Debate on a proposed social statement on human sexuality began Tuesday at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's Churchwide Assembly.
Opponents of the statement argued that adopting it would constitute abandonment of Scripture.
"This is God's law and we cannot change it," said Roy Gibbs of the Northwestern Ohio Synod, according to the ELCA News Service. "Everyone of us here today knows what is right and what is wrong. Our father has written it on our hearts and on our minds."
This week at the Aug. 17-23 meeting at the Minneapolis Convention Center, voting members are considering the "Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust" statement, which was drafted by a task force and released in February. The document addresses social structures, trust in relationships, cohabitation, sexual exploitation, abuse, and homosexuality, the latter of which has drawn the most attention and controversy.
The report acknowledges that there is neither a consensus nor an emerging one in the denomination on homosexuality and also states that the denomination cannot responsibly consider any changes to its policies unless it is able and willing in some way to recognize lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships. At the same time, it recommends that the ELCA commit itself to finding ways to recognize such relationships.
The document was formally introduced on Tuesday to the 1,045 voting members at the biennial assembly. Task force chair the Rev. Peter Strommen said he doesn't expect all ELCA members to agree with the social statement in its entirety and recognized how heavily the matter has weighed on the denomination.
"We can no longer assume that people in our society, or even many in the church for that matter, hold a shared understanding of Christianity's core beliefs, let alone those of Lutheran ethics," he said, as reported by the denomination's news service.
"As important as issues over human sexuality might be, the first order of business for the ELCA is its missional challenge. We cannot afford to be inarticulate about what is most important in regard to our faith," he added.
The social statement emphasizes two principles – trust and bound conscience – which were again highlighted by task force members at the assembly.
The Rev. Timothy Wengert, a member of the task force, explained to voting members that conscience-bound belief does not mean being bound to a particular interpretation of Scripture. Instead, he said, "it means that the very people who hold different, opposing viewpoints on a particular moral issue based upon their understanding of Scripture, tradition and reason must recognize the bound conscience of other, of their neighbor who disagrees with them, and then work in such ways as not to cause that other person to reject the faith and fellowship in Word and sacrament."
While proponents of the document maintain that it is consistent with the biblical command to care for one's neighbor and build trusting relationships, others argue Scripture does not support homosexual behavior.
The Rev. Paull Spring of State College, Pa., chair of the conservative Lutheran CORE (Coalition for Reform), doesn't believe the churchwide assembly should be voting on the matter at all.
"The constitution of the ELCA says that the Bible is the source and norm of the church's faith and life. A church meeting does not have the authority to overturn what the Bible clearly teaches about marriage and about homosexual behavior," Spring contends. "The sexuality proposals show a tremendous arrogance. ELCA leaders think we can do whatever we want in our teaching about sexuality regardless of what the Bible teaches and what Christians around the world and throughout time have consistently taught.
"A Christian church does not vote on matters that are integral to the faith of the Church."
The debate, Spring says, is not about sex. Rather, it's about the source of authority in the ELCA.
Lutheran CORE is gathering support to defeat proposed changes to the denomination's teaching about sexuality.
In 2005, the ELCA Churchwide Assembly voted in favor of maintaining its noncelibate gay and lesbian clergy ban. Although debate on homosexuality and ordination policies again broke out at the 2007 meeting, further discussion was delayed until this year in conjunction with the release of the proposed social statement on human sexuality.
ELCA members will vote on the statement later today. They will also consider a resolution later this week on allowing non-celibate homosexuals to be ordained.
The ELCA is the country's largest Lutheran denomination with 4.6 million members.
Correction: Thursday, Aug. 20, 2009:
An article on Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2009, about the debate on a human sexuality social statement within the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America incorrectly reported that the statement would be voted on later this week. The vote on the statement took place later on Wednesday.