A Case Study in the Ethics of Dialogue: ELCA Sexuality Study 2002-2005

[We] need a positive moral vision that would start by rejecting the idea that we are locked into incessant conflict along class, cultural, racial and ideological lines. It would reject all the appurtenances of the culture warrior pose — the us/them thinking, exaggerating the malevolence of the other half of the country, relying on crude essentialist stereotypes to categorize yourself and others…. America is ferociously divided on economic, regional, racial and creedal lines. The job of leaders is to stand above these divides and seek to heal them. — David Brooks


[1] It hardly needs saying that our society is desperately in need of public conversations among persons and groups of different views that are dialogical rather than constantly confrontational and rancorous. Dialogue is an inherently ethical practice and the ethics of dialogue point the way to civil and productive interchange. As public disagreements become more and more vitriolic and even violent, the church needs to be a place where civil discourse, fueled by love seeking justice, is sustained as a truly counter-cultural witness.

[2] It has been twenty years since the inception of the ELCA Studies in Sexuality. Perhaps this anniversary date suggests a review of that endeavor is in order. However, that is not my purpose.  My interest is in the process of the initial study focus on the church and homosexuality (2002 – 2005) as a case study in the ethics of dialogue. The ELCA at its 2001 Churchwide Assembly ordered that a study be done on homosexuality with reference to two issues: the blessing of same-sex unions and the ordination, consecration, and commissioning of people in committed same-sex unions.[1]

[3] The divergent views within the church on these questions were deeply held and the exchanges between those holding these differing views was often as rancorous, unyielding, and divisive as what we are seeing in our public discourse today on policy and social values. A cloud of suspicion immediately descended upon the launch of the study. Those opposed to change in church policy, feared that liberals in positions of leadership were trying to engineer a change against the will of the majority. (As newly appointed Director of the study, I was immediately subjected to scrutiny of my record as a teacher in the church and my publications were examined for evidence of bias in favor of changes in the traditional position.) There was no want of vigorous debate on these matters. However, debate is about winning a point against an opponent, which tends only to deepen the divide. What was needed if the church was dialogue. The study guide, Journey Together Faithfully, Part Two was designed with the ethics of dialogue in mind and as a resource aligned with its principles, as we shall see.

[4] The study process itself involved dialogue at three different levels. First was the dialogue within the task force that developed the study guide and subsequently worked on recommendations in dialogue with the results of the study. Second was the dialogue among the participants in the study as individuals and in groups. Third was the dialogue in the church in general as it engaged the recommendations coming from the task force.

[5] It is my contention that the process of the study at all levels provided examples of the ethics of dialogue and stands as a public witness to the importance of dialogue for unity in diversity.


Dialogue and its Principles

[6] I like this from James Nash as a working definition of dialogue:

Dialogue is an interpersonal process of communication between two or more equal parties with strong commitments and divergent perspectives on given issues, for the purpose of mutual enlightenment and transformation.[2]

There is no doubt that we had two or more strongly committed divergent perspectives in the church. Were they equally represented in the dialogue and were there patterns of dialogue on which to build? The necessity of “equal parties” goes to the heart of the ethics of dialogue as an essentially egalitarian process. How well the study process met that standard and whether we can speak confidently of achieving some measure of mutual enlightenment and/or transformation is the discussion that lies ahead of us.

Historical Precedent

[7] First, it was important for the task force and the church to know what models of dialogue had preceded and what can be learned from them. At the fourth meeting of the task force on April 25, 2003 the task force was presented with a paper by Wendy Cage entitled, “Vital Conflicts: The Mainline Denominations Debate Homosexuality.”[3] Her historical analysis followed the discussions and dialogues of seven mainline churches during a period beginning in 1970 up to what was then the present at the time of presentation. While her research showed no real resolution of concerns over homosexuality in the church, there were signs of greater openness to acceptance of homosexuality in some of the churches. The lack of resolution, including a lack of resolve to drop the matter had drawn criticisms of weakness on the part of these churches. Cage argued against this judgment saying,

I argue in this chapter that the mainline churches have been successful in their struggles with homosexuality not in their resolution of the issue – it has by no means been resolved- but in their continued commitment to be in dialogue and debate about the topic. These ten- to thirty-year-old discussions are the marks of vital denominations comprised of people who are strongly committed to their churches and to ongoing, often difficult, conversations about homosexuality.

Cage’s analysis and judgment was important. It provided a history of dialogue among fellow Christians that reinforced the meaningfulness of the ELCA endeavor. It challenged the view of those in the church who regarded the very existence of the study as a betrayal of traditional sanctions against homosexual behavior because it suggested that there was even something to discuss.

[8] When the ELCA began the study, we could assume agreement among members of the church on the dogma of the faith as embodied in the creeds, the Lutheran Confession, justification by grace through faith and the Bible as the source of doctrine for faith and life (Sola Gratia, Sola Fide, Sola Scriptura), and our unity in the sacraments. However, when it came to deliberation on the this controversy commonly held beliefs were less and less apparent. Yes, Scripture is paramount but there was profound disagreement on the interpretation of what it says to our contemporary understandings of sexual orientation. Do the so-called “clobber texts” that seem to condemn homosexual behavior really speak to gay and lesbian Christians seeking a committed relationship blessed by the church?  Is heterosexuality the order of creation and deviation from that orientation a product of the fall and therefor hopelessly disordered?  Add to that disagreement on the facts of sexual orientation: is it as given or a choice? Can it be reversed by therapy?  Combine disagreement on what the Bible says with disagreement on the facts of the case created a first-rate challenge for dialogue. Furthermore, underlying these disagreements were visceral feelings and profound personal experiences that created the filters through which people interpret reality. These are the wild cards in dialogue!

Equal Parties: Love and Justice as Equal Regard

[9] The neighbor love that Jesus taught knows no exceptions; all must be equally regarded as objects of our respect and concern. Egalitarian justice likewise affirms the equal dignity of all persons. However, equal regard in both love and justice must also be facilitated. Principles embodying love and rules ensuring justice are needed so that claims of equality for all persons and groups in society can actually be realized. So it is with the ethics of dialogue. If the divergent parties involved are to be equals in the deliberations, their views must be equally represented in all facets of the dialogue. This had to begin with the task force whose diversity of viewpoints needed to mirror those of the church as much as possible alongside a readiness to embrace the principles of dialogue in their deliberations.

[10] The task force makeup had the usual mix of clergy, academics, professionals, representative laity, and those personally involved in the matter at hand. Attention was also paid to gender and ethnic diversity, as well as gay and lesbian presence. Most important was the diversity of viewpoints and unity in readiness to dialogue rather than debate. The following statements from task force members came as people introduced themselves at the first meeting on May 3, 2002.

  • “I want to listen to what others hear. We should be bound to the Word and not our personal agendas.”
  • “I hope we will treat each other with respect, compassion, and form close friendships…My fear is that our mission and ministry will be hindered, that I may be misunderstood and labeled, or that I may hurt someone by something I say or do.”
  • “It will take work to change my mind.”
  • “I have three brothers, one is gay, one is conservative, but believes local congregations should be able to do what they want…Our differences over this is not over the authority of the Bible but the authority of specific interpretation of texts. We can’t treat this with disdain.”
  • “I hope we can listen to each other. Try to understand the other point of view. You don’t have to agree with it. Try to understand where their pain is.”
  • “My experience [at college] includes friends who are gay and lesbian and bisexual. They said, ‘tell them {the task force] that I want to get married in church someday.’”
  • “My congregation is very concerned about this issue. It voted to redirect funds from the ELCA [over this issue].”
  • “We have people whose consciences are bound…. We need to respect those consciences.”
  • “I’m pastor at …I am openly gay. People [of the parish] see my life and wish I had a helpmate.”

[11] These remarks at the first meeting give some sense of the different experiences and perspectives the members brought as a reflection of the church at large and with a willingness to listen and share.

[12] The task force study and the study guide they generated with the Director was carefully constructed to present equal representation of views held in the church on the biblical witness, the witness of the tradition, and the claims and limits of contemporary science. Thus, the material was intended as a resource to help participants listen to others and in their study dialogue to give equal regard to views different from their own.

Equal Parties: Love and Justice as Listening

[13] Listening carefully and respectfully in order to make every effort to understand the other person acknowledges the other as an equal partner in the conversation. Christian love is about establishing trust and trust is foundational to just relationships. This encouragement appeared in the study guide under the heading, “Productive Discussion in a Spirit of Mutual Respect.”

Listen as much or more than you talk. Genuine listening is not a passive activity, but an active, demanding one. Listen not only for the content of what is said, but the way it is said.[4]

[14] The task force members and the Director followed this directive in their intense conversations with one another. Most importantly they listened to the many voices of the church.  The correspondence filed in the archives of the ELCA reveals a huge volume of intense and deeply concerned expressions on both sides of the issue. There were poignant letters from parents of gay children, one of whom decried the fact that the church was treating their children like they were “mistakes.” Many spoke of the impact experience with gay people had on them. Others wrote extensively, offering detailed arguments for their point of view. Some offered what they considered to be compromise solutions. Lutheran Concerned, an advocacy group for gay and lesbian Lutherans published an open letter to the Lutheran churches of North America calling for repentance and detailing the sins of these churches against gay and lesbian Christians who are seeking acceptance of their irresponsible loving relationships, including a failure to listen and a neglect of their concerns.

[15] In addition to reading and responding to correspondence, the Director spoke and held forums in 22 synods as well as other venues and conducted phone chats (chats with Childs) with representatives from 17 different synods.

[16] Another important way for the task force to stay in dialogue with the church was meeting with the bishops.  The October 1, 2004 joint meeting of the task force and the synodical bishops was an important exercise in dialogue and dialogical thinking. First of all, it was essential to the ongoing dialogue in the church that the challenges of the issue be clear. It was acknowledged that we were united in our creedal faith, the Lutheran Confessions, and commitment to the Bible as source and norm for doctrine. However, once again, on this issue the bishops acknowledged that there was disagreement over what the Bible actually taught in light of present-day understandings of sexual orientation and, at the same time, disagreement over the facts of present-day claims about the nature of homosexuality. The convictions involved in these disagreements were disagreements of conscience.

[17] At this same meeting, subgroups from the task force presented a variety of proposed actions in light of these facts. Because positions held were grounded in deep theological convictions, based on differing interpretations of critical texts in Scripture, different views on biblical authority, differing views on the authority of tradition, and differing views on whether this issue was a matter of essential doctrine and, therefore, a church-dividing issue. Consequently, a utilitarian approach of what course of action would benefit the most and thereby preserve the church was off the table. However, in respect for conscience, compromises were proposed such as local options or a non-geographical synod to accommodate those congregations open to calling gay pastors in committed relationships.  This sort of compromise is one form of dialogical reasoning in an effort to resolve conflict. It is not a necessary outcome of dialogue but one that can quite naturally happen in an exchange marked by mutual respect between parties of differing views. The final recommendation to the churchwide assembly to retain current policy but allow for local exceptions is an example coming out of the dialogue among task force members.[5]

[19]  The following is a quote from their final report summarizes the listening work of the task force:

  • We listened carefully, respectfully, and compassionately to the voices of this church regarding the blessing of same-sex unions and the ordaining, consecrating, or commissioning of people in such committed partnerships.
  • We listened to the voices of those who believe that changes in our standards and practices will be a rejection of biblical authority and traditional teachings.
  • We listened to the voices of those who fear that the decisions this church takes will result in division.
  • We listened to the voices of those who offered heartfelt arguments for affirming the sexuality and committed relationships of people who are homosexual and for opening the doors of the church’s ministries to them.
  • We listened to those who offered their hopeful suggestions of how we can live together with our differences.
  •  We listened to the voices of those individuals and their family members who spoke of the pain of rejection and disdain suffered because of their sexual orientation. Indeed, we came to understand how this study itself is yet another source of that pain.
  • We listened to other messages from other voices recorded in the pages that follow. We heard these voices, the voices of the baptized children of God.
  • We heard the voices of those who stand side by side in worship to confess, “We are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves,” and then eagerly await the words of absolution: “In the mercy of Almighty God, Jesus Christ was given to die for you, and for his sake God forgives you all your sins.” (Lutheran Book of Worship, “Brief Order for Confession and Forgiveness”)
  • We heard the voices that speak from consciences bound to the Word of God, which they all treasure as the inspired norm of faith and life.
  •  We heard the voices of Christians who seek the grace of God to live a life.

Equal Parties: Love and Justice through Truth and Honesty

[20] If dialogue is a conversation between equal parties with divergent views it is essential that those views be clearly and honestly presented. If parties don’t give an honest account of their convictions –perhaps in an effort to please one another and minimize the experience of conflict– the dialogue will never reach to the heart of the matter and the results will likely be superficial. It takes some courage, then, to be a participant in face-to-face dialogue. When we openly share our views, we entrust ourselves to the other in the expectation that they will respect our positions and not reject us. Christian love is about establishing trust and trust is foundational to just relationships.

[21] Honest sharing also requires a safe place, a place where participants will feel able to express themselves without fear of being belittled, attacked, or shamed.  The devotions that we had at the beginning of each task force meeting helped to create that sense of a safe, even sacred space in which honesty was possible. The task force tried to foster that by including devotional suggestions at the beginning of each study session along with a constant reminder of our baptismal unity.

[22] Honesty must be matched by truthfulness. The following statement from the Lutherans Concerned Open Letter is impossible to over emphasize: “The churches have permitted malicious, false and antiquated, images of lesbian and gay persons by allowing us to be maligned, attacked, and denigrated from the pulpit.” False narratives and distortions and stereotypes flood public discourse in our present political climate. It was no less the case in the debate over homosexuality. The task force chair, the task force, and the Director had to be constantly vigilant in disabusing people of distortion and their tendency to emphasize behaviors that were not those of the gay and lesbian Christians in our church seeking the church’s affirmation of their committed partnerships. It was for this reason, in the interest of truth that experts spoke with the task force on what was known or not known about sexual orientation.  The study guide sought to summarize what science was saying in dialogue with traditional views in the church.[6]

Equal Parties: Love and Justice through Humility.

[23] Dialogue is not for those who are as James Nash put it, “afflicted by certitude.” Dialogue opens the possibility of discovering something that may modify your views or even change them. It opens the possibility of discovering that your understanding is incomplete or faulty. Dialogue opens the possibility of discovering that you have more in common with those of a divergent view than you had imagined. Dialogue is about discovery not winning a debate.

[25] Rigid certitude runs the risk of arrogance. Framed theologically, the affliction of certitude or exclusionary absolutism, evokes for me Luther’s indictment of the theology of glory, which Douglas John Hall has observed, “confuses and distorts because it presents divine revelation in a straightforward, undialectical, and authoritarian manner that silences doubt – silences therefore, real humanity.”[7]  By contrast Luther’s theology of the cross tells the truth about our fallen humanity. It entails a posture of humility, open to its own limitations and gratefully dependent upon the grace of God.

[26] The unconditional character of the love Christ commanded and the knowledge that we all exist only by God’s grace are foundational for the posture of humility. As such, it is the nature of humility to foster equality. Humility takes this orientation into the dialogue. Arrogant absolutism may offer love and confer grace by being gracious and patient and even tolerant perhaps, but this is love and grace from a position of assumed superiority, not one of mutuality and equality. In terms of the ethics of dialogue, humility is a virtue of love, the cornerstone of all Christian ethics.


The Fruits of Dialogue

How Did It Go?

[27] Dialogue according to the Nash definition is for “mutual enlightenment and transformation.” We can only speculate as to how much transformation may have occurred in the many venues of the dialogue throughout the church or how the dialogue contributed to the transformation of ELCA policy in subsequent years. However, there is a statistic in the report on responses to the study that is significant. 73.4% of individuals responding to the study experience said “they better understood the views of other people; they learned something.” Of groups reporting, 74.6% said they now better understood the views of others and had learned something. In my judgment this is a sign that dialogue can take us beyond antipathy and angry debate to establish an understanding of one another that is foundational for building relationships of mutual respect.

[28] Wendy Cage had this to say toward the end of her aforementioned paper:

Mainline churches have fostered debate [sic] about homosexuality in wider society by providing spaces in congregations and denominational meetings in which conversations about homosexuality could occur and by legitimating positions on all sides of the issue. As one of few public institutions where Americans might discuss homosexuality face to face with others, the public role of mainline churches around the issue is particularly significant.

[28] The example of this dialogue, which has been followed by others in the church on matters of public interest, is a public church witness on how we go about dealing with sharp divisions not only in the church but also in society. As it entered this dialogue twenty years ago, so many of the features of the division over homosexuality and homosexual activity in the church of that day are features we find in our current public divisions, such as demonizing the opponent, distorting their views and fostering an absolutism that erects insurmountable barriers to listening to one another. The study broke through those barriers for the majority of the participants showing that the ethics of dialogue remain a potent guide to civility in the general public and, for the church they are one form of the ethics of faith active in love seeking justice.




[1]The resolution of the Assembly also ordered the development of a social statement on human sexuality. This was undertaken after the conclusion of the first phase on the church and homosexuality.

[2] James Nash was Director for the Churches’ Center for Public Policy in Washington, D.C. as well teaching at Boston University. He arranged a number of dialogues in his career, including one between ethicists and representatives of the Chlorine industry in which I was privileged to participate. The quote is from his unpublished essay, “The Character and Conditions of Dialogue: A Realist’s Aspirations.”

[3] At the time this paper, recovered from the archives of the ELCA was unpublished. Wendy Cage is now a Professor at Brandeis University.

[4] Journey Together Faithfully: ELCA Studies on Sexuality: Part Two, The Church and Homosexuality (Chicago, IL: The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 2003), 6.

[5] The recommendation reads in part, “…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 otherwise believe to be in compliance with Vision and Expectations and to refrain from disciplining those rostered people so approved and called.”

[6] Ibid., 27-31.

[7] Douglas John Hall, The Cross in Our Context: Jesus and the Suffering World (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 20.

James M. Childs is Joseph A. Sittler Emeritus Professor of Theology and Ethics at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus Ohio.

James M. Childs

James M. Childs is Joseph A. Sittler Emeritus Professor of Theology and Ethics at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus Ohio.