Response to a Bishop's Communication on the CWA
I am currently an ELCA pastor of two rural congregations in western Wisconsin near the city of Menomonie in the Northwest Synod of Wisconsin. Near the time of the end of the churchwide assembly, our synodical bishop, Duane Pederson, sent out a communication to all in our synod, summarizing his observations. To my ears it sounded like a “party line” communication that had little respect for the bound consciences of those opposed to the controversial decisions at churchwide. I thought there should be a synod-wide response to this letter, but when I met the bishop on September 24, 2009 at a conference pastors meeting, he said there would not be one (through the Synod website, or presumably through their email system with us pastors, either). I expected that, but given all the local optioning that has been allowed in recent years, I thought I would give it a try. So I have sought another avenue to bring this to greater light—not only his letter but also my response to it, which both my congregations and the bishop himself have seen...
I am currently an ELCA pastor of two rural congregations in western Wisconsin near the city of Menomonie in the Northwest Synod of Wisconsin. Near the time of the end of the churchwide assembly, our synodical bishop, Duane Pederson, sent out a communication to all in our synod, summarizing his observations. To my ears it sounded like a “party line” communication that had little respect for the bound consciences of those opposed to the controversial decisions at churchwide. I thought there should be a synod-wide response to this letter, but when I met the bishop on September 24, 2009 at a conference pastors meeting, he said there would not be one (through the Synod website, or presumably through their email system with us pastors, either). I expected that, but given all the local optioning that has been allowed in recent years, I thought I would give it a try. So I have sought another avenue to bring this to greater light—not only his letter but also my response to it, which both my congregations and the bishop himself have seen. Quoted portions are from Bp. Pederson’s letter.
1. “In short, it was a typical, week-long Churchwide Assembly. But the Churchwide Assembly was atypical in that the ‘wide view’ of the Assembly has been virtually ignored by those both inside and outside of the church; instead, a ‘narrow view’ has prevailed.”
Given that the ELCA indeed embraced heresy at the Chruchwide Assembly, it’s very hard to ponder the good things done and give them their due. And how are “bound consciences” who disagree with our Bishop respected, when it is implied that they are narrow?
2. “After eight years of study, prayer, discussion, reflection, input, debate, actions, drafts, and rewrites, the recommendations regarding human sexuality finally came before the church for action. This eight-year process has been the most extensive, transparent, and participative in the history of the Lutheran church.”
A) Doing something in broad daylight doesn’t guarantee it is right; B) Many congregations did not have the experience our bishop describes since many pastors were nervous that any deliberations would stir up a hornet’s nest; c) At local synod assemblies we hardly spent the time necessary given the gravity of the questions at hand; D) We discovered the assembling of the Sexuality Task Force was not a transparent or participative exercise when the dissenting Task Force members went public, revealing that only 3 of 30 members had views consistent with traditional biblical interpretation; E) The Sexuality Statement (a social statement that requires a 2/3 vote for approval) said that members of the ELCA were not of one mind on the propriety of homosexual behavior, whatever its context. A teaching document like this is supposed to give direction, clarity, and public witness to what is God’s will based on Scripture, but on the controversial questions it didn’t. Yet, the policy resolutions (needing only a simple majority for passage) changed doctrinal practice giving congregations and synods the choice of doing what they want. If the Spirit was truly behind it, then why wasn’t the doctrinal change put squarely in the Sexuality Statement where it belonged?; F) Unlike with the Sexuality Statement, ELCA members were not given a chance to offer input on the writing of the controversial policy resolutions; G) When and where in Scripture and in the history of the church has the Holy Spirit ever spoken and not been entirely clear on what is right or wrong, sin and not sin?; H) What is very transparent is that a very bad precedent has been set by the ELCA, that if enough people can come together, they can eventually win a local option for themselves to change any doctrine they don’t like.
3. “It is my sense that the biblical, theological work on matters related to homosexuality has only begun…Until a more compelling biblical case can be made, the ELCA will remain at odds with a large part of Christendom.”
Since at present a more compelling biblical case cannot be made, the ELCA should not have taken the actions it did, given that the ELCA will remain at odds with a large part of Christendom for as far into the future as the eye can see. The heresy embraced at the churchwide assembly makes the ELCA’s stated belief in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church an empty gesture and has only added to the brokenness of the catholicity (universality of belief among Christians) within the ELCA and between it and the rest of Christendom, past and present. What has been offered as beginning biblical and theological work has, in truth, been an agenda in search of a favorable biblical interpretation and theological rationalization.
4. “First and foremost, I am abundantly aware of the depth of pain that some feel who have been in the minority at this Assembly regarding matters of human sexuality.”
Then why have we heard from presiding Bp. Mark Hanson, Bp. Peterson, and others the oft-repeated statement, “This ought not be church dividing,” which only rubs salt in the wounds? Mindful of the account we must give at the last judgment, losing a set of votes at churchwide assembly pales in comparison to the potential of having to give up worshipping communities, losing connections to parishes that individuals and whole families for generations have invested in and sweated over to be a witness in their home towns, or at the least enduring fights over which side will retain the congregation, which to some degree will surely be crippled in the aftermath. And though the Bishop advises each pastor to give attention to “bound conscience” and “structured flexibility,” these give no comfort, since what begins as a local option today will later surely become the blanket policy of the ELCA. A house divided cannot remain standing for long.
5. “There are some who say that the 1,045 voting members of the Churchwide Assembly do not represent the whole church. I disagree.”
Then why, when asked on previous occasions if the synod delegates to churchwide assemblies are “representing” the position of their Synod, or if congregational delegates to synod assemblies are “representing” the position of their congregation, the answer from Synod and churchwide authorities has been, “No, the delegates in each case are free agents unbound to the grouping that sent them on”? If a vote by truly “representative” delegates, or failing that, by all ELCA members had been taken, perhaps there would now be little or no feeling by the rank and file that what happened at the churchwide assembly did not take into account their own conscience-bound beliefs.
6. “Even those who have been opposed to change have acknowledged that a gradual, monumental shift throughout the church has been underway for a very long time, and that it was not a matter of ‘if,’ but ‘when’ change would occur.”
Is it always right to follow the crowd? Furthermore, over the last 20 years the number willing to speak and organize in opposition to the changes now in place have dwindled out of exhaustion over repetitive conflict on the same issues, despair over voting on issues of doctrine that have been settled questions for nearly 2000 years, and frustration over procedures designed to thwart dialogue and in-depth debate. A number of my pastoral colleagues gave up the fight years ago just hoping to make it to retirement. Other colleagues and lay people across the ELCA have left for other denominations. The shift has not largely been a shift of persuaded hearts but of hearts increasingly feeling isolated and cut off.
7. “…it is my conviction that our unity is grounded in Christ and not in uniformity of policy or perspective.”
Unity grounded in Christ is unity grounded in submitting to the lordship of Christ, to the authority he delegated to the apostles, and to the teaching they handed down to us. Otherwise, “unity grounded in Christ” becomes a vacuous term into which anyone can pour in any meaning he wishes. Christ stood for specific things, did specific things, taught specific things, and was crucified for all of them. Thus there is content, specific content when we refer to “unity grounded in Christ,” and we cannot disregard that content and then say we are still unified in Christ.
8. “Our unity is shaped by a common mission and in our commitment to living out our faith in witness and service for the sake of the world.”
Common mission? Disagreeing on what is sin and on whether such behavior requires the graces of repentance and forgiveness does not speak to a common mission. Furthermore, given that many have labeled their advocacy for the controversial decisions as standing up for “social justice,” one might get the impression that the mission of the ELCA is one of social justice as an end unto itself rather than as a means to an end of redeeming souls from sin and death.
9. “Even as I write, there are those organizing to encourage members, congregations, and rostered leaders to leave the ELCA… While I understand the ‘why’ of this organizing, I am profoundly saddened by these actions which encourage and promote the very disunity that all have sought to avoid.”
The Sexuality Statement recognizes, “…some are convinced that same-gender sexual behavior is sinful, contrary to biblical teaching and their understanding of natural law. They believe same-gender sexual behavior carries the grave danger of unrepentant sin. They therefore conclude that the neighbor and the community are best served by calling people in same-gender sexual relationships to repentance for that behavior and to a celibate lifestyle.” How can such a statement not also recognize that persons holding to such a conviction with integrity cannot long live within what has become and is growing more and more into a church of pluralistic beliefs on critical issues?
10. “At a time such as this, it is important to remember that this is not our church; it's the Lord’s church.”
Exactly! If only that sentiment had been reflected in the actions of the churchwide assembly in the matters of controversy. The great irony is that the local option for blessing same gender unions and for calling and ordaining persons in such unions grants a blanket “OK” to both sides of the issue, when surely God can only agree with one of them.
Steve Carlson is Pastor at New Hope Lutheran in Downsville and Little Elk Creek Lutheran in rural Menomonie, Wisconsin.