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ELCA Assembly: Was God in Either Whirlwind?

Tornado touches convention center as Lutherans approve sexuality statement by the exact margin it needed to pass.

Most reports from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) assembly today attempt to tie together the denomination's vote to adopt a sexuality statement and the tornado strike on the Minneapolis Convention Center where the Lutherans were meeting. (No one was injured.)

"We trust that the weather is not a commentary on our work," said Steven Loy, chairman of the committee overseeing the statement. (He was quoted by The Washington Times and Associated Press.)

But WordAlone, a renewal group within the ELCA, reported that both sides sought to find commentary in the weather: "A supporter of the social statement typified the storm as a mighty wind of the Holy Spirit and as a positive message. Some WordAlone Network members heard a different message, a warning of God's anger at the ELCA in the wind."

John Piper, whose Baptist church is just down the road from the convention center, thought the storm was a message as well. "The tornado in Minneapolis was a gentle but firm warning to the ELCA and all of us: Turn from the approval of sin. Turn from the promotion of behaviors that lead to destruction."

Hours later, delegates voted on the sexuality statement, which needed 2/3 approval. It passed by exactly that margin: 676-338. One or two votes could have changed the outcome. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune notes that the vote came near dinnertime and some delegates had already started to leave. Twenty-nine of the 1,045 registered voters did not vote on the statement. (Any who opposed the sexuality statement are almost certainly kicking themselves this morning and are probably not telling their friends about it…)

The headlines are both dramatic and careful: "Lutherans move toward more open view on gays" (Associated Press), "ELCA validates 'chaste' same-sex relationships" (Minneapolis Star-Tribune).

But the new statement does not explicitly approve of homosexual relationships. Instead, it says:

We do not have agreement on whether this church should honor these relationships, uplift, shelter and protect them, or on precisely how it is appropriate to do so. In response, this church draws on the foundational Lutheran understanding that the baptized are called to discern God's love in service to the neighbor. In our Christian freedom, we therefore seek responsible actions that serve others and do so with humility and deep respect for the conscience-bound beliefs of others. We understand that, in this discernment about ethics and church practice, faithful people can and will come to different conclusions about the meaning of Scripture and about what constitutes responsible action. We further believe that this church, on the basis of "the bound conscience," will include these different understandings and practices within its life as it seeks to live out its mission and ministry in the world.

The heart of the matter is buried in the footnotes. "The difference between interpreters should not be understood as a conflict between those who seek to be 'true to Scripture' and those who seek to 'twist the Bible' to their own liking. The disagreements are genuine," the document says. It continues:

When the clear word of God's saving action by grace through faith is at stake, Christian conscience becomes as adamant as Paul, who opposed those who insisted upon circumcision. … However, when the question is about morality or church practice, the Pauline and Lutheran witness is less adamant and believes we may be called to respect the bound conscience of the neighbor. That is, if salvation is not at stake in a particular question, Christians are free to give priority to the neighbor's well-being and will protect the conscience of the neighbor who may well view the same question in such a way as to affect faith itself. For example, Paul was confident that Christian freedom meant the Gospel of Jesus Christ was not at stake in questions of meat sacrificed to idols or the rituals of holy days. Yet he insisted that, if a brother or sister did not understand this freedom and saw eating this meat as idolatry to a pagan god, the Christian was obligated to "walk in love" by eating just vegetables for the neighbor's sake!

The problem is that the statement focuses on conscience where it should focus on God's commandments in the moral ordering of the Christian life, three dissenting members of the ELCA task force on sexuality said earlier this year:

By focusing on trust, freedom, and love of neighbor, the social statement … strains forward to see what God might be doing anew within the community of faith, particularly in regards to conduct of persons who are homosexual, rather than building on the foundation depicted in the creation accounts of Genesis. The concept of freedom of the Christian, while helpful in our understanding of salvation by faith alone, cannot be the justification for a lifestyle and behavior contrary to the biblical witness and the moral tradition. … By centering on justification by faith, the social statement minimizes the role of the Law in Christian life, contrary to Luther's exposition of the Christian life in the catechisms, and is at odds with the Lutheran Confessions.

Lutherans Concerned, the main LGBT advocacy group within the denomination, hailed the vote as a victory: "There is still much work to do, but the door to full inclusion of LGBT members and their families is now most definitely open."

Lutheran CORE (Coalition for Reform) decried the document: "We mourn the decision by the Churchwide Assembly to reject the clear teaching of the Bible that God's intention for marriage is the relationship of one man and one woman. It is tragic that such a large number of ELCA members were willing to overturn the clear teaching of the Bible as it has been believed and confessed by Christians for nearly 2,000 years."

Jaynan Clark, WordAlone's president, was blunt: "It is appropriate that we call this a 'social' statement for we have just swapped society's statements and trends for God's Word and teaching."

Still, the bigger battle is probably still to come: On Friday, the gathering will consider a change that would allow churches to call pastors and other church leaders "in publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships."

(Update: On Friday, the ELCA Churchwide Assembly voted to allow "publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships to serve as rostered leaders of this church." See the CT Liveblog for more updates.)

Related Elsewhere:

Christianity Today's earlier coverage includes:

Seven Years in the Making, Draft ELCA Statement on Sexuality Punts | "This church does not have consensus," committee says. (March 14, 2008)
Moving to 'Acceptance' | Mainline Lutheran assembly urges bishops not to discipline gay ministers. (September 12, 2007)
'Compromise' Settles Nothing | ELCA assembly opens door to same-sex blessings (September 14, 2005)

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