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A Pastoral Letter & Guidance to Pastors & Congregations of the SOS on Same-Gender Marriage Ruling

A Note from Bishop Dillahunt

Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ,

The purpose of this letter is to address questions many of you may have regarding the United States Supreme Court ruling on same-gender marriage.

As you are aware, the United States Supreme Court has held that state laws banning same-gender marriage violate the Constitution of the United States and that same-gender marriages solemnized in another state must be upheld by all 50 states. This ruling means that for the first time in its history, the State of Ohio must recognize same-gender marriage. What does this mean to us?

In 2009, the Churchwide Assembly adopted a resolution that resolved that, ‘the ELCA commit itself to finding ways to allow congregations that choose to so do so to recognize, support, and hold accountable lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships.’ Since that time, many congregations have begun the process to ‘recognize and support’ same-gender relationships, while others have not. Pastors may now wish to perform same-gender marriage ceremonies, while others may not.

As Lutheran Christians, we receive the court’s ruling with varying feelings. We are not of one mind on this issue. As a church, we continue to discern and struggle with how we can best relate to same-gender couples and families.

We are, however, Christ’s church together, regardless of our feelings on this issue. We share 'one Lord, one faith, one baptism.' Ephesians 4:5. The crucified and risen Jesus calls us to live in love of one another, to bear one another’s burdens, and to show that love to the world as a witness to God’s love for us. John 15:12-17. This means that how we handle our varying understandings of relating to same-gendered partners is, and will continue to be, a gospel issue.

Given this change of circumstances, as your bishop, I must refer you to the ELCA Social Statement: Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust (2009), which acknowledges our varying understandings on this matter, In particular, in commending to us the understanding of 'bound conscience' as a way forward in the midst of disagreement.

Under the provisions of Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust, all decisions regarding the recognition, support, and accountability of same-gender relationships are entrusted to congregations. This means that pastors are not to solemnize or preside over same-gendered marriages without conversation, discernment, agreement, and partnership with the congregations who have called them. This is true regardless of where a ceremony may be held, or who the parties to the married may be. To borrow a phrase from my colleague Bishop Bill Gafkjen of the Indiana-Kentucky Synod, 'pastors are not freelancers when it comes to stewarding the rites and ministries entrusted to their office.' This guidance from Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust flows directly from our common understanding that the ministry of pastors and the ministry of congregations are interdependent, and are sources of mutual accountability and oversight. (See, for example, Constitution of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Section 7.44.A13).

For those who wish to embrace this change in practice, it will require truly engaged, and sometimes difficult, conversation among the congregation councils, members, and their pastors. The consciences of all, including that of the pastor, should be respected as the congregation discerns how best to respond to this new legal environment.

Please note that at this time the ELCA does not have an official rite or liturgy for same-gender marriage, blessings or unions, but there are such liturgies available that are appropriate for use in congregations. Again, this is a decision for congregations and pastors to make together.

In all of this, it needs to be understood that under no circumstance will a pastor be obligated to solemnize the marriage of any couple, same-gendered or opposite-gendered, when the pastor cannot in good conscience do so. All churches and ministers still enjoy First Amendment protection of freedom of speech and religion, regardless of where they fall on this issue. The decision is up to the pastor and the congregation. The decision should be made prayerfully and only after open, honest, respectful discussion.

At our recent Synod Assembly, the assembly passed a resolution which states that through the Vision Implementation Team the synod ‘initiate a structured process that supports and encourages discussion and sharing of resources that would be most helpful for all of us wishing to minister to/with and support lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals and couples and their families.’ Until those resources are developed, the ELCA provides a helpful resource for such conversations: Talking Together as Christians about Tough Social Issues, I encourage you to review this resource, and others, as you move forward together in conversation.

As we live together as church for the sake of the world, let us be reminded that in all things Christ remains central. He is the light of the world; he is the Lord of the church. 'He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.' Colossians 1:17. That is his promise and witness to us.

You remain in my constant prayers in your ministry in Christ’s name in this mission territory we call the Southern Ohio Synod.


In Christ’s Service,

Bishop Suzanne D. Dillahunt
Southern Ohio Synod


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