Thousands of people logged on to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's first-ever online town hall forum to hear the denomination's head tackle some tough questions.
Many of the questions on Sunday addressed the pro-gay actions of the churchwide assembly in August.
"Can you give a good, solid reason why we, the dissident traditionalists, should remain in the ELCA as a decreasing minority instead of moving our memberships to other Lutheran bodies?" George Erdner of Lawrenceville, Ga., asked through an online submission.
ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark S. Hanson first made plain, "Don't call yourselves dissident minorities."
Hanson stressed that the traditionalists are still full members of the church if they allow themselves to be.
Throughout the hour-long forum, the Lutheran bishop underscored the fact that the recently adopted social statement on human sexuality and ministry policy change acknowledge the positions of both pro-gay congregations and those that hold homosexuality as unbiblical.
While providing a way for congregations that feel ready to ordain gays and lesbians in "life-long, monogamous, same gender relationships" to do so, the recently approved resolutions "also recognize that congregations who hold a traditional view of homosexuality and want to remain committed to the standards of this church that have existed up until now can and should have the right to teach and order their ministries accordingly," Hanson explained.
"We recognize the diversity of positions held by bound consciences, informed by the Word of God throughout this church," he said.
Since the ELCA's triennial gathering in Minneapolis last August, a number of congregations have threatened to leave the denomination. One group, Lutheran CORE, is currently drawing out a proposal to form a separate Lutheran body in the United States.
Amid the conflict, Hanson – who expressed his frustration that many were viewing the assembly through a narrow lens and zeroing in on the homosexuality issue – fears that the debate is turning into a differentiation between those who love the Scriptures and those who don't when the question raised isn't "Do some love the Scriptures?" but rather, "How do we read the Scriptures?"
Answering his own question, Hanson said, "First and foremost, we read the Scriptures evangelically as Lutherans. We read the Bible open to the Holy Spirit bringing us to saving faith in Jesus Christ."
He added, "But you know the questions of homosexual orientation that I hear asked and the understanding we have of homosexuality today does not seem to be reflected at all in the context of the biblical writers.
"So let us bring our understanding of sexual orientation that has been opened up to human kind over the years to this conversation."
And rather than narrowing the conversation on the issue of homosexuality to involve just like-minded people, Hanson – who has been busy over the past few months discussing the assembly's actions with ecumenical partners and Lutherans overseas – urged all members throughout the church to stay and engage in the conversation.
"The more the ELCA decreases and becomes a community of just like-minded people the more diminished is our witness. The struggle in Scriptures is always the struggle of how we experience unity within our diversity."
"Let's not let this moment in our church become the occasion when the Bible becomes a wall that divides us. Rather, let it be on the table that it beckons us into conversation with one another," he said.
Hanson believes the ELCA has the opportunity to make unity and reconciliation the church's witness.
"A church that threatens separation as a reaction to churchwide assembly actions – is it being faithful stewards of the ministry and message of reconciliation that God has entrusted to us through Christ Jesus?" he posed.
Citing the former presiding bishop, H. George Anderson, Hanson said, "In a culture that is so fractious ... over so many issues, maybe the most prophetic word is the word of reconciliation."
He highlighted, "Let's not turn inward ... and become preoccupied with our own diminishment or our own divisions that we miss the moment God has given us to be evangelical Lutherans in mission."
Other issues addressed during the town hall forum included recent budget cuts and layoffs, multicultural ministry and racial justice, and trying to involve more young adults.
Hanson plans to hold online town hall forums regularly.