The 2009 ELCA decision to approve their social statement on human sexuality, with its provisions for homosexuality, have never been on my radar in terms of why I choose to affiliate with the ELCA. I explained in this morning’s post that these things have never been “hot-button” issues for me. I came to believe that I am a Christian called to practice my faith and exercise my ministry in the Lutheran tradition, and this particular denomination works best for me. Period.
The ELCA also handled this matter in somewhat different fashion than other mainline denominations such as the Episcopal Church and the PCUSA. The ELCA decision is grounded in an understanding that at this moment in history members of the denomination do not agree about these matters. How then, are we to proceed?
Typically, in the evangelical world I come from, someone usually steps forward and says, “It’s my way or the highway because the Bible says ____________.” A split or splintering takes place and the denomination takes its particular stand while the dissenters form groups around their particular positions.
That’s not exactly what happened in the ELCA. Recognizing the deep divisions that exist between brothers and sisters in the same faith community about these issues, the denomination sought to produce decisions that would intentionally include people from conflicting sides within a broader context of Christian truth, morality, and love.
Trying to foster both truth and unity is a tricky undertaking, and there have been significant numbers of Lutherans who decided their position was being threatened, who have left and formed other groups. But that did not happen because one point of view “took over” the denomination.
Today, I simply want to set forth some of the ways the ELCA decided to approach these issues so that we can discuss one Christian group’s efforts to maintain unity in the midst of profound disagreement. After the break, I will highlight some of the provisions in the ELCA statement.
In terms of homosexual practice, please note that the ELCA limited their focus to same-gender couples in committed, life-long, monagamous relationships.
First, the ELCA affirms the special gift of marriage between a man and a woman.
Marriage is a covenant of mutual promises, commitment, and hope authorized legally by the state and blessed by God. The historic Christian tradition and the Lutheran Confessions have recognized marriage as a covenant between a man and a woman, reflecting Mark 10: 6–9: “But from the beginning of creation, God made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one put asunder.” (Jesus here recalls Genesis 1:27; 2:23–24.)
Lutherans long have affirmed that the public accountability of marriage, as expressed through a legal contract, provides the necessary social support and social trust for relationships that are intended to be sustained throughout life and within changing and often challenging life situations. In this country, pastors carry both legal and religious responsibilities for marriage. In carrying out these responsibilities, pastors hold and exercise pastoral discretion for the decision to marry in the church. In the community of the church they preside over the mutual promises made between a couple seeking the lifelong, monogamous, and faithful relationship of marriage.
The ELCA recognizes the brokenness caused by divorce and vowed to help families avoid that, but when it occurs, will be there to receive and minister to those affected by this brokenness:
This church recognizes that in some situations the trust upon which marriage is built becomes so deeply damaged or is so deeply flawed that the marriage itself must come to a legal end (Matthew 19:3–12). This church does not treat divorce lightly nor does it disregard the responsibilities of marriage. However, in such situations, it provides support to the people involved and all who are affected. Divorced individuals are encouraged to avail themselves of pastoral care, to be assured of God’s presence, forgiveness, and healing, and to remain in the communion of the church, recogniz- ing the all-encompassing mercy of God.
This church will provide supportive pastoral care to those who are divorced. Further, it believes that those who wish to remarry may gain wisdom from the past and may be assured of the Gospel’s freedom, in the midst of brokenness and forgiveness, to enter into their new responsibilities in joy and hope. This church will tend pastorally to the special concerns of blended families, to children of divorced parents, and to the particular tensions that may accompany family breakdown and transition.
The ELCA acknowledges that some today in the Lutheran family and the broader Christian community think that the protections offered by institutions such as marriage or legal contracts such as civil unions should also be granted to same-gender couples entering into lifelong, monogamous relationships. The ELCA also frankly acknowledges that this conclusion differs from historic Christian tradition and the Lutheran Confessions:
Recognizing that this conclusion differs from the historic Christian tradition and the Lutheran Confessions, some people, though not all, in this church and within the larger Christian community, conclude that marriage is also the appropriate term to use in describing similar benefits, protection, and support for same-gender couples entering into lifelong, monogamous relationships. They believe that such accountable relationships also provide the necessary foundation that supports trust and familial and community thriving. Other contractual agreements, such as civil unions, also seek to provide some of these protections and to hold those involved in such relationships accountable to one another and to society.
The ELCA acknowledges that the issue of how to deal pastorally within the Christian community with same-gender couples in lifelong, monogamous relationships has been a growing concern in recent decades. They also state the fact that little agreement has come about in how to regard such relationships and how to help such couples. But they express the commitment to try and seek responsible policies and actions, knowing well that there will be disagreement.
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 and uplift, shelter, and protect them or on precisely how it is appropriate to do so.
In response, this church draws on the foundational Lutheran understanding that the baptized are called to discern God’s love in service to the neighbor. In our Christian freedom, we therefore seek responsible actions that serve others and do so with humility and deep respect for the conscience-bound beliefs of others. We understand that, in this discernment about ethics and church practice, faithful people can and will come to different conclusions about the meaning of Scripture and about what constitutes responsible action. We further believe that this church, on the basis of “the bound conscience,”will include these different understandings and practices within its life as it seeks to live out its mission and ministry in the world.
The ELCA recognizes four different approaches people take to the matter of acting responsibly toward people in same-gender committed relationships:
This church recognizes that, with conviction and integrity:
- On the basis of conscience-bound belief, some are convinced that same-gender sexual behavior is sinful, contrary to biblical teaching and their understanding of natural law. They believe same-gender sexual behavior carries the grave danger of unrepentant sin. They therefore conclude that the neighbor and the community are best served by calling people in same-gender sexual relationships to repentance for that behavior and to a celibate lifestyle. Such decisions are intended to be accompa- nied by pastoral response and community support.
- On the basis of conscience-bound belief, some are convinced that homosexuality and even lifelong, monogamous, homosexual relationships reflect a broken world in which some relationships do not pattern themselves after the creation God intended. While they acknowledge that such relationships may be lived out with mutuality and care, they do not believe that the neighbor or community are best served by publicly recognizing such relationships as traditional marriage.
- On the basis of conscience-bound belief, some are convinced that the scriptural witness does not address the context of sexual orientation and lifelong loving and committed relationships that we experience today. They believe that the neighbor and community are best served when same-gender relationships are honored and held to high standards and public accountability, but they do not equate these relationships with marriage. They do, however, affirm the need for community support and the role of pastoral care and may wish to surround lifelong, monogamous relationships or covenant unions with prayer.
- On the basis of conscience-bound belief, some are convinced that the scriptural witness does not address the context of sexual orientation and committed relationships that we experience today. They believe that the neighbor and community are best served when same-gender relationships are lived out with lifelong and monogamous commitments that are held to the same rigorous standards, sexual ethics, and status as heterosexual marriage. They surround such couples and their lifelong commitments with prayer to live in ways that glorify God, find strength for the challenges that will be faced, and serve others. They believe same-gender couples should avail themselves of social and legal support for themselves, their children, and other dependents and seek the highest legal accountability available for their relationships.
The ELCA affirms its opposition to promiscuous sexual behaviors:
For this reason, this church teaches that degrees of physical intimacy should be carefully matched to degrees of growing affection and commitment. This also suggests a way to understand why this church teaches that the greatest sexual intimacies, such as coitus, should be matched with and sheltered both by the highest level of binding commitment and by social and legal protection, such as is found in marriage. Here, promises of fidelity and public accountability provide the foundational basis and support for trust, intimacy, and safety, especially for the most vulnerable.
This is why this church opposes non-monogamous, promiscuous, or casual sexual relationships of any kind. Indulging immediate desires for satisfaction, sexual or otherwise, is to “gratify the desires of the flesh” (Galatians 5:16–19). Such transient encounters do not allow for trust in the relationship to create the context for trust in sexual intimacy.
The ELCA affirms its opposition to transient sexual relationships and cohabitation:
Because this church urges couples to seek the highest social and legal support for their relationships, it does not favor cohabitation arrangements outside of marriage. It has a special concern when such arrangements are entered into as an end in themselves. It does, however, acknowledge the social forces at work that encourage such practices. This church also recognizes the pastoral and familial issues that accompany these contemporary social patterns.
In cases where a decision is made for cohabitation, regardless of the reasons, this church expects its pastors and members to be clear with the couple regarding the reasons for the position of this church and to support the couple in recognizing their obligation to be open and candid with each other about their plans, expectations, and levels of mutual commitment.
In conclusion, the ELCA summarizes the purpose of this statement and its intended use in the churches:
Because of the love of the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we are a people set free for lives of responsibility committed to seeking the good of all. This statement responds to this church’s call for a foundational framework48 that will help it discern what it means to follow faithfully God’s law of love in the increasingly complex sphere of human sexuality. It does not offer once-and-for-all answers to contemporary questions. Rather, it seeks to tap the deep roots of Scripture and the Lutheran theological tradition for specific Christian convictions, themes, and wisdom that will assist people of faith to discern what is responsible and faithful action in the midst of the complexity of daily life.
It proposes guideposts to direct this church’s discernment as it tries to be faithful. It provides markers by which individual and communal decisions can be tested under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. It seeks to describe the social realities of this age and to address them pastorally. Insofar as it is possible, it also seeks to speak in ways that can address both religious and secular discussions of these matters.
There it is. Feel free to comment, and remember I am not an expert on this statement. You can read the whole thing HERE. I’m sure you can find a lot of discussion about it on various sites around the web. The following page from my own Synod has listed several resources reflecting on this statement HERE.