Letters to the Editor: Reactions to Sexuality Decisions at 2009 Churchwide Assembly
Danger and Opportunity
All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18)
These are troubling times for members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). From my perspective I sense that the ELCA is in danger.
Our disagreements center on homosexuality and are rooted in biblical interpretation. On one side of the debate are those who read Scripture from a “modern” historical critical point of view. Proponents argue that the Bible is silent on the matter of homosexuality. Former Bishop of the ELCA, Herbert Chilstrom, makes this point when he says, “Homosexuality is no more sinful than being left-handed. It’s just a fact of life. As for the biblical injunctions, [they are] relics of a distant culture” (Russell Scott Smith, “A Church Divided,” Minnesota Monthly [May 1999], 118).
On the other side is the voice of “traditional” interpretation. These proponents identify themselves as confessional and orthodox. They challenge the historical critical view and conclude, “Homosexual acts represent a tragic distortion of the created order.” They declare that homosexual orientation is a matter of the flesh and therefore “to speak of orientation is not to escape divine judgment” (The Lutheran Commentator 5, no. 5 (March/April 1992): 1–6).
In 2001 the ELCA Church Council appointed a 30-member sexuality task force with the hope this group might come to an understanding and find a way to resolve these differences. However, after eight years of work they could not come to a consensus. Furthermore, it is worth noting, none of the task force members changed their mind about homosexuality and interpreting Scripture. They did come to respect each other’s strongly held convictions. In their final report they detailed their disagreements, made recommendations, and expressed a desire and their commitment that the church stay together.
The jury is in. There is no agreement or consensus, and I don’t think there can be. The assertions made on either side are a matter of personal conviction and, as such, neither side can prove with certainty that they are right and others are wrong. The conflict is intractable and road ahead for the ELCA is going to be difficult and dangerous. However, I believe there are also opportunities. They are revealed in the dangers ahead.
One such danger is that we are vulnerable to misunderstanding. Both sides use the same vocabulary but often the words have different meanings. Here is an opportunity for us to achieve clarity, precision, and more careful communication. It requires extra effort on both sides to slow down, to decide, and to agree on the meanings of particular words and phrases. Such effort is a win-win. It will lead to better understanding the other’s convictions as well as one’s own.
Conflict usually makes us defensive. We load up with arguments, so we can win the debate. The danger comes when both sides are defending their positions and as a result are not listening to each other. We talk past each other and as a result the conflict escalates. When conflict escalates, it easily becomes personalized, and there is name calling, ridicule, and accusing those who disagree with us of being stupid, evil, or morally depraved.
Preventing this from happening requires maturity and discipline, and the presence of the Spirit of Christ. It is possible for us to be curious, listen, and learn from each other. Without being defensive or changing our mind, we can discover how others have come to believe as they do and to show respect for their deeply held conviction. If we stop defending and engage in dialog rather than debate, we are more likely to build trusting relationships.
We share the need to feel safe and secure. When we are in a conflict we can feel threatened by those who disagree with us. Here is an opportunity to talk about and negotiate around our common need for safety. Conversation about feeling threatened or fearful can help us identify and put into place what is needed in order to feel and be safe and secure.
Conflict brings up questions about what is right, just, and fair. Is it right for one group to kick the other group out? Is it just for those who strongly disagree to take money and leave? Is it fair to refuse to stop talking? A study of Scripture is in order. What does the Bible say about how we should treat those with whom we disagree? We have an opportunity to demonstrate to the rest of the world right, just, and fair ways to handle disagreements.
Unfortunately, conflict will give rise to individuals or groups who see the perpetuation of the conflict as necessary. This happens when a leader identifies his or herself as a “warrior for the cause.” When this role becomes a matter of personal identity, peaceful resolution is a threat to his or her status and power. As a result, a conflict will be sustained by leadership whose role and relationship in the organization depends on the conflict being kept alive. Guarding against such leadership facilitates reconciliation and peace.
The dangers themselves provide a chance for us to be counter-cultural. We have the opportunity to take a stand and live together in the Spirit of Christ as the people of God. We are to be witnesses and disciples of Christ. We have been entrusted with the message of reconciliation and called to represent Christ who has reconciled the world to God.
Assistant to the Bishop, Western Iowa Synod
Storm Lake, Iowa
Strong and Painful
My reactions to what was done at the assembly in Minneapolis are strong and painful.
- It is now clear where the ELCA is headed on the issue of sexuality.
- I am not going there. The biblical issue is determinative. There is no way anyone can read the canonical Scriptures and conclude that what is there presented is that God has created a variety of sexualities, all of which are equally to be affirmed as his good gift, thus to be celebrated and blessed. Jesus’ own words at Mark 10 are, in the jargon of the day, clearly “heteronormative.” Despite Scripture, our theology, teaching, and practice will be something quite different. I am not going there.
- I will not be leaving the ELCA, at least not for the present. I appreciate the pain that has, and will cause many, congregations and individuals to leave for St. Louis, Rome, Constantinople, elsewhere, and nowhere. For the time, at least, I will remain in this time of trauma.
- At the same time, I will do nothing to assist, or smooth the way for the ELCA to pursue this course of theological and ecclesiastical disaster. My will has been changed, my giving patterns will follow.
- No calls for a “deeper unity” that supposedly is ours will cause me to accept silently this course that I consider apostasy. I will use whatever opportunity I find to speak and work against it.
- I foresee gloomy and traumatic days ahead for this church I have loved and served. We will follow the United Church in Christ and the Episcopal Church USA in experiencing shrinking membership, income, and influence on the ecumenical, national, international scenes.
We had held a significant destiny as the leading biblical theologians of American Christianity. With the course chosen in Minneapolis, we surrendered that birthright for the pottage of the approval of a sex-obsessed and sex worshiping culture. The gloomy days ahead of us will be the judgment of God against a church that has monumentally failed. The first century church had the courage to counter its pagan culture; we have knuckled under to ours.
I comfort myself with the thought that, as in the past, some time in the future, God will grant us another time of reformation and confessional revival. We so desperately need it. Maranatha.
George Paul Mocko
I appreciated M. Laural Gray’s comments (Letters, “What Is Progressive?” Sept./Oct. 2009). I often try to recall when our church became so literalistic as I’m hearing these days. With the welcome actions of the most recent churchwide assembly comes the outcry from many that this or that breaks “God’s law(s).” When did we begin to take the holiness code of Leviticus so literally?
Perhaps we would do well to take Woody Allen’s remark about Yahweh being “an underachiever” more seriously. It is convenient to be certain who the false prophets are, isn't it? Thank you, Laural Gray.
You are right on!
James M. Davis
Hot Springs, Arkansas
The Place of Confession
I hate to bring up questions that may cause more division, but I feel this is an issue that must be addressed. Will homosexuals no longer have to confess their relationships, married or not, as sin?
Scripture implies that unconfessed sin will not be forgiven. Are we now in danger of consigning them to condemnation if they don’t confess what they are doing as sin? Or has the Churchwide Assembly decided it is no longer sin as long as it is in a committed relationship? Or is it not even necessary to have it committed? How long does it take to make it committed?
When I had a church in Weehawken, New Jersey, in the late 1960s, I privately brought a gay man, whom I had met that night, into my church for confession. We acknowledged that we were both sinners in the sight of God, but if we confessed our sins, then our Lord had promised to forgive them. I was roundly condemned by one of our church leaders when our headquarters were then in Manhattan. I was told that it could destroy my congregation if they found out that I brought someone “like that” into our church! I believed in having a “welcoming church” back then, because I felt it was a hospital for sinners — confessing sinners! The church’s function was not just to make us feel better about our sin if we can decide what sin is. Obviously we can’t depend on Scripture!
Are we now declaring that there is one group who no longer needs to confess their sin — a group that can come out of the closet and be proud of their questionable relationships while all the rest of us have to confess our sins, if we can figure out which ones are still sins? Are we saying that homosexuality is no longer a sin that needs confessing because of a vote at the Churchwide Assembly?
Will [the Churchwide Assembly] now give us a guideline on what needs to be confessed? For the sake of those to whom we have opened the door, and for the sake of our Lord and his kingdom, we all need to know where to draw the line. Their salvation may depend on it! (Or our salvation also if we believe we are condoning something that is obviously condemned in Scripture and endangering someone else’s salvation.) What do we do? We need to know.
Robert S. Ove
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
Where is Scripture?
Having just returned from a five-month mission trip in Central African Republic and Cameroon, and having read the results of the Churchwide Assembly, I feel led to send you the enclosed observations.
I have known very well three pastors who have been or become homosexual:
- My brother-in-law who once said, “I wish I could love a woman the way Ron loves Ruth.” I didn’t understand it at the time. He made occasional trips far away from the place where he was serving as pastor in order to find [companions]. Eventually he was found murdered.
- The best man at my wedding married a woman and they had two children. But at one point he left his family in order to join himself to a male partner.
- A mission administrator in Cameroon was married and had a child. When [the family] returned to the States, he left his wife and the child in order to join himself to [another man].
All three of these men I had loved and respected and wished that the church had helped them through their unnatural desires.
[Furthermore, regarding the decisions made at the churchwide assembly, I quote from the official papers] ...
RESOLVED, that in the implementation of any resolutions on ministry policies, the ELCA commit itself to bear one another’s burdens, love the neighbor, and respect the bound consciences of all.
RESOLVED, that additional policies be developed, as necessary, so that those whom this church holds responsible for making decisions about fitness for rostered ministry in general and for call to a particular specific ELCA ministry may discern, and have guidance in discerning, the fitness for ministry of a member living in a publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationship; and be it finally
RESOLVED, that this church continue to trust its established processes and those to whom it has given the responsibility to discern who should and should not be rostered or called to public ministry in this church.
In both the preambles and the resolutions, nothing is said about Scripture. The Bible is sometimes permissive of polygyny (Jacob, Solomon, etc.); of taking a mistress (Abraham, etc.); of being a proxy-father (Onan, etc.). But the Bible is never permissive of homosexual relations. Homosexual relations are clearly and unambiguously condemned in at least eight Bible passages:
Genesis 19:5ff: “They called to Lot, ‘Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, so that we may know (i.e., have sexual intercourse with) them...’”
Genesis 10:13: “We are about to destroy this place. because the outcry against its people has become great before the LORD and the LORD has sent us to destroy it.”
Jude 1:7: “Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities which, in the same manner as they indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural lust, serve as an example by undergoing punishment of eternal fire” (note from author: not because of “bad hospitality” as some have tried to say).
Leviticus 18:22: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.”
Leviticus 20:13: “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.”
1 Kings 14:24: “There were also male temple prostitutes in the land. They committed all the abominations of the nations that the Lord drove out before the people of Israel.”
Romans 1:26: “For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.”
1 Corinthians 6:9: “Do not be deceived! Fornicators... sodomites... none of these will inherit the kingdom of God.”
2 Peter 2:6, 10: “By turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction and made them an example of what is coming to the ungodly ... especially those who indulge their flesh in depraved lust.”
However, in the decisions of the ELCA [Churchwide Assembly], we are not told to trust Scripture but to trust the “established processes,” “policies of guidance,” and “those to whom (the ELCA) has given responsibility.” How dare we call ourselves Lutheran Christians when we go squarely against one of the most fundamental principles of Lutheran Christianity?
Hettinger, North Dakota
Letters in the Print Edition
[Editor: the following letter is in response to "For the Baptized," by James
Townsend (September / October 2009).
With faith in Jesus as my Lord and Savior, I have found the freedom from the law
of men. Fortunately I was not born into a law of men....
Baptized and confirmed (man's law) before you can receive the Lord's Supper?
Jesus (God) commanded: "All of you take, eat, and drink." "No, God, we know
better than you, they have to know (emphasis author's) what the Lord's Supper is
before taking it! What an insult to God! Man's knowledge and will, negating
My first wife, Joy (who died of ovarian cancer in 1985), was reared from birth
in a Christian Science family. At the age of 30, she was still holding and
leading Christian Science meetings in our home on Sundays, while I was leading
the choir (I was not yet ordained) at the Lutheran church in Bonners Ferry,
Idaho. (Music teachers [need to] do that as teachers are poorly paid, as well as
pastors who serve small rural congregations)....
A young pastor, the Rev. Palmer Gedde, came to Bonners Ferry knowing Jesus in a
very intimate way, freed from man's law, and seeing people with the eyes of
Jesus. He heard me talk about Joy and her Christian Science connection and
volunteered to come over and talk to me about salvation (I didn't know hardly
anything about Jesus, but I knew as he talked to me, Joy would hear him through
the closed door).
One time, as Palmer and Joy were having an intense discussion about religion,
Palmer invited unbaptized Joy to take the Lord's Supper and let Jesus convince
her. She did and God did too. She told Palmer that she had met Jesus, and don't
let anyone ever tell you that it is just bread and wine. It is as Jesus says,
you receive him
(emphasis author's)! After participating in the Lord's
Supper, Joy was made a new being in Christ, thanks to a pastor who didn't have
man's word rule over God's word. (It was some time later that Jesus encountered
me and a living faith in him began with his word echoing in my heart and mind:
"Go and make disciples and teach them to observe all that I have commanded.")
In case some of you didn't read James Townsend's letter, [he wrote about]
liturgical, historical (Didache
) and canonical reasons — man's laws in
the church. [These] are in tension with God/Jesus saying, "All of you, take, eat
and drink, this is my body, given for you" (that is, each and every person who
hears or reads God's word). It is Jesus' meal and like my home, we have
visitors, as does God. I refuse to limit God's power to work in someone's heart.
I did a study on the laying on of hands, after Pastor Gedde laid his hands on my
head and said those sacred and precious words, "I declare unto you the entire
forgiveness of all of your sins, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the
Holy Spirit, Amen." Those words changed my life, and I went to Wartburg
Seminary. Here it is, 45 years later.
Every time the Lord's Supper was served when I presided, I took those who came
to the altar, two at a time. Before I gave them the bread and wine, I would bend
over between their heads, placing my hands on their head, and declare to them,
"I declare unto you the entire forgiveness of all of your sins, in the name of
the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen." I then moved to the next two
people. And as 1 Peter 2:9 says — the priests and priestesses of the
congregation distributed the bread and wine to all — I would leave it to the
parents to witness to their children what they were receiving. (When we did that
in Baker, Montana, we found that the children were coming and staying for
worship, but then again, why not, they were receiving Christ and we know that
So, Pastor Townsend, let the love of Jesus come through you to all and don't
live under the laws of men in the church, but the law of Jesus to love the
other. Let Jesus love the other through you and let God work with the guests at
Peace and love to each of you as you encounter those in the world hungry for
good news. "God loves you. Come. Take, eat, drink for the forgiveness of your
(Pastor Gedde recently shared with me that he has cancer of the throat. Your
prayers for him are appreciated.)
Marveling at Blessings
I sense that the Rev. Zetto has missed out on something (Letters, "Just
Compensation," September / October 2009). If he is a professional, well-educated
theologian, then I'd agree he does not properly profit from his profession by
serving in some Corinthian congregation. However, some pastors have known such
rich rewards in being called and privileged to serve God's children, that even
if the salary was poor or none at all, they marvel that their Lord would so
bless them, unworthy and unfit as they are, to work in his kingdom. It does
matter what one values most as a called servant of God.
Two of the letters published in the Sept./Oct 2009 issue rely on arguments
based on fallacies.
Roy Hoch's letter ("Constantine's Blight"), focused on military chaplaincy,
argues as though the commandments along with Jesus' words can be applied almost
completely and directly to national policy. Jesus spoke directly only to
"face‑to‑face" situations. The closest he came to political matters was in his
words about paying taxes to Roman authority, where he almost surely acknowledged
the value of road‑building and security. Jesus never advocated nonresistance as
a political strategy. Hoch needs to study the kind of analysis Reinhold Niebuhr
provided for guiding action in the extremely complex spheres of political and
M. Laural Gray ("What is Progressive?") works from an even more fundamental
fallacy in defending the "progressive" movement (unfamiliar to me). I shall skip
the detail of what Gray rejects as a distortion of the movement's position. Both
that and the "correction" Gray tells about involve the fallacy, or more
accurately, the delusion, that humans can initiate activity that leads to
fellowship with God. Even though there were variations in early Christianity, it
grew from God's radically, ironically surprising entrance into the human realm.
Both biblically and philosophically, it is nonsense to think of "ways to God's
I am not advocating a return to doctrinaire pulpit pounding and argumentation.
Furthermore, I respect all religions as earnest expressions of longing for
knowledge about God and knowledge of God, longing moved in mysterious ways by
the Holy Spirit. That does not lead to the conclusion that they find God. But I
believe that God will find their followers. Religion does not rescue us. Our
Creator does, through his Son.
Those Who Serve Us
[In response to the letter. "Constantine's Blight," September / October
2009]... Let not the ELCA be absent from duty serving those who serve us. The
chaplain provides opportunities for people to worship and live their faith while
serving God and country within our military communities as provided for in the
First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution: "Congress shall make no law respecting
an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." The
chaplain implements the commander's responsibility to provide spiritual support
during peace, in combat, while caring for the wounded and the dying, and while
honoring the fallen. Abuse in the military often occurs when chaplains are
excluded from their responsibilities or less often when the chaplain is
irresponsibly absent from duty.
Priestly participation goes back into the Hebrew Scriptures centuries before
Christianity. Christ healed the centurion's daughter. Christ and the church
cannot avoid dangerous circumstances and evil but can confront them and
compassionately care for the oppressed and the oppressors.
Living our faith of receiving God's grace and forgiveness in community frees us
to share our experience and hope to stop the endless cycle of the oppressed
overcoming the oppressors and becoming the oppressors.
Robin Wayne Pizanti (ELCA chaplain on leave from call)
This article appeared in the January / February 2010 issue of Lutheran Partners
and Lutheran Partners Online (vol. 26, no. 1).