Appreciation and Critique of the ELCA’s Draft Social Statement on Human Sexuality

[1] As a colleague put it, “It’s not the train wreck that we feared.” Indeed, there is much that is theologically laudable in the draft Social Statement on Human Sexuality: centrally, the long over-due attempt in the ELCA to “frame” (#27-28) deliberation of difficult moral issues in terms of normative Lutheran theology. The ELCA has arguably spent the first 20 years of its troubled existence distancing itself from those norms; in its current dissensions it is reaping what it has sown. None too soon, then, important affirmations of the binding doctrine by which a creedal church parses controversies with “specific Christian convictions, themes, and wisdom” (#31) occur in this draft. In what follows, I draw appreciative attention to the draft’s attempt to nurture a normative theological framework in a denomination that is on the verge of fragmentation; I then criticize the draft for failing to execute consequently on this urgent task.

[2] A list of the normative theological themes occurring in the opening parts of the draft might read as follows: affirmation of the law of God “which protects us and society from harm” (#60); “God’s incarnation in the very midst of human life and… our justification for the sake of Christ, our Savior” (#95); the goodness of material creation and the body (#122) and yet “the brokenness of our relationships to God and to each other” (#127), manifest in egocentric “self-gratification and self-promotion” (#131); thus the simul iustus et peccator of the Christian life, rejecting “the notion that we can perfect either ourselves or society” (#157) in favor of living by faith “within the difficult, complex, and ambiguous realities in this world.” The new life in Christ is understood as vocation (#171); here the point of ethics is concrete love of neighbor (#5-11). Holding all this together, the draft lifts up as a meta-principle God’s “mercy and compassion” (#209ff). Divine compassion is said to shape Lutheran sexual ethics in this distinctive “pattern:” Grace transforms and renews, neither by evading the law nor yet again by restoring the law as an abstract basis for ethical conformity, but by the new vocation of neighbor-love in changing times. This vocation includes the domain of human sexuality; the concrete task of love is discerned in the deliberations of Christian community (# 252-316), such as the draft itself seeks to model.

[3] An omission occurs in this otherwise worthy distillation of principles for theological ethics: the divine command laid upon the human couple made in the image of God according to Genesis 1:26-28, which provides the ethical content of the law. This is the classic text, the sedes doctrinae (seat of the doctrine of humanity). The substance of the divine command to the primal man and woman is “dominion-sharing love,” as the late William Lazareth put it.[1] Drawing on Luther, Lazareth wrote, “the Law before sin is one thing, the law after sin is something else (alia lex).” The notion of creative divine command stands “in ethically responsible opposition to all simplistic forms of antinomianism[;] it was God’s intention that this command should provide man with an opportunity for obedience and outward worship… a sign by which man would give evidence that he was obeying God.”[2] “Before their fall into original sin (Genesis 1-2), Adam and Eve were governed by God’s gracious command of holy love. In the absence of any sin, strictly speaking, God’s eschatological will as command was explicitly expressed neither as law (to condemn sin) nor as gospel (to conquer sin). At most, the law and the gospel were latently united in command and grace as the governing will of God for righteous human beings.” Lazareth cited Luther’s own words: “For Adam this Word was Gospel and Law; it was his worship; it was his service and the obedience he could offer God in this state of innocence.”[3]

[4] Any such reflection is absent in the draft. Even though the draft wants to affirm relationality as essential to humanity, one fears that acknowledgment of the authority of the Genesis text is avoided because it indicates that creation in the divine image consists in the partnership of man and woman, that is, not in each as isolated individual, but precisely together, as partnered. What is notable in the draft, however, is not only the absence of the creative divine command to the first human couple. What we find in its place is a polemical accent against “abstract ideals” (#206), against the mere “application of static principles, even biblical ones, to varying situations,” supposedly applied merely for the sake of “containing the ambiguous power of sex” (#311-13). This polemic is, as we shall see, hardly justified by the otherwise important insight that the on-going work of divine creation is “constructive social, political, and community practices that will build trustworthy relations” (# 314-5; and all of Part IV). The idea would rather be that some structures are divinely authorized just because they consist in the constructive practices which build trust (e.g., man and woman together conceiving, bearing, and raising children) while others (e.g., man abandoning, woman aborting, either abusing children) are for the same reason precluded. I will return to this matter. In any case, at this juncture in the draft comes a statement that some have found perplexing. The statement in question reads: “A Lutheran sexual ethic looks to the death and resurrection of Christ as the source of the values that guide it” (# 315-6). This statement is admittedly ambiguous in speaking of the source of values this way. The ambiguity is connected with the omission of the creative divine command to the human image of God and the polemic instead, even against “biblical principles,” referenced above.

[5] Yet for many reasons, the draft Social Statement could represent considerable progress in theological ethics by employing in place of a static dualism of spheres the dynamic, eschatological distinction between two kinds of power: the temporal power of reward and punishment (“law”) and the eternal power of “mercy and compassion” (“promise”). I read the draft this latter way: the cross and resurrection of Christ teach us to value sinners in spite of sinfulness, to hope for mercy beyond all that we could merit by our own accomplishments. This costly valuing of divine compassion is, so to say, theological trump. It plays in ethics as the last, winning card in controversy.

[6] This dynamic interpretation of the distinction at the heart of Lutheran theology issues in the important section which follows: “Living as People of Hope.” A critical move is undertaken here: “the fullness of our creation in the divine image is not a reclaiming of the past. Rather, it is our destiny” (#344). This eschatological orientation means that all forms of “social structure,” including “marriage and family, civil authority, and employment” are “temporary and anticipatory until God’s promised future arrives” (#372-3). What might appear as “formlessness” is rather (charitably interpreted on the draft’s own terms) the important theological insight that “the form of this world is passing away,” i.e., that creation is God’s work under way in the further Trinitarian acts of redemption and fulfillment. This excludes looking back to some golden past to be restored. It requires us instead to look forward in revising and devising new and better forms for temporal love by anticipation of God’s promise of the eternal wedding feast of Christ and the church. So this hardly means that anything goes. The section on authoritative Scripture immediately follows (#389ff). This contains the decisive hermeneutical affirmation: Christians “cannot discover God’s intention for Christian morality simply by observing nature or the world. Scripture teaches that God’s will for humankind and creation can be comprehended only through the foolishness of the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ” (#405-07). On the other hand, authoritative Scripture, the draft rightly goes on to teach, is not any old proof text selectively deployed, but Scripture rightly interpreted in the light of the gospel of “the incarnation of Christ and the justification of the sinner” (#433).

[7] If that is so, there is but one real question: does the draft succeed in rightly interpreting Scripture as just laid out to frame our contemporary questions about the ethical forms of sexual love? It cannot do this if it just omits from consideration weighty texts like Genesis 1:26-28 and Mark 10: 5-9 that have hitherto informed the teaching not only of Lutheranism but of all the ecumenical tradition on sex, marriage and the family. The job of drafting a Social Statement, let us acknowledge, is a thankless one, not least of all because the end result is an inevitable compromise among heterogeneous voices enlisted to serve on a committee, each representing constituencies with interests and passions. One cannot fairly criticize such a draft as if it were the internally coherent deliberation of a single author. The draft represents the best a committee can come to under such impossible circumstances. We should rather wonder about this way of doing business.

[8] As evidenced in the foregoing, what I appreciate about the draft is the responsible attempt by competent theologians in Parts I-II to frame the deliberations on sexuality normatively. I think that if the ELCA avoids further fragmentation on the issue that divides it (as the draft admits in defeat: “this church does not have consensus regarding loving and committed same-gender relations” #1117-8), or even manages to stop the slow, steady bleed on account of wider issues of eroding theological integrity, let alone if the ELCA manages still “to accompany one another in study, prayer, discernment and pastoral care,” (#1118-9), it will because of the first steps taken in this draft towards restoring a normatively Lutheran theological framework for moral deliberation. That remains a big “if,” however, not least because of the many theological tensions evident within the draft statement itself, especially in Parts III-VI.

[9] Let me be clear about where I am coming from in the criticisms which follow. As one who supports a generous orthodoxy, I have publicly argued for a pastoral accommodation on same-sex unions (see “Recognition, Not Blessing” Journal of Lutheran Ethics (on line) August 2005 Volume 5, Issue 8). The Lutheran theological reasoning for this is lucid and compelling: if indeed we think that marriage is to be theologically commended (#1005-6) as the divine command of life-long union of a man and a woman for temporal purposes of loving union, repopulating the earth and symbolizing the eternal marriage of Christ and the church, why not recognize something analogous to this among sisters or brothers in Christ who find themselves in an incorrigibly homosexual condition? Christian freedom allows it. That would be the Luther-like thing to say about this possibility for living by faith ‘within the difficult, complex, and ambiguous realities in this world.’ We are free to acknowledge this reality so long as we are truthful about what we are doing. On the other hand, recognizing such “life-long,” “binding,” “publicly accountable” relationships as the place for “sexual intimacy” (#1104-07) is arguably something prophetic within Gay and Lesbian communities today, for the same reason it is among ‘liberated’ heterosexuals: “this church does not support non-monogamous, promiscuous, and transient sexual relationships or causal sexual encounters” (#977-8). Be it noted that the draft fails to provide any deep theological reasoning for this critically important judgment. It surely derives, as does the image of God teaching in Genesis 1:26-28, from Israel’s experience of the covenant-faithfulness of the Lord, and the church’s experience of Christ as Bridegroom. The gospel extends into temporal forms in just this way, lifting up the ‘one-flesh’ union of temporal marriage as its own sign among all other possible sexual relations in the world, as Eph. 5 teaches.

[10] In this light, we have truthfully to say that same-sex union is not marriage, yet it is like marriage. It approximates marriage. In terms of the gospel, it is better than the false gospel of polyamorous sexual sampling which has ruined so many contemporary lives (not to mention ministries and congregations). The church’s recognition of same-sex unions along such gospel lines executes a critique on what Luther frankly named ‘whoring,’ not only of the Girls Gone Wild crowd, but also of homosexual subcultures. In a world in which perfection must be awaited as God’s final work of new creation, the call to discipleship by sexually exclusive relationships represents humanly meaningful progress.

[11] But the document comes nowhere near this when it seeks to address concrete matters in controversy. Instead its deliberations in Parts III-VI are too often exercises in inconsequence. For example: the Trinity is rightly affirmed as deep ground of the affirmation of human relationality (#438-443), but the document cannot bring itself to confess articulately the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, let alone to employ the Three of the gospel narrative actually to parse the abstract notion of relationality. This parallels the incoherence of affirming authoritative Scripture, but generally avoiding its gendered language (with the exception, thank God, of # 441-43). The Incarnation is similarly affirmed as the theological basis of the affirmation of the body, yet the bodily fact of biological heterosexuality is gingerly side-stepped for the most part in favor of the abstraction, “sexuality.” For heaven’s sake, gays and lesbians are also male or female, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts –respectively, if that’s unclear to the drafters! The deneutering of language in this document is dehumanizing, a sanitized discourse expressing alienation from the very concrete bodies we actually are and have as male and female. Such language treats abstractions as if they were real. It is every bit as suspect of gnosticism as any ‘static’ reification of a historically contingent forms of gender is suspect of patriarchy.

[12] More sensitively, the profounder notion of sin as egocentric captivity is rightly affirmed and insightfully used to expose the greed of sexual exploitation, yet the implication of this move for the interpretation of homosexuality as deviance is ignored. Pedophilia is passionately denounced; it is of course true that pedophilia is perpetrated by adult heterosexuals as much as by homosexuals. But no question is raised about pedophilia’s role in forming same-sex attraction in confused adolescents or vulnerable children. The sleazy phenomenon of recruitment is not even on the radar screen. Painful and awkward as these questions are, they cannot honestly be evaded – not in a church where parents can and ought to vote with their feet to protect their children and where ample clerical and lay sexual misconduct has given them reason to walk first and ask questions later.

[13] It may be that there are a variety of homosexualities. But if continuing dialogue is at all to be possible about the true sources of our dissensions, theological proponents of homosexuality have to grasp and grant this point of opponents: the theological reason one refuses to endorse homosexuality as God’s creation and indeed regards this revisionist proposal as church-dividing has not to do with the personal sin of any individual, let alone with some Neanderthal biblicism. If a Christian finds herself bearing the cross of homosexual desire, she dare not be told that God created her this way when it was Uncle Rapist who in fact scarred her sexual psyche for life. Opposition to blessing homosexuality has thus to do with the very kinds of social-structural deformities -“social sin” (#569)-to which the draft rightly calls attention. It is a disputable question how much of the psychogenesis of homosexuality is due to seductive mothers or abusive fathers (themselves acting out on defenseless children the exploitation they experience on the job or in their marriages), but it surely cannot go unmentioned. It is the elephant in the room. It is cowardly to dodge this awful question in a draft which otherwise rightly lifts up the protection of children (#728ff).

[14] This leads back to the fundamental omission of the Divine Command of Genesis 1:26-28 mentioned above, which is the source of the tensions, not to say incoherencies of Parts III-VI: even though antinomianism is rejected in principle, and the Genesis text is mentioned in passing, the concrete and universal command of God to marry as given in Scripture’s account of creation (taken up by Luther in his biblical rejection of monastic vows of celibacy as self-chosen works that do not please God) is nowhere put to work as the very content of the divine mandate of creation. The “law” never appears as anything Scripture actually authoritatively commands, as in Gen. 1:26-28 or demands, as in the Sixth Commandment. It does not appear then constructively, as the creative command of God for the dominion-sharing partnership in love of male and female, forming temporal anticipations of the eschatological fulfillment; nor does it appear prophetically, as the accusing demand of God that we become the partnered creatures He intends us to be. Instead the law appears as certain abstract functions: political curb of exploitative behavior, spiritual accusation of exploitative sexual desire. That is also why we get no prophetic critique of the secular, contractual understanding of marriage in late capitalist society, though the social perspective the document urges fairly demands just such analysis and critique. Instead the scandalous acceptance of casual divorce in the American church goes without notice in favor of uncritical appropriation of this society’s contractual language and mentality (e.g., #1044-1052).

[15] There would be, by the way, nothing static or casuistic about such use of the actual law we find in the Bible. That would simply be an iteration of what law is: instruction on the good life, as we see in Luther’s exposition of the Decalogue in the Catechisms. For biblical Christians, the instruction in question is that of the Author of life. That is why its content is authoritative. That is also why for those whose membership in this denomination is contingent upon its fidelity to canon, creed and confession as the norms by which we discern fidelity to the Triune God who has been faithful to us all in Jesus Christ, the revisionist proposal is and must be church-dividing.

[16] “We come as we are” (#1410) – surely this right. But if we come into God’s transforming mercy by the cross and resurrection of Christ, as this draft at its best commends, we do not remain as we were. Marriage is the universal vocation because it is eschatologically oriented. We understand better today that Genesis 1 was written in the light of salvation history and that, thanks to certain feminist critiques, Christian teaching on marriage is certainly not to be understood as the patriarchal institution represented by the curses on sin articulated in Genesis 3. Yet neither is marriage in Christian teaching the mere life-style option among others in the smorgasbord of late capitalist decadence (#1061-1065!) that it can appear to be in this draft. Christian teaching on marriage rather lifts up and restores the authorized temporal form (Gen. 1) which anticipates the eternal feast of Christ and His bride, the Church (Eph. 5:32) and as such, by the express word of our Lord, it is the very object of God’s redeeming and fulfilling love (Mark 10:5-9). The dominical command, “What God has joined together, let none separate,” applies to theological ethics as well.

[17] The draft is misleading, then, when it states that “the critical issue with respect to the family is not whether it has a conventional form” (#684); for Christians marriage is undertaken in restoration of the Creator’s original intention by the redemption which is in Christ Jesus. This project is anything but “conventional.” Rightly understood, it is counter-cultural in the sense of Romans 12: 2. At its best, this draft gropes towards that understanding (#1005-7). We should appreciate that. Because of all the incoherencies, however, what will come in re-drafting is anyone’s guess. While conversation, accommodation, and reform are important, the foregoing criticisms indicate what needs clearly to be said: heterosexual monogamy remains normative in Christian theological ethics. Pastoral and evangelical adaptations of the ecumenical tradition’s teaching on sex, marriage and the family have identifiable limits.
William H. Lazareth, Christians in Society: Luther, the Bible, and Social Ethics (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001) 224.

Ibid., 89.

Ibid., 93.

Paul R. Hinlicky

Paul R. Hinlicky is the Tise Professor of Lutheran Studies at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia.