It should not surprise anyone that the social statement, “Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust”, adopted by the ELCA Churchwide Assembly in 2009, did not settle the most presenting issue in human sexuality in our time: homosexuality. The statement itself acknowledged that the issue is not settled because it concluded that “There is no consensus in this Church.” It should also not be a surprise that there has been a significant reaction to the actions of the 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly across this Church, since the statement recognizes diverse views on homosexuality in this Church. At the very least, adopting a social statement that offers no definitive teaching on homosexuality and that recognizes several options for showing love to the homosexual neighbor, ranging from calling sinners to repentance to supporting those living in same-sex committed relationships, and then making changes in ministry policies that privileges one of those options, in spite of the assurance that “bound consciences” will be respected, strikes some as unfair.
It should also not surprise anyone that just respecting consciences bound by interpretations of Scripture will not work. “Bound conscience” was clearly a strategy designed to get the documents approved by a super majority. It was not a new teaching that is to be implemented throughout this Church. I mean, whose “bound conscience” will be respected? Probably not synods, as witness the skirmish between the Northeast Iowa Synod Council and the ELCA secretariat. Synods must follow ELCA policy. The stances of congregations might be respected.
Whose “bound conscience” will be respected?
But if this Church is now serious about respecting all four options for loving the homosexual neighbor, will seminaries of the ELCA be charged with preparing pastors who can give leadership also to those congregations that embrace traditional views? Or will those congregations just eventually have to vote to leave the ELCA for lack of a pastor who teaches and upholds the traditional teaching and practice? That’s why some are taking the vote already. And will congregations affirm the bound conscience of a pastor who teaches and upholds a teaching and practice not widely shared in the congregation?
At Issue: Scripture or Sex?
Pastors who are serving in congregations that are now alienated from the ELCA, and who are themselves alienated from their denomination, defend their stance by saying that “it’s not about homosexuality, it’s about the authority and interpretation of the Scriptures.” I understand that line of defense. after all, most Lutherans are not anti-gay and do not want to be tarred as being anti-gay. If there is anything that characterizes Lutherans in the ELCA, it is that we are nice. Our signs say it: “All are welcome.” I don’t know any pastor or layperson who wants to hound gays out of their congregation or keep them from coming in. Many of us have gay family members. I have two gay sons, one of whom is married to his partner. I am also (perhaps because of my family situation) open to civil rights for gay couples on the basis of Niebuhrian ethics (moral man/immoral society).
I note that in 2006 the Missouri Synod’s Commission on Theology and Church Relations addressed the issue of legislation regarding Same-Sex Unions. Their statement recognized “the possibility that Christians who fully agree (morally and theologically) that ‘same-sex unions are, according to the Scriptures, contrary to the will of the Creator’ (1998 Res. 3-21) may disagree about the worth, wisdom or necessity of particular legislation in the left-hand kingdom that presupposes the existence of these (immoral and unscriptural) unions”. Not surprisingly, the LCMS statement went on to give reasons why it might be best not to support such legislation (because of the “consequences” of such laws). But it at least recognized that Christians might arrive at different conclusions about the value of civil unions for prudential reasons. This issue did not receive much discussion in the ELCA social statement, although civil legislation seems to be the only way at the moment to provide for the required “public accountability” of ordaining candidates for ministry who are living in monogamous, committed, same-sex relationships since the 2005 CWA’s endorsement of the 1993 Statement of the Conference of Bishops that taught that blessing same-sex unions is contrary to Scripture, still stands. It may be possible for Christians to support civil legislation providing benefits to same-sex partners as a social good without changing church teachings and practices. As the LCMS statement reminds us, Lutherans do have a two-kingdom ethic.
The main issues before us in church and society have been about sex since the sexual revolution of the 1960s.
For traditionalists to say that their opposition to the decisions of the 2009 CWA is about the authority and interpretation of Scripture and not about sex is a bit disingenuous. Yes, the authority of Scripture as “sole rule and norm” is undermined if decisions are made on the basis of reason (e.g. in the form of experience) rather than on basis of biblical teaching. On the other hand, the presenting issue is sex. The main issues before us in church and society have been about sex since the sexual revolution of the 1960s: contraception, no-fault divorce, children being raised by unmarried parents, the legalization of abortion, the use of technology to engineer human reproduction, etc. We would not be wrestling over hermeneutics or the authority of Scripture with the intensity we have if the issue of officially affirming homosexual behavior did not drive us to it.
God-language and the Trinity
Debates over homosexuality have forced us to consider how we interpret Scripture just as the feminist critique of our God-language has driven us to wrestle with the doctrine of the Trinity. And that issue is still a matter of contention among us because the ELCA has given us a worship book (Evangelical Lutheran Worship) that diminishes praise of the Father. Not only is the Eucharistic Prayer no longer addressed to the Father (in the Preface), but the Gloria Patri is omitted from the Gospel canticles (Nunc dimittis, Benedictus, Magnificat) in the Prayer Offices and from the Nunc dimittis in Holy Communion settings 1 and 2. Nor is it used to terminate the psalms. Fifteen hundred years of tradition is wiped out in one fell swoop! The late Richard John Neuhaus famously said that if orthodoxy is merely tolerated, it will soon be proscribed. Orthodoxy properly means “right praise.” ELW is an illustration of Neuhaus’ point; orthodoxy has been suppressed. Raising gender issues here is not beside the point because gender in language (masculine, feminine, neuter) is a cultural reflection of human sexuality, and our culture’s views of human sexuality have been challenged and are in flux.
Seeking a New Approach
Many have said they wished we could move on to other topics or “get on with the mission of the Church”. But the mission of the Church never ignores the issue at hand. One does not always get to choose the issues with which one must deal, in the church or in politics or in any other area of life. So we must continue to talk about human sexuality because we have no consensus and the issue will not go away. But clearly we need a different way to do so because our conversations have reached a dead end. We clearly need a different way to talk theologically about sexuality that builds on biblical revelation and doesn’t ignore reason.
We clearly need a different way to talk theologically about sexuality.
When the Eastern Churches reached a dead end in their controversies over Christology in the fifth century, Pope Leo the Great sent a Tome to the Council of Chalcedon in 451 that pretty much resolved the issues. The council received the teaching of the bishop of Rome with gratitude and declared, “Peter has spoken.” We need “Peter” to speak again on the presenting issue of our age, and he has. That is, an occupant of the “chair of Peter” has dealt with human sexuality in a magisterial way.
John Paul II and The Theology of the Body
The issues with which we have been wrestling in the ELCA are not present only in the ELCA; they engage all of Christendom. The bishop of Rome is the de facto authority who has the capability of addressing the whole world (the oecumene) and of being listened to. The late Pope John Paul II addressed issues of human sexuality in a series of 129 lectures given during his Wednesday audiences between September 1979 and November 1984. In this series of addresses John Paul II developed the first major teaching of his pontificate. The complete addresses were later compiled and published as a single work: The Theology of the Body: Human Love in the Divine Plan. A new translation has been released under the title Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body. The entire collection of addresses can be accessed online. The theology of the body has become the basis for conferences and whole institutes.
John Paul II shifts the discussion from legalism . . . to liberty.
As I understand the general thrust of this theology, by focusing on the beauty of God’s plan for the union of the sexes, John Paul II shifts the discussion from the legalism that has pervaded Roman Catholic church life (“How far can I go and still remain within church law?”) to liberty (“What is the truth that sets me free to love?”), which must strike us as a Lutheran approach to Christian ethics (see Martin Luther, The Freedom of the Christian, 1520). As a Christian humanist, John Paul II asked what it means to be human and how to live life in a way that brings true happiness and fulfillment.
A New Way of Talking About Sex Theologically
While the theology of the body focuses on sex and marriage and celibacy as a special calling, it is really wider than that. It provides a whole worldview. In the Pope’s theology, the body even reveals the mystery of God. And that mystery, which has been fully revealed in Jesus Christ, is that God is love. God is love in the relationship of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit to each other. The theology of the body means that our bodies somehow reveal the mystery of divine love in the world through the mystery of sexual difference and the call of the two to become one flesh. In other words, in the mystery of marital union we have a sign here on earth of the eternal mystery of love found in the Trinity. It is within the context of the theology of marriage, and not only a handful of biblical texts, that the pope discusses homosexuality. He does not discuss it very much. But he has provided the theological framework in which our discussions could proceed on this and other aspects of human sexuality.
We need a different way to talk about sex if we’re going to transcend the current impasse.
This is a new and profound way of talking about sex theologically — too vast to try to summarize here. The Roman Catholic Church has a lot of moral failings to answer for, and one might question what a celibate can contribute to a discussion of human sexuality. But we might at least be open to the potential of this theology for granting new insights into a tortured topic. We need a new framework for discussion because the debates will continue. We need a different way to talk about sex if we’re going to transcend the current impasse.