Communion and Difference

[1] The decisive argument in the two texts produced by the Task Force for ELCA Studies on Sexuality – the proposed social statement “Human Sexuality – Gift and Trust“ (hereafter, HSGT) and the related set of concrete proposals “Report and Recommendations on Ministry Policies” (RRMP; in both cases, references will be to line numbers) – is oddly enough not about sexuality. Both texts work from the conclusion that the ELCA is for the foreseeable future hopelessly divided on questions related to homosexuality. They make no attempt to overcome this divide by presenting arguments that they think might sway one side or the other. The question the texts ask and seek to answer is not what should we say and do in relation to the ethical questions raised by homosexuality, but rather what should we say and do when we cannot find a common answer to such questions. The decisive arguments and judgments of the two texts, the arguments that make a difference for church teaching and practice, are thus more ecclesiological than ethical, i.e., they are more about how we live as church with difference on these ethical questions than they are about the ethical questions themselves. Arguments and conclusions about the ethical questions themselves are not irrelevant, but they are not at the center of the text’s argument.

The argument of the texts turn on two ecclesiological claims:

1. Because the ELCA has no consensus on these ethical questions, it has no normative teaching that would provide binding guidance for practice.

2. The ELCA does not need such a normative teaching because its unity is founded on the gospel alone and thus diversity on such ethical questions is permissible.

[2] I believe that both of these conclusions are profoundly false. Unfortunately, they are also deeply embedded in much recent Lutheran theology. What we see in the texts are some theological birds coming home to roost.


[3] There is probably little controversy that the ELCA in the past had a normative teaching on questions related to homosexuality, embodied in the documents of its predecessor bodies. This teaching on homosexuality was in its essentials shared by almost all other churches and had been the consensus of the tradition, stretching back into Scripture. Churches adhering to that teaching still include the vast majority of Christians in the world.

[4] The question before us is the relative weighting of the present divide within the ELCA and the strong consensus of the wider church across time and space. On the one hand, one might judge that present attitudes are the only decisive factor. In a situation of ecclesial division, each church must decide such questions for itself. The past convictions of the church and the present convictions of other churches merit our attention, but what counts are the judgments within this church, right now. In that case, if right now we have no common view, then we have no binding teaching and should allow various practices. On the other hand, one might think that even in a situation of division, we belong to the one body of Christ in such a way that we claim the teaching of the wider church, past and present, as our own, unless we as a body have a consensus that an opposing view is required. From such a perspective, the received teaching remains normative at least until an opposing consensus develops. In a situation such as the ELCA faces, where no new consensus has formed within our church body, the consensus of the wider church, past and present, remains binding.

[5] The question of parliamentary rules and how large a majority is needed to adopt the four recommendations of RRMP is thus a theological question. How do we weigh the convictions of the wider church of which we are a part? If the ELCA had a large majority for change, say 70%, the decision can be seen ecclesiologically in a different light than if we make a decision by 53%. The present rules, by which a mere majority at one Churchwide Assembly can adopt the recommendations, I can only judge to be sectarian.


[6] But do we truly need a normative teaching and common practice on ethical questions related to homosexuality? The second pivotal argument of both HSGT and RRMP is that we do not. “Our perspectives on social realities, in particular human sexuality, are not the basis of our unity or disunity. Our Lutheran unity is centered on the promises of God, our common baptism, and our fellowship in the sacrament of Holy Communion, expressed in our love for the Lutheran church, theology, and tradition” (RRMP, lines 424-427, cf. 465-467).

[7] The background of this claim is the famous satis est clause of Article VII of the Augsburg Confession (CA): “It is enough [satis est] for the true unity of the church to agree concerning the teaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments.”[1] On the surface, the quotation given immediately above from RRMP would seem to agree with this sentence from the Confession. But does it?

[8] Both HSGT and RRMP ignore a standard interpretive question: in this passage of the Confession, is ‘the gospel’ meant broadly or strictly? In a broad sense, the ‘gospel’ is the entire Christian message, both law and gospel, as divinely taught. More narrowly and strictly, the ‘gospel’ is the message of forgiveness and grace, in distinction from the law. That ‘gospel’ is used in these two senses is clearly taught in the Lutheran Confessions[2] and the Confessions themselves use the term in both senses.[3] Thus, when interpreting ‘gospel’ in any quotation from the Confessions, one must ask whether gospel is being used in a broad sense, which includes law, or a strict sense, in contrast to law. In the case of CA 7, we have an indication of what is meant. ‘Gospel’ as that which unites the church is not contrasted with ‘law,’ but with “human traditions, rites, or ceremonies instituted by human beings.” The interpretation suggested by the text itself is that ‘gospel’ is here meant broadly, as the entire Christian message, law and gospel. Both HSGT and RRMP, however, assume without discussion that the gospel that unites the church is the gospel in distinction from the law and thus we can simply disagree on ethical questions. At the very least, that interpretive question is an open one.

[9] Does the ELCA truly wish to teach that as long as we agree on the gospel strictly understood as the message of salvation in Christ in distinction from law or, even more narrowly, as a right understanding of justification and on the sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist, then we can permit any ethical teaching and practice that do not contradict that understanding of the gospel? Is all diversity on law (on violence, racism, gender roles and discrimination, economic exploitation, slavery) acceptable, as long as it is compatible with a common teaching on the sacraments and on the gospel as the message of salvation in Christ and on justification? (It should be remembered that sections of American Lutheranism defended slavery in the 19th century and, as far as I can tell, they held perfectly Lutheran views on justification and the sacraments.)

[10] The implications of the assumption of HSGT and RRMP that ethical agreement is in the end irrelevant to the unity of the church, that we need no shared proclamation of the law, seems to me disastrous and, despite a veneer of Lutheran rhetoric, foreign to the Reformation, to the witness of the wider church, and to Scripture. What sort of shared proclamation of the law is needed by the church is a difficult question. When is a normative ethical teaching needed and when can diversity of opinion be permitted or even encouraged? Nevertheless, to say that a normative ethical teaching is never needed is itself false teaching.


[11] In this brief essay, I have addressed the explicit argument of HSGT and RRMP, which is not directly about the ethics of sexuality but about how we live with difference on sexuality. One can ask, however, whether the implicit logic of these texts is somewhat different. If the question is “Are same-sex blessings and the ordination of persons in such blessed same-sex relationships permissible in the church?,” then to permit a diversity of practice or ‘structured flexibility’ is not to leave that question unanswered. It commits the church to one position within the debate. ‘Structured flexibility’ as described in RRMP permits these practices, even if it also includes a possibility for dissenters to opt-out. A gap exists between the surface argument of the HSGT and RRMP, on the one hand, and the ecclesiastical realities that will follow from their recommendations, on the other, but that is a another topic for another occasion.

[1] Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert, eds., The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 43.

[2] Formula of Concord, SD, V, 5-6; Kolb and Wengert, Book of Concord, 582.

[3] For examples within the Confessions where “gospel” clearly means both law and gospel, see Apology, IV, 62; XII, 29; XXVII, 54; Kolb and Wengert, Book of Concord, 130, 192, 286.