A task force drafting a statement on sexuality for the nation’s largest Lutheran group said Thursday that the church should continue defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman.
However, the panel did not condemn same-gender relationships. The committee expressed regret that historic Lutheran teachings have been used to hurt gays and lesbians, and acknowledged that some congregations already accept same-sex couples.
The report released by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is part of the denomination’s yearslong effort to bridge internal differences over the Bible and homosexuality.
The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, a separate, smaller group, is theologically conservative, and teaches that same-gender relationships violate Scripture.
Called a “Draft Social Statement on Human Sexuality,” the report is a wide-ranging study of Christian views on sexual morality, premarital sex, domestic abuse and families.
But the most anticipated part of the document was whether the task force would recommend equal standing for gay and heterosexual couples in the 4.8 million-member church.
More rulings next year
Next year, the panel will decide whether to suggest changes in current clergy standards that bar gays and lesbians from being ordained if they are sexually active. After revisions, both proposals will be presented for a vote to the 2009 Churchwide Assembly in Minneapolis.
The document released Thursday repeatedly states that sexual intimacy should be reserved for married couples, and condemns sex for personal gratification alone.
“The church recognizes the historic origin of the term ‘marriage’ as a lifelong and committed relationship between a woman and a man, and does not wish to alter this understanding,” the report says.
The task force goes on to describe different responses to gays and lesbians in congregations, noting that some churches require celibacy for them, while others urge gay couples to “establish relationships that are chaste, mutual, monogamous and lifelong.”
“These relationships are to be held to the same rigorous standards and sexual ethics as all others,” the document says. “This suggests that dissolution of a committed same-gender relationship be treated with the same gravity as the dissolution of a marriage.”
The document expressed regret that Lutheran teachings have been used “to tear apart families with gay or lesbian members,” and asks all Lutherans to welcome gays and advocate for legal protection for them.
Still, a gay Lutheran group called the document disappointing, as did church members with traditional views of Scripture.
Criticism from gays Lutherans Concerned/North America, which represents gays and lesbians, criticized the task force for urging respect for same-gender couples without providing religious rites for them to make a lifelong commitment.
“This draft merely tolerates rather than celebrates the presence of same-gender families in the church,” said Emily Eastwood, executive director of Lutherans Concerned. “It is inconsistent and insufficient.”
Mark Chavez, leader of Lutheran CORE and the WordAlone Network, which represent theological conservatives, argued that the document was not grounded enough in the Bible, and could lead the church to allow each ELCA synod, or district, to set its own policy on gay clergy.
“It not only doesn’t resolve anything, but it’s going to make things worse,” he said.
The task force did address the different views of Scripture underlying the conflict. They said that the Bible “can be abused and misunderstood through selective use as a moral guide,” noting that biblical verses were once used to justify slavery.
Other Protestants also grappling with issue They said Scripture should be interpreted in light of scientific knowledge and human experience. “Human knowledge about sexuality, such as that found in medicine and the social and physical sciences, can teach us about healthy practice and provide new insights,” they said.
The 15-member task force, comprised of Lutheran clergy, lay people and academics, expressed hope that the members of the denomination can continue studying the issue together.
The ELCA is one of several Protestant groups divided over gay relationships and the Bible.
The Episcopal Church caused an uproar in 2003 when it consecrated the first openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire.
About three dozen of the nearly 11,000 congregations in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) have voted to leave the national church since its 2006 meeting. At that assembly, Presbyterians debated providing some leeway in ordaining gays, and allowing alternative phrasings in liturgy for the divine Trinity — “Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”