Our 2000 Synod Assembly passed two resolutions petitioning the ELCA Churchwide Assembly to produce a rite of blessing for same sex couples, materials for pastors in counseling same sex couples and an end to the celibacy rule for gay and lesbian rostered persons. Why? Because we, as a church, are responding to justice issues proposed by our Western culture in which God has called us through the Gospel. Our response is in seeking Gospel-centered new understandings of Scripture and of our Christian way of life. Our response can be summarized as Scripture and Tradition.
From our childhood we have seen how the Bible is so important in helping us in our baptized lives of faith. The Bible has always been a primary source for truth and understanding for us and for the churches. It is only proper that any issue facing the church requires us to study the Bible. We should approach it not out of anxiety but in faith and confidence that God will show us the way in rightly dividing the word of truth.
Homosexuality and human rights for gay and lesbian persons requires us to consult first the Scriptures. There are a growing number of Bible studies on these issues. Here I can only bring to your attention a couple of passages.
A common passage cited against homosexuality is the verse from Leviticus 18:22, “You shall not lie with a man as with a woman; it is an abomination.” NRSV This passage seems quite straightforward. But, as always, there is a context. It is part of the Jewish Holiness Code and love of truth behooves us to look at this text in its context. Here are some surrounding verses:
Leviticus 18: 6Don’t have sex with any of your close relatives, 7especially your own mother. This would disgrace your
father. 8and don’t disgrace him by having sex with any of his other wives…. 18As long as your wife is alive, don’t cause trouble for her by taking one of her sisters as a second wife. 19When a woman is having her monthly period, she is unclean, so don’t have sex with her. 20Don’t have sex with another man’s wife—that would make you unclean. 21Don’t sacrifice your children on the altar fires to the god Molech. I am the LORD your God, and that would disgrace me. 22It is disgusting for a man to have sex with another man.
(Textual notes: I have quoted from the new Word In Life version because it more accurately reflects the Hebrew of verses 8 and 18. The few critical commentaries that address verse 8 specify that “wife” here is really talking about a man’s wife ((or wives)) other than one’s mother. Also, the RSV and others translate literally “uncover her nakedness” which is a euphemism for sexual intercourse although it could also be literally uncovering a female’s pubic area. In either case it would be an unholy act. Context again determines the translation.)
To our surprise the prohibition against homosexuality is in a context in which men are authorized to have a plurality of wives (verses 8 and 18). So the point is this: if one insists on obedience to the command against homosexual relations then one must also deal with the acceptance that men may have more than one wife at a time.
Moreover, women in this context are treated as property. It is always the male who is “disgraced” when HIS woman or women are violated. Are we also to revert to this role of women in the church?
What has happened here? The direct sense of the texts is mediated through new cultural traditions of viewing men and women. At some point in the history of the church, the church itself decided that polygamy was inconsistent with the Gospel. And so the church interprets the Leviticus Holiness Code with a new Gospel cultural tradition: monogamy. This text of Scripture from the Holiness Code is surrounded by a Gospel tradition of interpretation.
In recent generations there have been secular and other cultural traditions developing that give women equality with men. The church has slowly come to see this view as consistent with the Gospel. In the ordination of women, in the lay church positions being opened to women and in the effort to use diverse language in reference to God in worship, the church produces Gospel traditions in history which mediate the direct sense of these Leviticus texts. It is not enough to quote texts in the Bible. They have to be prayerfully interpreted according to our understanding of ourselves and our mission in history.
If we concur with this line of argument then we need to clarify the basis for insisting on the direct sense of Leviticus 18:22 “It is disgusting for a man to have sex with another man.” (WILV) For new scientific and cultural traditions have been developing from the rise of the science of psychology which introduce a new concept of human understanding unknown to the Holiness Code or to St. Paul: sexual orientation.
Sexual orientation refers to the growing body of scientific evidence that a person does not choose her or his sexual identity but discovers it usually during early adolescence. Just as many of us discovered that we were attracted to the opposite sex, so also some of us discovered that we were attracted to persons of the same sex. It was never a matter of choice. For homosexual persons it has often been also a matter of great shock, depression and alienation given the past cultural and ecclesiastical hostility to homosexuality -leading to a homosexual adolescent suicide rate three times that of heterosexual teenagers.
The church is struggling to assimilate that new scientific concept of sexual orientation into its cultural and Gospel traditions on sexuality. That is what is taking place in the Metropolitan Chicago Synod, the ELCA, other religious communities and in our local parishes.
“Tradition” – as a Verb: “Traditioning”
When we think of the word “tradition” we usually think of customary ways of doing things. We give a past-looking sense to the word “tradition”. But tradition is also a technical term in the church. It comes from the Latin word “trado, tradidi, traditum” – to hand over in the sense of that which was entrusted to one generation is handed on to another.
There is apostolic tradition. When St. Paul said, “I received from the Lord what I also handed on (Greek paredoka; Latin tradidi) to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread….(I Cor. 11:23f),” he was referring to his having handed on an apostolic teaching to Corinthian Christians on the Holy Communion.
But there are also evangelical traditions; bodies of Christian understanding of Biblical texts and cultural challenges to the faith that have been carried forward from generation to generation. These creative acts of producing evangelical tradition turn us from the noun “tradition” to the verb “traditioning.” As one reads the fathers of the church seeking to create an abstract definition of the person of Christ and of the Trinity -from the Scriptures and yet in dialog with contributions and challenges from their surrounding culture, we see one ancient example of traditioning the faith.
People have quoted texts from the Bible approving the owning of slaves. There are direct texts which say this in both the Hebrew Bible and in our New Testament. But in history a new concept arose called “abolition.” The church struggled with slavery texts in the Bible and with the cultural challenge to the church that slavery was unjust and inhuman. No doubt there were people who insisted on the biblical texts supporting slavery (especially if they had an economic interest in slavery), but the church in the Spirit created new Gospel-centered traditions of interpretation of those pro-slavery texts. Traditioning took place with Scripture. And this traditioning on slavery is in books and in the assumptions of the church’s own faith culture. In other words, rightly dividing the word of truth requires prayerful consideration of texts of Scripture and the situations in which we find God has placed us.
There are Biblical texts which clearly require women to remain silent in the churches. But we ordain women, thanks be to God, who preach the Gospel. What has happened? Those prohibiting texts have been “traditioned”. The church was challenged by the new concept of “women’s liberation.” We found ourselves in a situation of a justice issue for women. The church in the Spirit prayerfully created new traditions of interpretation of those male dominant texts. A Living God sends forth the Spirit to render a Living Word to a church upheld by that Word. And that Living Word includes creating new traditions of interpreting Scripture for the people of God in real time history. Traditioning of Scripture takes place, hopefully, every Sunday when your pastor interprets the texts for your daily living and for the congregation as it lives in its community.
The two resolutions on gay and lesbian rites and rights in the church passed at our 2000 Synod Assembly are another example of traditioning the faith in a new cultural context. It is new to us. We “find” ourselves in this situation. Once again not from within ourselves but from our Western culture we are challenged for a Gospel centered response to gay and lesbian rights. We go to the Bible first and seek to interpret the texts that are identified as pertinent to the issue. We just don’t lift them out and hurl them at each other. That is done out of fear, not love. We prayerfully seek to interpret these texts in the light of the Gospel and of the truths of our culture. And may we be led by the Spirit to create new traditions of interpreting those texts faithfully. Yet such is rarely achieved without struggle within the Body of Christ.
Struggles and Blessings: an Example in Acts
Such a painful struggle occupied our first brothers and sisters – a struggle painted sometimes in strident colors, sometimes in subtle hues in the books of the New Testament. The issue: how can Gentiles become Christians? The earliest church was Jewish Christian. Suddenly, it seemed, these Jewish Christians were faced with a totally new situation. There were Jewish Christians saying that the admission of Gentiles may not be blessed by the church. There were others who went ahead and gave Gentiles their blessing. Among them, some were saying they had to become Jews first – including male circumcision. Others were saying the Gentiles did not have to become Jews first. Here the church found itself with no precedent from Jesus and a decision that had to be made.
You probably know this history. You can read a significant portion of it in Acts 10-15. The church met in Assembly. After hearing from Peter, Paul, James and Barnabas the assembly created a Gospel-centered policy, a traditioning, that “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you (Gentile Christians) no further burden than these essentials: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what has been strangled and from fornication….” (Acts 15:29) In this way, under the guidance of the Spirit, the Jewish church gave its blessing upon Gentile Christians and traditioned texts that said Jesus only came to the house of Israel.
In this controversy that rocked the young church, Luke describes how Peter came to give his blessing to the Gentiles. Peter, an observant Jew and passionate Christian, had been brought up in a faith culture that looked upon Gentiles as dirty and disgusting because they ate pork, were uncircumcised and belonged to that cultural stereotype of the immoral heathen. It was not easy for Peter to come round. (Acts 10:28)
Peter, led by the Holy Spirit, was preaching to Gentiles in Caesarea when the Holy Spirit descended on them. Peter said, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (Acts 10:47-48) And Peter, the Jewish Christian, gave his blessing to these Gentiles drawn to the church by the Spirit. Peter even lived with them for several days!
Can the church bless same sex unions? I would be wary of starting from there. Before that question can be asked we need to wrestle with the truths of sexual orientation and relate them to the pertinent biblical texts. Moreover, we need to look and see what the Spirit is doing in the churches before we draw any lines. As Peter learned new ways, he gave his blessing to those whom the Holy Spirit had touched.
Is not the Holy Spirit bringing gay and lesbian individuals and couples to our churches? The issue is not whether the church should withhold its blessing. The issue is that we, the church, have found ourselves in a new cultural situation with the concept of “sexual orientation”. A new traditioning is taking place in the ELCA and in the other religious communities. It is also taking place in our Western culture as a justice issue. Our position, as sponsors of the two synod resolutions to the ELCA, is that Scripture can be prayerfully and faithfully interpreted so that we see that the Spirit is bringing gay and lesbian people to our churches for blessing. Is it really up to us to withhold such blessing? Are we not blessed in their coming to us?
But it’s more than Scripture and Tradition!
Even with all the best arguments assembled, it may not seem enough. Consider the lives of Ebenezer and Raymond in the charming novel The Book of Ebenezer Le Pageby G.B. Edwards, (Mt. Kisco, NY:Moyer Bell Ltd., 1981 – ISBN 0-918825-34-2, Used with permission).
Ebenezer, with little formal education, sets out in his old age to write about his life on the isle of Guernsey, England. It is a book rich in common sense and the deep perceptions of the ordinary stretching from the 1910’s to the 1970’s. One personality captured in his pages is that of a cousin Raymond. (Note: the grammar is Guernsey patois)
“Once I thought Raymond was gone in the head when he was talking about Horace ‘Horace use to save me from sin,’ he said. It was the last thing I could imagine Horace doing for anybody. Raymond said, ‘I sin on my own. D’you know what I mean?’ He was looking at me very straight and honest with those blue eyes of his. He was innocent, Raymond. ‘I think I do,’ I said. ‘Who started you on that tack?’ ‘A boy at the Secondary (school),’ he said. He didn’t tell me who. I said, ‘Well, don’t worry: you’ll soon go with a girl.’ He said, ‘It isn’t a girl I think of while I’m doing it.’ I (Ebenezer) didn’t know what to say…. I was glad one night on the way home from work when I saw Raymond talking to Christine Mahy.” (p. 55)
So his cousin Raymond, struggling with his own sexuality in the 1920’s, goes a very common route before “sexual orientation” and “gay rights”: he goes religious….
“Hetty said Raymond now taught in the Sunday School and was out most nights of the week on something to do with Chapel. He helped with the Band of Hope and the Scouts and went to Mr Carrington’s Bible Class…” (p. 72)
And then we find out that cousin Raymond is going to become a Methodist pastor. He came to visit Ebenezer one day:
“I (Ebenezer) wasn’t going to bring up religion, unless he did. At last he said, ‘I suppose you think I am a hypocrite.’ I said, ‘I reckon we’re all hypocrites, one way or the other, if the truth was known.’ He said, ‘Jesus saves.’ I didn’t like to hear a boy talking like that. I said, ‘It was brave of you to stand up for what you believe.’ He said, ‘It’s true, you know. I’ve proved it.’ I said, ‘Well, I haven’t. I’m not saved.’ He said, ‘I don’t do it any more.’ I wondered how that could be. Myself, since I was thirteen or fourteen, I hadn’t managed to live without something having to happen sometimes. I said, ‘Yes, but nature is nature. Something got to happen.’ ‘It doesn’t happen to me now,’ he said, ‘except when I’m asleep, and, when I wake up, I repent.’ I began to feel rather sick of Raymond. I liked him better when he was a sinner…. He said, ‘I really came to ask you to do the same.’ ‘How d’you mean?’ I said. ‘Make the Great Decision,’ he said. ‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘We’ll see.’” (p.72)
I relate this novel because it is so true to life. Some people are motivated by unresolved sexual issues in their lives to become involved in the church and even the ordained ministry – even in these days of sexual orientation and growing affirmation of gay and lesbian sexuality. To reject such people is to reject them deeply and to fail to understand their suffering – like Raymond’s.
Furthermore, Ebenezer Le Page has difficulty with homosexual issues at first but as he grows older he mellows. Many years later he opens up his home to guests.
“There was two I did like;… Geoffrey and Tony was their proper names, but they called each other Gib and Tib. …. Geoffrey was dark and ugly…. Tony was fair and good‑looking, and reminded me of the young German Raymond was friendly with…. Geoffrey thought the world of Tony.
“I didn’t like fat LeBas:….As it happened while we was talking Geoffrey and Tony passed on the other side; so I shouted, ‘Got your passports?’ They laughed. ‘Goodness, you don’t know those two, do you?’ said fat Le Bas. ‘Can’t you see what they are?’ It is true Tony was happy, and walking along rather as if he was dancing. I said, ‘Yes, I know them well. They have been living in my house for a week.’ ‘Their sort ought to be shot!’ he said. God, coming from him, it made me go hot under the collar! I don’t say he had been caught doing anything wrong; but everybody knew he had been warned off time and again for hanging round the schools, when the children was coming out, with bags of sweets to offer to the little girls. I said, ‘It take all sorts to make a world, my boy; or you, for one, wouldn’t be allowed to live in it.’
“I did wonder if perhaps he was right about Geoffrey and Tony; and, if so, I was sorry. I have never liked the idea of that sort of thing; yet the way he spoke about them made me want to stick up for them. That evening when they came in, I went out of my way to make it pleasant for them. I don’t keep beer in the house, as a rule; but I got in a few bottles… and we stayed up talking and drinking until midnight.
“I gave them a couple of ormer shells to remember Guernsey by. I gave one to each, and I didn’t think I had chosen one better than the other, but Geoffrey gave the one I had given him to Tony, and Tony gave his to Geoffrey…(They said) they exchange everything they have, and even wear each other’s clothes sometimes. I said, ‘That’s all right then.’ When they shook hands and wished me goodbye, Geoffrey said I couldn’t know how much it had meant to them to have a friendly face to come back to every evening, and Tony said I had made their holiday. Ah well, I suppose I could have done worse”. (pp. 335-336)
Scripture, Traditioning, modern psychology and sexual orientation – these aren’t always the deepest issues in us, are they? Some of us are like Ebenezer Le Page. It takes some getting used to. Peter and Gentiles. Homosexuals and us. It takes time. Perhaps like Ebenezer we need to sit down and write it through, or take a walk and stroll it through, or kneel and pray it through, to really meet gay and lesbian persons face to face, person to person. The time has come for the church to change again. New traditioning is asked of us by the God who called us and the evolving culture in which we find ourselves. This is change, but change through the Gospel, filled with hope and love. We will be blessed.