“Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust”-Ramifications of a Relational Anthropology

[1] In March 2008, the Task Force for ELCA Studies on Sexuality, Church in Society, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America published a “Draft Statement on Human Sexuality.” The information provided at the opening of the draft explained that the ELCA was preparing a social statement on human sexuality to be considered by the Churchwide Assembly in 2009 and invited individuals and congregations to read and discuss the statement and submit comments no later than November 01, 2008. In January 2009, Rebecca Sims of the ELCA’s Department for Research and Evaluation published a summary of the responses to the Draft Social Statement on Human Sexuality. It is helpful to review the report provided by Sims in order to better understand the expectations of those that responded to the draft. Specifically, did those that responded to the draft feel that the statement adequately represented their understanding of the Christian scriptural tradition? If not, might the recommended proposed statement, “Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust,”[1] better address the expectations of the respondents? I will argue that a large number of respondents were not happy with the use of the Bible in the draft (and will quite likely be similarly unhappy with the proposed recommended social statement). Furthermore, many stated specifically that scriptural interpretation should not be influenced by society. In response, this paper will address the practice of reading the Bible and will argue that any/every interpretation is a conversation between the text and the reader and is, therefore, necessarily tied to the social context of the text and the reader. In other words, it is impossible to engage in a reading of the biblical text that is not influenced by society.

Summary of the Responses to the Draft Statement on Human Sexuality

[2] Rebecca Sims explains that the first question concerning the draft statement on human sexuality “asked respondents to rate how well the statement provides a useful and adequate framework to help this church discern what it means to live faithfully with our neighbors in the increasingly complex sphere of human sexuality.”[2] A total of 917 responses were given with nearly 28% indicating that the draft statement was “not based on Scripture.” Similar responses were given in reference to each section of the draft statement. For example, over half of the 606 responses to the “theological and ethical foundations for understanding sexuality” indicated that “the section needed more scriptural reference” and needed to “take a tough biblical stand.” Again, almost half of the 383 responses to the section titled, “sexuality as part of God’s creative activity,” noted that they “would like to see more biblical reference, without changing scripture because of society.” In response to the final section, “social trust and the common good,” over one-third of 414 respondents “wanted a return to sound, biblical doctrine.” In her summary and conclusion, Sims succinctly states that “a large group of respondents felt the draft statement should be more Bible-based, and asked for a return to a ‘traditional’ interpretation of Scripture that is not influenced by society.”

[3] While it is tempting to speculate what might be meant by “traditional” interpretation of Scripture and/or an interpretation that is not influenced by society, any attempt to do so would be insufficient based upon the information available. What may be deduced, however, is that a large percentage of respondents felt that the statement did not represent their understanding of the Christian scriptural tradition. Furthermore, based upon the changes made to the second document, the same respondents will likely feel that the recommended proposed social statement, “Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust,” does not reflect their concerns. So, how might this discussion continue in a fruitful manner? I believe that it is problematic to assume that biblical interpretation may occur without the “influence of society” and that a brief discussion of the process of reading the Bible may open new and fruitful discussions concerning human sexuality.

“Gaps” in the Text

[4] As a pastor and as a professor, I am keenly aware of the “gaps” which exist in the biblical text. To best get at this issue, I often ask people to consider my office chair. Yes, it seems like a simple assignment. I explain that I have long wanted a nice office chair and I finally purchased my “dream chair” last fall. Now, what does the chair look like? Do you think that you are imagining the chair in the exact same way as others who are reading this paragraph? The word chair, itself, seems quite basic. I have a two-year old daughter and she knows the word, “chair.” And yet, there is a gap between what I am intending when I use the term and what you are imagining as the reader. There are ways, of course, to shrink this gap. I could explain that the chair is a brown, leather, club chair that does not recline. However, as experience has shown, when others finally do see the chair, they often proclaim, “that isn’t at all what I had imagined.” Why do we have so much difficulty with such a seemingly simple word? And if “chair” can cause such a debate, what difficulties might arise when we begin to discuss the terms and ideas associated with human sexuality?

[5] Words do not have a fixed “meaning” that can simply be passed along between author and reader, between speaker and audience. Because “gaps” exist between the author and the audience, unfinished meaning is completed by the reader. In other words, until you have actually sat in my chair, a gap exists between what I wish to convey with my use of the term, “chair,” and your image of the chair. More importantly, as the reader, you are active in the process of creating meaning. In other words, your imagination has created a meaning for the term “chair.” I have no control of this. For as much as I want you to know precisely how my chair looks and how it feels, you are active in this conversation and you are creating meaning as you read my words.

Narrowing the Gap

[6] So, what are our options? If we recognize that a “gap” exists between the words on the page and the meaning that is being created as we read the text, how can we lessen this gap? To begin, it is essential to recognize that we are separated from the Bible both culturally and temporally. This means that to best understand this ancient Mediterranean text, we ought to seek to better understand ancient Mediterranean people and their cultures. This may sound like a daunting task, but many helpful resources exist that provide introductions to the cultural world of the Bible.[3] More importantly for this paper, we must identify that we attempt to fill these gaps (whether we know or it not) with our own experiences, assumptions, and cultural practices. In other words, your image of my chair was largely based upon your own experiences and assumptions regarding chairs. Attempting to become better aware of what we bring to the text will help us to understand why we interpret the text in that manner in which we do. Many respondents to the draft social statement on human sexuality sought biblical interpretation that was not impacted “by society.” However, it is our society/culture that informs our understanding of terms and helps (for better or for worse) in filling “gaps” and creating meaning. For example, how does our understanding of the term “homosexual” inform the gap that exists between a first century use of the term and our interpretation of what it means today? How do your specific experiences and assumptions shape that way that you fill the gap? If people come to such a term with different experiences and assumptions, will they attempt to fill the gap differently? This is precisely the issue that must be discussed as we enter a new phase of the discussion on human sexuality. What possible meanings were given to terms by first century authors? What do we bring to the words (whether we know it or not) when we attempt to read these texts?

Canonical Considerations

[7] Another way to narrow the “gaps” that exist between the first century text and our twenty-first century interpretation is to consider the significance and the role of the canon. The Christian scriptural tradition holds that we have a collection of texts that shed light on one another. In other words, we do not approach words, stories, or even whole books in isolation. It may be assumed that the canon is meant to work together to share a consistent message. That does not mean that there will not be small inconsistencies or difficult passages. It does mean, however, that the canon does not present radically different images of God or radically different perspectives on faithfulness. We look, then, not only for single terms or verses in our discussion of human sexuality. We consider the broad themes present in the canon that may inform our understanding of this important issue.


[8] It is difficult to estimate the number of ELCA members or congregations that felt that the 2008 draft social statement on Human Sexuality did not represent what they believe to be the Christian scriptural tradition. We do, however, have a number who have responded to this draft and have indicated that the use of scripture should be “traditional” and should be free from the influence of “society.” Those that responded in this way will likely be equally frustrated with the 2009 recommended proposed social statement, “Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust.” In response to this frustration, I have attempted to briefly describe a few issues facing readers of the Bible. It is my firm belief that the committee that has written the social statement has fairly and with great integrity built upon the Christian scriptural tradition. The “gaps” that may exist between the ancient Biblical text and our modern discussion have been identified, great thought has been put into observing how our twenty-first century North American culture informs our reading of the text, and the text has been approached not in a single verse or story format, but with care given to canonical themes regarding human sexuality.


[1] The recommended proposed social statement, “Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust” can be obtained without cost by downloading it from the sexuality studies Web site (www.elca.org/faithfuljourney).

[2] Rebecca Sims’ January 2009 article, “Responses to the Draft Social Statement on Human Sexuality: Research and Evaluation,” was originally available on the ELCA sexuality studies Web site (www.elca.org/faithfuljourney). Please note, while I will quote Sims throughout this section, I will only provide the web site address once.

[3] For example, please see: Malina, Bruce J. Windows on the World of Jesus: Time Travel to Ancient Judea. Louisville; Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993.