2009-11-1 More Communication

November 1, 2009 (with extensive sections from Wade Dutton and Tim Wengert, which I include here for the sake of a complete picture of our church’s communication in the midst of the crisis).

Dear members and friends of Grace,

I am writing you from a new perspective.  Last month, I wrote about our church being at a crossroads, with both challenge and opportunity in our path.  Right now, while we still face challenges, I am encouraged for our future as a congregation.  I have hope that we will resolve the disagreement over the decisions around sexuality made at our Churchwide Assembly without splintering as a congregation – or at least learn to live with our fellow church members with whom we disagree.  I know it’s possible, since we’ve already been doing it for the past two months.  Frankly, the differences on these issues mirror the differences in our community and in our culture; whether these differences are big enough to separate us from one another is up to you, but I have hope that we will agree to disagree with our brothers and sisters in Christ.  Let’s keep the main thing the main thing: let’s continue to focus on our mission of sharing Christ and the good news of salvation with our neighbors, and growing as disciples of Christ.  Let’s keep praying, let’s keep talking, and let’s keep working together.

In keeping with my call as your pastor, and my Constitutional duties as set forth in section C.03, I share the following two articles regarding our Churchwide Assembly for our mutual understanding.

God’s work.  Our Hands.

            Pastor Eric             

Over Coffee with Pastor Wade Dutton of First Lutheran Church, Detroit Lakes, MN – one of the voting members of the 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly:

“Lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”  Ephesians 4:1-3

It probably goes without saying that the happenings of the Churchwide Assembly in August have dominated our conversations in the past weeks.  So there are a few things I would share with you regarding my experience there and what happens.  You may need more than one cup of coffee to get through this…

First, let me try to give you a context from which to consider what is going on.  If your impressions of the Churchwide Assembly are based solely on the media’s coverage it would be very easy to think that the only topic of conversation was human sexuality, homosexuality in particular. That’s just not so. Here are some of the outcomes that made up the majority of the Assembly’s agenda.

  • 1. The Assembly voted (958-51) to establish what is called “Full Communion” with the United Methodist Church based on our common confession of faith in Christ, and common understanding of the sacraments. This action moves us to greater Christian unity for which Jesus prayed in John 17, and means that our congregations will be able to share clergy leadership, especially in smaller congregations may not be able to have full-time pastoral leadership.  A shared pastor (either Lutheran or Methodist) will now be able to serve both congregations.  No other church body has done the groundwork for establishing this kind of ecumenical linkage with so many other church bodies as has the ELCA.
  • 2. HIV/AIDS Strategy: The Assembly approved a three-year, $10 million fundraising campaign to help fight the battle against the HIV and AIDS pandemic.  In 2007 our assembly committed itself to a strategy of partnering with our companions around the world to join them in the fight against HIV/AIDS.
  • 3. Lutheran Malaria Initiative: the Assembly voted to extend our partnership with the United Nations Foundation, Lutheran World Relief and the Missouri-Synod Lutheran Church to combat Malaria globally.  (Malaria is the largest cause of death among children worldwide).
  • 4. And the Assembly approved the formation of a team of people who will craft a social statement and action plan to combat global injustices against girls and women.

I offer these to you because I think they are all issues worth celebrating.  We didn’t hear much about these issues because they were not as “newsworthy.”  We do not all agree on certain decisions made at the Assembly I think it’s important to note that there is much going on in the ELCA with which we can agree and celebrate.

Speaking now to those issues on which we may not agree, let me say a few things about the votes regarding human sexuality.  The social statement entitled “Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust” passed by a 2/3rds majority vote (676-338).  The statement seeks to make a strong case for trust and responsibility, care of children, and opposition to abuse, exploitation, and promiscuity. It opposes cohabitation before marriage and understands marriage as between a man and woman. The part of the statement receiving most attention and the most negative response was of the section on homosexuality.  It described a continuum of views (four) held across the church – from “sin” to “orientation,” based on differing interpretations of God’s Word – and concluded that ELCA Lutherans are not agreed on this matter.

This led to four related resolutions that comprised ministry policy decisions growing out of this statement. They, as other ministry policies in the past, required a majority to pass: 

1) The first committed us to a posture of bearing one another’s burdens, love of neighbor, and respecting the bound conscience of all. It passed (771-230 – 77%)

2) Next the assembly voted (619-402) to approve the ELCA to allow “congregations that choose to do so to recognize, support, and hold publicly accountable lifelong, monogamous, same gender relationships.”

3) In the most pivotal and difficult decision, the assembly voted (559-451)slightly more than 55%’ that the ELCA commit itself to finding a way” for persons in these relationships “to serve as rostered leaders of this church.”  (Pastors and commissioned leaders)

4) The fourth was a long resolution outlining the process of moving into a policy of “structured flexibility” that would allow for implementing these decisions in a way that respects the varying convictions held around the church. A significant section was added to this resolution making clear a commitment that the policy revisions will provide for those who do not believe ministers in same-gender relationships should be rostered. This resolution passed (667-307) a 68 percent majority.

I think it critical for us to understand that these recommendations will not make any immediate changes in the ELCA.  They call for a process to be established that would allow congregations who want to call gay and lesbian clergy to do so, while continuing to allow other congregations to not do so.

So what does that mean for us?  From a purely pragmatic standpoint it means nothing has changed.  Even when the denomination develops a plan, no congregation would be asked to do anything against conscience.

On a deeper level, however, much has changed.  We’ve been forced to grapple with a difficult issue and in so doing we’ve discovered that we, like our denomination, are divided on this.  We’re being challenged to decide exactly what it means to live in unity and not uniformity.  And, because as St. Paul reminds us, when one of us suffers all of us suffer, we’re feeling one another’s pain.

At the Assembly and as I have visited believers here at home, I have found people representing the different perspectives on this issue uniformly passionate about following Jesus and living out what God is saying to us through the Bible.  They choose different scriptures in making their arguments and sometimes interpret them differently according to how they understand the Bible speaking in its time and our time.  And both sides struggle to understand how the other can come to their conclusions. The seminary word for this is “biblical hermeneutics”, and refers to the lenses that we use to read and interpret what God is saying through the Bible.  There is probably more that should be said about our ways of reading scripture as Lutheran Christians, but should be done in study together.  The point for me is that both positions hold the Bible in highest regard.

Finally, how will we move forward?  I wish I could say I have a clear word on this, but I do not.  I hurt, and struggle and wrestle with what our options may be.  So instead I simply share a few thoughts. 

First, pray.  Pray for one another.  Pray for our unity.  Pray for the protection of this body and of the larger Body of Christ.  Pray alone and pray together.  Commit to pray.

Second, let’s keep the main thing the main thing.  We can’t control the distractions that come our way, but we can choose to stay focused on the larger mission of the Church to make disciples, proclaim the Gospel, act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God.

Third, remember that God is the one in charge and not us.  Since its very beginnings the Church has wrestled through issues every bit as contentious as this, from circumcision and eating meat sacrificed to idols to slavery and ordaining women into ministry.  Ultimately God has always won the day.  Do you know the story of Gamaliel in Acts 5?  Addressing a group of riled up Pharisees who wanted to extinguish the Apostles’ ministry Gamaliel wisely said, “I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them – in that case you may even be found fighting against God!”

Finally, I’m aware that some members are seriously considering leaving our church because of our affiliation with the ELCA.  While I encourage all Christians to follow their conscience and the leading of the Holy Spirit, I’d remind you that in terms of our mission here nothing has changed.  We are still committed to worshiping God, “opening doors to new life in Christ, studying Scripture, nurturing children in the faith, and making disciples who impact the world for Christ.  By leaving, this body loses your gifts and passions, your perspective, and your voice in the conversation. It is a loss we would hate to suffer.

Friends, I have faith in our church and our future, because of the faith we hold in the One who loves us, forgives us, guides us, and refuses to let go of us even in the storms of life.


Reflections on the ELCA Churchwide Assembly and the Bible  by Timothy J. Wengert

(see http://www.elca.org/What-We-Believe/Social-Issues/Journal-of-Lutheran-Ethics/Issues/September-2009/Reflections-on-the-ELCA-6.aspx)

[1] If there is one rule we need to follow in the wake of the ELCA Churchwide Assembly, it is this: Do not break the eighth commandment (against false witness) in order to defend the sixth (against adultery and other sexual sins).  Both those who supported the changes in policy and those who did not need to remember this.  We must speak what we know and not cast aspersions on those who disagreed with us.  Luther’s comments on the eighth commandment in the Large Catechism are helpful here.  Even when forced by one’s office to speak out, one must not lie or distort the truth.

[2] In light of some implied (and explicit) attacks on the decision, however, it is also necessary to make one thing clear.  The change in policy was grounded in Scripture.  In fact, the calls for justice toward gays and lesbians in committed relationships and the recitation of examples of healthy same-gender relations, as important as these are to some folk, finally do not in themselves constitute a complete standard for changing church policy, since even calls for justice must for Christians be grounded in and normed by sound interpretations of Scripture as God’s Word for us.  

 [3] What does this argument from Scripture look like?  It is an argument from the law but in this fashion.  The social statement on sexuality began with reference to the question posed to Christ about the greatest commandment.  As we know, Jesus recited two commandments: love God above all else and one’s neighbor as one’s self.  As Luther pointed out in his interpretation of Galatians, when Paul in both Galatians and Romans mentions only love of neighbor, it is not because he meant both commandments, as the church father Jerome had argued.  Instead, Luther stated, Paul realized that the command to love God with all one’s heart, mind, soul, etc. is indeed fulfilled for us through justification by grace through faith on account of Christ alone.  As a result, Christians are free by faith to serve the neighbor. 

[4] What we often forget in Jesus’ answer to the question of commandments is the next phrase, “on these depend the law and the prophets.”  The word in Greek is literally “hang.”  The debate over sexuality in the ELCA in some ways “hangs” on these words of Jesus.  The ELCA with its decisions at the churchwide assembly is now stating that in this passage Jesus gave us a key to understand the Scriptures, that is, a lens through which we may interpret every other command in Scripture.  Every command in Scripture must be focused by this question: “How does following this commandment enhance love for God and neighbor?”  By asking this question of every other scriptural command, one remains truly faithful to Scripture.

[5] There is also another way to claim faithfulness to Scripture, and that is to interpret this saying of Jesus in the opposite way.  Then one would say that commandments in Scripture define what the love of God and neighbor should be.  Then the Christian responsibility is a matter of following the laws of Scripture and applying them to themselves and others precisely because they reflect that twofold love.  As I listened to the debate in Minneapolis this past week, it seemed to me that some opposed to these changes were arguing along these lines.  There are commandments in Scripture referring to homosexual activity; these determine how we must love God and neighbor; therefore we cannot change church policy.  To those who support the first way of interpreting Jesus’ statement, however, this approach would seem to turn his statement on its head and to assume that the command to love God and neighbor is normed by, hangs on, the commands in Scripture and not the other way around. 

[6] Along with this difference in approaching laws in Scripture comes a second matter, and that has to do with whether a particular passage in Scripture applies to the present.  For some, the question might even be whether we have the right to “pick and choose” one passage over another.  Here Martin Luther can help us.  In the mid-1520s, he was opposed by Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt, among others, who argued that Old Testament commandments, including those regarding the Sabbath and tithing, must be rigorously applied to Christians.  In response to such claims, Luther wrote the following. 

One must deal cleanly with the Scriptures. From the very beginning the word has come to us in various ways. It is not enough simply to look and see whether this is God’s word, whether God has spoken it; rather we must look and see to whom it has been spoken, whether it fits us. That makes all the difference between night and day. … The word in Scripture is of two kinds: the first does not pertain or apply to me, the other kind does. … The false prophets pitch in and say, “Dear people, this is the word of God.” This is true; we cannot deny it. But we are not “the people.” (LW 35: 170.)

[7] Thus, the scriptural argument for changing the ELCA policy toward gays and lesbians in committed, lifelong, monogamous relationships—and it is a scriptural argument—has at least two parts.  In the first place, it is argued that the Scripture passages dealing with homosexual actions are not at all aimed at homosexual orientation and behavior in the present but at very specific issues regarding, in Leviticus, standards of holiness that set the people of Israel apart from the pagan temple cults and, in the Pauline material, the coercive relations of male-on-male sexual activities.  (For the specific arguments, see the biblical study commissioned by the task force and referred to in the social statement.) 

The passage in Romans 1, which includes the only biblical reference to female sexual activity, must also be seen in the context of practices among Gentiles that Paul’s Jewish readers would have easily condemned, and it actually sets up the condemnation of those very readers in Romans 2.  Thus, the argument, far from being unscriptural, takes Scripture very seriously but says, using Luther’s advice, this does not apply here.  (It is important to note, however, that the argument is not “this never fostered love of God and neighbor.”  In their original contexts and in similar ones in our day and age, these commandments arose out of concern for the neighbor and continue to protect the neighbor from idolatrous or coercive behavior.) 

[8] But, in addition to the question of whether these passages apply in this case—something Luther invites us to ask—we have the command of Jesus and must ask a second question: how do I best love my neighbor in this situation?  Luther, too, referred to this principle when dealing with the Wittenberg church’s insistence that people receive the cup in the Lord’s Supper in order to fulfill Jesus’ command.  He said that they were right about faith (the principle involved) but lacking in love and patience (the practice).  Love of neighbor norms how Christians apply God’s law in specific situations.

 [9] How might one decide whether this question outlined above regarding the law of love and the commands in Scripture is an accurate one?  For this we have the example of Jesus himself.  Jesus did two things vis-à-vis the law.  First, by including in the simple commands against murder and adultery (among others) hatred, slander and lust, he made it impossible for us to boast that we can keep the law.  We are all mortal sinners.  Second, he broke specific, God-given laws for the sake of love of neighbor.  One of the best examples he left us in this regard comes with the man who had a shriveled hand (Mark 3:4; Matthew 12:12; Luke 6:9).  It was the Sabbath; the man was not in mortal danger; so the traditional response of a physician would be, “Make an appointment with my secretary and I’ll see you tomorrow.”  That way the man would be healed and the Sabbath would be kept holy.  Jesus, however, asks a different question: “Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath?”  That is, does the command to love the neighbor (doing good to the man) norm (we might even say trump) the third commandment to keep the Sabbath holy? 

[10] This concern for the neighbor’s situation is not, however, a subtle scheme to undermine the law.  Indeed, Jesus’ behavior itself functions as law in condemning legalists who cling to the letter of the law while ignoring its spirit.  Moreover, in several places in the gospels he explicitly condemns just this sort of misuse of the law for neglecting weightier matters or imagining that externals were more important than what comes out of a person’s heart.  These specific questions (“Does this apply to my neighbor?” and “How do I love my neighbor?”) do not destroy the law but rather use the law in ways that do not harm the neighbor in need.  Thus, this approach to the Bible, far from being “antinomian” (against the law), as some have alleged, actually insists upon taking Jesus’ command to love the neighbor with complete seriousness. 

[11] Thus, the following biblical questions lie at the heart of the present debate.  How does one best love the neighbors who are homosexual, living in lifelong, monogamous committed relationships?  Can one welcome them as they are?  Can one support them publicly with the prayers of the community and the promises of God?  Can one open to them places of leadership within the ELCA?  Within the ELCA there have come to be at least two responses to this question.  The Churchwide Assembly voted to affirm one biblical response while, at the same time, recognizing that there are many Christians in the church whose consciences are bound to a different, opposing scriptural response.  Whether we can live into this disagreement remains to be seen.  What is important for all participants to respect, I believe, is that both sides, not just one, employ thoroughly biblical arguments at the heart of their positions.

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