“Lutherans are people of both/and, not either/or.”

My pastor said this, some decades ago. And I’ve been grateful ever since.

He started with a most basic Lutheran foundation: that all humans are both sinners and saints. Not that we’re sometimes sinners and at other times saints, but that at all times we are both. Some might find this pessimistic and cause for despair. I found it liberating—a blessed release from perfectionism and freedom to give and receive God’s mercy and love.

Then my pastor went further, teaching us that whenever the world demands an either/or choice, Lutherans are people free in Christ to be both/and.

Being both/and is bound to confound, disappoint, frustrate, and anger many people.

For example, I am both pro-life and pro-choice.

either wishy-washy or taking a stand

When I was in high school, I had very recently found my way to a Lutheran congregation. Before this, I knew only churches of people who were politically active in the pro-life movement. At a young age, I knew the names of candidates for Pennsylvania state legislature and whether they were “pro-life” or “pro-abortion”—all because of my family’s churches and because of “Focus on the Family.”

When I was in high school, this Lutheran church’s social statement on Abortion was still new. (By “this Lutheran church,” I mean Zion’s whole denomination—the larger church body called the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.) As a teenager, I by no means read that twelve page document, nor understood how it came to be written and adopted.

But I remember clearly an adult youth group leader ranting about it. He called it “wishy-washy.” He was frustrated the church did not “take a stand.” And so he left our shared Lutheran congregation for a Catholic one in the next town over.

This was a classic either/or response to a both/and position. It wasn’t the first, and it won’t be the last.

both the pregnant woman and the life in her womb

Notice the both/ands in that “wishy-washy” statement which refuses to “take a stand.” I’ve bolded and italicized them for emphasis.

“A developing life in the womb does not have an absolute right to be born, nor does a pregnant woman have an absolute right to terminate a pregnancy. The concern for both the life of the woman and the developing life in her womb expresses a common commitment to life. This requires that we move beyond the usual ‘pro-life’ versus ‘pro-choice’ language in discussing abortion.”

And again:

“As a community of forgiven sinners, justified by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ, we are empowered so that we might do what is effective in serving the needs of the neighbor. Inspired by Jesus’ own ministry, our love for neighbor embraces especially those who are most vulnerable, including both the pregnant woman and the life in her womb.”

I encourage you to read and consider the whole statement. There is much more to it worthy of your prayerful attention, both the so-called “conservative” positions and so-called “progressive” ones.

But from these few sentences, I hope simply to reveal the both/and at the heart of this Lutheran church’s social statement on Abortion.

Both the pregnant woman and the life in her womb have rights. Both are vulnerable. Not either/or.

When a thousand-some Lutherans from all parts of the country and all walks of life gathered in Orlando in 1991, they affirmed this both/and with a more than two-thirds majority. Thirty-one years ago, more than 85% of those Lutherans found wisdom for the church and the nation in this both/and. They adopted it in the hopes:

“this statement be studied and given serious consideration by members of this church as they form their own judgments on abortion”

And we are both liberated and challenged!

the heart of faith

We proclaim Christ as both human and God, both crucified and risen. We believe all people are both sinner and saint. These both/ands are the very heart of our faith. And so faith walks the way of the heart, which involves reconciling and holding the tension between seeming opposites—both these religious ones and so many others. I don’t suggest this principle as the only tool in our toolbox for ethical discernment. But I offer it as one I’ve found powerful to open my heart to giving and receiving more love.

After I learned it, I set myself a kind of discipline to be both/and, not either/or. And I by no means regret it. It has been a practice of healing. A guardrail to discover the whole and not get stuck in a part. I have become a more integrated person, less inclined to reject parts of myself I deem to be on the wrong side of the either/or, more able to accept that I am—as we all are—fully accepted. And so I’m sure I’ve become a person who is easier to be with, who makes more room for others to be more fully who they really are. A both/and practice has indeed produced the fruit of the Spirit. From it, I’ve learned wisdom.


What can this mean for public policy? Possibilities beyond the binary, forced-choice of either/or. For example, being both pro-life and pro-choice. Which means to me, wanting all people to have access to safe, legal abortion and access to the kind of care that has proven to reduce the “need” for it, to make abortion truly a last resort—healthcare, housing, paid family leave, affordable childcare, equal pay, contraception, sex education, and strong and loving family and community.

Feel free to take a different position. My overall point is maybe best expressed in the words of another mentor of mine who was also a Lutheran pastor: “To be free, you need options. One option is not freedom. Two options is not freedom either, it’s a dilemma. When you have three options, that’s the beginning of freedom.”

Thanks be to God.

Pastor Clark Olson-Smith