil men, according to the saying of Christ: The Scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat, etc. Matt. 23:2. Both the Sacraments and Word are effectual by reason of the institution and commandment of Christ, notwithstanding they be administered by evil men."

So, I will allow that Nestigen thinks homosexuality is sin, and that preachers and congregations should not promote sin. Because the issue is clearly central to Christian faith as he sees it, I will also allow that he thinks he and many other people currently in the ELCA would be better served in relationship to another Christian denomination. I don't have a problem with that way of reading the Bible or people who are deciding to leave because they feel conscious bound to do so (though it makes me sad). But I will not permit (without comment anyhow) any Lutheran claiming (especially using the Augsburg Confession) that the ELCA is no longer a Church because of a decision that was made on how to read the Bible on the hot issue of the day, and I would argue this in the other direction as well. The institution or its official policies is not what makes the Church, it is Christ--proclaimed in Word and Sacrament.

Note carefully what Nestingen says here, near the end of this article: "Finally, since it isn’t institutional, the strongly suggested “wherever” of the seventh Article of the Augsburg Confession can under some circumstances lead beyond Lutheran parishes into other denominations."

Under some circumstances? Seriously? So much for the "wherever". He means to say: wherever the gospel is rightly preached and the sacraments rightly administered and is Lutheran (and maybe in other churches that are Lutheran but don't call themselves that). I hear in this that the "One True Lutheran" church (ELCA) has lost it's standing as such in Nestingen's eyes (and the LCMS, WELS, and other Lutheran groups aren't high on his list either based on his comments for those groups). I'm guessing that this happened when the ALC (more true?) merged into the ELCA and didn't get to do things exactly the way they had been doing them. But this understanding of the Church is a far cry from "wherever"--and I think he means wherever true Lutheran doctrine is being taught. Anybody else read him that way? If that's so, that's different.

On my Facebook page one of my friends who suggested we "Revive the LCA too while we're at it" and something about "ALC people wearing Birkenstocks" I replied with the following smart ass comment:

"Like the ELCA, the LCA was an abomination. The "One True Church" is the true heir of the Reformation, The Norwegian Lutheran Church that adopted the Unaltered Augsburg Confession (and never fooled around with Calvinists like the Germans). This perfect line was then carried to this country via the Norwegian Lutheran Synod (that never should have swtiched to English in worship) and perhaps some of the more Confessional Haugean Norwegains. This became the ALC (especially its leadership) and was represented fully at Luther Seminary (before that unholy union with Northwestern). These are my people (and Nestigens) and we would never be caught dead in Birkenstocks (ok, maybe, but only because they are amazingly practical and not flashy)."

My friend Jason, who is an elder in a more conservative Acts 29 church, didn't catch my sarcasm (or objected to my smart assery) and (rightly) rebuked me for speaking about other Christians in this way. To which I replied:

"Jason (and any other Christ follower) I have no problem recognizing you as a brother in Christ, and recognizing your Acts 29 church as part of the "One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church" even though you and I disagree on any number of theological issues. In fact, I value your witness and conversation (esp over beer). As Christians we are less when we allow differences to split us from one another.

I honestly believe that the Church exists among those who gather to hear the Word and receive the sacraments--inside Lutheran Churches and certainly outside of them. I don't think we have any unique claims to rightness (no matter how Norwegian I may be). But the Lutheran way of being Christian makes the most sense to me, and I believe God has called me to be a part of this church. I have no doubt that God has called you to be a part of your church. And I have, with you Jason (many years ago), experienced Christ in an Assembly of God congregation which I doubt would pass Dr. Nestingen's orthodoxy test (nor mine, and that's part of why I didn't linger in that community too long, but God used it at the right time to lead me deeper into following Jesus). But I would never, ever say that was not the Church. To do so would be to deny the power of Christ to use broken, wrong headed people to proclaim the Good News of Jesus. And that puts me right out of a job."

I'm actually not all that interested in talking about homosexuality, gay sex, or anything of the sort. But I am interested in talking about the Bible, the Lutheran Confessions, and how best to be the Church witnessing to Jesus in this time and place.

And let me tell you, I've gotten to do more of that in the past month than probably ever before. People hear I'm a Lutheran and they want to know how I read the Bible. A room full of atheists and former Christians drinking wine and eating dessert asked me to talk about my faith---and they were interested! The waitress at the Pub shared with me that she grew up Lutheran and was thinking about coming back after the assembly vote. I spent half an afternoon this week at a coffee shop talking to my favorite Atheist-Bhuddist friend about what it means to be a follower of Jesus. (Why don't more of my Christian friends want to do this?) And I got to reconnect to my old friend Jason and talk faith with him over beer--which I hope is the first of many such conversations. I live for this stuff!

I'm actually kind of offended that Nestigen uses "unchurched" to describe himself and those who disagree with the decisions of the ELCA. You may be "un-denominationed". But there are many hurting people out there who really are "unchurched" and way more importantly have never heard the gospel in a way that they can understand it, in a way that makes sense in their lives, and in a way to which they can respond. There are people with questions that Jesus can help them make sense of, there are people with hurts that a community of faith centered on Christ can help heal, and there are people desperate to hear Good News in a world that is so full of bad news.

And in my experience in the past month I'm finding it easier to talk to those outside of the Christian worldview about why Jesus matters to me (and could possibly also to them) because we have made a decision to allow people who think being gay is OK to be a part of our church--and we haven't kicked out those who think its not OK. This is a powerful witness to these people (and to me) about what life looks like when you center it not on human concerns, but on unity in Christ. It's strange, it's not what they expect, and it makes them take a second look at this thing called the church (and Jesus) which pretty much a whole generation (18-40 year olds) as well as many older folks have written off as irrelivant, homophobic, hypocritical, and out of touch with reality. (see the book "UnChristian: What A New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity... and Why It Matters" for the statistics on these).


  1. Teacher, we saw someone* casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.’ 39But Jesus said, ‘Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us

    Matthew 9:38-40

    Am I the only one that sees some application here?

  2. I offered my own blogpost in response to Nestingen's article yesterday. The gist of my post was to comment on Nestingen's elitism and to suggest that the ELCA continues to be a reforming church and not merely a reformed church frozen in the 16th century.

    Today, I added another post referencing yours. I even added your picture!

  3. I have to say that I was 'shocked' when I clicked over here to read an article that I thought was on the 'unchurched'

  4. Great reflections, Erik. I pray that Nestingen (and others) find what they're looking for in the new brand of Lutheranism that will emerge. He's clearly been unhappy for a while. It's just too bad he continues to teach at an ELCA seminary and poison the well. At this point, I think he's moved beyond "trying to reform from the inside". He's in a position of authority and influence over hundreds of would-be pastors who want to faithfully serve ELCA congregations.

    1. Is it not possible that many, maybe most, believe the well has been poisoned for some time? Surely the open mindedness of the ECLA elites allow for uneducated detractors such as Nestingen to have their say. Will not the Word win through in the end?

  5. Erik, this is a fantastic post (I grew up in that abomination, the LCA, by the way.) I don't have anything substantial to add right now. I wrote something called "We are all Gay Now" on a website that I haven't shared with most people -- yet.

  6. Erik, I've been doing some FB "fighting" myself, and was led through researching/reading blogs to your post. It is excellent! An excellent commentary on Dr. Nestingen's writings.

    I'm a former Luther Seminarian, late 80s/early 90s. I mostly loved my studies there, but boy, did I get sick of the constant striving for orthodoxy! When it comes down to it, does all this really matter? What matters is the gospel of Jesus Christ. Thank you for holding that up!

  7. Good post, Eric. I appreciate your thoughtful commentary.

    And to Joelle, no you weren't the only one for whom last week's gospel words seemed so timely. Makes one wonder how folks can regard scripture as "dead" or not applicable to this present day. Hmmmmm.

  8. Rev. Keith E.O. HomstadSeptember 26, 2009 at 7:58 AM

    Just a brief note: Nestigen is "emeritus" professor at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN. He has not been on the faculty for several years so he's no longer in any position to "poison the well" as someone mentioned above. Actually, when I had him for a teacher he was not spouting the stuff he has recently blasted off. I don't know what's really going on, but it sure sounds like a bitter and disappointed man is venting his frustration against the younger generation (which he taught) that simply does its own thinking - and does not agree with his political position. Pity.

  9. however, Keith, there are others are Luther that do share his views. I wonder what it's like at my old Alma Mater these days.

  10. I also liked your post, and linked to it from my blog post on the same subject.

    I counted up one time and I've been in six different Lutheran denominations at one time or another in my life, mostly because of mergers. The individual parishes were much more alike than different, even the LCMS one.

  11. Wonderful post, Eric! Jim Nestingen is a great guy but his perspective is truly, as you document, oriented toward a populace he thinks of as "us", Midwestern rural Lutherans. When he visited NC he protested the 'information elite' who were dominating things, and was met with laypeople from a church in Durham who said "but that's who WE are..." Surprise, surprise, Jim.