The word “think” in my title is significant. In a recent discussion among a group of our conference’s pastors about the sexuality issues now facing the ELCA, the presenter, sometime professor of pastoral care in one of our ELCA seminaries, made the comment that “when we confuse the pastoral issues with the theological/confessional ones, we shut down the head.”
In the church, thinking should inform pastoral practice, and pastoral practice should also inform thinking, but frequently, and it seems to me that this current discussion is an obvious case, the thinking needs to be done first, or “we shut down the head.” In the history of the ELCA and its predecessor bodies, we have been invited to “talk about” and “journey together,” but rarely to think together about difficult issues confronting us as a church. So, how might the church, in this case the ELCA, think through the issues confronting us regarding the blessing of same sex unions and the ordination of practicing homosexual persons?
Before moving into that discussion, let me give a bit of autobiography and let those who read this know what my current thinking suggests.
I am an ELCA parish pastor, currently serving in Erie, Pennsylvania, but raised and partly educated in the Washington, D. C. area. The places are significant because I have lived in and been shaped by places remarkably “liberal” and now remarkably “conservative.” I am 56 years old, graduated from college in 1968, and returned to Washington to live until moving to Gettysburg for seminary in 1982. The age and year of college graduation are significant because I finished college just before colleges and universities became breeding grounds for dissent and social revolution, but at the same time my adult political and social views were formed in the interesting crucible of Washington in the Nixon years. My undergraduate college education was at Wittenberg University (Springfield, Ohio); I have done graduate work in British Literature at the University of Maryland and The George Washington University; my seminary training was at Gettysburg (graduated 1987). The importance here is that I have spent significant time in small towns and in major metropolitan areas and in a small Lutheran college and seminary and major university settings. I suppose the point to be raised here is that my views on homosexual practice and orientation have not developed in homogenous environments.
I am a life-long Lutheran and the son of a Lutheran pastor, trained apparently from infancy to see life through the lenses of scripture and the Lutheran Confessional traditions. I am not an expert in ethics, scripture, psychology, or sociology but am a parish pastor seeking some clarity for myself and the church I love as we move through the discussion of what the ELCA is to believe, teach, and confess about marriage and sexual practice.
It is currently my belief that the ELCA must continue in its documents and practices to support the sensus fidelium of the Church that sexual practices are normatively an element of life-long marriages of a man and a woman. That sensus has, I believe, been formed and developed in the light of the scriptures and their normative use in the Church’s ethical deliberation and continues to be applicable in the churches today. Consequently, the church cannot bless other sorts of unions and cannot ordain to its ministries (or allow to function as pastors) persons living sexually active lives (this includes single persons engaging in heterosexual practices) outside of monogamous and heterosexual marriages.
The central issue that leads me to this conclusion, at least to the extent that I can trace the processes of my own thinking, is not sexual behavior in and of itself. I am still enough of a liberal to believe to some degree that what mature and competent persons do in their bedrooms is their own business. I know enough about systems and institutions to know that a denomination, again in this case the ELCA, will not crumble if persons living in committed homosexual relationships have those relationships blessed by ELCA pastors or if pastors living openly in homosexual marriages are ordained to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament. The Church (and the ELCA) has always been served by homosexual pastors, some of whom lived openly in relationships that could be assumed to include sexual intimacy.
The question lurking behind the current discussion in the various churches about removing prohibitions of homosexual practice is whether or not the scriptures will continue to function in our lives together as they are defined in the ELCA constitutions: “. . . the inspired Word of God and the authoritative source and norm of its proclamation, faith, and life.” If that question cannot be answered affirmatively, the ELCA may well crumble.
There are also, it seems to me, two secondary questions pressed by the first: What would be the effect on its relationships with the wider church of a denomination’s unilateral decision to ignore the sensus fidelium, specifically, in the case of Lutherans, the movement’s relationship with our purported home in Western Catholic Christianity? Secondly, can a church that officially permits (or encourages) the blessing of same sex unions continue to speak with an authoritative moral voice in the arena of secular ethics (should it chose to do so)?
As forcefully as my conclusion might be stated, the question of the church and homosexual practice remains an open one for me. By that I mean that if, with the whole Church, ways, which do not destroy the ability of the scriptures to function normatively in the church, can be found to challenge what the scriptures seem to say, I am open to seeing the matter differently. Admittedly, this presents two significant impediments—consensus on the scriptures and within the churches. If we are to think together about what the ELCA (or any other denomination) is to hold as its teaching about sexuality, persons on the various sides of the discussion need to have at least that much willingness to change what they sincerely believe.
I am aware that holding to the received moral tradition is not without costs. The ELCA (and again other denominations) loses the skills of talented and committed persons, both lay and ordained, who cannot live within our current standards. The ELCA may, should it eventually determine that we will not move from the sensus fidelium, find itself outside mainstream liberal Protestantism and somewhat marginalized in a pluralistic and more tolerant culture.
The stakes, from either side, are high, and the temptation, again for both sides, is to react out of something other than careful thought and conversation with scripture, confessions, doctrine, and the rest of the church.
Persons of faith ought to begin thinking about nearly everything in conversation with the scriptures; that is what it means that the scriptures are norm for proclamation, faith, and life. With regard to homosexual practice, the scriptures of both Old and New Testament are consistent in their prohibition and condemnation. Further, from Genesis onward in the biblical record, it is clear that the life-long monogamous relationship of a man and a woman is normative in cultures created and shaped by the biblical witness.
Within the biblical context of monogamous heterosexual marriage as normative, six texts are generally identified as specifically condemning at least certain forms of homosexual practice: Genesis 19:1–26 (Sodom and Gomorrah); Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 (matters of sexual conduct in the holiness code); 1 Corinthians 6:9–10 (a listing of the wrongdoers who will not inherit the kingdom of God); 1 Timothy 1:10 (a listing of the godless and disobedient); and Romans 1:26–27 (the degrading passions). The condemnations cut across several strata of the biblical witness and are consistent through both testaments; nowhere do the scriptures speak approvingly of same sex practices, and nowhere are the prohibitions and condemnations lifted.
It does not seem to me necessary in the limited space available here to rehearse the exegesis of these texts; they are quite clear—God’s people of the Bible were not to give themselves up to certain “unclean,” “abominable,” or “degrading” practices of the cultures around them. The words are harsh and shocking, regardless of whether we read them in Hebrew, Greek, or English, and regardless of how we think they do or do not apply to the 21st century; but the intent is clear, these behaviors are not to be part of the lives of those called into a relationship with this God.
Even a cursory run through the biblical materials leads, it seems to me, to the conclusion Walter Wink stated in his review of Robert Gagnon’s book, The Bible and Homosexual Practice: “Simply put, the Bible is negative toward same-sex behavior, and there is no getting around it. The issue is precisely what weight that judgment should have in the ethics of Christian life” (see note 4).
How might we think about that weight? What are we to teach? Do these prohibitions and condemnations still apply? Might we, of the 21st century after all, think past these artifacts of ancient cultures and find a place in our faithful life to bless the relationships of homosexual persons living in committed and loving relationships? Might persons living in those relationships be ordained to various ministries in the church?
After his exegesis of every text “even remotely relevant,” Robert Gagnon begins his last chapter by writing, “Given the Bible’s clear opposition to homosexual conduct, there remains the question of what these texts mean for the church today. In a case like this, where the scriptures are clear, the question of hermeneutics centers on whether any contemporary considerations preclude the direct application of the Bible’s message to the modern debate.” He goes on to suggest these basic principles as guide for thinking:
(1) Is the issue a matter of significant concern in the Bible?
(a) Is there a consistent perspective in the Bible?
How often is the issue addressed?
If infrequently addressed, does infrequency imply insignificance or universal agreement?
Is it likely that any biblical writers might have held a different position?
Is there a continuity between the testaments?
(b) Is it a serious moral issue for biblical writers?
Does a violation lead to exclusion from God’s people?
Do any biblical writers regard the issue as a matter of indifference?
Do the biblical writers prioritize it as one of the core values of the faith?
(2) Does the biblical witness remain valid in a contemporary setting?
(a) Is the situation to which the Bible responds comparable to the contemporary situation?
(b) Are the arguments made by the biblical writers still convincing?
(c) Do new socio-scientific insights or cultural changes invalidate the biblical witness?
Do these new insights directly engage the arguments marshaled by the biblical authors?
How certain are these new insights?
Are the writers of Scripture limited or blinded by their cultural horizon?
Were there other perspectives or options available in the author’s own time?
(d) Has the church adopted a consistent and strong witness on the issue over the centuries?
(e) Does a new work of the Holy Spirit in the church justify changing the biblical position?
Does the biblical position run counter to the “weightier matters” of love/justice?
Does this alleged “new work” promote God’s kingdom?
Does the change involve a total reversal of the biblical position or only a modification?
Much of the current conversation in and out of the ELCA centers on ways in which, it is claimed, that “new socio-scientific insights or cultural changes invalidate the biblical witness.”
There are several directions such thinking takes, any of which, from my perspective, are sophisticated ways of saying that on this issue, the scriptures are simply not applicable to contemporary life; they are no longer normative. Or to put it in the terms of my colleague, they are ways to confuse the pastoral and the theological and so to shut down the head. Or to use yet another framework, hermeneutics has been divorced from exegesis.
Perhaps the most prevalent move used to deny the use of these texts in the church today is to make the claim that while they may have been necessary and significant in earlier times they are not today. It can be claimed, for example, that the focus on role reversals in several of the passages indicates that the prohibition of homosexual practice was because of its offense against the patriarchal presuppositions of biblical cultures and the sense of all things having their place in God’s created order typical of biblical cosmologies. It can then be agued that since our cultures are not patriarchal (or at least work not to be) and since we know more about the cosmos and its inherent chaos and non-hierarchical nature these texts cannot any longer apply. Or it might be argued that the prohibitions of same-sex relationships and masturbation in the scriptures were necessary in cultures in which procreation was necessary for the survival of the species; the world now is overpopulated and sex can, or perhaps even should be, divorced from reproduction and allowed to take varied forms.
A variant of this use of sociological criteria is to make the claim that what is prohibited in the six key passages is not homosexual practice in general, but forms of it that involve coercion, promiscuity, or prostitution. The claim here is essentially that the biblical writers were not aware of what we today call committed, same-sex relationships. The exegesis of the relevant passages does not support this narrowing of the prohibitions to necessarily exploitative forms of homosexual practice. And, I suspect, ancient cultures were aware of committed relationships, but I’ll leave a definitive response to this to the historians.
A second variant is to use anecdotal data, especially as it presents homosexuals living in committed relationships and giving witness to what appear to be biblical values in their relationship.
All of these are persuasive, for all are to a degree true: we (at least in the developed nations) do not live in the same sorts of cultures with the same environmental pressures to continue the species as did the people of biblical times; we do clearly know things about human nature and the structures of the cosmos that biblical writers did not; in pluralistic societies we do have opportunities to encounter more variety in human relationships than did persons living in the more closed cultures reflected in the Bible; homosexual couples do live honorably and evidence the love that is expected in long-lasting relationships. The difficulty is that all of these attempts set some preconceived body of sociological knowledge against or perhaps over the claims of the scriptures.
If the first move is an effort to bring sociological criteria to bear in a hermeneutical attempt to counter the claims of scripture, a second is to use psychological categories. It is often claimed that what we know that the biblical writers did not is that homosexuality is “an orientation.” Where, it is claimed, the ancients presumed that everyone was essentially heterosexual, but that some acted against their nature, we know that homosexuality is somehow, by genetics or upbringing or both, “hard-wired” into the individual and thereby something that God has created and that we cannot therefore condemn.
There seem to me to be at least three starting points for thinking about this position. First, there are behaviors and practices “hard-wired” into persons that cannot be tolerated in any community—pedophilia (and there is here no attempt to equate homosexuality and abuse of children) may serve as the obvious example. Second, we are all “hard-wired” to sin, and most of us who use the Lutheran Book of Worship confess it routinely when we say that “we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.” Each of us is called to work against all manner of conditioned behaviors inimical to life in a community shaped by the biblical narratives. Third, there is not agreement even in the psychological community about the causes of “homosexual orientation” and whether or not it can be modified.
That a behavior or orientation is “hard-wired” does not seem to me to be sufficient justification for a declaration, against the witness of the scriptures, that it is to be given moral and ethical approval since clearly there are at least some such behaviors, many of those involving sexual practices, that cannot under any circumstances be approved. That is to say, there is nothing inherent in homosexual practice that gives it the status of a protected class of behaviors. If that is an accurate statement, giving homosexual practice explicit approval opens the door to claims that other practices in the category “sexual” (or “hard-wired”) cannot either be condemned on the authority of the scriptures.
A third move that is often made in an effort to discredit these texts is to question the consistency of the Church’s views and to note instances in which the churches seem to have changed their minds about the application of certain texts in the life of the particular tradition. The three issues often raised by analogy are slavery, the ordination of women (both of which have the added advantage of moving the discussion into the arenas of civil rights and general tolerance for “minorities”), divorce and remarriage. None is precisely to the point.
While the biblical witness acknowledges that a form of slavery may exist, nowhere does the Bible command slavery; in Philemon, Paul encourages Philemon to release his slave. Perhaps the most that can be said is that by the time of the New Testament, Judaism and early Christianity lived in an uneasy truce with the slavery of the time.
In contradiction to Paul’s apparent claim in 1 Corinthians that women are not to speak in the churches, women in both testaments held significant positions in the faithful community; nowhere does the Bible specifically forbid the ordination of women.
The more interesting use of analogy is to compare the shift away from biblical and traditional views of divorce and remarriage. Divorce under Mosaic Law was easy: simply write a certificate of divorce and send her away. The only Mosaic prohibition regarding remarriage is that if the second husband divorces her, she may not be remarried to her first husband. Jesus allowed divorce in certain instances, but prohibited remarriage. Matthew 5.31-32 is the most rigorous of the synoptic teachings about divorce and remarriage: “’It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”
While the early church (and the Roman Catholic Church and some evangelicals today) never rejected the teaching of Jesus against remarriage for the divorced, it seems evident that early church practice allowed for remarriage after divorce at least in certain instances and further that the issue has been a somewhat convoluted one perhaps since the day Jesus first uttered this teaching. It might well be argued that this is an area of behavior in which the church has chosen to ignore what seem to be the claims of scripture. Whether that ignoring is sufficient justification for doing so with regard to homosexual practice remains problematic.
A fourth move is to note that nowhere in the four gospels does Jesus say anything about homosexual practice and that further the general ethic of love which is at the heart of the Good News Jesus came to bring does not allow for the condemnation of anyone on the basis of sexual behaviors. When this is coupled with a strong focus on the passages, particularly in Romans, in which Paul forcefully claims that those in Christ are no longer under the law, it is held that those in Christ are as a consequence of both Paul’s and Jesus’ teachings no longer bound by the biblical prohibitions and condemnations regarding homosexual practice.
This claim is to a degree persuasive, but, pushed to its limits, it distorts the teachings of both Jesus and Paul. When he speaks specifically about the law (with the possible exception of Sabbath laws), Jesus does not lessen but rather increases its demands, most particularly in The Sermon on the Mount. Jesus and Paul did make significant claims about the importance of monogamous family structures, and part of the answer to claims that Jesus did not address homosexual issues directly is to note that he did hold up the relationship of a man and a woman as normative. To claim that Paul abrogates totally the place of the law in the life of those now in Christ is to move into antinomianism.
In a broader sense, such claims that Jesus’ focus on love and acceptance abrogate any attention to the prohibitions of the law in the Christian life make increasingly difficult the use of any biblical texts, particularly those prohibiting various behaviors, as normative within the ethics of biblically faithful communities.
It is that question of norms of biblically faithful communities that is for me the central issue.
We all stand before God as sinners. No sin, we claim as Lutheran Christians, is, in God’s eyes, greater than any other. However, some sinful behaviors have more potential to harm community than do others; perhaps the obvious and current issue here has to do with a variety of behaviors under the heading of “clergy sexual misconduct” (to use ELCA parlance). Communities, living to some degree yet under the law, do have the responsibility to define the behaviors of faithful life, and some of those definitions exclude at least certain arenas of sexual practice. If we are to remain faithful to any sense that the scriptures function as norm for our faith, life and proclamation, I cannot at the moment see any way that the ELCA can opt for blessing same-sex unions and ordaining practicing homosexuals.
I earlier on raised two secondary issues— what would be the effect on its relationships with the wider church of a denomination’s unilateral decision to ignore the sensus fidelium, specifically, in the case of Lutherans, the movement’s relationship with our purported home in Western Catholic Christianity? Secondly, can a church that officially permits (or encourages) the blessing of same sex unions continue to speak with an authoritative moral voice in the arena of secular ethics? In closing, let me offer brief thoughts on each.
If we, the ELCA, are convinced that our course is faithful, neither concern much matters, and we can turn at least to the folk understanding of Martin Luther’s willingness single-handedly to take on the whole medieval church for justification for taking a stance that is clearly counter to what much of the Church teaches and has taught. But we need to be aware of the potential costs, for if this church were to abandon the received moral traditions with regard to homosexuality, without concern for the effect on our ecumenical relationships, we would set ourselves apart from the catholic moral tradition of the Western Catholic Christianity, which, for at least some of us, is to be our eventual ecclesial home. It seems to me that in this discussion we need to take with utmost seriousness the moral traditions we have received and which other traditions continue to teach, and to be aware of the potential risks of abandoning them unilaterally or in concert with only other Protestant traditions.
The other secondary issue has to do with any church’s ability to speak in the public square on issues of general morality. In some sense, the Church is called to be counter-cultural; Jesus clearly challenged many of the deeply held presuppositions of his age, and the Church has often done the same throughout its history. The issue that is raised for me in this current discussion of sexual morality has to do with the authority from which we speak. Historically, the churches have postured themselves as speaking from the authority of the Word of God and the continuity of the Church’s moral traditions. The question that should at least be asked is whether the ability of the ELCA (or any denomination) to speak with an authoritative voice in the public square would be severely undercut if it were to abandon the Church’s teachings on marriage and sexual practice, precisely because we will have, in that abandonment, turned away from the only authority from which we can speak and we will have done so precisely in the critical area of what is basic to human community.
“Church” is here understood as the predominant strain of catholic doctrine and practice of which Lutherans are a part.
 ELCA Model Constitution for Congregations, C2.03.
 In recent conversation with a couple of colleagues who disagree with me, I posed the question: “Are you willing to move to a position that the received biblical and moral tradition might be correct?” The response was essentially, “It can’t be, and eventually you’ll come to see things our way.” That conclusion from any side represents a refusal to think and blocks conversation.
 This is not necessarily negative.
 As has been widely noted in the current documents and conversation within the ELCA, the issue is not homosexual orientation or desire, but practice. See for example, “Visions and Expectations: Ordained Ministers in the ELCA” available from the ELCA Division for Ministry or at: http://www.elca.org/dm/candidacy/vision_ordained.html. “Ordained ministers who are homosexual in their self-understanding are expected to abstain from homosexual sexual relationships.”
 For a thorough if somewhat controversial examination of homosexual practice in the scriptures see: Robert Gagnon; The Bible and Homosexual Practice; Nashville, TN, Abingdon Press: 2001. In general, even those supporting a revisionist position with regard to the churches and homosexual practice accept Gagnon’s exegesis if not his conclusions with regard to what the churches should teach in the 21st century. See, e.g., a review of Gagnon’s book by Walter Wink in Christian Century (June 5-12, 2002, pp. 32-34) in which Wink writes: “To back up his argument, Gagnon exegetes every biblical text even remotely relevant to the theme. This section is filled with exegetical insights. I have long insisted that the issue is one of hermeneutics, and that efforts to twist the text to mean what it clearly does not say are deplorable. Simply put, the Bible is negative toward same-sex behavior, and there is no getting around it. The issue is precisely what weight that judgment should have in the ethics of Christian life.”
 Genesis 2 posits the relationship of a man and a woman. The marriages of David and Solomon were polygamous, but most of the subsequent kings of Israel appear to have had one wife. Hosea, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel seem also to have lived in monogamous marriages. By the time of Jesus, it appears that in biblical and extra-biblical cultures, monogamy was the standard. That a period of Israel’s history reflects something other than a one man-one woman marital structure does not negate the argument that monogamy was the norm for biblically faithful communities.
 Some who seek revisions of the received traditions use the relationship of David and Jonathan (1 Samuel 18-20) and the centurion and his slave (Mathew 8.5ff where the term for slave is pais often used in secular Greek for a young male prostitute) to suggest at least some approval of same sex relationships. It seems to me that one need not assume that friendship or servitude of necessity leads to sexual expression.
 I am aware that there are practices regarding foods, sexual matters, and other aspects of life that are prohibited someplace in the scriptures that were permitted later to biblical communities or that have been deemed licit in the development of the Church’s moral tradition.
 As with orientation and practice, the issue here is limited, from the side of those who seek revision of received moral traditions, to specific instances of homosexual practice and does not generally seek approval for promiscuous or exploitative relationships.
 Gagnon, p. 341
 Gagnon, pp. 341-342. The structure given here is applicable to a wide range of issues facing the churches with regard to how the scriptures apply in various contexts.
 See, e.g., Leviticus 18.22 “You shall not lie with a man as with a woman: it is an abomination,” and Romans 1.26b-27: “Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.” (All scriptural quotations from the New Revised Standard Version)
 There is an interesting disjunction here with regard to those who seek to hold up David and Jonathan as a model of an approved relationship.
 For an example of this see: “Let’s take a new look.” Herbert W. Chilstrom and Lowell O. Erdhal. The Lutheran, October 2002, pp. 27-28. Also at: http://www.thelutheran.org/0210/page27.html
 It is often noted, accurately, that the terms “heterosexual” and “homosexual” are relatively recent coinages. That a word did not exist does not necessarily mean that the thing did not.
 For a consistent presentation of this view from a Lutheran perspective, see the work of Edward H. Schroeder at: http://www.crossings.org/thursday/. See especially the pieces dated: 1999: Jan. 28, Feb 4, May 27, June 17. 2001: June 28. 2002: Jan 17, Jan. 24, Feb. 7. And, “Lutheran Theology and Homosexuality,” Schroeder’s two essays delivered (Sept. 2001) at the Southwest Minn. Synod (ELCA) Fall Theology Conference. Posted on the synod’s webpage: http://home.rconnect.com/~swmnelca/ehs.htm.
 Not all moral slopes are slippery, but this one seems to me to be remarkably so.
 Another issue here is what is referred to as “slavery.” As Americans we tend to think of the institution of chattel slavery which was a significant part of our national history. Biblical “slavery” in most cases seems more to have resembled indentured servitude than chattel slavery. See, e.g., Raymond E. Brown, S.S. An Introduction to the New Testament. New York, et.al., Doubleday (The Anchor Bible Reference Library) 1997, pp. 67-68.
 1 Corinthians 14:34— “. . . women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says.”
 For a comprehensive and fair-minded study of divorce and remarriage in the New Testament and the early church see: William A. Heth and Gordon J. Wenham. Jesus and Divorce: The Problem with the Evangelical Consensus. Nashville, TN, Thomas Nelson: 1984.
 Deuteronomy 24.1-4
 Mark 10.11-12 and Luke 16.18 omit “except on the ground of unchastity” so that it could be argued from Mark and Luke that Jesus does not restrict the grounds for divorce, but remains consistent with the Mosaic tradition. The issue in the synoptic comments about divorce is not the divorce, but the remarriage.
 The church early on also instituted processes for penance and restitution to community after the sin of adultery, including the “adultery” which was a consequence of remarriage. See Heth and Wenham, pp. 41-44.
 John 7.53-8.11 (The Woman Caught in Adultery) is often raised as a supporting text.
 It is worth seeing how this works itself out in the pieces by Schroeder noted above.
 Matthew 5-7
 There is a complex and interesting pattern of the churches supporting and/or challenging prevailing cultural views which is well beyond the scope of my current assignment in this paper.