Though it was one of the last things I really wanted to do, I felt obligated to argue for traditional Christian sexual ethics at two “dialogues” or “debates” sponsored by the Northern Illinois Synod and the Central/Southern Illinois Synod in November 2003. The task was made easier by the presence of Martha Stortz as a debate partner. We are friends of long standing, which made any lapse into angry exchange very unlikely. The situation was helped by the scrupulously fair “refereeing” of Troy Hedrick, another friend of longstanding. No hissing against or applause for either presenter.
The following text contains the most persuasive case I can make for faithfulness to our traditional Christian teaching on sexuality. I offer it to Let’s Talk, a journal that I have followed and admired from afar. The journal represents a posture of openness in a synod that seems to have made up its mind. But I know there are many in the Chicago Metro Synod who are committed to the kind of perspective I articulate. I hope this essay strengthens their resolve to resist the church-splitting changes that are being proposed by many in the ELCA. Further, I hope this essay stimulates the latter group to think again,because they simply have not made the required overwhelming case for change in teachings of such duration and universality.
Usually I start a lecture by telling the audience how happy I am to be there. This time I cannot say that. I am unhappy about having to make this lecture. I would prefer to lecture on the Christian life as it is depicted in the new edition of my book Ordinary Saints, but when I got to the chapter on marriage and family life, this topic would come up. It would even be safer to lecture about Christian higher education, which I talk about a lot more than I talk about this subject. AndI enjoy that immensely because I think most Christians of good will want to keep our colleges Christian in some sort of meaningful way. Unfortunately, that is not our topic.
I am unhappy because I have to argue for teachings that I thought were stable and settled, since they have been accepted throughout Christian history by 99% of the world’s churches. I would much prefer to live in a religious communion that is not contemplating voting down moral teachings of such duration and universality in a week-long Churchwide assembly, where 40% of the assembly will be at their first assembly. I believe it is highly improper to subject core doctrine to democratic vote.
I am even more unhappy because a vote to revise these teachings will place many of us in different churches after 2005. We will no longer be in communion with one another, or, if we still are, it will be a vastly different kind of relationship. Friends of long duration will be separated by a big divide.
But the fact of the matter is that the issue has been raised powerfully by many persons within the ELCA. What has been presumed must now be argued, no matter how painful that might be. And since so many are fearful of arguing for traditional Christian moral teachings (it is a bizarre fact that those standing for the tradition feel intimidated in various ways!!), someone has to. And for this time and place, it is I.
I want to place my argument in two contexts that are very important for me. The first is that I believe the move to capitulate on important Christian moral teachings is a sign of further accommodation to a culture that has few moral restraints, one that is very close to license. Anything goes between consenting adults, particularly if the activities are kept private. The liberal Protestant churches are following this trend, refusing to stand up for a more challenging and lofty sexual ethic. Those churches are in decline because they offer little that people can’t get from the culture. They have lost interest in and zeal for theGospel and are far more interested in the social and political convictions of the secular elite. They are squishy on doctrine and personal ethics; dogmatic on political and social issues. They send fewer missionaries abroad and start fewer churches at home. They cannot hold their youth, and they have fewer of them.
I fear that the ELCA is being drawn into this liberalProtestant drift. In many ways, the proposals to morally legitimate homosexual behavior are the last straw for many people, myself included, who view these proposals as a headlong rush toward theEpiscopalians, Unitarians, Reformed Jews, and the United Church of Christ, all of whom have accepted the homosexual agenda. They are the most accommodated, and therefore generally declining,religious groups. I am deeply saddened that a Lutheran confessional church would even consider following such a trajectory.
The issue of liberal Protestant drift leads to the second context for my remarks, which is the general laxity in teaching and practice concerning heterosexual morality in our own church. It is a legitimate point that gays and lesbian make when they point out that we have accepted and accommodated to all sorts of heterosexual shenanigans but now want to draw the line at homosexual behavior. I share their indignation but come to quite different conclusions. I was shocked when we had our first divorced bishop, which I do not think should be allowed. I am shocked when pastors divorce and do not miss a Sunday in the pulpit. I am irked when we fail to teach that “true love waits” and when we accept cohabitation as easily as the secular society around us. Our accommodation to culture gives our people little of a wholesome and challenging alternative. If we are to hold the line with gays and lesbians, we also are obligated to teach a more demanding sexual morality for everyone. But I fear that we do not have the courage to do that, and therefore we will have few grounds for resisting the homosexual agenda.
We need a renewed commitment to the grand teachings ofChristianity on these matters, beginning with a retrieval of our doctrine of marriage, around which all Christian sexual ethics revolve.
I cannot go into a comprehensive account of Christian marriage as I have done in Chapter Seven of Ordinary Saints. But I must make some summary statements.
In the creation account God makes man and woman in his image. They are two complementary parts of God’s image. They fit together physically, biologically, emotionally, and spiritually. To overcome their loneliness and to provide the continuation of the species, they are given the primal covenant of marriage. In marriage a man and woman are regarded as a single organism, “one flesh.” Sexual relations are reserved for that covenant. As C.S. Lewis remarked, the Christian rule is simple: “Either marriage, with complete faithfulness to your spouse, or else total abstinence.”
There is a prescribed biological form that underlies theChristian notion of marriage. A woman and a man are to become one flesh in marriage. Quite frankly, such an arrangement is the way—and the only way—provided by the Creator for perpetuating the species, which is why it is so important. We are forbidden sexual relations outside the marital bond and its biological form. The Old and New Testaments agree that we are forbidden sexual relations with those too close to us, incest, those too different from us, bestiality, those for whom there is too great a gap in maturity, pedophilia, and for those too much like us, homosexuality. That sense of limits is deeply embedded in the Bible and in Christian tradition.
Jesus strongly assumes and affirms this whole tradition when he speaks of marriage in Matthew 19: “Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh?’ What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder.”
Paul likens marriage love to Christ’s love for the church andGod’s love for Israel. In good marriages persons obtain perhaps the most consistent and sustained experience of unconditional love in this life,which will be completed and perfected in the life to come. This love also provides the best context for begetting and nourishing children.
There is no trace of any material in the Bible or in the tradition that affirms homosexual relations as pleasing to God or as an equally valid alternative to heterosexual relations. All mention of homosexual behavior is negative, not like the many mixed references to slavery, women’s leadership in the Bible, and extending the mission of the gospel from the Jews to the Gentiles. Furthermore, the normative structure of sexual relations in the Bible is always heterosexual, an overwhelming and pervasive assumption that is not challenged by anyone, including Jesus.
All this was accepted as the settled teaching of allChristian churches until recently. From within the churches themselves have arisen persons—both homosexual and heterosexual—who believe the traditional teaching to be wrong, unloving, and unfair. Among that movement are biblical scholars and theologians who have challenged the settled teachings that seem to come from the Bible. They have argued on a number of fronts that a common sense reading of the Bible is not as compelling as people have thought. A major effort has been made to relativize the Bible’s teachings on these matters.
Further, they have argued, since the Bible does not say what it seems to say, the whole Christian moral tradition has gotten it wrong. That tradition now needs revision to include loving, committed homosexual behavior as morally acceptable. If that change can be made, the next step is to bless homosexual unions and ordain homosexuals in partnered relationships.
These arguments sparked quite a counterattack. After most of the dust has settled, it seems clear that even the revisionists admit that one cannot change the moral tradition on the basis of the Bible or Christian tradition. One major player in the debate, George Hunsinger, a Reformed theologian at Princeton,says this in a series of theses entitled “There is a Third Way,” “The plain sense ofScripture regards homosexuality as sin. The efforts to deny this sense have failed (Scroggs, Boswell, Martin) and efforts to uphold it have succeeded (Hays, Wright,Gagnon)…or so it is reasonable to believe.”
Lutheran Paul Jersild, who also believes our moral teachings should be revised, said this in his paper entitled “On Homosexuality: The Need for Reassessment”: “There is no question that the Bible and Christian tradition have overwhelmingly if not uniformly understood as conveying a negative judgment of homosexuality. There is no point in trying to argue that Scripture does not in fact deliver a negative judgment on this subject.”
Walter Wink, a revisionist professor from Union Seminary in New York, in a very nasty review of Robert Gagnon’s book, The Bible and Homosexual Practice, says this: “Simply put, the Bible is negative toward same-sex behavior, and there is no getting around it.” (Christian Century, June 5-12, 2002.) Gagnon drives revisionists crazy because he has thought of every topic thinkable with regard to these issues, and has lengthy, scholarly responses to all who challenge his findings.
These concessions have been offered after revisionist biblical scholars tried to argue that Paul did not know about consensual homosexual sex (he did because there was much of it in the ancient world), that ancients did not know about a homosexual orientation (they did, but did not call it by that name), that the Sodom texts were not about homosexual behavior but about inhospitality (they were about both inhospitality and homosexual rape), that the strictures about homosexual behavior are merely part of holiness and purity requirements (they aren’t since Christians accepted them along with the strictures on incest and bestiality. 89 of the 94 verses in Leviticus 18 are moral injunctions that Christians accepted.)
Nor have the analogies to slavery, women’s status in the church, or the extension of the gospel to the Gentiles helped in the efforts to legitimate homosexual behavior. In all those cases there are already in the biblical materials themselves sources for revision. The Bible testifies against itself. When Paul tells Philemon that he should treat Onesimus as a Christian brother, slavery is undermined. When many women are named as leaders in early Christian communities, exclusively male leadership is susceptible to challenge. When Jesus heals the child of the Samaritan woman and makes the Samaritan the hero in one of his most famous parables, the exclusion of Gentiles from the gospel of Jesus is undercut. But where is there any evidence of such contrary testimony with regard to homosexuality?
So the question is about the authority of the Bible. We cannot interpret this negativity away. It is not about hermeneutics or about how Lutherans interpret the Bible. We can revise our teachings but the new teachings will be against the biblical witness, not merely a reinterpretation of that witness.
Moreover, hardly anyone argues that Christian moral tradition is a resource for change. As I said before, there seems to be unanimity there. So what is left for those who want to go against the testimony of scripture and tradition? It seems that all want to appeal to our oneness in Christ, our compassion, our commitment to inclusivity, our sense of fairness. I am certainly moved by those appeals but am compelled in another direction by the combined witness of the Bible and Christian tradition, including the Lutheran heritage.
Let it be clear that the gospel is addressed to all persons, including homosexuals. We are all recipients of the grace of God in Christ. Before God no one can stand on his or her own, and before God all are exalted in Christ if they believe in his promises. That is the gospel. But the gospel makes no sense without the Law that articulates the commands of God, which are the source of both our repentance and our discipleship. God accepts us not because of who we are and how we behave, but in spite of who we are and how we behave. But we who receive the gospel are to live lives of obedient love, a love ordered by the commandments of God. And the commandments of God, as I have shown above, simply do not leave much wiggle-room as far as the normative teaching of the church goes. Pastoral matters, as I shall deal with presently, are another matter.
The arguments I have made above for supporting traditional teachings on sexual morality are theological and biblical in nature. These are the most important arguments, because we must build our case for stability or change on the basis of biblical and theological arguments. However, there are many more practical arguments that need to be noted. I will elaborate five of them. I will end with a combined argument of biblical/theological and practical reasons that I believe is conclusive.
1. First, we will split the church if we decide to bless homosexual unions and ordain homosexuals in partnered relationships. A large number of congregations will leave. (In the ELCA each congregation owns its property and can leave the ELCA. Only when it disbands does the property go to the Synod or the ELCA. This is quite different than the situation with Episcopal parishes, which revert to the diocese if the congregation chooses to leave the Episcopal Church. And even with that provision, the Episcopalians are experiencing a firestorm, and that in a church that is far less respectful of the Bible and theology than the Lutheran.) Perhaps more ELCA congregations will simply withdraw support. They will treat the ELCA and its Synods as one other association to which they have to pay token dues, but not the church. Conservative synods may bolt in toto. It is hard to imagine what will happen.
Many intense Lutherans will press their churches to leave,or, failing that, find other churches that maintain biblical and traditional teachings. Research indicates that the most intense Lutherans are conservative on these issues and give the most to the church. Their loss will be very damaging.
Pastors will be put in the painful position of wondering whether they can stay in the ELCA. Some have already left. Others vow they will. Many others will be pressed to decide.
Thing swill really get dicey when the church begins to teach children in Sunday Schools throughout the land that homosexual relations are equivalent to heterosexual. Laypersons may well tolerate a good deal of slack in adult behavior, but when it comes to teaching their children it will be entirely another matter. Young people have enough difficulty finding a solid sexual identity without the church giving confusing messages.
2. Second, we will distance ourselves from the great ecumenical consensus on these matters held by Catholics, Orthodox, evangelicals, and even most mainstream Protestant denominations. We will join declining religious groups who have had a sorry record of doctrinal and ethical laxity. The Episcopalians could not bring themselves to chastise the heretical Bishop John Spong but have brought themselves to ordain a gay Bishop. So much for trusting overmuch in bishops. If we really want to be like them, let’s bless gay unions and ordain partnered homosexuals. As for me, movement toward them and away from the orthodox bodies would be appalling.
3. Third, we will continue to contribute to the general undermining of the Christian vision of marriage as we already have done in a massive fashion. The church’s acceptance of the society’s approach to “no-fault” divorce has done its nefarious work. It will not be possible to hold the distinction between “blessing” and “marrying” homosexuals in the church, just as heterosexuals have blurred the line between cohabitation and marriage. Blessing gay unions will also tend to qualify the requirement of sexual fidelity that guides heterosexual marriage. A goodly share of gay Christian men holds that requirement in contempt. Andrew Sullivan, the gay Catholic gadfly, for example, argues that gays will help redefine marriage by making it more open. Both cohabitation and such blessing will offer a number of different versions of being together; marriage will be one option among others in both church and society. An objective institution will be defined by individual preference. So much for the Holy Estate.
4. Fourth, we cannot rely on the social or psychological sciences for conclusive evidence on any of these issues. Even the Kinsey claim that 10% of the male population is gay turns out to be propaganda. But even responsible social scientists are badly divided on these matters. As regards there being a “gay gene” or “gay brain,” which is cited by many activists to claim that homosexuals were made the way they are, the scientist, Simon Levay, who originally proposed the idea, and who is himself gay, says: “It is important to stress what I didn’t find. I did not prove that homosexuality is genetic, or find a genetic cause for being gay. I didn’t show that gay men are born that way, the most common mistake made in interpreting my work. Nor did I locate a gay center in the brain.” (Discover 15:3, 4-7).
The origin of homosexuality is murky, but it seems clear that a certain portion of homosexuals can move toward heterosexuality if they are strongly motivated. The scientist that originally proposed that homosexuality be taken off the list of psychological disorders by the American Psychiatric Association in the early 70s, Robert Spitzer, now argues that some homosexuals can change. Mert Strommen, our distinguished Lutheran social scientist, says that research indicates that homosexuals can be “healed” in the same percentages as those with other problems — one third cannot change, one third can change with continuing struggle, and one third can make a thorough revision of their orientation and behavior. But this viewpoint has been strongly suppressed in the church. Exodus International, a Christian group dedicated to the “healing” of homosexuals, was kicked off the premises of the Metropolitan DC Synod Assembly a few years back.
Whether science can ever prove the causes of homosexuality is somewhat beside the point from a theological perspective. From that perspective, homosexuality is “disordered and imperfect,” to use Catholic language. It is a symptom of the fallen creation, not God’s intention, at least as it has been revealed in the Bible and the church’s moral tradition. Therefore, we ought to give as many as desire it a chance to move away from a way of life that, even under the best conditions, has negative effects on health and longevity.
5. Fifth, I believe that the blessing of homosexual unions and ordaining partnered homosexuals will repel heterosexual men from the church and especially from the ordained ministry. We can learn something from the great Catholic fiasco of recent years — the misbehavior of gay Catholic priests toward adolescent boys. Some Catholic seminaries evidently tolerated a “culture of dissent” among their faculty and students. Priests broke their vows of obedience and celibacy and engaged in sex among themselves but later also with adolescent boys, with disastrous effects. Heterosexual priests were often deterred and repelled from the priesthood in those seminaries. A similar trajectory could happen in Lutheran seminaries, which already have a difficult time recruiting quality male candidates.
In summary, I believe it is clear that the Bible and the church’s tradition speak clearly on the issues before us. They voice strong moral disapproval of homosexual behavior. There are also many practical reasons—-I have offered five of them—that should make us think twice about blessing homosexual unions and ordaining partnered homosexuals.
It seems to me the clinching argument is this: There must be overwhelming arguments—biblically and confessionally based—for the overturning of a moral teaching of such universality and duration. Even though we might wish it to be the case, the arguments put forth thus far are not overwhelming, to say the least. We simply cannot change such moral teachings with the arguments and evidence that are currently available. Perhaps someday, but I think not.
While I think it would be unwise and wrong for the ELCA to change its public teaching and policies on these issues, it is important to be pastorally as compassionate as possible. We all commit sins and rely upon the gracious tolerance of the church to include us. Such a policy of gracious tolerance should also be extended to the Christian homosexuals among us. They indeed are our brothers and sisters, children, and friends.
As with all sin, though, forgiveness follows repentance and leads to efforts to follow God’s Commandments. The church should continue to call those who are homosexual by orientation—whatever its provenance or duration—to a “heroic” response. That is, they should be called to practice sexual abstinence, sublimating their sexual energies into other pursuits. Heterosexual singles ought to be held to the same standard. The church has long honored such responses and should continue to do so. Indeed, such a “heroic” response ought to be the only one for persons who want to be ordained in the ELCA.
It would be naïve to argue that this can be the church’s only response for lay Christians. In our present culture, some lay Christians who are homosexual by orientation will engage in sexual relations with members of their own sex. Some will act promiscuously but others will seek more stable unions. Many homosexuals will remain “in the closet” and participate incognito in church life, but others will insist that the church formally recognize their sexual identity and bless their unions. Gays and lesbians of all sorts of persuasion are present in our churches, and there seems to be widespread confusion about the church’s proper pastoral response to this fact. Given the normative teaching outlined above, what pastoral strategy toward homosexuals should be adopted by churches and Christian individuals?
As mentioned above, I would propose a strategy of gracious tolerance. By “gracious” I mean that the church — both clergy and lay — should greet all persons coming into the fellowship of the church with a warm welcome. After all, we are a company of forgiven sinners. Many homosexuals who prefer to keep their sexual identity private will accept this welcome and participate fully in the life of the church. Many who are in partnered relationships may also wish to keep the sexual nature of their friendships hidden or unclear.
As long as such persons do not openly violate or flaunt the normative teachings of the church, they should also be greeted and accepted graciously. The church can even affirm the rich elements of friendship in their ongoing relationship, though not its sexual elements. The latter need not be revealed or probed. The church does not probe others who do not live up to the moral ideals of the church. Kindliness, inclusion, and support would be the order of the day in these cases, as it is for all the church’s members. Repentance, forgiveness, and amendment of life should be left for homosexuals to work out privately, as is the case for other persons who struggle with the moral demands of the Christian life.
For those who are struggling with sexual identity in their lives, “graciousness” would mean first of all an effort to help them sort out who they are and who they wish to become. Though some homosexuals seem irretrievably caught in their same-sex desires, many young people are simply confused about their sexual identities. Some have been seduced by older men. It is gracious in these cases to help them move toward heterosexual desires so that they can grow in that direction in their prospective sexual relationships. For those persons who have inclinations toward same-sex desires but who want to move toward a heterosexual identity, various therapies may be helpful. For both these kinds of persons, it is particularly important that the public teaching of the church affirm heterosexual norms.
For those who seem “fixed” in their orientation, it is consistent with our argument above to counsel abstinence. Like other singles, homosexuals are called to refrain from sexual relations. In cases in which abstinence is not being observed, it is gracious privately and tentatively to encourage sexual fidelity within committed friendships. Such an arrangement is far better than the dangerous promiscuity practiced by a significant portion of the homosexual subculture. From a Christian point of view, it is the lesser of evils. But their sexual relations are still disordered and imperfect, even though other elements in their friendship are admirable. It is important continually to hold up the Christian ideal before such homosexual pairs. Perhaps in time they can work toward celibate friendships. Perhaps some may wish to engage in reparative therapy. This gradual process assumes a strong pastoral commitment to such pairs. Without that the pastoral counsel will sound simply as judgmental hectoring.
It would be disastrously wrong publicly to bless such arrangements. It would send too many wrong messages to the church. To those who regard homosexual relations as sinful, it would signal that the church blesses sin. To those who are struggling with their own sexual identity, it would put an imprimatur on desires and activities they need to resist. Opposition to public blessing reminds us that there are limits to the church’s graciousness. Those limits have to do with tolerance, the second word in our phrase, “gracious tolerance.”
Tolerance does not mean that anything goes, as our permissive culture tends to view it. Tolerance, while it suggests a liberal and open-minded attitude toward persons whose beliefs and actions are different from one’s own, also denotes forbearance and endurance. Tolerance, therefore, has its limits. (A bridge, for example, tolerates a certain tonnage but no more.) We tolerate — that is, we forbear and endure — beliefs and actions that diverge from our own. However, if certain beliefs and actions violate our core convictions, we do not tolerate them. We oppose them and act against them. And properly so; personal integrity and courage are at stake. On the other hand, our level of tolerance is more elastic with regards to beliefs and actions that go counter to our less central or peripheral values, such as preferences, tastes, or opinions.
The church, like individuals, can tolerate all sorts of opinions and practices that involve peripheral matters. It can allow a great deal of latitude on how Christians should apply Christian moral teachings to issues of public policy. It can tolerate a number of forms of worship and preaching. It can tolerate sharp disagreements about practical matters that, while important, are not essential to the core teaching and practices of the church. It can even tolerate many persons whose behavior is out of line with its teaching. Indeed, it can—and must—-tolerate all of us sinners who fall short of what the commandments of God demand. In a sense we are all tolerated by the church.
However, the church is the Body of Christ and responsible for maintaining its apostolic witness. It is entrusted by its Lord with the gospel—the full-blown Trinitarian faith, as well as with the central practices that follow from it. Certainly the commandments are included in its moral core. Therefore, direct, public challenges in word and deed to its core convictions and practices simply cannot be tolerated. Challenges to the tradition’s teaching on homosexuality are directed at that core.
This does not mean that those core convictions and practices cannot be discussed and debated. There must be a zone of freedom where persons can carry on spirited conversation on central issues that are puzzling or even offensive to them. The youth of the church must be allowed to ask questions about those key issues. Such a zone should be provided in the educational program of the church. At regional and national levels of the church there is room for such discussion. But the proliferation of opinions at that level should not confuse or qualify the normative teaching of the church in its preaching or catechesis. At the level of normative, official teaching and preaching, the church has a tradition to convey clearly and confidently. Official representatives of the church are obligated to preserve and convey that tradition until it is officially changed, and on core issues, that change can only come after decades of reflection, discussion, and prayer.
With regard to these sexuality issues, the church cannot tolerate significant “cultures of dissent” that publicly impugn the teaching of the church by contrary teaching and behavior. Permissiveness toward such dissenters makes the church appear hypocritical, ineffectual, or unwilling to hold dissenters accountable to its moral teachings. In recent years it has led to crises of sexual misconduct in both Protestantism and Catholicism. Likewise, if it is to be one church, it cannot tolerate public repudiation of its teachings by individual congregations or synods. Nor can it tolerate a compromise in which both the traditional and the revisionist perspectives officially co-exist, for that means that the teaching of the church has indeed changed; there is no normative perspective on these matters. The one church must maintain its unified, normative tradition in a disciplined fashion until it is changed.
Finally, the church cannot tolerate relentless and unceasing challenges to its normative teaching on sexuality. Such is the route to depletion and decrease. There has to be an agreement that its settled convictions cannot be challenged indefinitely. Once a church has re-affirmed its teaching, there has to be a decent interval of surcease from continued challenges.
In conclusion, it seems to me that the normative issues — what we ought to teach—are clear. We should hold to our tradition’s teaching on sexual ethics. A break with teachings of such duration and universality would be a very, very serious matter…a traumatic one. Arguments for revision are simply not so compelling as to overthrow the moral presumption held by millennia and billions of Christians. The case has not been made.
But there is great room for pastoral compassion and even flexibility—-gracious tolerance. As one pastor put it, “I dearly wish the ELCA would support its traditional teaching but allow us to deal with these issues in our own parish contexts.”