In an unprecedented social statement on human sexuality, a task force of the nation's largest Lutheran denomination said the church should continue to uphold marriage between a man and a woman.
It is the first draft – released Thursday for review by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America – of a long-awaited statement on family, marriage, sexual morality and the Bible.
"This church recognizes the historic origin of the term 'marriage' as a life-long and committed relationship between a woman and man, and does not wish to alter this understanding," the Draft Social Statement on Human Sexuality stated.
Although the draft upholds traditional marriage, it did not condemn same-sex unions. The panel – comprised of Lutheran clergy, lay people and academics – acknowledged that the denomination had yet to reach consensus on such unions even after years of study and conversation.
Recognizing that there are congregations that regard same-gender sexual relationships as sinful and others that do not, the panel encouraged mutual respect and for congregations to welcome and care for "same-gender-oriented" people and their families.
"In their pastoral response, some pastors and congregations will advocate repentance and celibacy. Other pastors and congregations will call our same-gender-oriented brothers and sisters in Christ to establish relationships that are chaste, mutual, monogamous, and lifelong. These relationships are to be held to the same rigorous standards and sexual ethics as all others," the statement said.
The document further expressed regret that some have used Lutheran historical teachings concerning homosexuality to "tear apart families with gay or lesbian members."
"This church must work toward more understanding of the varieties of sexual identities, seeking for that which is positive and life-giving while protecting from all that is harmful and destructive."
Both a pro-gay group and theological conservatives expressed disappointment in the ELCA draft statement.
Emily Eastwood, executive director of Lutherans Concerned/North America, which represents gays and lesbians, said the draft merely urges respect and tolerance and does not provide religious rites for homosexual couples to make a lifelong commitment, as reported by The Associated Press.
Mark Chavez, who heads the conservative WordAlone Network, argued that the document could be used to let local synods set their own policies on gay clergy.
But the Rev. Rebecca S. Larson, executive director of ELCA Church in Society, stressed that Lutherans do not make up a "rule book of right and wrong behaviors."
Instead, "Lutherans seek to help people make ethical decisions in the midst of the messiness of life," she said, according to the ELCA News Service.
Chicago Bishop Wayne Miller praised the task force for keeping the conversation alive and not recommending changes in policy, although such changes may grow out of the statement.
"There's room for us to grow, but it doesn't dictate that for us," Miller said, according to The Chicago Tribune.
The document is intended to guide the 4.8 million members in setting policy and forming judgments about social issues, officials said.
The panel, nevertheless, highlighted that Scripture is the basis for Christian ethics.
It acknowledged that Scripture passages can be abused and misunderstood through selective use as a moral guide, especially on the topic of sexuality.
Scripture should be interpreted in light of human experience, culture and society's changing circumstances, the panel stated. "The Lutheran tradition, then, is open to human knowledge insofar as it encourages the good of the neighbor, protects against harm, and does not make false claims about God. In this light, human knowledge about sexuality, such as that found in medicine and the social and physical sciences, can teach us about healthy practice and provide new insights."
Chavez of WordAlone criticized the document's reliance on sources beyond Scripture. And he believes the document not only doesn't resolve anything, but will also make things worse.
The Rev. Paull Spring of State College, Pa., chair of the conservative Lutheran CORE Steering Committee said the statement seems to have left out some key passages from the Bible.
"Lutherans have traditionally addressed sexuality biblically by starting with creation and noting that God created humans male and female," he said. "The draft statement seems to have avoided those biblical passages and that perspective of human sexuality. There is a surprising absence of procreation as a purpose of marriage."
The draft did not discuss ELCA policies that currently bar practicing homosexual clergy. Recommendations on that controversial issue will be made next year.
Responses to the first draft are being received until November. After revisions, the statement along with the proposal on clergy standards will be presented for a vote at the ELCA's Churchwide Assembly in 2009.