One Month post ELCA Churchwide Assembly

It has now been about a month since the 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly where the Assembly voted to allow congregations to recognize same gender relationships and allow to the roster those in same gender relationships.  (The actual language is more nuanced than this, but finding shortcut language that is accurate is quite a challenge yet.)  There are congregations and individuals reeling from these decisions, congregations and individuals celebrating these decisions, and the majority of congregations and individuals attempting to make sense of these decisions in our life together.

I’ve been putting together some frequently asked questions about these decisions as they apply to the congregation I serve, and while this is not in its final form, I’m posting it here.

Comments are encouraged, but will be moderated.

Frequently Asked Questions

Churchwide Assembly decisions made related to human sexuality

Q.  Can we talk to a pastor about our questions?

A. Absolutely!  Please do!  In speaking with people, we listen carefully and respond to what you are looking for.  Do you want to voice opposition and find ways to still be a part of the congregation?  We do that.  Do you want to celebrate the decision?  We do that.  Do you want to explore the perspective different from yours in a safe environment?  We do that.  Your position is respected, honored, and important for us to know as we serve as pastors of this congregation.

Q.  Shouldn’t the pastors take a firm definite position in these matters?

A. I do.  I believe that the believer’s encounter and wrestling with scripture should impact faith.  I experience scripture to be inviting us to consider the paradoxes of life.  I experience scripture to be knocking us away from trusting in our own conclusions and encountering God in some new ways.  Therefore, one of my goals is to assist those wrestling with scripture to see where it might be leading them.  This will have an impact far beyond this limited topic.  Frankly, human sexuality is not central to the Christian faith.

Q.  How could the ELCA go against the clear teaching of scripture about homosexuality?

A. The reality is that there is not “clear teaching” in scripture about homosexuality.  Faithful Biblical scholars and readers reach different conclusions about what the very few passages of the Bible that mention same-gender relationships actually mean.  Some argue that they mean that all homosexual acts are forbidden.  Some argue that they mean that abusive same-gender relationships are forbidden.  Some argue that other portions of scripture set aside the prohibitions.  Still others argue that the words and culture into which these passages were written do not speak at all of lifelong, monogamous, committed same-gender relationships.  We have to determine the appropriateness of all these interpretations while realizing that all of us make interpretations about the appropriateness and applicability of portions of scripture.  No one comes to scripture without a particular lens through which scripture is seen.  Even those who adhere to the “plain reading” of scripture make different interpretive decisions.

Q.  With such different interpretations, how can we trust anything in the Bible?  Doesn’t this lead to relativism?

A. These differences have always existed, and we seem to have been able to trust the Bible thus far.  Some have decided that the Bible is a rule book.  Some have decided the Bible is a “love story” between God and humanity.  Some have decided that the Bible is a historically factual event without any kind of error. Some have decided the Bible is a guide to opening us to the experience of the in-breaking Kingdom of God.  Each of these initial assumptions brings with it different perspectives that are of value to the others.  I’m a firm believer that we learn best about God when we are in conversation with others who experience God differently than we do, and are therefore stretched in our faith.  When I say I trust the Bible, I say that from my basic understanding about what is the Bible.

Q.  With such different interpretations, how can I stay in the ELCA, or this congregation?

A. It pains me to know that people are wrestling with these kinds of decisions.  I believe that people have been called into this congregation to share the gifts God has given them.  The purpose of the church is not to find uniformity, but “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” (Ephesians 4:12-13)  We need the voices of those who celebrate this decision and we need the voices of those who reject this decision so that we can learn from one another.  What is not helpful is to “draw a line in the sand” without engaging in that dialogue and learning.  Having said that, I greatly respect a friend of mine who has committed to staying in the ELCA so that he can have voice and influence toward the eventual overturning of this decision.  He says publically that if he leaves, he loses that prophetic voice.

Q.  What is this about “bound conscience”?

A. The Churchwide Assembly voted to encourage everyone in this church to respect the bound consciences of one another.  This means that we commit to honor the perspective that the other person brings to these concerns, and not to belittle, condemn, minimize, or bear false witness to those perspectives.  This is the hardest part of what the Churchwide Assembly voted to do, and is already the most widely abused.  Our culture rapidly moves to violation of the 8th Commandment whenever we disagree.  Remember Luther’s explanation of the 8th Commandment.  “We are to fear and love God so that we should not tell lies about our neighbor, nor betray, slander, or defame them, but should defend them, speak well of them, and interpret all that they do in the best possible light.”

Q.  Can the ELCA change its mind?

A. It is possible, but I suspect not likely.  The greatest challenge to reversing these decisions is a practical one.  Many who would advocate reversal are contemplating leaving the ELCA, meaning that they will not have a vote.  Lutheran Core is proposing a non-geographical Synod whereby congregations opposed to these decisions could remain in the ELCA and have influence.  That is the greatest hope for those who oppose the decisions made by the Churchwide Assembly.

Q.  Will our pastors now start performing same gender blessings?

A. As I understand the polity of the ELCA, we are pastors called by a congregation to serve a congregation.  We are pastors of the ELCA, but are not “independent contractors” who perform ceremonies outside the authority of the congregation.  In fact, we are not ordained until we have a call to a congregation or other ministry.  The ELCA Churchwide Assembly decisions applied specifically to congregations and did not authorize individual pastors to do whatever they wish.  Any requests for such blessings would be vetted through the Church Council, at least in this congregation.  That does not preclude a pastor working to achieve that approval if deemed appropriate.

Q.  Does the Bible offer any guidance as we try to find a way to live together with these differences?

A. Absolutely!  Pastor Kathy’s friend Carla pointed out 1 Samuel 8 to her the other day.  It is the story about God disapproving of the people choosing a king for Israel.  God lays out all the justification for not having a king, but then relents and allows them to choose a king even though God is against it.  God will use the circumstances for God’s purposes.  In the book of Acts (starting at about Chapter 10 and woven throughout the rest of Acts) we read the story of the intense conflict between the “circumcised believers” and the “god-fearers” about what is necessary for Gentiles to become Christians.  Eventually, the decision was made to allow baptized Gentiles to avoid circumcision if they “were circumcised in the heart” and agreed to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood and strangled animals, and from fornication.  This was an uneasy peace, eventually leading to the arrest of Paul.  I think there are important parallels between these events and our current reality.

Q.  What will our children be taught in Sunday School?

A. They will be taught the things that have always been taught.  I really don’t anticipate any real changes here.  Yes, in the older grades, the conversation may arise about same-gender relationships, (and have in the past) and I trust that our commitment to the bound consciences of one another will prevail.  Remember, my priority is the encounter with scripture and the resulting impact on faith, not some social agenda.

Q.  When can we as a congregation vote on whether or not we agree with these decisions?

A. There are no plans to put this forward to a vote.  The best way right now to signal your disapproval or approval is to have conversation with a pastor.  As we hear from people, we essentially “take the pulse of the congregation” and determine the best course of action based on that information.  If people do not share their concerns with us, then we have no real way to gauge the level of concern.  I promise, I’ll observe the 8th commandment in my listening and responding.

Pondering Pastor

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6 responses to “One Month post ELCA Churchwide Assembly

  1. Two quick comments.

    You wrote:
    “and the majority of congregations and individuals [are] attempting to make sense of these decisions in our life together.”
    I wish that were the case, though my guess is that the majority of congregations are shrugging their shoulders or not really tuned into this issue. A small number of people can generate a lot of conversation, debate, and noise, and I think that’s what has happened in this case.

    Also, you had an interesting response to the question about whether your pastors will not be blessing same-gender blessings, including:
    “The ELCA Churchwide Assembly decisions applied specifically to congregations and did not authorize individual pastors to do whatever they wish. Any requests for such blessings would be vetted through the Church Council, at least in this congregation. ”

    Though our call is through a congregation, I’m not sure that the exercise of the pastoral office needs to be checked so directly by the Church Council. The calling of the pastoral office, and that of the Congregational Council, are distinct, it seems to me.

    The decision as to whether to preside or not at a wedding, blessing, or any other pastoral act seems to me to be the prerogative of the pastor (within the teachings and policies of our church – the ELCA). In your wording, the Congregational Council could veto the pastor from performing an ELCA-sanctioned pastoral act (blessing same gender relationship). Do decisions about baptisms, communion, or funerals also go through Council? Or, is the reverse true? Could the Congregational Council require a pastor to perform such an act (a wedding, blessing, or a funeral or some other pastoral act)?

    Pastors are not free agents, for sure, but we’re also not bound only to the local congregation. Though called by a local congregation, we are ordained by the bishop (not a council or congregation), and we serve on the roster of the ELCA. Our loyalties, calling, ministry, and discipline are bound not only by the local congregation, but by the broader church we serve.

    • Thanks for your comments.
      Regarding the church council approval. You are absolutely right that the decisions to engage in a pastoral act seems to be the prerogative of the pastor. And, granted, I make the decisions about these pastoral acts independent of our Church Council all the time. At the same time, the relationship between pastor and congregation is such that simply invoking a right or a privilege is often not helpful. In order to give us some room and some time to live into this agreement, I’ve placed myself under the authority of the church council for this “season”. It is a matter of respecting the bound conscience of this congregation.

      So, I agree with you, and you are absolutely right. But this is very similar to taking on the historic episcopate as a voluntary act recognizing the importance of the matter to our Episcopal brothers and sisters.

      Pondering Pastor

  2. Pondering Pastor, I like your take on this, and especially your desire to work with your church council on this. While you are right that this is the prerogative of the pastor, there is a sense in which the council and the pastor work together in each local setting, and this is part of what builds our trust in one another as partners in the gospel and servants of the Word.

  3. While a Pastor’s prerogative is certainly an essential element of their service to the Church, Pastors serve their congregation, and are called to them based on the synergy and like mindedness between the two parties. In cases where sensitive issues like human sexuality are concerned, pastors and congregations should make every effort to make sure that synergy and like mindedness still exist before any decisions regarding the use of congregation resources are made. Congregation Council members serve as volunteers and do their best in a part time role to make decisions and guide the congregation. In this limited capacity, and on such a sensitive topic, it is essential that the Council and Pastors make every effort to understand the feelings and desires of the entire congregation before making decisions on these matters. Congregations need to understand the basis for any of these decisions and feel that all opinions are considered. Unfortunately, congregations generally work just like assemblies, using the majority rule . If the ECLA can make sensitive decisions based on the parliamentary process and a set of rules certainly congregations cannot be criticized for operating the same way.

  4. It looks like you have a great site here. I will be checking back often. Once again, Great website, and great writing.
    God Bless, Pastor Dan

  5. I ‘m just asking a question – because I don’t know the answer. I read someplace that the word “homosexual” has not always been translated as such. That at one time it was translated “pagan prostitute”, etc. And, I think it has been translated using different words, also. If that is the case, then maybe it is a biased translation of the word.

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