Seven years ago, when the ELCA Churchwide Assembly adopted the Social Statement Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust, people began to ask, “Why do we need social statements? Isn’t the Bible enough?” And the answer is that while the Bible is our norm for faith and life, the Bible does not address directly some of the social issues that we face in our lives today. As Lutherans we take the witness of scripture very seriously. We also believe that God has given us other resources to help us discern how to respond to contemporary issues. They include our Lutheran theological traditions, modern science and social science, contemporary ethics. Our social statements use all these resources and more to inform and shape the social statements. Social statements are a significant part of the ELCA.
“ELCA social statements are teaching and policy documents that provide broad frameworks to assist us in thinking about and discussing social issues in the context of faith and life. They are meant to help communities and individuals with moral formation, deliberation and thoughtful engagement with current social issues as we participate in God’s work in the world.”
In our 28 year history the ELCA has adopted 12 social statements at Churchwide Assemblies. Each social statement was initiated at a previous Churchwide Assembly and involved numerous years of study as well as several opportunities for input and feedback. In addition, the ELCA Church Council has adopted 14 social messages, shorter statements on topics that are more focused, less far-reaching. These statements and messages are useful and important, and I commend them to you for study in your congregations—in adult studies, women’s and men’s groups, youth and young adult groups. You can find them at www.elca.org, and many of them also have study resources to go with them.
Because these statements are such important documents for our church, I will be using this “Words from the Bishop” column to address each of the social statements over the next few months. Today I want to address one of the very first social statements, adopted in 1991—“The Church in Society: A Lutheran Perspective.” This social statement outlines why we do social statements, and what is at stake. It is an excellent place to begin.
The statement begins with 6 Affirmations, setting the context. First is “The gospel and the Church,” which states that the church’s witness sin society stems from its identity as a community. The second Affirmation is “The Church Universal,” which affirms that we are a part of a larger church, a larger world. The third Affirmation is “The Church ‘In’ But Not ‘From’ the World.” This reminds us that , “The Gospel does not take the Church out of the world, but instead calls it to affirm and to enter more deeply into the world.”
The fourth is “The Church’s Responsibility in Society.” This Affirmation challenges us: “As a prophetic presence, this church has the obligation to name and denounce the idols before which people bow, to identify the power of sin present in social structures, and to advocate in hope with poor and powerless people.” The fifth Affirmation, “ The Baptismal Vocation of Christians,” states that “Christians also exercise their calling by being wise and active citizens.” Affirmation six is that the church is “A Community of Moral Deliberation,” and that “this church is open to learn from the experience, knowledge, and imagination of all people, in order to have the best possible information and understanding of today’s world.”
Then come 3 Commitments, “ Sustaining Vocation,” “Witnessing as an Institution,” and “Deliberating on Social Questions.” These commit the ELCA to responsible and prayerful development of social statements. The statement concludes with “ God’s Faithful Love,” stating, “We in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America set forth these affirmations and commitments with prayer that our words and deeds may be earthen vessels that witness to the power of the cross. We care for the earth and serve the neighbor in society with the joyful confidence that God’s faithfulness alone sustains the Church, and renews our faith, hope and love.”
The 2016 Churchwide Assembly will not be considering any new social statements, but will receive an update on the progress of the statement on Women and Justice, scheduled for consideration in 2019.
Jessica Crist, Bishop
Bishop Jessica Crist
Bishop of the Montana Synod of the ELCA