A Lutheran Approach to the Family Values: Focus on Fiducia

[1] “Sex, Marriage and Family:” that’s the title of the LCA social statement from 1970.[1] I always wondered if this was the table of contents for the document – or a description of the way life really works. The ambiguity was delicious. In either case, “family” came last. It was almost an afterthought. That is decidedly not the case in the latest draft of a social statement on sexuality from the ELCA, “Journey Together Faithfully.”[2] Here “family” comes first, a move that has drawn much fire. I’d like to call for a cease fire, admire the arguments, and appreciate the conclusions in this Lutheran “Focus on the Family.” The emerging family values offer much-needed perspective on sexual ethics, both in our communion – and beyond.

[2] 1. Second Article Concerns.

First, the statement locates its theology in the Second Article of the Creed, not the First. The theological center of gravity is “Jesus Christ” not “God the Creator” or “God the Father Almighty.” Typically, Lutheran social statements begin at the beginning, positioning sexual ethics in God’s plan for creation. Orders of creation theology follows, backed by implicit or explicit appeals to a “natural law” embedded in human nature.[3] For example, the 1970 LCA statement “Sex, Marriage, and Family” argued for “heterosexual structures of God’s creation.”[4] Language originally used after WWII to buttress a “cult of domesticity” and enforce gender roles was now deployed to endorse heterosexuality. In this framework, homosexuality ranked as “unnatural,” as well as “unbiblical.”[5]

[3] Any theology that begins with creation must treat its fall, whether defined as idolatry, brokenness, or right relationship gone irrevocably wrong. Predictably, statements organized around First Article concerns root sexual ethics in idolatry and provided impressive taxonomies of sexual sin: promiscuity, pornography, divorce, domestic violence, et al.

[4] Against this backdrop, sexual ethics become a policy of containment: what not to do – with what – to whom. “Thou shalt nots” dominate; proscriptions rule. It is clear what constituted “bad sex;” what “good sex” is all about remains a mystery. But then the vices have always been more interesting than the virtues, and the bad guys always seem to have more fun.

[5] Starting with Christ and Second Article concerns alters sexual ethics in ways that are both helpful and surprising. Rather than the creation-fall schema, sexuality situates itself squarely in incarnation. Bodies matter, so much so that God even took one on.

Sexual ethics that begins with incarnation discusses how best to live in bodies, but now Christ’s life and not Adam’s fall patterns Christian discernment.

[6] Not creation, but reconciliation directs sexual ethics, and the biblical exegesis reflects this emphasis. The book of Genesis doesn’t take prominence in this document; rather, John, Paul, and the pastoral epistles inform human sexuality. Paul’s letter to the Galatians features prominent, but it is the “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22-23), not the “desires of the flesh” (Galatians 5:19-21) that comes to the fore.[6] Christian sexual ethics finds a home in reconciliation, not simply creation.

[7] Against this backdrop, sexual ethics features more positive commands: “thou shalts” replace “thou shalt nots.” The statement pays more attention than its predecessors to what constitutes “good sex.” It lays groundwork for a positive view of sexuality that is marked by trust and bound by promises.

[8] Indeed, the document acknowledges three dimensions of sexuality: unitive, procreative – and erotic. “Sexuality especially involves the power or capacity to form deep and lasting bonds, the power to give and receive pleasure, and the power to conceive and bear children.” (468-469)

[9] Moral theologians have long debated the primacy of unitive or procreative purposes, but largely in the context of marriage. The erotic dimension of marriage almost always got short shrift.[7] The statement refuses to order these; they are simply presented as three interlocking dimensions, or “powers” of sexuality. Moreover, these are dimensions of sexuality, not simply of marriage. One might wish more had been said about erotic power – and its abuses, but it’s good to see it mentioned at all. I count that as one clear gain of a statement that begins with Second Article. This is a person of the Trinity who, after all, changed water into wine, so the guests could keep partying.

[10] Against the background of Second Article concerns, the family becomes the place where people learn faithful exercise and enjoyment of the “powers” of sexuality. Family offers the safety and stability that our embodied nature craves in order to flourish. Certainly, families fall short of the ideal, but the positive view of family – and sexuality – precedes acknowledgment of its shortcomings. We’re called to our better natures, before we’re chastened for our sins.

[11] Interestingly, in a footnote that should probably be incorporated into the body of the document, the statement defines “family” to include “a variety of forms, more akin to the older term of “household,” often employed by Luther.”[8] “Household” gives “family” greater bandwidth, stretching it to include single and same-sex parents, grandparents and relatives, even older parents and their adult children. This expanded definition registers as less ideal than incarnate: it reflects the reality of twenty-first century family life.

[12] 2. Fiducia as the Hallmark of Lutheran Family Values.

What keeps these hybrid households from imploding? The answer surprises us. In a statement on sexual ethics, one might expect to find all conflicts resolved by love, argued by an ecstatic exegesis of 1 Corinthians 13. Indeed, in a Lutheran statement on sexual ethics, one might expect neighbor-love referenced as a theological warrants. Instead, the answer is trust, not love, and the theological warrant is neighbor-love, not neighbor-love. Trust is the glue that holds couples and relationships, households and families together. Again, this follows from the Second Article starting-point.

[13] Beginning with Christ and incarnation, not creation and its fall, the document highlights mercy rather than judgment. Christ is “the good faith of God,” and Christian sexual ethics seeks to live out that faithfulness in our relationships to one another. Fidelity emerges as the signal virtue for a Christian sexual ethics.

[14] The family tutors Christians in fidelity, i.e., faithful loving and faithful living toward God and one another. The family becomes as a school for trust: “a ground and source of trust” (626). Turning toward developmental language, the document repeats the psychological insight that children “learn either trust or distrust from their earliest relationship of dependence upon parents and others in the family circle.” (633-634). Patterns of loyalty and confidence established in the family contour all future relationships.

[15] This focus on fiducia illumines different aspects of sexual ethics. Not failure to love but breach of trust fuels sexual transgression. The Old Testament prophets nod in agreement; they know the terrain of infidelity. They fiercely indictedIsrael for her unfaithfulness, and their combination of lament and threats of dire revenge is absolutely familiar to anyone who’s experienced a more human version of infidelity. But we don’t quite catch the prophets’ distinction between love and trustworthiness. The reasons for unfaithfulness may not be “he/she didn’t love me anymore,” but “I couldn’t trust him/her.”[9] The disciple Peter’s behavior during the crucifixion and beyond demonstrates that it’s possible both to love – and be utterly untrustworthy. After all, Peter was able to protest his love for Jesus over and over again (John 21), despite having denied he’s ever known him. However unhappily, love can co-exist with unfaithfulness. But being trustworthy deepens love; it tethers lovers to a common future.

[16] Promises make trust public, promises between the two people, promises between the couple and their community, promises the couple makes before God. Again and again, the statement underscores the promissory character of sexuality, and this teaching is welcome – and true.1[10]

[17] 3. The Importance of the Social in This Social Statement

For finally, promises weave social life together in a tight web of trust. This social statement is unabashedly social, it situates sexuality in the context of community. Its emphasis on promises reaches beyond a romantic dyad – no matter what the gender of the people involved! – into the public realm. Promise-making creates and sustains human and community, and the document points to their implicit and explicit presence in politics, economics, education, etc. As Hannah Arendt observed, because of the darkness of the human heart, people find it difficult to “guarantee today who they will be tomorrow.”1[11] Promise-making guards against basic human unpredictability.

Sociologists lament the failure of “mediating institutions,” like schools, Scout troops, clubs, but it is as much a failure of trust as a failure of the institutions themselves.1[12] Practice in promise-making would help re-establish the precious commodity of social trust. It starts in the family.

[18] Based on trust and promise, Christian sexuality contributes to the common good, because the “common good requires social trust and builds social trust.” (1214-1215) No longer is sexuality a “private” affair, a matter between two consenting adults. Rather, Christian sexuality looks to buttress bonds of social trust. Good sex works toward the good of all.1[13]


[1] ”Sex, Marriage, and Family.” Adopted by the Fifth Biennial Convention of the Lutheran Church in America, Minneapolis, Minnesota (June 25-July 2, 1970). Reprinted in Christa R. Klein with Christian D. Von Dehsen, Politics and Policy: The Genesis and Theology of Social Statements in The Lutheran Church in America (Minneapolis: Fortress Pres, 1989), pp. 275-280.

[2] ”Journey Together Faithfully: A Proposed Social Statement on Sexuality.” Available on the ELCA website: http://www.elca.org/faithfuljourney

[3] Cf. Robert Benne, Ordinary Saints ( Philadelphia: Fortress, 1981) for an application of “orders of creation” to sexual ethics.

[4] Cf. “Sex, Marriage, and Family” (1970). Cf. Christa R. Klein with Christian D. Von Dehsen, Politics and Policy, pp. 275-280.

[5] Christian Batalden Scharen, Married in the Sight of God: Theology, Ethics and Church Debates over Homosexuality (Lanham NY: University Press of America, 2000), especially pp. 58-68. Scharen documents the shift in usage of the phrase “heterosexual structure of creation” from gender difference to homosexuality.

[6] Indeed, the “fruit of the Spirit” could be further developed, for the first three dispositions, love, joy, and peace, contour our relationship to God; the next three, patience, kindness, and generosity, our relationship to the neighbor; and the last three, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, our relationship to the self. These could be brought into conversation with opening biblical reference to the Great Commandment: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:36-40).

[7] A powerful exception is Christine E. Gudorf’s Body, Sex, & Pleasure (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 1994).

[8] Cf. ft. 23.

[9] I wish the document had gone further to define what constitutes trustworthiness. How do we know our trust is in the right place – or the right person?

[10] E.g., “It is in marriage that public promises of lifetime commitment create the foundation for trust, intimacy, and safety.” (1038-1039) “Both the intent of lifelong promises and the civil requirements for marriag are important. Mutual promises of enduring care and fidelity, made before God, allow a couple to open themselves to one another.” (1048-1049) “The deepest human longings for a sense of personal worth, long-term companionship, and profound security, however, require binding commitments as the condition for any measure of satisfying fulfillment.” (1092-1095) “[This church] understands marriage as a profound relationship of mutual promises….” (1059-1060)

[11] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), pp. 243-247.

[12] Cf. Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone: Civic Engagement in America (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000).

[13] For more on fidelity in particular, see the chapter in my book, A World According to God (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004); for more on Lutheran sexual ethics in general, see my articles, “Top Five Things I Miss When Lutherans Talk about Sex” in journal of lutheran ethics 7:2 (February, 2007) www.elca.org/jle and “Rethinking Christian Sexuality: Baptized into the Body of Christ,” in James M. Childs, Jr. (Ed.), Faith Conversation: Christian Perspectives on Homosexuality (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), pp. 59-79.

Martha E. Stortz

Martha E. Stortz is Professor Emerita at Augsburg University, where she held the Bernhard M. Christensen Chair of Religion and Vocation from 2010-2021.  With Rabbi Barry Cytron, she directs the Collegeville Institute’s Multi-Religious Fellows Program.  She writes, speaks, consults, and publishes, most recently, Called to Follow: Journeys in John’s Gospel (Cascade, 2017).