ST. PAUL, Minn. -- A group of conservative pastors who say they represent 20,000 Lutherans have condemned a first draft of a church statement on human sexuality, calling it a "malignant cancer for the church."
At a news conference yesterday, the Great Commission Network demanded that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America disband the committee that drafted the statement and "issue a public apology for this gross infraction of our faith and confessions."
The group said its main objection was the statement's interpretation of biblical passages that refer to marriage, sex outside of marriage, homosexuality and masturbation.
The statement unabashedly says masturbation is healthy and normal even though the Old Testament book of Leviticus condemns it. The document also says that heterosexual couples living together and long-term homosexual relationships may not be sinful if there is a caring, loving commitment.
The statement has been intensely criticized by rank-and-file Lutherans. Frank Imhoff, communications officer for the ELCA national offices, said the day an Associated Press article ran in newspapers across the country, the headquarters received 22,000 telephone calls. The Chicago-based offices normally receive 3,500 calls in a day.
The Great Commission Network said the statement is a departure from traditional sexual morality that the Christian church has held since its beginning. The Rev. Walter Sundberg, associate professor of church history at Luther Northwestern Theological Seminary in St. Paul, said the statement misuses scripture and seeks to change basic doctrine.
"It's an unprecedented effort to un-sin sin," Mr. Sundberg said. "You can't do that and maintain integrity. What the homosexual community wants is the un-sinning of homosexual activity -- gay blessing and all of that."
Another problem with the church statement, according to the conservative pastors, is that couples living together without going through a marriage ceremony are not condemned by the statement if they have a lifetime commitment to each other. Mr. Sundberg cited the reality that some older people live together without getting married because of laws controlling Social Security and pensions.
"What should the church do about that?" Mr. Sundberg asked. "The church should petition the government to get the laws changed. Why should the church have to change?"