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The Lutheran Sexuality Report–Denominational Disaster

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America [ELCA] Church Council released its recommendations to the denomination’s Churchwide Assembly on issues related to sexuality on April 11, 2005, setting the stage for what promises to be one of the most acrimonious debates ever conducted by a denominational organization.

The recommendations came on the heels of two reports issued by theologians on both sides of the controversy. In the end, the Church Council went in another direction entirely, rejecting the recommendations from its “Task Force for Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Studies on Sexuality,” released in January. That report called for the church to adopt what amounts to a “local option” policy, permitting local churches to violate the church’s standards for ministers without penalty. In essence, this recommendation amounted to an acknowledgement that the ELCA is so polarized on the issue of homosexuality that an honest compromise is impossible. Honesty and integrity would have required the denomination to take official action, either to allow the ordination of practicing homosexuals or to exclude practicing homosexuals from the ministry. After years of study, the church’s task force recommended that the church maintain its policy explicitly permitting the ordination of practicing homosexuals, but allow churches to disobey and violate the policy without penalty or disciplinary procedures. In other words, this mainline Lutheran denomination attempted to adopt a ministerial form of the Pentagon’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.

On March 1, seventeen ELCA theologians issued “A Statement of Pastoral and Theological Concerns,” calling on the church to reject the recommendations from the task force. “We urge that all three recommendations of the task force be rejected since, if adopted, they would alter fundamentally the ecclesiology of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and that, in turn, would threaten not only the unity and stability of this church but, as a consequence, its ability to proclaim the truth of the gospel.”

These seventeen theologians, including well-known figures such as Carl Braaten, Robert W. Jenson, Hans J. Hillebrand, and Jean Bethke Elshtain, saw the task force’s recommendations as calling for the church to adopt a position of compromise that lacked all integrity. Specifically, they warned that the recommendation that the church ignore clear violations of its ministerial standards “threatens to destabilize the unity and constitution, as well as the historical, biblical, and confessional teachings and practice of this church.” Furthermore, the theologians argued that the third recommendation, taken seriously, nullified the integrity of the entire report. They identified the report’s recommendation of “no change in policy” while it suggested what amounted to a major shift in policy, was “the most conspicuous logical inconsistency.”

These seventeen theologians accused the task force of recommending that the denomination should substantially surrender its authority in establishing credentials for ministers, thus abdicating “its theological and moral constitutional responsibility.” The theologians also protested the task force’s understanding of conscience, asserting that the task force understood conscience only in a subjective sense. This subjective understanding of “conscience” is in direct violation of what Scripture and Martin Luther taught, “thus misrepresenting both.” As the theologians’ statement clarified: “For Luther, the holy and righteous conscience of the Christian must agree with God’s Word; an erring conscience, separated from Scripture, can react only in accordance with selfish desires resulting from weakness in faith.” That strong statement should be heard by all those who cite “conscience” as license for rejecting or violating the clear teachings of Scripture. These theologians are absolutely correct in their insistence that conscience must be, as Luther clearly understood, bound by the Word of God.

Similarly, the theologian insisted that the term “pastor” is always associated with “the standard of sound teaching” in Scripture. The teaching of every pastor must be tested by Scripture, and “pastoral concern” must be based upon the faithful application of scriptural teaching.

Finally, “For the reasons given we urge that all three recommendations of the Task Force be rejected since, if adopted, they would alter fundamentally the ecclesiology of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and that, in turn, would threaten not only the unity and stability of this church but, as a consequence, its ability to proclaim the truth of the Gospel.”

On April 6, a group of more liberal theologians responded with a call for the task force’s recommendations to be adopted. According to this statement, the theologians “represent a variety of perspectives and methodologies in our approaches to the questions of sexuality, ethics, theology, and ecclesiology.” These theologians acknowledged that some “would have wished for greater welcome of gays and lesbians while others are more cautious.” In the end, this more liberal group urged the denomination to adopt the task force report as “a much-needed and faithful compromise in the life of our church.”

Within days, 85 theologians had signed the liberal statement, arguing that disagreements over sexuality “do not threaten the unity of the gospel.” These theologians urged their denomination to accept the compromise proposed by the task force in order to allow the church further time to consider the question of homosexuality. Of course, this would mean the ordination and acceptance of some active homosexuals as ministers of the church, meaning that, in all reality, the denomination had made a decision to accept homosexual ministers, while lacking the courage to do so in a straightforward manner.

The ELCA Church Council, meeting April 9-11, chose to propose a very different form of compromise to the denomination. The group forwarded a report recommending “a limited process for exceptions to the normative policies of this church regarding the rostering of gay and lesbian people in committed, same-sex relationships.” The group claimed that its proposal “holds the promise of enabling this church to continue to journey together faithfully for the sake of the mission of this church.”

In substance, the recommendation calls upon the church to allow “exceptions” to its policy against the ordination of practicing homosexuals. In its description of the process, the Church Council stated that persons considered for such an exemption must meet all other policies of the church, “except for being in a committed, same-sex relationship.” The recommended policy would call for “a reasonable assumption or confirmation that a congregation or other ministry will extend or continue a call to the person being continued for an exception,” and would require the local bishop, if in support of such an exception, to seek endorsement by the “Synod Council.” That group, if responding positively to the exception, would then make a request to the denomination’s Conference of Bishops. The minister granted such an exception is also protected from any future discipline “by a subsequent bishop and/or council making a decision on the same set of facts.”

The Church Council’s reasoning, set forth in its report, makes for fascinating reading. At the onset, the group attempts to claim that both sides in the controversy share “a commitment to the authority of Scripture.” In other words, the group asserts that those who would subvert or reject the clear teachings of Scripture are nevertheless to be understood as being committed to the authority of the Bible. In the typical language of denominational bureaucracy, the group also urged the church “to concentrate on finding ways to live together faithfully in the midst of disagreements, recognizing the God-given mission and communion that we share as members of the body of Christ.”

The group established two different positions on this issue of homosexuality–one seeing homosexuality “as sin and brokenness” and the other starting with the assumption that homosexuality is a “condition, not choice.” In response to the first position, the Church Council called for compromise on the issue of homosexuality, even as it explicitly acknowledged that the understanding that Scripture consistently condemns homosexuality “has been held virtually unanimously by the Christian community throughout 2,000 years of history and continues to be the view held by most Christian church bodies around the world today.”

In arguing for the compromise, the Church Council pointed to the denomination’s earlier decision to ordain divorced and remarried pastors, recognizing that this is “a condition specifically condemned in Scripture by Jesus.” Citing the change in policy for divorced and remarried pastors as precedent is tantamount to arguing that, since the church found a way around that biblical prohibition years ago, it should follow a similar path of compromising biblical teaching in dealing with homosexuality.

To those who hold the second position, believing the church should remove all strictures on homosexual persons, the group commended its compromise because it would create “an avenue by which gay and lesbian persons in committed relationships may be called into the ministry of this church.” Furthermore, “just as it took the Church and the world many years to understand other critical issues, such as the re-marriage of divorced people, this process provides the opportunity for continued discernment of where the Holy Spirit is leading this church.”

Interestingly, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod [LCMS], a far more conservative Lutheran body, responded to the ELCA Task Force’s recommendations as representatives from the two bodies met for the “Committee on Lutheran Cooperation” in St. Louis on March 29-30. The LCMS, committed to biblical inerrancy, responded to the ELCA with “a word of Christian concern about the recommendations of this report and the rationale for those recommendations.” The report from the LCMS pointed directly to the authority of Scripture as the fundamental issue: “As the LCMS has wrestled with the sensitive issue of homosexuality, it has had to return time and again to the more fundamental question of how we go about addressing these questions in the first place: namely, on the basis of the Holy Scriptures as God’s inspired and inerrant Word. There is widespread agreement among Biblical scholars of varying theological persuasions and positions that the Bible itself clearly identifies homosexual behavior as sinful.” The LCMS statement went on to emphasize “the foundational issue of the authority of Scripture,” arguing that the church must “say without qualification that the Holy Scriptures are, in their entirety, the inspired and inerrant Word of God.”

The LCMS is entirely correct, identifying biblical authority as the “foundational and presuppositional issue” at stake in this controversy. The ELCA Church Council’s recommendations are premised on the claim that the Bible can be respected and obeyed even by those who explicitly and self-consciously reject its teachings. The report’s recommendation that “exceptions” be allowed in the ordination of active homosexuals to the ministry means that those opposed to the normalization of homosexuality in the ELCA will simply lose the argument. The exceptions will soon become the rule, and the acknowledgement and acceptance of practicing homosexuals in the ministry, even in what are recognized as exceptional cases, will inevitably lead to the full acceptance of homosexual ministers in the denomination.

The ELCA recommendations will be presented to the denomination’s Churchwide Assembly later this year. We must pray and hope that this denomination will return to the courage and conviction of Martin Luther, who lashed his conscience to the Word of God, and to the Word of God alone.