In 2005, the churchwide assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America voted on three recommendations from the ELCA Church Council dealing with homosexual behavior. Two were approved and the third defeated. While the meaning of the approval of the second was ambiguous, the defeat of the third clearly affirmed the present ordination standards. Apparently not wanting to wait for a social statement on human sexuality to come before the 2009 churchwide assembly, those who advocate for radically revising the standards have pushed hard this year in their campaign to overturn ELCA teaching and practice. They have made a concerted effort at synod assemblies this spring to pass memorials seeking such changes, so the issues "decided" in 2005 likely will be raised again at this summer's churchwide assembly in Chicago.
However, all of the resolutions, interpretations and analyses miss this crucial point: God's will is not determined by assembly vote. If the sexual revisionists' campaign to overturn the teaching and practice of the ELCA were to succeed one day, could we possibly conclude that God's will for the faithful use of sexuality had suddenly changed because a 51% or 67% majority vote finally was achieved in some assembly? In this battle over sexuality, which has been going on for the entire life of the ELCA, we have been asked repeatedly to vote on matters that simply are not up for votes.
Discerning God's will is a constant struggle for sinful human beings, which is precisely why Lutherans have always insisted that the only reliable basis for such discernment is God's Word, incarnate in Jesus Christ and recorded in the Bible. "We believe, teach and confess that the only rule and guiding principle according to which all teaching and teachers are to be evaluated and judged are the prophetic and apostolic writings of the Old and New Testaments alone." (Formula of Concord, "Epitome," emphasis added.) "This church accepts the canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the inspired Word of God and the authoritative source and norm of its proclamation, faith, and life." (ELCA Constitution, 2.03.) Those convictions are based on the Bible's own witness to its authority and function as God's Word:
"As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, . . . so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it." (Isaiah 55:10-11) "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away." (Mark 13:31) "Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth." (John 17:17) See also Psalm 119:105, Matthew 7:24-27, Romans 10:17 and 2 Timothy 3:14-17.
The Bible's uniform witness is that, because of the power and purpose of sexual intercourse, the only appropriate arena for it is the marriage of one man and one woman. In setting that boundary, God forbids and protects us from sexual activity with those who are too young (pedophilia), too close to us (incest), too different from us (bestiality) and too much alike us (homosexuality). What is left in the center is man and woman as sexually complementary beings, united into one flesh in an enduring and exclusive bond of marriage.
This structure for the use of sexuality is grounded in the very framework of creation in Genesis and is affirmed by Jesus himself: "Haven't you read," he replied, "that at the beginning the Creator 'made them male and female,' and said, 'For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh?' So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate." (Matt. 19:4-6, in which Jesus quotes Genesis 1 and 2); and consistently taught by the apostles: "Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and the sexually immoral." (Heb. 13:4; see also 1 Cor. 6:15-20)
Moreover, unlike other contentious issues such as slavery or women's ordination, it is not possible to make a positive Biblical case for approving other forms of sexual expression. Many people have tried to explain away or dismiss the Bible's witness, but that very effort betrays its attempt to overcome what is the Bible's clear, consistent proscription of homosexual behavior.
It is important to acknowledge that living sexually in accord with God's will also has been a constant struggle for sinners. Sadly, this good gift from God has been a source of much confusion, pain and harm throughout human history. However, the appropriate response to those struggles is surely not to reject the Bible's witness. The most loving approach Christians can possibly take is to hold one another accountable to God's will for sexuality, with deep compassion and in all humility.
To ask synod or churchwide assemblies to vote on these or other matters of God's will that simply are not up for votes creates a lose-lose situation for everyone involved. It creates confusion in the minds of believers. It distracts the Church from its mission of proclaiming God's justification of the ungodly and of helping those in need. Most of all, by undermining the Bible's authority as "the only rule and guiding principle according to which all teaching and teachers are to be evaluated and judged," it leads down a dangerous path of pride and unbelief, placing ourselves over and against God and His Word. It would be wise and faithful for the members and leaders of the ELCA to reject all attempts to bring matters of God's will to a vote.
All of us come before God confident of the promised forgiveness of our sinful human condition. Because of that forgiveness, we can open the door to constructive, faithful discussion of God's call to all people, of all sexual orientations, to live in obedience to the Word of God. United in that call, we can support and encourage each other daily in proclamation of God's Word and in living out God's commands.