Living Theology inthe Metropolitan ChicagoSynod
Volume 9, Number 1
The Vocation of the Laity
Why the ELCAShould Uphold Traditional Christian Sexual Ethics
Usually I start a lecture by telling the audience how happy Iam to be there. This time I cannot saythat. I am unhappy about having to makethis lecture. I would prefer to lecture onthe Christian life as it is depicted in the new edition of my book OrdinarySaints, but when I got to the chapter on marriage and family life, thistopic would come up. It would even besafer to lecture about Christian higher education, which I talk about a lotmore than I talk about this subject. AndI enjoy that immensely because I think most Christians of good will want tokeep our colleges Christian in some sort of meaningful way. Unfortunately, that is not our topic.
I am unhappy because I have to argue for teachings that Ithought were stable and settled, since they have been accepted throughoutChristian history by 99% of the world’s churches. I would much prefer to live in a religiouscommunion that is not contemplating voting down moral teachings of suchduration and universality in a week-long Churchwideassembly, where 40% of the assembly will be at their first assembly. I believe it is highly improper to subjectcore doctrine to democratic vote.
I am even more unhappy because avote to revise these teachings will place many of us in different churchesafter 2005. We will no longer be incommunion with one another, or, if we still are, it will be a vastly differentkind of relationship. Friends of longduration will be separated by a big divide.
But the fact of the matter is that the issue has been raisedpowerfully by many persons within the ELCA. What has been presumed must now be argued, no matter how painful thatmight be. And since so many are fearfulof arguing for traditional Christian moral teachings (it is a bizarre fact thatthose standing for the tradition feel intimidated in various ways!!), someonehas to. And for this time and place, itis I.
I want to place my argument in two contexts that are veryimportant for me. The first is that Ibelieve the move to capitulate on important Christian moral teachings is a signof further accommodation to a culture that has few moral restraints, one thatis very close to license. Anything goesbetween consenting adults, particularly if the activities are keptprivate. The liberal Protestant churchesare following this trend, refusing to stand up for a more challenging and loftysexual ethic. Those churches are indecline because they offer little that people can’t get from the culture. They have lost interest in and zeal for theGospel and are far more interested in the social and political convictions ofthe secular elite. They are squishy ondoctrine and personal ethics; dogmatic on political and social issues. They send fewer missionaries abroad and startfewer churches at home. They cannot holdtheir youth, and they have fewer of them.
I fear that the ELCA is being drawn into this liberalProtestant drift. In many ways, theproposals to morally legitimate homosexual behavior are the last straw for manypeople, myself included, who view these proposals as a headlong rush toward theEpiscopalians, Unitarians, Reformed Jews, and the United Church of Christ, allof whom have accepted the homosexual agenda. They are the most accommodated, and therefore generally declining,religious groups. I am deeply saddenedthat a Lutheran confessional church would even consider following such atrajectory.
The issue of liberal Protestant drift leads to the secondcontext for my remarks, which is the general laxity in teaching and practiceconcerning heterosexual morality in our own church. It is a legitimate point that gays andlesbian make when they point out that we have accepted and accommodated to all sortsof heterosexual shenanigans but now want to draw the line at homosexualbehavior. I share their indignation butcome to quite different conclusions. Iwas shocked when we had our first divorced bishop, which I do not think shouldbe allowed. I am shocked when pastorsdivorce and do not miss a Sunday in the pulpit. I am irked when we fail to teach that “true love waits” and when weaccept cohabitation as easily as the secular society around us. Our accommodation to culture gives our peoplelittle of a wholesome and challenging alternative. If we are to hold the line with gays andlesbians, we also are obligated to teach a more demanding sexual morality foreveryone. But I fear that we do not havethe courage to do that, and therefore we will have few grounds for resistingthe homosexual agenda.
We need a renewed commitment to the grand teachings ofChristianity on these matters, beginning with a retrieval of our doctrine ofmarriage, around which all Christian sexual ethics revolve.
I cannot go into a comprehensive account of Christianmarriage as I have done in Chapter Seven of Ordinary Saints. But I must make some summary statements.
In the creation account God makes man and woman in hisimage. They are two complementary partsof God’s image. They fit togetherphysically, biologically, emotionally, and spiritually. To overcome their loneliness and to providethe continuation of the species, they are given the primal covenant ofmarriage. In marriage a man and womanare regarded as a single organism, “one flesh.” Sexual relations are reservedfor that covenant. As C.S. Lewisremarked, the Christian rule is simple: “Either marriage, with completefaithfulness to your spouse, or else total abstinence.”
There is a prescribed biological form that underlies theChristian notion of marriage. A womanand a man are to become one flesh in marriage. Quite frankly, such an arrangement is the way—and the onlyway—provided by the Creator for perpetuating the species, which is why it is soimportant. We are forbidden sexualrelations outside the marital bond and its biological form. The Old and New Testaments agree that we areforbidden sexual relations with those too close to us, incest, those toodifferent from us, bestiality, those for whom there is too great a gapin maturity, pedophilia, and for those too much like us,homosexuality. That sense of limits isdeeply embedded in the Bible and in Christian tradition.
Jesus strongly assumes and affirms this whole tradition whenhe speaks of marriage in Matthew 19: “Have you not read that he who made themfrom the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a manshall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shallbecome one flesh?’ What therefore God has joined together, let no man putasunder.”
Paul likens marriage love to Christ’s love for the church andGod’s love for Israel. In good marriages persons obtain perhaps themost consistent and sustained experience of unconditional love in this life,which will be completed and perfected in the life to come. This love also provides the best context forbegetting and nourishing children.
There is no trace of any material in the Bible or in thetradition that affirms homosexual relations as pleasing to God or as an equallyvalid alternative to heterosexual relations. All mention of homosexual behavior is negative, not like the many mixedreferences to slavery, women’s leadership in the Bible, and extending themission of the gospel from the Jews to the Gentiles. Furthermore, the normative structure of sexualrelations in the Bible is always heterosexual, an overwhelming and pervasiveassumption that is not challenged by anyone, including Jesus.
All this was accepted as the settled teaching of allChristian churches until recently. Fromwithin the churches themselves have arisenpersons—both homosexual and heterosexual—who believe the traditional teachingto be wrong, unloving, and unfair. Amongthat movement are biblical scholars and theologians who have challenged thesettled teachings that seem to come from the Bible. They have argued on a number of fronts that acommon sense reading of the Bible is not as compelling as people have thought. A major effort has been made to relativize the Bible’s teachings on these matters.
Further, they have argued, since the Bible does not say whatit seems to say, the whole Christian moral tradition has gotten it wrong. That tradition now needs revision to includeloving, committed homosexual behavior as morally acceptable. If that change can be made, the next step isto bless homosexual unions and ordain homosexuals in partnered relationships.
These arguments sparked quite a counterattack. After most of the dust has settled, it seemsclear that even the revisionists admit that one cannot change the moraltradition on the basis of the Bible or Christian tradition. One major player in the debate, George Hunsinger, a Reformed theologian at Princeton,says this in a series of theses entitled “There is a Third Way,” “The plain sense ofScripture regards homosexuality as sin. The efforts to deny this sense have failed (Scroggs,Boswell, Martin) and efforts to uphold it have succeeded (Hays, Wright,Gagnon)...or so it is reasonable to believe.”
Lutheran Paul Jersild, who also believesour moral teachings should be revised, said this in his paper entitled “OnHomosexuality: The Need for Reassessment”: “There is no question that the Bibleand Christian tradition have overwhelmingly if not uniformly understood asconveying a negative judgment of homosexuality. There is no point in trying to argue that Scripture does not in factdeliver a negative judgment on this subject.”
Walter Wink, a revisionist professor from Union Seminary in New York, in a verynasty review of Robert Gagnon’s book, The Bible and Homosexual Practice, saysthis: “Simply put, the Bible is negative toward same-sex behavior, and there isno getting around it.” (Christian Century June 5-12, 2002.) Gagnon drives revisionists crazy because hehas thought of every topic thinkable with regard to these issues, and haslengthy, scholarly responses to all who challenge his findings.
These concessions have been offered after revisionistbiblical scholars tried to argue that Paul did not know about consensualhomosexual sex (he did because there was much of it in the ancient world), thatancients did not know about a homosexual orientation (they did, but did notcall it by that name), that the Sodom texts were not about homosexual behaviorbut about inhospitality (they were about both inhospitality and homosexualrape), that the strictures about homosexual behavior are merely part ofholiness and purity requirements (they aren’t since Christians accepted themalong with the strictures on incest and bestiality. 89 of the 94 verses in Leviticus 18 are moralinjunctions that Christians accepted.)
Nor have the analogies to slavery, women’s status in thechurch, or the extension of the gospel to the Gentiles helped in the efforts tolegitimate homosexual behavior. In allthose cases there are already in the biblical materials themselves sources forrevision. The Bible testifies againstitself. When Paul tells Philemon that heshould treat Onesimus as a Christian brother, slaveryis undermined. When many women are namedas leaders in early Christian communities, exclusively male leadership issusceptible to challenge. When Jesusheals the child of the Samaritan woman and makes the Samaritan the hero in oneof his most famous parables, the exclusion of Gentiles from the gospel of Jesusis undercut. But where is there anyevidence of such contrary testimony with regard to homosexuality?
So the question is about the authority of the Bible. We cannot interpret this negativityaway. It is not about hermeneutics orabout how Lutherans interpret the Bible. We can revise our teachings but the new teachings will be against thebiblical witness, not merely a reinterpretation of that witness.
Moreover, hardly anyone argues that Christian moral traditionis a resource for change. As I saidbefore, there seems to be unanimity there. So what is left for those who want to go against the testimony ofscripture and tradition? It seems thatall want to appeal to our oneness in Christ, our compassion, our commitment to inclusivity, our sense of fairness. I am certainly moved by those appeals but amcompelled in another direction by the combined witness of the Bible andChristian tradition, including the Lutheran heritage.
Let it be clear that the gospel is addressed to all persons,including homosexuals. We are allrecipients of the grace of God in Christ. Before God no one can stand on his or her own, and before God all areexalted in Christ if they believe in his promises. That is the gospel. But the gospel makes no sense without the Lawthat articulates the commands of God, which are the source of both ourrepentance and our discipleship. Godaccepts us not because of who we are and how we behave, but in spite of who we are and how we behave. But we who receive the gospel are to live livesof obedient love, a love ordered by the commandments of God. And the commandments of God, as I have shownabove, simply do not leave much wiggle-room as far as the normative teaching ofthe church goes. Pastoral matters, as Ishall deal with presently, are another matter.
Thearguments I have made above for supporting traditional teachings on sexualmorality are theological and biblical in nature. These are the most important arguments, becausewe must build our case for stability or change on the basis of biblical andtheological arguments. However, thereare many more practical arguments that need to be noted. I will elaborate five of them. I will end with a combined argument of biblical/theologicaland practical reasons that I believe is conclusive.
First, we will split the church if we decide to blesshomosexual unions and ordain homosexuals in partnered relationships. A large number of congregations willleave. (In the ELCA each congregationowns its property and can leave the ELCA. Only when it disbands does the property go to the Synod or theELCA. This is quite different than thesituation with Episcopal parishes, which revert to the diocese if thecongregation chooses to leave the Episcopal Church. And even with that provision, theEpiscopalians are experiencing a firestorm, and thatin a church that is far less respectful of the Bible and theology than theLutheran.) Perhaps more ELCAcongregations will simply withdraw support. They will treat the ELCA and its Synods as one other association towhich they have to pay token dues, but not the church. Conservative synods may bolt in toto. It is hardto imagine what will happen.
Many intense Lutherans will press their churches to leave,or, failing that, find other churches that maintain biblical and traditionalteachings. Research indicates that themost intense Lutherans are conservative on these issues and give the most tothe church. Their loss will be verydamaging.
Pastors will be put in the painful position of wonderingwhether they can stay in the ELCA. Somehave already left. Others vow they will. Many others will be pressed todecide.
Thingswill really get dicey when the church begins to teach children in SundaySchools throughout the land that homosexual relations are equivalent toheterosexual. Laypersons may welltolerate a good deal of slack in adult behavior, but when it comes to teachingtheir children it will be entirely another matter. Young people have enough difficulty finding asolid sexual identity without the church giving confusing messages.
Second, we will distance ourselves from the great ecumenicalconsensus on these matters held by Catholics, Orthodox, evangelicals, and evenmost mainstream Protestant denominations. We will join declining religious groups who have had a sorry record ofdoctrinal and ethical laxity. TheEpiscopalians could not bring themselves to chastise the heretical Bishop John Spong but have brought themselves to ordain a gayBishop. So much fortrusting overmuch in bishops. Ifwe really want to be like them, let’s bless gay unions and ordain partneredhomosexuals. As for me, movement towardthem and away from the orthodox bodies would be appalling.
Third, we will continue to contribute to the generalundermining of the Christian vision of marriage, as wealready have done in a massive fashion. The church’s acceptance of the society’s approach to “no-fault” divorcehas done its nefarious work. It will notbe possible to hold the distinction between “blessing” and “marrying”homosexuals in the church, just as heterosexuals have blurred the line betweencohabitation and marriage. Blessing gayunions will also tend to qualify the requirement of sexual fidelity that guidesheterosexual marriage. A goodly share ofgay Christian men holds that requirement in contempt. Andrew Sullivan, the gay Catholic gadfly, forexample, argues that gays will help redefine marriage by making it moreopen. Both cohabitation and such blessingwill offer a number of different versions of being together; marriage will beone option among others in both church and society. An objective institution will be defined byindividual preference. So much for the Holy Estate.
Fourth, we cannot rely on the social or psychologicalsciences for conclusive evidence on any of these issues. Even the Kinsey claim that 10% of the malepopulation is gay turns out to be propaganda. But even responsible social scientists are badly divided on thesematters. As regards there being a “gaygene” or “gay brain,” which is cited by many activists to claim thathomosexuals were made the way they are, the scientist, Simon Levay, who originally proposed the idea, and who is himselfgay, says: “It is important to stress what I didn’t find. I did not prove that homosexuality isgenetic, or find a genetic cause for being gay. I didn’t show that gay men are born that way, the most common mistake madein interpreting my work. Nor did Ilocate a gay center in the brain.” (Discover 15:3, 4-7).
The origin of homosexuality is murky, but it seems clear thata certain portion of homosexuals can move toward heterosexuality if they arestrongly motivated. The scientist thatoriginally proposed that homosexuality be taken off the list of psychologicaldisorders by the American Psychiatric Association in the early 70s, RobertSpitzer, now argues that some homosexuals can change. Mert Strommen, our distinguished Lutheran social scientist, saysthat research indicates that homosexuals can be “healed” in the samepercentages as those with other problems—one third cannot change, one third canchange with continuing struggle, and one third can make a thorough revision oftheir orientation and behavior. But thisviewpoint has been strongly suppressed in the church. Exodus International, a Christian groupdedicated to the “healing” of homosexuals, was kicked off the premises of theMetropolitan DC Synod Assembly a few years back.
Whether science can ever prove the causes of homosexuality issomewhat beside the point from a theological perspective. From that perspective, homosexuality is“disordered and imperfect,” to use Catholic language. It is a symptom of the fallen creation, notGod’s intention, at least as it has been revealed in the Bible and the church’smoral tradition. Therefore, we ought togive as many as desire it a chance to move away from a way of life that, evenunder the best conditions, has negative effects on health and longevity.
Fifth, I believe that the blessing of homosexual unions andordaining partnered homosexuals will repel heterosexual men from the church andespecially from the ordained ministry. We can learn something from the great Catholicfiasco of recent years—the misbehavior of gay Catholic priests toward adolescentboys. Some Catholic seminaries evidentlytolerated a “culture of dissent” among their faculty and students. Priests broke their vows of obedience andcelibacy and engaged in sex among themselves but later also with adolescentboys, with disastrous effects. Heterosexual priests were often deterred and repelled from thepriesthood in those seminaries. Asimilar trajectory could happen in Lutheran seminaries, which already have adifficult time recruiting quality male candidates.
In summary, I believe it is clear that the Bible and thechurch’s tradition speak clearly on the issues before us. They voice strong moral disapproval ofhomosexual behavior. There are also manypractical reasons—-I have offered five of them—that should make us think twiceabout blessing homosexual unions and ordaining partnered homosexuals.
It seems to me the clinching argument is this: There must beoverwhelming arguments—biblically and confessionallybased—for the overturning of a moral teaching of such universality andduration. Even though we might wish itto be the case, the arguments put forth thus far are not overwhelming, to saythe least. We simply cannot change suchmoral teachings with the arguments and evidence that are currentlyavailable. Perhaps someday, but I thinknot.
While I think it would be unwise and wrong for the ELCA tochange its public teaching and policies on these issues, it is important to bepastorally as compassionate as possible. We all commit sins and rely upon the gracious tolerance of the church toinclude us. Such a policy of gracioustolerance should also be extended to the Christian homosexuals amongus. They indeed are our brothers andsisters, children, and friends.
As with all sin, though, forgiveness follows repentance and leadsto efforts to follow God’s Commandments. The church should continue to call those who are homosexual byorientation—whatever its provenance or duration—to a “heroic” response. That is, they should be called to practicesexual abstinence, sublimating their sexual energies into other pursuits. Heterosexual singles ought to be held to thesame standard. The church has longhonored such responses and should continue to do so. Indeed, such a “heroic” response ought to bethe only one for persons who want to be ordained in the ELCA.
It would be naïve to argue that this can be the church’s onlyresponse for lay Christians. In ourpresent culture, some lay Christians who are homosexual by orientation willengage in sexual relations with members of their own sex. Some will act promiscuously but others willseek more stable unions. Manyhomosexuals will remain “in the closet” and participate incognito in churchlife, but others will insist that the church formally recognize their sexualidentity and bless their unions. Gaysand lesbians of all sorts of persuasion are present in our churches, and thereseems to be widespread confusion about the church’s proper pastoral response tothis fact. Given the normative teachingoutlined above, what pastoral strategy toward homosexuals should be adopted bychurches and Christian individuals?
As mentioned above, I would propose a strategy of gracioustolerance. By “gracious”I mean that the church—both clergy and lay—should greet all persons coming intothe fellowship of the church with a warm welcome. After all, we are a company of forgivensinners. Many homosexuals who prefer tokeep their sexual identity private will accept this welcome and participatefully in the life of the church. Manywho are in partnered relationships may also wish to keep the sexual nature oftheir friendships hidden or unclear.
As long as such persons do not openly violate or flaunt thenormative teachings of the church, they should also be greeted and acceptedgraciously. The church can even affirmthe rich elements of friendship in their ongoing relationship, though not itssexual elements. The latter need not berevealed or probed. The church does notprobe others who do not live up to the moral ideals of the church. Kindliness, inclusion, and support would bethe order of the day in these cases, as it is for all the church’smembers. Repentance, forgiveness, andamendment of life should be left for homosexuals to work out privately, as isthe case for other persons who struggle with the moral demands of the Christianlife.
For those who are struggling with sexual identity in theirlives, “graciousness” would mean first of all an effort to help them sort outwho they are and who they wish to become. Though some homosexuals seem irretrievably caught in their same-sexdesires, many young people are simply confused about their sexualidentities. Some have been seduced byolder men. It is gracious in these casesto help them move toward heterosexual desires so that they can grow in thatdirection in their prospective sexual relationships. For those persons who have inclinationstoward same-sex desires but who want to move toward a heterosexual identity,various therapies may be helpful. Forboth these kinds of persons, it is particularly important that the publicteaching of the church affirm heterosexual norms.
For those who seem “fixed” in their orientation, it isconsistent with our argument above to counsel abstinence. Like other singles, homosexuals are called torefrain from sexual relations. In casesin which abstinence is not being observed, it is gracious privately andtentatively to encourage sexual fidelity within committed friendships. Such an arrangement is far better than thedangerous promiscuity practiced by a significant portion of the homosexualsubculture. From a Christian point ofview, it is the lesser of evils. Buttheir sexual relations are still disordered and imperfect, even though otherelements in their friendship are admirable. It is important continually to hold up the Christian ideal before suchhomosexual pairs. Perhaps in time theycan work toward celibate friendships. Perhaps some may wish to engage in reparative therapy. This gradual process assumes a strongpastoral commitment to such pairs. Without that the pastoral counsel will sound simply as judgmentalhectoring.
It would be disastrously wrong publicly to bless sucharrangements. It would send too manywrong messages to the church. To thosewho regard homosexual relations as sinful, it would signal that the churchblesses sin. To those who are strugglingwith their own sexual identity, it would put an imprimatur on desires andactivities they need to resist. Opposition to public blessing reminds us that there are limits to thechurch’s graciousness. Those limits haveto do with tolerance, the second word in our phrase, “gracious tolerance.”
Tolerance does not mean that anything goes, as our permissiveculture tends to view it. Tolerance,while it suggests a liberal and open-minded attitude toward persons whosebeliefs and actions are different from one’s own, also denotes forbearance andendurance. Tolerance, therefore, has itslimits. (A bridge, for example,tolerates a certain tonnage but no more.) We tolerate—that is, we forbear and endure—beliefs and actions thatdiverge from our own. However, ifcertain beliefs and actions violate our core convictions, we do not toleratethem. We oppose them and act againstthem. And properly so; personalintegrity and courage are at stake. Onthe other hand, our level of tolerance is more elastic with regards to beliefsand actions that go counter to our less central or peripheral values, such aspreferences, tastes, or opinions.
The church, like individuals, can tolerate all sorts of opinionsand practices that involve peripheral matters. It can allow a great deal of latitude on howChristians should apply Christian moral teachings to issues of publicpolicy. It can tolerate a number offorms of worship and preaching. It cantolerate sharp disagreements about practical matters that, while important, arenot essential to the core teaching and practices of the church. It can even tolerate many persons whosebehavior is out of line with its teaching. Indeed, it can—and must—-tolerate all of us sinners who fall short ofwhat the commandments of God demand. Ina sense we are all tolerated by the church.
However, the church is the Body of Christ and responsible formaintaining its apostolic witness. It isentrusted by its Lord with the gospel—the full-blown Trinitarian faith, as wellas with the central practices that follow from it. Certainly the commandments are included inits moral core. Therefore, direct,public challenges in word and deed to its core convictions and practices simplycannot be tolerated. Challengesto the tradition’s teaching on homosexuality are directed at that core.
This does not mean that those core convictions and practicescannot be discussed and debated. Theremust be a zone of freedom where persons can carry on spirited conversation oncentral issues that are puzzling or even offensive to them. The youth of the church must be allowed toask questions about those key issues. Such a zone should be provided in the educational program of thechurch. At regional and national levelsof the church there is room for such discussion. But the proliferation of opinions at thatlevel should not confuse or qualify the normative teaching of the church in itspreaching or catechesis. At the level ofnormative, official teaching and preaching, the church has a tradition toconvey clearly and confidently. Officialrepresentatives of the church are obligated to preserve and convey thattradition until it is officially changed, and on core issues, that change canonly come after decades of reflection, discussion, and prayer.
With regard to these sexuality issues, the churchcannot tolerate significant “cultures of dissent” that publicly impugn theteaching of the church by contrary teaching and behavior. Permissiveness toward such dissenters makesthe church appear hypocritical, ineffectual, or unwilling to hold dissentersaccountable to its moral teachings. Inrecent years it has led to crises of sexual misconduct in both Protestantismand Catholicism. Likewise, if it is tobe one church, it cannot tolerate public repudiation of its teachings byindividual congregations or synods. Norcan it tolerate a compromise in which both the traditional and the revisionistperspectives officially co-exist, for that means that the teaching of thechurch has indeed changed; there is no normative perspective on thesematters. The one church must maintainits unified, normative tradition in a disciplined fashion until it is changed.
Finally, the church cannot tolerate relentless andunceasing challenges to its normative teaching on sexuality. Such is the route to depletion anddecrease. There has to be an agreementthat its settled convictions cannot be challenged indefinitely. Once a church has re-affirmed its teaching,there has to be a decent interval of surcease from continued challenges.
In conclusion, it seems to me that the normative issues—whatwe ought to teach—are clear. We shouldhold to our tradition’s teaching on sexual ethics. A break with teachings of such duration and universalitywould be a very, very serious matter...a traumatic one. Arguments for revision are simply not socompelling as to overthrow the moral presumption held by millennia and billionsof Christians. The case has not beenmade.
But there is great room for pastoral compassion and evenflexibility—-gracious tolerance. As onepastor put it, “I dearly wish the ELCA would support its traditional teachingbut allow us to deal with these issues in our own parish contexts.”
Roanoke College Center forReligion and Society