Editor’s note: In this fivepart series, former ELCA Presiding Bishop Herbert Chilstrom examines the authority and interpretation of the Bible. Part three explored the witness of the Bible within the Old and New Testament.

Since its beginning, the Christian church has been engaged in the same process of biblical contextualization examined in this series so far. A few examples:


Well into the 19th century there were devout Christians, including many Lutherans—not only in the southern U.S. but also in the North—who believed that the Bible supported slavery. Furthermore, they could point to a long tradition of its practice by Christians.

Harvard University preacher Peter Gomes called this “culturism.” If literalism is a danger at one end of the spectrum of biblical interpretation, reading the Bible exclusively through the lens of one’s culture lies at the other. It allows Scripture to be used to defend the status quo.

In The Good Book (Morrow, 1996), Gomes described this thinking in the time of slavery by noting that “most people … understood themselves to be good and faithful, people who were simply doing God’s will. They read the Bible, they heard their preachers, they said their prayers, and they knew in their hearts that they were right and justified by the Bible.”

The result was the most savage and costly conflict the United States has ever been engaged in, the Civil War. “Brothers went to war and shed blood in the most divisive form of human conflict, a civil war, and did so in large measure on the authority of mutually exclusive readings of scripture,” wrote Gomes.

Over time, some Christians, both in the South and in the North—and, again, including knowledgeable and devout Lutherans—began to question whether it was right for one person to own another, no matter what the Bible seemed to say or what the tradition had been for centuries. The ensuing controversy divided American Lutherans, and the division took decades to heal. But as the church searched the Bible, reflected on tradition, exercised good reason and looked at its experience, the rift was healed and they came together in the understanding that slavery could not be supported by the church.

As the church searched the Bible, reflected on tradition, exercised good reason and looked at its experience, they came together.

Ordination of women

A more recent example is the ordination of women. I find that, sometimes, my fellow ELCA Lutherans who look down on those churches that do not ordain women act as though we have been doing so for centuries and that this was an easy decision for us. Have we forgotten that for more than 95% of our history we did not ordain women? Have we forgotten the struggle we went through to come to that decision? Have we forgotten that many (including me in my early ministry) felt that both the Bible and tradition precluded that possibility?

We were influenced, of course, by our culture, as well as by our questionable reading of the Bible. 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 seemed quite plain to some of us:

…women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak. … If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home.

I agree with those who ask whether this is a legitimate word from Paul or a later interpolation. We need not get into that here. The fact is that most in our churches read it as a word from God. We were convinced, century after century, that the altar and the pulpit were places for males only.

How did we change that long-standing tradition? Certainly, our changing culture had an impact on the church. Family planning and women in the workplace became common after World War II, bringing a new stature to women in our society. But the church, as is often the case, lagged behind the world around us.

Finally, after pressure from those who wanted change, we began to look at the issue. We studied the Bible, we looked at the traditions of other churches, we exercised our reason, and we looked at our experience—at what women were already doing in ministry in the church. Out of this came the decision to ordain women who were qualified on all grounds.

The people of God have always had to wrestle with change.


Then there is the issue of divorce. Most of us have seen significant change in our own lifetimes. My roots are in the Augustana Lutheran Church. In 1925, the heart of the “Roaring Twenties,” the Augustana Church met in convention and passed a resolution declaring that any pastor who conducted a marriage ceremony for someone who had been divorced could be subject to discipline.

The action was based on what many believed was a plain and obvious reading of Scripture. After all, had not Jesus said that “anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (Matthew 5:32)?

And had not Paul reinforced the word of Jesus when he wrote an even stricter rule for Corinth?

To the married I give this command—not I but the Lord—that the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does separate, let her remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and that the husband should not divorce his wife (1 Corinthians 7:10-11).

Over time our churches changed their positions on divorce. My own recollection is that it was Elton Trueblood, the Quaker theologian, who first suggested (as early as the 1950s) that, were Jesus among us in our increasingly complex world, he might speak a more understanding word to some who needed to end a bad marriage. Even the most fundamentalist denominations moved away from a strict interpretation of the Bible.

Certainly, the culture around us played a role. We were forced to take a new look at the issue. Many came to believe that a more careful examination of the Bible and tradition, a more reasonable understanding of our changing culture, and the experience of the church in real-life situations all called for a reconsideration of what had seemed so certain and settled.

Eucharistic celebration

Change, however, is not always permanent. Let me add at least one example of how the church moved back to an earlier practice.

In my youth the Eucharist was offered four times a year. If you missed a Sunday or two for any reason, you might have only one or two opportunities to partake of the Lord’s Supper. I believe that our ecumenical dialogues—especially with Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Episcopal churches—reminded us of our deeper tradition. Now it is not uncommon to find congregations celebrating the Eucharist weekly. More than that, we also decided that there was no biblical basis or any good reason to withhold the Eucharist from our younger children.

We could cite many other examples, but the point is clear: The people of God, beginning in Old Testament times and running up to our own day, have always had to wrestle with change. How to respect the Bible, our “source and norm of the Christian faith”; how to honor sacred tradition, our anchor in times of change; and yet, how to bring the essence of both to an ever-changing world—that is an endless challenge.

Next month, this series will conclude by exploring how we interpret the Bible and whether there is a “Lutheran way” to live together as the church.

Herbert W. Chilstrom
Herbert W. Chilstrom was presiding bishop of the ELCA from 1987 to 1995. He lives in Green Valley, Ariz.

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