Sex and “Church”

[1] We now know the recommendations of the task force for ELCA Studies on Sexuality: Retain “Vision and Expectations,” but enforce it using “pastoral discretion.” This presents a problem: What criteria should we use to adjudicate enforcement? It would be decidedly un-Lutheran (“enthusiastic”) to locate such discretion in the immediate activity of the Holy Spirit. But in the absence of clear criteria, how can we avoid caprice?

[2] As we ponder what happens next for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), we should reflect upon the process. How did the ELCA get here? What assumptions about the nature of church have been at work?

[3] Since its inception the ELCA has attempted to amalgamate two strikingly different images about the nature of itself as “church.” The ontological approach understands the ELCA as itself a “thing,” a real, ecclesiastical entity having being beyond and through its congregations; the functional view supposes it to be a transcongregational set of administrative functions and relations defined upon the set of its existing congregations. I believe that the recommendations of the Task Force clearly favor the former understanding over the latter.

[4] According to its constitution, the “church” known as the ELCA exists in three expressions: churchwide, synodical, and congregational. This structure clearly privileges an ontological understanding of church as an organic visible institution that is church in and through its various activities, e.g., theological reflection, missional outreach, and social/political activism. On this ontological understanding, the task force’s charge was clearly to recommend (as church, on behalf of the church, and to the church) a policy and theological rationale that, if adopted at the Churchwide Assembly, would become the policy and teaching of the “church.”

[5] The ELCA establishes social teaching in a very different manner than the Roman Catholic Church does. The visible, organic Roman Catholic Church has historically been clear about its ontology. It has assumed that it itself is an entity with teachings that cannot be left to popular vote. Because nonexperts lack the requisite background and skills to adjudicate issues theologically, they cannot speak for the church. (Physics is not done by popular vote.)

[6] The ELCA structure, on the other hand, because of its ontological ambiguity, allows a vote of 1,000 of its members at Churchwide Assembly to overturn an understanding of sexual impropriety traditionally assumed to be grounded in Scripture and moral theology. Accordingly, the ELCA institutional structure permits the “church” to witness to, and teach views antithetical to those that might deeply bind, upon Scriptural and confessional grounds, a sizeable number (majority?) of its members

[7] What, however, is the being of “church” that allows the ELCA to adopt and hold views not consonant with its members? Where comes the authority for changing traditional teachings on human sexuality if that authority is neither grounded in canonical moral teaching (not an option for Lutherans), nor Scripture and confession (it’s unclear that they allow for change), nor a democratic vote of all ELCA members (it’s unclear that the majority favors change)?

[8] In contrast to the ontological construal, the functional understanding of the institutional church assumes that the church is principally “an association of faith and Holy Spirit in the hearts of persons” (Apology, Art. VII). Accordingly, since this hidden church is exhibited most clearly around Word and Sacrament, the congregation has ecclesiastical priority. Synodical and Churchwide assemblies exist to coordinate missional activities of congregations, to speak on behalf of congregations, and to facilitate the calling of pastors by congregations. On this understanding, neither the task force is “church,” nor the institution that votes upon its recommendations. While democratic vote can rightfully establish the parameters and practices of transcongregational functionality, it cannot establish what the church qua church believes, teaches, and confesses.

[9] Confusion about the ontology of church clouds the ELCA understanding of the status of the Task Force recommendations and the use to which they are put. Is the Task Force report in any way normative on issues of faith and practice? While not normative from the functional perspective, the report seemingly acquires normativity on the ontological view, for the “church” did commission it and shall receive it. Accordingly, the report is not regarded simply as a collection of reasoned opinions of select Lutherans, but rather as having presumptive theological integrity as a document of the church.

[10] It is illuminating to compare the task force report to the last major divisive issue in the ELCA: the adoption of the historic episcopate. The ontologists could not brook the possibility of any “pastoral discretion” in enforcing CCM, for to do so would repudiate their fundamental ecclesiological assumptions. On the other hand, the functionalists realized that mandated, institutionalized practice of the historic episcopate was incompatible with their deepest suppositions about the nature of church. The continuing controversy about the historic episcopate remains, at its most profound level, a conflict about what the church ultimately is.[1]

[11] Given the release of the Task Force recommendations, it is appropriate to ask how the conflict in the “church” this might produce can be mitigated. Has the task force any plan for this? But this question presupposes a prior one: Should the conflict be mitigated?

[12] On an ontological understanding of church, unity is all-important, for without unity there is no visible, organic unity, and thus no church. Accordingly, the first recommendation of the task force report incorporates a plea to stay together. ELCA bishops shall probably be dispatched to quell rancor in the ranks, and pastoral ways shall be sought to keep dissidents in the fold.

[13] On a functional understanding, however, such action is not necessary. Because the transcongregational institution is not a thing, but rather a set of functions aiding congregations in getting the gospel preached in its purity and the sacrament rightly administered, the institution can be changed when a situation arises where its mission is clouded, made ambiguous, or downplayed. While sentimentality attaches to historic associations of congregations, such associations are not “church.” Clearly, institutional association among congregations neither creates nor destroys the church. Should open conflict arise among members, the proper thing for the functionalist to do is to teach plainly that the national church is not the church, that the synod is not the church, and that the only meaningful church-division is local, that is, at the congregational level.

[14] We have discussed two different understandings of church. The ontological notion is essentially conservative; it goes back to the beginning of Christianity and flourished during the era of monarchy. It is wholly compatible with the breathtakingly conservative notion of the historic episcopate, and it can provide the requisite ontological footing for new moral and social teachings.

[15] The functional notion is more liberal; it gained ascendancy during the Reformation and it is decidedly consonant with modern democratic institutions. It is incompatible with the theology of the historic episcopate and consistent with traditional moral and social teaching. (Since the functional view never ontologized “church” into becoming a source or norm for theological reflection, the sources and norms for moral and social teaching remain outside it in Scripture and its confession.)

[16] While I cannot argue it here, I believe that the conservative, ontological view of church fits best within a context of a theology of glory, while the liberal, functional view drives toward a theology of the cross. Only an understanding of church that makes of itself an important thing could presume to reverse in practice historical teachings on human sexuality, teachings that most of its church members believe are normed by Scripture.

[1] The ontological understanding of church prevails on both issues. While the ontologists can tolerate no pastoral discretion on CCM without undermining their notion of church, they must allow pastoral discretion on the sexuality issue to preserve the “unity” entailed by that same notion of church.

Dennis Bielfeldt

Dennis Bielfeldt is Professor of Philosophy and Vice President of Academic Affairs at the Institute of Lutheran Theology.