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Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA)

The 2009 Churchwide Assembly:
The Social Statement was narrowly approved.

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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 bishop."

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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. 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 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 (resolutions).

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

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The vote:

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 for passage.

After passage, a news conference was held.

bullet 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."

bullet Rev. Rebecca S. Larson, executive director, ELCA Church in Society, said:

"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

References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod," has a home page at:
  2. "Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust, A social statement of the Evangelical Lutheran Church," Pages 1 to 20," 2009-AUG-19, Final version, at: This is a PDF file.
  3. Ted Olsen, "ELCA Assembly: Was God in Either Whirlwind?," Christianity Today, 2009-AUG-20, at:
  4. "The dissenters speak," Lutheran Forum, 2009-MAR-28, at:
  5. The Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ has a website at:
  6. Joshua A. Goldberg, "Lutherans Narrowly Adopt New Sexuality Statement," 
    Christian Post, 2009-AUG-20, at:
  7. "ELCA Assembly Adopts 'Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust'," ELCA News Service, 2009-AUG-19, at:

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 Home page > Christianity > Mainline Christian conflicts > ELCA > here

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Copyright © 2009 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2009-SEP-09
Author: B.A. Robinson

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