Recognition, Not Blessing

[1] How far can confessional Lutherans bend to accommodate an urgently felt pastoral need and, if possible, to preserve the unity of the ELCA (such as it is)?

Direction from the Confession of Faith
[2] It is a sign of the theological weakness of this troubled denomination that it has yet to see the question framed by the Augsburg Confession Article XXIII. The article commits the ELCA to the Scriptural teaching of I Corinthians 7, Matthew 19 and Genesis 1 that God instituted and preserves the union of male and female in the public estate of marriage as the fundamental form of human community. At the same time, it affirms with the ecumenical church that “sometimes severity and rigor must be alleviated and relaxed for the sake of human weakness and to avoid greater scandal.” The ELCA’s confession requires of it both this Scriptural clarity in public teaching and humane flexibility in pastoral care. Violating either term divides the community that is supposed to be directed theologically by its confession of faith.

[3] It is evident that same-sex union is not the foundational public state of co-humanity blessed by God according to Genesis 1:26-28. This blessing remains the very Word of God spoken in the church’s rite for marriage and persists in spite of sin, failure and disorder. How then can the church respond pastorally to those Christians who attest to fixed homophile orientation and seek to establish stable relationships analogous to and informed by Christian teaching on marriage? Carefully delimiting the question at issue this way, I do not see that pastorally we can avoid it. Posed this way, the question is not antinomian. Certainly, adult persons of fixed homophile orientation constitute a vulnerable minority, whose burden Christian people are called to share, not scorn.

Public Witness and Christian Freedom
[4] Robert Benne, in the second edition of his widely read Ordinary Saints has proposed a “strategy of gracious tolerance… Repentance, forgiveness, and amendment of life should be left for homosexuals to work out privately, as is the case for other persons who struggle with the demands of the Christian life.” For those “who seem ‘fixed’ in their orientation… [and where sexual abstinence] is not being observed, it is gracious privately to encourage sexual fidelity within committed friendships. Such an arrangement is far better than the dangerous promiscuity practiced by a significant portion of the homosexual subculture. From a Christian point of view, it is the lesser of evils.” The lesser evil argument Benne makes here is the honest price that must be paid to the authority of Scripture. Scripture, as read in the Augsburg Confession, authorizes and blesses the life-long union of one man and one woman in the hope of children; any other blessing in God’s name would be extra-Scriptural “enthusiasm,” as the Reformers tagged the schismatic belief that God speaks apart from his revealed Word in canonical Scripture. Honest proponents of blessing same-sex unions acknowledge this.

[5] Where this truth of God’s Word is acknowledged, however, we might in Christian freedom make morally ambiguous compromises for the sake of afflicted brothers and sisters in a world broken by sin and death. We routinely do such, for example, by recognizing in the church the remarriage of those divorced at variance with the prohibition of Jesus. I believe that in this light churchly recognition (not blessing) of same sex unions might be possible.

[6] In this connection Benne’s argument for privacy is problematic. He is rightly worried about opening the flood gates in a church that lacks discipline and about scandalizing the faithful who see the Bible being treated contemptuously by the advocates of homosexuality as a variant creation of God rather than a defect caused by sin. Nevertheless, the courage of Lutheran conviction rests in the freedom of the Christian. I do not know that the ELCA is capable of it, but the difficult, complex and prophetic stance of Christian freedom will witness both to the law of God which judges homosexual desire as defective and to the mercy of God which nevertheless makes the best of things. In regard to same sex unions this requires a distinction between blessing by the church and recognition in the church. Indeed, tacit recognition of same-sex couples is arguably something the church has done intuitively and pastorally, if privately, for a very long time. If that is so, is not a public witness is now demanded of us, not least for the sake of the highly conflicted homosexual community? Let me try to thread the needle here.

Repentance and Faith
[7] It is helpful to recall that for Luther God’s forgiving love and procreative purpose cover the abiding concupiscence at work even in married love. By analogy, it might also be understood to cover the disordered love of gay or lesbian partners as this homosexual desire is acknowledged in repentance and faith as a cross to be born, not the creative work of God to be celebrated. Likewise politically, as “it is better to marry than to burn,” so exclusive same-sex unions would be better than the destructive illusions of sexual liberation. In rejecting the notorious promiscuity of the “gay lifestyle,” and in seeking a form of social recognition that is compatible with the social nurture of children through the estate of marriage, same-sex unions can be analogous to Christian marriage and recognized as such.

[8] In spiritual life, God’s inclusive love in Christ entails repentance as well as faith. It is not simply sinners but penitent sinners who are embraced in the communion of the church. Same-sex partners finding no other recourse in their situation (i.e., having sought unsuccessfully in prayer the gift of celibacy for the sake of service or therapeutically to restructure homosexual desire), and seeking the recognition of the Christian community, confess (just like the divorced seeking remarriage) that normative Christian teaching stands in judgment over them, whose union falls short of the marriage God intends for his creature; homophile desire reflects the brokenness of the fallen creation (Romans 1), not the original intention of the Creator (Matthew 19).

Order and Disorder
[9] This is a painful acknowledgment. Yet the distinction between God’s creative intention and the disorder produced in various ways by universal sin must be sustained. Commenting on Genesis 4:1 (“And Adam knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain.”), Luther insisted on the “distinction between original sin and the product of creation. The work of creation is something good and holy that God has created; for it comes from God, who bestows His blessing on it… Even among married people themselves, how manifold are the ways in which the weakness of the flesh manifests itself! All this stems, not from what was created or from the blessing, which is from God, but from sin and the curse, which is the outgrowth of sin. Therefore they must be kept separate from God’s creation, which is good; and we see that the Holy Spirit has no misgivings about speaking of it… referring to the copulation or sexual union of husband and wife…” (LW 1:237-9).

[10] Thus, in political life, “disorder” is not the same idea as “sinful.” Disorder is more like disease than moral evil. Paul teaches in Roman 1:18ff that the refusal to acknowledge God as God is the root sin, while the disorder of homophile desire is one reflection among many of this universal human idolatry. The idea is that sexual desire is disordered on the primal level of the human body in its heterosexual form by refusing the sexual other whom God would give, frustrating in the process the procreative and nurturing purpose of God in the institution of marriage. In refusing the sexual other, homosexual love turns away from the kind of union from which the Creator draws and rears new life. In this concrete way, God is refused as God, who is the One who so joins together from the beginning. In turning away from union with the sexual other, and the prospect of children as the fruit of love, homosexual love is consequently burdened with an inherent tendency to sexual self-gratification that by contrast is sublimated in the mature love of the heterosexual couple for their children and grandchildren.

[11] Note well: a similar critique could be made of contemporary forms of heterosexuality which have replaced Christian marriage with narcissistic relationships of convenience and consumption which violate the covenant of the generations. Equally, however, the disordered love of homosexuality, like any other disorder, can be mitigated and managed with grace and charity. But to achieve that limited healing in this life which would be analogous to Christian marriage, the inherent defect must be squarely and truthfully faced. Thus the notion of disorder is critically important, not least of all because it requires us to come to terms with -in this ideologically charged atmosphere of conflicting scientific claims– the disturbing positive correlation between much adult homosexual identity and childhood experience of sexual abuse or emotional neglect by parents or other significant elders. In eagerness to stand with a vulnerable sexual minority, the church dare not overlook the very real possibility that the psychogenesis of much homosexuality lies in the vicious sins of sexual predation upon children or more subtle sins of emotional manipulation of children by elders.

Pastoral Care
[12] All of this, both the spiritual and political dimensions, is pastorally relevant, even as the chief question under discussion here is how the church speaks pastorally with adult Christians who know very well the disorder within and without that attends their homosexual orientation and are seeking a form of healing in analogy to Christian marriage. It is and forever will be hard to be homosexual; even harder to be a Christian in this circumstance. Yet pastorally the mercy of Christ embraces all who are troubled, broken, and defective and it suffices for carrying the cross and following him – if indeed, that is what we seek.

[13] It might be objected that the burden of this complex judgment is unbearable for gay and lesbian partners, who are asked to consider their love, not sinful, but abidingly defective. Yet from the law-gospel perspective, this is– to speak with necessary clarity in our situation– a childish objection. All Christians are continually asked in many different respects to acknowledge in concrete ways how they defect from God’s purpose. We may, however, agree with the objection in this precise respect: apart from living faith in the merciful Christ and hope in our final healing through him, the burden of God’s judgment is always unbearable. But the solution to that is pastoral care that mediates the merciful Christ for the consolation of troubled consciences.

[14] I conclude, therefore, that in case by case pastoral determination on the foregoing basis, that pastors and congregations of the Church of the Augsburg Confession may in Christian freedom recognize and support same-sex unions, just as they recognize and support remarriage of the divorced, since repentance and faith in this life do not achieve the perfection of sin eliminated, but only of sin forgiven and controlled. The final healing is eschatological.

A Codicil
[15] This proposal makes conservative Lutherans nervous that, in the utter absence of ecclesial discipline and confessional fidelity that has characterized the ELCA since its inception, it will be embraced as little more than a Trojan Horse by the forces seeking the eventual blessing homosexuality as such in the name of God. Let me therefore add this codicil to my proposal: uncritical blessing of same sex unions is a church dividing issue. The foregoing case for critical recognition of same sex unions among confessing Christians is as far as those can bend who hold to the Reformation confession of the authority of canonical Scripture’s witness to Jesus Christ as redeemer of the creation. To go further and “bless” in the name of God such relationships as if they represented the proper will of God for his creature is unavoidably church-dividing – for we would then inescapably be invoking different Gods in pronouncing contradictory blessings. That exactly is what would divide the church, since we would then be unable to do together what is essential to what we do as the body of Christ: call upon God and act in his name.

Paul R. Hinlicky

Paul R. Hinlicky is the Tise Professor of Lutheran Studies at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia.