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Lutherans deciding on new role allowing gay ordained clergy

Megapastor Walt Kallestad says his church “will not accept or comply” with any such denominational decision.

By Ronald E. Keener

Over a period of years the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America has been working on a social statement on sexuality now named “Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust.” That report and its recommendations are coming before the churchwide assembly, August 17-22, in Minneapolis.

While much of the statement may find some agreement among Lutherans, it is a couple recommendations — the implementation statements — that are causing greater concern within the denomination.

The offending portions, if adopted, “could make it possible for Lutherans in committed same-gender relationships to serve as ELCA associates in ministry, deaconesses, diaconal ministers and ordained ministers,” says a release from the church’s news service. A simple majority will be enough to adopt the “Report and Recommendations on Ministry Policies.”

Among those disagreeing with the direction of the report and recommendations for accepting gay clergy in the ELCA is Dr. Walt Kallestad, senior pastor of Community Church of Joy, Glendale, AZ.

The megachurch leader wrote a letter to his church on March 4 that said “the purpose of this letter is to make clear to members of Community Church of Joy and friends and families of Joy Christian School our firm opposition to this policy” and that both take the stance that “the Bible is the inerrant Word of God and the absolute authority on all things. The Bible makes it clear that homosexuality is a sin.

“This church and school will not accept or comply with policies which are in direct opposition to teachings in the Word of God,” Kallestad says. The church has a weekend attendance of 2,500 and 1,000 students in its school.

He notes too that he has “been working with the pastors of many large ELCA churches who share our deep concern at the direction our ELCA leaders are going regarding both the issue of homosexuality and policies and bias against the nation of Israel.”

Kallestad, 59, spoke with Church Executive in further detailing his views on the forthcoming vote in Minneapolis. Additional commentary by Kallestad is in a Web Connection article on the magazine’s Web site for July.

Are you comfortable with the proposed social statement called “Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust”?

My concern is that the process of filtering the Bible through culture is a very inappropriate process. You filter culture through the Bible. That’s how culture is to be filtered, and this whole process has really had its genesis in reading scripture through culture. Culture always changes and I believe the Word of God is the final authority in absolutely everything. I don’t believe there’s any room for any conversation beyond that. What the Bible says is true, it’s reliable, we can stake our life on it.

What I get concerned about is that we’ve taken a different spin on this and end up with a variety of conclusions depending upon one’s cultural lens. I would implore people to always filter culture through scripture and not scripture through culture.

What has taken place over the years in the church, or in the culture, that has brought the ELCA to this point in time? Why is churchwide doing this today?

Well, it’s cultural tolerance. The theme today is lets be tolerant. We want to be so inclusive that culture has dictated the morality instead of the biblical foundation. I believe it’s walking in disobedience. When you have toleration you have disobedience and you have a rebellion against the authority of Scripture. You end up in a place where you don’t want to go.

That’s why we have ended up where culture has dictated, and we wanted to embrace culture more than we wanted to embrace the truth of God’s Word. So we ended up there. It’s unfortunate and very devastating.

If the Bible is so clear, as dissenters from the recommendation say, what causes Lutherans to be dealing with the topic at all? The Bible is clear but there are people, presumably, who interpret the Bible differently?

Well what’s unfortunate is we have a desire to be accepted and acceptable and with a desire to blend in and compromise. There are things you cannot compromise and there are things that are absolutes.

Francis Schaeffer talked about this many years ago in many of his writings, that we have just lost our moral compass because there are no moral absolutes. If it’s right for you, it’s right. If it’s not right for you, it’s not right. And that’s basically the position the ELCA is calling for — what they call bound conscience, which means, if you think it’s right you go ahead and ordain and practice the departure from our normal practice and our policies as the body of Christ.

And if it isn’t, then you don’t practice it. This is creating a house divided and the Bible is very clear: a house divided will not stand. If you talk to the grass roots people throughout the nation, they do believe marriage is between one man and one woman, they do believe in faithfulness and commitment. I believe it’s become a social action issue when it’s not. It’s a biblical authority issue. That’s the distinction.

Yet the leadership of the denomination in Chicago is behind the statement, behind the implementation.

But the statement you have to realize is complete compromise. They get in a room — great opposition, great emotion, great feelings. What does a committee produce? If God would have run the world by committee it would have been a very different world. He operates by conviction not by consensus. That’s a very distinct point.

So people gather in a room, they want to agree, they compromise, and finally there’s a statement that seems to represent the group?

Well, it doesn’t, it represents everybody so it says everything to everybody. The only point they could come from the conclusion was that to make everybody get along to go along, that it is bound conscience. It just creates all kinds of confusion and I believe it creates division. If they are seeking diversity, what they’ve ended up with is division.

You use the term “bound conscience” and it’s used a lot in the documents. What does that mean?

It’s a theological phrase. It allows you to come to your study of God’s Word and your understanding of God’s world, but you come to a certain conclusion. Your conscience binds you to that conclusion. If you don’t come to the same conclusion as someone else, what we’re saying is we’ll tolerate both and both are acceptable. For the sake of peace in the family, we’ll agree to disagree but we’ll just go along to get along. I believe it’s not a conviction-driven statement; it’s a conclusion by consensus, not a conclusion by conviction.

If the vote goes against you, what are you prepared to do?

Well, I would say to you that we’re going to do everything we can to pray and seek God that this would not prevail, that the vote of the acceptance of leadership and the ordination of gays and lesbian pastors, I believe would break God’s heart, it would break many people’s hearts. But at the end of the day, should they choose to do that, we’ll ask God what do you want us to do at that point? Because I’m not interested in starting another denomination or dividing the church, yet it’s much like Martin Luther who said here I stand, I can do no other. I have to take a stand.

Your statement to the congregation says, “Christian churches across our nation are under attack.”

That is absolutely true. We are absolutely under attack and if you take a position contrary to culture, immediately your freedom of speech is impacted. You’re labeled as being a bigot and intolerant.

I mean it’s a ridicule that our Founding Fathers would bristle at because this country was created for freedom. I tell people that all positions and all faiths are equally protected. Now they are not equally true, but they are equally protected, including Christianity. We are under that protection and should have that freedom to not be manipulated to speak against our convictions, to have consensus with the culture.

How has your statement and position been received by your congregation? Do members call you?

Yes. Probably 98 percent are 1,000 percent behind this and there’s about a 2 percent group who were infuriated. Some left, some people took their students out of the school and want nothing to do with it. I have received hate mail. Over the years I received a great deal of hate mail [over many issues] and most of them aren’t signed.

They just use you as a whipping post. You have to understand that on the day of judgment I will stand before my heavenly Father and give account to Him. I will not give account to anyone else, but I will give an account to my heavenly Father. And that’s who I want to please and who I want to honor and who I want to obey.

Emily Eastwood, the executive director of the Lutheran gay and lesbian group, says the Human Sexuality “document recognizes that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people are and always have been part of the great diversity of God’s creation.” This “great diversity” is a term that people use, but is it beside the point?

The fundamental question is, “Are sinners a part of the family of God?” Absolutely, we’re all sinful and unclean. But to give a reasoning or a rationale that holds up a particular lifestyle, choice or behavior, I believe, is to say that is okay, when the Bible very clearly calls homosexuality a sin.

Are sinners welcome? Absolutely. Do we have gay and lesbian participants in our community here? Absolutely. Are they welcome? Absolutely, they are welcome. I love them. You love the sinner, you hate the sin. That’s where I would stand; that’s my position.

What do you make of homosexuality? Is it the old nurture-nature argument?

It comes down to the fact that there may be a temptation or an inclination, but you don’t have to feed it. You don’t participate; it is not in the perfect order of creation.

Yes, there has been the fall. The fall of man created a great deal of brokenness, but that is the result of the fall, it is not the fault of creation. We are created in the image of God and God’s plan of creation was never that homosexuality was part of his creation plan.

Your statement to the congregation inferred that you were organizing other large churches to oppose the recommendations. In what ways are you organizing other churches?

Well, here’s how we’re coming at this. I am not willing to point out the speck in my brother’s eye without dealing with the log in my own eye. I am a sinner, I am broken and I desperately need to repent. I desperately need to come before God, humble myself and wholeheartedly seek him and I don’t want to become an issue oriented army.

The issue of this agenda is not the real issue; it’s only a symptom that we need to come back to Jesus. It’s all about Him, and our eyes need to be on Him. There are many people who try to hijack you; what’s happened among our family, our Lutheran tribe, as among the Episcopalian tribe, its [the homosexuality clergy issue] hijacked the mission of the church, which is the Great Commission and the Great Commandment. Keep the main thing the main thing. And not throw stones at one another. I believe that the Sermon on the Mount and the teachings of Jesus in Matthew 7 talk about dealing with the log in your own eye before you worry about the speck in your brother’s.

I pray that it’s not bigotry, it’s not perceived as gay bashing or I’m trying in any way bring injury to my brother and sister in Christ. I want to lift up Christ and who He is and that He is our Savior, He is our King, He is our Lord. It’s really about advancing the Kingdom of God because this issue is about the kingdom of the earth; it isn’t about the Kingdom of Heaven. There are two kingdoms. This kingdom of the earth is going to self destruct, this will all be gone.

But it really is about the Kingdom of God and I don’t believe we’re fighting against flesh and blood, I believe we are fighting against principalities and powers of darkness.

I believe that the real battle is in the heavenlies. If we call the intercessors and we come to pray and we wholeheartedly humble ourselves and seek to honor God, that there will be breakthroughs that the victory is going to be won. So that’s where my heart is. That’s my thinking.

You’ve been talking to other churches, I presume?

I’ve been talking to pastors and leaders and I get calls from delegates and congregations, because Joy has over the years trained more than 50,000 pastors and leaders around the world and we get a lot of counsel. In fact, the call before you came in here was with a pastor consulting, and I fly out to California tomorrow to meet with some of the delegation. They’re praying and seeking God and want to honor God in being responsible in stewarding their votes and their position.

Discernment [over his next steps] takes a number of months I presume [if the recommendations pass the ELCA Assembly]

Absolutely.  You pray and seek God, what is he saying and how will we move forward. To do nothing is, I believe, selling out. You can choose to do whatever you want and when the people have spoken then it’s a matter of really discerning what is God saying to the church.

In the church of Laodicea the bible tells us neither be hot nor cold or I will spit you out of my mouth. I just want a church that is on fire for Jesus, that is bringing the world to follow Jesus, live like Jesus lived, love like He loved, and do what he did. That’s what I want to give my life to. I don’t want to give my life to some kind of a political agenda or political machine or some kind of organization. I want to give it to the Gospel, spreading the Gospel.

Is there something in ELCA polity that permits this church to go its way and still be a part of the denomination?

Well there is a great deal of flex within the denomination because the denomination is set where a congregation is the final rule and authority. Where many of the Episcopalians it was the denomination or the synod or the bishop who owned the property. For many Lutherans, including Community Church of Joy, the congregation owns the land and is the final authority.

In taking a stance like you are and you are going to the churchwide meeting where there will be a debate, this is all probably very uncomfortable for you. And I notice that you have 30 years of ministry recently recognized. All of those years you have probably had many issues where you had to take a stand and to be unpopular to some degree?

We are called, I believe, as followers of Christ to make a difference, and if we are not willing to take a stand when Godly men and women do nothing, catastrophe and disaster strike. Recently there was an issue of the casino that was going up just around the corner [from the church], and a number of us pastors mobilized and made our position known.

As a result of that there was a very good outcome; there was a very positive outcome. I wrote a book, “Amazing Grace,” with a friend of mine, who was producer of the movie “The Life of William Wilberforce,” and William Wilberforce kept getting turned down and turned down [on the issue of slavery] and finally he prevailed, which was right and righteous and honorable. I believe that the truth does prevail. When you stand on the side of truth you’re on a very solid foundation. Because of my convictions, it’s not optional, I could not stand back and do nothing I believe it is a time for God’s people to stand up and to unite and speak out.

The church was for many years raised the moral compass and now the church is losing its voice and we need to reestablish the voice in the marketplace and in our world.


THE PERTINENT ACTIONS

RESOLVED, that the ELCA commit itself to finding ways to allow congregations that choose to do so to recognize, support, and hold publicly accountable life-long, monogamous, same-gender relationships.

RESOLVED, that the ELCA commit itself to finding a way for people in such publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships to serve as rostered leaders of this church.

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