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Rafael Malpica Padilla: A particular way of embracing Christianity

The executive director of Global Mission for the ELCA says denominations are a source of identity, the lenses through which everything is viewed: Scripture, church and society.

May 11, 2010

Editor’s note: As the Christian landscape changes, leaders must ask and answer a new question: What’s the future of denominations? This interview is part of an occasional series that offers insight on this vital issue. To see the entire series, click here.

While believing in the continued viability of denominations, the Rev. Rafael Malpica Padilla also discusses the need for a panoramic view, which creates “that tension of being defined by an identity but knowing that identity does not exhaust what the church is.” He says the relevance of denominations is called into question when they focus more on institutional survival than on evangelical witness.

Malpica Padilla joined the Global Mission of the ELCA in 1993 and has been its executive director since 2003. He also served as bishop of the ELCA’s Caribbean Synod and, with the division of Global Mission, as director for International Programs and Planning and associate executive director. He received his B.A. in philosophy from the University of Puerto Rico and his M.Div. from the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia.

Malpica Padilla spoke with Faith & Leadership recently about his work with the ELCA Global Mission and the future of denominations. The video clip is an excerpt from the following edited transcript.

Q: As a representative of the ELCA, what is your take on the future of denominations in the U.S.?

Basically, I would say there are two major camps. Those that don’t see a future for denominations cite constant decline in the so-called mainline denominations that has put them on the sideline and, therefore, from there, they go on to a possible scenario where denominations will not play a role as they had played in the past. The lack of denominational loyalty is a fact that has been researched by us in the denominations.

But I do think that there is a future for denominations, and that stems from having a sense of rootedness within the Christian tradition. There are some that think about the possibility of a post-denominational church, or they call that same expression “being a generic Christian.” The question is, is that possible? From the perspective where I sit, rooted in one of those traditions, the Lutheran Church, I would say that there is always the space for denominations, a group of people that understand and engage the world from a very unique perspective.

And that’s what a denomination is. Lutheranism is a theological identity, and that theological identity becomes the lenses through which we engage everything: the reading of Scripture, issues of church and society. So we will always have those lenses, or glasses, on. Therefore, from that perspective I would say that there is a future for a denomination or whatever word we use to describe that community that gathers around a particular way of embracing Christianity and living that Christianity in their social location.

The problem I see with denominations -- I will use the words of Jaroslav Pelikan when he was still a Lutheran pastor -- he made the distinction between tradition and traditionalism. He described traditionalism as the dead faith of the living. The perception of denominations as the dead faith of the living [raises] issues -- such as how relevant denominations are at times in the context of our communities and of American society, and the perception that denominations are more interested in institutional survival than in reaching out in evangelical witness to the world; issues of denominations being more concerned with orthodoxy than how you live out the Christian faith. That’s when the second part of this definition becomes useful: tradition is the living faith of the dead.

As long as a group of Christians continues to describe itself by the identity or special location or theological perspective from which it engages the Christian faith, we will continue to have denominations to one extent or the other.

Q: What are some other benefits denominations offer?

Denominations offer a sense of renewed identity. In 1993, when I moved from Puerto Rico to Chicago, I was having a conversation one day with the pastor of a community church, and he said, “The gift that you Lutherans have is you don’t have to explain yourselves.” Of course, this comes from a theologically trained person and not from the average member of our community in Chicago, but there is still a sense that denominations provide identity.

In our history, identity was defined among Lutherans culturally -- as Norwegians, Danes or whatever. Now we are claiming more of a theological identity. How do we understand the Christian faith from that particular perspective? From there, how do we go on to claim that identity for the sake of the world, and what does that mean?

There is still space for denominations defined as a grouping of people that appropriate the Christian faith from a particular perspective that gives them a sense of identity and also a sense of mission.

Q: What are the particular challenges facing denominations?

The first one would be the question of relevancy. When you go to Old San Juan in Puerto Rico, you see Spanish architecture with the balconies on top. The problem with denominations has been that we have been preaching to the people from that balcony over people’s heads, and because of that we have become irrelevant.

We have been concerned with the issues that we believe are important for the preservation of the institution, not the organism that the church is. Relevance is the main issue for denominations today. Are we engaging the issues that call to the heart of our society? Or are we having the same discussions that lead to the survival of the institutions -- such issues as how do we survive financially in the new normal. Those issues become the obstacle for denominations -- that we have seen denominations as ends in themselves, not as a movement within the particularities of identities and specificity. Not as a movement of God’s mission to the world.

Q: How do your ecumenical efforts, in particular with the ECLA Global Mission office, influence your sense of the future of denominations?

In our church we use a phrase to describe who we want to be within the concert of churches in the U.S. We say we want to be a church that is thoroughly global and intensely local. Take that same principle and apply it to the question of ecumenical relations: we live in that dialectic of knowing we are part of the global community but with a particular identity as Lutheran and how the two, not play against each other, but complement one another.

In the ELCA, we describe ourselves as one church with three expressions: the national expression, the synods and the congregations. We are starting to talk about having the global expression as part of the worldwide Lutheran communion, … being part of the American context in which Christians come together to witness God’s love to all of God’s children. You need to have that panoramic view, that tension of being defined by an identity but knowing that identity does not exhaust what the church is. In order to have that landscape, we need to have all those perspectives and voices.