Yet Another Chance to Be Lutheran

[1] One can only extend a grateful hand and a word of appreciation to the Task Force for Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Studies on Sexuality. Its assignment was daunting, not to say volatile, and its work exacted long hours. Yet despite the most conscientious efforts, the Task Force did not reach consensus on the issues. Nor will its recommendations satisfy ELCA constituencies. If they satisfy at all, they will satisfy only begrudgingly, attended by disquiet and dissatisfaction on every hand.

[2] The Task Force’s work has been inordinately difficult precisely because it isn’t about sexuality, at least not simply and solely. How does our sexual behavior “heal and enlarge the lives of others?” (Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury) How does our sexuality reflect the image of God in us by desiring the joy of the one we desire? How do we fight the disordered sexuality rampant in our society-the billion dollar pornography business, the sexualization of mainline advertising and the media (sex sells!), voyeurism, spouse abuse, clergy misconduct, adultery, pedophilia, promiscuity, “hooking up” for casual sex? How do we honor the mystery and sacredness of our nature as sexual beings in a society that nurtures neither?

[3] These were not the Task Force’s questions. Nor was another set, around committed love and right relationship in sexual partnerships. How do we foster the normative setting of Christian marriage “as the creation of a monogamous community where individuality and mutuality are linked together across time and space with the intention of permanence?” (Jack Stotts) And how do we defend this union against real threats to it: poverty; partners who must work two fulltime jobs, with too little time for one another and any children in the home; a consumerist culture that prizes materialism over sanctity, solitude, and mystery, even in close personal relationships; manipulative and non-mutual patterns of relationships; and insufficient community, so that all the charged electricity of human relationships runs on too few circuits, erupting now and again in domestic violence, or quietly settling into depression, or inching step-by-step into drug and alcohol addiction? How, in short, do we reform social realities that deeply affect intimate interpersonal well-being?

[4] None of these questions do what the Task Force was mandated to do: abstract and isolate same-sex love from its reality as a sub-set of human sexual expression. Nor were any of these questions the questions of the Task Force this time, though they may well belong to its comprehensive report scheduled for the 2007 Churchwide Assembly. Their work this time was to wade into other deep waters, troubled waters that issues of church sex always head into.

[5] Such troubling issues may not be immediately identified with sexuality, however. So it may be helpful, even before reading the Task Force Report, to recognize that since the 2nd century after Jesus, church discussions of sexuality have always been about two matters: church order and authority, and social order and authority. Inevitably this makes a mysterious subject-our sexuality-a highly contested one.

[6] It is certainly no different this time. Sexual expression, whether “hetero” or “homo,” is not about the privacy and free choice of individuals, even in a culture that prizes these. It is about social order and its moral boundaries. What’s in and what’s out, as marked by what behavior? Who belongs to the norm, and who is “other” in ways that violate the norm? What do the culture’s purity codes deem acceptable and what do they deem “dirty” and beyond the pale? Answers to such questions, whether the questions are as open as day or carefully couched, lurk in the background and sit deep in the psyche. We ought not be surprised, then, at the irony of citizens who prize individual choice and responsibility, and who complain about the intrusive role of the federal government into their lives, campaigning for nothing less than a constitutional amendment defining marriage as only and forever heterosexual, by law. Profound concerns about social and moral order are at work here. And they are unrelentingly, unforgivingly, public.

[7] ELCA sexuality debates, too, are the culture-and-morality wars in choir robes and clergy collars. That does not make them insignificant, of course, and certainly not insincere! Nor does it mean they don’t have their own distinctive character and importance as vital church issues. Contested social order issues invariably become critical church authority issues as well.

[8] Take questions of ordination, celebrating the sacraments, performing marriages and blessing unions. Take even ascending the pulpit and teaching confirmation. These sound quintessentially churchy. But dare women do such things? Not in most Lutheran Churches until recently, and not in the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod today. And-this is the point-not apart from society’s re-negotiation of long-standing mores and mandates about men’s and women’s roles. Dare priests break the centuries-old vow of celibacy and marry? Absolutely not, at least not until the Reformation. And not then, either, in the majority church. And even when Luther’s protest against celibacy and his case for the goodness of God’s gift of sexuality took hold in some quarters, it was not because these electric arguments turned solely on the free, conscientious practice of committed Christian individuals in love. They were about society’s mores, expectations, and laws and church mores, expectations, and laws. Dare baptized Christians who were slaves sit in the same pews with baptized Christians who were slaveholders? No, not until long, sometimes deadly, struggles over slavery and the social order had taken place-and taken lives. Thus are social order issues and their negotiation-slavery, the place and role of women and men, and sexual conduct-church order issues as well, with visceral responses and unsettling consequences part of the public exchange. Not least, re-readings of Scripture, critical reassessment of traditions, and renewed examination of conscience were also part of the charged exchange.

[9] Now the Task Force has entered these thickets. One can only be grateful that they have taken on with integrity, care, and transparency what we all must deliberate as the body politic of Christ.

[10] Their basic recommendation is “keep talking, and do so in the spirit and manner we have as a Task Force.” The overriding concern here is clear. It is church unity, and its translation is the following. Wherever you stand and whomever you stand with, find a way to keep the passionately contested issues of same-sex unions and the ordination of “practicing” homosexual persons from becoming church-dividing issues. Find a way for ELCA members to minister together despite deep disagreements over church order. Find a way for a church of divided mind to remain intact, even though conscience-bound convictions will be compromised. Keep talking, and stay together as the ELCA.

[11] “For the sake of peace” is the phrase that captures all this best. It is only used once in the report, by my count, bringing to a close the sentence about both meting out and receiving church disciplinary actions against those who, in good conscience, cannot accept present ELCA restrictions. “If discipline results in the face of conscience-bound disobedience, it should be carried out graciously and with humility and accepted in the same spirit for the sake of peace.” While that sentence is from a dissenting opinion, and not the Task Force’s recommendations, “For the Sake of Peace” nonetheless might have titled the whole document, and titled it well. It is the goal of “the pastoral approach” and “pastoral care” the Task Force commends repeatedly as the heart and soul of its advice.

[12] But there are problems. If peace is attained, it, and not only consciences, will be seriously compromised.

[13] Not least, a serious contradiction rests at the center of the report. See, for example, one of the bolded lines: “We are and remain a welcoming church in which all are invited to participate fully in the life of our congregations.”

[14] Because it listened with great respect and care to all persons and points of view, the Task Force is clear that “a welcoming church” means many things, some incompatible one others. “Some congregations and pastors accept gay and lesbian people without judgment, entrust them with leadership roles, and will bless their relationships with congregational support. Other congregations and pastors are accepting in the spirit of the gospel but not with total approval. Still others are welcoming in terms of pastoral care for these sinners who are encouraged to repent, mend their ways, and urged, in some cases, to seek reparative therapy.”

[15] The key term in that bolded sentence is not “welcoming,” however. It is “to participate fully.” ELCA identity and ministry centers in “the life-giving and healing power of Word and Sacrament,” as the report says. Word and Sacrament in turn mean the presence of an ordained ministry set-apart in acts of high liturgical drama that come only at the end of a long education and considerable scrutiny. Only clergy may consecrate the bread and wine, and baptize, under normal circumstances. They also mount the pulpit to proclaim the Word and stand front-and-center before the altar to perform marriages. The full “life of our congregations” does not, and indeed cannot, exist without this ordained leadership.

[16] The point is that when baptized Christians answering the call of God to ministry of Word and Sacrament are categorically excluded (on the basis of gender, for example), it cannot be said that members of this category (women) are being graciously invited to “participate fully in the life of our congregations.” “To participate fully” must of needs include the possibility of answering the Holy Spirit’s call to Word and Sacrament ministry.

[17] Let’s put it in the form of a question: if baptized Christians in good standing and answering the call of God are categorically prohibited from Word and Sacrament ministries because they are gay or lesbian Lutherans, what can it possibly mean to say that they “are invited to participate fully in the life of our congregations”? They are not, and the Task Force should say so. Full participation not in the picture here, given a church identity centered in Word and Sacrament. What is more, the exclusion is somewhere near that Word and Sacrament center, as women who fought for ordination in Lutheran churches know. Indeed, until full participation includes the possibility of answering God’s call to ordained ministry, is ours even “a welcoming church?” Is it truly a welcoming church if it only begrudgingly makes space for baptized gay and lesbian Christian leadership, as exceptions to the “real” (heterosexual) norm? Not least, is ours “a welcoming church” if the exception provided for ordination is a requirement that gay and lesbian Lutherans commit to celibacy, with no provision allowed them for a committed partnership in marriage (the only acceptable context for healthy sexuality and family life, according to ELCA standards themselves)? The Task Force should be God-honest about all this. It should say that regretfully, and for the sake of peace, it must stand by the official policy of discrimination of the ELCA. It should say that, at least for the time being, “for the sake of peace” trumps “for the sake of justice” and they do not kiss.

[18] The most serious compromise in the efforts “for the sake of peace,” however, is the absence of the spirit and courage of a church of the Reformation. Ecclesia reformata semper reformanda – “the reformed church ever in need of reformation” – is not the strong sense of this ELCA effort, at least not in any apparent way. The report is cautious rather than emboldened in the manner of Luther, who was utterly expectant that the living, active Word of God that suffuses all creation can and might bring us all to a new place as a church ever in need of reform.

[19] The great theme of the Reformation is the bold, serving freedom of forgiven and forgiving sinners. The key line from Galatians, Luther’s favorite letter, is: “for freedom Christ has set us free.” (5:1; 5:13) This Pauline summation of the gospel of Christ and the Christian life itself stands behind Luther’s own famous line that we quote so often as a matter of humor only: “Sin boldly, but believe in Christ-and rejoice-more boldly still!” Every phrase of that sentence can be parsed as quintessential reforming-church-in-need-of-reform. Yet the daring, the venturesomeness, and the creativity that mark this joyful dynamic of Reformation freedom seem hedged about on every side in the Task Force report. Where is the spirit of the “protest-ants” who urged believers to reread the Scriptures and tradition through different lenses and write new confessions that protesting Christians would stake their lives on? Where is the spirit that encouraged clergy to leave behind some of the vows of their ordination (celibacy, in this case), scholars to render the Scriptures such that the simplest reader might discover the renewing power of the Word, and the laity to take responsibility for their lives, rituals, neighbors, theology, and conscience? Where is Luther’s free, even playful, rendering of biblical texts or the radical revisioning of his favorite theologian, Paul? Where is Paul’s transgression of cherished traditions in the name of a God who, in Jesus Christ, is doing a new thing? “Circumcision is nothing; uncircumcision is nothing; the only thing that counts is new creation!” (Gal. 6:15)

[20] Surely some of this spirit is present in the Task Force’s basic recommendation: “keep talking, together.” Yet, it is “keep talking” in the service of church unity above all. ELCA unity is the controlling value, perhaps even the absolute value, in that all considerations on all sides must be subordinate to this one. It is this, rather than “keep talking” as the way the Holy Spirit might lead us to a place we’ve never been before, via metanoia (knowing and seeing differently, that we might live differently. Ro. 12:2). It is “keep talking” as the way to respect and understand one another better, in a common communion. But it is not “keep talking,” and it is not pastoral care,” as the great venture of striving together, under bold leadership, for a church “as just and generous as God’s grace.” (Covenant Network)

[21] A reforming church in need of reform will not have the same tasks in its time and place as Luther did, to be sure. (Luther said exactly that about his own time and place, in contrast with others.) Nor will it face the same issues and contemplate the same answers. Luther did not have to ask, as we do, whether gay and lesbian sexual orientation is creation that is not inherently good but instead inherently sinful. Science today, and many conventional assumptions, don’t tally in the same way Luther’s assumptions and science did, or Paul’s. Yet Reformation was and is a dynamic more than a deposit, though it is both. Its manner of theology was in keeping with Joseph Sittler’s: “By theology we mean not only a having but a doing – not only an accumulated tradition, but a present task which must be done on the playing field of each generation in actual life.” (Sittler, 65) Thus the lead question for a Reformation church is this one: what is the Gospel and the Law for this present age? Or, in Bonhoeffer’s version, “who is Jesus Christ for us today?” Our specific questions thus become these. What recommendations before the Assemblies of 2005 and 2007 push Jesus Christ to the fore among us, in ways that make his radical challenges clear to us? What helps create, in and for this time and place, an ELCA as just and generous as God’s grace? Where do justification by grace and justice intersect, to reform a Reformation church?

[22] The Reformers were bold in their reading of Scripture. They were confident that the ancient texts might give yet more light when a receptive community reads them afresh in light of a changed and changing world. Scripture as the Word of God might be read and re-read so that the ways past Christian practice and past interpretation of Scripture obscured, distorted or undermined the good news of God’s love for all might themselves be exposed and another way made available. (Moe-Lobeda, 167.) The new power, even a new Word, was the faithful community’s experience. (This sometimes came by reading the Bible against itself, including Paul against Paul, in light of the spirit, the way, and the continuing presence of Jesus Christ.)

[23] Not that this has been Reformation experience and confidence alone. Believers at other times have also heard a new Word and experienced new power. Recall the social order/church order issues above. Here, too, a new interpretation of Scripture and tradition, even a newly-formed conscience, was needed and discovered.

[24] When slavery, for example, was no longer securely a part of the social, moral and legal order, an interpretation of Scripture and tradition different from the Bible’s steady support of slavery and eighteen centuries of practice of it among Christians had to be confronted and wrestled to the ground. A non-slaving Gospel had to work its way in church and society, and did.

[25] If women, to cite a second example, are no longer legally, morally, and socially the property of male-headed households, but are co-equal with men, and if they, too, might be called as clergy in full standing in a welcoming church, an interpretation of Scripture and tradition different from the Bible’s assumptions about women (and family), together with Christian tradition’s dominant practices in most every land, had to be wrested from these same, solid sources. A non-discriminating Gospel respectful of gender equality had find its way among people of faith and be proclaimed.

[26] So, too, cases of divorce, or cases of same-sex unions and the ordination of “practicing” gay and lesbian Christians as clergy in good standing, fully participating in the life of their congregations. Neither the Bible nor tradition in its dominant streams of interpretation and practice support any of these. Some other rendering of the Good News message of both Scripture and dominant practice must be grappled with “for us today,” if baptized Christians who are divorced, or who are gay or lesbian, are to celebrate the sacraments. Or be blessed in their own marriages (even sometimes, remarriages). Or have their own consciences released from tragic conflicts (Do I, as a person in a committed love relationship, answer the Holy Spirit’s call to ministry or do I abide by ELCA Visions and Expectations? Do I seek out a truly welcoming church elsewhere or do I remain as “other” and “exception” in this one?).

[27] In sum, the Task Force recognizes full well that ELCA divisions go very deep. This church embodies and expresses the deep divisions in society. At the same time, the Task Force recognizes that, because we are church, we must deliberate same-sex unions and the ordination of baptized gay and lesbian Christians biblically, theologically, and with a view to Christian conscience, just as other church forums at other times had to deliberate slavery, the ordination of women, and divorce with a view to these same moral authorities. (Incidentally, it bears remembering that the first two of these-slavery and women’s ordination-were literally church-dividing. So was apartheid. And so was the Reformation itself; that’s the reason we’re here as Lutherans.) In the end the Task Force delivered a careful, good faith set of recommendations “for the sake of peace.” And that may even turn out to be the next right step, assuming church unity and current church order as the proper controlling value.

[28] But the Task Force missed yet another chance to be Lutheran. Not Lutheran as ELCA culture-the Task Force has faithfully reflected ELCA Lutheranism as a culture, and treated it respectfully and judiciously; but Lutheran as a Spirit-braced reform movement in and for the church catholic, a movement taking on the hard issues with the joy, humility, and bold freedom of forgiven and forgiving sinners. A reforming church in need of reform thus remains missing in action, and we are once again saddled with Bonhoeffer’s despondent question: “Must it be that Christendom, which began so revolutionary, is now conservative for all time? That every new movement must break ground without the Church, that the Church always comprehends twenty years later what has actually happened?” (Bonhoeffer, 446.) Regrettably, another chance to be Lutheran must wait upon another time. 2007?

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 11: 446.
Moe-Lobeda, Cynthia D. Healing in a Broken World: Globalization and God, 167.
Sittler, Joseph. Gravity and Grace: Reflections and Provocations, 65.
Stotts, Jack, in The Covenant Connection: A Newsletter of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians.

Larry Rasmussen

Larry Rasmussen is ​Reinhold Niebuhr Professor Emeritus of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary, New York City