Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Reflections on the Report and Recommendation on Ministry Policies

When the ELCA Churchwide Assembly convenes in Minneapolis next month, voting members will deliberate on four steps that could lead to a change in the ELCA’s policy regarding the rostering of ministers who are in partnered gay or lesbian relationships. Current ELCA policy states: “Single ordained ministers are expected to live a chaste life. Married ordained ministers are expected to live in fidelity to their spouses, giving expression to sexual intimacy within a marriage relationship that is mutual, chaste, and faithful. Ordained ministers who are homosexual in their self-understanding are expected to abstain from homosexual sexual relationships.”[1]

The first of the four steps being proposed to the Churchwide Assembly asks the ELCA to “commit itself to finding ways to allow congregations that choose to do so to recognize, support, and hold publicly accountable life-long, monogamous, same-gender relationships.” Although this step does not specifically speak of “blessing” gay/lesbian relationships, its adoption would move the ELCA toward official acceptance of homosexual behavior, marking a significant change in the policy and practice of our church. Doing so would also signal a departure from pertinent social statements of the predecessor church bodies that created the ELCA in 1988. Approving “step one” at the 2009 Churchwide Assembly would allow the voting members to proceed to steps 2-4 which, more directly, address the question of rostering ministers who are in partnered gay or lesbian relationships.

The question of homosexuality (and the sub-question re: rostering of partnered homosexuals) has been debated, almost continually, since the founding of the ELCA in 1988. When I served on the board of the former ELCA Division for Ministry (1995-2001), as I recall, the rostering of homosexual persons was the only matter we discussed at each of the twelve board meetings I attended. Our current deliberations must be understood against the backdrop of this long history—a history that mirrors the fevered debate over homosexuality in the broader American culture.

As a voting member of the 2009 Churchwide Assembly, I will participate in the debate in Minneapolis and cast a vote. As bishop of the Northwestern Minnesota Synod I believe it is appropriate to share my thoughts at this time with the rostered leaders and laity of the synod. Although I’m not announcing how I plan to vote, I do intend to lay out the critical issues with which I am grappling. I welcome comments from those who read this essay.

In what follows I do not offer an exhaustive analysis of this issue. Rather, I want to describe the major arguments that currently inform my reflections. I will focus on our theology, our understanding of God’s mission, and our relationships with one another within the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and with global and ecumenical partner churches.


The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s Confession of Faith gives primacy of place to theological sources in approaching issues such as the church’s teaching and practice regarding homosexuality. The scriptures—as the fount of all theological reflection for Christian disciples—are described as “the inspired Word of God and the authoritative source and norm of its proclamation, faith, and life.”[2]

Biblical teaching and traditional Christian practice regarding human sexuality are bound up with our theology of marriage and family life. In creating us male and female, God has hard-wired gender “complementarity” into the very fabric of our being. We read Genesis 1-2 not just as a “long ago” origin stories. Rather we hear in these ancient texts a compelling account for how our lives continue to unfold within God’s gracious purposes. When he explained the meaning of the First Article of the Creed, Luther didn’t speculate about the origin of the human species. Rather he confessed that “God has created me and all that exists.”

The church’s historic disapproval of same-sex behavior (along with a host of other non-marital sexual behaviors) must be understood against the backdrop of its teaching and practice on marriage. Disapproval of homosexual acts is based on far more than a purported literalistic reading of “the seven biblical texts that refer directly to same-gender sexual activity.”[3] Christians’ historic unwillingness to accept homosexual behavior functions (alongside prohibitions of incest, bestiality, sex with minors, etc) as a fence around the divinely-blessed, biblically-privileged status of marriage between one man and one woman.[4]

Precisely at this point, however, we are challenged by 21st century worldviews and mindsets. The traditional understanding of marriage and family life “leaves out” so many of us, we are told. [5] What about single persons? What do we say to people who are physically unable to enter into marriage? And how about those who understand themselves to be attracted solely to persons of the same sex? If gays and lesbians cannot marry, is disciplined sexual abstinence their only option?

Our current stance toward the rostering of partnered gay and lesbian persons is often portrayed as being patently unfair. Moreover, it seems to negate the message of God’s love and acceptance of all human beings. Our present policy seems to contradict Christ’s outgoing love for the oppressed—our Lord’s gracious favor shown toward the marginalized.

One factor that contributes to these perceptions is that the distinction North American Lutherans have historically drawn between sexual orientation and sexual behavior no longer seems to “work” the way it once did. Our society increasingly resists such distinctions, at least with respect to homosexuality.[6] In this regard society has impacted the church more than the church has impacted society these last two decades.

Does this mean that the ELCA’s current stance actually is “anti-gospel,” though? I am not so persuaded. The ELCA’s present policy regarding the rostering of partnered homosexual persons has offered and continues to offer a way to accept people without approving same-sex behaviors that nowhere enjoy God’s blessing in Scripture or the mainstream Christian tradition.

Moreover, our present policies are consistent with a fuller, richer expression of the gospel than what is frequently offered by proponents of changing our ministry policies. The gospel is not best expressed as: “God accepts you just the way you are” –so therefore the church must fully accept gay and lesbian persons and their same-sex relationships. A fuller, richer expression of the gospel is that God graciously receives us “just as we are” (captive to the condition of sin that infects even our genes) in order to go to work on us, transforming us into new creatures in Jesus Christ (II Cor. 5:21).

God always moves toward us—starts with us just the way we are—but God never leaves us just the way we are. God accepts sinners (at least at the beginning of our transformation into new creatures in Christ), but God never accepts sin or “un-sins” sin. Rather, God defeats sin. God forgives sin, for Jesus’ sake


Theology determines how we understand and serve God’s mission through the church. Present ELCA ministry policies forbid partnered gay/lesbian persons from serving in rostered ministries. Given the missional challenges and opportunities before us, should we keep saying “no” to these baptized disciples who sense God’s call to serve? Does it enhance our participation in God’s mission if we alienate ourselves in the ELCA—not only from gay/lesbian persons themselves, but also from the many family members and friends in the ELCA who love and support them?

Many argue that the ELCA’s current stance also contributes to the difficulty we have in capturing the hearts, minds and gifts of our younger generations of disciples (or would-be disciples). Furthermore, our present policy may hinder our ability to reach out to many of those whom Tex Sample has identified as the “cultural left” (as well as some in the “cultural middle”).[7] Folks who are persuaded by these arguments contend that, for missional reasons, our rostering policies must change.

But the missional questions are far more complex than this. Changing ELCA policy might enhance our participation in God’s mission in some arenas, but it will complicate it in many more arenas. Although changing our ministry policies might help us gain a hearing from some—perhaps many—younger folks, we should be cautious about assuming that all youth are of one mind on homosexuality.[8] Moreover, appealing to the opinions of young adults is like shooting at a moving target. Many of us who are middle-aged today held viewpoints passionately when we were in our teens and twenties that we have long since abandoned.

We must also ask ourselves questions that, in my experience, are rarely considered in our present discussions. For example, will finding ways to recognize, support and hold publicly accountable partnered gays and lesbians help the ELCA to

· …appeal more broadly and deeply to young married couples who are seeking a church that is manifestly committed to nurturing marriages and families? Today the ELCA is too-often perceived as a church that is overly-focused on the sexual lives of 3-7% of the population,[9] while doing relatively little to assist the roughly 95% of the population who will primarily live out their sexuality in the contexts of traditional marriages and families. Is it missionally wise to have allowed the ELCA to be positioned in such a fashion?

· …deepen our relationships with ecumenical and global partner churches in God’s mission? A tiny and declining minority of North American Christians belong to church bodies that have changed their policies to officially accept partnered gays/lesbians in rostered ministries.[10] Changing our rostering policies will likely strain our relationships with those larger churches to which the vast majority of Christians belong—the Roman Catholics, the Orthodox, the Protestant evangelicals, and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (with whom we still have cooperative relationships in federal chaplaincies, some social ministry organizations, Lutheran World Relief, etc.) Gazing beyond the North American context, we see among the robust, growing churches of the Global South little if any support for changing our policies regarding gay/lesbian clergy.[11] To what degree in Minneapolis will our voting members be invited to ponder the ecumenical and global implications of the proposed changes to our ministry policies?[12]

· …enhance our outreach among men in general and young adult men in particular? We know that men, especially young men, are less involved than women are in the life and mission of the ELCA. In recent years, more than one observer has commented upon a so-called “feminization of the church.”[13] Because men in America rather consistently view homosexuality more critically than women do, [14]changing our ministry policies with respect to homosexuals may well make it harder to incorporate mainstream men into the life and mission of the ELCA.

· …assist our church in its outreach among people of color and primary languages other than English? Since its inception, the ELCA has sought to make its membership more reflective of the growing ethnic and racial diversity in America. But we have struggled mightily to make headway in this regard. It’s striking—given how much we talk about becoming a multi-cultural church—that relatively little attention is paid to the “conservatism” in sexual matters prevalent among non-white racial/ethnic groups.[15]


The theological and missional issues I have already discussed come to even sharper focus when we consider our relationships within the ELCA—our members, rostered leaders, congregations, synods and the churchwide organization. Many of us are approaching the Churchwide Assembly with profoundly mixed feelings and conflicted desires for our church. There is, on the one hand, an aura of “inevitability” in our church right now—a sense that this year, finally, the Churchwide Assembly will open the door to changing our ministry policies. At the same time there is foreboding about what such changes could do the fabric of our unity in Christ, along with our ability to pursue God’s mission.

One thing is abundantly clear to me. Our decades-long discussions of same-sex orientation and behavior issues in the ELCA have distracted us from other missional challenges and opportunities. Endless debates over homosexuality have sapped our strength and left many of us bone weary. This corporate exhaustion might push us (even some traditionalists!) toward embracing a change in our rostering policies. “Let’s just do it and move on!”

Also, we come to Minneapolis aware that whole segments of the ELCA have already started to move (in actual practice) toward directions that are proposed. There are in various quarters tensions between our stated policies and the ways those policies are administered. This is not tenable over the long-haul. “Doing nothing” leaves us vulnerable to the charge that we are neither clear nor fair in how we deal with candidates for rostered ministry who understand themselves to be gay or lesbian. This state of confusion cannot continue.

But will the four-step proposal in the Report and Recommendation on Ministry Policies truly take us to a better place? When the document was released, my first impression of it was: “If we in the ELCA change our rostering policies, I can’t imagine a better process to follow.” I was especially heartened to see that an ELCA task force finally put the cart after the horse—dealing with “recognition” of same-sex partnerships before taking steps to roster persons engaged in such partnerships. I was also grateful for the accent on respect for the consciences of all—although I’ve become less certain that the novel term “bound conscience,” sheds much light on the subject.

In the months since the Report and Recommendation on Ministry Policies was released, my optimism about the proposed four-step process has waned. Several reasons have fed my skepticism:

· As even some traditionalists have noted,[16] the process seems disrespectful to candidates for ministry who are in partnered gay or lesbian relationships. Will we not see “tiers” within the clergy roster, reducing the sense we’ve had that, in principle, every rostered leader can serve in the ministry of Word and Sacrament anywhere in the ELCA?

· Practically speaking, I foresee the process leading bishops, synod staffs, candidacy committees and congregations into new ways of getting at cross-purposes with one another over particular candidates for ministry or nominees for specific Calls.

· The process initiated by the four steps hands over responsibility to the Church Council, in consultation with the Conference of Bishops and pertinent program units of the church to implement the actual revisions in our rostering policies. Do we have within the ELCA the level of trust in one another necessary to delegate to some in our ranks such detailed implementation of revised ministry policies? For that matter, can voting members in Minneapolis responsibly vote on the “four steps” without knowing more in advance about just how the revised policies will play out?

In this essay I've shared some of what I'm pondering as I prepare for the Churchwide Assembly in Minneapolis. The deliberation before us will require prayerful, keen, well-grounded engagement with one another. May God grant us clarity of vision, breadth of perspective, biblically-grounded faithfulness, and evangelical graciousness for this critical assignment.

[1] Vision and Expectations: Ordained Ministers. Available at

[2] Constitution, Bylaws, and Continuing Resolutions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, section 2.03. Available at

[3] Line 103 of Report and Recommendation on Ministry Policies.

[4] Proponents of changing the ELCA’s ministry policies regarding homosexuals frequently point out the presence of varieties of sexual practices in the Bible—including polygamy. However, in a helpful overview of such questions Craig R. Koester observes, “Marriage practices did not remain static [in the Bible], but the tendency reflected in the biblical writings is to advocate greater restraint rather than greater latitude: the polygamy which was practiced by some of Israel’s ancestors eventually gave way to monogamy, with Jesus and Paul stressing that marriage consists of two people becoming one, each man with his own wife and each woman with her own husband (Matthew 19:5; I Cor. 7:2). Jesus took an uncomfortably rigorous stance on marriage and divorce, and ascribed new dignity to abstinence.” Source: “The Bible and Sexual Boundaries,” Lutheran Quarterly (Winter 1993): 384.

[5] It seems to me that “mainline” Protestant churches have let the “tail wag the dog” in matters sexual. Fearful of offending or “leaving out” certain individuals or sexual minorities, we have essentially surrendered our voice regarding traditional, mainstream sexual teaching and practice.

[6] Though not entirely analogous to homosexuality, society’s treatment of alcoholics may be apropos at this point. There are “constitutional” alcoholics—persons who are “oriented” toward abusing alcohol—who are accepted and loved as persons, even though their alcoholic behaviors are not tolerated.

[7] Tex Sample, “Indigenous Ministry in the Context of the United States,” an article first published in 1991 and available at

[8] I was struck by how willingly the small number of youths who were voting members at our 2009 synod assembly spoke to the assembly in the floor debates over sexuality issues. These youths were by no means “of one mind” on the morality of homosexual acts, too.

[9] Robert Epstein, “Do Gays Have a Choice? Science Offers a Clear and Surprising Answer to a Controversial Question,” in Scientific American Mind (Volume 20, Number 3): 68.

[10] To the best of my knowledge, among the ELCA’s full communion partners, only the Episcopal Church and the United Church of Christ accept partnered gay/lesbian clergy. Though there have been long and continuing debates about homosexual clergy in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the United Methodist Church (UMC), these church bodies have not officially changed their rostering policies. The Presbyterian Church has passed such actions in their general assemblies, but these revised ministry policies have yet to “pass muster” in ratification votes by local presbyteries--votes that are required under Presbyterian polity. I’m told that the primary reason why the United Methodist Church has not changed its rostering policies is the presence of a large contingent of “traditionalist” bishops, pastors and laity from the Global South who have voting privileges at the general conferences of the UMC.

[11] Case in point: the 2004 Bukoba Statement of the Conference of Bishops of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania reiterates traditional Christian teaching on homosexuality in the strongest of terms. Available at Note: The membership of the ELCT roughly equals the membership of the ELCA.

[12] I still vividly remember the opportunity that was granted to the Rev. Ishmael Noko of the Lutheran World Federation to speak at length to the voting members of the 1999 Churchwide Assembly in Denver, regarding the positive ecumenical/global implications that would accompany passage of Called to Common Mission. Will Rev. Noko (or some other global church leader) be invited to address the 2009 Churchwide Assembly in like fashion, regarding the ministry report and recommendations?

[13] Most notably Leon Podles, The Church Impotent—The Feminization of Christianity, 1999: Spence Publishing Company.

[14]“Meta-analyses of the research literature on heterosexuals' attitudes toward homosexuality indicate that heterosexual men and women react differently to homosexuality. Heterosexual men generally manifest higher levels of sexual prejudice (i.e., negative attitudes toward homosexual persons) than do heterosexual women. This difference results mainly from heterosexual men's attitudes toward homosexual men, which are consistently more negative than both their attitudes toward lesbians and heterosexual women's attitudes toward either lesbians or gay men (Kite, 1984; Kite & Whitley, 1996).” Source: “Sex Differences in How Heterosexuals Think about Lesbians and Gay Men: Evidence from Survey Context Effects,” by Gregory M. Herek, John P. Capitanio; The Journal of Sex Research, Vol. 36, 1999.

[15] For example, recent Gallup Poll research reveals that “only 31% of black Democrats in America say homosexual relations are morally acceptable, roughly the same as the 30% of Republicans who agree, while very much different from the 61% of nonblack Democrats who say homosexual relations are morally acceptable.” Source:

[16] Sarah Hinlicky Wilson, “Task Force Proposes Second-Class Ordination for Gay Candidates,” available at


  1. Thank you for sharing. I find many of your observations to be right on target, especially the point regarding the "tail wagging the dog" in reference to culture influencing the church more so than the other way around over the last decades.

    Furthermore, I echo your misgivings about the state of our denomination should such changes take place. It seems to me that if such changes are to take place, the unity of our clergy roster would be fractured and the ELCA would become (more so than it already is) simply a loose confederation of congregations that have little to do with each other. At that point, with deep divisions in our thinking about a fundamental issue of human relationships, we would cease to be a *synod* (path together) and would become a denomination with *polyhodoi* (many paths).

  2. Dear Bishop Wohlrabe, Thank you for your posting. You should be commended for your teaching on this issue. Would you please put this out as a pastoral letter to the synod pastors and congregations? By asking the questions, you allowed everyone reading to honestly appraise any churchwide action. Will it help, or hurt? Thank you for laying out the possible ramifications with our ecumenical partners, our own congregational members and families, and the unity of our own Synod, and Church. "A theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theologian of the cross calls the thing what it actually is." (Luther's Works, vol. 31, p. 40 Thank you for telling it like it is. Mark Kindem, Bemidji, mn

  3. Bishop Wohlrabe, I too thank you for your comments. And I second Mark Kindrem below that you should send your comments out in some form as a pastoral letter to congregations. The churches need this kind of pastoral-theological leadership right now.

    Your suggestion that 'in creating us male and female, God has hard-wired gender complementarity into the very fabric of our being' is a forceful one. It moves us away from the focus on temporary cultural anxieties that seem to be driving so much of the debate. Historical resistance to what may become ELCA policy and teaching will need to find serious and coherent theological rationale - either in theological anthropology, or in the more fundamental doctrine of the incarnation.

    Human beings are not centers of thoughts or feelings that merely express themselves sexually through their 'bodies' - this is the modern secular view that seems to be at the core of the revisionist agenda. Human beings, like Adam and Jesus (fully human and divine), are rather essentially 'embodied creatures' whose physical structures integrally define their identity and their sexual destiny.

    This is why, for example, the ancient Jews - as I understand - made sexual intercourse between groom and bride the 'consummating' event of the wedding. This is also why homosexual 'marriage' or 'partnership(?)' is against God's loving intentions for his creatures. It can't 'work' but can only be a frustration of true sexual fulfillment. As a church we need to 'minister' compassionately to all in light of this reality. [There is an interesting article by Robert P. George from this perspective in this month's issue of First Things.]

    You are also right that our present direction will isolate us from the historical and global church. And that we should get going on ministering to people in traditional marriages and families, and start giving them some real support.

    This would be a wonderful change from our present, narrow focus on minority inclusion and things like writing our own Mideast policy. Unfortunately, the 'cultural left' of the ELCA may not be interested. They already have their 'mission.' Pr. Carlton Andersen, Barnesville, MN

  4. Thank you Bishop Wohlrabe for your thoughtful and well researched comments. I wish every pastor and lay person attending the church wide assembly could read them. One thought I might add has to do with the variety of opinion found among gay and lesbian Christians. Not all gay and lesbian Christians are "revisionists" in their understanding of their own sexuality. Some are very "traditional" in their faith and practices and are very committed to such life styles. How can we as a church be open, understanding, and supportive of them?