Don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t punish

elcaThe Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has ordained gay clergy for years. Since it formed out of a merger of three Lutheran church bodies in 1988, it has defrocked three clergy for violating the church body’s requirement that gay clergy abstain from sexual relationships. At the group’s national assembly last week in Chicago, a vote to permit homosexual clergy to engage in sexual relationships failed on Friday but another vote requesting that the church body avoid disciplining gay clergy who violate the celibacy policy was passed on Saturday.

I’ve complained before that every time a major happening occurs in the ELCA, many reporters fail to distinguish between the church body and the other Lutheran bodies that don’t share the same doctrinal perspective. But this story was different. I read dozens of stories and they all identified the ELCA by name and some even mentioned other Lutheran bodies and their opposing views! We received more than a few notes from non-ELCA Lutheran readers who were pleased by the distinction. But we received complaints on other media coverage issues.

Rachel Zoll covered the story for the Associated Press. Here’s how she began:

A national assembly of Evangelical Lutherans urged its bishops Saturday to refrain from defrocking gay and lesbian ministers who violate a celibacy rule, but rejected measures that would have permitted ordaining gays churchwide.

Still, advocates for full inclusion of gays were encouraged, calling the resolution a powerful statement in support of clergy with same-gender partners. The conservative group Lutheran CORE, however, said bishops will now feel more secure in ignoring denomination policy.

By the middle of the story, she explains she’s talking about the mainline Protestant group the ELCA. But I’m not sure that “Evangelical Lutherans” is the best way to describe the ELCA on first reference. This error was repeated elsewhere.

Either way, the first sentence doesn’t quite make sense. Gays already are ordained throughout the ELCA — and have been for decades. And the phrase “full inclusion of gays” is just loaded and shouldn’t be used. I’m not disagreeing that it’s the phrase of choice for people who advocate ordination of gay clergy, permission of gay clergy to be sexually active, church sanctioning of gay marriage, etc. But people who oppose such doctrinal positions because they approach Scriptural teachings on the matter in a different way — in the historic and traditional way, even — would never phrase their position as one fighting “full inclusion of gays.” It’s also imprecise. And in hot-button issues such as homosexuality, it’s wise to spell things out.

I have friends in the ELCA who were both happy and unhappy about the 538-431 vote. But people on both sides kept mentioning that they would have been content if the vote could have been delayed until an eight-year study on human sexuality is released in 2009. Keep that in mind when reading this one-sided story from Denver Post reporter Monte Whaley. Far better was Susan Hogan/Albach’s story in the Chicago Sun-Times:

The nation’s largest Lutheran denomination on Saturday passed a measure calling on church leaders to “refrain from or demonstrate restraint” in disciplining gay clergy in committed relationships.

A day earlier, church members meeting at Navy Pier voted down a measure that would have ended the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s celibacy requirement for gay clergy.

Still, Saturday’s 538-431 decision was widely viewed as historic and a sign of shifting thinking on homosexuality within the 4.8-million member denomination.

“It’s a huge victory,” said Jeremy Posadas, a voting church member from Decatur, Ga. “The gospel of inclusion has won, and we’re going to keep winning.”

Some call move ‘tragic’
The Rev. Mark Chavez, leader of Lutheran CORE, a group that opposes non-celibate gays serving as pastors, called the vote “tragic.”

“This decision will be an excuse for bishops to disobey ELCA policy,” he said. “This decision does not reflect the will of the people, but of bishops and clergy who disregard God’s word.”

Bishop Paul Landahl of the Metropolitan Chicago Synod spearheaded the measure, which calls on church leaders to “refrain from or demonstrate restraint” in disciplining those who violate the celibacy policy.

Concise, balanced, straightforward and informative. Margaret Ramirez of the Chicago Tribune also covered the historic vote and provided some interesting perspective and quotes from people who opposed the move. There’s this sketchy paragraph early on:

For church advocates who support inclusion of gays in the church, the resolution was hailed as a partial victory and a step toward full inclusion of homosexuals in the church. But conservative leaders saw the move as contradictory to the church’s policy against ordination of gay ministers and predicted the resolution would open the door to chaos in the church.

lesbian gay christiansAgain, is it wise to look into the hearts of people who retain the historic interpretation of Scripture on this issue and deem that they want to exclude gays from the church? Or keep them from being involved in the church? Unless reporters have gotten better at looking into the hearts of people then they’ve been in the past, such biased language does not help illuminate the divide in this and other churches. Anyway, Ramirez mentions the two next-largest Lutheran church bodies and speaks with ELCA members who are not pleased with the change in the church’s discipline practice:

Conservative leaders in the church, like Rev. Mark Chavez, director of the conservative Word Alone Network, said the disciplinary measure contradicted church policy and provided a loophole for gay clergy to minister. He also expressed concern the measure would lead to widespread lawsuits if a bishop chose to use discipline. He said the new resolution gives bishops permission to ignore the standards and disregard the clear word of God. But Chavez stopped short of saying the measure would split the denomination.

“Any time you start ignoring God’s word on matters, you better watch out because you’re in dangerous territory,” he said.

Jaynan Clark Egland, president of Word Alone Network, said the measure created a double standard for discipline.

“I don’t know as a Christian, as a pastor and as a parent, what really would be worse — a church with no biblical standards to govern our ministry or standards we don’t intend to enforce. To refrain from discipline in the home is bad parenting, but we’re about to do so in the Christ’s church.”

Now, Chavez chose to be ordained into and remains ordained within a church body that permits gay clergy to minister, so I doubt he said that this 2007 move was a “loophole for gay clergy to minister.” But the overall view of Egland and Chavez is mentioned, which is good for perspective.

There are many other stories worth taking a look at, from the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel‘s Tom Heinen piece to Daniel Blake’s story in Christianity Today. Heinen’s earlier piece on the convention was full of details.

The AP also had a story on the Atlanta pastor whose defrocking this year brought some of these issues to a head. But for the hands-down best coverage on the Rev. Bradley Schmeling and how his case has progressed, read Southern Voice. We don’t normally cover non-mainstream press, and Southern Voice is a gay weekly — but month after month the reporters there have been on the story and it shows. One of the things I loved about Zach Hudson’s latest article is how it concisely explained some of the church politics at play leading up to this decision. St. John’s is the parish Schmeling serves:

As the public face of the fight, the St. John’s team — supported by Lutherans Concerned/North America, a gay affirming ELCA ministry, and Goodsoil, a coalition of gay affirming groups seeking change within the church — mailed out a video documentary which “tells the story of St. John’s” to all 1,072 voting members of the Churchwide Assembly.

The gay rights activists on hand at the assembly have led press events and initiated conversations with voting members. LC/NA and Goodsoil published and distributed “A Place Within My Walls,” a 24-page devotional booklet which contains the names of 82 ELCA ministers who are coming out to the at-large ELCA for the first time.

“I need to tell you that we contacted more than twice as many pastors to check with them about including their names,” said LC/NA Executive Director Emily Eastwood. She credited the listed ministers with bravery in the face of uncertain consequences.

Good reporting and very interesting to boot.

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  • John L. Hoh, Jr.

    But I’m not sure that “Evangelical Lutherans” is the best way to describe the ELCA on first reference.

    Well, there is the big ELCA calling themselves “Evangelical Lutherans.”

    Then there is the Evangelical Lutheran Synod, a conservative group, that call themselves “Evangelical Lutherans.” They are in fellowship with the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, who also call themselves “Evangelical Lutherans.”

    Oh, by the way, a small group of 2 congregations, about 50 members, no pastors in western Minnesota uses the name ELCA. This is a very pietistic group.

    So the term “Evangelical Lutherans” really isn’t very precise. Is the reference to the liberal ELs, to the conservative ELs, or the pietistic ELs?

    The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has been very consistent on demarcating the different Lutheran bodies in reporting onLutheran issues. Since WELS is based in Milwaukee, I suspect there might be a cause/effect there somewhere.

    I remember speaking with an ELCA pastor conflicted by this issue (as well as others in his church). He asked what was wrong if two guys loved each other. I asked him if sex had to be a part of that? He didn’t have a ready answer. It might depend on which Greek word for “love” you mean, I guess.

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  • Martha

    I did find the initial reports very confusing: the first vote, which retained the celibacy requirement, was said to have passed 538-431.

    Then the second vote, which said there should be no disciplining of those disobeying the rule and permitting ‘local options’ was said to have passed 538-431 also.

    I was left going “So which is it? You must be celibate or you needn’t be celibate?”

    Actually, which is it? How is this going to work out in practice? All done on a nod and a wink basis – “As your bishop, I must inform you that for ordination as a Lutheran minister who is same-sex attracted, it is mandatory that you are committed to chastity outside marriage (drops voice and whispers behind hand) Never mind that, we have to say it, but once you are ordained, if you do have a partner – well, as long as you’re discreet about it…”?

    What other rules are optional or at the bishop’s discretion? Why should a member of the congregation who is siphoning off a small but regular amount of money from work, or conducting a long-term affair, or accepting bribes, or underpaying her employees, be moved to repentance? “Yeah, sure, we all know these are the rules, but everyone does it – you couldn’t survive in business otherwise! Everyone’s on the take – you just factor it in. Of course we have the laws posted up, but nobody takes them literally, you know?” “If Pastor Joe made a solemn promise not to have a boyfriend but then he couldn’t help falling in love with Steve, then how is it any different from me and Marie? I’m married to Jane, and I’m not going to leave her, but I love Marie, too!”

  • Rev. David J. Rufner

    I found that quote by Jaynan Egland to be the most helpful is honing in on what is most troubling about this:

    “I don’t know as a Christian, as a pastor and as a parent, what really would be worse — a church with no biblical standards to govern our ministry or standards we don’t intend to enforce. To refrain from discipline in the home is bad parenting, but we’re about to do so in the Christ’s church.”

    Having cried foul concerning the 8th commandment (witness or false witness over whether one’s sexual actions are sinful) while attempting to define or redefine the 6th commandment as a church body it has now been determined by majority to make mockery of the 4th commandment.

    I pray that this pattern ceases.

  • Gabriel Mckee

    I dare say that “historic interpretation of Scripture” is every bit as loaded a term as “full inclusion of gays,” if not more so. There isn’t one monolithic history or tradition. And of course no one’s going to define themselves as exclusionary– exclusion is defined by the excluded.

  • Mollie


    I certainly see your point and agree that there’s no monolithic history or tradition in general — but I’m curious if you know of any stream of thought throughout Christian history that differs on this point of gay sex. I’m not aware of any but I’m not a scholar or historian. This seems a rather recent (historically speaking) change in how to interpret Scripture. But perhaps I’m wrong — any thoughts?


  • Gabriel Mckee

    The idea that Biblical authors had modern homosexuality in mind when they wrote what conservatives assume to be condemnations of homosexuality is a huge anachronism. It’s not so much a question of whether or not inclusive readings of Scripture are new– it’s more that modern concepts of homosexuality are a recent construction. (Even the definition of what constitutes “homosexual sex” has changed over the centuries.) If reading the stories of Ruth and Naomi or David and Jonathan as stories of gay relationships is a recent development, then who’s to say that conservative readings of Scripture’s supposed condemnation of homosexuality aren’t just as recent?
    Anyway, there’s an excellent review of explicit and implicit Scriptural references to homosexuality here:
    And Wikipedia’s page on “the History of Christianity and homosexuality” has some decent information on homosexuality in the middle ages and before.

  • Martha

    I await with interest the latest Scriptural re-examinations on the concept of adultery.

    Clearly, in a system where the patriarchs were entitled to have more than one wife, and where the man was entitled to divorce his wife but she had no equivalent right, and of course in view of the atrocious legalistic punishment of stoning, the Biblical authors view of adultery differed considerably from what we now know to be the basis for extra-marital relationships.

    If only our compassionate and scientific understanding of the matter had been available back then, David need never have encompassed Uriah’s murder!

    Naturally, this means that the Commandments – while a necessary first step towards ethical constructs – do not have the same plangency in the 21st Century.

    Doubtless even as we speak, the finest liturgical minds of our generations are working on ceremonies of blessing for those who wish to ally an independent external partner with their current domestic partnership domicile agreements!

  • MJBubba

    Martha, you are correct that polygamy is close on the heels of same-sex marriage.

    You describe the Commandments as “a necessary first step towards ethical constructs.” I suggest that the Commandments are all that is needed, and no supplement is necessary to God’s Word. Let me refer you to the section on the Ten Commandments in Luther’s Small Catechism, where he interpreted the Commandments in the light of the Sermon on the Mount, and you will understand.
    It is only two pages, and well worth the reading for any Christian.
    Mollie, my apologies for doctrinal rather than journalistic remarks, but that one tugged my string a little.

  • Mike Gridley

    What on earth is “The Gospel of Inclusion”? and since it is so radically different than mine and that of the LCMS (for example), what does that make our Gospel?

    One of exclusion?


    This is why with every resolution like this one taken by a mainstream church, that same mainstream church shrinks just a little bit more.

    Love your stuff, mollie, keep up the good work.

  • Larry Wohlrabe

    Thanks for a helpful summary of some of the best and worst of coverage of the recent ELCA Churchwide Assembly.

    I have two quibbles with your article, though.

    You start out by stating: “The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has ordained gay clergy for years. Since it formed out of a merger of three Lutheran church bodies in 1988, it has defrocked three clergy for violating the church body’s requirement that gay clergy abstain from sexual relationships.”

    In truth, probably all denominations have ordained gay clergy for years; the question is whether such ordinations were done knowingly or not–in the open or not.

    I’m more concerned about the accuracy of the next statement–that since 1988 the ELCA “has defrocked three clergy.” I believe that you are referring to three “church trials” that resulted in a gay or lesbian pastor engaged in a same-sex sexual relationship being removed from the clergy roster. ELCA bishops have asked practicing gay or lesbian clergy to resign–more than three times–and these clergy have resigned, without bringing the matter to a church trial. The point is that in the ELCA more than three pastors have left the clergy roster because they engaged in same-sex sexual behavior.

    Also, nowhere in the ELCA’s governing documents is the word “celibacy” (or “celibate”)to be found. I mention this because I believe it is an emotionally-charged, red-herring word. The ELCA demands celibacy of no one. It does expect disciplined sexual abstinence from all clergy who are unmarried.

  • kay vinsand

    Unmarried people should not be having Sex – whatever happened to this “old fashioned” standard? If you aren’t married you shouldn’t have sex – whether it is gay sex or straight sex. The church has an obligation to lead in the way we should go – not give in to whatever odd direction the state may take.