Lutheran Scholars Send Statement Supporting 'Middle Way' on Homosexuality

Dozens of theologians from the Lutheran tradition signed a four-paragraph statement in favor of three controversial recommendations on homosexuality in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

The statement was drafted by two theologians from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, Rev. Barbara R. Rossing and Rev. Ralph W. Klein, and was released on Apr. 6 -- just three days prior to the ELCA Church Council meeting slated to tackle the topic of homosexuality in the Church.

At the closed-door Church Council meeting, the denomination’s top leaders will draft a resolution regarding two key questions: Should the church bless same gender relationships, and should the church allow active homosexuals to serve as clergy.

This issue is arguably one of the most divisive topics in the ELCA as well as other mainline church groups. The United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. and the Episcopal Church are just a few of the denominations that have been experiencing internal clashes over the biblical interpretation of homosexuality over the past decade.

According to Frank Imhoff, an Associate Director for the ELCA news service, the “question on homosexuality has been around forever in one form or another -- or at least since 1988 when the denomination was formed.”

Within the ELCA, a 14-member task force was established three years ago to answer the essential questions. After reviewing thousands of opinions on homosexual clergy and unions, the task force on Jan. 18 released their recommendations. The report essentially called the church members to:

--concentrate on living together faithfully despite disagreements

--uphold the 1993 ELCA Conference of Bishops’ opinion opposing the blessing of homosexual relationships while providing pastoral care for such couples.

--continue under the current standards on ordained ministers where no clergy member can be sexually active outside of wedlock - marriage being defined as a union between a man and a woman only - but refrain from disciplining those who find the standards in conflict with the mission for the church.

While overall reactions were mixed, conservatives and liberals of the church joined voices in criticizing the recommendations - though for opposite reasons.

Liberal Lutherans in favor of ordaining homosexuals and blessing same-sex unions said the recommendations fell short of providing sufficient rights to the gay and lesbian community.

Traditional Lutherans called the task force report “deceiving” because it called for “no change in policy” but essentially gave local bishops and pastors the authority to act in opposition to the churchwide standards without facing disciplinary actions.

Following the same argument, a group of 17 Lutheran theologians from across 12 Lutheran school campuses last month released a statement calling on the church to reject “all three recommendations of the Task Force” because if adopted, they would “threaten not only the unity and stability of the church” but also “its ability to proclaim the truth of the Gospel.”

The scholars pointed out that “the most conspicuous logical inconsistency in the Task Force’s Report is that in the name of a 'no change in policy' it advocates a fundamental shift in policy. It asks the church 'to refrain from disciplining those who ... call or approve partnered gay or lesbian candidates whom they believe to be otherwise in compliance with Vision and Expectations and to refrain from disciplining those rostered people so approved or called.'"

“This proposal, in our view, suffers from several flaws,” the scholars wrote.

According to Klein, the 17 scholars’ statement prompted him to draft the recent counterstatement in favor of the recommendations.

“There was a statement issued by 17 theologians several weeks ago that took a critical attitude toward the recommendations and we were concerned that this would represent the majority opinions of those who teach as theologians at the church,” Klein told the Christian Post on Friday.

“I believe we are a people of many different perspectives and we feel that in the present circumstances the task force's recommendations are the appropriate ones,” Klein said, adding that 78 people have signed onto the statement.

The Klein and Rossing statement has four parts: The first says supporters of the statement are theologians and scholars; the second explains that the Lutheran church holds diverse views on homosexuality; the third gives support to the task force recommendations; and the final part rejects the 17 theologians’ statement and asserts that “differences on sexuality and ecclesiology do not threaten the unity of the gospel.”

During a phone interview Friday, Rossing further elaborated the fourth point:

“The church does not divide on issues on sexuality and Christians can take different positions on that. We call these Adia Phora -- a Latin term that unity is sufficient if the Word is rightly preached,” said Rossing, an associate professor of New Testament. “We are taking a middle way, and I think that's a gift to the world.”

Klein agreed that this “middle way” is fitting since the church is not yet ready to accept a direct change in policy.

“If [the task force] came out and said they endorse homosexuality, there would have been some people who have great difficulty with that,” said Klein, a professor of Old Testament and acting dean for the seminary. “But the fact remains that there are different opinions and the church ought to trust people enough in the local context that they will be faithful to the gospel.”

While Rossing declined to give her personal view on homosexuality, Klein said he gave a speech biblically defending homosexuality “45 times.”

“I’m a biblical scholar myself, and I think we should try to read the Bible as clearly and faithfully as we can, but more than 2000 years have passed since it has been written so situation changes,” he said. “I try to recognize the fact that this is ancient and the way it would apply today is different.”

Meanwhile, Carl E. Braaten, a professor emeritus from the Lutheran School of Theology of Chicago and one of the 17 scholars who signed the Statement of Pastoral and Theological Concern, said he was not surprised that the counterstatement was released.

“I wasn’t surprised, and I think the seminaries are washed in theology that is falling down to the culture of decadence,” explained Braaten, the Executive Director of the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology. “More and more, this is the kind of Protestantism that is being absorbed by the culture.”

Braaten said he knows "the people who drafted the counterstatement and their theology.”

“There is no basis in scripture or tradition for what they are saying, so that means they are getting their ideas from contemporary culture,” said Braaten. “It has more to do with the collapse of Christian morality in Western culture.”

The Church Council is expected to review both the statement and the counterstatement released by the theologians –- though not formally. According to ELCA’s Imhoff, the Council may release its resolutions on the topic by Monday.

The resolutions will be forwarded to the ELCA’s biennial Churchwide Assembly -– the highest legislative body of the denomination -– where delegates can choose to accept, reject, append or amend them.

The Churchwide Assembly, slated for Aug. 8-14 in Orlando Fla., is the only body that can adopt or reject any resolution on behalf of the entire church.

The following is the full text of the Rossing and Klein statement:

Statement of Lutheran Theologians in favor of the Report and Recommendations of the ELCA Taskforce on Sexuality

1) We write as professors at ELCA seminaries or professors at Lutheran colleges and universities, or as Lutheran theologians at non-Lutheran institutions who support the Report and Recommendations of the ELCA Taskforce on Sexuality.

2) We represent a variety of perspectives and methodologies in our approaches to the questions of sexuality, ethics, theology and ecclesiology. Some of us would have wished for greater welcome of gays and lesbians while others are more cautious. We believe, however, that the taskforce report and recommendations represent a much-needed and faithful compromise for this moment in the life of our church.

3) We support the overall theological integrity of the ELCA Report and recommendations. We give thanks for the careful theological, biblical and ecclesiological work of the taskforce over a number of years. We urge the ELCA to find ways to implement all three recommendations in some form, including the commitment of recommendation #3 that makes it possible for this church to “choose to refrain from disciplining those who in good conscience, and for the sake of outreach, ministry, and the commitment to continuing dialogue, call or approve partnered gay or lesbian candidates whom they believe to be otherwise in compliance with Vision and Expectations and to refrain from disciplining those rostered people so approved and called.”

4) We disagree with the claims of the seventeen theologians who have criticized the taskforce’s recommendations on ecclesiological and theological grounds. Churches in the Lutheran World Federation already hold multiple positions on both sexuality and ecclesiology, and the Federation’s communion holds together in the midst of this diversity. The taskforce’s recommendations do not jeopardize our Lutheran communion or our ecumenical partnerships. Differences on sexuality and ecclesiology do not threaten the unity of the gospel.

The following is the full text of the 17 scholars' statement:

A Statement of Pastoral and Theological Concern
A response to the report and recommendations from the Task Force for ELCA Studies on Sexuality

We are grateful to every member of the Task Force for their time, commitment, and effort, and accept the invitation welcoming the "prayers, responses, and admonitions of all our partners." In response to that request, and based on our careful review of the Report and its recommendations, we maintain that the third and primary recommendation of the Task Force, contrary to its stated intention, threatens to destabilize the unity and constitution, as well as the historical, biblical, and confessional teachings and practice of this church. Further, this final proposal places the first two, although in principle containing some assertions that are indeed admirable and commendable, into an interpretative context that makes them objectionable as well.

The most conspicuous logical inconsistency in the Task Force’s Report is that in the name of a "no change in policy" it advocates a fundamental shift in policy. It asks the church "to refrain from disciplining those who ... call or approve partnered gay or lesbian candidates whom they believe to be otherwise in compliance with Vision and Expectations and to refrain from disciplining those rostered people so approved or called" (7). Unable to make a recommendation that would resolve the issue of gay/lesbian ordination and/or blessings through legislative action based on Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions, the Task Force proposes that permission for such activities be granted on the basis of "conscience" and a "pastoral approach" in lieu of the traditional criteria employed by this church. This proposal, in our view, suffers from several flaws. We offer the following theological observations:

Ecclesiology

By using the language of "this approach" (8) instead of "this change in policy" the Task Force advocates that the ELCA should "trust congregations, synods, candidacy committees, and bishops to discern the Holy Spirit’s gifts for ministry among the baptized and make judgments appropriate to each situation" (8). In the New Testament, however, the criterion for the discernment of the gifts of the Holy Spirit is a broadly based, ecclesial determination and not an individual, local preference. If the Report before us were to be implemented, the ELCA, as a national church body, would abdicate its theological and moral constitutional responsibility by relegating the decisions for which it alone is responsible to regional and local components. Far beyond transforming the polity of the ELCA into a congregational one, such an action would so fatally extend the boundaries of diversity in matters of doctrinal and ethical substance that this church would no longer be an effective collaborator either in the communio of the Lutheran World Federation or in the multiple dimensions of ecumenical dialogue. The proposed shift of matters of such enormous import from the national to the local levels will have two adverse consequences: 1. structural dissolution of the ELCA as it currently exists, and; 2. creation of intense division and disunity at the local level, thus effectively undermining "ways to live together faithfully in the midst of our disagreements" (5).

Conscience

The Task Force imposes a subjective understanding of "conscience," one bound only by private judgment, upon Scripture and Luther, thus misrepresenting both. Whenever conscience severs itself from faith in Christ and fidelity to the Word it is no longer conscience in the true sense. Indeed, some in the Corinthian church wanted to solve their disagreements by applying precisely such a therapeutic model of conscience, an approach that Paul unequivocally rejects. Weak consciences, led into error by social pressures and alien ideologies, can never be ultimately determinative sources of truth or unity. For Luther, the holy and righteous conscience of the Christian must agree with God’s Word; an erring conscience, separated from Scripture, can react only in accordance with selfish desires resulting from weakness in faith.

Pastoral Care

In Scripture the term "pastor" is never dissociated from the standard of sound teaching. Much like the term "conscience," "pastoral concern" must be governed by that which is righteous and holy in the eyes of God. "Pastoral concern" is not a neutral category and cannot, therefore, be determinative in discerning the correctness of actions or behavior. Since pastors can either teach sound or false doctrine, Titus is urged to "teach what is consistent with sound doctrine." Neither Scripture nor the Confessions entrust the theological or ethical teaching of the church to pastoral "discretion" (5). In listening to the contemporary "voices of the baptized children of God" (9) we cannot and must not disregard the voices of the church universal over the past two millennia; Scripture can never address us independently from that communal history.

Conclusion

For the reasons given we urge that all three recommendations of the Task Force be rejected since, if adopted, they would alter fundamentally the ecclesiology of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and that, in turn, would threaten not only the unity and stability of this church but, as a consequence, its ability to proclaim the truth of the Gospel.