Wednesday, September 9, 2009

On What Basis Did the ELCA Assembly Act?

On August 21, 2009 the Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America voted to commit the ELCA to “finding ways to allow congregations that choose to do so to recognize, support and hold publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships.” The Assembly also voted to commit the ELCA to “finding a way for people in such publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships to serve as professional leaders of this church.”

Regrettably, these landmark decisions were not based on a clearly-articulated theological consensus that exists among us—a consensus that all parties could describe, in substantially the same language and using similar arguments based on the scriptures, the ancient creeds and the Lutheran confessions. Both the social statement, Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust[1] and the Report and Recommendation on Ministry Policies[2] acknowledge as much.

To say that we lack a theological consensus in this matter , though, does not mean that there were not theological reasons—many would say: compelling theological reasons—to support the actions of the Assembly. There may not have been an articulated theological basis, but as I listened to the floor debate preceding these votes I perceived, in broad contours, something of an operating theological rationale.

To describe this rationale, it may be helpful to recall an earlier ministry-related decision by two of the predecessor church bodies of the ELCA. In 1970 conventions of the former ALC and LCA both voted to lift the historic prohibition against women serving in the office of Word and Sacrament. The ALC and LCA took this action, lacking a full theological consensus, on the basis of majority votes “in convention.” In some circles this was a very controversial decision at the time. The decision for the ordination of women seemed to fly in the face of some passages of Scripture, e.g. regarding women “keeping silence,” not exercising authority over men, etc.
If there was not a widely-shared consensus on this question at the time, on what theological basis did the ALC and LCA approve the ordination of women in 1970?

· Alongside the scriptural texts that seemed to prohibit women from serving as pastors, there were other scriptural texts that allowed for and even commended the ministry of women in roles associated with the pastoral office, e.g. the women at the Tomb who were the first proclaimers of the Resurrection, the ministry of female leaders in the early church like Priscilla and Junia, bold statements such as Galatians 3:28, etc. Proponents of women’s ordination , using the Lutheran principle that “Scripture interprets Scripture,” successfully argued that these latter “affirming” texts mitigated the force of the former “prohibiting” texts.

· It was also becoming increasingly apparent that God had gifted women for pastoral ministry and that God seemed to be calling women into pastoral ministry.

In what ways might the 1970 vote by the ALC and LCA be viewed as analogous to the 2009 ministry policy changes approved by the ELCA Churchwide Assembly?

The ELCA has taken these ministry policy actions, on the basis of majority votes “in convention” despite the fact that these actions stand in tension with some passages of Scripture, e.g. the seven biblical texts that refer directly to same-gender sexual activity[3], texts that teach or assume a heterosexual ordering of the human family,[4] etc.

Even though a specific theological consensus was not presented in advance of this decision, on what theological bases did members of the Churchwide Assembly argue for changing the ELCA’s ministry policies regarding gay and lesbian persons in rostered ministries?

· It was pointed out that some biblical scholars argue that the “seven texts” assume outmoded understandings of same-sex behavior, do not take into account the contemporary notion of sexual orientation, or fail to conceive of the possibility that gay or lesbian persons might live in publically-accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-sex relationships.

· Alongside the scriptural texts traditionally quoted to prohibit same-sex sexual behavior, there are other scriptural texts which—even though they may not directly contradict the scriptural prohibitions against homosexual behavior—arc in a trajectory that mitigates the force of the traditional biblical prohibitions. Examples: Jesus’ bias toward outsiders, Jesus’ redefinition of Old Testament notions of “uncleanness,” God’s unconditional love for sinners, Jesus’ command to love the neighbor unconditionally, the early church’s decisions to include Gentiles and others (e.g. the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts) formerly considered “unclean,” etc..

· It is becoming increasingly apparent to many in our church that God has gifted gays and lesbians for pastoral ministry and that God seems to be calling gays and lesbians into pastoral ministry.

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, members of the churchwide assembly did wrestle with the law/gospel dynamic that is so central to our Lutheran identity. God’s Word addresses us always in the forms of demands (law) and promises (gospel). The law—in all its forms—tells us that we cannot make it on our own; it convicts us and drives us to the mercies of God in Jesus Christ. The law tells us we are sinners; the gospel declares us righteous solely for Christ’s sake. When all is said and done the only thing we have going for us is the gratuitous mercy of God, whose undeserved forgiveness restores us to life.

Recall how Lutherans have employed this law-gospel dynamic to deal with other sticky issues in the realm of human sexuality—like divorce. Our Lord rigorously condemns divorce in the gospels, and yet in our congregations we have divorced and remarried people—some of them even serving as pastors. When a husband and wife divorce, God’s law exposes their sinfulness; but we believe that the grace of God in Jesus Christ covers even this grievous sin. We tolerate divorce as the “lesser of two evils,” especially when a marriage has become a “living hell.” Might the ways we Lutherans have taken a law/gospel approach to divorce also inform how we approach the vexing question of same-gender relationships among baptized Christians? I heard such questions echoing throughout the discussion of the ministry policies at the 2009 Churchwide Assembly.

It simply is unfair to suggest that the actions of the Assembly arose in an environment that did not include serious attention to scripture and the theology of the church. One may disagree with the biblical/theological approach that finally prevailed—but we must recognize that voting members did grapple with the scriptural witness and the doctrines of our church.

In offering these observations, based on what I saw and heard in the Minneapolis Convention Center prior to the August 21 votes, I do not say that I necessarily agree with what I’m calling an “operating theological rationale.” However, in my judgment, voting members at the Assembly did recognize the importance of building a biblical and theological case for the votes they were about to cast. And I hope that as we move into the future together we will continue to wrestle with the Bible and our theological tradition, in the hope that we might yet arrive at a consensus that thus far still eludes us.

Bishop Larry Wohlrabe[5]
Northwestern Minnesota Synod
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

[1] “This church also acknowledges that consensus does not exist concerning how to regard same-gender committed relationships, even after many years of thoughtful, respectful, and faithful study and conversation. We do not have agreement on whether this church should honor these relationships, uplift, shelter, and protect them or on precisely how it is appropriate to do so.” Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust, p. 11.

[2] “The task force believes that consensus does not exist in this church with regard to the matter of sexual intimacy between same gender-oriented people.” Report and Recommendation on Ministry Policies, p. 9.

[3] The texts normally cited are Genesis 19:1–11; Judges 19:16–30; Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13; Romans 1:26–27;1 Corinthians 6:9–11; Timothy 1:9–10. For more information, “Background Essay on Biblical Texts for Journey Together Faithfully Part Two: The Church and Homosexuality.” (Chicago: ELCA, 2003). The task force commissioned an essay by biblical scholars Walter F. Taylor Jr. and Arland Hultgren regarding these texts.

[4]For example, the creation accounts in Genesis 1-2 and Jesus’ reference to these accounts in the gospels.

[5] Opinions in this paper are solely those of the author, not the Northwestern Minnesota Synod ELCA.


  1. Dear Bishop Wohlrabe,
    Thank you for your wise words and leadership on this difficult issue.

  2. Thank you bishop. I appreciate your comments.

  3. Thank you for your wise and articulate words. You have given those on both sides of the issue something to hang on to.

  4. Thank you for helping us understand these issues better. Why are so many laypeople deciding important issues at Churchwide Assemblies? As a layperson I couldn't even imagine taking on making a decision like this. My knowledge of theology is minimal at best and all the education that one needs to understand theology is tremendous. Why then are laypeople asked to do this? I also see they endorsed having 10% of youth and young adults represented and casting votes at assemblies. How can a teenager understand the magnitude/impact of their vote for all the members of this church and understand all the theology one needs to know to make informed decisions? I really don't understand how a church can have major decisions made by laypeople.

  5. I don't follow the reasoning. For example, you yourself say that there are conflicting texts regarding the ordination of women, but no such writings that can be interpreted supporting same-sex relationships.

    Also, the church still believes that divorce is a sin, and certainly not something to be celebrated.

    The conclusion that leads one to is that any theological argument is cobbled together to support a human desire. That is, the CWA decided that they were going to approve the human sexuality measures first, then went looking for some thelogical justification to defend this action, rather than trying to discern what proper biblical position is and support that position.

    The problem is not sex. The problem is twisting God's word and will to justify whatever behavior we want to engage in.