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An open letter to the
ELCA Human Sexuality Task Force —Where will it all end?

by Rev. Robert S. Ove, retired

Date Unknown

Dear sexuality task force,

First I must compliment you, the Human Sexuality Task Force of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, on a well-documented and thorough study of the sexuality issue. You have put much work into a very difficult subject, and at the present I’m not sure what more you could do given your stated assignment and the lay of the land. I felt that you tried to be open to all views, but I do have some critical comments that I hope will help bring this topic to light from a different perspective.

First I have to comment on the reaction from the “pew,” which I have heard in the past few years, from several churches where I have preached or been interim pastor. These comments are amazingly widespread even in churches that call themselves “welcoming” churches. The comment is, “The church is studying this topic to death! What are they looking for?” And the more cynical one “What’s the use of fighting it? The church has already made up ‘its’ mind where ‘it’ wants this thing to go and ‘they’ will keep studying it until ‘they’ get ‘their’ way.” Even I get some of the same feeling. I suppose if we can have meetings with other denominations and religions so we can live together in peace, we can get together on anything even if our humanness is all that we have in common.

In The Lutheran magazine I have read some comments that seemed to be “put-downs” of differing views. I was disappointed in this comment from a church leader, and I quote, “Some resist any change, while others wrestle earnestly with difficult issues. Some call themselves ‘welcoming’ pastors or churches while others claim to be ‘evangelical.’”

There are subtle, uncomfortable implications in these comments and I can’t say these were isolated. They certainly made it sound to me as if those who are traditional Lutherans and Biblically conservative have not been “wrestling earnestly” with difficult issues.

I can see why some feel this issue is not really open to “serious wrestling,” but is already a forgone conclusion. In reading your report I found more openness, but also a struggle to hold the ship together regardless of the outcome. If I am wrong, I am willing to hear your view—so I can pass it on.

Another issue that hits me personally: My wife and I were missionaries to Nepal for two short terms in 1996-97 and 2000. I have talked with a number of missionary friends who share my feeling that openness to gay marriage and ordination could end the ELCA’s effectiveness on the mission field in most countries. I heard there were even some in Africa turning to Islam rather than taking such a liberal view of Scripture!!! I know many in Nepal who have lost their families, their lives’ work, had their lives threatened and sometimes didn’t survive because of their Christian faith. They believe in the Bible quite literally. My wife, who had been a skeptic, saw several healed with Christian prayer, whom the Hindu or Buddhist priests could not heal. To cast doubt on a very clear literal condemnation of homosexual behavior in both the Old and New Testament could be devastating to their new, childlike faith. I certainly hope this real danger is included in your discussions in depth and not just in passing. Even a Dubuque, Iowa, Wartburg Seminary professor who served with us in Nepal, said he would not encourage any of our Nepali pastors to study in U.S. seminaries or it could destroy their faith—or give them much useless knowledge that they could not pass on to their people without damage to our mission work.

I need to give you a bit of my background so you will understand where I am coming from. It is only fair.

I served a church in Weehawken, N.J. in the early 1960s. Sometimes I would wander down to the edge of the Palisades, two blocks from my church, and sit on a bench that gave a beautiful view of Manhattan. I went down there one night after an evening meeting and had my clerical collar on. A fellow sat at the other end of the bench and noticed my collar. “Are you a priest?” he asked.

I told him I was the next best thing and he confessed to me that he had just been excommunicated by his priest because he had gay leanings. He said he lived with his mother and had not even dated men. I told him that God would never condemn anyone for his “leanings.” I told him that I, too, had temptations that were not kosher. Jesus himself, the Bible tells us, was tempted in every way such as we, but without sin. Resisting temptation with God’s help was the only answer I knew. We went back to my church and knelt at the altar together and I gave him a Lutheran absolution. I mentioned this to a Lutheran Church in America officer who I met when church headquarters were in New York. He said he was shocked that I would think of allowing such a man into my church.

“Think what it would do to your congregation if they found out!” was his comment.

The church certainly has done a flip flop!

My Weehawken church was surrounded by Hispanic residents. I even went to study Spanish so I could invite them into our inner city church. But when I was asked to march for black rights in Jersey City and mentioned the needs of Hispanics, the church leaders’ comments were in essence, “They don’t have any problems. They aren’t black.”

Another flip flop.

I could go back to my ordination when I almost was turned down because I belonged to the Lutheran Peace Fellowship. They said these peace organizations were subversive. Years later in my church in Cheyenne, Wyo., I was condemned by my bishop for not preaching anti-MX-missiles every Sunday!

Another flip flop.

I could mention how many churches in inner cities were condemned if they did not send in all their “apportionments.” Those were the days when the suburbs were the angels. That was where all the money and growth were coming from. We had to help a fellow inner city pastor who needed a loan from the church women for his salary, but the synod headquarters in Trenton bragged about their new $800 conference table! Here my church was, as I called it, “derriere guard.” Since then, the ELCA has belatedly come to recognize the needs of the inner city.

I am divorced and am not proud of it. I did not try a mistress on the side, but divorce was such an anathema that I was removed from my roles in the synod for my divorce. I am willing to accept gays as fellow sinners, but I have trouble with gay pride!!!

Are we going to have a "divorced pride" day also?

There was a pastor in Wyoming whose divorce was delayed a year. In the meantime he found a girlfriend in the congregation who he went off to a motel with for a few days. He told me that that was no worse than gays living together without marriage. Was he right?

Just a few decades ago, the gay “issue” would never have surfaced, but now it is headline stuff. I should mention that when I was police chaplain I received the police magazine every month. In one issue, a psychiatrist said that incest should be decriminalized, and for the same reason that gays were being accepted: It often was accepted practice in some tribes and cultures for parents to teach sex to their children. It seemed to be a “given” for some people. It allowed both children and adults to give vent to some of their inner struggles and to experiment with this universal urge.

I thoroughly disagreed, but it made me think, “What will the next step be in this liberal age?”

I have read several articles, and not all from Utah, that polygamy should be decriminalized also. There is certainly less specific condemnation of polygamy in the Bible than there is of homosexual behavior. Are we going to leave this up to popular vote also? Have we come to, “Vox populi, vox dei” [the voice of the people is the voice of god]?

I had an article printed in Lutheran Partners recently in which I pointed out that democracy was a disaster almost every time it was tried in Holy Writ. We would be worshiping golden calves if the majority wishes were always followed, for just one example. One of our Canadian church leaders, Pastor Arild Borch, spoke at a synod meeting in Canada when I had a church there. He brought down the house with laughter when he did nothing but read measures that had passed synod meetings in the past. Will they be laughing at us someday? At 80 years of age I probably won’t be around to hear it, but the penalty of living so long is that I have seen the church flip flop with every wind of doctrine. It has been called “wrestling with the issues” today, but it may be called “idiocy” and “failure to stand for sola Scriptura” by the next generation.

Where will it all end?!!!

  • Rev. Robert S. Ove, retired
  • Rio Rancho, NM
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