A Pastoral Letter from Bishop Samuel Zeiser

Bishop's Page

August 21, 2009

Brothers and sisters in Christ,

You have probably all heard or read reports about the actions of the ELCA Churchwide Assembly. Now I want to share with you my view of the decisions made here in Minneapolis in the last few days. I hope that my thoughts will help you to understand the actions of our church and what they mean for our life together.

The voting members of the Churchwide Assembly have acted on many important issues, from entering into full communion with the United Methodist Church to supporting an initiative to combat malaria. However, it is our discussion of sexuality that has drawn the most attention. Let me tell you about the several decisions we made on this subject.

The assembly adopted a social statement, Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust. This statement deals with a wide range of topics including support for the family, protection of children, and the problem of pornography. By placing sexuality in the context of God's plan for humanity, this statement gives us a foundation from which to consider many complicated issues facing us in our lives today. The voting members spoke with deep feeling about all aspects of this subject, but they also listened to one another with respect.

The most difficult part of our conversations, of course, concerned the place of homosexual persons in our church and particularly in leadership roles. One of the key concepts guiding the assembly was the notion of "bound conscience." We recognized that members of the ELCA on both sides of this issue do not hold their positions out of pride or self-interest. Rather, they feel bound by their understanding of the Word of God to act in a way they believe to be an expression of faithful living. The assembly agreed that we must respect one another's positions as honest attempts to hear God's voice, even when we seem to be hearing different things.

At the end of the discussion, the assembly adopted several ministry policy recommendations. These recommendations allow congregations to support people who wish to live in life-long, monogamous same-gender relationships. This does not mean that we support gay marriage, which is a purely legal matter and must be addressed by our civil institutions. Nor does it mean that all congregations will be compelled to affirm gay relationships. It does encourage each congregation to study scripture and listen for the guidance of the Spirit in determining how to handle these matters.

In addition, the recommendations open the way for some synods and congregations to conclude that a life-long, monogamous same-gender relationship alone is not sufficient reason to prevent someone from serving as a pastor. The key phrase in understanding this decision is "structured flexibility." Structured flexibility means that synods that so choose may permit the ordination of individuals in life-long, monogamous, same-gender relationships when there are appropriate ministry opportunities. Such structured flexibility could never compel a congregation to call a gay or lesbian pastor, just as our current practice cannot compel a congregation to call any particular candidate. There are and will continue to be consistent policies in the ELCA regarding the candidacy and calling of leaders. This decision makes it clear that all rostered leaders, homosexual or heterosexual, are to be held to the same high standards of faithful living.

Will these decisions cause a division in our church that will weaken our witness in the world? I think that Paul's words about the body in 1 Corinthians 12 are important here: "The eye cannot say to the hand, 'I have no need of you,' nor again the head to the feet, 'I have no need of you.'" So with the body of Christ — we all continue to have need of one another, even when we seem to disagree bitterly. It is my fervent hope that we will continue to respect one another's bound consciences, recognizing them to be faithful attempts at hearing God's Word. And it is my prayer that what will come from these decisions is a multitude of Christians-eyes, hands, heads and feet-all committed to knowing and sharing the love of God.

Your servant in Christ,


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Last edited August 21, 2009

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