This article was excerpted from a pastoral letter from the
bishop to the Northeastern Iowa Synod.
 The participation I have seen in the conversation on the
"Journey Together Faithfully" materials has been quite
inspiring. As enriching as the conversation has been,
however, I am not convinced that we have yet done our very best
thinking on this topic. I wish to offer the following
observations and challenges with the hope of deepening our
conversation and theological reflections. They are offered by
one who is committed to the renewal and reformation of the church
for the sake of the Gospel but who has not yet been convinced by
scripture or sound reason that our church should change its
policies and practices regarding homosexuality.
MAINTAINING THE TRADITIONAL VIEW
 Even though I have not been convinced that the church should
change its current policy, I believe that there are issues that
need to be addressed in this conversation.
Gospel or Its Implications
 The conversation in which we are engaged is a dialogue on the
implications of the Gospel for our life together. Some seek
to elevate this discussion to that of the Gospel itself. I
believe that Jesus' commissioning words to the disciples in Matthew
10 are helpful in articulating the difference.
 Jesus instructs his followers as to how to deal with those
who do not welcome the disciples and their message. If the
house is "not worthy," if "any one will not receive you or listen
to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that
house or town." Judgment for the inhospitable and those
unwilling to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ will be
harsh. "Truly, I say to you, it shall be more tolerable on
the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and
for that town." God's judgment is more tolerable for Sodom
and Gomorrah than for those who do not welcome the disciples and
 Jesus does not equate the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah
with the rejection of the Gospel, even while recognizing that there
will be judgment on those two great cities.
 Those who seek to continue the church's current teaching on
homosexuality err in their attempts to elevate this teaching to the
level of the Gospel. For centuries, the church has
erroneously identified homosexuality as an obstacle to salvation.
The church has been in a process of moving away from the belief
that the consequence of being a homosexual person was eternal
damnation. The Gospel itself is no longer at stake in this
conversation. All persons, including gay and lesbian persons,
are saved by the death and resurrection of Jesus
Christ. At this point in church history, we are
addressing the implications of the Gospel for our church related to
 This is an important parameter for our conversation on
homosexuality. Identifying those who seek change in the
church's policy as heretics or apostates does not further the
discussion. It gives just cause for questioning the
perspective of those who use these labels against their
opponents. Those who accuse others of renouncing Christ or
violating the doctrine of the church simply for asking the church a
question or advocating for change in the church are clearly not
seeking genuine dialogue.
Biblical and Apostolic Witness
 I encourage those who seek to continue the current
policies of the church to use the phrase "biblical and apostolic
witness" with care. This phrase is used to describe the
scriptural and traditional understanding of the church as the
lifelong marriage of one man with one woman. However, there
is not a consistent biblical and apostolic witness regarding
marriage. Polygamy is the dominant scriptural description of
the appropriate context for sexual relations from Old Testament
times into the New Testament. Bishops are prohibited from
having more than one wife, but other Christians are
 The Christian church in our day continues to struggle with
this issue. African churches have found that a prohibition of
polygamy is an impediment to evangelical outreach. Requiring
a man to divorce all but one of his wives before he can be baptized
condemns the divorced women and their children to lives of
prostitution and poverty. These churches are working their
way into a monogamous understanding of marriage by allowing new
converts to maintain their current relationships while prohibiting
future multiple marriages after one is baptized. In our own country
the practices that amount to polygamy are part of our everyday
lives. Within the context of current church teaching, a married
person may have sexual affairs without jeopardizing his or her
salvation. A rostered person can practice serial polygamy,
marriage followed by divorce followed by remarriage, without
impacting his or her rostered status. For good or ill, the
"biblical and apostolic witness" regarding marriage is an
God's Work in the Culture
 The concept that one woman and one man will fall in love by
their own free will and marry for a lifetimeof faithfulness is a
relatively new insight into the possibilities for human
partnerships.3 However, cultural
standards have encouraged this evolutionary and revolutionary
understanding of relationships. It is also culture that
establishes the legal requirements that make provisions for what we
have discerned over the centuries to be God's law for marriage.
 The condemnation of all that is "current culture" denies
God's power to reveal God's will through society. Those who
seek to maintain the church's current standards err when they claim
that God does not work through human history and culture.
From the Edict of Milan that allowed Christians to serve in the
military, to the abolition of slavery, to the liberation and
ordination of women to the current belief that marriage should
exclusively be the blessed relationship of one man and one woman,
God has used contemporary culture to reveal God's intention for
humanity. To deny this is to deny the sovereignty of God.
Orders of Creation
 The "orders of creation" is frequently cited with references
to Genesis 1 and 2 as a primary argument for sexual expression only
in the context of a life-long marriage between one man and one
woman. Though this theology provides helpful insight into
God's intention for creation, it is also possible to extrapolate
policies and teachings that were once used by the church but are no
longer considered to be valid for our current context. The
sole purpose of sexual intercourse, within a static interpretation
of the orders of creation, is to create children and populate the
earth. For centuries, the church offered this as its
teaching. Our church no longer offers procreation as the only
purpose of sexual intercourse. We understand intercourse to
also be a way that love is expressed, a caring for and nurturing of
one's spouse, a strengthening of the bond between husband and
wife. This change in the church's teaching arises out of a
Lutheran understanding of the orders of creation.
 A traditional Lutheran understanding of this doctrine
outlines both what God did "in the beginning" and how God continues
to act for the preservation of the created world. This
theological framework recognizes an expansive understanding of
God's continuing work in creation through family, government and
work. These structures have changed over the centuries and
will continue to change. The church's task of communal
discernment is to determine what is God's will for an orderly
creation and what changes are led by the power of death and
Blessing Sin or Justice or…
 The church's blessing of homosexual unions and the
ordination of a person in a blessed union are not justice
issues. Justice may be at stake in the apparent move within
our culture toward same gender civil unions and corporate America's
decision to provide medical and pension plans to persons in same
gender relationships. However, the church has always
maintained the authority to bless what it chooses and to ordain
whom it chooses. These are not rights but rather rituals that
bring with them promises, commitments, accountability and
responsibilities. They are rites of the whole church
representing the wisdom and judgment of that church.
 I have argued that to ask the church to change its rites in
order to bless same gender unions is to ask the church to bless
what scripture has identified as sin. Such a request is
not new in the church's history. However, the church has
historically rejected those challenges.
 I have supported this statement based on the following
 Romans 1 includes a descriptive list of sins that are the
result of a broken creation. The church has not chosen to develop
rites to bless the brokenness of "deceit" or "gossip" or
"slander." Rituals and proclamations that communicate
redemption, not blessing, through the Gospel have been the church's
response in times of faithfulness. This redeeming power is
for "men who commit shameless acts with men," as Paul says, as well
as those who are full of "envy, murder, strife, deceit,
malignity...," and more.
 It is true that there have been times when the church has
cited scripture in order to justify oppression. The story of
Noah and the curse of Ham provided the theological foundation for
apartheid in South Africa and slavery in our country. The
curse of Eve and New Testament prohibitions against vocal women
were used by the church to bless the oppression of women.
However, these injustices were extrapolated from scripture in order
to support a culture's preconceived notion. No culturally induced
extrapolation of Romans 1 leads us to the rejection of homosexual
activity. St. Paul clearly states that homosexual activity is
a sign, albeit only one of the signs, of a world that is broken by
sin, a world where the creature is worshipped rather than the
 In order for this church to consider the possibility of
blessing homosexual relationships, to bless what an interpretation
of Romans 1 calls sin, those who seek change must develop a
biblically based theology that takes precedence over these
 My understanding has been challenged with two arguments
that I believe merit further discussion.
 I have been asked to consider that Paul, in Romans 1, is
describing the consequences of sin and is not listing sins that are
deserving of punishment. Specifically, Romans 1:18-32 lists
the brokenness that is caused by idolatry. It does not
describe in prescriptive form particular punishments for specific
sins. Idolatry is at the root of "deceit," "gossip" and
well as "men who commit shameless acts with men." In
describing a broken humanity, Paul repeatedly uses the phrase, "God
gave them up" to the consequences of their idolatry.
 This becomes even more clear as the reading continues to
chapter 2. The first chapter of Romans leads us to the
first word of chapter 2, "Therefore." "Therefore you have no
excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing
judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge,
are doing the very same things."
 Paul outlines examples of the brokenness of the human
condition in Romans 1 in order to demonstrate that the brokenness
affects all of humanity, that all are in need of judgment and
redemption. Therefore, we are not to place ourselves in the
position of judging others.
 This leads to the second point of challenge to my argument
that the church cannot bless what scripture calls sin. Those
who have engaged me in dialogue have demonstrated that the church
repeatedly blesses what is identified as sin by scripture.
 In Luke 16:18 (and parallel texts) Jesus says, "Anyone who
divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and whoever
marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery."
 Jesus clearly states that persons who marry after they have
been divorced are committing the sin of adultery. Yet, our
church has for some time blessed the new marriages of persons who
have been divorced from another person. In addition, the
Vision and Expectations documents for rostered persons of the
church make no prohibitions against those who have been divorced
and remarried from serving on the rosters of this church. I
have been challenged to consider that the church deal consistently
with Paul's words on homosexuality and Jesus' words on divorce.
 These challenges lead me to believe that we have several
options to consider as ways to develop a consistent policy.
 a) The church stops blessing the marriages of those couples
which include at least one divorced person. In addition, the
Vision and Expectations documents of the church would be amended to
preclude persons who have been divorced and remarried from the
rosters of the church.
 b) We allow for local, pastoral judgments in both the
marriages of those who have been divorced and the blessing of
homosexual unions. Synodical Candidacy Committees would also
make local determinations regarding both groups of persons.
 c) We turn to other biblical texts that provide an
overriding rationale for both or either of these issues.
 d) We consider more carefully the new research of the
biblical texts related to homosexuality.
 I welcome further dialogue on these two
The Role of Experience
 The Lutheran tradition provides for ethical and moral
decisions to be based on four key components: scripture, sound
reason, the conscience of the believer and the wisdom of the
 In an American culture where personal feelings seem to be
the final authority in all matters of faith and life, this Lutheran
framework provides helpful parameters for our decision-making
 However, it would be unfair to equate "experience" with
"feelings." Indeed, sound reason in the scientific community
is based on "experience" that has been researched and documented as
consistent reality. There have been occasions in the church's
history when scientific experience has caused the church to change
its teaching. One notable occasion is the discovery that the
earth, in contrast to previous beliefs, is not flat and that the
sun does not revolve around the earth.
 Within the distinctly Christian community, personal
experience that is tested by the Christian community has been a
driving force for change. The visions of Peter and Cornelius
that led to the conversion of Cornelius and a change in the
teachings and missional direction of the early church provide but
one biblical example of the power of experience to bring faithful
change to the church.
 The experience of believers is to be honored in the
conversation on homosexuality. To dismiss all "experience" as
if it were nothing more than personal feelings or as if it was
capitulation to the immoral dimensions of our culture is to suggest
that the Holy Spirit is no longer at work to transform the church
in new ways.
Our Church's Teaching
 "Marriage is the appropriate context for sexual
intercourse." The ELCA's social statement on
clearly states this church's understanding of the proper context
for sexual intercourse. Marriage is defined by our message on
human sexuality7 as the "union of one
man and one woman." Those who seek to uphold these standards would
serve the church well by describing why these boundaries provide
the safest, healthiest, most loving context and most faithful
setting for sexual expression. Sexual intercourse, restricted
to the covenant of marriage, builds up individuals, families and
communities. It is a safeguard against the violation of
individuals and community.
 I disagree with those who claim that a "gay agenda" is at
fault for the disintegration of the institution of marriage.
Contempt for heterosexual marriage, its denigration and demise,
rests squarely at the feet of heterosexuals. A radical
transformation of an entire culture's understanding of an
institution and the practices of the Christian community has taken
place in a very short time span. Heterosexuals have brought us to
the current shambles that is called "marriage" in our
culture. If relationships are to know safe boundaries,
provide for the care of children and build community, the concept
of healthy, loving, life-long marriage must be reconstructed.
It is simply an inaccurate and unfair assessment to blame "gay
advocates" for the problems in the heterosexual community.
Staying within the Tradition
 The casual, incomplete or inaccurate use of
theological phrases, concepts or biblical texts does not honor what
is truly our tradition and does not serve our church.
Consequently, those arguments are, and should be, readily dismissed
by those who seek thoughtful, theological dialogue. The
primary burden for changing the tradition of our church rests on
those who are advocating for change. Those arguments must be
made based on scripture, reason, conscience and the test of the
community. However, those who seek to maintain the tradition
must stay within the tradition itself by providing a biblical,
reasonable, theologically sound rationale for maintaining the
church's current teaching.
 I ask those who seek change to consider the following
observations as we journey together in the conversation on human
sexuality and homosexuality.
Use of Scripture
 The recitation of anachronistic or irrelevant
prohibitions from Leviticus which are not extended into the New
Testament community and writings is not helpful to this
discussion. Sharing these texts may be an interesting, even
humorous, way of distinguishing the implications of what it means
to live in Christ as opposed to life under the law. The New
Testament community dealt with issues from circumcision to the
eating of ritually unclean food as their new faith took
shape. However, there is no biblical or historical record
that they changed the prohibition on homosexuality. We must
address this issue from a uniquely Christian perspective.
 New insights regarding the difference between temple
prostitution, the abuse of children and homosexuality are
helpful. However, they do not build a convincing argument to
proactively change the church's teachings. The biblical
argument must be one that provides a constructive foundation for
change and not simply one that rejects former
prohibitions. What is the biblical foundation and
theological structure for change? What has God revealed in
the scientific community that provides sound reason for
change? How would the blessing of homosexual unions further
the church's values and principles for safe and loving
relationships that build Christian community and witness to the
Gospel of Jesus Christ?
 It is not a reasonable, rational argument to suggest, "We
disagree on the meaning of key biblical passages and the scientific
community does not yet know enough about the mix of genetic
orientation and socialization that determine sexual orientation.
Therefore, we should change the church's teaching." "We disagree"
and "we don't know" are helpful statements for research, dialogue
and discernment. They do not provide the foundation for
The Church's "No"
 For thousands of years, God's people have given a
clear and consistent "no" to homosexual activity. We have
done so because we have believed as a community, from the people of
Israel into the New Testament church, that the prohibition of
homosexual activity is God's will.
 The church is being challenged to reconsider this
teaching. We are being asked if we have said "no" due to
cultural dictums of the past. Or has our fear of the "other"
or the unknown, the misunderstood or of one's own self led to the
prohibitions? What is God's will in light of our current
understanding of homosexuality?
 If the church is to change, it must be offered arguments
that are grounded in scripture, that are theologically sound, that
are supported by science or reason and that build up
community. To contravene the status quo, to simply oppose or
discount the past testimony of the faithful, does not bring
lasting, faithful change in the church. Proposed change must
clearly articulate God's will for Christian community and for our
witness to the world.
The Church's Stole
 Our church teaches that the office of ministry is
given to the whole church and not to individuals, families or
congregations. It is the church that ordains and authorizes
someone to wear the stole on its behalf. Ordained ministers
promise to uphold the teachings of the church as a higher standard
than their personal thoughts or feelings or even the collective
desires of a local congregation.
 While it is true that Christians pray for and bless any
number of persons and things, our church has not decided to
authorize its ordained ministers to bless homosexual unions on its
behalf. It is not a personal decision for an ordained
minister to bless homosexual unions. At this point in our
life together, he or she is not to bless unions while wearing the
stole of the church, its public symbol of the Office of
Ministry. If local congregations vote to bless unions, a
pastor may participate in such a blessing but is not to wear the
church's stole. The faith of the church has been entrusted to the
whole church. Faithful exercising of the Office of Ministry
is not a personal or congregational privilege.
 Those who seek change must continue to recognize that
the request for the church to change its teaching touches the lives
of a church that is bigger than the ELCA and expands beyond the
United States. Ecumenical relationships and relationships
within the Lutheran World Federation may be profoundly affected by
a decision to bless unions and ordain those in blessed
unions. This observation is made not to invoke fear but
rather humility. It may be possible that God is working
change within our church in order for us to follow the
in Scandinavia as they change the understanding of homosexuality
and the church's blessing.
 It may also be true that those who seek change are
misreading God's intention. The Church in Africa and elsewhere may
be God's messengers to our church to maintain our current
 The conversation would be enhanced if those who seek
change in the church would more clearly recognize the complexity of
sexual expression that is identified as homosexual. The
current conversation would be deepened if there was clarification,
recognition and acceptance that there is a wide range of sexual
 For those who engage in sexual activity with virtually
anything or anyone, the church's ministry is one of God's
law. Such activity without discernment destroys the
individual, others and the community. For these reasons, it
is prohibited. Others, who experiment with homosexual
activity but are primarily oriented as a heterosexual person, need
the church's ministry of boundaries and discernment. Persons
who have been so abused by a member of the opposite sex that they
can only find love and sexual expression with someone of the same
gender must be offered the healing power of the Gospel. When
there is acknowledgement of this variety of experiences, then we
can engage in conversation about those who may be oriented as
 If there could be agreement on this complexity of
experience and the church's appropriate response, then the
conversation regarding persons who are oriented as homosexual
persons would become more focused. We would not be confused
within the dialogue as some persons address the healing of those
who have engaged in homosexual activity while others,
simultaneously, are talking about those who are oriented as a
Furthering the Conversation
 There are other arguments that I find do not further the
conversation for considering change.
 "If we baptize gay and lesbian people then we need to
ordain them." Baptism communicates the saving power of the
Gospel through Word, water, Spirit, and faith. The church is
not questioning God's power to save through the waters of baptism.
Consequently, we are not discussing the salvation of gay and
lesbian people. We are discussing the rituals of the church
and the call to ordained ministry. Not every couple's union
is blessed by the church and not every baptized person can be
 "If those who seek to maintain the current policies would
simply get to know gay and lesbian people, they would be open to
change." Our incarnational theology suggests that being
present with people has extraordinary power. However, it is
not consistent with our Lutheran heritage to suggest that if we
knew more gay and lesbian persons, heard additional personal
stories, and were more compassionate, we would establish the basis
for change in the church. Scripture or clear reason is to be
the foundation for reformation. Personal feelings are
not. Surely, the conversation must include gay and lesbian
persons in order for there to be an honest dialogue that includes
the whole church. However, the exchange of personal stories
is not the sole basis for change.
 It would also be helpful to recognize that even if the
church would vote to bless homosexual unions and ordain persons in
blessed unions, the conversation will continue. People with a
variety of perspectives on this topic acknowledge that the same
questions will be raised regarding bi-sexual and transgender
Christians. What will be offered to address bisexual
relationships? Blessing a three partner relationship violates
historical and social science testimony about relationships and is
not being suggested in any reasonable dialogue. However,
offering the possibility that a bi-sexual person choose only one
partner is to recommend that he or she deny a part of his or her
sexual orientation in order to meet the church's standards.
This is inconsistent with the core argument against the church's
current expectations of gay and lesbian persons. It has been
proposed that homosexual persons should not be denied the full
expression of their sexuality in a safe, blessed union.
Consistency would argue that multiple relationship unions should be
blessed in order for bisexual persons to fully express their sexual
orientation. No one is suggesting this as the solution. But
what is a reasonable resolution to this issue?
OUR BEST THINKING
 Any decisions that are made by the churchwide assembly in
2005, 2007 and beyond will not bring an end to this
conversation. Homosexual persons will continue to be created
in the image of God even if the church were to revert to the most
rigid enforcement of the levitical condemnations. Gay and
lesbian persons who love this church and want to be a part of its
mission will continue to join heterosexuals in our pews and we will
kneel beside one another to receive the sacrament.
 As we "Journey Together Faithfully," God is calling us to
give our church our best thinking on issues of sexuality and not
only our most passionately expressed feelings. Those who seek
to avoid this dialogue by leaving the church will find it difficult
to find another church body that is not in the same conversation,
either formally or informally. Our church's theology suggests
that we have this conversation as a whole church, not simply within
the hierarchical structures. It may be a difficult discussion
to have, but sometimes it is hard work to seek faithfulness
Journal of Lutheran Ethics (JLE)
Volume 4, Issue 12
1 Both scripture and our tradition understand "the sins of
Sodom and Gomorrah" to have more layers than simply homosexual
behavior. Ezekiel 16:49-50 describes "…the guilt of your
sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and
prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. They were
haughty, and did abominable things before me; therefore I removed
them when I saw it." Martin Luther, writing on the Genesis story of
Sodom and Gomorrah, describes the sins of "abuse and violence,"
that "the people of Sodom not only were inhospitable but also
persecuted strangers and treated them outrageously" and that the
people "were practicing no reverence toward God and no love toward
human beings" as the core of Sodom's sin. See Luther's Works,
vol.3: Lectures on Genesis: Chapters 15-20 (J.J. Pelikan, H. C.
Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing
House, 1961. In his 1539 Sermon on Soberness and Moderation he
states, "And so it was with the Sodomites, who wanted to rape the
angels; they were all so drunk they could not find the door. Sodom
and Gomorrah perished because of a flood of drunkenness; this vice
was punished." Luther's Works, vol. 51: Sermons I (J. J. Pelikan,
H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.) page 296 Philadelphia:
Fortress Press, 1959
2 Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version, I Timothy 3:2.
3 Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage In England
1500-1800, abridged ed., Harper & Row, New York, 1977, Chap.
VIII, "The Companionate Marriage," p. 217ff.
4 See Philip J. Hefner, in Carl E. Braaten and Robert W.
Jenson, eds., Christian Dogmatics, Fortress Press, Philadelphia,
1984, Chap. IV, "The Continuing Work of Creation," p. 346 ff. See
also chapter 3 of Werner Elert, The Christina Ethos (trans. Carl J.
Schindler), Fortress Press, 1957 and chapter 4 Robert Benne,
Ordinary Saints, Fortress Press, 1988. Note that Dietrich
Bonhoeffer, among others, referred to these structures as God's
"order of preservation" rather than "orders of creation."
5 Martin Luther's famous confession at the Diet of Worms
(in Luther's Works Volume 32 Career of the Reformer II, Fortress
Press, 1958, Vol. 32, p. 113:7) provides the framework for the
ELCA's foundational social statement of the church, "The Church in
Society: A Lutheran Perspective".
"Since then your serene majesty and your lordships seek a simple
answer, I will give it in this manner, neither horned nor toothed:
Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by
clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils
alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and
contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have
quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot
and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right
to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise, here I stand, may
God help me, Amen."
6 Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, "A Social
Statement on: Abortion," 1991
7 Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, "A Message on
Sexuality: Some Common Convictions"