Friday, July 22, 2005


Robert A. J. Gagnon, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of New Testament
Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

On Jan. 13, 2005, the Task Force for ELCA Studies on Sexuality issued its “Report and Recommendations.” It proposed that the ELCA retain the current policy that pastors and rostered lay persons are expected to abstain from sexual relationships outside of marriage, including homosexual relationships. However, it also proposed that this policy not to be enforced: “As a pastoral response to the deep divisions among us, this church may choose to refrain from disciplining those who . . . call or approve partnered gay or lesbian candidates . . . and to refrain from disciplining those rostered people so approved and called” (p. 7).

Any who do not want the ELCA to reach a point where it celebrates homosexual behavior and/or irreparably damages its own credibility should view this proposal as a decisive defeat of their (i.e. the scriptural) position under the illusion of maintaining the status quo.

Thwarting a Landslide Verdict
In effect, the Task Force’s recommendations thwart the rightful outcome of ELCA churchwide deliberations. It is remarkable that, even after using study guides imbalanced in favor of discounting Scripture’s intense opposition to homosexual practice, 57% of the respondents tabulated still voted for no change in the current policy or even for more rigorous enforcement of that policy. Only 22% of tabulated respondents favored blessing homosexual unions and rostering actively homosexual persons, or at least a local option approach. And this percentage is almost certainly inflated by the fact that those who seek a radical change are arguably more motivated to submit a survey than those content with the status quo. Of the remaining 21% of tabulated respondents, 17.4% were undecided and 3.4% adopted other positions.

[Note: I speak of “tabulated respondents” because the Task Force analyzed only 14% of the 28,000 responses to Journey Two. Rev. Dr. Roy Harrisville III, Executive Director of Solid Rock Lutherans, cautions in his “Critique of the Report and Recommendations” (p. 5) that no generalizations about what the average ELCA member thinks can be made since respondents were self-selected (i.e., they took the initiative to respond to the survey). The Task Force did not undertake a random survey of a cross-section of ELCA membership. The caveat is well taken. Nevertheless, since the Task Force bases its own decisions in part on their analysis of these responses, and since too even the 22% support for change in the current policy is likely to be inflated (for the reason stated in the paragraph above), it is fair game to point out that even by the Task Force’s own standard of measurement there are no grounds for deviating from current standards.]

Can you imagine a U. S. presidential election where a candidate received over two-and-a-half times more votes than the next biggest vote-getter? This country has never had a presidential election with such a lopsided margin of victory. In the greatest landslides in U.S. presidential history, Lyndon Johnson defeated Barry Goldwater by a margin of 61% to 38.4% (1964), while Richard Nixon defeated George McGovern by a margin of 60.7% to 37.5% (1972)—in both cases a margin of victory that was less than 2-to1. Here the margin against changing church policy on homosexuality is greater still. And yet the Task Force’s recommendation to remove mandatory enforcement will, if approved, effectively gut the current policy favored by the landslide majority and set in motion an inevitable overturning of that policy. This brings us to our next point.

Adopting Local Option and Radical Change Under the Guise of No New Policy
The Report claims: “our recommendations do not establish a new policy” (p. 11; also p. 10). Make no mistake about it: This is, de facto, a new policy inasmuch as an unenforced policy is a policy no longer in force (i.e. operative, in effect). Indeed, the majority Task Force recommendation is nothing more and nothing less than a variant of a local-option policy, in fact if not also in name. Remember, too, that local option so far as homosex-advocacy is concerned is just another name for incremental coercion.

The proposal, if accepted, would radically undermine both the ELCA’s policy against homosexually active rostered leadership and the ELCA’s overall authority on matters of doctrine and morality. Imagine parents telling their children, “We shall maintain an 8:30 PM bedtime but we shall not enforce it.” For all intents and purposes there would be no set bedtime. Worse, the parents’ overall authority would be undermined as children learned that there were no consequences to disregarding explicit parental wishes. Obviously if the parents are not willing to enforce certain rules, the rules can’t mean much to the parents, and consequently will mean even less to the children. Better not to have any rules at all than to subject them to continual mockery. Or, as Roy Harrisville puts it, using a different analogy: “It is like having a speed limit but announcing that we will never ticket speeders” (“Critique,” p. 2). Both the speed limit and the state’s authority soon become a joke. “The practice of ignoring the policy must necessarily result in the change of that policy. If it does not, the ELCA would become the laughing-stock of the modern Church with a reputation for duplicity” (ibid.)

Surely everyone in the ELCA, including in the Task Force, must realize that this proposal, if approved, would serve as a halfway house or transitional stage that will lead irrevocably to the full embrace of (‘committed’) homosexual activity. Once a significant number of persons in public homosexual relationships are called and approved for ministry, there is no possibility of returning to enforcement of a ban on homosexual relations for rostered persons. Henceforth the only direction left for the church to move in is toward overturning completely the tattered vestiges of the old policy and, finally, coercing acceptance of homosexual relationships, starting at the upper echelons of ELCA power structures and working down gradually to lower levels.

If you support the blessing of homosexual unions and the rostering of homosexually active persons but at the same time are concerned about a major denominational split, you should view this proposal as a win-win situation for your concerns. It may well prevent a significant church split by offering a false sense of security to opponents of a pro-homosex agenda who naively believe that the old policy is still in place. Almost immediately some synods, congregations, candidacy committees, and bishops will violate the standards of the church—in “good conscience,” of course. Inroads advancing the homosexual agenda will accelerate until dissenting voices are almost completely marginalized in most areas of the ELCA. So in time those who take the homosexual blessing/rostering stance may be able to have their cake and eat it too: both averting a major disaffection through steady but gradual shifts while giving lip service to “no changes” and ultimately triumphing in the cause to normalize homoerotic affections, perhaps in as short a time as 2-4 years but certainly no later than 5-10 years.

Those who do not want the ELCA to move toward such a result should recognize the proposal as a lose-lose situation: making the ‘homosexualization’ of the church an all but foregone conclusion, yet doing it in such a piecemeal manner and with such false assurances as to minimize the level of alarm. This will make a united and firm response on the part of the renewal movements difficult. Those who do not want homosexual blessing and rostering must recognize that the Task Force’s majority proposal is a Trojan Horse that masquerades the coming decisive victory by supporters of homosexual blessing and rostering.

In short, a vote for the majority Task Force’s proposal is a vote for homosexual blessing and rostering under a different name.

The Report’s False Appeal to Conscience and Pastoral Concern
The Report argues that there ought to be room for people to violate the church’s sexual standards on the grounds of “conscience” and that to create such room is “a matter of pastoral concern” (p. 11, 13). This is a false claim.

In the New Testament an appeal to conscience as a basis for deviating from common Christian practice is accepted only in matters of indifference, such as abstaining from eating in a non-temple setting food that may have been previously dedicated to idols (1 Cor 8, 10; compare Rom 14, which may be dealing with abstention from meat and wine for other, or additional, reasons). Since it is no sin to refrain from eating meat sacrificed to idols, no major ethical concerns are at stake in abstinence. Thus: “Food will not affect our standing before God: neither if we do not eat do we miss out, nor if we eat do we have more”; that is, abstinence does one no harm and partaking brings one no gain (1 Cor 8:8; note: some scholars think that Paul is quoting critically a slogan of the Corinthian “strong” here but that is unlikely since the wording is oriented against the interests of the strong).

However, Paul does not take this same approach in a case of sexual immorality, specifically, an adult consensual (and presumably affirming) sexual union between a man and his stepmother (1 Cor 5-6). Here Paul makes quite clear that sex, unlike food, is never a matter of indifference; that sexually immoral behavior can put one at risk of being excluded from the kingdom of God (1 Cor 6:9-20). He chastises the church for taking pride in its tolerance and insists that it should have instead mourned over this life-threatening behavior (1 Cor 5:2). He even recommends that, far from permitting violation of the church’s standards on the grounds of conscience, the church should pass judgment on the offender’s action—for the offender’s sake as well as that of the community. They should temporarily remove him from the life of the community, as a wake-up call to him and until such time as he repents (1 Cor 5:3-13; compare 2 Cor 2:5-11; 7:8-13). Despite the misrepresentations of Journey Two and Background Essay it is clear that Paul regarded same-sex intercourse, like incest and adultery (1 Cor 6:9), as a sin, indeed a sin of an egregious sort (Rom 1:24-27) that may have an adverse bearing on one’s inheritance of the kingdom of God (1 Cor 6:9-10) and reception of eternal life (compare Rom 1:24 with Rom 6:19-21).

As regards conscience-appeals, there is simply no legitimate comparison between allowing persons to abstain from morally indifferent acts on the one hand and supporting persons in the commission of acts deemed by Scripture to be a high moral offense on the other hand. Paul would have recoiled at such an attempted comparison. It is an exegetical and hermeneutical travesty.

The fact that people who violate the church’s standards do not think that they are sinning is beside the point. While Paul indicates that whatever a person regards as sin becomes sin for that person (Rom 14:14, 23), he does not adopt the reverse conclusion; namely, that whatever a person regards as right becomes right for that person. On the contrary, Paul warns against the self-deception of persons who think that their behavior, especially sexual behavior, has no bearing on their inheritance of the kingdom of God. For example, he says to the Galatian believers:

The works of the flesh are obvious, which are: sexual immorality (porneia), sexual uncleanness (akatharsia), licentiousness (aselgeia) . . . , which I am warning you about, just as I warned you before, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. . . . Stop deceiving yourselves; God is not to be mocked, for whatever one sows that one will also reap. For the one who casts seed into one’s flesh will reap a harvest of destruction and decay from the flesh, but the one who casts seed into the Spirit will reap a harvest of eternal life from the Spirit. And let us not grow tired of doing what is right for in due time we will reap, if we do not relax our efforts. (Gal 5:19-21; 6:7-9)

And again to the Corinthians, in the context of how to deal with a practicing, self-affirming Christian participant in an incestuous adult union:

Or do you not realize that unrighteous people will not inherit God's kingdom? Stop deceiving yourselves. Neither the sexually immoral (the pornoi), nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor soft men (malakoi, i.e., effeminate males who play the sexual role of females), nor men who lie with males (arsenokoitai) . . . will inherit the kingdom of God. And these things some of you used to be. But you washed yourselves off, you were made holy (sanctified), you were made righteous (justified) in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God. (1 Cor 6:9-11).

Later, in 2 Corinthians, Paul expresses deep concern that

I may have to mourn over many who have continued in their former sinning and did not repent of the sexual uncleanness (akatharsia), sexual immorality (porneia), and licentiousness (aselgeia) that they practiced. (12:21)

In other words, Paul may have mourn over the fact that some believers have put their lives in jeopardy of not inheriting God’s kingdom because they have convinced themselves that their sexual behavior is no offense to God. It is the same point that he makes about the self-affirming incestuous man in 1 Cor 5:2: the Corinthian church should have “mourned” over the man’s endangerment, not condoned his actions or allowed him to live by his own conscience. “Are you not to judge those inside (the church)?,” an exasperated Paul asks (5:12). Remember that Paul defines homosexual practice as both “sexual immorality” (porneia, by inference in 1 Cor 6:9 and by common Hellenistic Jewish usage) and “sexual uncleanness” (akatharsia):

Therefore, God gave them over, in the desires of their hearts, to a sexual uncleanness (akatharsia) consisting of their bodies being dishonored among themselves. . . . to dishonorable passions, for even their females exchanged the natural use (i.e., of the male) for that which is contrary to nature; and likewise also the males, having left behind the natural use of the female, were inflamed with their yearning for one another, males with males committing indecency and in return receiving in themselves the payback which was necessitated by their straying. (Rom 1:24, 26-27)

Later in the same letter Paul urged Roman believers to reverse this trend:

For just as you presented your members as slaves to sexual uncleanness (akatharsia) and to [other types of] lawlessness for the sake of lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness for the sake of holiness. For when you were slaves of sin, you were free with respect to [the demands of] righteousness. What fruit did you have at that time? Things of which you are now ashamed, because the end (or: outcome) of those things is death. But now, since you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you have your fruit for holiness, and the end (or: outcome) is eternal life. (Rom 6:19-22)

The message of Colossians and Ephesians is similar:

So put to death the members that belong to the earth: sexual immorality (porneia), sexual uncleanness (akatharsia), passion, evil desire . . . because of which things the wrath of God is coming [on the children of disobedience], in which things you also once walked, when you were living in them. But now put away all (such) things . . . , because you have stripped off the old humanity with its practices and clothed yourselves with the new, which is being renewed into knowledge according to the image of the one who created it. (Col 3:5-10)

[N]o longer walk as the Gentiles walk, . . . who . . . have given themselves up to licentiousness (aselgeia) for the doing of every sexual uncleanness (akatharsia). . . . Sexual immorality (porneia) and sexual uncleanness (akatharsia) of any kind . . . must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. . . . Know this indeed, that every sexually immoral person (pornos) or sexually unclean person (akathartos) . . . has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God is coming on the children of disobedience. (Eph 4:17-19; 5:3-6)

And so too the Pastoral Epistles:

The law is not laid down for the righteous, but for the lawless and disobedient, the ungodly and sinners, the unholy and profane, killers of fathers and killers of mothers, murderers, the sexually immoral (pornoi), males who take other males to bed (arsenokoitai), kidnappers (or: slave dealers), liars, perjurers, and whatever else is opposed to sound teaching that accords with the gospel. (1 Tim 1:9-11)

This returns us full circle back again to the first extant piece of moral exhortation in the Pauline corpus of letters:

For you know what commands we gave to you through the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God: your holiness, that you abstain from sexual immorality (porneia) . . . [and not live] like the Gentiles who do not know God. . . . because the Lord is an avenger regarding all these things. . . . For God called us not to sexual uncleanness (akatharsia) but in holiness. Therefore the one who rejects [these commands] rejects not humans but the God who gives his Holy Spirit to us. (1 Thess 4:2-8)

There does not appear to be any justification from Scripture, certainly not from Paul, for the kind of application of Paul’s “conscience” texts put forward by the Task Force’s “Report and Recommendations.” Once more, it is an instance, pure and simple, of bad exegesis and bad hermeneutics.

And what of “pastoral care”? Was Paul concerned that the Corinthians who accepted the adult incestuous behavior might have their consciences violated if they could not support his relationship? Certainly not. Paul’s pastoral concern had to do with what eternal consequences might arise for the offender if the community contributed to his self-affirming attitude.

Furthermore, for the Report to equate willful disobedience of the church’s standards with “pastoral care” is misguided. As Robert Benne has aptly noted: “It places this local option under the rubric of a ‘pastoral approach,’ but it is impossible to view ordination as a private event” (“Response to the Sexuality Statement,” circular email, Jan. 13, 2005). The “Statement of Pastoral and Theological Concern” signed by Benne, Karl Donfried, Roy Harrisville, Carl Braaten, Gerhard Forde, Robert Jenson, James Nestingen, and others makes a similar point: “Neither Scripture nor the Confessions entrust the theological or ethical teaching of the church to pastoral ‘discretion.’”

On Failing to Make the Case from Scripture
Even the majority of the Task Force that put forward this disastrous proposal has to admit “that the biblical-theological case for wholesale change in this church’s current standards has not been made to the satisfaction of the majority of the participants in the study” (p. 10). This is an understatement of monumental proportions. Based on their own tabulation (however inexact), and even with the advocacy bent for change present in their study guides, they were able to convince only 22% of those who responded. That means that 78% of respondents were not convinced—nearly four out of every five set of responses. Clearly this is not just “the majority” but a massive supermajority. And the vast majority of these were completely unconvinced.

As we noted above, the real number is likely to be much higher. Why? I can think of at least four reasons for drawing this conclusion. (1) Those who were seeking change of the current policy would be more likely to recognize the Task Force as their main hope for change and thus more likely to be motivated to respond. (2) Those seeking change would, in the nature of things, be persons more inclined to engage in an activism of response. (3) Those who preferred no change or were undecided would more likely be persons disinclined by nature toward the kind of activism that required response. (4) Those who preferred no change would more likely be skeptical about the effectiveness of responding to the Task Force since a common perception is that the members of the Task Force had already been selected to achieve the desired result of change while giving the appearance of hearing all the voices. From the start the majority of persons put on the Task Force did not come with convictions that homosexual practice was always wrong, including most of the “big guns” academically and professionally. Particularly noteworthy is the fact that the only biblical scholar put on the Task Force had already written strongly in favor of homosexual blessing and rostering (Terence Fretheim).

Had the Task Force produced study guides that were more balanced and that unleashed the overwhelming array of arguments for demonstrating both Scripture’s unequivocal opposition to homosexual practice and the utter weakness of arguments to the contrary, the 78% figure would have been significantly higher. The Report assures readers that all the task force members “accept the Bible as the inspired Word of God and the authoritative source and norm of its proclamation, faith, and life” (p. 10). In the addendum to the Report, “Frequently Asked Questions About the Report and Recommendations,” readers are told:

People of differing convictions on these issues each in their own way rely on the Word of God as the basis for their views. Thus, there are sincere differences of interpretation among people in this church who share a common commitment to the authority of Scripture. (p. 2)

The above two observations are irrelevant. What people claim Scripture says or allows, as well as their level of sincerity in making such claims, has to be tested against the evidence of Scripture itself. People can be sincere in their beliefs about what Scripture supports or allows and be sincerely wrong. The church is under no obligation to validate such beliefs, particularly since almost any conceivable belief, no matter how wrongheaded, has adherents making sincere appeals to Scripture. The church could make very little determination about issues of doctrinal or moral import if it allowed leaders with a contrary conscience to teach whatever they sincerely believed and to violate whatever standards of behavior they sincerely regarded as wrong. (Sadly, the church has already allowed much of this to happen, but this new proposal makes a bad situation significantly worse.)

To be sure, the Report points to the material in Background Essay as evidence that people can have valid differences over “what the text meant originally” and “the precise way it speaks to the present-situation” (ibid.). However, as I shall show in this document, had Background Essay fairly and competently presented the full evidence for reading Scripture as holding firmly to an other-sex prerequisite and utterly opposed to homosexual activity of all sorts, it would have been evident how bad attempts are to try to make Scripture in any way open to homosexual unions. Even the Report has to now admit, in the light of research by myself and others not taken into account by Journey Two and Background Essay, that: “It is hard to maintain with certainty, even though the language of sexual orientation is recent, that the biblical writers who condemned certain same-sex acts knew nothing of people who were constitutively homosexual in orientation” (p. 23). And yet both Journey Two and Background Essay over and over repeat the mantra that the very concept of sexual orientation was unknown in the ancient world.

If “the biblical-theological case for wholesale change in this church’s current standards has not been made to the satisfaction of the majority of the participants in the study,” and it obviously hasn’t, then there are no grounds for gutting the current policy by eliminating mandatory enforcement and allowing unlimited flagrant violation of that policy.

Go here for the full report.

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