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One church’s response—to ELCA Task Force recommendations

by Pastor Gary Coble (St. Matthew's Lutheran Church, Salisbury, N.C.)

February 9, 2005


[Editor’s note: The following response to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) sexuality task force report comes from the Church Council of St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church, Salisbury, N.C., St. Matthew’s pastor, Gary Coble, prepared the commentary on the task force recommendations.]

ELCA Task Force Recommendation One

Because the God-given mission and communion we share is at least as important as the issues about which faithful conscience-bound Lutherans find themselves so decisively at odds, the Task Force for ELCA Studies on Sexuality recommends that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America concentrate on finding ways to live together faithfully in the midst of our disagreements.

Our Commentary:

The first thing that we must do is to define what issues we are "so decisively at odds" over. If the issue was homosexuality I would agree with the statement that any single issue probably shouldn’t divide us. But I don’t think that is the issue that divides us. To me the issue that divides us is over the authority of Scripture, and that is an issue that we must not and cannot compromise.

In the Journey Together Faithfully studies, much time was spent on the Biblical interpretation of different texts. It became clear to me and to many that what was happening was a questioning of the authority of Scripture.

We as Lutherans have always accepted that the Scripture is the norm for our faith and life.

But now suddenly it would appear that if the Scriptures do not say what we want to hear, then we explain them away with explanations that are at best far fetched. We must not and cannot compromise on Scripture. When Luther was asked to recant his writings, he said that if he could be shown by Scriptures that he was wrong that he would recant. But if he could not be shown by Scriptures where he was wrong, then "Here I stand, I can do nothing else, God help me!"

We must continue to stand firm in our tradition that we stand with Scripture, that they "are a lamp unto our paths," that they define who we are and they define what sin is.

While I hate to take a stand that could be church divisive, Luther was willing to take that stand with the Scriptures and we must also be willing to take that stand.

Therefore I feel we must reject Recommendation One. The authority of Scripture, if that is the issue that divides us, is far more important than church unity. We cannot and must not compromise the Holy Scriptures. We must take our stand with the Scriptures.

At the Congregation Council meeting of St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church, Salisbury, North Carolina on February 6, 2005, the following recommendation was approved by a unanimous vote:

That the Congregation Council of St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church, Salisbury, N. C. encourages North Carolina Synod Council to approve the following recommendation and send it to the Church Council of the ELCA: That Recommendation One be defeated because the issue that divides us is the authority of Scripture and we cannot compromise the authority of Holy Scripture as the norm for our faith and life.

At the Congregation Council meeting of St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church, Salisbury, North Carolina on February 6, 2005, the following recommendation was approved by a unanimous vote:

That the Congregation Council of St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church encourages Synod Council to approve the following recommendation and send it to the ELCA Church Council: Because the God-given mission and communion we share is based on the authority of Holy Scripture as the norm for our faith and life together, we recommend that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America concentrate on finding ways to live together faithfully in the midst of our disagreements that are firmly grounded in Holy Scripture.

ELCA Task Force Recommendation Two

Before quoting Recommendation Two, I think it is important to hear some of the commentary that is given for this Recommendation. It comes from the "Preface" to the recommendation. There the Task Force clearly says, "In this time of conflict and uncertainty the Conference of Bishops pointed the way by treating such decisions as matters of pastoral care and the task force believes that pastors and congregations can and should be trusted by this church to exercise the wisdom of discretion in their ministry to same-sex couples and their natural and congregational families."

Again in the Commentary following the recommendation the Task Force states: "We recognize that in this church the desire to provide the best pastoral care may motivate some pastors and congregations to surround same-sex couples in committed, long-term relationships with prayerful support. Surrounding people or households with prayerful support does not necessarily mean public approval of homosexual sexual intimacy."

And again in the Commentary they say, "We beseech the church to commit itself to respect one another’s consciences in this matter. This means 1) to show respect and sensitivity to those who believe such pastoral support is inherently wrong, and 2) to show respect and sensitivity to those who believe such support is an appropriate expression of pastoral care."

Task Force Recommendation Two:

The Task Force for ELCA Studies on Sexuality recommends that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America continue to respect the pastoral guidance of the 1993 statement of the Conference of Bishops.

That statement says: "We, as the Conference of Bishops of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, recognize that there is basis neither in Scripture nor tradition for the establishment of an official ceremony by this church for the blessing of a homosexual relationship. We, therefore, do not approve such a ceremony as an official action of this church’s ministry. Nevertheless, we express trust in and will continue dialogue with those pastors and congregations who are in ministry with gay and lesbian persons, and affirm their desire to explore the best ways to provide pastoral care for all to whom they minister."

Our Commentary:

I am a sinner and I know it. I am not proud of this fact, but once in very clear terms I talked to a referee in a basketball game about, how can I say this now, his mother’s sexual behavior and then also in very clear terms talked about where I felt he should spend eternity.

I don’t want the church to dialogue with me about my actions. I want the church to be honest with me about my actions and to call me to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

I am a sinner. I eat too much and too often. My body is a temple of the Holy Spirit and I should take better care of it. My body is a gift to me from God, and I should take better care of it. I don’t want the church to come up with even unofficial acts of blessings all the M & M’s that I eat to make me feel better about my sin. I want the church to be honest with me about my actions and to call me to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. I am a sinner. I lose my temper too often, especially while driving a car. I don’t want the church to talk to me about how it’s the other drivers’ fault and they should be blamed. I don’t want a blessing for drivers who lose their cool while driving. I want the church to be honest with me about my actions and to call me to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. The church cannot bless, either officially or unofficially acts that the Bible calls sinful. The Bible is our norm for faith and life.

At the Congregation Council meeting of St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church, Salisbury, North Carolina on February 6, 2005, the following recommendation was approved by a unanimous vote:

The Congregation Council of St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church encourages Synod Council to approve the following recommendation and send it to the Church Council of the ELCA: That Recommendation Two be defeated because the church cannot bless, either officially or unofficially acts which the Holy Scriptures call sin.

At the Congregation Council meeting of St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church, Salisbury, North Carolina on February 6, 2005, the following recommendation was approved by a unanimous vote:

The Congregation Council of St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church encourages Synod Council to approve the following recommendation and send it to the Church Council of the ELCA: That the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America does not establish an official ceremony for the blessing of homosexual relationship and that the Church faithfully answers the call of Scripture to call all people to repentance.

ELCA Task Force Recommendation Three

The Task Force for ELCA Studies on Sexuality recommends that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America continue under the standards regarding sexual conduct for rostered leaders as set forth in Vision and Expectations and Definitions and Guidelines for Discipline, but that, as a pastoral response to the deep divisions among us, this church may choose to refrain from disciplining those who in good conscience, and for the sake of outreach, ministry, and the commitment to continuing dialogue, call or approve partnered gay or lesbian candidates whom they believe otherwise in compliance with Vision and Expectations and to refrain from disciplining those rostered people so approved and called.

Our Commentary:

The church has always held clergy to a high standard. Sure we are all part of the priesthood of all believers, but as a called and ordained leader of the church, I must be held to a higher standard than others.

One of those standards would be that my teaching is in keeping with the Holy Scripture and the tradition of the church. In both, homosexuality is a sin. I know there are those who will try to explain it away, but that is all they are doing, trying to explain Scripture in a way that fits their world-view.

Anyone who teaches in a way that contradicts the Word of God, the Holy Scriptures, should be disqualified from the ordained clergy.

To use the examples above, if I argued it was okay to take the Lord’s name in vain in a basketball game because the referee blew calls all night, I should be excluded from the ordained ministry. I confessed my sin and am confident that God will keep His promises and forgive me. I have also repented in that I have changed my ways and have never cursed at an official since.

If I argued that my body is mine and I can do with it as I wish, that I can continue to over eat and get too little exercise and even go farther and abuse it with alcohol and drugs, I should be disqualified from the ordained clergy. Holy Scripture teaches that my body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. I have confessed my sin and am in the process of repenting, I am eating better and exercising much more, but this is an area I still have room to improve.

If I were to teach that losing your temper driving was a good thing to do because those idiots really deserve someone to get mad at them, I should be disqualified from the ordained clergy. I would be teaching in direct conflict to Jesus’ teaching that being angry with my brother breaks the fifth commandment. But I do confess my sins and I am repenting, I almost never lose my temper with someone else in the car with me and am getting much more forgiving of the driving habits of others.

The same is true for homosexuality. A homosexual is no worse sinner than I am; I have confessed some of my many sins to you. The only thing that disqualifies any sinner from the ordained ministry is teaching that sin is not sin. The present policy of the ELCA is that we will ordain homosexuals who teach it is a sin and will live without practicing this sin.

At the Congregation Council meeting of St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church, Salisbury, North Carolina on February 6, 2005, the following recommendation was approved by a unanimous vote:

The Congregation Council of St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church encourages Synod Council to approve the following recommendation and send it to the Church Council of the ELCA: That Recommendation Three be defeated because it would be accepting persons into the ordained clergy or rostered leaders who accept and teach a teaching that is in direct conflict with the teaching of the Scriptures, which is our norm for our faith and life.

At the Congregation Council meeting of St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church, Salisbury, North Carolina on February 6, 2005, the following recommendation was approved by a unanimous vote:

The Congregation Council of St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church encourages Synod Council to approve the following recommendation and send it to the Church Council of the ELCA: The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America continue under the standards for clergy and rostered leaders as set forth in Vision and Expectations and Definitions and Guidelines for Discipline. At the Congregation Council meeting of St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church, Salisbury, North Carolina on February 6, 2005, the following recommendation was approved by a unanimous vote:

The Congregation Council of St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church encourages Synod Council to approve the following recommendation and send it to the Church Council of the ELCA: The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America calls on all its members, clergy and rostered leaders to call all to a life of repentance, and that we teach that we are all sinners and need God’s love, grace and forgiveness. We, as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America will strive to be a place where all sinners are welcomed in love and encouraged to grow in faith.