This social teaching statement was adopted by a more than two-thirds majority vote at the second biennial Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, meeting in Orlando, Florida, August 28-September 4, 1991.
The Church in Society: A Lutheran Perspective was the first social statement passed by the ELCA Churchwide Assembly, five years following the constituting of the church. It is a rather straightforward statement on the role of the church in the world, and is short, spanning only eight pages (compare that to the statement on criminal justice, which is a whopping sixty-four pages!). The statement is split into two parts: Affirmations, which explain the basis for the church’s commitment to social justice; and Commitments, which outline the ways in which the church moves forward.
There isn’t much to say bout the statement itself. It affirms and works off of the assumption that working for justice in an unjust world is the baptismal vocation of every Christian. The church is called into being by the Holy Spirit, and God repeatedly and unambiguously demands social justice (for example, Micah 6, Matthew 25, etc.). None of this is controversial or divisive.
One of the duties of the church as an institution, then, is to better equip the faithful to live out this vocation. Social statements are one way of equipping the faithful, but advocacy on a national level is another way in which the church can use its influence to work for social justice. It itself also exists as a forum for moral deliberation, a place where social issues can be openly discussed, debated, and decided upon. As we have found out, being that safe place and being a place of open, honest, and respectful deliberation is not easy. It is an ideal we do not always meet.
There is little else that can be said about the social statement itself. But a couple weeks ago, I had the pleasure of hearing Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton speak at a theological conference. One of the claims laid against the ELCA is that it is only about liberal social agendas. Bishop Eaton asked, “What makes us different from the Red Cross? The Lions Club? The Girl Scouts?” The church, because it is the church, has something else to offer. Social statements and social advocacy are important–social justice is commanded by God–but it is not the heart of the church. The heart of the church is the proclaimed Good News of Jesus Christ. Everything we do, from worship to engaging with society, must keep this center.
Sometimes it feels like all Churchwide ever does is pass Social Statements. Even then, there’s not a lot of follow up, so the point is often lost. If this is all the church does, then we are doomed. It falls to all church leaders to find ways to equip the baptized to live into their vocation and work for justice, but it needs to be a result, not the purpose, of the church.
Lastly, as mentioned, we have not always been successful at being a safe and open place for moral deliberation. One of the failures of the 2009 social statement on Human Sexuality was that it did not keep the lines of communication open as it pledged to do. It’s a disease in our society, too–sides are polarizing around every issue imaginable, significant and trivial. The sides firmly believe themselves to be just and right in every way, and the very idea of talking to the other side, or worse, compromising, is anathema. The church is not immune to this disease. It is imperative, now more than ever, that the church rededicate itself to being an open forum for moral deliberation.