The Time Has Come
By Paul F. Koch
Commending The Task Force
Ebenezer Lutheran Church (at Foster and Paulina in Chicago) has been a Reconciling in Christ (RIC) congregation since 1993. This was a congregational decision to welcome gay and lesbian persons into the full life of the church. By 1997 the congregation felt a need to explore the blessing of same-gender relationships. Again, this was a communal decision. These two decisions catapulted Ebenezer into the midst of the struggle for the acceptance of homosexual believers into the ELCA and with issues surrounding training, ordaining, and sustaining gay and lesbian pastors in the ELCA.
We studied, we celebrated, we welcomed, and we became advocates. Our commitment determined which organizations we permitted access to our buildings. Our commitment challenged us to examine where the life, structure, and distribution of resources were ordered; we made corrections where we perceived inequity and injustice, both internally and externally.
Finally we waited for the Task Force’s Report and Recommendations, hoping and praying that the ELCA would fully embrace the principles of the RIC Program and thereby set aside the issues surrounding homosexuality. Both heterosexual and homosexual members were disappointed with the report and its recommendations. In general, they felt the recommendations do not go far enough to resolve the inequities of current policy while maintaining the unity of the church.
Personally, I do not share this perspective. I commend the Task Force for their dedication and hard work. Not only is it evident that they struggled honestly with the issues and with each other, but a reading of the Report and Recommendations clearly indicate that their faith and theology were at the center of their deliberations. For this I am grateful.
I see the recommendations moving the church along . . . toward resolution and inclusion of all whom the Holy Spirit has called.
There are those who feel the recommendations don’t go far enough and others who feel the recommendations are unhelpful and inappropriate and therefore should be turned down. But I see the recommendations moving the church along, albeit in a small way, toward resolution and inclusion of all whom the Holy Spirit has called into this church.
‘Synod’ Can Be A Helpful Term
My theological education was grounded in the tradition of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, prior to 1970. The LC–MS uses the term ‘synod’ to refer to the entire church body. It grows out of the work of C. F. W. Walther, who prevailed in the theological debate about leadership brought on by the dismissal of Bishop Stephan. The term ‘synod’ means ‘walk together’, as opposed to walking under the guidance and authority of a hierarchy.
One of the goals was for Lutherans to affirm their unity in Christ, to develop a commonly held practice of the faith, and to call others to this life. This was an important concept for all of us in LC–MS. Unfortunately, the LC–MS that emerged from the theological conflicts of the early 1970’s has come to understand the concept of ‘synod’ as an exclusionary term; but I digress from the topic at hand.
A way to understand ‘synod’ as a term of inclusion is to go to Scripture. Paul’s vision for the People of God is outlined in Ephesians 3:11-22. Seven times he uses some form of ‘in (en) Christ’ (verses 13, 14, 15, 16, 18, 21, 22). His point is summarized in verses 15-16:
[God] has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of two [Jews and Gentiles], thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.
Being ‘in Christ’ (en) has nothing to do with being lockstep in word and practice. It allows for the possibility and the reality of a diverse church united through Baptism.
A Matter Of Justice
Ebenezer identified its core values five years ago. One of the six core values is social justice. While we have not used the term ‘the Left Hand of God’s realm,’ we have been clear that any injustice, whether in the church’s practice or in the world around us, must become a part of our mission and ministry.
When we read through the Old Testament prophetic writings we frequently trip over the word ‘justice.’ It is one of three cardinal principles of faithful covenant living (cf. Micah 6.8). Jesus’ ministry, as described in all four Gospels, is replete with references to and demonstrations of justice (cf. Matt. 19.13, Mark 2.13, Luke 7.11ff, John 6.1ff).
Jesus takes people who are marginalized and rejected by society and puts them in the middle of the assembly. Jesus includes everyone to receive the resources and the benefits of grace. The crowd of 5,000 in John 6 may well have included children, Pharisees, and Roman soldiers who benefited from the multiplication of the loaves of bread.
What we have found at Ebenezer is that our faith life is enriched by diversity and we can learn from each other. Diversity is a gift. As we become acquainted with gay and lesbian members we discover faith, dedication, generosity, and commitment to Christ’s ministry among us. Some of these members are professionals, attentive parents, teachers, and members concerned about the outreach of the church.
We have the charge from God to be faithful stewards of the mysteries of God; that is, we are to teach, preach and properly administer the sacraments. Jesus has opened the door of the church. Whenever we translate ‘steward’ into ‘gatekeeper’, we are putting a gate across the door.
A Blueprint of the Church
The Task Force’s Report refers to Romans 14. This chapter might be a helpful Scripture study in our congregations. While the literal conflict in this Scripture passage is foreign to us, it surely could inspire a healthy conversation about what causes division in the church and the conscience and freedom of a Christian. Romans 14:17-19 gives perspective our peculiar and unique gifts:
For the Kingdom of God [the Right Hand of God’s realm] is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. The one who thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and has human approval. Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.
If we uphold the Lutheran understanding of the two kingdoms, then Paul seems to say that the right hand of God’s realm is focused on ‘righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.’ This brings to mind the prayer for the fullness of the Holy Spirit in our baptismal rite: “the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord, the spirit of joy in your presence.” The Church and its liturgists have it right.
The goal of the realm on the left hand is peace and mutual upbuilding. It is a tough and on-going mission to “seek the well being of the city where I [God] have sent you” (cf. Jeremiah 29.7). This mission might include providing food, clothing, and shelter to those who need them; or interceding with Israel and Palestinian Muslims on behalf of Christian Palestinians; or building senior independent and assisted living buildings; or committing the church’s resources to the development of decent, affordable child care and nursery services. The possibilities are as many as our imagination and willingness will open to us.
Holding All Accountable
Conscience-bound is . . . understanding the position and conviction of those with whom you disagree; then acting with integrity in a way that honors that person’s convictions.
As I reflect on I Corinthians 10.28-29, which is cited as one biblical underpinning of the Task Force’s use of ‘conscience-bound’, I find myself in agreement with the Task Force’s suggestion. Conscience-bound is not about standing your ground stubbornly but understanding the position and conviction of those with whom you disagree; then acting with integrity in a way that honors that person’s convictions.
Finding a way to live and work together while recognizing our differences is the spirit of the 2005 Churchwide Assembly in which I served as a voting member. The disagreements were sharp — even provoking a demonstration orchestrated by Good Soil. Still the Assembly was able to pass a resolution calling for unity in the midst of disagreement.
St. Paul wrote to the Romans:
“The faith that you have, have as your own conviction before God. Blessed are those who have no reason to condemn themselves because of what they approve. But those who have doubts are condemned if they eat, because they do not act from faith [conviction]; for whatever does not proceed from faith [conviction] is sin” (Romans 14:22-23).
Here is an opportunity to hold each other accountable — not accountable for our sexual orientation — but accountable for how we live in our unique sexual orientation and how strongly and clearly we proclaim the Gospel.
The Time Has Come For Movement
I was a volunteer at the 2007 Churchwide Assembly held in Chicago. I was surprised and disappointed with the heavy-handedness of the Assembly Planning Committee. Demonstrations of any kind were banned. Volunteers guarded all doors. The flow of printed information was controlled. The word from the podium was a plea that the voting members not interrupt the process already in place but wait until 2009. If there is anything Lutherans love, it is orderly process; and so the voting members took this advice to heart.
Now the Study and the Recommendations of the Task Force have been published. Aside from debate and the August Assembly, the process has taken its course. Good and faithful members of the ELCA who understand themselves as homosexual in orientation are waiting to see if the church will follow its previous course of denying the validity of their sexuality created by God or if the church will be brave and stand with the Gospel that celebrates sexuality as God’s gift. Can the church be open to exploration, understanding and learning? I think we can, and we have demonstrated that openness in the past. The time has come to act!