The proposal was voted down Friday by delegates attending an ELCA national meeting. It would have affirmed the church ban on ordaining sexually active gays and lesbians but allowed exceptions for candidates in long-term relationships.
Goodsoil, a coalition of Lutheran groups advocating for full inclusion of gays, accused the church of "sacrificing (gays) on the altar of a false and ephemeral sense of unity."
The Rev. G. Scott Cady of the New England Synod said rejecting gays who feel a call to ministry was tantamount to questioning the will of God.
"We have vacant pulpits and altars in congregations all over this country. We have people crying out for pastoral care," he said. "The Holy Spirit has said, `All right, here they are. Here they are.' Are we going to now say, `Thanks Holy Spirit, but we prefer something else.'"
Delegates voted against the measure 503-490. The proposal needed a two-thirds majority to pass.
New Jersey Synod Bishop Roy Riley, president of the ELCA's Council of Bishops, said the delegates accurately reflected the mood of the 4.9 million-member denomination.
"This church is not ready to make major changes in its ordination practices," he said. "That was the crux, really."
The gay ordination proposal and two others taken up at the meeting were based on years of work by a denominational task force on sexuality. Delegates overwhelmingly approved another of the panel's proposals, affirming church unity despite deep differences over homosexuality.
A final proposal on blessing ceremonies for same-sex couples was changed before it was approved and its impact remained unclear.
The measure upheld a 1993 Council of Bishops statement which bans such blessings and expresses "trust" in pastors ministering to gays and lesbians. Despite the prohibitions in the statement, it is generally acknowledged that some Lutheran pastors have been presiding at these ceremonies without repercussions for years.
As debate on gay ordination began Friday, about 100 gay advocates wearing rainbow sashes walked silently to the front of the hall and stood in front of the stage where Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson was overseeing the meeting. They stood quietly and did not move for nearly two hours, dispersing only when the session ended.
During the debate, several delegates who believe the Bible condemns gay sex compared homosexuality to alcoholism or drug addiction, something that they should help fellow Christians overcome.
Louis Hesse of the Eastern Washington-Idaho Synod said those arguing for gay ordination had not made a convincing theological or scientific argument on why they were right.
"The case has not been made. I've heard a lot of talk about the Gospel here today and I'm beginning to wonder if I'm in the right church," Hesse said. "A Gospel of full acceptance, accepting everyone the way they are, what does that say about sinfulness?"
Disagreement over what the Bible says about homosexuality has torn at Protestant denominations for years. The Episcopal Church consecrated its first openly gay bishop two years ago, and Anglicans worldwide are now struggling to remain unified, something conservative Lutherans noted in handouts to voters Friday.
Last month, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada voted against allowing pastors to decide whether to bless same-sex couples. The other major U.S. Lutheran body, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, is staunchly conservative on gay issues.
The ELCA task force still has a major project ahead: It is scheduled to develop a statement on human sexuality that will be presented to denomination's the 2009 meeting.