The report of the task force of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) studying homosexuality reveals the dimensions of the dilemma the denomination faces. One set of statistics in the report reflects the deep divisions it refers to: Out of 3,956 responses to a major church publication combined into a computer file, 22% favored and 57% opposed the blessing of same-sex unions and the ordaining of persons in such unions (p. 32).
Given both a majority and a minority with these percentages, the report struggles to find a middle way. The struggle is almost palpable. To guard against the explosiveness of the topic, the report calls upon the denomination to find ways to live together in the midst of disagreement. Still, to motivate such living together, the report can make no higher an appeal than to common morality: the concern for conscience. How weak this appeal is, however, becomes apparent: Do consciences not err? “Yes,” is the reply, but the fact is that “sincere differences” exist. At bottom, then, the report exhorts the denomination to endure deep divisions for the sole reason that the opposing sides are thought to be sincere in what they believe.
How completely un-Lutheran this is becomes clear when one recognizes that historically, Lutherans have relied exclusively on Scripture and confessions to settle questions of faith and life. Not only this, but in 1993 the ELCA’s Conference of Bishops determined that “there is basis neither in Scripture nor tradition for the establishment of an official ceremony . . . for the blessing of a homosexual relationship.” In writing its report, therefore, the task force must have found itself between a rock and a hard place: Unable to contradict the finding of the Conference of Bishops, it was unwilling to offend the 22% in favor of blessing same-sex unions and ordaining persons in such unions. The task force, therefore, did what—for Lutherans—has been unthinkable for almost 500 years: It abandoned Scripture and confessions as the basis on which to decide the intensely divisive issue of homosexuality, made sincerity of belief the touchstone of a new doctrine and looked to that nebulous thing called “pastoral care” to find a “new way” to make the practice of homosexuality acceptable to the whole denomination. Would it be any wonder should many Lutherans sense betrayal by the leaders of their church?