Community of Moral Deliberation and an Emerging Responsibility Ethic


[1] “The church needs a genuine social ethic that helps its members discern between the more and the less worthy centers of loyalty, the more and the less worthy secular perspectives on politics and economic life;…. It needs a social ethic that helps its members judge the claims to legitimacy that groups and movements make. A sustained interpretation and critique of
society is required from the perspective of the community that acknowledges that there is no authority except from God.”[1] So wrote well-known ethicist James Gustafson a good number of years before the beginning of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). As the ELCA passes the mark of being 25 years young, the kind of churchly (ecclesial) social ethic he called for seems to be emerging in the body of social teaching of the ELCA. While I believe it is possible to identify and articulate this evangelical Lutheran social ethic, such a task requires a great deal more space than is provided by an essay for the Journal of Lutheran Ethics (JLE).[2] The point of this essay, though, is to explore the practice of “community of moral deliberation” and in so doing we see how it suggests how the emerging social ethic bears the marks of a “responsibility ethic.” That is, the practice of the ELCA as a community of moral deliberation is consistent with the characteristics of a responsibility ethic in the means of reasoning/thinking toward moral conclusions and the means for using those moral principles. This essay will first unpack some terms and invite the reader to recognize the scope of the ELCA’s social ethics and then explore its character as a “responsibility” ethic. In this way, the central contribution of the practice of communal moral discernment to this ethic should become clear.

An emerging evangelical Lutheran social ethic

[2] It is best to call this ethic “emerging” because more remains to be done even though the basic pieces of a cogent social ethic all are visible in the body of the social teaching of the ELCA. The existing reference points already provide enough of the map, as it were, to surmise how many of the issues or themes not yet addressed would be articulated generally within the consistency and coherence already in place.

[3] “Evangelical” speaks to the Pauline concern that justification by grace apart from works of the law is the fundamental principle which “preserves and guides all churchly teaching and established our consciences before God.”[3] The term also represents the ethic’s grounding in the Lutheran Confessions as ordinal sources and that it bears the evangelical confessors’ restatement of the central thrust of Paul’s ethic as the one afforded normative authority.[4] This evangelical ethic seeks a moral articulation that is faithful to the or at least to a dominant biblical ethic.

[4] “Lutheran,” is used together with “evangelical” to distinguish this approach from other Lutheran ethics. At the same time, the two terms also situate the ethic within the Lutheran tradition that includes a collection of perennial themes and characteristics. These are identified in scripture, highlighted in the Confessions, and framed through the writings of Luther, Melanchthon, Bugenhagen, and other reformers. (See Appendix One.) The Wittenberg reformers did not intend to be identified as “Lutheran” and saw themselves only as a temporary reform movement. Even as an ongoing movement, however, “Lutheran” became a tradition within the church catholic precisely because humans live and think out of traditions.[5] The terms evangelical and Lutheran used together indicate this ethic’s historical touch points.

Scope and authority of ELCA social teaching

[5] Appendix Two lists the body of ELCA social teaching that includes 12 social statements (broad, framing documents), 12 social messages (topical considerations of a more limited nature) and several more substantial Social Policy Resolutions (resolutions stating policy directives on narrowly defined issues). Any consideration of the “means” of a social ethic also must list “Policies and Procedures of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America for Addressing Social Concerns” since it provides a theoretical protocol and commitments that shape the development of ELCA social ethics.

[6] Taken together, the range of questions addressed by this body of teaching documents is remarkably comprehensive. Appendix Three delineates the many social institutions and issues addressed at some length and suggests even more clearly than a list of document titles that an ad hoc address has led the ELCA to attend to most of the overarching social questions raised in contemporary life.[6]

[7] To be a bit more accurate, I should say the teaching is relatively comprehensive because a couple of evident gaps exist. For example, work is only now beginning on women and justice, and ELCA documents have not sketched an adequate political ethic regarding the nature, role, and scope of government or related questions around the nature of citizenship or civic duty, taxation, etc. Besides such exceptions, it is remarkable how serial attention to different social concerns over the 25 years of the ELCA’s existence has provided a relatively comprehensive body of teaching that touches on all the great social institutions of contemporary U.S. society.

[8] As an ethic emerging within the ELCA, it should be noted, this body of teaching has a particular authority. It governs the official statements and practices of the ELCA as an institution and provides a rhetorical or persuasive authority for consideration of its members. Consistent with Lutheranism, this moral teaching does not bind the conscience of members but it does represent a “go to” ethic when discerning issues of social ethics.[7] Such authority is achieved through their participatory “testing” that seeks to determine what is faithful to scripture and the Lutheran heritage in dialog with the best contemporary social analysis. Such “participatory testing” depends significantly on the practice of communal moral deliberation or discernment, as will be sketched below.

Responsibly consistent

[9]Consulting the dictionary, one reads that consistency is defined as “conformity in the application of a concept or mode of operation, typically that which is needed for the sake of logic, accuracy or fairness across the topic/s being considered.”[8] Notice the mention of both conceptual and operational application. The title of this section, “responsibly consistent” plays on words but the point is that the conceptual and operational consistency of the ELCA’s social ethic shows the marks of a responsibility ethic. Moreover, responsibility ethics practice fits consistently and comfortably with key elements of the evangelical Lutheran tradition.

[10] Those who remember their college ethics class recall that three general modes of doing ethics exist: deontological, teleological and cathekontic, or an ethics of what is “fitting.” In deontological ethics, human beings are perceived primarily as under obligation or duties and the emphasis is upon determining what is right deductively from absolute norms. In teleological ethics, human beings are primarily understood as “makers” and the emphasis is on goal orientation to the good, expressed either as concern for consequences or the virtues and characteristics of self-formation.

[11] In contrast, cathekontic or responsibility (the term used here) ethics recognizes human beings primarily as dialogical creatures. It sees human beings as answerers who live through response and interaction. The focus is on discerning what is a fitting response within the extremely complex situations of contemporary life that always include manifold competing demands and moral challenges. Despite differences among those who work from within this mode of ethical operation, they share in common the idea of responsibility as the frame for moral thinking and as an operational mode that is not reducible to an ethics of duty or virtue.

[12] Given the ambiguity and varieties camped under the banner of responsibility, it is important to identify the kind operating here. In his book Responsibility and Christian Ethics, William Schweiker provides a salutary typology of three types of responsibility.[9] While attentive to agential capacity and social vocation (the first two types), ELCA statements are of a different ilk. The central concern they share with others of the dialogical, or 3rd type, falls on responsiveness. The emphasis falls on being answerers, on the responsibility to a whom, to another, rather than to a what (for instance, a universal principle).

[13] The evidence that such a responsibility ethic operates implicitly in the body of ELCA teaching appears in the 5th paragraph of the first and foundational ELCA social statement. The 1991 Church in Society: A Lutheran Perspective reads: “The witness of this church in society flows from its identity as a community that lives from and for the Gospel. It is in grateful response to God’s grace in Jesus Christ that this church carries out its responsibility for the well-being of society and the environment.” Notice that the primary theme here is responsiveness, albeit directed in two ways. The Christian responds to God’s grace in Jesus Christ and also carries out responsibility for the created world. The moral origin is in response to God, but significantly this does not move it toward, for instance, a Barthian command ethics. Rather, the content of morality is structured in the patterns of interaction and is recognized as what is needed by the “neighbor” (think whole creation) we are called to love and serve.

[14] One sees other such references to responsibility throughout virtually all the major ELCA social statements, while being articulated most clearly in some. A prime example occurs in the 2009 statement on Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust, the unarguably most “known” statement. That statement spends significant space exploring fundamental Lutheran claims and in so doing explicitly cites Luther’s thesis from The Freedom of the Christian. The Christian, Luther paradoxically claims is: “a perfectly free Lord of all, subject to none;” and at the very same time “a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”[10]

[15] In explicating that passage, the statement observes: “Justified by faith, Lutherans understand that, because of God’s gift, their freedom in Christ leads to a vocation of responsible and humble service to the neighbor (Romans 13:8-10).” Significantly, it goes on to state: “Our vocation of service leads us to live out our responsibilities primarily in light of and in response to the neighbor’s needs, often in complex and sometimes tragic situations.”[11] The text then turns to other fundamental and normative material such as the Ten Commandments to identify values and the moral principles for guiding those responses. One sees parallel moves in virtually every social statement.

[16] I do not imply that any group sat down at the beginning of the ELCA in 1988 and said, “OK the ELCA will be doing responsibility ethics.” In fact, the repeated appearance of responsibility references in the statements without conscious intent supports the argument being made here. Responsibility ethics is widely regarded as emerging in the 20th century because of the new contexts of human power, pluralism, complexity and authority. These factors do not dictate a responsibility mode but they are conditions that favor its emergence in general and suit an evangelical Lutheran ethic in particular. This mode was not pre-established but its concepts and commitments find synergy with both Lutheran themes and contemporary practices. The concept and practice of a community of moral deliberation is a prime illustration.

[17] In Church and Society: A Lutheran Perspective, the ELCA accepts the identity of being a “community of moral deliberation” as essential to what it means to be the church today. [Italics mine.] That social statement used footnotes sparsely but certainly the early conceptual work of James Gustafson, among others, was in the background. In his essay entitled “A Community of Moral Discourse,” note the similarity of terms Gustafson uses. He makes the case for this concept by pointing to the growing complexity of knowledge and the difficulty with determinative norms that was emerging in the 20th century.

[18] Likewise, Gustafson also identified the change in the nature of accepted authority at that time, a change that only has accelerated into what one might today call a “participatory assumption.” It is commonly assumed in our time that individuals today as church members expect specific means to be provided for participation in any process leading to authoritative pronouncements.

[19] In the development of its social teaching documents, ELCA practice now designates five identifiable points for such national participation: a) listening events that generate reports about members’ concerns to the social statement task force early in the process; b) a study response period in which any ELCA member can use a form or email to respond to a major study produced by the task force; c) a comment and response period for the draft of a social statement that involves online response, letters and synodical hearings; d) a review period of the proposed social statement offered by the task force by the ELCA Conference of Bishops and by the Church Council that also can generate memorials of support, concern or objection at synod assemblies; and e) the final adoption process that requires a super majority vote of a churchwide assembly. The 1991 commitment to being a community of moral deliberation now means that literally thousands of people provide input and feedback to those guiding the development of a teaching and policy document.

[20] In related essays, Gustafson–known for contributions toward thinking about responsibility ethics–also highlights the role of both the specialist and diversity in contemporary society and these, too, have become critical in ELCA moral deliberation. He writes: “What I am suggesting is evident: churches as communities of moral discourse need to involve the intelligent participation of specialists who can inform each other as their attention is directed to some moral and social policy. The specialization of knowledge makes moral discourse all the more necessary. Churches also need to bring into participation persons who represent varieties of interest, conflicting loyalties and values, so that whatever consensus emerges is informed by the feelings and judgments of various groups.”

[21] Each ELCA social statement task force and social message consulting group is constituted by specialists and with attention to diversity. Churchwide staff spends considerable time assembling a group according to the topic under consideration that includes diverse skill sets, perspectives and social locations. The resulting task force engages in a multiple-year process of learning and give and take. Among this task force only a handful are religious scholars by training.

[21] That these commitments and practices operate in a responsibility mode becomes clearer through a brief comparison with Roman Catholic practice. In that church official social teaching flows down from the discussion and decisions of a magisterium. Those theological experts may well consult with non-religious specialists, but theologians dominate the articulation of the ethic. There is little, if any, participatory discernment process. Moreover, the principles articulated are absolutely binding, theoretically, on the conscience of members when delivered ex Cathedra.

[22] ELCA pronouncements are achieved through wide participation and expected to be carefully developed frameworks to identify factors and principles for discernment throughout the church. As noted earlier, ELCA social documents do govern church teaching and are to inform conscientious reflection, but are not binding on the consciences of members because their authority is to be persuasive not coercive.

Toward an evangelical Lutheran social ethic

[23] Without making any explicit decision, an ethic of responsibility is emerging in the body of ELCA teaching. The language of responsibility pervades the documents and the ELCA has been practicing a responsibility mode from early on, set in motion by its initial self-understanding as a community of moral discernment. Protocol for developing social teaching documents over the years has strengthened that mode through greater commitments to diversity, the role of non-theological specialists, and a more participatory process of arriving at social teaching. The outcome has been a remarkably comprehensive and responsibly consistent body of teaching that the Spirit can use to guide the members of the ELCA as this church lives in the world. The ways in which participatory moral deliberation occurs will undoubtedly continue to develop. But clearly, ELCA ethical reflection operates exactly as one would expect when done in the mode of responsibility before God and in response to the complex, dynamic, pluralistic, participatory social needs of “the neighbor.”


Appendix 1: Key Lutheran Theological and Moral Concepts in ELCA Teaching

Key theological ideas (foundational for attention to social teaching):

  • justification (simul justus et peccator) –> Christian morality is a response to the gracious God that frees and calls us to service
  • theology of the cross (corresponding assumption of the hiddenness of God)
  • distinction between law (demand) and gospel (promise), especially as key hermeneutical principle for reading scripture
    Scripture as normative for faith and living
  • Trinitarian framework

Key Lutheran moral ideas

  • twofold attention: Christian freedom (freedom for) linked with commandments
  • two uses of the law
  • vocation (callings, or places of responsibility)
  • two governances by which God works within human society (traditionally called two kingdoms), including the need to continually discern God’s will within the dynamic structures of natural orderings;
  • orderings of creation (shifting natural structures of human society)

“Lutheranly” characteristics (associated with confessional theological perspectives)

  • paradoxical (understood dialectically rather than as logically contradictory)
  • an eschatological horizon
  • dynamic & dialogical
  • a commitment to human experience & reason (modest natural law)

Appendix 2: ELCA Social Teaching and Policy Documents
(All of these are available at

12 Social Statements (longer, address broad questions, provide frameworks)

The Church in Society: A Lutheran Perspective (1991)

Abortion (1991)

The Death Penalty (1991)

Caring for Creation: Vision, Hope, and Justice (1993)

Freed in Christ: Race, Ethnicity, and Culture (1993)

For Peace in God’s World (1995)

Sufficient, Sustainable Livelihood for All—On Economic Life (1999)

Caring for Health: Our Shared Endeavor (2003)

Our Calling in Education (2007)

Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust (2009)

Genetics, Faith and Responsibility (2011);

The Church and Criminal Justice: Hearing the Cries (2013)


“Policies and Procedures of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America for Addressing Social Concerns” (2006, as amended 2011)

12 Social Messages (briefer, topically focus, more deliberative)

“AIDS/HIV” (1988)

“Israeli/Palestinian Conflict” (1989)

“Homelessness: A Renewal of Commitment” (1990)

“End of Life Decisions” (1992)

“Community Violence” (1994)

“Sexuality: Some Common Convictions” (1996)

“Immigration” (1998)

“Suicide Prevention” (1999)

“Commercial Sexual Exploitation” (2001)

“Terrorism” (2004)

“People Living with Disabilities” (2010)

“The Body of Christ and Mental Illness” (2012)

100+ Social Policy Resolutions (policy specific)

Two kinds:

a) Adopted by Church Council (tend to include theological and analytic background)

Examples: “Toward Compassionate, Just, and Wise Immigration Reform” (2008)

b) Adopted by Churchwide Assembly (little background, very brief)

Examples: “Organ Donation” (1989); “Rural Economic Crisis” (1999); “Opposition to the War in Iraq” (2005)

Appendix 3: Social Concerns Addressed in ELCA Social Documents
Stated Purpose of ELCA social teaching:

  • Present an overall moral vision of the good through repeated moral articulation around the particular questions of contemporary life;
  • Provide framework/s for discernment and judgment;
  • Fund the institutional role of the ELCA in society;
  • Offer vocational guidance for everyday callings;
  • Supply the basis for advocacy on social, economic & political questions by the institution and individuals as citizens.
  • Fund moral formation within the teaching function exercised by seminaries, congregations, colleges, etc.

(See “Policies and Procedures of the Evangelical Lutheran Church for Addressing Social Issues.”)

Institutions & Issues Addressed:

  • relation of church/Christians to society
  • relation of church to government
  • military-industrial complex
  • business
  • economic system
  • health care/medicine
  • race, ethnicity, cultural pluralism
  • sexuality
  • marriage & family
  • education
  • science & research
  • human technological power
  • environment
  • criminal justice system
  • nature of technological power
  • genetics
  • immigration
  • violence–war, terrorism
  • violence–domestic, community, gun, school
  • daily work
  • medical ethics
  • racism
  • agriculture
  • nature of social sin
  • mental health
  • physician-assisted suicide
  • disabilities
  • pornography
  • human rights
  • population explosion
  • gaming/gambling
  • Native American sovereignty
  • abortion
  • homosexuality
  • refugees

Not yet done sufficiently

  • gender (work now underway, completed by 2019)
  • government & civic life, e.g. nature, role & scope of government & citizenship



· Bloomquist, Karen L. and John Stumme, editors. The Promise of Lutheran Ethics. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998.

· Dorrien, Gary. Social Ethics in The Making: Interpreting an American Tradition. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.

· Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, The Church in Society: A Lutheran Perspective. Chicago: ELCA, 1991

· ________, The Church and Criminal Justice: Hearing the Cries. Chicago: ELCA, 1991.

· ________, For Peace in God’s World. Chicago: ELCA, 1995.

· ________, Genetics, Faith and Responsibility. Chicago: ELCA, 2011.

· ________, Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust. Chicago: ELCA, 2009.

· ________, “Policies and Procedures of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America for Addressing Social Concerns.” Chicago: ELCA, 2006, revised 2011.

· Gustafson, James M. The Church As Moral Decision-Maker. Philadelphia/Boston: Pilgrim Press, 1970.

· Gustafson, James M. “Theology and Ethics: An Interpretation of the Agenda.” Knowing and Valuing: The Search for Common Roots, Editors H. Tristram Jr. Engelhardt and Daniel Callahan. Hastings-on-Hudson, New York: The Hastings Center: Institute of Society, Ethics and the Life Sciences, 1980.

· ________. Ethics From a Theocentric Perspective Vol. 1: Theology and Ethics. 1981.

· Jonsen, Albert. Responsibility in Modern Religious Ethics. Washington: Corpus Books, 1968.

· Lazareth, William H. “Lutheran Ethics.” The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Ethics, 360-363. Editors James F. Childress and John Macquarrie. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: The Westminster Press, 1986.

· Luther, Martin. Career of the Reformer: I. Editor Harold J. Grimm. Luthwk31, Editor Helmut T. Lehmann, Luther’s Works 31. St. Louis: Concordia Pub. House, 1957.

· ________. “The Small Catechism.” The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, 345-75. Editors Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert. Translated by Eric W. Gritsch and others. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000.

· Macintyre, Alasdair. After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory. 2nd ed. South Bend: University of Notre Dame, 1984.

· McKenny, Gerald P. “Responsibility.” The Oxford Handbook of Theological Ethics, 237-53. eds. Gilbert Millender and William Werpehowski. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

· Schweiker, William. Responsibility and Christian Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

· ________ “Disputes and Trajectories in Responsibility Ethics.” Religious Studies Review 27, no. 1 (January 2001): 18-24.


[1] James M. Gustafson, The Church As Moral Decision-Maker (1970), 60.

[2] Supporting the claim of a “social ethic” requires demonstrating that a vision of the social good has developed that can be warranted as reasonably comprehensive, consistent, and coherent across the five dimensions of ethics, including evidence of an identifiable normative core. I gave a paper at the 2014 Society of Christian Ethics that ran to 12,000 words and sketches such warrants. Some of the material in this brief essay is drawn from that paper, “An Emerging Evangelical Lutheran Social Ethic: The Power of Critical Retrieval.” ​

[3] Any number of citations could support this fundamental contention but I import here the comprehensive footnote from Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust, footnote 6.

[4] William H. Lazareth, “Lutheran Ethics,” The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Ethics (1986), 361f. The identification of justification as the significantly distinctive foundation thereby shapes the ethic in significant and distinct ways from other ethics. Some Lutheran ethics have in this sense not been evangelical since they have depended upon other foundations even when committed to the importance of justification. For instance, some have worked from the dual foundation of the divine imperative of God’s law and held that the gospel has no bearing on social ethics per se. An evangelical ethic, instead, emphasizes the freedom of believer under guidance of Holy Spirit linked in particular ways to scripture, commandment, church, and prayer to discern continually what the will of God permits or requires.

[5] The understanding of tradition used throughout this paper assumes Alasdair Macintyre’s description of a living tradition as an argument precisely about what constitutes the core of that tradition. See After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (1984).

[6] This comprehensive attention is possible because one statement may speak to several questions. Genetics for instance gives explicit attention to the nature of science and technological power while addressing genetics. Sexuality addresses the nature of marriage and family as well pornography, etc.

[7]ELCA, “Policies and Procedures”, 10. Some attention to this protocol is given later.

[8], accessed 12-20-2013.

[9] Schweiker, Responsibility, 78f.

[10] Martin Luther, “Treatise on Christian Freedom” in Luther’s Works,Career of the Reformer: (1957), 344.

[11] Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust, 4.

Roger Willer

Rev. Dr. Roger Willer serves as Director for Theological Ethics on the Theological Discernment Team in the Office of the Presiding Bishop. He also serves as Publisher for the Journal of Lutheran Ethics.