Perhaps it was fitting that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) met in Orlando, Florida, home to Disney World, Universal Studios, and lots of cartoon characters. It's where people often seek to escape reality.
At the August 8-14 ELCA biennial assembly, the big question, as it has been in various mainline Protestant denominations recently, was: What should the church's policies be on same-sex unions and non-celibate gay clergy?
That these issues were even open to debate illustrates how far the ELCA has fallen away from Christian tradition or orthodoxy.
In his "Report of the Presiding Bishop" on August 9, Rev. Mark Hanson quoted from an article on Lutheran identity by Luther Seminary professor Gerhard Forde, who called for embracing a "radical Lutheranism." What's that? Forde asserted it's a Lutheranism that "regains the courage and the nerve to preach the Gospel unconditionally. Simply let the bird of the Spirit fly! There is too much timidity, too much worry that the Gospel is going to harm someone, too much tendency to buffer the message to bring it under control."
Only in this age of moral and biblical relativism would such a calling be deemed radical. Unfortunately, Bishop Hanson's highlighting this quote was packed with irony. Too often, the leadership of the ELCA has been plagued by timidity and lack of courage when Holy Scripture flies in the face of what the culture or certain interests demand.
Of course, no serious dispute exists over what Holy Scripture and Christian tradition have taught for 2,000 years on sexual matters. That is, sex is sinful when outside of marriage between a man and a woman. Christianity also teaches that we all are sinners, and in need of God's love, forgiveness and redemption. But that does not mean ignoring or excusing sin.
But a good chunk of the ELCA wants to simply change God's law to reflect their own desires. So, ELCA delegates came to Orlando to wrestle with two proposals regarding sexuality. One measure would have opened the door to allowing local congregations to bless same-sex unions. The second allowed non-celibate gays to serve as ministers if in long-term relationships.
Both efforts were effectively rejected, offering hope that traditional Christianity remains a real force within the ELCA.
Still, some say wiggle room exists for local congregations to bless same-sex unions. And what happens if the reaffirmed ban is violated? The Associated Press correctly reported that "it is generally acknowledged that some Lutheran pastors have been presiding at these ceremonies without repercussions for years." As for rejecting the ordination of practicing gays and lesbians, it went down by only a slim margin of 503-490, needing a two-thirds majority to pass.
Steve Rempe, from the Institute on Religion and Democracy, concluded: "The denomination retains seemingly clear teachings on marriage and sexuality, deeply rooted in the Scriptures and the Christian tradition. Those teachings, however, are ignored or defied in significant sectors of the ELCA. The attitude of the top leadership ranges from barely-disguised sympathy with the violators to a distaste for any confrontation with them."
Bishop Hanson called on Pope Benedict XVI, the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch, and the Lutheran and Anglican communions to jointly address a global Christian identity crisis rooted in "questions about the authority and interpretation of Scripture." Hanson quoted Wartburg Seminary President Duane Larson, who complained about "a fundamentalist-millenialist-apocalypticist reading of Scripture."
Such views certainly need to be addressed. Alas, though, those who choose to ignore God's Word, and even sanctify sin, have done far more damage to Christian identity. The ELCA has played a role in allowing such sores to fester in the church. But in Orlando fashion, the leadership and various factions in the ELCA chose to escape this harsh reality.
Raymond J. Keating is a columnist with Newsday, and a regular columnist for OrthodoxyToday.org. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.