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Is task force's work...a slippery slope or black ice?

by Jaynan Clark, (President, WordAlone Network)

March 1, 2005

photo of Pastor Jaynan

Pastor Jaynan

(Part one of a two-part series)

This winter, freezing rain fell here in Washington state on our already snow-packed and slippery country roads. We didn’t really drive to the church that day for work; we skated—in our vehicles. My husband left early in the van equipped with studded tires. I followed later in our big four-wheel drive pickup. Though I was exercising extreme caution at low speeds I was still “dancing” on the ice. Then it happened, a full-grown deer jumped out of the woods and much to my surprise went “spread eagle” on the icy road right in front of me. I had visions of Bambi out on the frozen pond with Thumper, long legs everywhere.

“Bambi” struggled to stand up while I struggled to stop. We missed each other and both went our own ways. This happened only a couple of days after the release in mid-January of the recommendations by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Task Force on Sexuality regarding ordination and ministry standards of the ELCA for gays in same-sex relationships and whether or not to bless same-sex relationships.

There have been a few occasions and select conversations with folks since these two events occurred that have wed them in my mind’s eye. Much to my surprise, there are those individuals I perceived to be sure-footed in their faith and able to stand up in the most slippery of conditions who are losing their footing and falling smack-dab into harm’s way. I expected them, as I had the deer, to remain upright and handle the present conditions on this “journey together faithfully.”

People of faith, theologically trained and very much aware of the current church climate are heralding the task force recommendations as a clear, thoughtful compromise that will avoid division in the church. Some of the elected bishops of the ELCA are quoted as supporting this perception. (See ELCA News Service, January 24, 2005, ELCA Bishops Comment On Sexuality Studies Task Force Report) They seem to have missed the reality that we can not accept a compromise here. This is a matter of the covenant, that of the Word of God and its authority over all matters of life and faith as both law and gospel.

The road conditions on this “journey together faithfully” have been very slippery from the beginning. As a reform and renewal movement, WordAlone must continue to move ahead but must proceed with extreme caution so as to not overestimate our own ability and surefootedness.

Certainly there are such things as slippery slopes to be avoided as individuals and as churches. However, just as dangerous are the surfaces before us that appear to have been leveled and well-groomed yet that are in actuality covered with deceptive black ice, which threatens to trip up even the most sure-footed in faith. Let us proceed with courage but also with extreme caution depending not on our own evaluations of the conditions before us but trusting in the Word of the Lord to guide us safely along God’s way, which is truly a faithful journey worth taking together.

Many ELCA leaders had anticipated a recommendation of some form of local option as a well thought-out compromise—introducing change one church or synod at a time. What we currently have is a document that suggests that we not change the current standards and yet it lifts any disciplinary action or consequences for those who do not comply. This is certainly a more shadowed, hidden, down-the-long-hall-in-the-corner-closet approach then I had expected. I assure you I am not speculating on the intent of the task force and its members. Rather, my comments are targeted directly at the words of the three recommendations.

Careful study of the “words” of the recommendations presents the reader with a number of questions.

If you say that something is “at least as important” as something else, is it not, usually, more important in practice even if not in actuality? If this careful, grammatical construct in the first recommendation—the possibility that “mission and communion” are “at least as important as the issues about which . . . Lutherans find themselves so decisively at odds”—is at all true, then once again the desire for visible, structural unity trumps truth. The reformation teaching of the hidden church and unity that resides in Jesus Christ alone is dismissed in part one of the recommendations and replaced with a unity and an authority of human construct.

Again, questions arise in trying to hold recommendations two and three together.

Our first question might be, “Where in the world does this work?” Where else in our day-to-day lives would we embrace recommendations that proffer we maintain standards of ministry and an understanding of marriage as between a man and a woman but state that boundaries, discipline and consequences are optional?

Where in the world does anyone identify behavior or choices as unacceptable but informs the participants that there will be no consequences or discipline if they choose not to comply? Does this work in parenting children? How about for policy implementation in the local school district, courts, government, traffic control? Don’t our experiences witness to the reality that without enforcement of “the rules” and the “threat” thereof, the unacceptable can quickly become the act or behavior practiced or desired? I would proffer that the words of the recommendations would function incongruously—if “enforced” by a no-enforcement policy. In other words, those who would choose to discipline or enforce current boundaries would be accused of acting less “pastorally and lovingly” and therefore could be judged as judgmental, prejudiced or even self righteous for enforcing the very standards upheld in the recommendations. Ironic, isn’t it?

Research reveals that clarity actually is good for the development of the individual and makes them more secure and well adjusted. Across society, beyond the family structure, we depend upon the execution of the first use of the law for good order and as Lutheran Christians we recognize that beyond this order we are confronted by and driven to the feet of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in recognition of our need to be forgiven, healed and saved by Him alone.

Are we as a church ready to trade our God-given ministry to forgive, heal and bring the Word of salvation for some form of accommodation that might keep us all together visibly but which waters down our mission and sacrifices our very reason for existence? Where in the world will the forgiving, healing, saving ministry of Christ be done if the Church loses its footing, falls down and its saving ministry slips away?

Part two to come: Forgive sins or unsin them?