Live in the Freedom of Christ

Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton

Bishop Elizabeth Eaton

Recently I discovered Google Earth. I know, I’m a little late to the dance. But this is fascinating. You type in an address and up pops a photo. You can zoom in on places all over the world. And you can zoom out for, literally, a 35,000-foot view. I invite you to give it a try. In fact, this will be a great group activity for all of us in the ELCA.

First, find your congregation. Now expand the field and find other ELCA congregations near you. In some places this will be easy to do. In the “Fertile Crescent” of Lutheranism—the Dakotas, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Ohio and Pennsylvania—there are more ELCA congregations per square mile than there are gas stations. In other places, ELCA congregations are few and far between. But we’re there.

Next, find your synod office. You can see them spread out across the U.S. and the Caribbean.

And the ELCA is not alone in North America. Find the congregations, synods and national office of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada. We are all over North America.

And now, find all of the member churches of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF). We are all over the world, on every continent except Antarctica. We are 145 member churches in
98 countries. There are 74 million of us. And
your congregation is part of this worldwide Lutheran movement.

In May the LWF met in assembly in Windhoek, Namibia. Lutherans from Africa; Asia; Latin America and the Caribbean; North America; and Western, Central and Eastern Europe gathered to worship, sing, deliberate, study and dance.

Our contexts are very different. Climate, cuisine and cultures all vary. Our challenges are different. Lutherans in many parts of the world are a minority community, face persecution, contend with war and forced migration, and deal with the devastating effects of climate change. Lutherans in many parts of the world are ministering and serving faithfully in an increasingly secularized culture, or in parts of the world where the church was suppressed for nearly a century resulting in entire generations that have not heard the gospel. But there is something that we all have in common—our life in Christ.

We have our life in Christ—in the crucified and risen Savior, in the one who poured out his life for us, the one who gave himself away for the life of the world. In baptism we have already experienced the only death that really matters, the death of the power of sin, the death of our death. “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4).

Now, go to Google Earth and find St. Petersburg, Russia. At the LWF Assembly a delegate from Russia told this story of freedom in Christ. There used to be a Lutheran church in St. Petersburg. It was a beautiful structure witnessing to the glory of God where the Lutheran immigrants who arrived in the 18th century could worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness. It was skillfully crafted out of wood. St. Mary’s Lutheran Church still stood in St. Petersburg, renamed Leningrad.

The church was a place of worship and hope during the siege of Leningrad during WWII. But people were freezing and starving to death in Leningrad. There was no wood for heating or cooking. So the Lutherans looked at their beloved church and then looked at the suffering around them. Piece by piece they dismantled their building and gave it away for the life of their community.

This is what being free in Christ looks like. This is part of our Lutheran story. This is part of your congregation’s story. We live in the freedom of Christ.


A monthly message from the presiding bishop  of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. This column originally appeared in Living Lutheran’s July issue. Reprinted with permission.

Serving the Neighbor in Charged Times

Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton

Bishop Elizabeth Eaton

These are politically charged times. This very sentence in the presiding bishop’s column  is likely to raise eyebrows.

Across this church I’ve heard stories of parishioners disturbed by the Gospel read on Sundays, believing the pastor chose the passage as a critique of the current administration. The Beatitudes seemed to provoke the most attention. In a way this is good—maybe we are all hearing Jesus’ words with fresh ears. But really, the Beatitudes have been the appointed Gospel for the fourth Sunday of Epiphany (year A) for as long as we have been using the lectionary.

In these charged times it’s helpful to consider two things: the relationship between church and state, and how Lutherans participate in civil society. Often we speak about the “separation of church and state.” This principle is usually raised when parishioners feel the pastor (or the synod, churchwide organization or bishop) is being “political.” There is the assumption that the church should only deal with the spiritual and that it should have nothing to do with civil and political life. The First Amendment says: “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The separation of church and state is intended to protect religious liberty and keep the government from interfering in the church.

We Lutherans also cite Martin Luther’s doctrine of the two kingdoms—the temporal and the spiritual. This has been misinterpreted to mean that the temporal realm is inferior to the spiritual realm—or that God, and therefore the faithful, should not be as concerned with the temporal, should not allow the temporal into the church, and really need not be too engaged in the public square.

But our understanding as Lutherans is that the church and the state, the spiritual and the temporal, are both established by God and are both part of God’s twofold rule. When we pray, “Give us today our daily bread,” we are also praying that God send us the gift of good government (Luther’s Small Catechism).

Both church and state are good gifts from God and have been established for specific purposes. The proper work of the church is to “preach the gospel in its purity and administer the sacraments according to the gospel” (Augsburg Confession VII).
The proper work of the state is to keep peace and order and to support and nourish the lives of its citizens. And since we confess that God entered human life through the incarnation of Jesus Christ, who took our flesh upon him, we do not have a hierarchy of value that places the spiritual above the temporal.

Active participation in public life and the duty of government to care for its people, especially the most vulnerable, have been part of the Lutheran movement from its beginning. In his explanation of the petition “Give us today our daily bread,” Luther said: “It would be therefore fitting if the coat of arms of every upright prince were emblazoned with a loaf of bread instead of a lion” (Large Catechism). He also wrote that the “second virtue of a prince is to help the poor, the orphans, and the widows to justice, and to further their cause.”

Lutherans don’t withdraw from public life. In fact our constitution pledges us to “work with civil authorities in areas of mutual endeavor, maintaining institutional separation of church and state in a relation of functional interaction.” Lutherans fulfill our baptismal vocation when we show up.

So why are we so tense? I think we’ve been influenced by a divisive culture. We forget that we are one people. I think we fail to recognize Christ in others, whether the other is across the pew or across the world. We forget that we all—whatever our politics—stand under the judgment of God and that only God’s promise of reconciling love in Jesus can save us. Set free by that promise we can find a way to serve the neighbor.


A monthly message from the presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. This column originally appeared in the June issue of Living Lutheran. Reprinted with permission.

The Good Samaritan

Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton

Bishop Elizabeth Eaton

I have been thinking a lot about the parable of the good Samaritan lately (Luke 10:25-37). Parts of it are so familiar—the unfortunate victim, the robbers, the priest, the Levite, the Samaritan—that I miss points of deeper meaning. We all know the compassion and generosity of the Samaritan has become the standard by which we measure our response to suffering. Hospitals are named Good Samaritan. All 50 states have a Good Samaritan law on the books. I always imagined (or hoped) that I would act like the good Samaritan were I ever in a similar situation.

There are two other characters connected to this story that I don’t always think about: the lawyer and Jesus. Theirs was not a casual conversation. The lawyer was looking to test Jesus. “Teacher, he said, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Jesus answers with a question: “What is written in the law?”

Being a good lawyer the man answered from Deuteronomy and Leviticus: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” Case closed. Conversation over.

But the lawyer couldn’t let it go: “… wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’ ”

We know the man wanted to test Jesus and justify himself so his question was not an earnest inquiry about the Torah. Are some people my neighbor and some people not? How far does hospitality have to extend? Can there be limits to compassion? What is reasonable: Family? People on my block? My congregation? Fellow citizens? And, conversely, whom can I exclude? People across town or around the world? Who is my neighbor?

It’s in answer to this question that Jesus tells the parable—a parable designed to be as provocative as possible.

We call the Samaritan “good” but that word is not found in Scripture. No Jew would call a Samaritan “good” nor would any Samaritan call a Jew “good.” Samaritans and Jews regarded each other as ceremonially unclean, socially outcast and heretical. They would not have come up automatically in the neighbor category.

It’s not clear that the beaten Jewish man would have been entirely thrilled that he had been helped and touched by the Samaritan. (Think of the All in the Family episode where Archie Bunker realizes he has received a blood transfusion from an African-American man.)

Now it’s Jesus’ turn to ask a question: “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”

This becomes the question for us and for these times. When we ask, “Who is my neighbor?” we sort people into categories. Is the refugee my neighbor? Is the Muslim my neighbor? Is the Jew my neighbor? Is the Latina my neighbor? And on and on. This makes for increasingly smaller neighborhoods. And this question can be driven by fear and suspicion. Left to ourselves we turn in and away.

Thank God that God has not left us to ourselves. Our new life in Christ leads us to ask and answer a different question. Not, “Who is my neighbor?” but “How are we neighbor?”

The world is a dangerous place—just check any news source or social media. There are people who mean to do harm to our country. Fear and the threat of danger divide us and constrict us. But we live in the hope of the resurrection and in the certainty of the redemption of the world through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We no longer ask, “Who is my neighbor?” The question is now, “How are we neighbor?”

The lawyer answered Jesus’ question about who was neighbor to the man beaten by robbers with: “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, and to us, “Go and do likewise.”


A monthly message from the presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. This column originally appeared in the March issue of Living Lutheran. Reprinted with permission.

“It’s not what we do”

Bishop Elizabeth A. Eaton

Bishop Elizabeth Eaton

At the end of the sixth chapter of the Gospel according to John, many disciples who had been following Jesus left him. Looking at the 12, Jesus asked, “Will you also go away?” Simon Peter answered, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:66-68). It was a kind of crisis at the beginning of the Jesus movement.

Jesus had been teaching about the gracious gift of life that comes from the Father through Christ. People were amazed by the multiplication of the loaves and fish and all of the talk about the bread of life. They wanted to know what they had to do to be doing the works of God. Jesus’ answer, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent (John 6:29),” didn’t sit well the crowd. I suspect that the most fervent among them wanted marching orders and the more careful wanted a checklist to make sure they were on track.

Questions in Scripture are fascinating: they are often more revealing than the answers. “What do we do?” “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” (Matthew 19 :16). The people in John and the young man in Matthew wanted to know not only what they could do to save themselves, but to be assured that it was indeed in their power to save themselves.

We don’t ask different questions today. When it comes to the great metaphysical questions we ask, “How do I know? How am I sure?” It’s a hard thing to believe that it’s God’s good and gracious will that all be saved from death, and since we can’t save ourselves, God has done it through Jesus’ death and resurrection. It’s not what we do or even about that which we are certain, but what God has done, and God’s faithful and sure promise. In a recent survey of ELCA Lutherans, Kenneth Inskeep, director for research and evaluation, asked the question: “What must you do to be saved?” Fifty percent answered: “Do good works.” Fifty percent of Lutherans.

At least half of us admit that, deep down, we believe it’s still up to us. Let’s not beat ourselves up—this isn’t a Lutheran phenomenon, this is not an American phenomenon, this is not a 21st-century phenomenon—it’s a human phenomenon. We either disbelieve for joy or don’t want to give up control.

This is precisely why we need well-trained confessional, scriptural, theological, liturgical, compassionate pastors and deacons: to keep us pointed to Jesus, to the law, to the cross, to the resurrection and away from the world’s siren song of self-help, self-determination and self-righteousness.

And this is precisely why we need confessional, scriptural, theological, liturgical, compassionate laypeople: so we “… fear and love God, so that we do not despise preaching or God’s word, but instead keep that word holy and gladly hear and learn it” (Martin Luther’s Small Catechism).

Two major initiatives requested by the ELCA Church Council and informed by your input have come to the same conclusion. The Theological Education Advisory Council and the Called Forward Together in Christ process both lifted up the importance of well-formed lay, consecrated and ordained leadership. We must keep the saving gospel of judgment and promise as our foundation and future.

This is the work of the entire church. It’s not up to the seminaries to identify and recruit pastors and deacons, nor is it the exclusive province of the ordained and consecrated to be grounded in the word. Start looking at fourth- and fifth-graders in your congregation. Support church camps, Lutheran campus ministries, and Lutheran colleges, universities and seminaries. Encourage Young Adults in Global Mission.

We’ve received a $3 million gift to the ELCA Fund for Leaders, which will provide full tuition scholarships for up to 60 additional students over the next three years. This is just one part of a multifaceted leadership initiative that we are launching now. When people ask how the ELCA can be relevant, I answer: only if we are sure that our hope is in the living Christ and only if we share that with the joy of the gospel.


A monthly message from the presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. This column originally appeared in Living Lutheran’s February issue. Reprinted with permission.

Big Look at Small Catechism

Presiding Bishop Elizabeth A. Eaton


Several years ago my husband’s bishop tried initiating a diocese-wide call to the catechumenate to engage those preparing for confirmation in a period of study and formation. We call it confirmation class or catechism, something generations of Lutherans have gone through. But this was a new experience for the Episcopalians in his diocese. He set about developing a curriculum for prospective confirmands, only to encounter resistance. How do Lutherans get participation in multi year catechetical instruction? I told him: “Five hundred years of hazing.”

We do have a history of communicating the faith from generation to generation. Martin Luther wrote the Small Catechism after the Saxon Visitation of the late 1520s, which examined the religious practices in the parishes of that part of Central Europe. He discovered a stunning lack of understanding of the basics of the Christian faith among laypeople and pastors. So in the Small Catechism he gives a concise but rich explanation of the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostles’ Creed, the commandments, baptism, communion, the Office of the Keys and confession.

The Small Catechism became an important part of faith formation in families. Millions of us throughout the centuries and world have studied and memorized it. Catechism has been a rite of passage in the Lutheran movement. It could be argued that no other experience is more universally Lutheran than studying this little book—not language, not hymnody, not cuisine, not worship style. “What does this mean?” and “This is most certainly true” are two of the most recognizable phrases in Lutheranism.

It’s been said, “Youth is wasted on the young.” I’m not suggesting that studying the catechism isn’t beneficial to middle school students. But confining catechetical instruction to that age group and expecting fully formed disciples at the end of the process is probably a little unrealistic.

All of this has me wondering how we can bring our Lutheran traditions, unashamedly and gratefully, into our relationships with ecumenical and interreligious partners. The ELCA is fully committed to ecumenical and interreligious dialogue. We have six full communion partners: the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Reformed Church in America, the United Church of Christ, the Episcopal Church, the United Methodist Church and the Moravian Church. As the ELCA, we also claim the evangelical part of our name. Set free by the grace of God through the death and resurrection of Jesus and moved by the Spirit we want to tell everybody the good news.

Some argue that emphasizing our Lutheran identity is an impediment to dialogue and evangelism. I would argue that if we aren’t clear about who we are and what we believe it’s not possible to have deep and authentic encounters with others. It’s hard to have meaningful give-and-take with mush.

There was a time in the 1980s when church growth experts urged us to shed denominational identity in favor of more generic, and so appealing, names for congregations. St. Paul Lutheran Church became the Church at Pheasant Run. It’s like selling our inheritance for a mess of marketing pottage. Of course we are baptized into the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. Of course our identity is in Christ and not in a 16th-century Augustinian monk. But there is something distinctive about our Lutheran voice that needs to be heard in ecumenical and interreligious conversations and in the public square. If we aren’t clear about this we run the risk of sliding into relativism.

It might be time for all of us to dust off our Small Catechisms(or find it in Evangelical Lutheran Worship, 1160) and take another look at the basics of the faith. Staff at the Lutheran Center in Chicago will be doing just that this fall. My guess is that places like Microsoft or McDonald’s take great care in immersing their people into their corporate culture. We are Lutheran Christians. With great humility we can be unapologetic about being Lutheran. It would be wonderful if we as the ELCA prepared for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017 by studying the Small Catechism together. We have a common language with which to talk about faith, engage Scripture and make sense of our world. Catechism is not just for the young. This is most certainly true.


This is a reprint from the July 2014 column of the presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Reprinted with permission from Living Lutheran.

What it means to be Lutheran

By Elizabeth A. Eaton

Bishop Elizabeth Eaton

Lutherans don’t often garner much media attention. In this country we don’t make up a big segment of the population. When groups of Lutherans began arriving on these shores in the 18th and 19th centuries, they tended to stay in their nationality and language groups and didn’t assimilate completely into the surrounding culture. We kept to ourselves and so went relatively unnoticed. Lutherans, with some exceptions, weren’t part of the political or economic elite. There are both benefits and problems because of this. More later.

Our state of relative obscurity is about to change. In 16 months we’ll mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. For a brief time a spotlight will be turned on Lutherans in this country and around the world. Documentaries will be produced and aired, seminars will be held and, particularly if Oct. 31, 2017, is a slow news day, the media is going to seek us out and ask us to explain ourselves. When the local newspaper, radio or TV station comes knocking on our door, what are we going to say?

In our churchwide conversation about priorities for the ELCA, we have been asking what it means to be Lutheran. We aren’t as good as we could be about giving a clear answer to that question. We speak about grace, about our work in advocacy, about the relief and development work we do, about our inclusiveness and diversity—though I believe these last two are more aspirational than actual—about our ecumenical and interreligious dialogues and relationships. These are true and beautiful and important. They are not exclusively Lutheran.

Many religious and secular organizations are deeply committed to serving the vulnerable and working for justice and peace. The ELCA couldn’t engage in ecumenical and interreligious partnerships if there were no ecumenical or interreligious partners. What is distinctive
about us then?

When trying to define Lutheran identity we sometimes default to cultural types—northern and central European heritage, a certain kind of hymnody, even standard entrees at church dinners. I’m not dismissing the faithful witness of the millions of Lutheran immigrants who left Europe to start a new life on this continent. They built churches and hospitals and universities. They cared for the poor, the widow and the orphan.

They also lived in close-knit ethnic communities that, at first, helped maintain the Lutheran confessional movement. That is the benefit I noted above. The problem is that the Lutheran movement in this country has become overidentified with a particular cultural expression.

If we manage to not describe ourselves by a particular culture, we have the tendency of describing Lutheranism as a set of behaviors—we are inclusive, we work for justice, we stand with the vulnerable, we are an inviting church. Please, God, let it be so.

But the danger is we can slip into what scholasticism called “fides formata.” Today we might say faith formation: not in the sense of a living faith that has first been given as a gift, but that correct action leads to faith. Either of these expressions—cultural or behavioral—can result in what Martha Stortz, a professor at Augsburg College, Minneapolis, calls the “presumptive we” that leads to the “othering you.” Those in the majority assume their experience is universal and those outside of that experience aren’t fully part of the tradition.

Neither culture nor behavior define what is distinctive about the Lutheran movement. It’s our understanding of the gospel. The gospel word creates faith. The gospel word is judgment and promise. Faith created by this gospel word sets people free to serve the neighbor. The church’s proper work is to proclaim the gospel word. You know, in the end, it’s all about God’s fierce and tender love that drives us to the cross, and there, at the very point of death, gives us life. The world deserves to hear the gospel—when the spotlight is on us, and when it is not.


A monthly message from the presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. This article first appeared in Living Lutheran’s July issue. Reprinted with permission.