I tried hard to make a simple statement that sums up where I'm coming from. I said something like, "All I want is to be able to trust that when the Bible says something and I've done the work to understand the whole Bible on that topic, I can trust what the Bible says. It seems like the ELCA's new position says that I cannot believe what the Bible says about homosexuality." My friend's response to this statement was of course, "Well, the Bible says a lot of things." We proceeded to talk about not eating shellfish, women keeping silent in church, and other things that the Bible seems to prohibit that we don't pay attention to.
It frustrates me because there is a very good answer to my friend's objection, but few people seem able to hear it. The answer is this: As much as possible, I try in every area of my life to live according to the Bible's whole witness and to lead others in that same way of life. In most areas this is a very real possibility. In certain topics, the Bible's witness is either of two minds, in an old covenant / new covenant sense -- hence eating shellfish is prohibited in Leviticus 11:9-12, but the New Testament in several places specifically removes the dietary codes, for example in Mark 7:17-19, Acts 10, and 1 Timothy 4 -- or else the Bible's witness is broad and diverse, such that in some places the Bible speaks against a certain activity and in other places it seems to endorse it, as with the question of women in leadership. (Without digging too deeply into the example of women in leadership, the anti- camp quotes 1 Corinthians 14:33-35 and 1 Timothy 2:11-13, and the pro- camp quotes Galatians 3:28 and talks about Mary Magdalene as the first witness of the resurrection (John 20), Prisca listed as a fellow-worker with Paul and Junia as an apostle (Romans 16:3-8), and Deborah leading the whole nation of Israel in Judges 4-5. So both sides on this debate can make a coherent biblical argument, but neither can say that the Bible is absolute in supporting their position.)
So what does this mean? When people say, "The Bible says lots of things we don't follow anymore" and they use the example of eating shellfish or prohibiting women in leadership, my response is that I do want to do exactly what the Bible says -- not in a sense that I am picking and choosing which verses to follow, but in the sense that I am reading the whole text from front to back, beginning to end, and doing my best not only to follow those passages that I like, but also the ones that challenge me and my culture. So if I was to prohibit eating pork or shellfish in my household, I would NOT be following the Bible -- because I would be failing to read and take seriously those New Testament texts that specifically re-address those dietary laws in light of Jesus. And though I know that other serious, biblical Christians view this differently and I respect that, I am convinced that the Bible moves from a default position of patriarchy in the Old Testament toward an ever-widening acceptance of women in leadership in the New Testament. So I am an advocate of women serving in ministry leadership as God calls and as their gifts allow. I also recognize that there are special challenges that confront women who lead in the church. There are also challenges that confront the churches where they serve, and I believe that biblically we need to take those challenges seriously. But that is not a reason to across the board prohibit women in leadership. I think that position of forbidding women in leadership is disobedient to the Bible.
So what does this have to do with the ELCA? Just this: Reading the Bible from front to back, beginning to end, there is no -- zero -- endorsement of homosexuality in any form as something God blesses or encourages. All sides in the debate agree on this. (Of course in this age of the Internet, I should add the disclaimer that there are a few fringe types who claim Naomi and Ruth, David and Jonathan, or Jesus and "the beloved disciple" were homosexually involved, but there is nothing in the text to imply this and it is an irresponsible reading of the text to read this element into these relationships.) Those who have advocated the ELCA's change in policy do not argue that the Bible endorses homosexuality; rather, the most they can say is that the Bible does not address homosexuality as we understand it today. That claim, by the way, is hotly debated. Even many liberal scholars acknowledge that Romans 1 deals with any kind of same-sex activity, not just temple prostitution or oppressive relationships. Walter Wink, for example, cannot discount Paul's words in Romans 1 so he discounts Paul himself by saying, "Paul knew nothing of the modern psychological understanding of homosexuals as person whose orientation is fixed early in life." (See his full argument here.)
NOTE: This fact, that the Bible in no way endorses or supports homosexuality, does NOT mean that it is okay to discriminate against gays and lesbians. I totally reject those who use the Bible as an excuse for hate-mongering in any form. Here again, they miss the Bible's wider message in favor of a proof-text that validates their own fearful behavior. The Bible also rejects many other behaviors and we recognize that those who follow Jesus are called to love and welcome those caught up in these behaviors rather than hating or abusing others for any reason.
Back to my original point -- I believe with all my heart that Jesus' followers are called to live in every detail according to the Bible. When the Bible clearly prohibits something, like abuse or greed or gluttony or worry or legalism, we are to reject that behavior in ourselves and in our fellowships. Where the Bible allows freedom in interpretation, we exercise freedom. Where the Bible endorses certain behaviors, we strive to follow. It is too easy to simply say, "The Bible says a lot of things" and then pick and choose how we want to live without thought for the Bible's witness. The Bible in fact makes coherent arguments for certain ways of living and against other ways of living. We do not pick and choose which verses to follow; rather, we read each verse in the context of the whole Bible in order to understand and apply it better. This is a challenging way to read the Bible, but nothing less is expected of those who follow Jesus.