ELCA Studies on Sexuality: For what can we hope?

[1] A task force has been at work for more than a year. There have been lively debates at synod assemblies, adult forums in congregations, articles and letters in The Lutheran. In August the Churchwide Assembly heard progress reports, and in 2005 it is expected that there will be recommendations and an assembly vote. Some wonder how something so central to our common life for so many years can suddenly be changed. Others wonder how informed and gracious Christians can fail to see that our policy regarding sexuality must be changed and that this must happen now. It seems to be an unbridgeable chasm, and it may be. A great deal depends on how things go these next two years.

[2] I believe there may be a way through this, out of which the ELCA may emerge a more energetic and vibrant church free to focus on its primary mission of evangelism, nurture, and service. I believe that one important step could be to abandon the adversarial model of debate, which almost guarantees polarization, and to craft a new paradigm for serious and helpful conversation. This would have to begin with civility and modesty about our responses to complex moral questions. To adopt such a posture could require some reflection on moral deliberation.

[3] Jesus tells us that with God all things are possible. That does not mean that all things are probable. Some things are probable, but not equally so. Our disagreements are frequently rooted in differing judgments about degrees of probability we assign to projected outcomes of various actions. These disagreements sometimes become contentious because people with entrenched positions, whatever those positions are, tend to be more certain than anyone can in fact be about the probable outcomes of their own thoughts and actions as well as about those of others. Some disagreements we simply live with. But most ELCA people, whatever their positions, agree that our handling of sexuality is of great importance and that the stakes are very high. What can we reasonably hope will result from the massive investment of time, energy, and money that we are making in this sexuality study?

[4] I believe we may find reason to hope that this entire process will be one of transparent integrity. That would mean, for example, that a clear and accurate summary of the previous ELCA sexuality study would be provided, including its recommendations and the assembly actions. No legitimate investigation can be done without historical perspective. Transparent integrity would also mean that those on polar ends of this controversy, and those at various points between, could agree that the process was as objective and unbiased as possible, that all relevant data have been taken into account. It would mean, above all, that this enormously complex issue would not be reduced to simplistic slogans and emotional appeals.

[5] I believe there are at least five areas of investigation without which no study of human sexuality can claim to be credible. These areas are expressed here as sets not of polarities, but rather of interpenetrating realities. Each set flows in and out of the others. One major problem in the ELCA on this issue is that too many people, whatever their position, think it is a relatively simple matter. Let us look at five areas that are anything but simple.

[6] 1. Purposes and Procedures: Is it possible to state clearly the purposes of this study, and then to design procedures that will most likely fulfill those purposes? It would not be easy. The topic is of great importance and the stakes are very high. Current ELCA policy, stated in the document Visions and Expectations, is that single persons, whatever their orientation, refrain from sexual activity, and that married persons remain faithful to their spouses. Some think the purpose of this study should be to argue for the ordination of non-celibate homosexuals living in committed relationships. Most of these also believe the purpose should be to argue for the blessing of same-sex unions. Others think that the purpose of this study should be to argue for retaining our present policy. If the study is perceived to throw fuel on the flames of this polarization, it will almost certainly result in a divisive vote leaving in its wake winners and losers.

[7] I believe we may be helped by responding to this situation with a statement of purpose that is sufficiently inclusive to warrant serious investigation of the many dimensions of the sexuality issue. Procedures could be designed to fit the purpose. It would soon be evident that very different people can reach the same conclusion and that very similar people can reach different conclusions. It could help to reduce the labeling and caricaturing of those with whom we disagree.

[8] 2. Texts and Contexts: How shall we honor our constitutional commitment to the authority of the Bible, the ecumenical creeds, and the Lutheran Confessions as we seek to follow the risen Christ into our messy and precarious future? We cannot simply quote passages from these documents, and we cannot simply dismiss them. We cannot simply quote experts who say what we want to hear. We cannot reduce these texts to general ideas, universal ideals, favorite words or phrases.

[9] Working with texts and contexts simultaneously is a very difficult job. But I believe we ELCA people who are many different members of the one body of Jesus Christ can find one another in the struggle. It would mean getting deep inside the text contextualized in that then and there and, while examining our own context, to work at recontextualizing that same text in this here and now. It would guarantee no easy solutions, but it would guarantee serious work with our primary sources of authority.

[10] 3. Orientations and behaviors: Can we clarify our use of the terms “sexual orientation” and “sexual behavior,” so that we know what we are talking about when we attempt a serious conversation? Our culture is clear in its attempt to blur this distinction. But before we can talk, we have to know at least what it is that is being blurred. A start could be to say that “orientation” refers to who one is, “behavior” to what one does. The two are connected, but certainly not identical. We can be thankful that many married men with polygamous sexual orientations choose to live in monogamous faithfulness with their wives. Many single people, whatever their orientation, choose to refrain from mutual genital activity. Current ELCA policy recognizes different sexual orientations. Its interest, however, is purely in behavior. It would seem a fairly basic move to recognize and state this distinction between orientation and behavior.

[11] At the same time, it would seem an elementary thing to recognize that prohibitions against fornication and adultery are abundant in the Bible. Yet by our silence we virtually condone sexual experimentation and cohabitation among single heterosexuals. If we want to identify publicly declared marriage between one man and one woman as the only legitimate location for mutual genital activity, we need to state clearly why we do this. The distinction between orientations and behaviors is just as important when we talk about heterosexuals as when we talk about homosexuals.

[12] 4. Individuals and institutions: How does the inescapable tension between private individuals and social institutions work its way through the maze of questions having to do with human sexuality and sexual behavior? In the United States, legislatures and courts work this tension at every day. It requires delicate decision-making. Sexual activities by consenting adults in private do at times have public consequences. An adulterous affair may damage a marriage and a family. Single people who cohabit inevitably influence the sexual atmosphere of the culture. People in positions of power and authority may find themselves in trouble with the law even though they thought there was consent. Personal freedoms must be exercised in the context of social responsibilities. In any society, individuals must pay attention to institutions.

[13] Social institutions are clusters of memories and hopes, values, commitments, goals, obligations, freedoms and restraints, which help to hold large groups of people together over long periods of time. Societies cannot survive and flourish without them. Government is such an institution, as is law, education, family, and church. If the many members of the one body of Christ are going to function harmoniously, the interplay between individuals and institutions will have to be addressed with great care. What kinds of sexual behavior ought the ELCA to encourage, what kinds to discourage?

[14] 5. Genetics and environments: How can we facilitate fruitful conversation about the roles of genetic inheritance and environmental influence in the development of sexual orientation and behavior? Some seem to think that sexual orientation is totally given genetically and that there is never a possibility of change. Others seem to think that human beings are inherently heterosexual, that any other orientation is a result of environmental factors and therefore subject to change. Evidence can be cited to support both opinions. Even after the mapping of the human genome, the nature/nurture problem has not now been finally solved, certainly not in relation to human sexuality.

[15] It could help to acknowledge how naive it is to divide the world population into heterosexuals and homosexuals. There are people who are thoroughly repulsed by the thought of sexual activity with someone of the same gender, and those equally repulsed by the thought of sexual activity with someone of the opposite gender. But many people find themselves attracted to both men and women, and know that attraction to be partially, at least, sensual if not sexual. Lutherans Concerned/North America knows that there are more than two sexual orientations. The organization advocates for gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered. They list four orientations, but there are many more. Orgasms are pleasurable for most people, and there are many ways to have them. If we can enter into the complexities of ways in which genetics and environments both play roles in the development of sexual orientations, we may begin to question some of our own assumptions, and thus not so readily reject the assumptions of others.

[16] So, for what can we hope?

[17] I believe we may find reason to hope that this entire process will be one of transparent integrity. If we can all know that this has been an entirely serious investigation of the many complex dimensions of these issues, I believe we may grow beyond polarization toward helpful conversation. If that happens, it could be that a document can be crafted which will so clearly reflect the mind of the entire ELCA, that we can emerge a stronger, more vibrant church focused on its primary mission of evangelism, nurture, and service.

This article was originally requested in March, 2003 by The Lutheran to be included in an issue prior to the 2003 Churchwide Assembly. In July the editorial staff decided the timing was not right for the article. It is printed here as delivered to The Lutheran in May, with one correction to the opening paragraph.