ALPB Conference on Christian Sexuality, Ruskin Heights Lutheran Church, Kansas City, MO, October 2002
Report and Reflections by Wayne R. Cowell
They came to the heartland from every state except Hawaii, and some from Canada. Conference organizer Russell Saltzman had been clear about what they should expect. In his announcement (Forum Letter, Vol. 31, No. 3, March 2002) he wrote of theological and ecclesiological challenges posed by “gay theology” as the ELCA debates the blessing of same-sex unions and the ordination of non-celibate gays. The conference would serve as a platform for the theological critique of gay theology from an exclusively classical Christian perspective. It would not offer “balanced presentations.” Gay advocates, wrote Saltzman, have had ample opportunity and doubtless will have many future occasions to make their case. The purpose of this conference was to produce a courageous apologetic for the Christian sexual ethic.
The Lutheran reported the conference under the headline “Group: ‘No’ to Same-Sex Unions” (Vol. 16, No. 1, January 2003, pp. 58-59, with further detail posted on www.thelutheran.org/0301/world.html). The reader’s first impression, beginning with the headline, is that the conference brought together a group of nay-sayers. As I compared The Lutheran’s report with my own recollections and notes, I could agree that the article and its Internet supplement were reasonably accurate and complete, including the fact that there were a lot of Noes spoken at the conference. However, a careful reading made clear that the Noes were necessary implications of the resounding Yes spoken in affirmation of the church’s traditional teaching on marriage. The conference organizers and speakers knew that affirming a teaching implies disaffirming threats to the teaching.
We should be accustomed to Yeas implying Nays in the church. The “I do” and “I will” spoken by candidates for baptism, confirmation, marriage, or ordination imply that “I don’t” and “I won’t” will necessarily be spoken in living out the affirmation. The conference fine-tuned a statement (that we include below), which puts it this way: “The freedom of the Gospel does not make the forbidden permissible; rather, that freedom encourages and enables us to embrace joyfully a life of faithful service and holy living.” The real mark of the conference was this vision of joyful and affirmative fidelity.
A Courageous Apologetic
Taken together the presentations form the apologetic announced by Pr. Saltzman. Their appearance in a book would be an important contribution to the ELCA discussions; we were told that conversations with a publisher are underway. Following are thumbnail sketches, which serve only as pointers to the scholarship and insights exhibited.
Robert Gagnon, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, author of The Bible and Homosexual Practice (Abingdon Press, 2001) reviewed the Genesis stories that placed sex within the created order and the texts from Genesis, Leviticus, Ezekiel, Judges and, in the New Testament, from Jude, 2 Peter, Romans, 1 Corinthians, and 1 Timothy that related and interpreted sexual violations of that order. These texts uniformly portray same-sex relations as unnatural and sinful.
Is there some other trajectory in the church’s reading and interpreting of these texts that would lead to a different conclusion? James Nestigen, professor of church history at Luther Seminary, asserted that the ecumenical consensus for two millennia and the Lutheran view of vocation have consistently affirmed the biblical understanding of marriage. Attempts to find a place for homosexual behavior in the story are of recent origin, stemming from an American emphasis on the primacy of the individual over the community.
Robert Benne, professor of religion, Roanoke College, author of Ordinary Saints: An Introduction to the Christian Life (Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2001) examined such cultural influences on the church. He sees enormous pressures on religious traditions – not sparing the Lutherans – to accommodate to a highly individualistic, postmodern culture. He placed gay theology in the context of the liberal drift being experienced in the American protestant mainline, contrasting the directions of that drift with the Christian moral tradition.
The easy acceptance of clergy divorce is an example of liberal drift in the church’s view of marriage. Russell E. Saltzman, organizer of the conference, editor of Forum Letter, and pastor of the host church characterized such easiness as a tragic departure from good order that weakens the church in its consideration of same-sex unions. Remembering his own divorce with anguish he argued that clergy divorce be examined by bishops on a case by case basis.
What can the church bless? What is conveyed by ritual blessing and the symbols it employs? Amy Schifrin, pastor of Bethlehem Lutheran Church in St. Cloud, MN spoke unhesitatingly about homosexual acts, and about the angst of lesbian women she had counseled, as she argued that the blessing of gay unions is a way of ritualizing death.
Can science contribute to our understanding of homosexuality, perhaps providing arguments for or against the questions before the church? Research psychologist and pastor Merton Strommen, author of The Church & Homosexuality: Searching for a Middle Ground (Kirk House Publishers, 2001) pointed to the value of psychological and sociological studies in understanding homosexuality as a phenomenon but also cautioned that study results were sometimes tendentiously interpreted or ignored by professional organizations, the media, and church offices. In particular he was concerned that information about reorientation therapy is not being incorporated into the church’s pastoral ministry.
Phillip Max Johnson, pastor of St. Paul, Jersey City, NJ and senior of the Society of the Holy Trinity spoke of the opportunities and responsibilities of pastors in caring for homosexual persons. Johnson was also concerned about the situation of pastors who affirmed traditional teaching about marriage in synods that were moving toward revising that teaching.
Besides the possibility of a fracture in the ELCA, what are the implications for relations with other church bodies of implementing changes from the gay agenda? Jay Scott Newman, pastor of St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church, Greenville, SC and former dean of men, Josephium Pontifical College, Columbus, OH summarized Roman Catholic teaching about homosexuality, spoke of pastoral care based on that teaching, and pointed to the dire ecumenical impact of a revised view of marriage. He was forthright about – and dismayed by – the scandal of sexual infidelity in his own church body.
Thomas A. Skrenes, bishop of the ELCA Northern Great Lakes Synod, looked at the effect of the proposed changes on congregations from a synod bishop’s perspective. He had found that the laity are weakened in their ability to struggle with the issue because they are not biblically well informed. Congregations are vulnerable to the claims of strong advocacy groups, to activist minorities committed to the revisions.
The Ecumenical Consensus Holds
In various ways these speakers drew on foundational integrating themes: the Christian life as vocation and the church’s traditional teaching about marriage. Several spoke of their own personal struggle to discern the direction in which the Spirit is leading the church. It is necessary to ask difficult questions. Do we have enough new knowledge from science, enough new insight from biblical and historical studies to demand a new Christian paradigm for eros? Is it even possible to say that there is enough doubt to suggest that striving for agape toward our homosexual sisters and brothers may lead us to the revisions? The answer to both questions was “No” as a consequence of affirming that the traditional understanding of Scripture and the confessions is a reliable way to think about love, however ineptly we bring that understanding into our lives and use it to build up the church.
A “Pastoral Statement of Conviction and Concern” was drafted by Leonard Klein, Richard O. Johnson, Robert Benne, and Paull Spring and fine-tuned in both plenary and small group discussions. It is addressed to the Presiding Bishop, the Conference of Bishops, the Church Council, the Task Force on Human Sexuality, and the Congregations of the ELCA. It reads as follows:
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is in the midst of studies on human sexuality. We wish to be a part of this process and to be active participants in the conversation. We do so in reliance on the Spirit’s power to keep the church faithful to its Biblical and confessional heritage. We also do so with the intention to “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3).
We offer the following statement as a way of summarizing our position on human sexuality and as our way of affirming what the church has taught and confessed on these issues since apostolic times.
- The Bible and the Christian Tradition, including the Lutheran Confessions, see sexuality as integrally related to the doctrine of marriage.Marriage, an institution ordained by God, is the life-long union of one man and one woman for the creation of human life and for their mutual love and care. Sexual intercourse is not a fundamental private right or psychological necessity, but a gift of God. Its purpose is to serve as a means of uniting husband and wife and continuing God’s life-creating work. The confessions teach that we are to “live chastely in thought, word, and deed in [our] particular situation” (Large Catechism 394:219, Tappert trans.). Sexual intercourse is part of the vocation of marriage and is misused in any other context.
- The Gospel frees us from the curse of the Law, that is, the judgment that falls on us because we are sinners.It does not free us from the righteous life that the Law summarizes. “You, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness” (Romans 6:18). The freedom of the Gospel does not make the forbidden permissible; rather, that freedom encourages and enables us to embrace joyfully a life of faithful service and holy living. In Christ we are given the grace, by the Holy Spirit, to “know how to control [our] own body in holiness and honor” (1 Thessalonians 4:4).
- We view any change in the church’s doctrine of marriage as a grave error. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is currently studying whether the church may bless homosexual relationships, and whether the church may ordain sexually active homosexuals to the office of the ministry. Such proposed changes in Christian doctrine distort the Biblical record, appeal to questionable scientific theories, suppress inconvenient data, and rely overwhelmingly on individual experience which has been conditioned by contemporary culture and values. We are troubled by the process that has been used in recent studies on human sexuality within the ELCA. The conversations on this issue thus far have largely focused on personal experience and the sharing of anecdotes, rather than on the teaching of Holy Scripture and the theological and confessional witness of the church. We call the church to recognize that personal experience is not a reliable interpretive key to the word of God.
- Three strategies have been proposed by those who wish to change the present policy.One is “ordination to place,” in which a non-celibate homosexual is ordained exclusively to serve one congregation. A second is “synodical option,” which permits synods to set their own standards in this matter. A third strategy might be termed “conscientious pluralism,” in which traditional and revisionist perspectives on these matters are allowed to co-exist in the church. Any of these proposals would destroy the unity of the ELCA and of its ordained ministry.
- We understand the genuine suffering and challenge that our homosexual brothers and sisters face. We repudiate all forms of prejudice and hatred, but we believe that Christian love requires the clear proclamation of God’s truth which alone can free and reconcile us. Sensitive pastoral care for homosexual persons will include compassion, encouragement and the same call to repentance and chastity that God continually places before us all.
Because we love the whole church, many of us are facing a potential crisis of conscience regarding the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. We earnestly desire to remain actively engaged in the life and mission of our church, but we observe that the ELCA is becoming schismatic and sectarian. We therefore pray that our church’s reflection on human sexuality be determined by an obedient listening to the Word of God and by a faithful witness to that Word.
The statement declares that, “We wish to be a part of [the studies on human sexuality] and to be active participants in the conversation.” Signers of the statement are asking to be heard. The report in The Lutheran says that the conference attendees complained that the ELCA doesn’t listen to them. Should the fact that the report was published in The Lutheran be regarded as an official way of paying attention? The leaders of the human sexuality study have declared that all voices will be heard and no doubt they will “hear” the critique offered by the conference. What does that mean? Is “being heard” more than simply being acknowledged as having a certain position?
A careful reading of the statement helps answer the question of how the signers want to be heard. Paragraph 3 points to the trouble with the processunderway in the ELCA. “The conversations on this issue thus far have largely focused on personal experience and the sharing of anecdotes, rather than on the teaching of Holy Scripture and the theological and confessional witness of the church.” The apologetic offered in Kansas City contains intrinsic claims of authority that trump “personal experience and the sharing of anecdotes.” I think that the signers of the statement are saying that the ELCA hears their “Noes” but is unwilling to accept the authority of their “Yes” to the church’s teaching about marriage.
The very openness of the ELCA to various expressions may appeal to our sense of fairness, to our respect for everyone’s opinion and it would make sense if we were talking about preferred options or a negotiating position as part of a process leading to compromise. In fact, Paragraph 4 names the compromises under discussion and rejects them.
There is another kind of “being heard” that is largely undetermined at this time: what will the laypeople hear? How will they respond? Most of the attendees at the conference were clergy. In his closing remarks, Russell Saltzman said that it is time to “stop protecting the laity [from this issue].” When (and if) it becomes more widely discussed in this synod and across the land, will the discussion be “largely focused on personal experience and the sharing of anecdotes” or something deeper? The “classical Christian perspective” of the conference might well be heard and be a touchstone.
A Word about the Sponsor
An informal show of hands showed that very many conferees were subscribers to Lutheran Forum and Forum Letter, which are among the publications of the conference sponsor, the American Lutheran Publicity Bureau (ALPB). This is not surprising. The view of Christian sexuality upheld at the conference is consistent with the theological stance of the ALPB, an independent pan-Lutheran renewal organization.
James Nuechterlein, a member of the ALPB Board, has given a summary of the place of “evangelical catholics” in American Lutheranism. (“Turn Out the Lights?”, First Things, No. 115, August/September 2001, pp. 17-18.) Whether or not they apply this label to themselves, I sensed the concern of the conferees for the recovery of the liturgical and confessional heritage of Lutheranism. They know that they are swimming upstream against a strong current. That may be why Russell Saltzman said that the apologetic produced by the conference would be courageous.