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False presuppositions and questionable assumptions

by the Rev. Dr. Karl P. Donfried, Amherst, Mass.


A Critical Analysis of the Recommendations from the ELCA Church Council to the ELCA Churchwide Assembly On Sexuality Studies dated April 11, 2005


photo of Rev. Karl P. DonfriedThe Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, meeting in assembly this August, is being asked by the church council to vote on matters of enormous Scriptural and Confessional import as well as issues that will affect both the future of Lutheranism and all of the ELCA's ecumenical relationships. It is therefore imperative that all enter this assembly solemnly, prayerfully, with humility and full knowledge of the assumptions and, often false, presuppositions contained in the recommendations from the ELCA Church Council on sexuality issues dated April 11, 2005 so that all decisions will be grounded in Scripture zas interpreted by the Lutheran Confessions.

The fundamental premise of the recommendations from the ELCA church council is that same-sex sexual conduct in a committed relationship is morally defensible for those who are of homosexual orientation and that such persons (following the process outlined by the church council) may be ordained into the ministry of the ELCA. Since the Scriptural and theological foundation for such a premise has neither been provided by the Task Force for the ELCA Studies on Sexuality nor by the ELCA church council, one is, therefore, obligated to examine the presuppositions and assumptions implicit in the latter's recommendations since the Lutheran reform movement from its origin has insisted that all ecclesial and ethical decisions can be made only in accordance with a warrant from Scripture as interpreted by the Lutheran Confessions.

Recommendations 1 and 2

The following assumptions and presuppositions are related to recommendations 1 and 2:

1. That this church is "united by love of Jesus Christ" and that "within this unity is also a God-given diversity" Two issues require discussion.

a. Does love create the unity of the Church or is it the Holy Spirit that unites the Church in the truth of the Gospel through faith of which love is a primary manifestation? "Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you" (2 Cor. 13:11). The Apostle further reminds those in Christ to "be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind." (Phil. 2:2). Love is the manifestation of unity in Christ, not its basis.

b. Since the word "diversity" is an ideological term popular in secular culture and does not appear in Scripture, we have to assume that "variety of gifts" is meant. Paul, however, intentionally links this phrase with the adjective "same." "Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone" (1 Cor. 12:4). Reconciled diversity can never function as a substitute for the simultaneous embrace of contradictory moral positions within the church.

2. That the ELCA "be urged to concentrate on ways to live together faithfully in the midst of disagreements..." What these words seem to suggest is that the ELCA will be asked to make a decision on blessing same-sex relationships in August based on neither Scripture nor the Confessions and then to urge the majority of its members to subsequently live faithfully with the decisions imposed by a minority that is flagrant in its opposition to faith standards held by the Church catholic always, everywhere and by all.

3. That "we respect the integrity of convictions of conscience and faithŠ" Both Scripture and the Confessions unmistak ably distinguish between "good" consciences and "weak" consciences. Whenever conscience severs itself from faith in Christ and fidelity to the Word, it is no longer conscience in the true sense. Indeed, some in the Corinthian church wanted to solve their disagreements by applying precisely such a therapeutic model of conscience, an approach that Paul unequivocally rejected.

4. That the ELCA "trust pastors and congregations to discern ways to provide faithful pastoral care to same-sex couples." The use of the term "same-sex couples" goes beyond all previous statements of this church that explicitly refer only to "gay and lesbian persons." However, without scriptural and theological authorization for the legitimacy of "same-sex couples" within the household of faith, such pastoral care cannot be "faithful" to the sacredness and holiness of sexuality as described by Scripture and the universal Church.

Recommendation 3

The following assumptions and presuppositions are related to recommendation 3:

5. That "within this church we continue to share a profound commitment to the authority of Scripture as the norm for faith and life" and "we recognize there are deeply held yet different interpretations of Scripture [with regard to homosexuality] to which consciences are bound." In light of these assertions the following concerns need to be considered:

a. If the ELCA indeed holds Scripture as normative, it is necessary to maintain the Lutheran hermeneutical emphasis of viewing the canonical whole with regard to sexuality and 9 not to remove isolated texts from this canonical context.

b. Different and conflicting interpre9tations of the Bible often result from a non-Trinitarian, ideologically driven set of hermeneutical assumptions. Because some scholars, for example, argue that Jesus¹ crucifixion is irrelevant for Christology or because some argue that Jesus¹ resurrection is non-historical, these are hardly grounds for renouncing the basic confessional principles of Lutheran theology.

c. It is the Lutheran, Trinitarian hermeneutic that must judge the appropriateness of the interpretations of individual texts based on the canonical whole. This principle is neither in evidence in the work of the task force on sexuality nor in the deliberations of the church council.<.p>

6. That the "most instructive parallel for this moment may be clergy who are divorced and remarried, a condition specifically condemned in Scripture by Jesus. Without contradicting Scriptural teaching, this church examines such persons and their witness, and may endorse their call to ministry." This statement is both false and contains contradictory double-talk, that is, how is it possible to state a biblical principle (incorrectly in this case), blatantly contradict it and then say that this is being done "without contradicting Scriptural teaching"? Neither Scripture nor Jesus ever discuss the issue of "clergy who are divorced and remarried...." Scripture indicates that Jesus, in fact, does make an important exception with regard to divorce: "And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery" (Matt. 19:9; see also Matt. 5:31-32). To refer to this as a "most instructive parallel" is grossly misleading. The entire and unanimous witness of Scripture is against the practice of homosexuality in all of its manifestations; this is not the case with regard to divorce where there is a limited exception. One might add that the church's laxity in properly assessing the appropriateness of divorce and remarriage can never serve as a foundation for an ethic of sexual laissez-faire. Abusus non tollit usum! [Abuse does not preclude proper use]. And, then, finally to argue that the "remarriage of divorced people" is a process that "provides the opportunity for continued discernment for where the Holy Spirit is leading this church" smacks of theological naiveté. Even if Lutherans are not aware of the guidance of the church fathers, they should at least be aware that Melanchthon worked out precise criteria for divorce and remarriage.

7. That leaving the Scriptural "language reflective of the traditional view intact" but requiring "additional steps for granting exceptions respects what this church believes to be the extraordinary nature of these calls." This assertion both relegates Scripture to "language reflective of the traditional view" effectively excising Scripture as an authoritative Word for the post-modern world and overriding its authority with a non-canonical, ideological perspective.

8. That "within this church we confess that all people are sinful beings, including those who serve in rostered ministry." Does this declaration intend to suggest that because we acknowledge sinfulness that therefore all behaviors may be condoned, even those contrary to the Christian life? Is this assertion not remarkably similar to the one that the Apostle Paul had to reject unequivocally in Rom. 6:1-2? "What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it?" This ELCA declaration confuses the biblical definition of sin as well as drastically divorces grace from the holiness and purity of the Christian life that is expected of all who believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

9. That "there are those in this church who believe that the Holy Spirit is calling into public ministry persons who are in committed, same-sex relationships, and congregations are indicating a willingness to call such persons to service." Indeed, through the history of the Christian Church many individuals and groups believed that they were being led by the Holy Spirit to do things that the Trinitarian church labeled as heretical. The point is that the Holy Spirit does not simultaneously call the Body of Christ into contradictory paths. We find ourselves in a time when some biblical scholars driven by post-modern perspectives present us with fundamentally contradictory claims about Jesus and the authority of Scripture. The words of St. Paul are appropriate in this second millennium as well: "I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says, 'Let Jesus be cursed!' and no one can say 'Jesus is Lord' except by the Holy Spirit" (1 Cor. 12:3). It is the same Spirit that assigns a variety of gifts and to "each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good" (1 Cor. 12:7). Again the Apostle Paul speaks to this issue: "we were all made to drink of one Spirit" (1 Cor. 12:12). To discern whether some in Christ are truly speaking for "the upbuilding and encouragement and consolation" of the body of Christ (1 Cor. 14:3) is indeed urgent since "all who eat and drink without discerning the body [that is, the church] eat and drink judgment against themselves" (1 Cor. 11:29). But for such a process of prayerful and theological reflection, serious discernment must take place before rather than after the fact of such a momentous decision. To date there is no evidence that such a process has taken place, only the assertions by some that they have been given direction by the Holy Spirit as to His leading. But once the ecclesiological decision has been made to ordain practicing gays and lesbians it will be irreversible and it will have been made on the basis of the alleged individual knowledge of some but not by the discernment of the Holy Spirit by all. We are all "made to drink of one Spirit" (1 Cor. 12:12), the Holy Spirit who is not the private possession of some but the Triune God's gift to His holy and apostolic church.


Given the fact that the recommendations of the church council have no demonstrated Lutheran theological foundations and are based on questionable assumptions and a series of false presuppositions, their recommendations for action will result in a heterodox ELCA marked by:

1. The creation of enormous tensions at the local level and heightened political activity with regard to the election of bishops at both the synodical and national levels with a key litmus test being a given candidate's position on the "limited process for exceptions to the normative policies of this church" thus effectively undermining "ways to live together faithfully in the midst of our disagreements."

2. A church willing to do mission without a normative Trinitarian hermeneutic and willing to live with contradictory interpretations of Scripture derived from a hermeneutic alien to that confessed by the Lutheran reform movement.

3. A church that no longer believes in one and the same Holy Spirit that activates all His gifts for the common good, but rather a series of contradictory spirits that substitute ideological agendas of diversity.

4. A church that will operate on the basis of deception by maintaining one set of standards but simultaneously contradicting them. The normative principle of sola scriptura is maintained by creating contradictory exceptions to it thus, in effect, undermining its authority. Such deceit is further enhanced when one fails to recognize that‹by authorizing the ordination of practicing gays and lesbians via the process of "exceptions" ‹the ELCA, in fact, has created a new norm in the life of the ELCA, one that will contradict Scripture, the Lutheran Confessions, the one holy, catholic and apostolic church and the stated positions of its worldwide ecumenical partners.

Therefore, in order to avoid the dissolution of American Lutheranism as currently expressed by the ELCA, I urge that the churchwide assembly recognize that serious failures of process and policy have been pursued to date and that the only appropriate action to be taken is to call for a completely new course of action. Such a renewed procedure would place all future deliberations in the context of the Lutheran Confessions and could mark them with careful theological, scriptural and scientific study and deliberation. Further, it is requisite that the ELCA follow the proper order of first emphasizing the Christian understanding of sexuality as a whole and only then its specific manifestations and aberrations. If this course is not followed the words of the eminent German Lutheran theologian, Prof. Wolfhart Pannenberg, may indeed be tragically prophetic:

"Whoever pressures the church to alter the normativeness of its teaching with regard to homosexuality must be aware that person promotes schism in the church. For a church that would permit itself to be pressured to no longer understand homosexual activity as a deviation from the biblical norm and to recognize homosexual partnerships alongside marriage, such a church would no longer be based on the foundation of Scripture, but, rather in opposition to its unanimous witness. A church that moves in such a direction would therefore have ceased being an evangelical church following in the steps of the Lutheran Reformation." (Zeitwende, 65/1, January 1994, author's trans.).

[This article appeared earlier in Lutheran Forum.]

  • The Rev. Prof. Karl P. Donfried
  • Professor and doctor of theology,
  • Smith College, Northampton, Mass.