The Metropolitan Chicago Synod Assembly passed a resolution asking the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (1) to develop a rite of blessing of gay and lesbian persons living in committed same-sex relationships, (2) to produce materials to support pastors as they provide pastoral care and counseling for same-sex couples, and (3) to provide educational materials that promote biblical and theological foundations for all committed relationships. This was followed by a resolution asking the ELCA to suspend the enforcement of the ban on ordaining those who are practicing homosexuals if they are living in a committed relationship. Such a relationship would presumably be recognized by the church’s rite of blessing, although that is not stated in the resolution.
This is not the first time resolutions on gay-related issues have come before the Synod Assembly, but it is the first time the issue of blessing committed same-sex relationships has come before us. Insufficient time was allotted to a substantive discussion of the complex issues involved in performing such a blessing in the hour devoted to hearings on resolutions or in the ten minutes allotted to discussion of the resolution itself. This was remarkable in view of the fact that the resolution directs the ELCA to make provisions for pastors to do something that the overwhelming majority of us have never done and that most of us, I’m sure, would have scruples over doing. The rubber hits the road with the pastoral office. If this Church has a rite of blessing homosexual couples, who else is going to officiate at it than this Church’s pastors? Will this be added to the list of duties of a pastor under congregational call, like marrying and burying members?
The vote was taken but basic questions go begging. Does the holy catholic church even have the authority to do this? What does it mean for the church to bless anything? The ELCA in particular has not had a sustained discussion on such issues. In fact, there has been no Church-wide moral deliberation on homosexuality, even though materials for discussions within congregations have been made available. Gay-related issues have become such a political hot potato that even the American Psychiatric Association was not able to have an open presentation on research done by one of its members at its recent meeting in Chicago, since that research pointed more in the direction of “nurture” rather than “nature.” Whether homosexuality is the product of nature or nurture has not yet been conclusively determined. From what we know about genetic inheritance and psychological dynamics, common sense might suggest that sexual orientation is a combination of factors that could differ for each individual.
As someone with gays in my family, I would like to know more about homosexuality from a scientific perspective. But I also have some existential concerns. I would like to know, for example, what effect cultural acceptance of homosexual behavior (including official approval of same-sex unions) might have on encouraging one to embrace a life style known for its high risks. As a pastor of the church, I also want to know what light is shed on acceptance of homosexual behavior by the church’s primary authority, the Bible, because I made an ordination vow to teach in conformity with the Scriptures and the Confessions. I am not authorized by the church to use the public pastoral office for teaching my opinions or the opinions of others. I am authorized to teach only what Scripture and the Confessions teach.
The church can’t do whatever it likes. It operates under the authority of Christ its head. But Christ’s authority is not made known to us by private revelation; it is discerned through study of the canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. The Formula of Concord holds that “the prophetic and apostolic writings of the Old and New Testaments are the only rule and norm according to which all doctrines and teachers alike must be appraised and judged” (Part I: Epitome, 1; Tappert, p. 464). Lutherans listen to the voices of tradition, reason, and experience; but we base teachings and practices on the testimony of Scripture. The church’s ministers are servants of the Word of God who proclaim the Word as law and gospel, command and promise. The category of blessings also comes under the rubric of the proclamation of the Word of God.
A search of the category of “blessing” in the Bible shows that it is always based on a favorable relationship between parties. While there are examples of humans blessing other humans (e.g. Gen. 27, Isaac blessing Jacob), these are comprehended within God’s general blessing (e.g. Gen. 12, Yahweh’s blessing of Abraham and his posterity forever). Thus, when the church blesses a particular marriage, it is done within the context of God’s blessing of marriage in general (Gen. 1:28; 2:24). The church’s minister pronounces the blessing of God on conditions God has blessed and for which a promise may be proclaimed (e.g. “Be fruitful and multiply”).
The church’s rites of blessing usually include texts that provide the biblical warrant for acts of blessing. These texts may sometimes seem far-fetched, as in the Order for a Blessing of a Dwelling, in which a specific blessing (with a text) is provided for each type of room in a home. But there is at least a relationship, e.g., between Psalm 4:8 and the blessing of a bedroom. The old marriage services used to provide a catena of readings concerning marriage before the exchange of vows and the blessing of the couple. Some of these texts may now be read as lessons within the service. The ritual form of a blessing is to proclaim God’s word of command and promise and offer a prayer invoking that promise in the name of the triune God with some appropriate gesture such as the laying on of hands or the sign of the cross.
If we were to have a blessing of those living in committed same-sex relationships, I need help in finding biblical texts that indicate even in general that God looks with favor on this kind of relationships and makes promises concerning it. I can find biblical warrant for blessing marriages, houses, crops, and even animals. I can even find biblical warrant for blessing a vow of celibacy for the sake of the kingdom of God. But where is there a command for invoking God’s blessing on a committed same-sex relationship, which would also proclaim God’s promises concerning such a relationship?
The problem is that “in the beginning” God created humanity male and female. As I read Genesis 1:27 (the P text), the plural “God created them” is intentionally contrasted with the singular “him.” This prevents one from reading into this text the creation of an originally androgynous being. By God’s intention, man was created to find completion in woman. This would also seem to be the idea in Genesis 2:24-25 (the J text), which is the so-called “institution” text of marriage. There are two things about this institution text that challenge the common assumption that it is simply rooted in patriarchal culture (and may therefore be judged as not applicable to our contemporary cultural context). One is that the quest for a “help-meet” for Adam among the animals was abandoned before God undertook to create woman as “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.” This implies an equality between the sexes that would not be found in a patriarchal society. The other surprise is the statement about the man forsaking father and mother and clinging to his wife, because this does not square with the patriarchal custom in which the women left her family and joined the husband’s. The Genesis “institution of marriage” text would already seem to imply a cultural critique.
This understanding of God’s intention in the creation of man and woman undoubtedly lies behind the Apostle Paul’s words about women and men who “exchanged natural relations for unnatural” in Romans 1:27. Homosexual activity takes its place with other conditions that may seem “natural” from the point of view of the fallen human condition (e.g. greed, covetousness, malice, and heterosexual lust) but are “unnatural” as far as the Creator’s intention is concerned. But “men with men” and “women with women” also implies a consuming passion that places self-worship above the worship of the Creator. So “God gave them up” to these passions and relationships. That’s precisely how God expresses his wrath: wrath is the absence of intervention. Intervention is an act of grace which changes us our relationships with God, with others, and with ourselves. The intervention of grace is the saving gospel of Jesus Christ that restores human beings to a saving relationship with Godself. The restoration of communion with God has implications for our relationships with others, including in marriage.
Sometimes we forget that marriage, like everything else in the world, is a fallen institution which needs God’s blessing precisely because it needs to be restored to God’s original intention for marriage. Yet it is amazing how slow the church was to get into the business of “performing weddings.”
Marriage is not just something for Christians. God’s intention that a man leave father and mother, become one flesh with his wife, and, with God’s blessing (whether spoken or not), produce children is certainly realized by couples who practice other religions or no religion at all. That’s why Lutheran theology places marriage among the orders of creation. The early church had no marriage rites of its own. Christians accepted and used whatever marriage rites there were in the society in which they lived. At most Christians might celebrate the Eucharist in place of offering the sacrifices to the god’s of the hearth (in Roman society), which necessarily brought the church’s pastor (i.e. the bishop) into the rites of marriage. The church got into the marriage business only when the social order broke down in the early Middle Ages. Even during the so-called Age of Christendom during the Middle Ages the church did not bless all marriages. Marriage was considered a family-political affair and many families didn’t want the church, represented by the priest or bishop, meddling in their affairs. The marriage vows, in fact, were not recited at the altar but on the church porch (or in the public square or in one’s own house); the couple went to the altar only for the nuptial blessing and to celebrate the nuptial mass, but not everyone did this. Both church and civil law understood the mutual consent of the couple to be the foundation of their marriage, publicly notarized for legal recognition. The church consistently opposed secret marriages (Friar Lawrence in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Julietnotwithstanding).
The reformers in the 16th century initially continued these customs, but eventually moved the exchange of vows from the church porch to before the altar. Several reasons for this move suggest themselves. One was the Reformation’s emphasis on the equality of marriage with religious vows as a Christian vocation. A second was an opportunity to preach about the sanctity of marriage. This also helped put a damper on the bawdy activities that accompanied weddings. The Catholic Church, long desirous to exercise more control over marriage, followed the Protestant lead. By the 18th century both Catholic and Protestant Churches were solemnizing marriages as agents of the state. But during the 19th century an obligatory civil ceremony was introduced in many nations. In America, as pastors well know, marriage is a civil act licensed by the state, but at which religious leaders may officiate. (In Illinois the marriage license is for the officiant to officiate at and witness the exchange of vows.)
This history would suggest that the church does not have to be involved in weddings. In truth, many pastors regard most weddings as among the most odious duties they have to perform. This feeling does not usually apply to the weddings of active church members, but increasingly we are officiating at the weddings of inactive or non-members. We get involved in these weddings to provide a social ministry; that is, to give some pre-marital counseling that might help the couple in their marital relationship and also because it is an opportunity to proclaim the word of God concerning marriage and human family relationships to a broader public. But in our theology, even though we can view marriage as a sign (mysterion, sacramentum) of the union of Christ and his church (Ephesians 5:32), marriages solemnized by civil servants are just as valid as marriages solemnized by the church’s ministers.
I raise this argument because if we don’t have to solemnize marriages, which we recognize as being divinely-instituted, we certainly don’t have to solemnize same-sex unions, which are not divinely-instituted—even if states make provision for them.
It is noteworthy that this past summer the General Conference of the United Methodist Church upheld traditional moral standards regarding marriage and human sexuality. The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church decided that its ministers may not officiate at same-sex unions (including those sanctioned by the state). This decision must now be ratified by two-thirds of the local presbyteries. And the General Convention of the Episcopal Church failed to adopt a resolution directing the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music “to prepare for consideration by the 74th General Convention rites for inclusion in the Book of Occasional Services by means of which the Church may express…support” for “couples in the Body of Christ and in this Church who are living in marriage and couples in the Body of Christ and in this Church who are living in other life-long committed relationships,” although it did pass a series of resolutions recognizing disagreement within the Church on this issue, the need for dialogue, the right of bishops to establish practice in their own dioceses, and the following regarding marriage and other life-long committed relationships:
Resolved, we expect such relationships will be characterized by fidelity, monogamy, mutual affection and respect, careful, honest communication, and the holy love which enables those in such relationships to see in each other the image of God, and be it further
Resolved, we denounce promiscuity, exploitation and abusiveness in the relationships of any of our members, and be it further
Resolved, this Church intends to hold all its members accountable to these values, and will provide for them prayerful support, encouragement and pastoral care necessary to live faithfully by them….
How can the Church give prayerful support to (i.e. intercede for) gay couples but not bless them? To put the most charitable construction on this, I would say that it’s because the Episcopalians know the Bible: Jesus told us that we can bring anything to God in prayer but we cannot bless what God does not bless. Sometimes there is a “middle way” that is not a compromise between competing ideologies but a way of holding in tension diverse truths and values that the Church professes.
As a result of these reflections, what might I do as a pastor of the church with regard to same-sex couples? I would certainly welcome gays into the church along with every other sinner living in every other fallen situation, which means all of us. I would counsel gays to seek the grace of God in their lives through confession and absolution, Bible study, prayer and reception of Holy Communion so that they might be aided by God’s grace in their life situations and be guided by the Holy Spirit in their life choices. I would take the opportunity of the need to deal with gay members to hold all members of the church accountable to the values of fidelity, mutual respect, and honest communication in their relationships. Realizing that in this fallen world moral decisions are often a matter of shades of grey rather than black and white, I might even encourage true monogamy rather than serial monogamy (moving from one partner to another) or shared monogamy (a threesome or more) as a salutary step toward sexual abstinence. I would pray with gays that they would be able to cultivate discipline in their lives, and that partners would support each other toward attaining the goal of celibacy. In all things I would sincerely commend gay couples to the mercy of God. But invoking God’s blessing on those living in committed same-sex relationships is precisely what I cannot do, because I am not aware that God has blessed such a relationship on the basis of his Word and I will not lie on God’s behalf.
I would pray that the ELCA would not act as our synod has asked our Church to act. I would hope that it would remain faithful to Scripture and the catholic moral tradition. As Wolfhart Pannenberg has stated, “Those who would press the Church to change the norm of her teaching in this question must understand that they press the Church toward schism.” In this light, I would like to see the ELCA give more positive value to the traditional Christian virtues of virginity and celibacy. It can do this by developing rites of blessing consecrated chastity as an alternative to rites of blessing heterosexual marriage. At the time of the Reformation, the freedom of the gospel was served by emphasizing the sanctity of marriage. Without de-emphasizing the sanctity of marriage, we can hold up the freedom of Christians to devote themselves to the kingdom of God and to finding fulfillment in service rather than in sexuality in imitation of the body of Jesus.