Last week in this space, Betsy Carlson reported on two recent developments in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America that bring into question the decisions on sexuality made by the 2005 Churchwide Assembly in Orlando. Both of them are confusing and disheartening.
In the first place, the New England Synod recently issued "Guidance for Pastors and Congregations of the New England Synod, ELCA Regarding the Blessing of Unions of Same-Sex Couples." The document includes specific instructions on how to conduct such blessings and even "A suggested outline for a public Service of Blessing." Yet, the resolution on homosexual unions, based on Recommendation Two of the ELCA's task force on sexuality, approved in Orlando committed the ELCA to "continue to respect the guidance of the 1993 statement of the Conference of Bishops" that concluded that "there is basis neither in Scripture nor tradition for the establishment of an official ceremony by this church for the blessing of a homosexual relationship."
And, secondly, a hearing committee for a discipline case in the Southeastern Synod recently issued a ruling that went well beyond its stated task. It asked synods to memorialize the 2007 Churchwide Assembly to overturn the statement in the ELCA document "Vision and Expectations" that "ordained ministers who are homosexual in their self-understanding are expected to abstain from homosexual sexual relationships." Yet, a proposed amendment to the sexuality task force's Recommendation Three in Orlando, that would essentially have achieved the same goal, was defeated, despite a concerted effort by proponents to secure its passage.
How is it that decisions made in Orlando are being contravened or raised again? As Betsy's article noted, these developments in the New England Synod are the fruit of deliberately ambiguous language adopted in Orlando on homosexual relationships, language that the ELCA Church Council refused to clarify, despite three separate requests to do so.
However, the root of the problem actually lies in Recommendation One, which also arose from the sexuality task force. That recommendation urged "the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (to) concentrate on finding ways to live together faithfully in the midst of disagreements, recognizing the God-given mission and communion that we share as members of the body of Christ."
On the surface, that sounds like a Mom-and-apple-pie resolution. Who could vote against "finding ways to live together faithfully in the midst of disagreements" and, indeed, the recommendation passed by a margin of 851-127.
But there is a fatal danger underneath that positive-sounding language. The manner in which Recommendation One is being applied in the ELCA ends up defining "faithfully" in subjective, rather than objective terms. That is, if a Christian sincerely believes that his or her convictions are faithful, then they are. Whether such convictions adhere to the Bible or to the received Christian tradition is not the deciding factor, but whether they are sincerely held by persons who claim to be faithful is.
Scripture is quite clear that all sexual behavior is a moral issue, not just a social issue. Sexual relationships outside of marriage are all immoral according to Scripture. Therefore, can believers disagree on morality and "live together faithfully"?
Approaching theological and moral issues subjectively opens the door for any teaching, any practice, any conviction that people deem "faithful" to come into the Christian Church and, according to Recommendation One, our response is not to discern whether they are true or false, not to accept some teachings and reject others on the basis of Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions, but only to find "ways to live together faithfully in the midst of disagreements." It is a far cry from the admonition in 1 John 4, "Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God" and the apostle's advice in Ephesians 4, "So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another."
Jesus warned that "if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand." (Mark 3:25) The struggles over sexuality are only the latest evidence that the ELCA is such a house divided and to respond merely by "finding ways to live together faithfully (subjectively defined) in the midst of disagreements" will not keep it from falling. Let us all pray fervently for the ELCA, its leaders, pastors and members, that the Holy Spirit will guide us beyond tolerating various "truths" and seek instead, in all that we say and do, the Truth that is Jesus Christ, the truth that has been handed over to us through the Bible and the great tradition of Christianity.