Practicing What We Preach in Lutheran Sexual Ethics

[1] In many ways, the Draft Social Statement on Human Sexuality (DSSHS) represents a better theological foundation for a Lutheran approach to sexual ethics than its predecessors, both contemporary and historical. In this essay I discuss some of the theo-ethical benefits of this draft for the ELCA. Yet this draft also has some problems, two of which will be discussed below.

Responsibility and Trust as Theo-ethical Centers

[2] Many traditional Lutheran approaches to sexuality, including Luther’s, have been grounded in “physicalist natural law” arguments. By “physicalist” I mean a normative framework based on biological or physical characteristics of creation or creatures and known through the observation of the physical world. Those who use this framework are concerned primarily with the proper physical structure of creation and derive laws governing human relationships from this physical structure.[1] Despite a traditional Lutheran theological distrust of the natural law, this physicalist form of natural law has often been used by Lutherans to define sexual identity and legitimate sexual activity according to understandings of gender derived from physiological criteria.

[3] The DSSHS does not begin with a physicalist natural law approach as its primary theological foundation for a Lutheran sexual ethic. Instead, the draft’s theological foundation rests on God’s incarnation in Christ and God’s reconciling love given through justification which comes through faith in Christ. This theological center is described in the first two sections of the draft, though perhaps the best and most concise articulation of this theo-ethical center is stated in Lines 63-67. In these lines, we discover not only the direction of the call for how we are to live together in sexual relationships, but also the source of that call, namely the God who loves us and promises unconditionally that we have been reconciled to God in Christ.

[4] Several benefits for engaging questions of sexual ethics emerge from this theological center. First, while the statement does not turn to a physicalist natural law, the DSSHS does recognize the central place of the incarnation and the resulting goodness of the human body as created by God (Lines 122-126). Human sexuality and gender are part of God’s creation and were present in the God who chose to dwell with us as Emmanuel. (Jn 1:14) As such, the DSSHS recognizes that human sexuality in all of its genders is good. This is a fairly recent move in the history of the Christian tradition and an important one. This recognition does not deny sin but avoids forcing it onto the sexual body; rather, sin is manifest in the destructive forces found in all human relationships, including sexual relationships.

[5] Second, by focusing on justification as the source of its values (Line 316), the draft makes our relationship with God in Christ the ultimate theological criterion of who we are and how we are called to live together. Rather than grounding a sexual ethic in the physiological forms of bodies, the draft works to focus on human relationships which are first and foremost defined by our faith-filled relationship with God through Christ. This focus on justification calls us to construct relational lives according to faith which then translates into trust and trustworthiness as we serve the neighbor. In this way, the quality of our sexual relationships as they are lived out in faith and trust becomes paramount in following God’s will for our sexual lives.

[6] This call to form trusting and trustworthy relationships leads the DSSHS to its central ethical criterion for defining what our sexual relationships ought to look like, namely responsibility. The focus on responsibility which is grounded in faith in God represents a welcome change from recent discussions concerning sexuality in the ELCA which often pit the physical forms of bodies against the rights of bodies. While human rights and dignity as God’s created image are indeed important aspects of any Lutheran sexual ethic, these rights are intertwined with our Christian responsibility to follow God’s ongoing call to serve the neighbor. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer stated, human responsibilities “spring from these rights themselves, as tasks from gifts. They are intrinsic to the rights.”[2] Thus, the move toward responsibility as a primary theo-ethical criterion, though tenuously defined, is another benefit of the DSSHS.

[7] Finally, this draft’s focus on human relationship with God and neighbor opens the door for an important discussion in the last section of the draft concerning the social aspects of human sexuality. Because human sexuality is named primarily as a relational phenomenon (and not merely physical), then individuals, their relationships and the social world in which they live become important factors in describing human sexuality and in articulating responsible sexual being and doing. Consequently, the draft does well to point to the social world’s profound influence on forming human beings as sexual creatures (Lines 545ff); it also does well to lift up God’s ongoing call to work together responsibly so as to construct a trustworthy social world where we can live together safely and joyfully as sexual creatures.

Practicing What Is Preached?

[8] In spite of these theological benefits, however, there are some problems with the DSSHS as it is currently presented. These problems can best be seen by asking the question: does the draft practice what it preaches? In other words, when specific sexual relationships, sexual behaviors, or sexual ways of being are described and prescribed, does the draft actually derive its response from the theology it has proclaimed? Or are there inconsistencies between theology and practice that need to be addressed? My answers to these two questions are both “yes.” With regard to the sections on Strong Family, Protecting Children, the Self, Friendships, and Commitment as well as the final section on Social Trust, the draft attempts to derive its prescriptions from God’s call to seek trusting and trustworthy relations through responsible service for the neighbor. In these sections, the question of whether or not a relationship is trustworthy and built through responsible behavior seems to be the primary criterion for regarding a sexual relationship’s suitability for life in the body of Christ.

[9] However, this is not necessarily the case in the sections on marriage, co-habitation, and same-gender committed relationships. In these sections, trust and responsibility, while important, are no longer considered the final criteria for legitimating good sexual relations; instead, gendered bodies (and the state) become the final criteria in defining whether or not a particular sexual relationship is approved by the body of Christ. This sudden course correction back toward a physicalist natural law is found explicitly when combining three statements from these sections:



“Marriage is a structure of mutual promises between a man and a woman blessed by God (Mark 10:7-9) and authorized in a legal arrangement required by the state.” (Lines 1005-7)


“This church does not favor or give approval to cohabitation arrangements outside of marriage.” (Lines 1072-73)


“This church recognizes the historic origin of the term ‘marriage’ as a life-long and committed relationship between a woman and man, and does not wish to alter this understanding.” (Lines 1151-53)

Intended by the draft or not, these three statements join to shift the draft’s theo-ethical framework for deciding which sexual relationships are justified away from our relationship with God in Christ (incarnation and justification) toward a physicalist natural law criterion, namely gender. Taken together, these statements announce unequivocally that, because it has always done so, the only relationship the church “approves” or “favors” is marriage defined as between a man and a woman and as authorized by the state; according to the second statement (line 1072) no other relationship, no matter how trusting or responsible, will be legitimate.

[10] My language of legitimation is specific here. Peter Berger in The Sacred Canopy defines legitimation as the social knowledge that “serves to explain and justify the social order.” Legitimations tell people what is and what ought to be.[3] In the church, a relation is legitimate when it is communally justified according to the church’s theo-ethical foundations and therefore is valid across the church. By defining marriage as only between a man and woman (Statement 1); and by declaring that the church will not change this definition (Statement 3); and by stating that the church will only favor and give approval to marriage (Statement 2), the draft, representing the ELCA’s official position, declares that marriage as defined between a man and woman is the only sexual relationship legitimated by the church in its doctrine and policy. No other sexual relation will be endorsed or approved.

[11] This legitimacy, I argue, is derived in the draft according to gender criteria. As I discuss below, gender is rarely mentioned throughout most of the draft and “man” and “woman” are never defined or described. Yet in these three sections, assumed notions of gender supplant the theo-ethical foundations of trust and responsibility laid out at the beginning of the document. The call to reflect God’s abiding and unconditional love through faith-filled and responsible relations and to demonstrate trustworthiness no longer has priority for the draft when authorizing sexual relationships, at least concerning who can or cannot be married. Rather, gender becomes the ultimate legitimating factor for defining and structuring marriage. In other words, with respect to marriage, the DSSHS does not practice the theology it preaches. After lifting up trust, responsibility, service, love, commitment, care, fidelity, and the beauty of sexual intimacy in committed sexual relationships, the draft departs from its original theological foundation and returns to gendered bodies (and the church/state’s view of them) for defining and justifying marriage as the only valid sexual relationship the ELCA will approve.

[12] This inconsistency between theology and practice emerges particularly in the draft’s response to committed, life-long, faithful same-gendered relationships that responsibly “reflect God’s love to the world and the vocation to love the neighbor.” (Lines 1108-9) As highlighted by a man at the listening post I attended, the limitation of the term “marriage” to a woman and man stands immediately after the draft’s suggestion that same-gendered relationships be “held to the same rigorous standards and sexual ethics as all others”(Line 1145) and that “dissolution of a committed same-gender relation be treated with the same gravity as the dissolution of a marriage” (Line 1148). To demand the same rigorous standards of and to treat the dissolution of a same-gender relation like a divorce (a word not mentioned once in the draft) is to in fact legitimate the relation and to ground it in the trust and responsibility the draft proclaims as its theological foundation. Yet, the draft’s limitation of the term “marriage” (and thereby the social legitimacy the word implies) to a relationship between a woman and man only (in Lines 1151-52) combined with the church’s refusal in the previous section to favor or approve (any) cohabitation arrangements outside of marriage (1072-3) denies any public recognition of this legitimacy to same-gender committed, faithful relationships. This inconsistency materializes, I submit, because at the same time that the draft is attempting to hold to its theo-ethical center of responsibility and trust, it is also trying to maintain a definition of marriage based on assumed physicalist ideas of gender. This church cannot have it both ways, and it is cruel to expect same-gendered committed couples to live according to the church’s standards when this church refuses to give them its public support in its official doctrine, liturgy or policy.

[13] There is another inconsistency in the draft, one which also concerns the question of gender. As mentioned above, this draft rarely discusses gender. When it does, it does so either generally, without any discussion of how the church currently or historically has understood the concepts of “male and female,” or prescriptively as the ultimate criterion for defining and structuring marriage. Yet, who humans are and what we do as sexual creatures is intimately related to how we understand ourselves and others to be “male and female.” This means that if this church is to offer any stable framework regarding sexual ethics, it must deal directly with gender and how the tradition has understood gender, both positively and negatively. To ignore meanings of “male and female,” the gender inequalities that still exist in our church and society, and how these meanings compare to those understood throughout Christian history is to deny the influence these meanings have on how men and women today live out their callings responsibly.

[14] For example, many women in our culture tend to view their responsibility in sexual relationships differently than many men. This difference became apparent to me in a recent conversation with some teen-aged women concerning unwanted pregnancy. These young women articulated a frightening contemporary reality: they sincerely believed that a woman was the person principally responsible for saying no to a sexual encounter, for protecting against unwanted pregnancy during that encounter, and for dealing with it afterwards. If a girl became pregnant (unless it was rape) the pregnancy and therefore the sexual activity was entirely her fault. When I pressed them on this and pointed out that according to my sex education classes, it takes two to make a baby, these young women said that they had been taught in their sex education classes that due to a male’s biological make-up, boys/men are not expected to take as much responsibility for their sexuality as girls/women are. In essence, these women accepted that they were the responsible person in any sexual relationship, while their potential male sexual partners were allowed to abdicate their responsibility if they so chose due to their biological nature.

[15] What this example illuminates is that men and women will often understand the term “responsibility” differently when it comes to their sexual lives. While it is true that both men and women can be equally responsible or irresponsible in their sexual behavior, in our contemporary culture greater sexual responsibility is expected of women while men are not expected to be as sexually responsible. If the DSSHS proposes to name the theological concept of “responsibility” as one of its primary criteria for defining and supporting a Lutheran sexual ethic, it must also explicitly face the reality that in our society men and women hear and experience calls to sexual responsibility differently.[4]

[16] One response to this critique might be: “that’s too much for one social statement to handle.” I agree that to include a detailed theological discussion of gender in this statement would require too much from the statement. However, to exclude gender completely is to render the draft ineffectual. This church will never have a helpful sexuality statement if it does not engage questions of gender more deeply, and it cannot wait for a future statement on sexism to arrive years from now. Gender matters to how human sexuality is lived in the world today, all too often (though not only) to the detriment of women. In the DSSHS, the only place gender enters the discussion in any meaningful way is as the final criterion for defining marriage and it does so without any definition or explanation. However, where it should join the discussion (e.g., in understanding theological concepts of trust and responsibility or in discussing practical sexual issues such as inequality, exploitation, sexual assault, teen pregnancy, pornography, etc.) gender is mentioned only in passing. In other words, the church demands that gender determine which sexual relationships are legitimate while at the same time refusing to face the real problems of inequality that traditional and current theological understandings of gender create within those sexual relationships.

[17] Consequently, for these reasons (and many more), gender should not be ignored nor should any equality between the genders be assumed in the ELCA’s statement on sexuality. To assume gender equality in either description or ethical prescription (as the draft seems to) when in fact gender inequality is at the root of many of the ethical issues articulated throughout the document prevents the church from creating a helpful statement on sexuality while also tragically perpetuating the problems of gender inequality and its consequences against which the draft purports to want to work (Lines 1264, 1379). Instead the future sexuality statement ought to at the very least include a discussion of how traditional understandings of gender in the church have damaged individuals, both male and female, as well as how those understandings have both negatively and positively influenced the church’s approach to sexuality and sexual ethics. The future statement also ought to take much more seriously questions regarding what it means to be created “male and female” and how the church should practically live out its own calling to encourage responsible and trust-worthy sexual relationships by understanding “male and female” more faithfully and equitably.

[18] To conclude, before this statement can be a guide for the ELCA, it must address these inconsistencies honestly so that it faithfully practice what it preaches. Only by doing so will the statement function as it hopes: as a teaching document that serves as a “framework” which offers “guideposts” and “markers” that can “direct the church’s discernment.” (Lines 27-32; 44)

For more on the term “physicalist” as understood from a Roman Catholic natural law perspective see Richard M. Gula, Reason Informed by Faith: Foundations of a Catholic Morality (New York: Paulist Press, 1989), especially Chapter 15, “The Natural Law in Tradition” and Chapter 16, “Natural Law Today.”

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, ed. and trans. by Clifford Green (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005) 180ff.

Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy (New York: Anchor Books, 1967) 29.

The same could be said for the concept of “trust,” especially in a culture where a greater number of women than men have been sexually assaulted. Any sexual assault is a horrible sin, but the differences in the experience of this threat will lead women to hear the call to trust and trustworthiness in their sexual relationships very differently than men.

Laurie A. Jungling

Laurie A. Jungling, Ph.D, was an Associate Professor of Religion and Ethics at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, South Dakota and is in the process of returning to parish ministry.