February 8, 2007

Decision On Pastor Schmeling Hearing

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 6:04 pm

The panel has delivered its decision on the disciplinary hearing for Rev. Bradley Schmeling, pastor of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Atlanta (details on the hearing here; more details on the hearing and the decision here). The hearing was conducted to decide whether Pastor Schmeling, who is in a committed same-sex relationship, should be removed from the roster of ELCA clergy. Schmeling’s church was unanimously supportive of him, and made it clear that, if forced to choose between their pastor and the ELCA, they would stick with their pastor.

I find the committee’s decision simply brilliant, although it wouldn’t seem so at first blush. They have ruled that Pastor Schmeling will be removed from the clergy roster on August 15, 2007. Why August 15th you ask? Well, the next ELCA Churchwide Assembly will end on August 11th. A majority of the committee, although a very close majority, feels they do not have the power to change the ELCA Bylaws, so they are queueing this up for the CWA to correct before their ruling takes effect.

They go further, however. To quote directly from their decision:

In the event that the Committee on Appeals determines that paragraph b.4) of Definitions and Guidelines is unconstitutional[…], then this committee would find, with near unanimity, that there is nothing about Pastor Schmeling’s acknowledged and stipulated homosexual relationship that would impede the proclamation of the gospel or the right administration of the sacraments. If relieved of the specific requirements of Definitions and Guidelines and permitted to decide this case under the standards of constitution chapters seven and twenty, this committee would find almost unanimously that Pastor Schmeling is not engaged in conduct that is incompatible with the ministerial office, and would find with near unanimity that no discipline of any sort should be imposed against him.

Translating: Pastor Schmeling is morally fit to be a pastor, it’s just the current rules that get in the way. Whether the rules are set aside on appeal or not, they recommend that the Churchwide Assembly change the Definitions and Guidelines and Visions and Expections, the two documents governing behavior of ELCA clergy, to remove the prohibition against committed same-sex relationships. This is so cool!

I think there are a couple different things going on here. It is easy to argue against gay rights or for a scriptural basis for condemning gays when it is in the abstract, but when someone that you know and love comes out as gay, it’s not so easy. Given a choice between adherence to a legalistic doctrine on the one hand and love for a gay son or daughter, most Christians embrace the latter, and rightfully so — just look at our Vice President. Similarly, it’s easy for a church body to intellectually argue about Biblical and church law, but when faced with a decision to kick an entire congregation out of the church, it’s not so easy. Especially so when the pastor in question is clearly called by God and by his congregation to his ministry! Choosing between church legal documents and the love of God so evident in Pastor Schmeling’s ministry, it’s not hard to choose.

So why not just dismiss the case without any discipline? By way of analogy, many have criticized Roe v. Wade not for its legalization of abortion, but because it was decided by the judiciary and not by the legislature. The conservative attacks on activist judges started with Roe v. Wade. Think how different the debate would be if it had been decided by Congress! Advocates for abortion would have to try to change the hearts and minds of the electorate instead of just attacking activist judges.

I have to wonder whether the same dynamic is at play here. If the panel had tried to “legislate from the bench”, they and their decision would become the focus of attacks by Word Alone and the IRD. But if the CWA changes the bylaws, the conservatives will have to try to change the hearts and minds of ELCA Lutherans, a much harder task.

Pastor Schmeling and his backers can appeal the decision between now and August, but I suspect it will come down to a vote at the Churchwide Assembly in August. The vote may require a 60% super-majority, but I think it will pass. Like the hearing committee, the CWA won’t be debating this in the abstract, but will be hearing directly from fellow Lutherans whom this decision will directly affect. Even if they are opposed to gay clergy, they would have to vote against congregational autonomy and self-governance. They would have to decide to evict a church because of their choice of pastor. I may be naive, but I just can’t see that happening.


  1. The problem with the ELCA is that it drifted so far from its roots and the bible that it is going down the same path as the ECUSA. The Bible clearly stats that homosexual coduct is wrong, it is a case being black or white and not gray. How do you know that it is God that is calling Mr. Schmeling or any other gay to be a pastor. The goodsoil.org group, which Mr. Schmeling is a member, won’t be happy until they gey their own way or they wreck the ELCA. I thank God that I left the ELCA for a confessional church in the LC-MS.

    Comment by Harry — February 8, 2007 @ 9:29 pm

  2. I hope you’re right about the outcome of a vote by the CWA.

    Comment by Jarred — February 9, 2007 @ 5:58 am

  3. Harry, thanks for the heads up. I wasn’t aware of Good Soil — I’ve been getting my news from Lutherans Concerned/North America.

    For those interested in a list of organizations advocating for a change in the ELCA’s policies, see here: http://www.goodsoil.org/page.php?page=partners

    Comment by Bob — February 9, 2007 @ 8:56 am

  4. wow, i just crossed paths with your site and i’m really enjoying
    it. i’ve been a lifelong lcms member(although, truthfully, i’d
    probably be better off an elca). i agree wholeheartedly with just
    about everything lcms with 2 exceptions. 1) evolution. how can you
    look a mountain of scientific fact in the face and say ‘nope’ ? and
    how dare you challenge my faith based on my my refusal to say ‘
    nope’? 2) sex hang-ups. it seems you can be a spouse-abusing,
    coveting, slothful liar, cheat and sot but as long as you are
    straight, what the heck? some days i feel like it’s my job in
    sunday school to remind them of jesus’ teachings. but i just can-
    not change denominations. i’ll be back here reading frequently.
    thank you X 3. and god bless you.

    Comment by elsie — February 9, 2007 @ 10:45 am

  5. I agree with you that it is unlikely that CWA would decide to evicte a church.

    There are plenty of examples of pastors and congregations that have abandoned basic confessional doctrines in favor of evangelical popularism not to mention teachings on sacraments that would basically be classified as heresy…but of course those pastors are mostly straight… 😉

    Thanks for the update.

    Comment by Becky — February 9, 2007 @ 8:46 pm

  6. I do not think they will have a choice and evict the church. Remember it has happened before that a congregation left the church in order to keep their pastor. The ELCA is known to try to appease everyone, so there is going to be an attempt to reach a common ground. This ground I think is very far away! Until the labels go (confessionalist, traditional, liberal, progressive) and we see each other as Christian……I do not understand why people fight about sexuality. I do not see sex, race, gender agenda in our creeds, etc. I find it interesting that people join and leave a church on the stance of issues, but not what the church stand for in regards to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The day we all agree and get along will be the day heaven on earth is implemeted. (But according to a ‘Simpson’ episode in Marge’s dream, it will be divided “catholic” and “protestant” – funny episode by the way…)

    Comment by george — April 3, 2007 @ 12:16 pm

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