Distilling Dignity: Our (ELCA) Emerging Definition

[1] The term “dignity” has burst into prominence in the popular parlance in the last century. With its most recent major transformation in the mid-twentieth century, this term has undergone several metamorphoses since its genesis in classical Western society. Yet even the novel sense of the word is still being forged through deep philosophical, legal, and theological discussions. These conversations include a broad range of meanings, sources, and applications. In its present state, there exists a great plurality of definitions and implications for the term dignity.

[2] This study aims to elucidate the definition of dignity for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). Using the social statements to extract a definition, we can answer the question:

What does dignity mean when the ELCA employs it? Furthermore, with the statement on women and justice in its draft form,1 intentional use of dignity language could yield great clarity and consequence for this and future statements.

A Lutheran Lexical Definition

[3] The meaning of dignity has evolved along several complex trajectories, and today inhabits several categories of meaning. The variety of modern uses has drawn the ire of those who consider dignity language to be a “useless concept,”2 or even “stupid.”3 Rather than dismissing the term altogether, English professor Scott Cutler Shershow classifies the numerous Oxford Language Dictionary entries under three headings: (1) status, which is a social rank, office, or role; (2) worth, which is a quality determined by the self; and (3) bearing, which is an appearance or gravitas.4

[4] Because of the variety of potential meanings, it is necessary for religious bodies to clearly articulate their understanding of dignity, just as they do for other theological terms. Like many before it, the ELCA has been using dignity without explicit clarification. Lutheran theologians have offered their ideas on what dignity should mean, but as philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein asserted, “[o]ne cannot divine (or merely guess) how a word works; one must inspect its application and learn from it.”56

[5] In order to understand what the ELCA means when it refers to dignity, we will examine how it has used the term officially. The ELCA Constitution does not define dignity or name its sources, but it does declare in its Statement of Purpose that it will “develop programs of ministry and advocacy to further human dignity, freedom, justice, and peace in the world.”7 This anthropocentric use is similarly presented in the purpose statements for Ministers of Word and Service,8 Synods,9 and individual congregations.10 Following the Statement of Purpose in the Constitution, the ELCA has taken to the formation of social statements. These statements are acts of evangelization, proclaiming the Gospel and showing ELCA members ways to navigate social issues while following Christ.

[6] In the social statements, the term dignity has been applied often enough that a substantive definition or definitions can be refined. The social statements form a continuous ethic that is fleshed out to address social needs as they appear. In a forthcoming article, ELCA Director for Theological Ethics Roger Willer asserts that the statements evince an “emerging evangelical Lutheran social ethic.”11 While the statements themselves have been developed in an ad hoc manner since 1991, they form a cogent view that is built upon a “responsibility ethic.”12 Willer describes a general ethic across the twelve published social statements:

I believe it is possible to abstract a definitive moral imperative that permeates the body of ELCA social teaching. It reads something along these lines: “In response to God’s Trinitarian action, respect and promote the flourishing of the common good with justice and wisdom in all social relations and actions.” This abstracted formulation is not articulated in any one place, but it is expressed in comparable terms and can be read back upon the whole as a credible abstraction that articulates a coherence in the body of work.13

[7] Just as the responsibility ethic can be extracted, the use of dignity can be explored in these ad hoc applications to better understand how it fits into the greater social ethic of the ELCA. The following analysis regards Wittgenstein by observing how dignity and its related terms are used in the ELCA social statements. Assuming a consistent overall ethic, it is conceivable that the terminology will have some consistency as well. Yet keeping Wittgenstein in mind, there may be multiple definitions at play. The statements are assessed chronologically, concluding with summary, overall analysis, and a review of the current “Draft Social Statement on Women and Justice.

“The Church in Society: A Lutheran Perspective” (1991)
[8] “The Church in Society: A Lutheran Perspective” was the first ELCA social statement, and serves as an introduction to the rest of the social statements, affirming the divine calling of the church institution to have a public presence. Its single use of dignity has two important contributions to the definition: first, it is addressing human dignity specifically; second, this dignity is something that the church defends.14

“Death Penalty” (1991)
[9] “Death Penalty” presents different points of view on capital punishment, but does not explicitly reference dignity. It refers to the Lutheran Church in America’s 1972 social statement “In Pursuit of Justice and Dignity: Society, the Offender, and Systems of Correction,” in which dignity is appealed to twice as something that legal offenders hold despite their infractions.15

“Abortion” (1991)
[10] “Abortion,” presents divergent views about the legality and morality of abortion, and attempts to hold them in tension to protect both life and autonomy. The text applies dignity to “[h]uman life in all phases,”16 and displays an explicit connection between dignity and scripture, especially as Genesis 1 and Jeremiah 1.17 This statement holds that the unborn child has human dignity, and that the mother holds a dignity that is connected to her decision-making. The meaning of dignity for the mother is ambiguous, and may present a dignity that is unique to women. Among several possible readings, the wording on women could be interpreted as stating that women have a special dignity due to their unique physiological capability of childbearing.

“Caring for Creation: Vision, Hope, and Justice” (1993)
[11] “Caring for Creation: Vision, Hope, and Justice” deals with the topics of ecology and the environment, defining the human role as steward of creation. It connects dignity with Genesis 1, so that the human is dignified by God as a gift. Part of that gift is the capacity to care for the earth. Human dignity is linked to both an external divine source and human action fulfilling it. It claims that a person requires suitable “resources for a decent and dignified life.”18 Here dignity can be threatened by inadequate distribution of resources.19

“Freed in Christ: Race, Ethnicity, and Culture” (1993)
“Freed in Christ: Race, Ethnicity, and Culture” is a statement to confront racism and advocate against it in personal, ecclesial, and public life. This holds that “people are God’s creatures and, therefore, persons of dignity.”20 By connecting dignity to being a creature, it seems to generalize the term to apply it to all living creatures.21

“For Peace in God’s World” (1995)
[12] “For Peace in God’s World” marks a shift in the ELCA statements; they become significantly longer, and dignity is generally used more frequently and diversely. The statement on peace discusses matters of war, human rights, social justice, arms proliferation, and domestic and international security. Here human dignity is both a premise and a goal of the church’s social work. It is an “inherent”22 feature of humanity that can be either disregarded by violence or respected through a just and ordered economy. It is noteworthy that the inherent nature of dignity comes from direct quotation from the Preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which was adopted by the United Nations in 1948. This statement claims that the Preamble of the UDHR is “consistent with [its] understanding of humans created in God’s image.”23

“Sufficient, Sustainable Livelihood for All” (1999)
[13] “Sufficient, Sustainable Livelihood for All” advocates a comprehensive understanding of livelihood that will sustain life in a broad, long-term sense. It is the shortest among the later statements, but also has the most uses of the term dignity of all ELCA social statements. This statement on economic life has not only the densest usage, but also the most diverse applications of dignity.

[14] Dignity is “conferred by God”24 to humans, who were created in the imago Dei (image of God). This statement closely links human dignity to social participation and community. It is therefore contingent upon several enumerated social conditions such as fair employment,25 sufficient compensation,26 and community participation. Dignity is listed among basic needs such as food, shelter, and clothing. Here dignity is the object of a human quest, and can be violated through coercion and mistreatment.27

“Caring for Health: Our Shared Endeavor” (2003)
[15] “Caring for Health: Our Shared Endeavor” ties health and wholeness with a biblical aspiration, resulting in a vision of cooperation in a universal health endeavor. This statement has a single reference to dignity under the heading of “Ethical Guidance for Individuals and Families.” Respecting another person’s dignity is a trait of love that is related to both being “children of God,”28 and “whole persons.”29

“Our Calling in Education” (2007)
[16] “Our Calling in Education” relates to both Christian and secular education. Education has been a value since the earliest days of Lutheranism. This statement advocates for sufficient funding for public schools and quality in Lutheran institutions. The majority of dignity references are found coupled with complexity, where these are related specifically to children.30 In this statement, dignity is “[received] in being created ‘in the image of God.”31 It is something to be respected in all human beings. In one ambiguous usage, it may possibly be equal in all people: “Because all are created in God’s image, all have equal worth and dignity and should be treated accordingly.”32 The adjective equal is unclear in its application, but given the context it likely applies to both worth and dignity.

“Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust” (2009)
[17] “Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust” considers different perspectives, influences, and biblical witnesses on the subject of human sexuality with the aim of protecting loving relationships and giving guidance for different types of relationships in private and public realms. In this statement, dignity is treated as a dynamic force. It is active, in that it “reflects God’s deep love,”33 and can also be undermined by improper sexual relationships. These negative relationships include indulgent, transient encounters, and behaviors that are “unjust, abusive, and exploitative.”34 Dignity is the foundation for social trust, which is enforced by just laws, just institutions, and human rights. It is tied to the commandment of not bearing false witness, and Martin Luther’s positive explanation of honoring the neighbor.35

“Genetics: Faith and Responsibility” (2011)
[18] “Genetics: Faith and Responsibility” addresses the potential ethical and theological benefits and challenges of genetic research. This statement employs famous biblical references such as the imago Dei passage of Genesis 1:26, the Ten Commandments, and the Golden Rule to connect bioresearch with its applications in medicine and agriculture. Dignity’s source is a relationship with God, and that relationship provides “dignity for the whole creation.”36 It is unclear in this context whether humans have a special dignity among other living things, or whether dignity exists among the inanimate matter of creation.

[19] While humans are the implied referent of most of the dignity instances, there is more emphasis on the “dignity for members of the web of life.”37 While other statements tend to refer specifically to human dignity, the genetics statement claims that “[t]he dignity of all life, however, calls for discernment of appropriate expressions of regard for others, which will vary across forms of life.”38 This expresses a universal dignity shared by all lifeforms, though its expressions vary from species to species. For humans, dignity is something that can be expressed through their ability to choose, notably in medical situations. This type of autonomous expression may not apply to a pine tree, for example.

[20] Applying dignity to all life forms may be purposeful. During the discussion on cloning, the clone is never referred to as a human, but only as a person or an individual. It is possible that this statement is intentionally suspending the argument of whether a cloned Homo sapiens is a human. In a decisive move, the statement asserts that “this church will respect their God-given dignity and will welcome them to the baptismal font, like any other child of God.”39 This connection to the term “child of God” and baptism historically applies explicitly to humans, thus a clone would be implicitly and functionally considered a human.

[21] Despite the in-text focus on the dignity of life, an intertextual reference to “Sufficient, Sustainable Livelihood for All” harkens back to the responsibilities of humans to assure the basic needs of other people, including their dignity.40

“Criminal Justice” (2013)
[22] “Criminal Justice” addresses the United States criminal justice system, critiquing deficiencies and advocating for humane justice that is not tainted by prejudice. In this statement, dignity is applied to justice officials, corrections, law enforcement, the incarcerated, and victims. Dignity is also expressed in just legal action41 and “dignified ways of relating to other human beings.”42 There is also a footnote reference to an “important strain of ethical thought [that] insists that each human being should be treated as an ‘end’ not a ‘means’ because of human dignity.”43 This Kantian imperative applies categorically to all human beings, even criminals. The criminal justice statement also refers to victims having “the right to fair treatment, dignity, and respect.”44

Summary: Dignity Thus Far
[23] The following chart shows the frequency of dignity terms as they occur in the ELCA social statements, as well as whether there is a clear connection to either Genesis 1 or the term imago Dei.

*No explicit use of dignity in this document, but it appears in a reference. See above for details.

Our Definition Distilled
[24] From its variety of applications in these statements, the ELCA understanding of dignity can be categorized into a tripartite schema: (1) creation dignity, (2) imago dignity, and (3) flourishing dignity. Each type of dignity has its peculiarities.

[25] Creation dignity comes from the notion that all things are created by God, and are thus in relationship with God. This applies to living and nonliving things, and is particularly expressed in “Freed in Christ: Race, Ethnicity, and Culture,” and “Genetics: Faith and Responsibility.” While this type of dignity entails a very positive view on the relationship between God and all of creation, it does not distinguish among created things. Each created thing has a dignity that is expressed in different ways. Beyond this fundamental claim, it is not an especially compelling term for these social statements.

[26] Imago dignity is rich, interesting, and prevalent in these statements. Imago dignity applies to all people in all phases of life, and cannot be lost through illegal or immoral action. It derives from the imago Dei, a uniquely human relationship which is conferred by God and oriented toward God.45 Further, it is something that is social in its nature, and is especially related to participation in the church. Imago dignity ideally reflects the love of God towards the neighbor. A point of remarkable interest for imago dignity is that it applies to clones, who are called both persons and children of God, which equates them with non-cloned humans. These qualities are gleaned most heavily from “Abortion,” “For Peace in God’s World,” “Sufficient, Sustainable Livelihood for All,” “Caring for Health: Our Shared Endeavor,” “Our Calling in Education,” “Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust,” and “Genetics: Faith and Responsibility.”

[27] Flourishing dignity is the recognition and actualization of imago dignity in others and oneself and constitutes the dignified life. The ELCA has claimed that part of its mission is defending this dignified life. Drawing from all of the social statements, this is a basic need that is supported by other basic needs, such as proper food, shelter, clothing, and relationship. Flourishing dignity can be diminished when another person’s imago dignity is ignored or disregarded. Flourishing dignity is at risk for those such as criminals, children, minorities, and anyone who is in an improper relationship. This dignity is of high importance in the ELCA social statements because it is about acknowledging something that God has given to everyone. Imago dignity cannot be destroyed because people are always in relationship with God; when that relationship is ignored, flourishing dignity – a dignified life – is at risk. Flourishing dignity is differently realized by different types of people and individuals in different contexts.44 It is the dignity that requires the most explication and is the most vulnerable. Women in particular have a distinct type of flourishing dignity that is alluded to in “Abortion.”

[28] Creation dignity, imago dignity, and flourishing dignity are applied by the ELCA in different ways. The first two are inherent and inviolable, with imago dignity as a special type of creation dignity. These align closely with Shershow’s category of worth mentioned above. The third is contingent upon external factors, more like Shershow’s bearing. As Willer asserts, the ELCA utilizes a definite and consistent relational ethic in the social statements. They emphasize relationship with God as the foundation of any dignity, duty, or status for all created things, as well as the church’s role in advancing dignity. The late Robert Jenson argues that the church is the central place where dignity is realized; the very work of forming social statements manifests a change to help others realize dignity. [47]

Dignity Moving Forward: “Draft Social Statement on Women and Justice” (2017)
[29] Though unfinished, the “Draft Social Statement on Women and Justice” is timely and momentous. Its references to dignity align with the above concepts of imago dignity and flourishing dignity. Lines 354-375 link human dignity to the image of God, and observes that God’s image is honored when we help others flourish. Line 535 discusses the goal of all human lives to have dignity among other ideals; the meaning of dignity here is unclear, though it could refer to the bearing of a flourishing person. While dignity itself is explicitly mentioned twice, flourishing occurs sixteen times, often in reference to the whole of humanity or entire creation. The unique flourishing of women is largely implicit, though lines 408-413 discuss different needs among women to flourish. While the broad aim of this statement is to articulate a path to better relationship between God and all humanity, naming the distinctive flourishing of women would not be inappropriate. Given the prevalence of the term “flourish,” an entry in its concluding glossary would be valuable, especially if it builds upon the above concept of imago dignity. This draft statement continues the trajectory of the responsibility ethic and fits the tripartite schema of dignity that this article has distilled. With minor refining, this statement could instruct and edify even more in its final form.[48]

Intentional Dignity
[30] Defining dignity in its three modes – creation, imago, and flourishing – is only useful if it can make a difference in the future. When intentionally used, dignity language avoids the criticisms of uselessness and stupidity, and instead functions as a sophisticated and meaningful term for theological, ethical, and social dialogues. As the ELCA social statements are of an ad hoc variety, it is difficult to anticipate what matters might arise and how dignity might play a role in them. The extant ELCA social statements form a consistent relational ethic that demonstrates three modes of dignity: creation dignity, imago dignity, and flourishing dignity. These modes of dignity, when appropriately deployed, can be an integral part of compelling social witness. The nascent “Draft Social Statement on Women and Justice” is an opportunity to acknowledge human dignity and its relationship to flourishing, as all people of all sexes have dignity from God and deserve to have it acknowledged. In whatever social occasions arise that might need to be addressed, a clear and concise concept of dignity will benefit the ELCA and any organization that seeks meaningful contemporary dialogue about the relationships among God, humanity, and creation.


1 All the social statements referenced in this article can be found at www.ELCA.org/Faith/Faith-and-Society/Social-Statements, with the Draft Social Statement on Women and Justice at www.ELCA.org/womenandjustice.

2 Ruth Macklin, “Dignity is a Useless Concept,” British Medical Journal 327, (2003) 1420.

3 Steven Pinker, “The Stupidity of Dignity,” The New Republic, (May 2008) 28-31.

4 Scott Cutler Shershow, Deconstructing Dignity: A Critique of the Right-to-Die Debate, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014) 31-32.

5 Translated from Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (1953), trans. G.E.M. Anscombe, P.M.S. Hacker, and Joachim Schulte, (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009) 340.

6 Ibid., 10. Wittgenstein goes on to say, “Of course, what confuses us is the uniformity of their appearance, when one hears them spoken or encounters them in writing and in print. Because their use is not so clear. Especially not when we philosophize!”

7 ELCA, Constitution, Bylaws, and Continuing Resolutions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, (1987) 21.

8 Ibid 42. This is the roster of consecrated deacons.

9 Ibid 175. These are local judicatory bodies similar to Diocese or Districts.

10 Ibid 217.

11 Roger Willer, “Emerging Tapestry: An Evangelical Lutheran Social Ethic,” Dialog, Forthcoming.

12 Ibid.

13 Ibid.

14 ELCA, The Church in Society: A Lutheran Perspective, (1991).

15 ELCA, The Death Penalty, (1991).

16 ELCA, Abortion, (1991) 2.

17 Jeremiah 1 is commonly used to assert that life begins at or before conception.

18 ELCA, Care for Creation: Vision, Hope, and Justice, (1993) 7.


20 ELCA, Freed in Christ: Race, Ethnicity, and Culture, (1993) 4.

21 Ibid.

22 ELCA, For Peace in God’s World, (1995) 14.

23 Ibid.

24 ELCA, Sufficient, Sustainable Livelihood for All, (1999) 9.

25 Ibid., 10.

26 Ibid.

27 Ibid.

28 ELCA, Caring for Health: Our Shared Endeavor, (2003) 21.

29 Ibid.

30 ELCA, Our Calling in Education, (2007) 14, 21. These references stem from: Marcia J Bunge, “Rediscovering the Dignity and Complexity of Children: Resources from the Christian Tradition” Journal of Lutheran Ethics no. 4, 1: (January 2004).

31 Ibid., 5.

32 Ibid., 29.

33 ELCA, Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust, (2009) 5.

34 Ibid., 32.

35 Ibid., 13. For more on Luther’s explanation of the commandment, see Luther’s Small Catechism.

36 ELCA, Genetics, Faith, and Responsibility, (2011) 10.

37 Ibid., 17.

38 Ibid., 18.

39 Ibid., 19.

40 ELCA, Genetics, 16. ELCA, Economic Life, 10.

41 ELCA, The Church and Criminal Justice: Hearing the Cries, (2013) 19.

42 Ibid., 29.

43 Ibid., 55.

44 Ibid., 32.

45 Ingolf Dalferth, Creatures of Possibility: The Theological Basis of Human Freedom, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016) 197.

46 Flourishing dignity is primarily applied when imago dignity is fully acknowledged, though it is possible that this type of realization could also apply to nonhuman created things when their proper roles are fulfilled.

47 Marcus Düwell et al., eds, The Cambridge Handbook of Human Dignity, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2014) 59-71.

48 ELCA, Draft Social Statement on Women and Justice, (2017).

Chris Suehr

Chris Suehr is an ELCA pastor studying Religion and Culture as a PhD student at the Catholic University of America.