The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) has released their latest statement on the issue of homosexuality and the church – Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust. The document makes recommendation to the 5-million member polity how the ELCA ought to deal with the issue of homosexuality, both in general as well as in terms of the ordination of homosexual clergy. The ELCA’s most recent position has been to allow for homosexual clergy to be ordained, so long as they remain celibate. That stance has been openly challenged by certain ELCA clergy, and an updated and more comprehensive statement of position has been necessary. This was drafted by the Task Force for ELCA Studies on Sexuality.
While the ELCA is the largest Lutheran polity in America, they are also the most liberal in terms of their positions and treatments of issues such as homosexuality. Belonging to the roughly 2-million member Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod
, which has a decidedly more conservative stance on this issue
, I was interested to read in detail the ELCA’s future position.
Page 9 of the 33-page document (lines 299-303) provide the first concrete statement dealing with the issue of homosexuality. The ELCA asserts that the issue of sexual orientation is not a matter of salvation. In other words, whether you believe that homosexuality is acceptable or actively practicing homosexuality, will not affect the issue of salvation if you accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior.
On the surface level, this is true. Sin is sin – and sexual sin is not different fundamentally in God’s eyes than shoplifting or blasphemy. All sin separates us from God and, short of repentance and acceptance of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, condemns us to eternal separation from God. However, the issue that needs to be dealt with here is one of submission to the Biblical authority. While a specific sin is not something that will separate us from salvation, the issue becomes acknowledging sin as sin, or else attempting to whitewash it as something else. If the Bible speaks specifically to the issue of sexual orientation (and it does), then as followers of Jesus Christ it is incumbent upon us to accept that Biblical authority, rather than exert our rebellious, sinful nature to contradict and argue against it, declaring a sin not to be a sin, and attempting to justify our behavior. We all sin – continually. But Christians are called to confess this, to repent of this, and to struggle against it, whether it’s a matter of sexual sin, shoplifting, blasphemy, or anything else. The issue at stake is whether or not we allow God to determine the normative boundaries of our lives, or we insist on defining them for ourselves. If the latter is the sake, then this is hardly a position of repentance, hardly a confession of sin, hardly a request for forgiveness. And that sort of attitude *is* threatening to our salvation.
Lines 326-331 add to this by further distancing the issue of sexuality from a Biblical perspective, and instead relegating the issue to “moral discernment and practical wisdom”. These are indeed gifts of God, but they hardly operate independently – or in contradiction to – Scriptural authority. The Task Force appears to be separating the sexual issue from any sort of Biblical statement, and relegating it strictly to the realm of our best efforts at making sense of things.
Framing their discussion on sexuality in terms of a trust issue, the document continues. They acknowledge that sexuality can be used to “serve God and serve the neighbor”, but interestingly acknowledge only that improper sexual conduct can hurt self or hurt the neighbor. They seem to eliminate the dimension of displeasing God, who determined proper sexual relationship in Genesis, and reiterates the male-female, monogamous model throughout the Old and New Testaments. It’s also interesting that in the notes on page 10, gender is defined strictly in terms of human construction and definition, again with the implication that the Bible does not define gender in very specific ways which may or may not match current social and cultural treatments of the topic.
Again in lines 367-372, sexual behavior is defined strictly in terms of “individual and communal consequences”, deliberately ignoring the spiritual consequences coram deo. I find it interesting that in the following lines 374-377, sexuality’s proper place is nowhere explicitly stated as within the bonds of marriage and lifelong monogamy. While I’m willing to bend over backwards and assume that there is this assumption on the part of the Task Force, it’s rather disturbing that it isn’t treated explicitly here.
Line 424 is troubling. After multiple lines extolling the benefits of trust as the foundation of all relationships (based on modern social science theories, rather than the Bible, interestingly enough), the statement is made that “Social trust is grounded in the practice of mutual respect for the dignity of all people and their consciences.” No, this is not the basis of trust. If that is the basis of trust and our exhortations to be trustworthy, then we are doomed to failure. Our current economic debacle should be hearty evidence enough that mankind does not instinctively act altruistically for the good of all. That without a grounding in Christian understandings of the world that demand that all men and women are equal and must therefore be loved, protected, and trustworthy, we are definitely up a creek with no paddles and only about 2/10 of an actual boat. If the foundation of trust is ourselves, we might as well give up and go home, lock the door and load the guns, because it ain’t happenin’.
Lines 435-438 continue the dangerous trends away from the Church’s true reason for existing, and towards a socially acceptable reason. “This church must be a leader in refocusing attention and practices and attitudes that build social trust. Likewise, it must contribute to the development of responsible economic and social policies and practices that shape the expression of sexuality within social life.” Actually, the Bible has already done that, in which case, it would be the job of any true church to faithfully bear witness to what the Bible states, since I’m fairly certain we aren’t going to improve over Scripture in terms of practical means of taking care of others and upholding the best sexual policies.
The lists in lines 461-485 are wonderful, but carefully avoid any mention of sexual proprietariness of any sort. The list could just as easily be applied towards a defense of bestiality or pedophilia as to homosexual or heterosexual relationships. This is the danger of leaving behind Biblical precepts on our behavior – regardless of how unpopular they might be with certain segments of society – and attempting to come up with some good ideas on our own.
Lines 502-508 finally go back to Scripture, referencing Mark 10:6-9 to affirm that historically, the Lutheran church has defined marriage as between a man and a woman – because that’s how the Bible affirms it to be. I think it’s interesting that page 15’s discussion of divorce nowhere mentions the Biblical restrictions on divorce (for adultery and emotional/physical abandonment), but simply affirms that the church will minister effectively to the divorced. I agree that this is an important role of the church – but I think the church also needs to take a fairly strong stand in reminding peopl
e who wish to marry in the Christian faith that the Bible has some pretty strong limitations on how and when divorce can occur.
Page 17 spends an awful lot of time stressing that not everyone is likely to agree on issues regarding same-sex relationships. It completely avoids dealing with the thorny issue of Mark 10, which it brought up previously and which clearly indicates that marriage (and therefore sexual expression, which is Biblically limited to the marital relationship) is intended specifically as heterosexual in nature. This seems like an awfully glaring hole in the effort towards cohesiveness within this document.
Page 18 relegates *all* attitudes on the issue of same-sex relationships and marriage to the murky area of “conscience-bound belief”. Some find support for their belief in Scriptures and others don’t. It seems obvious that this paper is not going to deal with the issue of what Scripture has to say on the issue, that this is apparently a foregone conclusion for the Task Force preparing this document. I would think that this severely limits their ability to provide an even treatment of the issue, if they’ve already ruled out Scripture’s commentary on the topic – or have already determined that it doesn’t have a commentary on the issue. I would think they would clearly state this then, as part of their operating assumptions. Thus far, they haven’t.
Page 20, lines 727-732 and the notes associated with this section are interesting. The text of the document indicates that heterosexual unions in the 20th century (and not earlier!??!?) were supported by social conventions. The text notes state that “Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions assume and encourage households, similar to this (heterosexual married, nuclear family) model”. No, the Scripture defines it, it doesn’t just assume it. God places Adam and Eve together. They have children together. Sounds pretty married, pretty heterosexual. ‘Nuclear’ is a rather arbitrary 20th century further delineation of a type of household that includes only parents and immediate children. The Bible makes it clear that while the foundation of the family is the married heterosexual couple, there are certainly no restrictions on the incorporation of additional family members as part of the household unit.
Lines 763-765: “…this church must work toward greater understanding of sexual orientation and gender identity. It must seek that which is positive and life-giving while protecting from all that is harmful and destructive.” These lines occur in a context which clearly asserts that same-sex marriages are and can be life-giving and appropriate, and therefore need to be supported, and that those who disagree with this are causing damage and harmfulness that violate the trust relationship the document claims is the Church’s primary concern, and which thus are acting contrary to the will of God to love our neighbor. Wow, that’s a pretty convenient way of dismissing any opposition to your position, even if the opposition is based on the Scriptures that you yourself cite but chose to ignore (Mark 10).
I like the statement beginning at line 937 which exhorts the church to not blindly follow popular standards of beauty that distort the Bible’s teaching about us as creations of God. This document addresses a variety of sexual issues other than homosexual unions, and I think some of their statements in other areas (against sexual exploitation, for sexual education & discussion) are quite helpful.
Most of Section VI seems to waffle back and forth. A strong tone seems wanted and warranted, but it seems constantly undermined by mitigating language, even if the intent of the mitigating language is not to actually contradict official positions. People are inclined to cohabitate without being married. There are lots of reasons for this – social, economic, personal, sexual, etc. If the church does not believe this is right, then say it and be done with it. Saying that you don’t condone it, and then lamenting about all of the various pressures and reasons that people use to justify it is not helpful. If we are called Biblically to certain standards of behavior, then we are expected to attempt and meet those standards regardless of other pressures.
Lines 1121-1124 are disappointing, as once again they ignore God’s role in things, and treat the issue of procreation as simply a matter between a man and a woman, who need to be “responsible”. Again, the Bible has wonderful contributions to this topic, which remind us that children are a gift from God, and thus, the issue of conception is not strictly an issue between the man and woman involved. But none of that is acknowledged here, which is really a shame – as well as dangerously misleading.
Wow. Lines 1143-1149 highlight the high trust that is placed in ministers and agents of the church, and talks about the high expectations that are placed on them in terms of their behavior, because of the trust that they are afforded by their position. But there is no statement of position on how the church will deal with abuses in this arena. It simply affirms that any such indiscretions are a violation of trust. I would think that, given the climate of mistrust that has been fostered in regards to the church by the abuses of clergy, a more specific statement on the ramifications for such violations of trust would have been included.
In the Conclusion section, lines 1238-1241 propose that the ELCA should in practice allow (and therefore promote) the ordination of any homosexual in a same-sex civil union, domestic partnership or marriage. Since the document doesn’t define domestic partnership (is this a legal term, or a term of convenience for ‘living together’ or ‘involved with’ someone of the same sex?), it would seem to leave the door wide open for a variety of situations regarding homosexual clergy. Again, there is no effort made to legitimize this stance in light of the Mark 10 passage quoted earlier in the document. Nowhere in this document is a theological treatment of the Bible’s stance on the issue of sexuality either alluded to or provided. It’s as though the Bible didn’t exist. That seems like a problematic stance, at best, for an organization asserting it’s identity as a part of the Body of Christ. Jesus, incidentally, *did* affirm the authority of the Scriptures in totality. This would also leave the ELCA in an awkward position, since they’re not just ignoring Jesus’ specific statements on marriage, but the entire Bible’s treatment of the issue of sexuality.
I was hoping for some better understanding of the ELCA’s current and proposed position. Unfortunately, this document does not provide one, beyond the mantra of ‘trust’. We must build trust, and to build trust, we must accept others and support them. I agree. But the church also has the unique and at times quite difficult role of reminding the world that it was created by God, and that God gets to set the terms for healthy living. God defines the grounds on which trust may be built. I can build trust with someone while pointing out to them the error of their behavior. It’s harder to do so, since the other person will need to be willing to hear what I say. But it’s still a means of building trust. Simply accepting anything anyone wants to do because that’s what will build trust completely ignores what the Bible calls the church to as a witness of Jesus Christ and a foreshadowing of the Kingdom of God. We ultimately provide a major disservice to people when we fail to point out the Bible’s teaching about their lives. That isn’t building trust, it’s setting someone up for a very big, very dangerous fall.
By the logic in this report, we ought not treat
*any* form of behavior as unacceptable, since that might violate trust, or prevent trust from being built. Yet I’m sure that the ELCA would affirm that murder is not appropriate or acceptable behavior, and that embezzlement would clearly be in violation of the 10 Commandments, and that coveting your neighbor’s stuff and plotting to steal it for yourself would be wrong. Clearly, life is not relativistic. Clearly, the church would acknowledge that some behavior is incorrect. I would imagine the church would go to the Bible as the basis for that conviction. So I find it odd that the ELCA would so completely and categorically ignore the Bible on this issue.
I can love my homosexual neighbor without declaring that their lifestyle is pleasing to God. I can befriend a homosexual and build a friendship of trust without sacrificing the integrity of my beliefs. It might be harder, since the other person might not like my disagreement. But I don’t control their reaction. I can only try to love them and be honest with them and seek God’s loving best for them – which does not include ignoring what He has to say about my life and their life.
I’m not surprised by the ELCA’s direction in this report. But it’s disappointing. Disappointing, and very, very dangerous.