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ELCA Social Statements: Consensus Teaching Documents: Part I

The teaching authority of the Roman Catholic Church, referred to as the magisterium, resides in the episcopacy and especially the papacy.  The parallel teaching authority of the ELCA is the process of study, debate, and adoption of various social statements.

Social statements are social policy documents, adopted by an ELCA Churchwide Assembly, addressing significant social issues.  They provide an analysis and interpretation of an issue, set forth basic theological and ethical perspectives related to it, and offer guidance for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, its individual members, and its affiliated agencies and institutions. They are the product of extensive and inclusive deliberation within this church.

At the 2009 Church wide assembly in Minneapolis, the ELCA adopted revised ministry policies encouraging “recognition and support” for persons in “publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous” same gender relationships and also allowed such persons in such relationships to be ordained.

Separately and coincidentally, the ELCA adopted its tenth social statement entitled, Human Sexuality:Gift and Trust.  Of course, it was the two pages (out of thirty two) devoted to homosexuality that garnered the most interest and resistance.  The significant aspect of the document vis a vis homosexuality is that gay sexual ethics are treated exactly the same as straight sexual ethics.  Human sexuality, both gay and straight, is treated as gift of God entrusted to humans for good but also with the potential for abuse.

Sexuality especially involves the powers or capacities to form deep and lasting bonds, to give and receive pleasure, and to conceive and bear children. Sexuality can be integral to the desire to commit oneself to life with another, to touch and be touched, and to love and be loved. Such powers are complex and ambiguous. They can be used well or badly. They can bring astonishing joy and delight. Such powers can serve God and serve the neighbor. They also can hurt self or hurt the neighbor. Sexuality finds expression at the extreme ends of human experience: in love, care, and security, or lust, cold indifference, and exploitation.

The process of adopting a social statement begins with an enabling resolution from the church wide assembly of voting members.  Typically, the enabling resolution calls for the formation of a task force, a blue ribbon panel, that will consider issues theologically and with appropriate input from secular, social science.  The process typically takes years of study, debate, dissemination of preliminary documents for feedback from all ELCA constituencies, and finally the preparation of a lengthy document that will be considered and voted upon by the biennial church wide assembly of voting members, the ultimate legislative authority of the church.  For instance, the enabling resolution for the recently adopted human sexuality statement dates back to the 2001 church wide assembly, so the process from beginning to end spanned 8 years.  According to the ELCA constitution, social statements require a 2/3 supra majority for passage, and the 2009 assembly adopted the human sexuality statement by precisely that 2/3 majority without a single vote to spare.

The human sexuality statement was the tenth social statement adopted by the ELCA.  Here is the list; each statement may be reviewed and downloaded from the ELCA website:

  • Abortion
  • Church in Society
  • Death Penalty
  • Economic Life
  • Education
  • Environment
  • Health and Healthcare
  • Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust
  • Peace
  • Race, Ethnicity, and Culture

The 2009 Convention also called for the study process to begin on another possible social statement entitled “Justice for Women”.  The process of study and creation of a social statement takes years and resources (about a million dollars).  The recommendation that was adopted calls for Churchwide assembly action in 2015.  Two other study processes are already underway based upon earlier Churchwide authorizations—Genetics and Criminal Justice.

Here, in Part I, I will offer brief snippets from the first few policy statements passed in 1991.  Each quote comes from the statement itself, and is offered as insight into the gist of each statement.

Abortion (passed in 1991).

Marriage is the appropriate context for sexual intercourse. This continues to be the position of this church. We affirm that the goodness of sexual intercourse goes beyond its procreative purpose.  Whenever sexual intercourse occurs apart from the intent to conceive, the use of contraceptives is the responsibility of the man and of the woman.

Prevention of unintended pregnancies is crucial in lessening the number of abortions. In addition to efforts within church and home, this church supports appropriate forms of sex education in schools, community pregnancy prevention programs, and parenting preparation classes. We recognize the need for contraceptives to be available, for voluntary sterilization to be considered, and for research and development of new forms of contraception.

This church recognizes that there can be sound reasons for ending a pregnancy through induced abortion.

Church in Society (passed in 1991).

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is called to be a part of the ecumenical church of Jesus Christ in the context in which God has placed it — a diverse, divided, and threatened global society on a beautiful, fragile planet.  In faithfulness to its calling, this church is committed to defend human dignity, to stand with poor and powerless people, to advocate justice, to work for peace, and to care for the earth in the processes and structures of contemporary society.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is part of the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic” church. Its witness in society is informed by the history and the various theological traditions of the one church of Jesus Christ. The suffering and hope of churches in Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, and the Americas strengthen its life and calling.

The gospel does not allow the church to accommodate to the ways of the world. The presence and promise of God’s reign makes the church restless and discontented with the world’s brokenness and violence. Acting for the sake of God’s world requires resisting and struggling against the evils of the world.

Death Penalty (passed in 1991).

The human community is saddened by violence, and angered by the injustice involved. We want to hold accountable those who violate life, who violate society. Our sadness and anger, however, make us vulnerable to feelings of revenge. Our frustration with the complex problems contributing to violence may make us long for simple solutions.

The state is responsible under God for the protection of its citizens and the maintenance of justice and public order. God entrusts the state with power to take human life when failure to do so constitutes a clear danger to society.  However, this does not mean that governments have an unlimited right to take life. Nor does it mean that governments must punish crime by death. We increasingly question whether the death penalty has been and can be administered justly.

Yet, capital punishment makes no provable impact on the breeding grounds of violent crime.   Executions harm society by mirroring and reinforcing existing injustice. The death penalty distracts us from our work toward a just society. It deforms our response to violence at the individual, familial, institutional, and systemic levels. It perpetuates cycles of violence.

In Part II to come later, I will address the other six ELCA social statements.

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One Response

  1. […] fall, as I followed the predictable fall-out from the decision of the ELCA to abolish barriers to ministry by gays in monogamous relationships, I became fascinated by the persistence of a strand of fundamentalism […]

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