ELCA Lutherans, along with every other mainline denomination, don’t know what to do with homosexuals. Pastor Mark Reshan and two delegates from United Lutheran Church, and Pastor Susan Rippert and two delegates from Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, saw evidence of this ambivalence at their synod assembly in Rosemont on June 10-11.

The two issues that are polarizing the five million member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) are: First, whether or not to bless couples in same-gender relationships and second, whether or not to ordain people who are in a committed same-gender relationship.

On the one hand, a consensus seems to be emerging in the Chicago Metropolitan Area. At the Rosemont assembly, the resolution to ordain persons in same-sex covenanted relationships passed by 243 to 77 (76 percent approving), and the resolution to bless committed same-gender relationships was approved by 309 to 73 (81 percent approving).

On the other hand, delegates heard rumors and hints of a potential schism if the church-wide (national) assembly votes in a similar fashion in August.

Exhibit 1: In a message delivered via video, Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson, the head of the ELCA said, “The greatest challenge facing the ELCA this year is how to answer the question: How are we going to be the church together? How can we be the church together when we disagree? We can’t be a vibrant, vital church in this diverse culture without being diverse ourselves.

Exhibit 2: Metro Chicago Bishop Paul Landahl uncharacteristically took time to lead the assembly in prayer before each of the two votes.

Exhibit 3: Pastor Reshan and Pastor Rippert split their vote: one voting for the two resolutions and one voting against.

Exhibit 4: Pastor Reshan, referring to rumors circulating among delegates, said, “My personal fear is that a change in policy will lead to some kind of schism. I think a number of congregations, particularly in the Midwest are poised and waiting to see the outcome of the assembly’s actions on this issue. I believe they will leave if approval is given to ordain gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgendered individuals.”

In other words, Oak Park and even Chicago are not Omaha.

Why all the fuss about what couples do in the privacy of their bedrooms? Is it basically a red state-blue state thing?

It is helpful to understand that, in a large sense, homosexuality is not so much the issue as much as it is the occasion to debate what for many is the more fundamental issue of the authority of the Bible.

The struggle is over the question: How do we figure out what God is like and what God expects of us? On the far left, liberal churches like Unity Unitarian tend to trust experience/reason/science more than any one particular scripture. On the far right, congregations like Calvary trust the revelation in the Bible more than empirical observation. The churches at the two ends of the continuum are not the ones facing divisions. Unitarians trust the American Psychological Association more than they do St. Paul when it comes to homosexuality, and members of Calvary base their opinions more on what is written in the first chapter of Romans than on what scientists have discovered about sexuality to date.

The churches with the ambivalence are the ones in the middle. Karl Barth, a 20th century Swiss theologian, said a preacher should carry a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. That is, to discover who God is and what God wants, a person needs to take seriously both revealed scripture and empirical observation. And, if there is a tension between the two, people need to learn to live with the tension until it is resolved.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is attempting, perhaps in its own fumbling way, to live with the tension between the Bible and science. Both sides are able to find some support in the other camp. For example, biblical literalists are able to point out that although it took homosexuality off its list of mental and emotional disorders way back in 1973, the American Psychological Association in 1998 acknowledged, “How a particular sexual orientation develops in any individual is not well understood by scientists.” Likewise, liberals are fond of saying that Jesus was criticized for associating with “sinners” and people living on the margins.

Susan Rippert came back from her synod assembly feeling more proud about how her faith community had taken a stand and less anxious about what it might mean for her denomination in August. She wrote to her parishioners, “I’m proud because we [our synod] are willing to tackle difficult matters, even while we may be frightened by the possibility of division. And we can see each other as children of God even when we disagree.

“We are speaking for justice for people who are gay or lesbian and want to live out their Christian callings in committed relationships. And we are also listening to those bring a different point of view. We are willing to live with some tension.”

Mark Reshan is more fearful. He worries that a compromise offered by ELCA bishops?#34;-that the ELCA maintain its policy against ordaining gays in committed relationships but allow bishops to make exceptions on a case by case basis?#34;-will only further cloud the issue and ultimately be unsatisfactory to both sides.

The 1,018 voting members of the Churchwide Assembly of the ELCA will vote on these issues as they meet in Orlando on August 8-14.

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Tom Holmes

Tom's been writing about religion – broadly defined – for years in the Journal. Tom's experience as a retired minister and his curiosity about matters of faith will make for an always insightful exploration...