While the Council of the Lutheran World Federation penned numerous resolutions concerning the war in Iraq, the humanitarian crisis in Sudan and the terrorist attack in Russia, the controversial issue on homosexuality in Lutheranism still remained unanswered. To tackle the issue,which has plagued nearly every global church families for decades, the 2004 LWF council meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, established an eight-person task force to provide “helpful background and assistance for discussion within and among member churches on family, marriage and sexuality.”
According to the LWF president and the Council chairman, Rev. Mark S. Hanson of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), the Task Force on Family, Marriage and Sexuality will not act as a decision making body. Rather, the 8-member team will be responsible for gathering what the LWF member churches are already saying on the topic.
Human sexuality – in particular homosexuality - has been one of the most divisive issues within the 65 million member denomination for decades. Similar to the patterns seen in churches such as the Anglican Communion, the northern (Europe and America) churches have veered toward including full blessing and ordination “rights” for homosexual individuals, while the Southern churches have held onto biblical orthodoxy.
According to a conservative leader in the ELCA, the controversy over homosexuality was at its peak during the last assembly of the LWF – which takes place once every 6 years – in 2003. During the assembly, the northern church staff tried to approve a statement that moved in the direction of approving homosexual relationship within the Lutheran world community.
“The draft statement had in several places language that leaned in a pro-homosexual direction,” said Mark Chavez, director of the Word Alone Network – a renewal movement within the ELCA. “They went so far as to say there was no biblical model for families.”
Chavez then explained that the leaders of the global South rejected the language in the document, by reminding the other leaders of the dire consequences of passing such a statement.
“What happened was that the Lutherans from Africa, Latin America and Asia went to the microphone and said “If this assembly adopts this statement, we cannot take it back to our own churches,” and they successfully deleted almost all of the language,” said Chavez.
The newly appointed task force will have members from both the global south and north, representing the seven LWF regions -- Africa, Asia, Central Eastern Europe, Central Western Europe, Nordic Countries, Latin America and the Caribbean, and North America. The Rev. Kristin P. Tomasdottir, Evangelical Lutheran Church of Iceland, a member of the LWF Executive Committee, was named to chair the group.
According to the LWF, the main role of the task force would be to report where there are agreements and disagreements on the topic of homosexuality by “reflecting biblically, theologically, historically and ethically on the practices and attitudes identified.”
It has also been assigned to consider the different approaches to scripture and ethical attitudes and varying practices and policies on human sexuality, which may affect the overall unity of the church. Ultimately, the task force will find out how such differences can be overcome.
However, the task force will not be making “decisions on behalf of the global communion.”
"The scope of the task force is to help the communion be in conversation, not to force it to make decisions that would be divisive for the life of the communion," Hanson said.
The Rev. Ishmael Noko, LWF general secretary, said the establishment of the task force would help the communion in its ecumenical dialogue.
"This is a very significant process that we have started. It will help Lutheran churches participate in these important issues on the ecumenical stage," Noko said, noting that many other denominations and families are already in the process of such a task force report.
Other members of the Task Force on Family, Marriage and Sexuality are Prof. Otieno Mallo, Evangelical Lutheran Church in Kenya; Dr. Alicia Lee, Taiwan Lutheran Church; the Rev. Manuela Tokatli, Evangelical Church of the Augsburg Confession in Austria; Bishop Mindaugas Sabutis, Evangelical Lutheran Church of Lithuania; Prof. Jan Olav Henriksen, Church of Norway; and Kristin Anderson-Ostrom, ELCA, Fremont, Neb. The Latin American and Caribbean region is expected to nominate its representative.
The task force will meet annually and regularly report the ongoing process to the LWF council. The LWF currently has 138 member churches in 77 countries, with nearly 65 million members all over the world.