The 2009 Churchwide Assembly: The Social Statement was narrowly approved.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) held its week-long
biennial Churchwide Assembly (CWA) in Minneapolis, MN from 2009-AUG-17 to 23.
The social statement was passed on AUG-19 with the smallest possible margin.
The vote was 676 in favor (66.67%) and 338 opposed. A two thirds majority was
required for passage. If only one delegate had who voted in favor of the
statement had changed her or his mind, it would have been defeated. 1
In the following reactions, you will note various ELCA members interpret the Bible's six "clobber passages" -- those that
may refer to same-sex behavior -- in very different ways. What is a clear
meaning of scripture according to conservative members is a false interpretation by more liberal delegates, and vice-versa. Yet members from both
sides are firmly convinced that their interpretation is the only valid one. Unfortunately there appears to be no way in which the delegates could have assessed the will of God directly.
2009-AUG-19; Day 3 of the Assembly:
The 2009 CWA considered the ELCA's 10th social statement, a 20 page document
titled: "Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust." 2 The 2001 CWA had authorized a Task
Force to prepare the document.
The presiding bishop, the Rev. Mark S. Hanson said that social statements:
"... guide us as we step forward as a public church because they form the
basis for both this church's public policy and my public speech as presiding
The social statement and homosexuality/bisexuality:
Almost the entire focus on the social statement by delegates and media was on
the topic of homosexuality. Ted Olsen of Christianity Today commented:
"... 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.
'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 as believers 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'!" 3
Three dissenting members of the ELCA task force on sexuality had
an alternate opinion. They 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. 4
Events leading up to the vote:
The voting members at the CWA had proposed 13 amendments to the document.
Some of the church's 65 synods had proposed a total of 42 memorials
A key amendment would have gutted a section of the document dealing with
lifelong monogamous same-gender relationships. The vote was 303 in favor (31%)
and 667 opposed. The proposed amendment described the "...practice of homosexual
erotic behavior as contrary to God's intent."
It may seem strange to see sexual activity within a loving, committed
same-sex relationship referred to as "erotic behavior." That is not
the typical phrase used when referring to loving, committed opposite-sex relationships. However, it is
consistent with much historical Christian teachings and the
beliefs of many traditional ECLA members at the CWA -- those who follow the most conservative of the six common views on homosexuality. They believe that lesbians and gay are
driven by lust and are incapable of entering into a loving non-exploitive,
loving, committed relationship.
The ELCA News Service reported:
"Speaking in favor of adoption of the statement, the Rev. Elizabeth Eaton,
bishop of the ELCA Northeastern Ohio Synod, said she hopes the assembly does not
become 'so narrowly focused on the issue of homosexual sexual behavior that we
missed the point that we're speaking a clear word that needs to be heard by our
culture,' particularly on topics about co-habitation outside of marriage, sex as
a commodity, child pornography and more. She said the church has high
expectations for all Lutherans, especially for ELCA professional leaders."
"Speaking in opposition, voting member Curtis Sorbo, ELCA Eastern North Dakota
Synod, said the social statement 'should be a teaching tool. I don't think that
it is. Instead we have descriptions of different sexual relationships that we
are asked to accept by bound conscience,' he said. 'We are asked to affirm a
description of sexuality in today's culture because of a new reality. Our church
needs to address this issue based on the authority of the word of God, not a
description of public opinion and personal desires'." 5
After laboriously reviewing six of the 13 amendments, the delegates moved to
accept the recommendations of the ad hoc committee on all remaining amendments
and moved to consider the adoption of the social statement. 6
The social statement was passed with the smallest possible margin. The vote
was 676 in favor (66.67%) and 338 opposed. A two thirds majority was required
After passage, a news conference was held.
The Rev. Peter Strommen, chairperson of the Task Force for ELCA Studies
on Sexuality, said:
"We took some risks in the writing of this in ways that we thought were
appropriate for these times." He said that the statement was based on the
principles of "love of the neighbor and trust."
He commented on the close vote,
saying: "I doubt very much that I've ever been present at an election with that
many votes cast coming out exactly two-thirds. Quite stunning. We're naturally
very glad that it passed."
Rev. Rebecca S. Larson, executive director, ELCA Church in Society,
"I am very proud of this church. It is a time of diminished joy. We know
there is suffering all around on this issue." 7
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.