Please Don’t Omit

[1] After spending the better part of two days reading and re-reading the new Draft Social Statement on Human Sexuality, I would like to first thank the Task Force for ELCA Studies on Sexuality for their careful and thoughtful consideration of the topic. Chapters 1 and 2 are rich theological texts that provide an excellent primer in Lutheran theology and ethics. Study groups that read this document will be reminded of the basics of our faith in an innovative and concise way.

[2] Furthermore, the Task Force has taken the draft in a few directions that I find fruitful and innovative. By highlighting the social character of sexuality, the Task Force has succeeded in bringing together the social and justice issues related to sexuality while keeping a close eye to individual sexuality. When they focus in Part IV on trust, they truly identify the ethical and social dynamic that is or should be at the center of sexuality and relationality. Finally, by moving to social trust and the common good in Part V, they provide the rationale for church social statements, for only through common moral deliberation as a church in the world can we begin to address systemic harms (1284; all citations use line numbers indicated in the draft) like “the public commodification of the body as an economic asset” (1301).

[3] That being said, I am most surprised by what is omitted in the new Draft Social Statement on Human Sexuality, so it is my intention here to lift up those aspects of sexuality and the Christian life that I believe need greater attention in the document. They are:

1) Singleness, the monastic life, and celibacy

2) Church as Bride of Christ and the poetry of Song of Songs

3) Human fruitfulness and creativity

Singleness, the Monastic Life, and Celibacy

[4] The Draft Social Statement on Human Sexuality (hereafter referred to as “the draft”) does recognize singleness as a Christian calling. “Christians operate within callings of responsibility such as work, parenting, singleness, or marriage. Such callings have structures-or configurations of responsibilities-that guide us in service to the neighbor” (283-285). The draft also recognizes that many households are headed by single persons (689). But singleness is hardly distinct in the document, and is most often situated in lists of relational vocations (see, for example, lines 283, 826, 1395, and 1411) And unfortunately, it categorizes singleness as a “choice” that the church respects rather than a high calling that the church celebrates. In so doing, the draft fails to make use of the rich biblical tradition that recognizes singleness as a high Christian calling and vocation (1168-1169).

[5] Singleness itself is a “configuration of responsibility,” and this is an incredibly important way for the draft to describe a way of being relational and sexual as it relates to ethics and vocation. I highly recommend a recent book on the topic, Dennis Franck’s Reaching Single Adults: An Essential Guide for Ministry. Franck notes that 44 percent of adults in the United States are unmarried. Many churches tend to focus their ministries on marriage and families, and as a result, fail to minister to singles, and also fail to benefit from the resources and gifts singles have to offer the church. Single or unmarried adults do have a specific calling in service to their neighbor. Sometimes this calling is related to their continuing efforts to find companionship and enter into marriage or family life. But at least some of those who are single have a calling from God to the single life, and this is an important insight overlooked by the draft (not to mention an insight overlooked in the broader culture, which tends to think all single people are just waiting for a relationship and are unhappy until they find one).

[6] It would be difficult to offer a comprehensive view of singleness in the Scriptures in this response essay, but I will at least point the way. Jeremiah was called to be single. Hosea was divorced. Ezekiel was a widower. In the period in which the New Testament was written, a large religious order, the Essenes, were committed to celibacy. Jesus himself never married, nor did many of his followers, Paul famously among them. Paul has a good deal to say about the single life, especially in 1 Corinthians 7, where he says, among other things, “I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has a particular gift from God” (1 Cor. 7:7).

[7] Singles have many spiritual gifts. They may have time to give to the church or community that married people and parents lack because of their vocation as spouse and parent. They can maintain and nurture deep friendships. They are free to mentor youth in the community, and provide spiritual care to older adults. Some, as Paul writes, are given the gift of truly being “anxious on the things of the Lord” rather than anxious about the things of the world. Many of these singles, recognizing this vocation, enter into monastic life, and care for their neighbor through prayer and service in the monastic setting. Some “new monastics” do so in similar and intriguing ways.[1]

[8] Since monasticism and celibacy play such an important role in the transformations of the Reformation period, it would seem appropriate for a Lutheran social statement on human sexuality to reflect on these things. What do Lutherans say about the monastic life today? Do Lutherans know there are other Lutherans committed to the monastic life here in the U.S ( Shouldn’t this draft address these issues in a substantive way?

[9] The Task Force encourages the church to “prepar[e] additional social statements or messages to allow for more in-depth consideration of the many matters related to human sexuality that are of concern and import to the mission and ministry of this church” (1426-1430). So the ELCA could commission a social statement on singleness, celibacy, and the monastic life. However, I argue that singleness in its many forms as a calling is such an integral aspect of the biblical witness, and so prevalent in our culture today,[2] that we should not fail to discuss it and reflect on it in this social statement in a deep and substantive ways.

Church as the Bride of Christ -and- Song of Songs

[10] It is surprising to learn that the Song of Songs makes only one appearance in this social statement, in support of the argument that the biblical narrative rejoices in the “splendor of sexual attraction” (525). This takes the Song of Songs at its literal level. I do not want to fault the Task Force for reading the Scriptures only at the literal level of interpretation. Certainly, that is our primary mode today, the literal and historic. Nevertheless, it would be helpful and fruitful if the draft would include reflections on sexuality in Scripture at the level of allegory, typology, and anagogy. The church has traditionally (even if not so much recently) read Scripture at these levels, and it has especially been the splendor of sexual attraction itself that has helped us deepen our faith in Christ as the bridegroom, the bride of the church, not to mention the “marriage feast of the Lamb” (Revelation 19:9) as the anagogical image often used to describe the eschatological end of all things when God will be all in all.[3]

[11] There are at least two ways of reading Scripture that could contribute significantly to the draft. First, the Task Force could include more reflection on the “overt sense” of Song of Songs and other texts of Scripture that contribute to our understanding of human sexuality. There is also a whole other level of “theological allegory” that could add an additional and important theological contribution to our understanding of faith and sexuality, and this is precisely the allegory of sexuality itself as an understanding of faith and life in God. Maybe the most obvious example of this in Scripture itself is Paul’s allegorical interpretation of Sarah and Hagar in Galatians 4, where the different kinds of marriage, and their offspring, are offered as an allegory for the two covenants.

[12] By not incorporating the Song of Songs as a significant resource in the draft, the task force therefore fails to reflect on an aspect of sexuality so ubiquitous in our culture-music, poetry, and song. Although the draft mentions that the sexual is in music (842), it mostly refers to this music in the negative, for its strongly sexual content (771). The draft does not itself engage any art or music in its positive manifestations. The Song of Songs is omitted also. Since many exegetes have considered the Song of Songs to be a wedding song (an epithalamium), it would make sense for the draft to include some reflection on “sexuality and song”; and since the Song of Songs has often been interpreted in its theological sense as about “Israel and the Lord,” and through a Christian reading, Christ and the church, and the love between the two, the task force might take my recommendation as encouragement to explore what “trust at the heart of faith active in love” means when we read Song of Songs and the lyrics of songs carefully, or even when we sing them as worship.[4]

Human Fruitfulness and Creativity

[13] One of the most powerful statements in the whole draft appears in the section on theological and ethical foundations. It reads, “A Lutheran sexual ethic… is more about directing us to find a responsible place for sexuality in the service of God’s ongoing activity in the world than about containing the ambiguous power of sex” (310-316). This is a sub-theme throughout the draft, the “productive” nature of human sexuality. Later, the drafters write, “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). The entire creative nature of human sexuality is thus grounded in God’s ongoing activity, and framed as freedom in Christ to love and serve our neighbor.

[14] In other words, sexuality is other serving and other-directed rather than self-serving and self-directed; and it is, in one way or another, productive and creative. The draft says that the “conception of children is a cause for gladness” (1022). But this is a slightly different way of describing the purpose of sexuality than the biblical “be fruitful and multiply.” It may be that the drafters have some ambivalence about sexuality and fruitfulness. We live in a culture today that celebrates the joy of sexuality as much or more than we commend sexuality as something whose biological function, at least often and throughout much of time, has been procreation. This is a complex topic, and as I write on this I feel like I might fail to reflect on it appropriately. Nevertheless, sexuality as something that is creative and especially procreative needs tending in a Lutheran social statement on sexuality. Singleness has its own gifts and ways it serves the neighbor; one way sexuality in marriage serves the neighbor is that it makes new neighbors!

[15] Of course, not all those who have sexual relations are able to have children. This is a profound pastoral concern, one the church rightly addresses with sensitivity, with care for those who grieve at infertility. Many of our biblical narratives witness to the struggle families go through when they are unable to have children. Therefore, I very much appreciate the draft’s way of framing marriage and its creativity in a broader sense. They write, “The purpose of marriage [is] to create long-term, durable communion for the good of others” (1019, emphasis added). Marriage, or other durable relationships where sexuality is expressed, are creative and fruitful inasmuch as they create communion for the good of others. One sees witness of this, for example, in the marriage of Priscilla and Aquila in scripture, a marriage that truly serves neighbors and the church. Most of us have experienced relationships like this, couples or families or groups of friends who express deep love and care for each other, and whose common life together results in productive actions for the good of others and their community.

[16] On this point, my recommendation is for the drafters of the social statement to not shy away from the Christian commitment to procreation, but to frame it at length grounded in our participation in God’s on-going activity and procreation.[5]

Concluding Comments

[17] Although I regret that this essay has focused on what has been left out of the draft, I hope it is clear that my thoughts on these matters have been shaped by the draft itself and in this way the study has already achieved in at least some way the laudable goal of ELCA social statements to “aid in communal and individual moral deliberation and moral formation.” My own individual moral deliberation has been enriched by the document, and the JLE as a resource for the church is in turn beginning the important communal work of deliberation.

[18] That being said, I need to comment on an egregious omission of the draft. In the Questions and Answers Fact Sheet for the draft that accompanied my copy, I read, “Any implementing resolutions for this social statement will be provided by the task force when the proposed social statement becomes available in February 2009” (page 4). This is somewhat like submitting a resolutions document to a synod assembly that contains only “whereas” statements and no “be it resolved” statements. As a pastor in this church, I would appreciate the opportunity to participate in the conversation not only on the draft of the social statement, but also on the draft of the implementing resolutions.

[19] Here are a few statements from the draft that I hope give guidance for the implementing resolutions:

“Other pastors and congregations will call our same-gender-oriented brothers and sisters in Christ to establish relationships that are chaste, mutual, monogamous, and life-long” (1145). Clergy and congregations will need to know that we have the freedom within our denomination and confessional tradition to provide such counsel, and in the best situation, we will also have liturgical and pastoral resources available to help counsel and ensure that people in same-gender relationships live in relationships that are “positive and life-giving” (712). Our church could also do much to “advocate for their legal protection” (1135).

[20] What if we had an implementing resolution that operated under the assumption that the following were true: “Scripture places family as secondary to the community of God’s people (Matthew 10:37; 12:49)”? Is there an idolatry of the family at work in our culture that needs addressing? Have we established ecclesiological patterns and rules of common life together that place “the community of God’s people” above all other loyalties, including the family?

[21] Thank you to the Journal of Lutheran Ethics for the opportunity and invitation to compose these reflections. It is my prayer that they will be of service in the formation of a social statement on human sexuality that is truly “a contribution to the ongoing work of moral discernment within the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America” (1416-1417). Our common mission statement, so beautifully expressed in the draft, is that “because of God’s embrace of all the creation in Christ, we are a people set free for lives of responsibility aimed at seeking the good of the neighbor” (1432-1433).

See the 12 marks of the New Monasticism,, where the new monastics emphasize the special spiritual gifts that attend the celibate and single life.

See Robert Wuthnow’s recent work on young adults for rich insights into how young adults (many of whom are single) have unique religious and life concerns that the church can address, as well as many gifts to share with the church; After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty- and Thirty-Somethings are Shaping the Future of American Religion, Princeton University Press, 2007

See David Fredrickson, “God, Christ, and All Things in 1 Corinthians 15:28” , Word and World, Number 3, Summer 1998, for a profound meditation on eschatology and God’s personal relationality. The key phrase in Greek in ta pavnta ejn pasin, a phrase that Fredrickson argues is not about “absorption or domination” but rather “of love and devotion. The phrase intends to speak of personal relation” (257-258).

For one example of reading the Song of Songs in this manner, see Robert W. Jenson, Song of Songs, Westminster John Knox, 2005.

See, for example, Luther’s explanation of the first article of the creed in the Small Catechism.

Clint Schnekloth

Clint Schnekloth is a pastor and author of Mediating Faith: Faith Formation in a Trans-Media Era. He also blogs at