The Church as a Community of Moral Deliberation—A Time of Testing

[1] The church is about speaking and listening. For those who believe the church has responsibility in and for society, it follows quite naturally that Christians should talk together about the relationship of the faith to their responsibilities. Christians have done so for centuries in a variety of ways, and in a democratic society with its emphasis on citizen participation, the obligation has even more plausibility.

[2] Such thinking helped shape the notion found in early ELCA documents that envisioned the church as “a community of moral deliberation.”1 This vision was meant both to equip Christians for their callings in daily life and to provide a context for developing social statements. Christians were to talk together to “discern what is the will of God-what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2). The church, it was recognized, was more than a community of moral deliberation; yet intentional efforts to be such a community could help bridge the gap between faith and life and be a way to contribute to the well-being of society. Many congregations were already involved in such conversations, and, it was hoped, more would be. The predecessor church bodies had experimented with participatory models for developing social statements, and by placing social statements within this vision, the intention was to deepen and extend these models.

[3] Certainly during these early years of the ELCA one can find evidence of lively moral deliberation in congregations, synods, colleges, seminaries, publications, electronic meetings, and other venues-including Journal of Lutheran Ethics.2 The lengthy process for developing social statements has contributed to the strong affirmation churchwide assemblies have given to the eight ELCA social statements. Publications coming from the Division for Church in Society as well as from ethicists have set out habits and skills needed for civil and respectful conversation of controversial issues-including how to do so in a cross-cultural context. There has been much “talk about talking” with people proposing, defending, and questioning different understandings and practices of the church as a community of moral deliberation. Judgments about its significance, coherence, faithfulness, use, and impact remain contested. A critical history of the concept and the way it has been practiced in the ELCA has yet to be written.

[4] At present the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is experiencing a time of testing as a community of moral deliberation-or is it more accurately described as a “crisis” in deliberation? I refer of course to the controversy surrounding the “Report and Recommendations from the Task Force for Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Studies on Sexuality,” and the pending Churchwide Assembly’s consideration of the Church Council’s “Recommendations on Sexuality Studies,” particularly the third recommendation that calls for creating a process “which may permit exceptions to the expectations regarding sexual conduct for gay and lesbian candidates and rostered leaders in life-long, committed, and faithful same-sex relationships who otherwise are determined to be in compliance with Vision and Expectations3.” Many support this recommendation, many support present policies, and many support a change in policy that would apply the same standards to persons who are heterosexual or homosexual. As the task force’s report observes, “the disagreement over these issues before the church is deep, pervasive, multi-faced, and multi-layered.”4 The point of disagreement has been “ratcheted up” into a critical dimension of the church’s teaching.5

[5] The testing is not principally about whether people will be civil and respectful in debating the issues in their congregations or in the Churchwide Assembly, although this is important. The testing has to do with “the church as community,” that is, whether or not the communal presuppositions are present for moral deliberation on these issues. Do we as a church body have enough in common concerning what the church should teach about marriage, male and female, and the normative nature of and context for sexual conduct to carry on faithful, meaningful, and constructive deliberation on policy matters? Or are our differences so deep on these critical dimensions of our faith and life that we do not share common teaching to guide our decisions? Does a lack of “consensus” on these matters mean we have reached a stalemate and are unable to appeal to any normative teaching?6

[6] The first recommendation from both the task force and the Church Council addresses the concern of all for the unity of the ELCA. The Church Council recommendation urges all “to concentrate on finding ways to live together faithfully in the midst of disagreements, recognizing the God-given mission and communion that we share as members of the body of Christ.” The Churchwide Assembly will undoubtedly hear numerous calls for unity. The admonition to live out our unity in Christ is always proper and necessary.

[7] One may wonder, however, if this recommendation is so open-ended that it commits people who support it to live together no matter what the Churchwide Assembly decides. Popes and church councils do err, we have heard from a reputable source. “To concentrate on finding ways to live together faithfully” requires that we first know and accept the character and boundaries of faithfulness. In other words we must turn to the church’s teachings to find a standard of evaluation. Otherwise, “faithfully” becomes an empty word. Within the bounds of faithfulness, there is room for conscientious disagreement and difference.

[8] In his seminal essay “The Church: A Community of Moral Discourse” of over 40 years ago (which was one source for ELCA’s “community of moral deliberation”), the Christian ethicist James Gustafson underscored that moral discourse requires a community with a moral tradition to provide accepted norms. In such a community people gather to discuss their responsibilities “in the light of moral convictions about which there is some consensus and to which there is some loyalty.” 7 In distinguishing the moral intention of this discourse from a therapeutic intention, Gustafson writes:

In moral discourse there are some objective convictions about the nature of the right and the good that are not identified with the existing subjective feelings of people involved; there is a body of conviction or doctrine in the light of which judgments can be made that is acknowledged to be worthy of loyalty whether this body of conviction is internalized or not. In moral discourse we are not particularly concerned about whether the participant has some feeling of self-fulfillment, some new sense of well-being in the psyche or the soul. We are concerned with the direction of human activity in the light of an understanding of what is right and wrong, what is better and worse.8
He adds that in the Christian community moral discourse takes place in light of Scripture. The Bible “is confessionally an authoritative locus of consensus about what the shape and purposes of life in relation to God and to man ought to be.”9

[9] Gustafson’s description of moral discourse holds also for the ELCA with its scriptural and confessional commitments.10 Not all talk about important issues is moral deliberation; such talk must seek to bring the church’s normative teaching to bear on particular issues. Moral deliberation is not non-judgmental; judgments are made about what is right, good, and in conformity with God’s will. Not all views are equally valid; not all are biblical and confessional. Nor can all positions necessarily be reconciled. Moral discourse structured by communally accepted “objective convictions” is the controlling factor in moral deliberation, not personal experiences or individual consciences.

[10] Journey Together Faithfully II along with the reports from the task force and the Church Council describe opposing positions concerning “these issues before the church” but do not evaluate them on the basis of a normative teaching. What Dennis Bielfeldt wrote about Journey Together Faithfully II holds also for the subsequent reports and recommendations:

Although they [readers] are told that they are journeying together in moral deliberation, they are not provided a basic toolbox of what constitutes such deliberation…. [T]heological categories are not highlighted or developed in such a way as to acquire any normative status in adjudication process. Finally, there is little in the document that displays reverence for the tradition, little that suggests that because the tradition itself serves as a datum of theological judgment, prima facie justification must be afforded normative positions within it. In summary, those who study Journey Together will likely be introduced to different options and learn the one or two sentence explanation of each, but not really learn how one might begin to evaluate from among these options.11

[11] In support of its recommendation on exceptions, the Church Council’s report makes primary the church’s need to “‘live together’ in this time of tension and disagreement on homosexuality.” It does not set out the church’s received normative teaching on sexuality and marriage or present a new teaching and then show how that teaching provides the basis for its recommended policy change. Instead the report presents two opposing positions on homosexuality as if both were accepted normative teachings of our church. What has historically been considered the church’s teaching on these matters now appears as one of two strongly-held opinions. The report then provides some reasons for why each position can accept its recommendation.12 The message is that both sides can accommodate the compromise of exceptions and therefore live together. The resulting impression is that the recommendation feels more like a management decision to keep an organization together than a policy decision of a church acting on the basis of its teachings.

[12] Wise management of a complex organization like the ELCA is of course necessary but it is secondary to our calling as a church to say with clarity and conviction: “This is what we teach about this critical dimension of faith and life.”

[13] Shortly after the Church Council had acted on its recommendations, I received a phone call from an ELCA member who was puzzled by what he had read about the action. He could not understand how a church that considered homosexual behavior a sin could also ordain practicing gays and lesbians. It seemed to him like a contradiction. I could explain to him that there is disagreement in our church on how to understand homosexual behavior and suggest that the Church Council was concerned about our church’s mission in diverse settings. I could not, however, provide a cogent argument on the basis of the received church’s teachings on sex, love, and marriage to support the action.

[14] Perhaps that argument can be made. If so, that should be a necessary condition for the Churchwide Assembly’s adoption of a policy of exceptions. Churchwide Assemblies have a responsibility to teach.

[15] This is a time for testing for the ELCA–also as a community of moral deliberation. What is our church’s teaching on marriage and sexuality? What is the “body of conviction or doctrine in the light of which judgments can be made” on “the issues before the church?” Could it be that we are not able to handle these questions?

End Notes

1 The first mention of “the church as a community of moral deliberation” came in “Social Statements of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America,” which was adopted by the first Churchwide Assembly in 1989. Most of that document was incorporated in the revised “Policies and Procedures of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America for Addressing Social Concerns,” which was adopted by the Church Council and affirmed by the 1997 Churchwide Assembly. The reference to “community of moral deliberation” is found on page 12. In the ELCA’s first social statement, “The Church in Society: A Lutheran Perspective,” adopted by the Churchwide Assembly in 1991, this idea became a major thread of the social statement (pages 5-6; 7-8). Both documents are online (

2 See Talking Together as Christians about Tough Social Issues (Division for Church in Society, 1999) and Talking Together as Christians Cross-culturally, by Ronald W. Duty (ELCA, 2004). The first publication is online at and the second at

3 2005 Pre-Assembly Report: ELCA Studies on Sexuality, Section IV, page 23. The Church Council’s and the task force’s reports are online ( It should be noted that the task force’s recommendation differed from the one from the Church Council. After stating “that the biblical-theological case for wholesale change in this church’s current standards has not been made to the satisfaction of the majority of participants in the study,” the report says, “Therefore, our recommendations do not involve new policy or changes to existing policy” (page 10). The task force did not recommend a policy of exceptions but called for the option to refrain from disciplining those involved in calling or approving partnered gay or lesbian candidates to the rostered ministry.

4 Task force report, page 5.

5 I use the term “critical dimension” to signal the importance of sexuality, marriage, and love in human life and the crucial significance of the church’s calling to be faithful biblically and confessionally in its teaching, preaching, and pastoral ministry on these matters. The term takes no stand on what, if anything, in these matters may be church-dividing. It does, however, connote the idea that when the church’s teachings on such vital matters are faithful, they are also coherent and do not settle for contradictory ideas.

6 The task force report states that “While the responses to the study show a majority in favor of present practices and standards, there is, however, neither a consensus-a general agreement-nor any emerging consensus on these practices and standards” (page 10). Assuming this claim is accurate and that it applies to the church’s teaching as well, what does “consensus” mean for determining the truth of the church’s teaching? What theological weight should be given to the notion of “consensus”? In the history of the church the concept of “the sense of the faithful” (sensus fidelium) has been used to support the church’s teachings. This sense refers to believers in the universal church from its beginning. Further discussion of the significance given “consensus” in the ELCA would need to be done in relation to the concept of “the sense of the faithful” in the universal church.

7 The Church As Moral Decision-Maker (Philadephia: Pilgrim Press, 1970), page 84. Italics are in the original. The essay referred to in the article was first published in 1964.

8 Ibid., page 86.

9 Ibid., page 87. Gustafson rejects the idea the moral insight is to be found only in the Bible.

10 This can be seen, for example, in “Policies and Procedures of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America for Addressing Social Concerns.” In describing “Guiding Perspectives for Social Statements,” the first perspective is that “social statements are theological documents,” where it is stated that social statements are subject to the testing of whether they are faithful to Scriptures and to the church’s creeds and confessions. “They themselves are not new creeds or confessions.” The second perspective is that “social statements are teaching documents.” Only in the third perspective-“social statements involve this church in the ongoing task of theological ethics”-does it state that “they [social statements] depend on a vision of the Church as a community of moral deliberation in which serious communication on matters of society and faith is vital to its being.” Pages 10-12.

11 “Journeying Together and Faithfully?” Journal of Lutheran Ethics, Volume 3, Issue 12 (December 2003), paragraphs 11 and 12.

12 Pages 22-23. One can of course ask if the presentation of the two positions is fair and if the arguments are valid.

John R. Stumme

Dr. John R. Stumme is a retired ELCA Pastor. When he wrote this piece, he was Professor of Systematic Theology at the Instituto Superior Evangélico de Estudios Teológicos in Buenos Aires and Vice-President of the Iglesia Evangélica Luterana Unida in Argentina. After ten years in Argentina, he worked for almost two decades with the ELCA's Church in Society unit as Associate Director and Director for its Department for Studies.