The ELCA Takes the Lukewarm Approach to the Homosexual Issue

"I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot; I wish that you were cold or hot. So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth." Rev. 3: 15-16

The results of the Journey Together Faithfully (JTF) study of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) have been revealed at the ELCA website. This study was designed to explore the Biblical teaching on the issue of homosexuality focusing on how the church should respond in two areas: 1. Should the church sanction or bless homosexual unions (and they aren’t talking about the AFL-CIO)? 2. Should the church ordain noncelibate homosexual pastors?

First, let me point out that the opinion of the Bishops with respect to this issue is not much in doubt. As near as I can tell from a meeting that I attended with the Bishop of the Rocky Mountain Synod, they will not directly tell you their positions with respect to these issues. But just because they won’t tell you directly, does not mean they have not made their feelings clear indirectly. Consider this from an article entitled "ELCA bishops meet with sexuality task force" from the Lutheran Magazine:

The bishops "have come to new places of understanding the issues after 10 or 12 years of talking," one group reported. "How can we expect the church to come to a new place in six sessions [of the sexuality study]. The core of the ELCA doesn't know what it thinks because of the battle over scriptural authority."

What "new places of understanding" have the bishops come to that they cannot expect the church to arrive at in "six sessions" of the JTF study? The answer seems obvious: an acceptance of homosexuality as Biblical. I personally find much more troubling the idea that there exists in the ELCA a battle over scriptural authority, but I will reserve comment on that for another day. At this moment, however, I think it safe to say that the bishops of the ELCA have, by and large, concluded that the acceptance and blessing of homosexuality is consistent with the Bible. I also think it clear that this suggests that the JTF study was designed to lead the congregations towards this "new understanding."

The bishops were very concerned about an up or down vote on the issue. Note the following from an article (also in The Lutheran) entitled "Sexuality task force begins work on recommendations":

Many bishops spoke of "the price of a yes/no vote" on the blessing and rostering issues. They discussed the effects such a vote may have on relationships within congregations and synods, with neighboring Christian churches and with Lutheran churches around the world.

So what happened in the JTF study--a study that appears to have been designed to bring the congregations around to the bishop's views? The bishops were shot down. The results of the study shows that the church, as a whole, rejects the idea that homosexual unions should be blessed or that actively non-celibate homosexual pastors should be ordained. According to the tabulated information, 56.2% of the people oppose blessing and rostering, 23.2% favor blessing and rostering, 3.6% proposed alternatives, and 17.2% had no opinion. In other words, of the people who had opinions, it was almost 2 to 1 against blessing and rostering.

But what the bishops want, apparently the bishops get. It appears that they decided to find a way to allow the blessing and rostering while playing lip service to the opinions of the ELCA and avoiding an up or down vote (especially since it appears likely that they would lose such an up or down vote). So, how did they resolve this problem? The committee who worked on the JTF study results made three recommendations. Let’s look at them one at a time.

Recommendation One

It has become clear to the task force that the disagreement over these issues before the church is deep, pervasive, multi-faceted, and multi-layered. This church is not of one mind. This being the case, we believe that this first recommendation should be put before this church as a precondition to the other recommendations.

Because the God-given mission and communion we share is at least as important as the issues about which faithful conscience-bound Lutherans find themselves so decisively at odds, the Task Force for ELCA Studies on Sexuality recommends that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America concentrate on finding ways to live together faithfully in the midst of our disagreements.

Translation: the vote didn't come out the way we wanted, and we are going to try to do something that most of you aren't going to like, but you shouldn't leave the church over this because that would be unchristian.

Recommendation Two

With respect to the matter of blessing same-sex couples who have entered into long-term monogamous covenants of love and care, the ELCA currently has no legislated policy, and the task force declines to recommend any change. In this time of conflict and uncertainty, the Conference of Bishops pointed the way by treating such decisions as matters of pastoral care and the task force believes that pastors and congregations can and should be trusted by this church to exercise the wisdom of discretion in their ministry to same-sex couples and their natural and congregational families. Therefore, we are agreed that the following recommendation is an appropriate expression of that trust.

The Task Force for ELCA Studies on Sexuality recommends that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America continue to respect the pastoral guidance of the 1993 statement of the Conference of Bishops.

Translation: We are adopting what is known as the "local option." While we are not granting permission to the bishops to actually marry homosexual couples, each church can do whatever it wants with respect to the issue short of marriage, including "blessing" the unions, while we continue to indoctrinate . . . er . . . study the issue. The best thing about this course of action is that we don't have to have a vote on it because we are not changing the position of the church. A win-win for the bishops!

Recommendation Three

The issue concerning the ordination, consecration, and commissioning of people in samesex committed relationships is one that has caused the greatest division among members of the task force. We experienced within our group the painful tension caused when Christians, in good conscience, differ in their interpretations of Scripture with regard to this issue. In our discussions, the following strong convictions were voiced repeatedly as we struggled to formulate a recommendation that would find support among the majority of the task force members.

o Some of us believe that we should affirm and uphold the current policy and practice of the church, assuming that discipline will take place and be graciously endured.

o Some of us believe that we should review and modify Vision and Expectations and Definitions and Guidelines for Discipline, especially regarding homosexual people living in committed relationships.

o Some of us believe that the ELCA should find a way to “create a space” in our church (for example, by allowing local option, developing a process to grant exceptions to policy, ordination to place, non-geographic synod, etc.) for ministries that would fully accept the gifts of gay and lesbian rostered leaders without fear of discipline or rejection.

Despite this diversity of beliefs, the task force sought to shape a recommendation that would provide the most hope and possibility for the life and mission of the ELCA at this time. Two of the strongly dissenting positions are presented in more detail in Part Three of this report. Others on the task force hold positions that are not totally supportive of the recommendation, but see it as a way to provide the continuing stability of tradition while also creating opportunity for ongoing discernment of new ways in which the Spirit might be speaking to the church in our time. Therefore, we present the following recommendation that was approved by a strong majority of task force members. It is important to note that this recommendation prevailed even though some task force members who supported it would have preferred other options.

The Task Force for ELCA Studies on Sexuality recommends that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America continue under the standards regarding sexual conduct for rostered leaders as set forth in Vision and Expectations and definitions 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.

Translation: We are going to put on a face that says that we are not going to permit the rostering of non-celibate homosexual pastors so that the 2 to 1 majority of people in the church who oppose it don’t get angry. But if any church wants to call a non-celibate homosexual pastor, there will be no consequences. In other words, it will be a restriction without teeth because the churches will be free to ignore the prohibition as they see fit.

I'm sorry, but this is simply not acceptable. The ELCA, on this issue, has taken a stand of not taking a stand. The issue of homosexual unions ought to be resolved fully and completely, one way or another, based on the teaching of the Bible. Personally, I think that the teaching is very clear and that the "new place of understanding" of the bishops is wrong. But it is even worse that the ELCA seeks, by this guise, to present a position to the church which pretends to be one thing when it really is another. The ELCA has become the lukewarm church despised by God in revelations, and I think God will spit them out of his mouth. Perhaps He already is doing so:

ELCA baptized membership slipped below 5 million in 2003, with 4,984,925 parishioners in 10,657 congregations -- a reduction of 53,081 -- Almen reported. Since 1990, membership has decreased a quarter million from 5,240,739. About half that decline occurred in 2002-03, with a combined decrease of 114,952.

If the ELCA continues to act this way, they will certainly be less at least one other member: me.


Andrew said…
I think you're being a bit harsh BK. Suspend your zeal for a moment and think about the point of view of the Bishops...

They are, I imagine, a group of fairly intelligent and well-trained theologians. Over a decade of talking they all appear to have come to a unanimous agreement on what the church's stance should be on the subject. I'm not familar with the ELCA so I don't know how many bishops there are, but I do know that it's very unusual for a group of Christians to agree and especially unusual on issues like homosexuality. The fact that a group of competent theologians has come to a unanimous agreement after a decade of thinking says something strong. If the trained leadership after much discussion has come to a new understanding regarding homosexuality, and the ignorant laity after little discussion holds the same prejudices it always did...

Well, can you not see the situation from the Bishops point of view and have some sympathy for them? Of course, I am somewhat biased myself, having myself come to a new understanding on the subject, so I have sympathy for them even if you don't.
BK said…

I admit I am being hard on the bishops. But let me say something as kind of a preface.

I can see where people can come to a different conclusion on this issue such as you have. I understand. I think you are wrong. That does not mean that I do not believe that you are Christian or that your views are irrelevant. There are several people in the CADRE who share your views and reject mine, but I don't think any less of them as a result.

Here is the big problem with the ELCA as I see it: they are being too cautious. As a church they need to speak out either in favor of or against homosexual marriage. They have been studying the issue for 14+ years and they have come to their conclusions. Fine. I accept that. But they are being dishonest in how they are presenting it to the church.

First, they are not willing to say what the views of the bishops are. I think that the article that I quoted from the Lutheran makes it very clear what the majority of them believe, but the fact that they are not willing to admit their views makes them seem less than honest.

Second, they should take a stand a let the chips fall where they made. The greatest theologians did not compromise when it came to matters of theology. The present day bishops should do no less.

If they are of the opinion that the blessing of homosexual marriages is okay, then they should say so and openly advocate it. Then the church, as a whole, could either agree or disagree and deal with it accordingly. As it is, they are trying to hide their beliefs and pretend like they are interested in what the ELCA membership thinks. Why in the world do a study that comes out 2 to 1 against the blessing of homosexual unions and rostering of openly gay pastors if you are going to ignore it? Worse, you are going to ignore it while paying lip service to it?

Do you see what I am saying?

I certainly agree that the bishops had a problem. I know that they didn't want to split the church over this issue. But in my view, it may be that the church needs to be split. At the very least, it needs to be told openly and honestly what the positions of the leadership actually are rather than be given a line that seems to say "we are listening to you" when, in fact, they are simply pushing forward their view.
Andrew said…
As I said, I'm not at all familiar with the ECLA or the situation your discussing. From what you say, it seems quite probably the leadership is acting deceptively (though I note that "deceptively" can be hard to distinguish from "carefully and cautiously" when it comes to politics in any form).

I think there is a good reason for caution and inaction on the part of the bishops: Public opinion is changing. Go back 50 years and hardly anyone would have thought homosexuality was okay. It seems to me that more and more people are coming to see homosexuality as acceptable, Christian and non-Christian alike. It seems inappropriate to define church dogma in the middle of a opinion-shift as it would become outdated in 20 years and cause more commotion as it needs to be rethought and changed again. They are better just to wait, if they can, until the future majority opinion becomes so. I imagine the purpose of the poll you speak of is to tell them whether that has happened yet... they will indeed be "listening closely" to the opinions of the laity.

If you wanted BK, I would be happy to explain my views in a blog post here on the relationship between homosexuality and biblical Christianity and why I think a deeper theological understanding of the thrust of biblical theology can validly overide the obvious surface condemnation of homosexuality in the text (though whether an explanation of the liberal view on homosexual issues is line with the purposes of this blog I leave to you to decide...) but you would need to give me contributing power.

"But in my view, it may be that the church needs to be split."
It might just be the catholic in me, but I shudder at that comment. I have been pondering the question of unity and schism recently and I have come to seriously doubt that largescale schism is ever a valid solution, and that schism is no little sin itself to the point that I'd probably literally rather cut off my arm than split the church in any major way.

In my country the law has recently been changed to allow homosexuals to marry. Your comparison was between unmarried homosexuals and unmarried heterosexuals. Clearly such a comparison can no longer hold when the homosexuals are married. Elsewhere you said you do not hold that homosexuality is a sin in itself and that it is merely the fornication part that is sinful. Does this mean that if two homosexuals are married that no sin is committed in your opinion? Would you be happy to have a married homosexual bishop or minister? Do you think the church would be right to bless such unions?

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