No Red Synods/ Blue Synods in the ELCA: Attempting to Hold the Middle Ground

[1] When I have spoken publicly on these issues in recent years, I have said that if decisions concerning blessing same-sex unions and rostering persons in such unions split the church (in either direction), it will not be because of the issues themselves but because we have failed to understand and to live out what it means to be the church of Jesus Christ. For generations Lutherans associated “church” too closely with ethnic identity. In our current politicized climate, the danger is that we define “church” as the community of the like-minded.

[2] In that spirit, I commend the task force for the first and foundational recommendation that we seek to maintain the unity of the ELCA by “liv[ing] together faithfully in the midst of our disagreements.” I am pleased by the clear statement of the task force report that people taking diverse positions on the issues before us all hold to the authority of the scriptures as the inspired Word of God, although they interpret and apply those scriptures differently in some areas. As a survivor of the civil war in the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod in the 1970s, I see no value in attempting to justify one’s own position by impugning the faithfulness of others.

[3] Some will doubtless see the Task Force recommendations to exercise pastoral discretion as a cop-out. I am not at all convinced, however, that the Task Force has taken a “safe” position. Rather than making a recommendation that would alienate one “side” of the church, the Task Force has attempted to carve out a middle way that will surely bring criticism from both ends of the spectrum. I hear the two dissenting positions – one to change the rules, one to enforce the rules more firmly and consistently – as expressions of the desire to “settle this once and for all,” and that the Task Force refuses to do. If the recommendations are received by this church primarily as an attempt at political compromise, then we have created a “lose – lose” situation in which everyone is left unsatisfied. If we are to continue to be church together, the recommendations of the task force must be embraced actively as an invitation to ongoing discernment as members of one body.

[4] Nonetheless I find the task force’s understanding of church and of law to be somewhat limited. I believe our deliberations would be strengthened by a two kingdoms lens, specifically by the recognition that the church exists not only as the body of Christ constituted by the proclamation of the Gospel and administration of the sacraments but also as an institution in a world of institutions. The discussion of law in the task force recommendations and in the church at large has tended to focus on the law’s theological and (much-debated) pedagogical uses. I am struck by the lack of attention to the civil use of the law, for the question of rostering persons for public ministry is (contrary to appearances, perhaps) a civil matter of church polity rather than a theological matter of church identity. That there is a ministry of Word and sacrament is God’s gift and command; how we choose to order that ministry and who we call to it are subject to change with time and circumstance. The task force’s first recommendation is a theological call to unity, to journey together faithfully as we continue to discern together the mind of Christ. Its second and third recommendations are policy recommendations. Perhaps naming these latter two recommendations explicitly as policy (which is always provisional) rather than as doctrine will help us move forward.

Kathryn A. Kleinhans

Rev. Dr. Kathryn A. Kleinhans is Dean of Trinity Lutheran Seminary at Capital University.