R. Benne: Unintended Effects


In its 2009 Churchwide Assembly in August of 2009 the Evangelical Lutheran Church took the momentous step to allow for the blessing of gay and lesbian unions as well as for the ordination of gays and lesbians in partnered relationships. It was the first major confessional church to take those steps. In anticipation of much disagreement about its decisions, the church struck what it thought was a compromise so that we could “journey together faithfully” even though there was no consensus on these issues. The instrument for compromise was the “bound-conscience” doctrine. Realizing that we now had no authoritative teaching on homosexual conduct, the Sexuality Task Force proposed and the Assembly agreed that all of us respect each other’s “bound-conscience” on these matters as we went about the life of our church. Also, since the official line of the church was that these issues were not church-dividing anyway, we could live with such a settlement. (It was unexplained why the ELCA should be immune to the church-dividing nature of these issues when many churches in America and in the world were experiencing painful divisions over them. Indeed, the leaders of the ELCA mistakenly projected their own assessment on the church at large.)

Well, a funny thing happened on the way to the forum. Since there is now no authoritative teaching and since we can claim “bound-conscience” on whatever teaching we prefer, this means that each parish and ultimately each individual has to decide which teaching is normative for them. In one fell swoop the Assembly turned the ELCA into a collection of congregations and individuals.

What has happened is that the conflict that the Assembly could not or would not solve has been ratcheted down to each parish and finally to each individual. The “compromise” has become the occasion for some hard fighting. Some churches are leaving the ELCA out of their “bound conscience.” Each attempt to leave—even when successful—creates enormous tension and conflict. Even churches who had prepared their laity for the crisis still have many members who believed that, in spite of all, the congregation should remain in the ELCA.

Other churches are withholding their benevolence money from the regional Synod and the ELCA in response to the ELCA decisions. This, too, creates conflict between the members who agree with the local leaders’ decisions and those who believe the parish ought to support the ELCA in spite of or because of its decisions. Those same churches are often taking time to decide whether to leave or stay, which extends the difficulties. Still other churches are taking milder actions: articulating where they stand on these matters and often providing options for members to divert their benevolence monies into their preferred causes. One church has contrived a “bound-conscience” fund for those who wanted to keep their benevolence away from the ELCA. (The Assembly certainly did not anticipate this use of the doctrine!)

The so-called compromise also presses individuals to decide where they stand, which congregation they want to belong to, as well as where they want their pledges to go. So a game of musical chairs is going on among many laity as they try to match their convictions with that of a particular congregation. A goodly number moved to other denominational chairs when the music stopped in August. Others moved to Lutheran congregations that fit their “bound conscience.” Many are still in a quandary about what to do. This “church shopping” presses churches to decide where they stand, which also causes tension.

In the face of this widespread fracturing, a small portion of churches have embraced the decisions of the ELCA and are moving quickly toward openly blessing gay and lesbian unions and calling ordained gays and lesbians in partnered relationships. Some of those parishes have been engaging in those practices for a long time; others now have official permission to exercise their “bound conscience” by adopting them. Laypersons in the latter group who disagree with this agenda no doubt depart for other more “orthodox” churches.

A far larger number of churches—perhaps even the majority of parishes in the ELCA—try to duck the challenge. Their pastors or laypersons say: “this is not an issue in our parish,” which can mean a number of things. It can mean that the pastor and/or the majority in the church agree with the decisions of the ELCA but are not going to make a big thing about it. They will face the issues when they come up. It can also mean that the issue is not important enough to get steamed up about, which follows the ELCA lead by viewing these issues as non-church dividing. These congregations, too, will face the issue when they have to. In either case, pastors and laypersons who are disturbed by the changes in the ELCA have to decide whether they can “go along to get along” in those congregations. Some will keep quiet, others will protest or leave. The largest number of congregations for whom “this is not an issue” more likely hope that this will not become an issue because it could indeed be church-dividing. These congregations are sometimes in a fragile enough condition that a controversy over sexuality issues may well spell the doom of the parish. If they take a clear position pro or con on the Assembly decisions they will lose people. And they cannot afford that. Other parishes are doing pretty well and don’t want to upset the apple-cart by introducing controversial issues. These are generally orthodox in teaching and practice and intentionally distance themselves from the workings of the ELCA.

It is understandable why churches want to duck the issue, but I suspect in the long run they will not be able to do so. Laity are slowly awakening to what is happening and will raise inconvenient questions about the direction of the congregation, synod, and the national church to which they belong. Besides, they might be directly confronted with pairs asking to be blessed. Then they won’t be able to duck.

Given this account, at least two insights are relevant:

First, it is easy to sympathize with orthodox individuals and congregations who are struggling about what to do. They didn’t ask for this. Therefore, it is important for the time being to respect the various decisions that are being made by the orthodox. Each parish situation and each individual situation is different. Some parishes and individuals simply cannot leave at this time. But as the full consequences of the church’s decisions become more visible and concrete—changes in the teaching materials, the rites, and the composition of the clergy, the path ahead may become clearer. As groups such as the Lutheran Coalition for Renewal and Lutheran Churches in Mission for Christ become more viable ecclesial bodies than the ELCA itself, the inclination to leave may be more intense.

Second, the fall-out reveals the foolhardiness of changing doctrine and practice before there are compelling biblical and theological arguments for doing so. In deciding it had no authoritative teaching on homosexual conduct, the church tossed the problem to congregations and individuals to decide for themselves, which is a sure-fire formula for conflict. The authorities in the ELCA were warned repeatedly that this maneuver would lead to the fracturing of the church. That is precisely what is happening.

Robert Benne


23 Responses to “R. Benne: Unintended Effects”

  1. R. Benne: Unintended Effects « Lutherans Persisting Says:

    […] Benne: Unintended Effects By Michael Root Posted as a page to the right (here) is an excellent short piece by Robert Benne on the “unintended effects” of the […]

  2. Judith Says:

    Thank you, Dr. Benne, for what I see as an accurate analysis. I’ve seen the fracturing with my own eyes since August — within families, within and between congregations, among clergy colleagues, among synod council and committee members, within our synod. People are drawing apart.

    This IS church dividing, not matter what Higgins Road said (Personally, I think they said it in order to put the “blame” for the division on those who are leaving.) It may take a while, but these 2 votes and their one-sided implementation by our national church will absolutely spell the death of the ELCA. The ELCA may still exist in 10 yuears as a denomination, but it will be a shell of its former self. And I will be among those who will likely be elsewhere.

  3. Sally Says:

    In a recent news release from the ELCA it was reported that the number of congregations that were taking “known votes” to leave was about 80. I know of 6 that are probably not in the 80 because they are still preparing for voting. The earthquake was in August, but the tsunami hasn’t hit yet.

  4. Tony Metze Says:

    This has become very personal to me and the parish that I now serve and love so much. A vote in our congregation of any sort would no doubt create hurt and division. There is no way a congregation can take a stand for orthodoxy and not have members leave. Churchwide has created a nightmare, but it only begins. The synods that choose to be “conscience bound” will push the issue of authority for ELCA churchwide. These are interesting times.

  5. Pastor Keith A. Hunsinger Says:

    What too many didn’t choose to understand was that while sexuality questions may not be church dividing, questions about the authority of scripture will ALWAYS be church dividing.

    Thank you Dr. Benne for your thoughts.

  6. Dennis Says:

    Dr. Benne writes, “In one fell swoop the assembly turned the ELCA into a collection of congregations and individuals.” While this statement about the ELCA is debateable, it fully describes LCMC, which takes pride in the fact that it is a loose collection of congregations, that are free to come and go. Yes, congregations are being torn up over this, with the ELCA assembly decisions being only part of the equation. There are congregations where some members see the pastor and the pastor’s support group wanting to disconnect from the ELCA and using the ELCA assembly decisons as the excuse. There is no accountability and the pastor has total power. This is one scenario of what is happening in the church. Would someone like to explain what exactly LCMC has to offer congregations besides being a place to go to meet ELCA constitutional provisions?

  7. Pr. Dan Biles Says:

    An excellent piece by Dr. Benne, as usual.

    What is particularly disgraceful are the actions of various supporters of the CWA actions and revisionist agenda to place the blame for the divisions taking place in the ELCA on those seeking to maintain orthodox teaching and practice. Meanwhile, these people posture themselves as exercising good churchmanship for not leaving the ELCA when they were in the “dissenting” position.

    This posturing is disingenuous to the point of dishonestly. The truth is, many of those who pushed/supported the agenda that got passed at CWA inhabited the halls of Higgins Road and the seminaries and bishops offices. The leaders of CORE, after all, were not the ones in power the last twenty years.

    Equally shameful is the unwillingness of these people to acknowledge in any way how their actions have contributed to the schisms taking place. As Benne says, though, they were warned what could happen. I think of what the old Toyota commercial said: “You asked for it… you got it.” Unfortunately, we pastor in the parish are left to try and manage the mess they have created.

  8. Paul L. Knudson Says:

    Dennis asks what LCMC has to offer besides being a place to land that fits the ELCA requirements constitutionally.

    It is true that LCMC is for many too loosely structured to attract. The Augustana District which is in the process of forming within LCMC will beging to provide more ecclesial structure with a clear confessional belief statement and ways for congregations to be assisted in ministry and for them to work together in mission beyond themselves. Many of us believe within the next year this district will indeed be a meaningful place to land and complement the new church body being formed by Lutheran CORE.

    I do not have the Augustana District web page before me. In the next six weeks the shape of this body will be more specifally defined. Task forces are working on that now.

  9. Dan Says:

    I am confused about how a pastor would have “total power” under a congregational system. I think you have it backwards. Ask a Baptist preacher about that. He is always accountable to his deacons which are analogous to our church councilpeople. He gets no cover from a Bishop. He is far more accountable, and that is what makes Lutheran pastors nervous. They’ve all heard horror stories about the poor Baptist guys who are always one deacon’s meeting and one congregational meeting away from hitting the road. I’m not saying that’s good either, but at least it is what it is.

    Now in practice you may have a point. If the congregation just rubber stamps a handpicked slate for council (which ours does) and then the council abdicates its responsibilities to the pastor, then he does have total power. But that’s just laziness, that’s not the system.

    I don’t know that the LCMC has anything to offer congregations. But the ELCA, at least in our synod, has virtually nothing to offer. I’m not being ugly, this really is true. But we were always told that we shouldn’t ask what the synod could do for us but rather what we could do for the synod (send money). If we could shed the ELCA we could send that money directly to the soup kitchen, directly to Lutheran World Relief directly to missionaries who preach something we don’t find repugnant, etc, etc. What would be so bad about that?

  10. Christopher Luke Seamon Says:

    Extremely insightful. One of my first thoughts after the CWA was that one result will be to bring this conflict which was on the churchwide level into every congregation – a terrible early Christmas gift for every parish pastor. This seems the opposite of wisdom to me. It’s easy to speak as an outsider of the churchwide organization, and I do think that those who framed this debate thought they were doing what was right, however, it’s hard to fathom that they could not see that this would be a catalyst of chaos and schism. (and perhaps they simply did not see that)
    The last thing I want is for my church to be forced to label itself “pro-gay” or “no-gay”, but it seems that this will inevitably happen. I hope I’m wrong.

  11. Paul L. Knudson Says:

    I believe all involved in Lutheran CORE know there needs to be structures of accountability that go beyond the congregation. What we have been learning in the past couple years thankfully is that those of us who see ourselves as confessional Lutherans can express our common identity in varied structures of accountablility.

    It does seem unfortunate to some of us that we seem to be coming to a point where we also agree to disagree on the exact form of that accountability and therefore need separate ecclesial bodies, at least for the immediate present. We can, however, be closely united and working together on many fronts in our witness in the world.

  12. Kevin Scheuller Says:

    the difficult thing is to try to find more of an evangelical catholic route out of the ELCA. Ironically, it seems those who are more evangelical catholic vis a vis church polity are mostly the ones who brought about this heinous mess in the first place. Although, with a 60/40 laity/clergy split at churchwide vote, the vote was along more of a congregational basis. As someone who considers himself evangelical catholic rather than congregational, I really feel like I’m in exile.

    • Pastor Keith A. Hunsinger Says:

      We are a larger percentage than you might think

      • Kevin Scheuller Says:

        I hope so. When do we form an alternative? You can’t have too many Lutheran denominations in the U.S.A.!

      • Judith Says:

        In our conference, we are at least half evangelical catholic. Small comfort, but at least all of this mess is causing us to think and rethink our ecclesiology along with everything else.

    • David Brobston Says:

      I believe/hope/pray that the new body coming online in August is leaning towards a more “ecclesial”, “magisterium” style of governance than what those of us who are EC witness with the LCMC

  13. Pastor Kevin Scheuller Says:

    BTW – I am clergy. I wasn’t sure we were declaring on this blog.

  14. Christopher Luke Says:

    Judith, a half of your conference Evangelical Catholic!? You should rejoice most definitely. I am most envious. Please let me know where you are so that I can plan to go there. I’m not even sure half of our conference is Christian. 🙂

  15. Judith Says:

    I’m in a largely rural and small town conference in Southwestern Pennsylvania Synod. We’re largely very traditional out here (less so in parts of Pittsburgh itself and a few of the suburban churches). Our synod voted by a 72% margin last June to memorialize the ELCA not to adopt the Social Statement and not to pass the ministry changes.
    Got a bunch of pastors who belong to Society of the Holy Trinity …. more who generally support “the cause”. The pastors and lay leaders (inc. me) have just formed a CORE chapter to rally and organize the churches in our synod….. and to contact and network with folks in other synods. We had 160 people at the opening meeting!
    How are things where you are?

  16. Christopher Luke Says:

    I’m out west. I’ve only been here for 6 months, and geographically I’m very isolated from other ELCA congregations so I can’t say that I know how that many other churches think. I can say that at our conference meetings an overwhelming majority of the pastors are in support of the new changes, and regularly imply that those opposing are simply fundamentalists. Our Synod is a Reconciling in Christ Synod, and has voted in favor of these changes for years. I know of a few congregations and pastors that have strong sympathies with CORE, and some of them are participating in local groups, but we are so geographically isolated that we are unable to participate.

    As to evangelical catholicism, it is even more rare here. It’s mainly implicitly shunned or looked at as some strange form of fundamentalism. For instance, pastors never wear clerical collars, perhaps Sunday morning. Again, that’s the sense that I get, being in the Synod for two years and the conference for 6 months.

    • Judith Says:

      I’m sorry to hear how isolated you are. Our whole region is pretty traditional …. NW Penn, SW Penn, Allegheny, Upper Susquehanna, NW Ohio, Maryland, WV, North Carolina, South Carolina. Of course in Metro NY, in Metro DC, New England, it’s revisionist like where you are.

      Our sense out here is that the ELCA will be diminishing over time; that traditionalists will continue to pull out, slowly at first, into whatever new structures can be created.

      I’m 11 or 12 years from retirement and don’t know how long I will stay in the ELCA. It depends on what my synod does. I hear that there is talk in South Carolina of the whole synod seceding from the ELCA! Maybe I’ll head south!

      How are people in your congregation reacting? Are you isolated there, too? Know there are others out here who share your convictions.

      • Christopher Luke Says:

        My congregation seems to be mostly opposed to the changes, though some seem to not care much about it, and many are concerned that their opposition would be considered anti-gay, a concern I certainly share with them. We are slowly discussing joining CORE, and we’re waiting to see what that ends up looking like – but for now have put aside discussion of leaving the ELCA.

        None of the orthodox pastors I’ve talked to have said they or their congregations would be leaving soon, but like you, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a slow trickle – if CORE moves in a good direction, and as they feel less and less a part of the ELCA and its direction.

        I’m from NC and may end up returning there one day. I’ve been told that the NC Synod tends to be among the more orthodox.

      • Judith Says:

        I’ve heard that about NC Synod also, and in fact hope to be interviewing with the Bishop there after New Year. I have family there and friends/colleagues there who urge us to come.
        My current congregation (I’m ending an interim ministry) is not interested in responding right now to the changes, given the focus on merger/growth/congregational future, but as the reality of the changes comes closer they will most likely react. I find lots of people don’t want to be seen as anti-gay, but cannot articulate what they Church has always called non-marital sex a sin ….. it’s especially hard in a culture that prizes diversity and toleration. (Well, toleration of what IT approves of but not of those who disagree!)
        Keep the faith. Nobody ever said that the faith would be popular. In fact we were warned it would NOT be.

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