A Brief Case Study on Compromise

The Scene of the Compromise

[1] The recommendations on ministry policy made by the Task Force for the ELCA Studies on Sexuality and coming before the 2009 Churchwide Assembly have provoked disparate responses from differing constituencies within the ELCA. The report of the task force itself includes as an appendix two dissenting positions from members of the task force who wanted to express their convictions as they differed from what the task force recommended.

[2] In this article I propose to describe the ways in which the actual recommendations of the task force fall somewhere between Dissenting positions 1 and 2. They are neither what those holding Dissenting Position 1 nor what those holding Dissenting Position 2 would finally choose. I will also describe the features of the recommendations which, for better and for worse, make it a compromise.

[3] The simplest way to make the legislative language of the recommendations concrete, and to throw the dissenting positions into relief, is to engage in a case study. I begin with an example of a couple wishing to be married in their ELCA congregation and will illustrate how Dissenting positions 1 and 2 and the actual recommendations of the task force would produce different responses to the case study. The different responses entailed by all three aid in our understanding of how the recommendations are a compromise.



The Case Study

[4] Alex and Chris visit their Lutheran pastor, Rev. Davis. “We want to make a life-long covenant of mutual promises, faithful monogamous commitment, and hope that is publicly supported and publicly accountable,” they say, holding hands.

Rev. Davis asks, “Tell me why you both would like to enter into this life-long covenant.”

“Because we love each other,” they reply together.

[5] “But it’s more than that,” Alex states. Then, together, Chris and Alex describe many reasons why they want to enter into this covenanted relationship. Some of these reasons include:

  • Making a life together that can bless them with companionship, joy, love, intimate acceptance and embodied pleasure; with personal, economic, and social support; with the community’s guidance, encouragement, and call to accountability.
  • Making a life together that can bless those around them – their families, friends, church, community, and world.
  • Making a life together that can help to teach them how to trust and be trustworthy; how to be generous, kind, patient, gentle, and responsible with each other and the community; how to grow together rather than apart in a relationship that is hard work and requires persistence, love, and forgiveness during the good, bad, and ordinary times; how to serve one another and the world.
  • Making a life together that can be a human parable of God’s steadfast love, faithful commitment, and passionate desire to be in an eternal relationship of abundant life with the world as shown most perfectly in the life, ministry, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

“Isn’t this God’s primary will for us in all our relationships?” Chris concludes.

[6] “We realize that no human relationship can reach this ideal,” Alex adds, “and we will probably fail as much as we succeed. But we trust each other and in God’s forgiveness enough to want to try to make a life together the best we can in the midst of sin.”

“Well, it sounds like you’ve really thought this through. By chance, do either of you have theological training?” Pastor Davis asks.

“Yes,” Alex states. “I’m in my senior year of seminary and I plan to be a pastor in the ELCA.

“And I am studying to be a youth and family minister,” Chris says. “In fact, we met at seminary.”

What should Pastor Davis do?

Response: Dissenting Position #2 (DP2)

[7] Alex and Chris’ understanding of their relationship and God’s will for their lives shows Rev. Davis that they are serious about their commitment to making a life together that will not only bless them but their families, community, church and world in various ways. Also, there is nothing in the ELCA’s policies preventing Rev. Davis or the congregation from publicly supporting Chris and Alex’s relationship and calling them to public responsibility in the church. Therefore, Rev. Davis would immediately agree to perform the ceremony. The pastor would also make arrangements to proceed with pre-marital counseling to help Alex/Chris prepare for their life together and plan the worship service. Pastor Davis would be excited to participate in Alex’s ordination and Chris’ commissioning as rostered ministers in the ELCA.

Response: Dissenting Position #1 (DP1)

[8] Due to the current policies of the ELCA, which are based in Scriptural and traditional Christian understandings of God’s ordered creation regarding gender and sexuality, DP1 requires Rev. Davis to take another step to discern whether this relationship can be publicly supported by her congregation. While Chris and Alex’s reasons for entering into a covenanted relationship are admirable and might indeed provide a blessing to them and the church, it is up to Rev. Davis to determine if Alex is an “Alexandra” or “Alexander” and if Chris is a “Christine” or “Christopher.” In other words, DP1 requires us to trust pastors to decide what it means to be male or female and then to discern whether Alex and Chris are male or female to make sure that there is only one male and only one female in this relationship. If that’s not the case with Chris and Alex, she could not support this relationship. Also, she would be obligated to report this transgression to the ELCA’s leadership.

[9] But how does Pastor Davis discern their sex/gender? Does she ask to see their birth certificates? Ask for medical verification? Submit them to psychological testing? The church does not have a definition of male or female; instead there are only assumptions “that everybody knows” what male and female are. If marriage defined only as one man and one woman is a core doctrine for this church, why would something so important as being sure a pastor is blessing a relationship that contains nature’s proper genders as designed by God be left to chance?

The Compromise: ELCA Task Force’s Recommendations on Ministry Policies

[10] In comparing these two responses to the case study with the recommendations presented by the ELCA Task Force, we see that the recommendations represent a compromise between Dissenting Positions One and Two (hereafter, DP1 and DP2). That they do so can be discovered in five interconnected aspects of compromise. For the purposes of this discussion, I will focus primarily on DP2 in order to show that these recommendations are indeed a compromise for those who support full parity for people in publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships, despite their choice to accept these recommendations. In order to indicate the true nature of this compromise, however, I will occasionally address the views of DP1 as well.

[11] One aspect of compromise is that it always involves a change, a break from the status quo, or movement in another direction. Yet rarely does that change go far enough for all involved. The task force recommendations clearly show such change and the lack thereof. While those who support DP1 are being asked to accept a change they believe goes too far in a situation that should involve little change, those who support DP2 are being asked to restrain their call for full change and submit to a partial change that to them does not go far enough and retains too much of the status quo. For instance, to the supporters of DP2, Recommendations One and Two still require the same unnecessary step as DP1’s response: the church must first determine whether Alex and Chris are male or female. Once sex/gender is known and it is determined that Alex and Chris’ relationship is indeed same-gendered, then the recommendations become relevant. Thus, the foundation of the church’s policies that govern legitimate relationships and rostered leadership status remains the same: the gender of the leaders and their life-long partners.

[12] Second, compromise rarely makes any side happy, though one side may feel more content with the solution than the other. This is certainly the case in the responses from both DP1 and DP2. For example, while many supporters of DP1 have made their unhappiness clear.[1] it is also true that many who support DP2 are far from happy about this solution. Recommendation Three represents a particular problem for DP2 because it seems to be asking people, who believe that they have been oppressed due to their gender and sexual orientation and that there is valid evidence from Scripture, reason, experience and tradition that such oppression is not God’s will, to respect the “bound consciences” of their oppressors. To them, it is similar to asking a black person in South Africa to respect the bound consciences of those enforcing Apartheid.

[13] Why then are the supporters of DP2 accepting these recommendations if they are unhappy with the compromise? Because they see in these recommendations a necessary movement away from what they consider to be destructive policies into place of relative safety and some support in the church and a movement forward to a day of full inclusion.

[14] Third, compromise usually results in more complexity and ambiguity rather than less. Recommendations One, Two, and Four highlight this reality as they attempt to maintain existing structures and practice while at the same time indicating that Chris and Alex’s relationship and their call to rostered ministry may be supported by the individuals, congregations, candidacy committees, and synods of the ELCA who choose to do so and rejected by those who choose not to do so. This seeming contradiction leads to significant ambiguity. For example, should Rev. Davis and her congregation decide to recognize Chris and Alex’s relationship, neither they nor Alex and Chris have been offered much liturgical, pastoral, ecclesiastical, or theological support in the practical responsibilities of doing so. Thus, Recommendations One and Four offer the church’s partial acceptance of same-gender relationships but decline to develop resources for what that support might look like. Instead, the recommendations seem to focus primarily on public accountability while offering inadequate support or encouragement for persons in same-gender relationships. (E.g., the language of "finding ways to allow" in Line 579 seems both insubstantial and ambiguous).

[15] Also, regarding Recommendation Four, rostered persons in same-gender relationships are left in the limbo of not knowing which leaders, congregations, committees, or individuals will support them in their relationships and/or their ministry. While people in same-gendered relationships are expected to “come out” and make their relationship publicly accountable, those who will not accept their relationships are under no similar expectations. They may choose to declare their bound conscience publicly or keep it secret, thus requiring gay and lesbian persons to guess where they stand and risk rejection.

[16] Moreover, while congregations are allowed to make the decision on their own whether to support or exclude Alex and Chris’ relationship (and thus those in them) without fear of official punishment, they may not have the support of their bishop, synod, other local congregations, and other leaders who may choose to exact “unofficial” recriminations against them in more subtle ways (e.g., being ostracized, excluded, disrespected in synod activities). Alex and Chris also cannot assume support across the church in the same way different-gendered relationships can and may experience “unofficial” recriminations against them as well.

[17] In addition, this compromise requires people in same-gendered relationships who are rostered or seeking rostered status to be subject to people in offices of power, knowing that changes could happen within those offices. Many questions arise. What if a new bishop, congregational leadership, or candidacy committee takes office? How will this affect the persons in their relationship and call? How will it affect the congregations and individuals who support them and those who don’t support them? Will individuals or congregations be “unofficially” punished? How will these new leaders respond during times of transition for the gay or lesbian persons or congregations? Like the “Don’t ask, Don’t tell Policy” for the U.S. armed forces, it is possible that these recommendations which are intended for good could be abused and cause more pain and suffering.

[18] Fourth, on a positive note, compromise is often the only way to resolve an irreconcilable conflict, at least in the short term. The recommendations aid such resolution in three ways:

1. These recommendations represent a compromise that allows a relatively safe space for the sides to remain in a gospel-centered relationship, if they so choose. For example, if followed honestly and in love, Recommendation Three can help to provide such a safe space for Chris and Alex to be supported in their relationship and their call to ministry within the ELCA rather than extra-ordinarily removed from it.


2. These recommendations create a relatively safe and flexible structure for living together in the gospel that can guide those who profoundly disagree on rostering those in same-gendered relationships, if they so choose. If respected fully, Recommendation Four will make such a structure available to Alex and Chris as well as Rev. Davis and her congregation.


3. Compromise is usually temporary and can often (though not always) lead in more helpful directions than the current conflict. Consequently, all of the recommendations allow time for the ELCA to find new or better solutions for the future.


[19] Finally, while never truly resolving the conflict, compromise demands a responsibility both to the present and the future. It calls us to follow the tenets of the compromise with respect and love. Yet it also calls upon future generations to follow with courage new spirit-led paths those in the present cannot or will not follow. Many (not all) of the youth of today would support Alex and Chris’ same-gender relationships as a “no-brainer.” They see the vitriolic fighting and exclusion of some in our church as the true sin. It will be these Christians who will be asked to clean up this church’s mess, pay its debts, make the necessary apologies, and find the new way that eludes our generation.

[20] Ultimately, then, hope for true resolution lies in a future that for some comes too quickly and for others does not come soon enough. At its best, compromise can be an imperfect stepping stone to that future. But compromise is not that future, nor can it ever be. Only God knows what that future entails. In the ELCA we must recognize this reality and remember that any compromise can merely represent an ambiguous present and the sin in its midst. Only in such recognition will the compromise found in the Task Force’s Recommendations truly serve this church as it seeks to share the gospel message that guides it.


[1] Those supporting DP1 are just as unhappy about being asked to respect the bound consciences of people they believe are turning away from Scripture and tradition and are thus threatening the very foundation of the Christian faith. See http://lutherancore.org/papers/open-ltr-2009.shtml.




© July 2009

Journal of Lutheran Ethics

Volume 9, Issue 7