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Consensus Crazy

Started by Richard Johnson, February 27, 2009, 02:30:47 PM

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Richard Johnson

Consensus Crazy
By the Rev. Ronald F. Marshall
First Lutheran Church of West Seattle, Seattle, WA

The two documents recently released by the Sexuality Task Force propose that the ELCA follow Mao's famous line and "let a thousand flowers bloom." That is to say, each area of the church should be able to pursue their own lights on matters of homosexuality—whether or not such behavior is sinful, whether or not pastors in loving, committed same-sex relations may serve openly in our congregations, and whether or not same-sex unions should be blessed in church.

The reason for this proposal, they tell us, is that there isn't any consensus in the ELCA (or in society, for that matter) on what we should do. The only fair minded response is thus to let a thousand flowers bloom. In footnote 9 of "Ministry Policies" the task force defines consensus to mean "when most people share assumptions and conclusions." But there are two problems with this operative concept of consensus.

The first is that they don't tell us how they know that we don't have a consensus in the ELCA on these matters. Was a survey taken to poll the members of the ELCA to see how many members might hold one view or the other? If that was not done in any scientifically acceptable way, how can they say that there isn't a consensus in the ELCA? There is no explanation given for this. Perhaps some expert said there wasn't any consensus and they believed it. But then we would have to ask if that expert's findings fit with the views held within the ELCA. Does the ELCA perfectly match the sentiments in American society overall? One would think if the lack of a consensus on these matters was so important for this study that it would have been based on better data with clearer explanations on how that data was best to be understood.

But the second problem is much more serious and has to do with the propriety of a consensus in the first place. On matters of doctrine and morality, is it justifiable for the church to ground its positions on the consensus of what the membership thinks? In the New Testament the disciples suffer from a lack of understanding and hardness of heart (Mark 6:52). One would suppose it wouldn't have been a good idea for Jesus to have checked with them first before he told his parables to make sure there was a consensus before he proceeded any further. Also we know that friendship with the world is enmity toward God (James 4:4), and so following cultural trends and the consensus of the population at large isn't the best way for the church to proceed.

Because this crazy matter of consensus is so crucial to the proposals of these two documents, and because the way it is employed in these two documents is unjustifiable, both documents should be withdrawn from consideration in the ELCA and replaced with better documents at some later time.

The Rev. Richard O. Johnson, STS

James B. Bittner

A third point would be the uncritical assumption that if no consensus exists, the received tradition of two-plus millenia should be changed.  Non-sequitur if I ever saw one ...


The weight of the received tradition from 20 centuries of the Church must be taken into account, as must Scripture which we claim is our rule and norm of life.  "Let's all just get along" isn't in either of them.  Both trump consensus - consensus, the crowd, all emotion driven and fickle.  The proposed document and ministry standards assume that anything but unlimited and unqualified "Yes!" is mean and therefore wrong.  When will we begin to see that love, true love, sometimes compels us to say simply, "No." because we love our neighbor?

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