Reflections on the ELCA churchwide assembly

As some of you may be aware, the ELCA recently voted to “recognize publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships.”  In other words, while the Churchwide Assembly did not endorse homosexuality nor give monogamous same-gender relations the same status as heterosexual marriages, it did state that homosexuality is not inherently sinful.  Now, this is a hugely controversial thing to say, even when you’re trying to be even-handed and take a middle of the road coarse (which the ELCA is trying to do).  This is particularly controversial for a church body, and there is a great deal of confusion as to the scriptural basis (or lack thereof) on which the decision rests.  There are also a great many accusations from both sides of the argument that the other side is acting based on their own personal prejudices and politics rather than the will of God.  There is also a great deal of confusion on what it was exactly that the ELCA voted to do.  What happened can be explained fairly easily from the ELCA FAQ on the subject.  The theological basis on which those decisions rested are a bit more complicated.  Here’s a helpful article by Timothy Wengert:

“If there is one rule we need to follow in the wake of the ELCA Churchwide Assembly, it is this: Do not break the eighth commandment (against false witness) in order to defend the sixth (against adultery and other sexual sins).  Both those who supported the changes in policy and those who did not need to remember this.  We must speak what we know and not cast aspersions on those who disagreed with us.  Luther’s comments on the eighth commandment in the Large Catechism are helpful here.  Even when forced by one’s office to speak out, one must not lie or distort the truth.

“In light of some implied (and explicit) attacks on the decision, however, it is also necessary to make one thing clear.  The change in policy was grounded in Scripture.  In fact, the calls for justice toward gays and lesbians in committed relationships and the recitation of examples of healthy same-gender relations, as important as these are to some folk, finally do not in themselves constitute a complete standard for changing church policy, since even calls for justice must for Christians be grounded in and normed by sound interpretations of Scripture as God’s Word for us….”

Timothy Wengert is an outstanding theologian of the church.  He is an expert on Luther and the early Lutheran church, having been one of two editor/translators of the latest edition of the Book of Concord (the collection of documents that form the basis of the particularly Lutheran understanding of Scripture and the Christian life, of which the Augsburg Confession is a part). He is a professor of Reformation History at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, and a regular contributor to the Journal of Lutheran Ethics.

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