Thursday, November 11, 2010

Stumme on the ELCA's "Bound Conscience"

The latest edition of the ELCA's on-line Journal of Lutheran Ethics begins a two month focus on the topic of "bound conscience," the expression of which emerged with the ELCA's Social Statement Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust. the first article is by the recently retired Director of the Department for Studies in the Church in Society unit of the ELCA, John R. Stumme. Here's how Pr. Stumme begins (complete with associated endnotes):

"Conscience-bound Beliefs" Rule and the "Conscience-bound-belief" Rule

John R. Stumme

[1] What is striking about the ELCA's August 2009 decisions about sexuality is that they changed policy without giving a scriptural account for the change. The policy change allows persons in publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships to be ordained, yet the change is not supported in any official church document on the basis of what "this church" (as the ELCA likes to call itself) holds to be the authoritative source and norm for its life and teaching.1

[2] Instead, the ELCA appealed to its members to respect the "conscience-bound beliefs" of persons who have different understandings regarding same-gender sexual behavior and relationships. This appeal to respect beliefs bound by conscience, it was assumed, gave "this church" the authority to accommodate different practices on ordination and blessings. On this question, then, "conscience-bound beliefs" rule in the ELCA, replacing any claim that Scripture authorizes or does not authorize same-gender sexual behavior. If "this church" is going to be consistent with what it stated about "conscience-bound beliefs," it will also apply its new "conscience-bound-belief" rule to other issues. I hope to develop these themes in what follows.2

[3] Because the ELCA has elevated the concept of "conscience-bound beliefs" to such prominence for its life and teaching, the concept deserves careful scrutiny. The social statement Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust made it the "pivotal" concept in how the ELCA "resolved" the most controversial, exhausting and expensive issue in its history, and therefore I look carefully at what is said there.3

Without a Biblical Teaching
[4] The social statement describes four positions on same-gender behavior and relationships with the preface: "This church recognizes that, with conviction and integrity:" (each individual description beginning) "On the basis of conscience-bound belief, some are convinced that...."4 The four positions described may be simplified into two basic ones, each with two variations: one position does not approve same-gender sexual behavior and the other approves it within lifelong, loving, and monogamous commitments. The descriptions are brief, and no argument is presented for their biblical truth. References to, interpretation and discussion of biblical texts are absent from the descriptions.

[5] The social statement announces that "this church...will include these different understandings...." in its mission and ministry.5 Why are they included? The reason given is that they represent the "conscience-bound belief" of some.

[6] Does this mean that the ELCA affirms as its own biblical teaching four distinct teachings on same-gender sexual behavior and relationships? So I thought at one point, but I have changed my mind. If what is said here are descriptions — and nothing more — of what members are said to believe, as is claimed, then the ELCA is not saying that this is what "this church" teaches. None of the four positions is identified as the preferred or the true one. Nor does the social statement say that all four positions are equally valid or equally invalid for members to hold. No, the social statement is only descriptive; it does not make any judgment whatsoever about these positions it includes in its life. Most importantly, how could "this church" or any church body in its official teaching hold as true and faithful to Scripture contradictory positions on a matter of God's law? What this all means, I finally realized, is that the ELCA has no biblical teaching on same-gender sexual behavior.6

[7] Before August 2009 the ELCA did have a teaching on same-sex sexual behavior as expressed in social statements from the American Lutheran Church and the Lutheran Church in America.7 This teaching was in accord with the Christian church's universal tradition of biblical interpretation and with what most churches in the world teach today, as found, for example, in the statements from the Lutheran churches in Ethiopia and Tanzania: that same-sex sexual behavior is not in accord with the biblical witness.8 The ELCA declined to affirm this teaching as its own, and it did not give a scriptural argument on why it abandoned this teaching. It also declined to develop and affirm the teaching that same-gender sexual behavior in a committed relationship was, like marriage, pleasing to God. The ELCA abdicated in its authority to state its understanding of biblical truth on the issue.

[8] The absence of a teaching on same-gender sexual behavior seems to create major obstacles for anyone who in their teaching office represents the ELCA. When pastors, bishops or other teachers in the church are asked, "Does the ELCA believe and teach that same-sex sexual behavior is acceptable to God or not?," the honest answer has to be: "We don't know. We as a church don't have a teaching on the matter." It would be dishonest for a representative to claim one of the four positions as the ELCA's teaching. If the follow-up question is, "What then should I believe the Bible says?" the answer would seem to be something like: "Study the Bible, pray, understand the issue, decide what you think is the biblical witness, and respect the beliefs of others. It's an individual decision made, of course, in dialogue with others."

[9] Without a scripturally based teaching to guide members' beliefs that the ELCA claims as its own, the obligation to answer the question is foisted on each congregation, finally on each individual member. Any answer (one should probably add, within the parameters of the four positions described in the social statement, although, it seems, a "conscience-bound belief" could be outside them) is as good as any other in the ELCA since "this church" has no normative teaching by which to evaluate them. The decisive authority is the belief attested to by the individual's conscience. "Conscience-bound beliefs" are in the driver's seat. "All the people did what was right in their own eyes" (Judges 21:25). If every congregation and individual is left to decide for themselves what authoritative, biblical teaching is, it is plausible to expect further fragmentation in an already divided church body.

10] In ecumenical settings, ...
_ _ _ _ _ _
1. The ELCA in its constitution states that Scripture is "the authoritative source and norm of [this church's] proclamation, faith, and life" (ELCA 2.03). The 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly adopted the social statement "Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust" (ELCA: 2009) and four ministry policy resolutions. For more information on these documents and a link to ELCA Ministry Policies go to the Web site "Frequently Asked Questions about the 2009 Churchwide Assembly actions regarding sexuality" (

2. I thank Victor Thasiah for his invitation to write on "bound conscience" for JLE. My line of thought continues the argument I made in a JLE article in 2005 that the ELCA has an obligation to be clear on its biblical teaching on marriage and sexuality before it changes its policies. "Moral discourse structured by communally accepted 'objective convictions' is the controlling factor in moral deliberation, not personal experiences or individual consciences." Here I argue that because the social statement side-steps the question of biblical truth, the ELCA's policy changes lack a trustworthy basis in the church's authoritative teachings. Cf. "The Church as a Community of Moral Deliberation — a Time of Testing," Journal of Lutheran Ethics 5:8 (August 2005).

3. My intent is to give a close reading to the actual text of the social statement in the section "Lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships," 18–21, and its endnotes, # 24–26. The social statement calls the concept of conscience "pivotal," #26.

4. "Human Sexuality," 20.

5. "Human Sexuality," 19.

6. The social statement notes that "this church is united on many critical issues" regarding same-gender relations and "that it has a pastoral responsibility to all children of God." "Human Sexuality," 19. Rev. Dr. William O. Gafkjen, now Bishop of the Indiana-Kentucky Synod, in an online response ( to Dr. Robert Benne, wrote: "The clear teaching and proclamation emerge around assertions that public accountability and lifelong faithful monogamy are to be the norm for same-gender relations." "Response to 'Lutherans in Search of a New Church'." (July 2010). The bishop has stated the policy, but he has begged the question on how the ELCA arrived at a biblically-based teaching that approves same-gender sexual behavior. In fact, it has not.

7. "Sex, Marriage, and Family," Lutheran Church in America (1970), 4. "Human Sexuality and Sexual Behavior," American Lutheran Church (1980), 8–9. Where social statements from the predecessor church bodies were in agreement, they remained the teaching of the ELCA until it adopted its own teaching.

8. See "The Dodoma Statement" of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania ( and the Ethiopian Evangelical Church of Mekane Yesus (, including its April 2010 news release, "EECMY Reaffirms its Rejection of Same Sex Marriage."
Read it all here.

Sort of reminds me of something I wrote here in July 2009:
Nevertheless, I had hopes that, since every possible theological resource would be available to the ELCA Task Force, if anyone could offer such a sustainable argument, they would. I participated in all the studies. I read through all the official materials. I participated in many discussions.

And in the end, they offered no argument at all. They have given us assertions that cover the "sides" in the debate over the place of homosexuality in the Church, but there is no argument made for changing the Church's teaching on homosexuality anywhere to be found in the Report and Recommendations or the proposed Sexuality Statement.

In the end of nearly 8 years of work, given the chance to show that the Church's teaching has been wrong, having the best and brightest minds of the ELCA at their disposal, they did not even try.
One might understand why the complaints of a pastor of a tiny parish in Peoria would be ignored. But ignoring the concerns of one of the ELCA's own staff theologians?

Ah, the hopes we had in the 1980s for the New Lutheran Church. Then there's the legacy our leaders have, uh -- "built" isn't quite the right word, is it?

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