The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America [ELCA] Church Council released its recommendations to the denomination's Churchwide Assembly on issues related to sexuality on April 11, 2005, setting the stage for what promises to be one of the most acrimonious debates ever conducted by a denominational organization.

The recommendations came on the heels of two reports issued by theologians on both sides of the controversy. In the end, the Church Council went in another direction entirely, rejecting the recommendations from its "Task Force for Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Studies on Sexuality," released in January.

That report called for the church to adopt what amounts to a "local option" policy, permitting local churches to violate the church's standards for ministers without penalty. In essence, this recommendation amounted to an acknowledgement that the ELCA is so polarized on the issue of homosexuality that an honest compromise is impossible. Honesty and integrity would have required the denomination to take official action, either to allow the ordination of practicing homosexuals or to exclude practicing homosexuals from the ministry. After years of study, the church's task force recommended that the church maintain its policy explicitly permitting the ordination of practicing homosexuals, but allow churches to disobey and violate the policy without penalty or disciplinary procedures. In other words, this mainline Lutheran denomination attempted to adopt a ministerial form of the Pentagon's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy.

On March 1, seventeen ELCA theologians issued "A Statement of Pastoral and Theological Concerns," calling on the church to reject the recommendations from the task force. "We urge that all three recommendations of the task force be rejected since, if adopted, they would alter fundamentally the ecclesiology of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and that, in turn, would threaten not only the unity and stability of this church but, as a consequence, its ability to proclaim the truth of the gospel."

These seventeen theologians, including well-known figures such as Carl Braaten, Robert W. Jenson, Hans J. Hillebrand, and Jean Bethke Elshtain, saw the task force's recommendations as calling for the church to adopt a position of compromise that lacked all integrity.

Specifically, they warned that the recommendation that the church ignore clear violations of its ministerial standards "threatens to destabilize the unity and constitution, as well as the historical, biblical, and confessional teachings and practice of this church." Furthermore, the theologians argued that the third recommendation, taken seriously, nullified the integrity of the entire report. They identified the report's recommendation of "no change in policy" while it suggested what amounted to a major shift in policy, was "the most conspicuous logical inconsistency."

Abdicating Responsibility

These seventeen theologians accused the task force of recommending that the denomination should substantially surrender its authority in establishing credentials for ministers, thus abdicating "its theological and moral constitutional responsibility." The theologians also protested the task force's understanding of conscience, asserting that the task force understood conscience only in a subjective sense. This subjective understanding of "conscience" is in direct violation of what Scripture and Martin Luther taught, "thus misrepresenting both."

As the theologians' statement clarified: "For Luther, the holy and righteous conscience of the Christian must agree with God's Word; an erring conscience, separated from Scripture, can react only in accordance with selfish desires resulting from weakness in faith." That strong statement should be heard by all those who cite "conscience" as license for rejecting or violating the clear teachings of Scripture. These theologians are absolutely correct in their insistence that conscience must be, as Luther clearly understood, bound by the Word of God.