Hope, the ELCA, and Sexual Boundaries
Q & A by Pastor Mike Housholder
September 2009

 

Q: What is the ELCA?
A: ELCA stands for “Evangelical Lutheran Church in America,” and consists of approximately 4.6 million members and 10,000 congregations.

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Q: What is the history of the relationship between Hope and the ELCA?
A: Hope was launched as an ELCA congregation in 1994. Since then, we have been blessed by countless relationships with ELCA congregations, Bible camps (Riverside, Okoboji), ministries (Lutheran Services in Iowa), and global outreach organizations (Lutheran World Relief, ELCA Disaster Response).

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Q: Is there some financial reason for Hope to stay in the ELCA?
A: No. Hope receives no money from the ELCA. We have a mortgage with the Mission Investment Fund and some of our pastors are enrolled in the ELCA health and pension plan, but those financial connections are not contingent on Hope remaining affiliated with the denomination.

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Q: Does the ELCA churchwide assembly, or a conference of bishops, have the authority to create new policies regarding what ELCA congregations teach and practice?
A: In a hierarchically structured denomination, like the Roman Catholic Church or Episcopal Church (ECUSA), bishops have the authority to create teaching policy. But in a congregationally based denomination like the ELCA, local congregations decide what will be taught and practiced in our churches.

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Q: What did the 2009 ELCA churchwide assembly vote to change regarding sexual boundaries?
A: They voted to provide an option for congregations who choose to do so to bless same gender relationships, and to call pastors who are in a same gender, lifelong, monogamous relationship.

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Q: As a result of this vote, has anything changed at Lutheran Church of Hope regarding what we teach or practice?
A: No.

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Q: What does Lutheran Church of Hope teach about sexual boundaries?
A: First, Jesus commands us to love all people – when Christians hate, we lose our moral center and our mission. Second, we are all sinners in need of a Savior, and people who are gay are not bigger sinners than people who are straight. Third, according to the Bible, a full sexual relationship belongs only inside the boundaries of a marriage between one man and one woman.

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Q: Is Hope “anti-gay?”
A: Absolutely not. We love and welcome all people at Hope, including those who identify themselves as gay. Hope is a hospital for sinners, not a hangout for morally perfect saints. We have no desire to become a “holy huddle” of self-deceiving, self-righteous, legalistic, religious bigots who oppress and hate others simply because their sin is of a sexual nature.

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Q: How can we, as a church, claim to love gay people if we don’t bless, endorse, and agree with their sexual behavior?
A: We do love gay people, and we don’t think that love comes with the qualifier of full agreement with all behavioral choices. Most parents love their children more than life itself, but these same loving parents don’t bless, endorse, or agree with every aspect of their children’s behavior. Best friends rarely endorse all facets of each other’s behavior, yet their love for one another is not called into question. Jesus commands us to follow his teaching and his example to love all people, without exception, and our love for gay people continues even when we announce God’s law regarding homosexual behavior.

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Q: What if I disagree with what is taught at Hope regarding homosexual behavior?
A: Christians can disagree on all sorts of issues, and still find unity in Jesus Christ. We can still be church together because the faith that unites is stronger than the disagreements that could divide. God calls families to stay together, even when they disagree on important issues. At Hope, we do not all agree on social issues, politics, music, or who will win the next big game, and yet we are still one body, united in Christ.

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Q: Do all of the pastors at Hope agree on what the Bible says regarding sexual boundaries?
A: Yes. A church can remain united when members disagree on issues, but a church will rarely be able to hold together when teachers disagree on what they teach.  At Hope, all of our pastors and teachers are in full agreement regarding what we teach on sexual boundaries, based on God’s Word.

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Q: If the ELCA churchwide assembly and Lutheran Church of Hope do not align regarding what to teach about sexual boundaries, why would we, as a congregation, remain affiliated with the ELCA?
A: BIBLICAL: The New Testament lifts up church unity as a major theme. Jesus prays that his followers “will all be one” (John 17:21). Paul writes, “You are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28), and again, “There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Ephesians 4:5). God desires unity. The devil desires to divide the church into smaller segments, so he can more easily attack denominations and congregations. We prefer to give God’s plan every chance to develop.

MISSIONAL: God has used the ELCA, and its predecessor bodies, to bless millions of people, proclaim the gospel globally, make disciples, establish churches (like Hope), work for justice, serve the poor, and provide significant theological contributions. The ELCA has been, and could be again, a major positive force in furthering the cause of Jesus Christ on this planet. If the largest Lutheran denomination in the United States splits into several pieces, that would be a loss for Christianity. So, for the sake of mission and the potential for renewal, we feel called to stay for now. We can’t influence change if we leave.

HISTORICAL: History has not been kind to Lutheran denominational splinter groups in this country. They have a difficult time establishing any momentum because they are too often based on self-righteous anger and immersed in church politics, rather than primarily driven by the call from God to transform the world by pointing people to the life-changing love of Jesus Christ.

PRACTICAL: Nothing has changed at Hope regarding what we teach or practice as a result of this vote. The ELCA churchwide assembly does not accurately represent the prevailing view in our denomination. They are an extremely small slice (0.0002%) of the ELCA. They vote on social statements, and they have created a good deal of chaos by pushing for this particular vote, but they do not have the authority to change what we teach or practice.

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Q: Didn’t Martin Luther, the leader of the Protestant Reformation and the man we name our churches after, leave the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th Century and start a new denomination?
A: No. Luther never left. Even though he knew that his church was engaged in biblically unsupportable practices, he stayed and worked the rest of his life trying to reform (thus the name “reformation”) the church he loved, rather than leave to start a new denomination. It wasn’t until after Luther died – several decades after the posting of the 95 Theses on the door of the Wittenberg Church – that those who agreed theologically with Luther realized the gap had grown too wide between them and the Roman Catholic Church, with no recognizable hope for reconciliation. Only then did they form a new denomination, and became known as “Lutherans.”

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Q: Is there a point at which Hope would consider becoming a part of a new Lutheran denomination?
A: If the prevailing view taught throughout the ELCA (in our congregations) changes and aligns with the ELCA churchwide assembly votes, or if we could no longer teach and practice what we believe the Bible compels us to do regarding sexual boundaries, then we would have to ask whether or not Hope and the ELCA can continue to be church together. We are not there yet.

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Q: Has the leadership at Hope considered becoming a non-denominational and/or non-Lutheran church, or officially drop “Lutheran” from our name and just be called, “Church of Hope?”
A: No.

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Q: Isn’t being Lutheran, no matter what, putting too much emphasis on our heritage and tradition?
A: No. We don’t believe God calls Hope to be Lutheran for the sake of heritage or tradition, but for the sake of furthering a Lutheran theological understanding of God. At the core of our Lutheran identity is a thorough comprehension of God’s love and amazing grace. We emphasize, as Lutherans, salvation by grace through faith in Christ, apart from anything we could to do earn God’s eternal favor. We hold a high view of Scripture as the inspired and living Word of God, and we teach the priesthood of all believers. Historically and theologically, that is what it means to be Lutheran, and that is worth emphasizing.

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Q: Unity is important, but doesn’t the Bible suggest that Christians should have nothing to do with sexually immoral people?
A: Paul warns the first-century Corinthian church not to associate with “sexual sinners” (1 Corinthians 5:11), but that law is contextual, not timeless. Church life for the Corinthians was spinning out of control: some were getting drunk on communion wine, some were speaking in tongues during worship without boundaries, and still others were endorsing perverse and abusive sexual behaviors within the church. Into this setting, Paul mandated a set of specific rules, including a call to expel sexual sinners for the sake of restoring order to the first-century Corinthian church. In the same letter, Paul also commanded women not to cut their hair, and to wear head coverings (1 Corinthians 11:5-6), as women with short hair in that first-century Corinthian culture were assumed to be prostitutes, causing further disorder in the church.

Unless we are going to insist that women who pray today in church wear head coverings (and there’s no applicable biblical reason to do so), then for the sake of biblical consistency, we can not insist that Paul’s command for the first-century Corinthian church to separate from sexual sinners applies to us, and certainly not to the relationship between Hope and the ELCA. That would be “proof texting” – a very dangerous game for Christians to play, and one that ultimately diminishes the significance of God’s Word in a church (picking and choosing Bible texts to support our causes, rather than letting the full text and context of a particular passage compel, challenge, and guide our lives).

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Q: Aren’t all of the commands in the Bible regarding sexual boundaries contextual, and therefore not applicable to our modern world?
A: No. Some laws in the Bible are clearly “contextual” (like “don’t eat pork”), meaning they are written for the good of that particular community. Other biblical commands are “timeless” (like “love one another”), meaning they are intended for and applicable to all people at all times.

How can we tell the difference? It’s not that difficult. Biblical laws that are repeated consistently across different times and places stand out as unchangeable and timeless. These laws are even more assuredly timeless if Jesus does not refer to them, challenge them, or offer a new revelation regarding them. When Jesus disagreed with the narrow and legalistic interpretations made by the religious leaders of his day, he routinely brought those laws into the light for a more timeless interpretation.

For instance, Jesus says, “You have heard the law that says, ‘An eye for an eye’ (contextual) … but I say, ‘Turn the other cheek’ (timeless).” Matthew 5:38-39

A few verses later, Jesus says, “You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy’ (contextual) … but I say, ‘Love your enemies’ (timeless).” Matthew 5:43-44

Jesus had ample opportunity to do the same kind of timeless interpreting of Old Testament contextual laws regarding sexuality and marriage, but he did not, nor did he raise the issue of homosexual behavior as something that could – in some relationships – be considered a God blessed option. In fact, when the issue of marriage and sexual boundaries was brought to Jesus, he affirmed the Old Testament law established by God at the creation of the first human beings:

“Haven’t you read the Scriptures? They record that from the beginning ‘God made them male and female and this explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united as one.’” Matthew 19:4-6 (see also Genesis 2:24, Ephesians 5:31)

Clearly, then, here we have a mandate from God, established at the beginning of creation, affirmed by Jesus in the Gospels, and Paul in the epistles: God created the gift of sex to be shared within the boundaries of a marriage between a man and woman. Throughout the Bible, there is not one hint of any kind of God blessed alternative when it comes to sexual intimacy. So, this is not a contextual law, but a timeless law that definitely does apply to us, and to our world.

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Q: Doesn’t the Bible contain passages that speak against homosexual behavior that are contextual and therefore irrelevant?
A: Some passages found in Leviticus contain words of condemnation for homosexuality, but they are contextual and not directly applicable to us. Some scholars also claim that the biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis is really about a condemnation of violence and rape, not homosexuality. Even if that point is granted, it still falls well short of an endorsement for homosexual behavior. Regarding Paul’s reference to homosexuality as “unnatural” (Romans 1:24-27), some suggest that Paul was ignorant of the distinction between homosexual orientation and behavior, and therefore this passage is irrelevant – not their strongest point, however, as it attempts to build a rather shaky bridge of logic between what Paul didn’t know, which is impossible to prove, and the false premise that orientation presumes behavior.

Still, even if all of the above were legitimate claims, those who want to use the Bible to endorse homosexual behavior have no challenge for the timeless biblical laws from God regarding sexual boundaries, announced at the creation of the first human beings, consistently affirmed throughout Scripture (Genesis 2:24, Matthew 19:6, Ephesians 5:31), and without any hint of an exception to the rule.

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Q: What about Abraham or Solomon, who had multiple wives and concubines? What about David, who committed adultery?
A: The Bible describes these relationships, but does not bless them. God does not bless polygamy. God does not bless adultery. God does not bless premarital sex. God does not bless homosexual behavior. God does not bless any sexual behavior, outside of marriage, at any point in the Bible.

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Q: What about love? Jesus commands his followers to love, so doesn’t that mean a same-gendered couple ought to be free to express their love for one another in a sexual way?
A: Well, using this same logic, a case could be made for God blessed adultery, incest, premarital sex, pedophilia, or any other kind of sexual behavior shared by people who are in love (from somewhat socially acceptable to highly illegal). Love expressed sexually is a wonderful gift from God that includes boundaries.

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Q: How can a person who is born gay be expected to refrain from homosexual behavior?
A: While our culture continues to debate whether or not a person is “born gay,” the biblical reality is that it doesn’t matter. Galatians 5:22-23 makes it clear that one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit is “self-control.” That doesn’t mean it’s easy to resist temptation, particularly when the urge is strong. Nor does it mean that those who give into this temptation are somehow worse sinners than those who are involved in some other kind of sinful sexual behavior (adultery, lust, pornography, promiscuity, treating human beings like sexual objects, etc.). A casual reader of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount knows that almost all of us are guilty of sinful sexual behavior (Matthew 5:28), and therefore ought to be careful not to flick the speck out of our neighbor’s eye when we have a log in our own (Matthew 7:4-6). But being tempted to sin, or more specifically having been born with a desire to engage in homosexual behavior, does not mean we are powerless to stop short of acting on that orientation. The urge to get involved sexually with another human being, even when love is involved, does not prove the rightness of the behavior.

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Q: Isn’t homosexuality a justice issue, like the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, or the civil rights movement of the 1960s?
A: It is clearly true that people who are gay have far too frequently been criticized, ridiculed, verbally abused, or worse by religious people who misunderstand God’s Word, and misuse the Bible to try and make their “case” for bigotry. That’s unjust.

Historically, religious bigots also tried to use Scripture to support slavery, suppress women’s rights, or force African-Americans to live as second-class citizens. In each case, the Bible was applied unfairly or dishonestly to further an unjust ideology. Over time, these biblically unsupportable claims were dismissed, while the faithful in the church led the charge for change and justice. Without the leadership of Christians inspired by God’s Word, the abolition of slavery would not have occurred when it did, women would not have been given the right to vote when they did, and the civil rights movement of the 1960s would not have happened the way it did.

Some claim that homosexuality is the new justice issue for our day, and the church will come along and eventually bless same gender sexual behavior. There are some similarities, but it’s not the same. Yes, the church has an obligation to stand up for anyone who is oppressed because of race, gender, ethnicity, or even sexual orientation. But that does not mean the church is also called to stand in favor of homosexual behavior, which the Bible does not endorse. This is an important distinction. Some would prefer to blur the lines between justice/oppression and morality/behavior when it comes to gay rights and homosexuality, but that’s not honest or biblically faithful. The oppression of gay people is a justice issue over which the church is called to stand against, but homosexual behavior is a moral issue over which the church does not have the authority to change with a vote.

So, at Hope, we teach that oppression of people who are gay is unjust and sinful. We also teach that no one, even those who are oppressed, has a free pass from God to bless sinful behavior, and mistake morality for justice.

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Q: Regarding Hope’s teaching on sexual boundaries, aren’t we concerned that large segments of our culture will say our teaching is either too loose or too strict?
A: No. The culture is not an authority for the church. We do not decide what to teach at Hope based on political or social worldviews, popular opinion, or rapidly changing cultural norms. The only foundation for our teaching as a church is God’s Word. If we attempt to minimize the authority of, or modify, God’s Word, we lose the essence of what it means to be Christian.

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Q: Why not just be silent as a church about homosexuality, since it can be such a sensitive subject?
A: The Bible is not silent about homosexuality, so we can’t be silent or pretend that God really has nothing relevant to say about the matter. Homosexuality, like it or not, has become a major social issue in the world today, and God has a word that needs to be included in the conversation. Not only that, this current debate in the ELCA is about more than sexuality, it’s about how we read and understand the Bible, and whether or not we will allow Scripture to be our final authority in all matters of faith and daily life.

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Q: I thought Hope was a mission based church, not issues based, so why are we talking about this issue?
A: Hope is mission based, and we are not emphasizing this issue over mission. The mission of the church continues, stronger than ever. The culture and our denomination are, however, currently involved in finding clarity on this particular issue to the point where the future of the ELCA, and the future of how our culture defines marriage and family, is at stake. So, we have a responsibility to participate – not emphasize, but participate – in the conversation, or run the risk of becoming irrelevant and, worse, unfaithful.

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Q: Who is the “leadership” at Hope that makes these decisions?
A: The Church Council is the Board of Directors for this congregation. The congregation elects Council Members at Hope’s annual meeting in September. The senior pastor is accountable to the Church Council, and the other pastors at Hope are accountable to the senior pastor. The wise and proactive decisions to stay in the ELCA for now, work for reform, and cut open ended offerings to the synod office were made at Hope by unanimous vote of the Church Council, with the full support of Hope’s entire pastoral team (senior pastor, teaching pastors, satellite pastors).

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Q: What led to the Church Council’s unanimous decision to re-distribute Hope’s benevolence giving to the ELCA synod office?
A: For several months, the Church Council prayerfully discussed various options, seeking to find a response to the expected actions of the 2009 ELCA churchwide assembly that would be faithful, but not based on revenge or unrighteous anger. On the continuum of options, from “leave the ELCA immediately” (premature) to “embrace the ELCA votes for change” (not faithful), the Church Council wisely landed between those two extremes, and voted unanimously to discontinue open-ended giving to the ELCA synod and churchwide offices. That portion of Hope’s offerings will now go to ELCA related ministries (Lutheran World Relief, Lutheran Services in Iowa, Lutheran Bible Camps, etc.) that remain faithful to their mission, and do not stand in conflict with Scripture. The Church Council has a moral responsibility to distribute Hope’s offerings to ministries that align with what we teach and practice.

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Q: Will Hope get kicked out of the ELCA for modifying the way we give offerings to the ELCA?
A: No. The pastors at Hope notified both our synodical bishop and the presiding bishop of the ELCA of our intended response prior to the churchwide assembly. They were not surprised by our decision, and expressed a desire for us to remain affiliated with the ELCA.

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Q: Is Hope the only congregation that decided to discontinue open-ended benevolence giving to the ELCA synod and churchwide offices?
A: No. A growing number of ELCA congregations are choosing the same path, not wanting to leave the denomination prematurely, and yet not wanting to provide ongoing financial support for a ministry that voted for a new social statement that stands in conflict with Scripture.

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Q: What will happen to the ELCA if churches don’t financially support the synod and churchwide offices?
A: Hopefully, it will lead to a Christ-centered renewal for the ELCA, which might include less bureaucracy and votes on social statements at churchwide assemblies, and more of a commitment to God’s Word as the final source and norm for all matters of faith and daily life, wider outreach to the lost and hurting, and a deeper expansion of God’s Kingdom.

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Q: Are there other Lutheran denominations that stand out as viable options to the ELCA, should Hope ever decide to leave?
A: There are several other Lutheran denominations, as well as Lutheran “movements” or “alliances” …

The Lighthouse Covenant was started by the senior pastors of five of the ten largest congregations in the ELCA, including Hope. It is not a denomination, nor does it seek to become one at this time. Instead, it is a newly developing and rapidly growing network of Lutherans who are planning prayer meetings and events for the sake of connecting, finding new ways to do church together, and providing a safe haven for smaller ELCA congregations.

Lutheran CORE is a substantial group with a strong emphasis on the authority of Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions, led by ELCA pastors and theologians who will not accept the votes of the ELCA churchwide assembly, and who plan to meet later this fall to discuss their options for the future.

Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ (LCMC) is intentionally less structured than CORE, shares some history with the Word Alone movement, and includes just under 200 congregations in the United States, some of which have left, and some of which remain affiliated with the ELCA. They are already a denominational alternative in structure, but still a relatively small group with some factional issues (they do agree on the authority of Scripture, but not necessarily on how best to go about doing church).

All three of these groups are relatively new, so things can and probably will change as they grow and develop. The wise course of action for Hope right now, then, is to pause, pray, and carefully examine and ponder all of our options. This “season” of discernment might last a few months, or several years. Ultimately, we seek only to be faithful to God in whatever decision we make and until the Spirit tells us to leave, it is time to stay.

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Q: Is God some sort of sexual prude?
A: No. God is definitely “pro-sex.” He invented it. Human sexuality is a gift God gives to a man and a woman who are married to share with one another for the sake of procreation, intimacy, and pleasure (see Song of Songs).

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Q: Why would Hope object to calling a pastor who is in an openly gay relationship? Aren’t all pastors sinners?
A: All people, pastors at Hope included, are sinners. Being a sinner doesn’t disqualify a person from being a pastor. Being an unrepentant sinner does. Repentant sinners acknowledge their sinful behavior, seek forgiveness, and do not claim by words or actions that their behavior is God blessed and therefore something that should continue. On the other hand, pastors involved in same gender sexual relationships are involved in ongoing, and therefore unrepentant, sin. By words or actions, they embrace their sinful behavior and claim to know better than God when it comes to defining sexual boundaries. At that point, they are no longer qualified to serve as pastors. It’s not sin that disqualifies pastors from church leadership. It’s unrepentant sin.

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Q: Does that mean unrepentant sinners are not welcome at Hope?
A: All people are welcome at Hope. For the sake of order and consistency, unrepentant sinners are asked to step away from church leadership positions.

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Q: But what if people leave Hope because they don’t think we provide a strong enough condemnation of gay people, or on the other side of this debate, they feel like what Hope teaches is too strict?
A: God bless them. We will still love them, and we will welcome them back if they ever choose to return, but God didn’t put Hope here to be popular, or to become a pawn in a political/social chess game. He put us here to be faithful. Those who believe that the primary mission of the church is to win a culture war are (on either side of this issue), with all due respect, missing the point of Christianity and causing serious damage to the mission of the church.

The world tends to see things simplistically, and when it comes to this issue, the world insists that there are only two views: either you love gay people by agreeing with their behavior, or you hate gay people by disagreeing with their behavior. Jesus would offer a third and more faithful alternative view, and one that we embrace at Hope:

Love people. For the sake of love, do not bless sinful behavior. Remember that all of us are sinners in need of a Savior, and our only hope for salvation depends on God’s grace, not our good behavior.


We are made right with God by placing our faith in Jesus Christ. And this is true for everyone who believes, no matter who we are. For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. Yet God, with undeserved kindness, declares that we are righteous. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins.”  Romans 3:22-24

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Last Published: March 21, 2014 10:52 AM
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