A Call for Our Best Thinking

This article was excerpted from a pastoral letter from the bishop to the Northeastern Iowa Synod.

[1] The participation I have seen in the conversation on the “Journey Together Faithfully” materials has been quite inspiring. As enriching as the conversation has been, however, I am not convinced that we have yet done our very best thinking on this topic. I wish to offer the following observations and challenges with the hope of deepening our conversation and theological reflections. They are offered by one who is committed to the renewal and reformation of the church for the sake of the Gospel but who has not yet been convinced by scripture or sound reason that our church should change its policies and practices regarding homosexuality.

[2] Even though I have not been convinced that the church should change its current policy, I believe that there are issues that need to be addressed in this conversation.

Gospel or Its Implications
[3] The conversation in which we are engaged is a dialogue on the implications of the Gospel for our life together. Some seek to elevate this discussion to that of the Gospel itself. I believe that Jesus’ commissioning words to the disciples in Matthew 10 are helpful in articulating the difference.

[4] Jesus instructs his followers as to how to deal with those who do not welcome the disciples and their message. If the house is “not worthy,” if “any one will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town.” Judgment for the inhospitable and those unwilling to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ will be harsh. “Truly, I say to you, it shall be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah1 than for that town.” God’s judgment is more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah than for those who do not welcome the disciples and their message.

[5] Jesus does not equate the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah with the rejection of the Gospel, even while recognizing that there will be judgment on those two great cities.

[6] Those who seek to continue the church’s current teaching on homosexuality err in their attempts to elevate this teaching to the level of the Gospel. For centuries, the church has erroneously identified homosexuality as an obstacle to salvation. The church has been in a process of moving away from the belief that the consequence of being a homosexual person was eternal damnation. The Gospel itself is no longer at stake in this conversation. All persons, including gay and lesbian persons, are saved by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. At this point in church history, we are addressing the implications of the Gospel for our church related to homosexuality.

[7] This is an important parameter for our conversation on homosexuality. Identifying those who seek change in the church’s policy as heretics or apostates does not further the discussion. It gives just cause for questioning the perspective of those who use these labels against their opponents. Those who accuse others of renouncing Christ or violating the doctrine of the church simply for asking the church a question or advocating for change in the church are clearly not seeking genuine dialogue.

Biblical and Apostolic Witness
[8] I encourage those who seek to continue the current policies of the church to use the phrase “biblical and apostolic witness” with care. This phrase is used to describe the scriptural and traditional understanding of the church as the lifelong marriage of one man with one woman. However, there is not a consistent biblical and apostolic witness regarding marriage. Polygamy is the dominant scriptural description of the appropriate context for sexual relations from Old Testament times into the New Testament. Bishops are prohibited from having more than one wife, but other Christians are not.2

[9] The Christian church in our day continues to struggle with this issue. African churches have found that a prohibition of polygamy is an impediment to evangelical outreach. Requiring a man to divorce all but one of his wives before he can be baptized condemns the divorced women and their children to lives of prostitution and poverty. These churches are working their way into a monogamous understanding of marriage by allowing new converts to maintain their current relationships while prohibiting future multiple marriages after one is baptized. In our own country the practices that amount to polygamy are part of our everyday lives. Within the context of current church teaching, a married person may have sexual affairs without jeopardizing his or her salvation. A rostered person can practice serial polygamy, marriage followed by divorce followed by remarriage, without impacting his or her rostered status. For good or ill, the “biblical and apostolic witness” regarding marriage is an inconsistent standard.

God’s Work in the Culture
[10] The concept that one woman and one man will fall in love by their own free will and marry for a lifetimeof faithfulness is a relatively new insight into the possibilities for human partnerships.3 However, cultural standards have encouraged this evolutionary and revolutionary understanding of relationships. It is also culture that establishes the legal requirements that make provisions for what we have discerned over the centuries to be God’s law for marriage.

[11] The condemnation of all that is “current culture” denies God’s power to reveal God’s will through society. Those who seek to maintain the church’s current standards err when they claim that God does not work through human history and culture. From the Edict of Milan that allowed Christians to serve in the military, to the abolition of slavery, to the liberation and ordination of women to the current belief that marriage should exclusively be the blessed relationship of one man and one woman, God has used contemporary culture to reveal God’s intention for humanity. To deny this is to deny the sovereignty of God.

Orders of Creation
[12] The “orders of creation” is frequently cited with references to Genesis 1 and 2 as a primary argument for sexual expression only in the context of a life-long marriage between one man and one woman. Though this theology provides helpful insight into God’s intention for creation, it is also possible to extrapolate policies and teachings that were once used by the church but are no longer considered to be valid for our current context. The sole purpose of sexual intercourse, within a static interpretation of the orders of creation, is to create children and populate the earth. For centuries, the church offered this as its teaching. Our church no longer offers procreation as the only purpose of sexual intercourse. We understand intercourse to also be a way that love is expressed, a caring for and nurturing of one’s spouse, a strengthening of the bond between husband and wife. This change in the church’s teaching arises out of a Lutheran understanding of the orders of creation.

[13] A traditional Lutheran understanding of this doctrine outlines both what God did “in the beginning” and how God continues to act for the preservation of the created world. This theological framework recognizes an expansive understanding of God’s continuing work in creation through family, government and work. These structures have changed over the centuries and will continue to change. The church’s task of communal discernment is to determine what is God’s will for an orderly creation and what changes are led by the power of death and destruction.4

Blessing Sin or Justice or…
[14] The church’s blessing of homosexual unions and the ordination of a person in a blessed union are not justice issues. Justice may be at stake in the apparent move within our culture toward same gender civil unions and corporate America’s decision to provide medical and pension plans to persons in same gender relationships. However, the church has always maintained the authority to bless what it chooses and to ordain whom it chooses. These are not rights but rather rituals that bring with them promises, commitments, accountability and responsibilities. They are rites of the whole church representing the wisdom and judgment of that church.

[15] I have argued that to ask the church to change its rites in order to bless same gender unions is to ask the church to bless what scripture has identified as sin. Such a request is not new in the church’s history. However, the church has historically rejected those challenges.

[16] I have supported this statement based on the following arguments.

[17] Romans 1 includes a descriptive list of sins that are the result of a broken creation. The church has not chosen to develop rites to bless the brokenness of “deceit” or “gossip” or “slander.” Rituals and proclamations that communicate redemption, not blessing, through the Gospel have been the church’s response in times of faithfulness. This redeeming power is for “men who commit shameless acts with men,” as Paul says, as well as those who are full of “envy, murder, strife, deceit, malignity…,” and more.

[18] It is true that there have been times when the church has cited scripture in order to justify oppression. The story of Noah and the curse of Ham provided the theological foundation for apartheid in South Africa and slavery in our country. The curse of Eve and New Testament prohibitions against vocal women were used by the church to bless the oppression of women. However, these injustices were extrapolated from scripture in order to support a culture’s preconceived notion. No culturally induced extrapolation of Romans 1 leads us to the rejection of homosexual activity. St. Paul clearly states that homosexual activity is a sign, albeit only one of the signs, of a world that is broken by sin, a world where the creature is worshipped rather than the Creator.

[19] In order for this church to consider the possibility of blessing homosexual relationships, to bless what an interpretation of Romans 1 calls sin, those who seek change must develop a biblically based theology that takes precedence over these verses.

[20] My understanding has been challenged with two arguments that I believe merit further discussion.

[21] I have been asked to consider that Paul, in Romans 1, is describing the consequences of sin and is not listing sins that are deserving of punishment. Specifically, Romans 1:18-32 lists the brokenness that is caused by idolatry. It does not describe in prescriptive form particular punishments for specific sins. Idolatry is at the root of “deceit,” “gossip” and “slander” as
well as “men who commit shameless acts with men.” In describing a broken humanity, Paul repeatedly uses the phrase, “God gave them up” to the consequences of their idolatry.

[22] This becomes even more clear as the reading continues to chapter 2. The first chapter of Romans leads us to the first word of chapter 2, “Therefore.” “Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.”

[23] Paul outlines examples of the brokenness of the human condition in Romans 1 in order to demonstrate that the brokenness affects all of humanity, that all are in need of judgment and redemption. Therefore, we are not to place ourselves in the position of judging others.

[24] This leads to the second point of challenge to my argument that the church cannot bless what scripture calls sin. Those who have engaged me in dialogue have demonstrated that the church repeatedly blesses what is identified as sin by scripture.

[25] In Luke 16:18 (and parallel texts) Jesus says, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and whoever marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.”

[26] Jesus clearly states that persons who marry after they have been divorced are committing the sin of adultery. Yet, our church has for some time blessed the new marriages of persons who have been divorced from another person. In addition, the Vision and Expectations documents for rostered persons of the church make no prohibitions against those who have been divorced and remarried from serving on the rosters of this church. I have been challenged to consider that the church deal consistently with Paul’s words on homosexuality and Jesus’ words on divorce.

[27] These challenges lead me to believe that we have several options to consider as ways to develop a consistent policy.

[28] a) The church stops blessing the marriages of those couples which include at least one divorced person. In addition, the Vision and Expectations documents of the church would be amended to preclude persons who have been divorced and remarried from the rosters of the church.

[29] b) We allow for local, pastoral judgments in both the marriages of those who have been divorced and the blessing of homosexual unions. Synodical Candidacy Committees would also make local determinations regarding both groups of persons.

[30] c) We turn to other biblical texts that provide an overriding rationale for both or either of these issues.

[31] d) We consider more carefully the new research of the biblical texts related to homosexuality.

[32] I welcome further dialogue on these two challenges.

The Role of Experience
[33] The Lutheran tradition provides for ethical and moral decisions to be based on four key components: scripture, sound reason, the conscience of the believer and the wisdom of the community5.

[34] In an American culture where personal feelings seem to be the final authority in all matters of faith and life, this Lutheran framework provides helpful parameters for our decision-making process.

[35] However, it would be unfair to equate “experience” with “feelings.” Indeed, sound reason in the scientific community is based on “experience” that has been researched and documented as consistent reality. There have been occasions in the church’s history when scientific experience has caused the church to change its teaching. One notable occasion is the discovery that the earth, in contrast to previous beliefs, is not flat and that the sun does not revolve around the earth.

[36] Within the distinctly Christian community, personal experience that is tested by the Christian community has been a driving force for change. The visions of Peter and Cornelius that led to the conversion of Cornelius and a change in the teachings and missional direction of the early church provide but one biblical example of the power of experience to bring faithful change to the church.

[37] The experience of believers is to be honored in the conversation on homosexuality. To dismiss all “experience” as if it were nothing more than personal feelings or as if it was capitulation to the immoral dimensions of our culture is to suggest that the Holy Spirit is no longer at work to transform the church in new ways.

Our Church’s Teaching
[38] “Marriage is the appropriate context for sexual intercourse.” The ELCA’s social statement on abortion6 clearly states this church’s understanding of the proper context for sexual intercourse. Marriage is defined by our message on human sexuality7 as the “union of one man and one woman.” Those who seek to uphold these standards would serve the church well by describing why these boundaries provide the safest, healthiest, most loving context and most faithful setting for sexual expression. Sexual intercourse, restricted to the covenant of marriage, builds up individuals, families and communities. It is a safeguard against the violation of individuals and community.

[39] I disagree with those who claim that a “gay agenda” is at fault for the disintegration of the institution of marriage. Contempt for heterosexual marriage, its denigration and demise, rests squarely at the feet of heterosexuals. A radical transformation of an entire culture’s understanding of an institution and the practices of the Christian community has taken place in a very short time span. Heterosexuals have brought us to the current shambles that is called “marriage” in our culture. If relationships are to know safe boundaries, provide for the care of children and build community, the concept of healthy, loving, life-long marriage must be reconstructed. It is simply an inaccurate and unfair assessment to blame “gay advocates” for the problems in the heterosexual community.

Staying within the Tradition
[40] The casual, incomplete or inaccurate use of theological phrases, concepts or biblical texts does not honor what is truly our tradition and does not serve our church. Consequently, those arguments are, and should be, readily dismissed by those who seek thoughtful, theological dialogue. The primary burden for changing the tradition of our church rests on those who are advocating for change. Those arguments must be made based on scripture, reason, conscience and the test of the community. However, those who seek to maintain the tradition must stay within the tradition itself by providing a biblical, reasonable, theologically sound rationale for maintaining the church’s current teaching.

[41] I ask those who seek change to consider the following observations as we journey together in the conversation on human sexuality and homosexuality.

Use of Scripture
[42] The recitation of anachronistic or irrelevant prohibitions from Leviticus which are not extended into the New Testament community and writings is not helpful to this discussion. Sharing these texts may be an interesting, even humorous, way of distinguishing the implications of what it means to live in Christ as opposed to life under the law. The New Testament community dealt with issues from circumcision to the eating of ritually unclean food as their new faith took shape. However, there is no biblical or historical record that they changed the prohibition on homosexuality. We must address this issue from a uniquely Christian perspective.

[43] New insights regarding the difference between temple prostitution, the abuse of children and homosexuality are helpful. However, they do not build a convincing argument to proactively change the church’s teachings. The biblical argument must be one that provides a constructive foundation for change and not simply one that rejects former prohibitions. What is the biblical foundation and theological structure for change? What has God revealed in the scientific community that provides sound reason for change? How would the blessing of homosexual unions further the church’s values and principles for safe and loving relationships that build Christian community and witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ?

[44] It is not a reasonable, rational argument to suggest, “We disagree on the meaning of key biblical passages and the scientific community does not yet know enough about the mix of genetic orientation and socialization that determine sexual orientation. Therefore, we should change the church’s teaching.” “We disagree” and “we don’t know” are helpful statements for research, dialogue and discernment. They do not provide the foundation for change.

The Church’s “No”
[45] For thousands of years, God’s people have given a clear and consistent “no” to homosexual activity. We have done so because we have believed as a community, from the people of Israel into the New Testament church, that the prohibition of homosexual activity is God’s will.

[46] The church is being challenged to reconsider this teaching. We are being asked if we have said “no” due to cultural dictums of the past. Or has our fear of the “other” or the unknown, the misunderstood or of one’s own self led to the prohibitions? What is God’s will in light of our current understanding of homosexuality?

[47] If the church is to change, it must be offered arguments that are grounded in scripture, that are theologically sound, that are supported by science or reason and that build up community. To contravene the status quo, to simply oppose or discount the past testimony of the faithful, does not bring lasting, faithful change in the church. Proposed change must clearly articulate God’s will for Christian community and for our witness to the world.

The Church’s Stole
[48] Our church teaches that the office of ministry is given to the whole church and not to individuals, families or congregations. It is the church that ordains and authorizes someone to wear the stole on its behalf. Ordained ministers promise to uphold the teachings of the church as a higher standard than their personal thoughts or feelings or even the collective desires of a local congregation.

[49] While it is true that Christians pray for and bless any number of persons and things, our church has not decided to authorize its ordained ministers to bless homosexual unions on its behalf. It is not a personal decision for an ordained minister to bless homosexual unions. At this point in our life together, he or she is not to bless unions while wearing the stole of the church, its public symbol of the Office of Ministry. If local congregations vote to bless unions, a pastor may participate in such a blessing but is not to wear the church’s stole. The faith of the church has been entrusted to the whole church. Faithful exercising of the Office of Ministry is not a personal or congregational privilege.

Larger Implications
[50] Those who seek change must continue to recognize that the request for the church to change its teaching touches the lives of a church that is bigger than the ELCA and expands beyond the United States. Ecumenical relationships and relationships within the Lutheran World Federation may be profoundly affected by a decision to bless unions and ordain those in blessed unions. This observation is made not to invoke fear but rather humility. It may be possible that God is working change within our church in order for us to follow the churches
in Scandinavia as they change the understanding of homosexuality and the church’s blessing.

[51] It may also be true that those who seek change are misreading God’s intention. The Church in Africa and elsewhere may be God’s messengers to our church to maintain our current standards.

[52] The conversation would be enhanced if those who seek change in the church would more clearly recognize the complexity of sexual expression that is identified as homosexual. The current conversation would be deepened if there was clarification, recognition and acceptance that there is a wide range of sexual experience.

[53] For those who engage in sexual activity with virtually anything or anyone, the church’s ministry is one of God’s law. Such activity without discernment destroys the individual, others and the community. For these reasons, it is prohibited. Others, who experiment with homosexual activity but are primarily oriented as a heterosexual person, need the church’s ministry of boundaries and discernment. Persons who have been so abused by a member of the opposite sex that they can only find love and sexual expression with someone of the same gender must be offered the healing power of the Gospel. When there is acknowledgement of this variety of experiences, then we can engage in conversation about those who may be oriented as homosexual persons.

[54] If there could be agreement on this complexity of experience and the church’s appropriate response, then the conversation regarding persons who are oriented as homosexual persons would become more focused. We would not be confused within the dialogue as some persons address the healing of those who have engaged in homosexual activity while others, simultaneously, are talking about those who are oriented as a homosexual.

Furthering the Conversation
[55] There are other arguments that I find do not further the conversation for considering change.

[56] “If we baptize gay and lesbian people then we need to ordain them.” Baptism communicates the saving power of the Gospel through Word, water, Spirit, and faith. The church is not questioning God’s power to save through the waters of baptism. Consequently, we are not discussing the salvation of gay and lesbian people. We are discussing the rituals of the church and the call to ordained ministry. Not every couple’s union is blessed by the church and not every baptized person can be ordained.

[57] “If those who seek to maintain the current policies would simply get to know gay and lesbian people, they would be open to change.” Our incarnational theology suggests that being present with people has extraordinary power. However, it is not consistent with our Lutheran heritage to suggest that if we knew more gay and lesbian persons, heard additional personal stories, and were more compassionate, we would establish the basis for change in the church. Scripture or clear reason is to be the foundation for reformation. Personal feelings are not. Surely, the conversation must include gay and lesbian persons in order for there to be an honest dialogue that includes the whole church. However, the exchange of personal stories is not the sole basis for change.

[58] It would also be helpful to recognize that even if the church would vote to bless homosexual unions and ordain persons in blessed unions, the conversation will continue. People with a variety of perspectives on this topic acknowledge that the same questions will be raised regarding bi-sexual and transgender Christians. What will be offered to address bisexual relationships? Blessing a three partner relationship violates historical and social science testimony about relationships and is not being suggested in any reasonable dialogue. However, offering the possibility that a bi-sexual person choose only one partner is to recommend that he or she deny a part of his or her sexual orientation in order to meet the church’s standards. This is inconsistent with the core argument against the church’s current expectations of gay and lesbian persons. It has been proposed that homosexual persons should not be denied the full expression of their sexuality in a safe, blessed union. Consistency would argue that multiple relationship unions should be blessed in order for bisexual persons to fully express their sexual orientation. No one is suggesting this as the solution. But what is a reasonable resolution to this issue?

[59] Any decisions that are made by the churchwide assembly in 2005, 2007 and beyond will not bring an end to this conversation. Homosexual persons will continue to be created in the image of God even if the church were to revert to the most rigid enforcement of the levitical condemnations. Gay and lesbian persons who love this church and want to be a part of its mission will continue to join heterosexuals in our pews and we will kneel beside one another to receive the sacrament.

[60] As we “Journey Together Faithfully,” God is calling us to give our church our best thinking on issues of sexuality and not only our most passionately expressed feelings. Those who seek to avoid this dialogue by leaving the church will find it difficult to find another church body that is not in the same conversation, either formally or informally. Our church’s theology suggests that we have this conversation as a whole church, not simply within the hierarchical structures. It may be a difficult discussion to have, but sometimes it is hard work to seek faithfulness together.

End Notes

1 Both scripture and our tradition understand “the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah” to have more layers than simply homosexual behavior. Ezekiel 16:49-50 describes “…the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty, and did abominable things before me; therefore I removed them when I saw it.” Martin Luther, writing on the Genesis story of Sodom and Gomorrah, describes the sins of “abuse and violence,” that “the people of Sodom not only were inhospitable but also persecuted strangers and treated them outrageously” and that the people “were practicing no reverence toward God and no love toward human beings” as the core of Sodom’s sin. See Luther’s Works, vol.3: Lectures on Genesis: Chapters 15-20 (J.J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1961. In his 1539 Sermon on Soberness and Moderation he states, “And so it was with the Sodomites, who wanted to rape the angels; they were all so drunk they could not find the door. Sodom and Gomorrah perished because of a flood of drunkenness; this vice was punished.” Luther’s Works, vol. 51: Sermons I (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.) page 296 Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959

2 Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version, I Timothy 3:2.

3 Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage In England 1500-1800, abridged ed., Harper & Row, New York, 1977, Chap. VIII, “The Companionate Marriage,” p. 217ff.

4 See Philip J. Hefner, in Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson, eds., Christian Dogmatics, Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1984, Chap. IV, “The Continuing Work of Creation,” p. 346 ff. See also chapter 3 of Werner Elert, The Christina Ethos (trans. Carl J. Schindler), Fortress Press, 1957 and chapter 4 Robert Benne, Ordinary Saints, Fortress Press, 1988. Note that Dietrich Bonhoeffer, among others, referred to these structures as God’s “order of preservation” rather than “orders of creation.”

5 Martin Luther’s famous confession at the Diet of Worms (in Luther’s Works Volume 32 Career of the Reformer II, Fortress Press, 1958, Vol. 32, p. 113:7) provides the framework for the ELCA’s foundational social statement of the church, “The Church in Society: A Lutheran Perspective”.

“Since then your serene majesty and your lordships seek a simple answer, I will give it in this manner, neither horned nor toothed: Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise, here I stand, may God help me, Amen.”

6 Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, “A Social Statement on: Abortion,” 1991

7 Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, “A Message on Sexuality: Some Common Convictions”