If God Gives Them the Same Gifts, Who are We to Hinder God?


[1] I have been engaged in the subject of homosexuality and the church, as both ethicist and teacher of church governance for many years. Formal engagement with the subject began in 1978, when I was the primary writer for a paper prepared by the Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary faculty for the Executive Council of the Pacific Southwest Synod, LCA. I was a member of the Council as well, and we were looking for guidance on several issues relating to homosexuality and the church.

[2] My academic engagement has always been informed by personal relationships and experiences with individuals and ministries.  As a member of the faculty and administration of Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, I have taught and advised gay men and lesbian women who have served in the ordained ministry of this church.   I served as a member of the Candidacy Committee of Region I for ten years. I have closely observed the process of discipline applied to pastors and congregations. Now retired, I am Dean of the East Bay Conference of the Sierra Pacific Synod, in which two congregations and two cooperative ministries are led by gay and lesbian pastors. And I am also on the Board of Directors of the Extraordinary Candidacy Project which approves and rosters candidates and pastors who have been removed from or denied entrance to the ELCA roster of ordained ministers on the basis of their same-sex partnerships. My experience then has been both as one representing the ELCA and one free of that restraint.

[3] Recommendation Three of the Report and Recommendations by The Task Force for ELCA Studies on Sexuality reads as follows:

[4] …that the ELCA continue under the standards regarding sexual conduct for rostered leaders as set forth in Vision and Expectations and Definition and Guidelines for Discipline,  but that,  as a pastoral response to the deep divisions among us,  this church may choose to refrain from disciplining those who in good conscience, and for the sake of outreach, ministry, and the commitment to continuing dialogue, call or approve partnered gay or lesbian candidates whom they believe to be otherwise in compliance with Vision and Expectations and to refrain from disciplining those rostered people so approved and called. (p.7)

The Recommendation has Merits

[5] To begin with the task force deserves our commendation for providing recommendations on issues about which they found Lutherans to be "decisively at odds." (p.5)     Lutherans do not simply admit to differences on the subject of gay men and lesbians, but are decisively at odds, so much so in fact that the "at-oddsness" itself, to a large measure controls the recommendations. Apparently the task force understood its task to be to arrive at recommendations that are not only principled but practical, i.e., will have a reasonable chance of being approved by the 2005 Churchwide Assembly, without further dividing the church.

[6] The difficulty in accomplishing its objective with respect to the ordination issue became clear as the task force found that it was a "struggle to formulate a recommendation that would find support among the majority of [its own] members." (p.7)  And this struggle very likely foreshadows the struggle that the 2005 Churchwide Assembly will experience in getting the two-thirds majority required (assuming the Assembly adopts the Church Council's recommended procedural rules).  Given this context, it is commendable that the task force has accomplished this much.

[7] Another merit is that, in granting validity to both sides of the issue, and giving "space" for both sides to act on their convictions, Recommendation Three acknowledges the divided opinion in the church as well as the mixed interpretation of scripture as it pertains specifically to homosexuality. The Los Angeles Times probably got the intent of the task force Recommendation right when it reported, in part:

Lutherans Compromise on Gays in the Clergy

[8] "Underscoring deep divisions in the nations' largest Lutheran denomination, a task force on Thursday called for retaining the ELCA's prohibition against ordaining non-celibate homosexuals, but urged caution in disciplining congregations and clergy who ignore the ban."  (January 14, 2005)

[9] In other words, the task force has provided us with what appears to be a reasonable compromise, which may work, if the division in the ELCA is not a split-down-the-middle division but a three-way division; a large, confused, open to counsel middle, and relatively small groups at the two extremes. Because these latter groups are so adamant in their convictions, a mutually acceptable authority would be required to decide between one side and the other. Lacking a resolution by such an authority, a compromise that seems reasonable to the larger middle group may be the only option.

[10] To be sure, this church has the mutually acceptable authority. "This church accepts the canonical scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the inspired Word of God and the authoritative source and norm of it proclamation, faith and life."  (ELCA Constitution 2.03)

[11] As the "Background Essay on Biblical Texts" which supplements the study document prepared for churchwide study admits at the outset, however, "biblical scholars, studying the same texts and using comparable methods of interpretation, come to different conclusions." (p.3)  Reasons as to why this is the case are given, but at the conclusion of the study, the fact remains, that those recognized by this church as biblical scholars do come to different conclusions. And so the task force concludes that the accepted authority does not provide an authoritative judgment.

[12] A third and more substantive merit of the recommendation is its encouragement of responsible in-situation decisions by pastors, congregations, and synodical authorities. Being required to work through an issue to arrive at a decision, is more nurturing of a mature Christian life than having one's responsibility pre-empted by imposing regulations that apply regardless of the situation. Our church has increasingly become a regulatory institution. The ELCA Constitution has expanded from 108 to 166 pages (from 1987 to 2003 edition). The first six chapters, which lay down the theological and ecclesiological foundation for the ELCA have held steady at 7 to 8 pages.

[13] The expansion has taken place in the structure of administration, governance, and regulation. ELCA Constitution Chapter 20, e.g., the "judicial" chapter, has gone from 7 to 24 pages. Much of the expansion has been directed toward clarifying and strengthening the policy excluding persons in a same-sex partnered relationship from the ordained ministry, e.g., ELCA 20.17 and 20.18, which give synodical authorities greater unilateral authority to impose discipline. This recommendation, if accepted, and then made more generally applicable, might threaten the cohesiveness of the church in the short run, but could strengthen its life and witness in the long run.  

[14] In encouraging in-situation decision-making, the recommendation also anticipates the  possibility  that decisions reached may sometimes be to not comply with a constitutional   provision, or a  policy authorized by the ELCA Constitution. The recommendation proposes that the church may refrain from imposing discipline when such a decision is made "in good conscience." I interpret "in good conscience" to be conscience as Luther appealed to it  as he stood before the Diet at Worms, i.e., not individual intuition about right and wrong, but conscience "bound" by scripture, or  the faith of the Christian community. For the ELCA, this would mean appeal to its "Confession of Faith" as outlined in ELCA 2. 

[15] The absence of a provision for principled non-compliance is a serious deficiency in the ELCA's primary governing document. Currently, there is a "zero tolerance" of non-compliance; but this has not always been the case. In the Constitution, as originally adopted in 1987, e.g., "willfully disregarding or violating the provisions of the constitution or bylaws of this church" is not a subject for discipline of a congregation (ELCA 19.16.01); but it is in the current document   (ELCA 20.31.01.c).  And, while ordained ministers were subject to discipline for such "willful disregarding", in the 1987 document the penalty of removal from the roster did not apply.  (19.15.02). This exception has also been rescinded. (ELCA 20.21.02.c).

[16] Provision for principled noncompliance is warranted by a body that "recognizes that all power and authority in the Church belongs to the Lord Jesus Christ, its head." (ELCA 5.01 and 3.01).  If Christ is the head of the Church, then Christ must be the final authority, and the judgments of the church as to the will of Christ for today's challenges and opportunity must be accorded only proximate authority.  Allowing for, even expecting,  principled non-compliance is consistent with the proximate authority of church policies. Fallible people, whether governing society or the church make fallible judgments.

There are Also Problems with the Recommendation

[17] In the first place, what appears to be a compromise is not really a compromise at all.  Because the Recommendation retains the current policy, it implies that the preponderance of evidence, including opinion, supports the exclusion of persons in same-sex relationships from ordination.  Only a very carefully nuanced concession gives an opening for acceptable non-compliance. And if the concession is to be available, those who support it will have to muster a two-thirds  majority vote, while those opposed need only one-third plus one vote to maintain the status quo. A true compromise would place the burden of proof on those who affirm the policy as well as those who oppose it.  Both sides would be required to wrestle with their consciences and justify their conclusions.

[18] The task force claims that its recommendation allows both for the "stability of tradition" and "the opportunity for ongoing discernment." (p.7)  Agreed, but again those who affirm the former need only appeal to the policy, while those who wish to take advantage of the latter must do the work of discernment. It may seem insensitive to imply that only those who oppose the policy wrestle with their consciences to come to that conclusion, and only those who refuse to comply are forced to justify their action. Yet it does seem that those who support the policy unequivocally usually do so by simply asserting its consistency with what "the Bible says" or two thousand years of tradition demonstrates. The only discernable agonizing is by those who are disciplined for refusing to comply, or those who feel obligated to implement or enforce a policy with which they disagree, or have serious doubts about, e.g., some bishops, and some Candidacy Committees.

[19] Recommendation Three also presents problems for governance. The ELCA is structured as one church in which congregations, synods, and churchwide organization constitute an interdependent partnership. (ELCA 8.1) An integral component of the oneness of the ECLA is its ordained ministry, which is conceived of and structured as one ministry.  A person approved for ordination by her or his synod is eligible to serve throughout the church (and, in principle, has the right to be considered for any ministry throughout the church.)  How can the church recognize individual exceptions, without obligating the whole church to accept them? Will persons approved as exceptions appear on the roster with an asterisk, as a kind of warning?  Will they be limited to "particular" ministries? What will be the status of a congregation that calls such a pastor, in a Conference of congregations that are opposed to the practice?  The threat to ELCA polity will be cited by some as reason to reject the recommendation.

[20] Note: reference to the "standards regarding sexual conduct for roster leaders as set forth in Vision and Expectations and Definition and Guidelines for Discipline" continues a misuse of Vision and Expectations. The document explicitly states that it "should not be used as a juridical standard," (p. 3, 1996 edition), and yet Candidacy Committees are required to use its reference to homosexuality as a standard to which candidates are asked to promise compliance, as a condition of approval for ordained ministry.

In Appealing to Scripture the Wrong Question is Asked

[21] A major stumbling block for the task force and for the church is their reliance on Scripture as the primary authority, which in this case, they deem to provide no authoritative resolution.  The response of the task force is to grant that both interpretations have validity and to offer a compromise which has the effect of giving priority to 'tradition," which supports the current policy, thus giving greater weight to one of the interpretive sides.

[22] I propose, however, that scriptural interpretation more appropriate to a Lutheran approach to scripture will yield a conclusion that decisively indicates the direction that church policy regarding homosexuality should be heading. To begin with, Lutherans should not be asking, "What does the bible say about homosexuality?"  The statement on the authority granted to scripture (ELCA 2.03) does not come first in this church's "Confession of faith" (ELCA 2). Rather, it states what this church "accepts", in the context of what it "confesses", i.e., the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit," (ELCA 2.01) and "Jesus Christ as  Lord and Savior and the Gospel as the power of God for the salvation of all who believe (ELCA 2.02) 

[23] The relevant question for this church then is about salvation and people, not sexual orientation and practices.  The salvation of course is that promised in the Gospel through Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. The people we have questions about are persons in a committed same-sex partnered relationship who confess the same faith as that of the church. Is there scriptural evidence for their being treated any differently from others who confess that faith?  If there is evidence for differential treatment, then the question of baptism itself needs to be revisited, but if not, than how can this church, with integrity, say to persons of faith in committed same-sex relationships, "there is something inherently different about you, that while not disqualifying you from salvation, does disqualify you for serving in the ordained ministry, which, as you know, this church considers very important to and in the life of faith." 
[24] To begin, the Bible says nothing at all about persons of faith in committed same-sex partnered relationships. As far as we know that possibility was unknown to the biblical writers. (It does have negative things to say about the act of same-sex intercourse-profane, unclean, taboo; but that is not the question at this point. And does the ELCA really want to get into deciding which methods of sexual intercourse are "natural" and which are "unnatural"?).   The bible also says nothing at all about ordination   (which was "discovered" re: the question of the ordination of women) 

[25] The Bible, however, has a great deal to say about to whom the power of the Gospel for salvation applies, because that was a vital question for the early church. The story of how that question was resolved takes up a major section of the book of Acts (not a few isolated verses). And if this church is willing to listen carefully, this account of a pivotal point in the history of the early church could also be pivotal for its own life and ministry.

[26] Acts chapters 10-15 tell the story.  Prior to chapter 10 there is an assumption that the Gospel applies only to Jews. Gentiles, the generic term for non-Jews, are "profane, unclean", the "other," to be avoided. The narrative, which completely and finally negates that assumption, follows, letting the dialogue "speak" for itself:

[27] Cornelius, a Gentile, has a vision. (10:1 ff.)
Angel: Cornelius.
Cornelius: What is it, Lord?
Angel: Now send men to Joppa for a certain Simon who is called Peter…

[28] Peter has a vision (10:9 ff).   
The voice: Get up, Peter; kill and eat (animals, reptiles, birds).  
Peter:  By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything profane or unclean.
The voice: What God has made clean, you must not call profane.

[29] Peter accepts the invitation of Cornelius, and preaches to the household assembled by Cornelius.   (10:17 ff.)
Peter: You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without objection.
Peter again, after witnessing the Holy Spirit fall on them: Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?  
Peter is criticized by some of the believers for even associating with Cornelius.  (11:1 ff.)
Peter, referring to his vision: The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. …If God then gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?           
Critics (first silenced, and then praising God): Then God has given even to the Gentiles, the repentance that leads to life.

[30] Chapters 12-14 continue the story, with the account of Paul and Barnabas having similar experiences of Gentiles receiving and coming to faith, and then baptizing them.

[31] But the criticism persists and the controversy moves to Jerusalem. (15:1 ff.) 

[32] Critics: Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved. 

[33] Peter, to the assembled apostles and elders: My brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that I should be the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the message of the good news and become believers. And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us.  Now therefore why are you putting God to the test by placing on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors ever have been able to bear?  On the contrary we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.

[34] Paul and Barnabas follow with similar testimony from their experience.

[35] James, the leader of the community: This [the testimony] agrees with the words of the prophets, as it is written: "…all other people may seek the Lord---even the Gentiles over whom my name has been called.  Thus says the Lord, who has been making these things known from long ago". Therefore I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God…

[36] The others concur with James decision. And the issue is settled.

[37] Peter had testified to his experience that God makes "no distinction between them and us." If God makes no distinction, we cannot. The invitation to be saved is extended to all, without qualification, and, all who accept are included, without qualification. The joys and expectations of the life in faith likewise apply to all equally. (Note that when James quoted scripture, it was not proof texts for the continued "otherness" of the Gentiles, experience to the contrary.)

[38] Peter had no problem in applying his vision experience to Gentiles, nor should any hermeneutical leap be required to apply what Peter learned, to this church's treatment of gay men and lesbians. We agonize over whether the biblical labels of "unclean, profane, taboo" apply to contemporary persons, and if they do, how far God will let us go in including their participation in the ministries of this church.  The way I hear the story, it is a waste of time over a question that was answered two thousand years ago. "What God has made clean, you must not call profane."  "In cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us." For Peter, the evidence was so obvious that all he had to do was recount his experience. He was forbidden any longer to put the label of "profane, or unclean" on the Gentiles; Peter did not interpret this admonition as an option, but as a requirement.

[39] And then not as a test, but as confirmation, he observed God's giving the Gentiles the same Holy Spirit and the same baptism as he had received.  The Gentiles had not earned their new status, and Peter and the others had not given it to them. It was a matter of what God had done-generous, complete, all encompassing Grace, in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

[40] When some have insisted that experience counts in the ELCA's discernment on the issue at hand, they are right, but not to prove the worthiness of persons in same-sex relationships to do ministry. Rather it is to confirm that God is already blessing them in their ministries-"without distinction between them and us."  The task force members have appealed  to experience in making their recommendation, but it is their own experience that has been determinative-their   experience of division in the church, and ambiguous biblical conclusions, and their difficult, often painful, experience of trying to arrive at a consensus among themselves. But just as they asked the wrong question of scripture, they took into account the wrong experience in making their recommendation.

[41] The relevant experience is that of the ministry of gay men and lesbians in our church.  Because of this church's public "outing" of these pastors, and the work of the Extraordinary Candidacy Project  and others to maintain them in ministry, the evidence is available to us--not in the abstract of what we assume, but on the basis of what we can see for ourselves.

[42] Personally, I have observed among seminarians no difference in faith commitment that could be explained by sexual orientation. Outstanding as well as ordinary candidates include homosexual as well as heterosexual students. Almost every removal of a pastor for non-compliance with this church's policy, has been done with "regret" that a successful ministry must be terminated because it is the policy of the church. The document upon which this discipline is based, "Definition and Guidelines…." states that "The normative expectations of this church for its ordained ministers focus upon faithful and effective exercise of ministerial leadership." By imposing discipline, in spite of faithful and effective exercise of ministerial leadership, this church puts itself in an embarrassing position.  As the 40 or so pastors on the Extraordinary Candidacy Project roster have gone through its approval process, we have read the letters of dismissal and listened to the stories which give flesh and blood reality to these observations.

[43] As Dean, I can personally witness to the effectiveness of ministry of gay and lesbian pastors in my Conference. The Lutheran church generally has been in decline in the East Bay. Two of the congregations which are strong exceptions are led by gay men-one of whom has been removed from the ELCA roster, the other denied entrance, but both subsequently approved and supported by the Extraordinary Candidacy Project through its candidacy process. The Synod designates one of the congregations as "vacant"; the other is under censure. Both congregations include gay men and lesbians among their members, but can hardly be called "particular" ministries. The East Bay Lutheran Parish, a cooperative ministry of East Bay congregations, sponsors youth and convalescent home ministries, one led by a gay man, the other by a lesbian, both approved for ordained ministry through the Extraordinary Candidacy Project's candidacy process,  and "called" by participating congregations. Another ministry, in a nearby conference, which I know well since I am one of its former pastors, is thriving under the leadership of a lesbian pastor. A retired synod bishop and spouse travel over 40 miles each way to be a part of the ministry of this congregation.

[44] God does bless these ministries, using the special gifts and life experiences of these men and women. Nevertheless, the ELCA has inflicted great pain on these pastors and their congregations by rejecting them as well as their ministries. The willingness of the pastors to be fully open about who they are, putting at risk their chosen vocation, and their continued commitment to ministry despite the response of this church, is a special gift they bring to their ministries. By continuing to reject them, this church deprives itself of their gifts, and refuses to celebrate the continuation of ministries which have been sustained by courageous pastors and congregations.

[45] My conclusion is that the problems of Recommendation Three outweigh its merits.  Nevertheless, I am one of the hundred or so Lutheran Theologians who signed the statement of support for the Recommendation,  because it does, however tentatively, seek to move us in the right direction. I have also proposed an alternative "friendly amendment" to Recommendation Three, as follows:

[46] That the policy precluding ordination for persons in a same-sex relationship be suspended for a period of 10 years, that necessary governance adjustments be made to allow individuals, Candidacy Committees and congregations to make decisions according to their considered convictions on the relevance of sexual orientation, and to guarantee that all ordinations and calls that take place during the ten years will have full and continuing validity.  During the ten years this church will continue to engage in continued study and dialogue on sexuality. At the end of the ten years, the church will review the suspended policy, and taking into consideration both the results of its study and its experience of functioning under the suspension of the policy, make a long term policy decision.

[47] This alternative retains the merits of the task force recommendation and addresses a number of its deficiencies.  It is more truly a compromise, requiring those who oppose change to make their case, as well as those who support change. It recognizes the fuller body of relevant scripture, and acknowledges the experience of the relevant ministries.  It gives time for the church to come to a more considered conclusion on the issue. It is a somewhat bolder recommendation, and more consistent with the task force's own rationale.

[48] Nevertheless, it is still a compromise, when compromise is not warranted.   It leaves the present policy "on the books", merely suspending it for a stated period of time.  And while seeming to favor neither side, the presumption of validity is given to those who appeal to tradition, with the burden of proof ultimately residing on those who appeal to a new interpretation and understanding.

[49] Therefore, I propose the following as a recommendation which is more appropriate to this church-a church which emphasizes the efficacy of God's grace alone for salvation, which reads the Bible in that context, and which has in its own ministry of congregations and pastors the evidence that God makes no distinction in blessing ministries on the basis of sexual orientation-partnered or otherwise:

[50] 1. That this church rescind its exclusionary policy pertaining to the   ordination of partnered gay men and lesbians by deleting all references to homosexuality and homosexual behavior from "Vision and Expectations" and "Definition and Guidelines"; and

[51] 2. That this church repent of its past actions of exclusion, and seek reconciliation with those pastors and congregations whom it has removed from its rosters, including restoring them to the rosters of this church; and

[52] 3. that, recognizing that this is a reversal of the tradition and current official teaching and policy of the church,  this church will  welcome reasoned expressions of dissent and resistance, knowing that there is always more light to be shed on any issue confronting the church, and it learns most and best when all voices are heard..

[53] While there are no constitutional implications for this recommendation, it would require a two thirds vote for acceptance, under the rules proposed by the Church Council. This seems a reasonable requirement, since it involves significant change, requiring substantial support to be effective. And a simple majority, while insufficient for passing, would at least signal significant readiness in this church to move in a direction of change.

[54] Under this recommendation, the responsibility to choose would lie with congregations in the call process and with candidates in the candidacy and call processes. Synods could not disqualify candidates on the basis of sexual orientation any longer, nor would they likely honor a congregation's request to receive only   "straight" candidates. Candidates may or may not choose be open regarding their sexual orientation, but congregations would be able, as they now are, to reject any name given to them to consider. Synods would fulfill their role of oversight by "bringing congregations along" toward accepting the policy, even while respecting their freedom to dissent from it.

[55] Approving this or a similar recommendation would be a wonderful public witness to the continuing relevance of the Lutheran understanding of Grace to the day to day lives of people inside and outside of the church. It would be a bold positive step toward resolving an issue that has troubled the churches for several decades, and an example to society that it is possible to transcend the status quo and retain the wholeness of the body; the will of the majority will not be intimidated by a vocal minority, but the majority cannot silence the voices nor denigrate the commitment of those who are not ready to follow. 

[56] What About Blessing the Unions of Gay Men and Lesbians?

[57] The same conclusions regarding the making of distinctions and evidence of experience pertain to the blessing of the unions of gay men and lesbians. The distinctions we make are unwarranted, and the many long term committed partnerships that exist are ample evidence of God's blessing. If God is blessing these unions, who are we to say this church cannot add its blessing?

[58] "A Statement of Pastoral and Theological Concern"
Seventeen Lutheran theologians signed " A Statement of Pastoral and Theological Concern,"  which maintains that Recommendation Three   "…threatens to destabilize the unity and constitution, a well as the historic, biblical, and confessional teachings ands practice of this church." (p.1) 

[59] The statement is organized under three "theological observations"-ecclesiology, conscience, and pastoral care.  In "ecclesiology" their "observation" is that the recommendation shifts to the local level that which belongs at the national level, a shift that will cause the "structural dissolution of the ELCA as it currently exists," and will create "intense division and disunity at the local level." I would like to point out that this shift parallels the exception to the requirement that ordination be by a bishop, passed by the 2001 Churchwide Assembly.  ELCA 7.31.17 clearly makes it possible for individuals and congregations to decide not to comply with national policy. I am not aware of these voices predicting such drastic consequences when that change was proposed and passed.

[60] Besides, the premise for their prediction is wrong. They claim that if the "Report before us were to be implemented, the ELCA, as a national church body, would abdicate its theological and moral constitutional responsibility by relegating the decisions for which it alone  is responsible to regional and local components."    (p.2) But the fact is that while the Churchwide Assembly does adopt policy, the decisions which implement the policy belong to regional (synod) and local (congregations) components.  Synod Candidacy Committees approve candidates for ordained ministries, and synods also provide for discipline of congregations, and rostered leadership (10.21.a.1) and c).  Congregations decide whom they will call as their pastor.  The problem for these theologians seems to be not so much one of ecclesiology, as lack of trust in synods and congregations to make appropriate decisions.

[61] The theologians worry that "Weak consciences, led into error by social pressures and alien ideologies, can never be ultimately the source of truth or unity." (p.2)  The recommendation does not explicitly or implicitly suggest exercising conscience apart from "faith in Christ and fidelity to the Word."  So why raise this specter as a problem with the recommendation-unless they believe that the Report and Recommendations itself is the result of such "weak consciences", and that the possibility opened up by it will be exploited by "weak consciences."

[62] In my judgment the "Statement of Pastoral and Theological Concern" as a whole, as well as in the "Pastoral Care" section itself, is devoid of "pastoral concern." Throughout the document there is never a reference to the pain endured by pastors and congregations who have been denied or removed from the fellowship of this church. In fact people are pretty much dismissed; they cannot be trusted to decide, nor to contribute to the discernment of truth, even though the truth apparently is all there simply to be discovered and accepted.    "In listening to the contemporary 'voices of the baptized children of God' we cannot and must not disregard the voices of the church universal over the past two millennia." "Scripture can never address us independently from the communal history."  I think that pastoral concern would reverse that statement to read, "In listening to the voices of the church universal over the past two millennia, we cannot and must not disregard the voices of the contemporary baptized children of god." 

[63] As to scripture and the individual, while I acknowledge that scripture is a product of and is heard in the context of the community of faith, when the community is cold and oppressive, pastoral care would want to assure individuals that scripture still is audible and has efficacy for them. The power of scripture to transcend the "communal history" is nowhere more evident than in its maintaining the faith and empowering the action of Black slaves, despite the official interpretations of the white church.

[64] The statement does not come right out and say that its signers believe that partnered gay and lesbian persons should not serve as ordained ministers in the ELCA. Indeed, they make their critique without reference to them. As is the case with much of the opposition, people with names and faces are present only by implication within a more abstract, theoretical discussion of their type or a related issue or situation.   On the other hand, it is possible that they do favor a change in policy, and find Recommendation Three to be an inadequate vehicle for change. But, if that were the case, would they not have proposed an adequate alternative?

"Recommendations from the ELCA Church Council…"

[65] The " Recommendations from the ELCA Church Council to the ELCA Churchwide Assembly on Sexuality Studies"  had just been put on the ELCA website, as I was completing this paper.  My impression of the document is that out of respect for the process authorized by the Churchwide Assembly and implemented by Council action, the Churchwide Council has decided to accept Recommendation Three, in principle. By implication at least, they agree that there is sufficient rationale and support to recommend some change in the ELCA policy as it pertains to the ordination and call of persons in same-sex relationships. They then provide structure and procedure to get it into the legislative process. For this I think they are to be commended.

[66] But, if the task force Recommendation puts the burden of proof on those who wish to include the ministry of gay men and lesbians, the Church Council process is so demanding as to discourage even trying. They provide a "proposal for implementation of a limited process for exceptions to the normative policy of this church regarding the rostering of gay men and lesbians in committed, same-sex relationships." (p.3)  There is the semblance of assurance to those who seek change that they are welcomed into the fellowship, and free to seek the exception. But the process itself seems designed to reassure the church that they are not going to take over:  "limited process  for exceptions to the normative policy,"  "leaves in place all previous policies and guidelines" (p.5), "who provide evidence of intent to live in a lifelong, committed, and faithful same-sex relationship" (p.5), "ordination for particular service" (p.5). It is clear that "limited" is intended to modify exceptions, not the process.  The process is so detailed that only a limited number would qualify, and of that number, not all would be willing to try. 

[67] We can probably assume that, as was true with the task force, the recommendation is the result of a negotiating process in which there were those who favored a less limiting process, as well as those who favored a more limiting one.  But in the end, it is not very welcoming of the person and gifts for ministry of gay men and lesbians. I doubt there will be much celebration among them. Rather, it tends to reinforce the prejudice that homosexuality and homosexual behavior renders them "other" than the "normal" members, and somehow this "otherness" poses a threat to the church, and therefore any concession must be carefully circumscribed. And further reassurance is given by requiring that the Recommendation must receive a two-thirds majority! (And the Recommendation includes almost fifty lines of new bylaws and bylaw amendments.) "Have no fear little flock!"

The Power of Homophobia Persists in the Church, as Well as in Society

[68] But what is it that we fear? Surely not numbers; even if all 40 ministers rostered through the Extraordinary Candidacy Process were to return, that is 40 of 12,000 or more active ordained ministers in the ELCA. Will they somehow bring the church into disrepute by their scandalous behavior?  In truth, it is the scandalous behavior of heterosexual pastors that has consumed the time, energy, and significant sums of the church's money. The proof that these fears are unfounded is available, yet the fears are unmitigated. Why do they persist?  Why is it that whole movements exist among Lutherans either with the sole purpose of resisting change, or having it as one of the primary reasons for existence?

[69] Why is that we continue to "use" the Bible to make the case that  an inclusive policy   poses a threat to the faithfulness, unity and mission of the church, instead of heeding the biblical witness against exclusion and the evidence of the demonstrated gifts of pastors whom we know by name?   And why do we keep insisting that it is not the people themselves we condemn-we love you, we just don't like what you do?   There it is. It is about sex! 

[70] According to the Church Council Recommendations, an important point for the study process was "To remain clear on the distinction between homosexuality, which refers to sexual orientating to people of the same sex, and homosexual conduct, which refers to acts of sexual intimacy between members of the same sex. Homosexual orientation in itself is not something this church has condemned. The question of whether or not all acts of homosexual intimacy are sinful is the question being debated among us." (p.1, emphasis added)  Is the implication here that some acts are obviously sinful, but it is possible that not all are?  Underlying all of this uneasiness about homosexuality in   church and society is the suspicion, fear, distaste, even loathing of how homosexual persons express their sexuality. We will grant that what people do "in the privacy of their own bedrooms" is their own business, except that  what  homosexual people do is  unnatural at best, and abhorrent at worst. (Homosexuality: the sin that dare not speak its name!) This is homophobia-the fear and loathing of homosexual behavior, and by extension the people who do it. 

[71] Now I believe that only a relatively few members of this church are overtly and intentionally homophobic.  Yet the pervasive uneasiness toward homosexual persons, and fear and condemnation of their perceived behavior has to be rooted and nourished by the homophobia that was overtly present in church and society for centuries; and while much less overt today, its power continues to permeate our culture and our own psyches.

[72] Why else would people who have never knowingly had a personal relationship with a homosexual person, or personally observed a ministry of a homosexual pastor, or worse ignoring one with which they are familiar, assert that their ministry is invalid because the minister is homosexual?  How else explain the ELCA Bishops agreeing to a statement for the record that says "We, as the Conference of Bishops of the ELCA, recognize that there is basis neither in scripture nor tradition for the establishment of an official ceremony in this church for the blessing of a homosexual relationship.  We therefore do not approve such a ceremony as an official action of this church's ministry."  (Church Council, p. 2)  Brothers and sisters, is there basis in the Bible or tradition for establishing any "official ceremony" at all in "this church?"  The more valid question is, is there any basis for not approving one?-which not incidentally was satisfactory evidence to advocate the ordination of women.

[73] The residual impact of cultural homophobia has to be the answer. It has to be the reason why persons who would reject biblical literalism, e.g., the necessity of being accountable to Old Testament ritual proscriptions, insist on applying them here.  And it has to be why church people, normally welcoming and generally fair-minded, ignore or reject the evidence that there is no valid reason for their welcome of homosexual persons to be tentative and limiting. It is good news that the Bible says we do not have do this, indeed that it is contradictory to the Gospel that we do. The Bible, while not exclusively so, nevertheless is "our book", and has been appealed to as a primary authority for homophobia in society as well as the church. For this reason, our church has a burden, not only to confront the homophobia that infects its own life, but also to make its witness to the true message of scripture in the public realm. This church must lift up the Gospel of inclusion and reject the biblicism of exclusion in its own life, and be an advocate of inclusion in society as well.

[74] Another fear of this church is the fear that reversing the exclusionary policy will divide the church. This church is, of course, already divided. The only prospect for the long term healing of this division is to let the example of God's unconditional love and its inevitable justice apply to all of its members. Surely, scripture will not forbid us to do that which love and justice demand of us.  Both Gospel and Law, yes, but Law in the context of Gospel, rather than Gospel limited by Law.  Only in this way can this church "exhibit the inclusive unity that is God's will for the Church." (ELCA 5.01.b) 


[75] Yet within this uncomfortable tension, there exists a widely held yearning that the sexuality issues not overshadow or weaken the essential mission of this church to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ and serve the world." ("Recommendation of the Church Council…," p.3)  I share in that yearning. But it is not the issue itself that overshadows and weakens the essential mission of this church. Rather, it our failure to attend to the full voice of scripture and the full voice of the church in resolving the issue. To finally do so will not only free the church for its essential mission, but itself also will be a proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and a service to the world.



©May 2005
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 5, Issue 5