It's Not About Homosexuality--Not Really
It is not only, or perhaps even primarily, about homosexuality. My whimsical lament “I Think I Want a Divorce” got quite an echo in “this church”; apparently, the bone-deep disenchantment articulated in the piece has been building up among theologically serious Christians in the ELCA for many reasons for a long time. Slowly we are waking up to reality. The truth is that Luther is being overshadowed by Zwingli, so to say; plainly put, homosexuality is being used as a wedge issue by the religious Left. This wedge works for several reasons...
It is not only, or perhaps even primarily, about homosexuality. My whimsical lament “I Think I Want a Divorce” got quite an echo in “this church”; apparently, the bone-deep disenchantment articulated in the piece has been building up among theologically serious Christians in the ELCA for many reasons for a long time. Slowly we are waking up to reality. The truth is that Luther is being overshadowed by Zwingli, so to say; plainly put, homosexuality is being used as a wedge issue by the religious Left. This wedge works for several reasons.
First, homosexuals form a vulnerable sexual minority that has suffered from ignorance and the soft persecution of social stigmatization. If we have a shred of human decency, not to say Christian love, our hearts go out to these underdogs.
Second, pastors especially have learned in the confessional of the struggles, the loneliness, and the pain of homosexual persons, and their hearts ache for them.
Third, Christians who are gay or lesbian ask for the same rite of marriage as offered to heterosexuals, recognizing their attempt to live in a relation of lifelong mutual commitment, and holding them publicly accountable to it. What decent soul would refuse? Only ignorance, it seems, which thinks that this disorder is a matter of choice, or bigotry, which has not worked through a crude emotional revulsion at a sexual attraction opposite one’s own, would say No.
So it seems. For just such reasons I freely confess how uncomfortable it makes me to have to take a stand here. I am being wedged right where it hurts.
And if you too, dear fellow pastor, think in this way I have just described, I’ve got news for you. You are being bamboozled. This issue, constructed this way, has been forced upon us by the religious Left. They, not homosexual persons, are our opponents in this controversy. And what seems to be the case is not really the case. In fact, we are being asked by them to act in a profoundly divisive and unpastoral way on what is essentially a burning question of pastoral care—that is, on a matter that pastors ought to be deliberating and deciding—had not the ELCA at its formation abolished the ministerium and turned theology over to selectively appointed commissions, sure to do the bidding of those who appoint them.
Now the chickens come home to roost. If the ELCA does what the present recommendations suggest in August, it signals the theological end of “this church” and therewith the very possibility of meaningful pastoral practice and care, if by “pastoral” we mean applying the wisdom from the Bible to the life of sheep for whom the Shepherd died by those called to co-shepherd with and under Him as pastors.
Now let’s take a closer look and see.
Chapters 2 and 3 of the Constitution of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America contain its confession of faith and a further statement on the nature of the church. You can download the text from the ELCA website and read it for yourself. I quote from this text in italics and then compare and contrast, item by item.
2.01. This church confesses the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
In the church in which I was ordained, in the church in which I will worship after August, this bold confession and public praise of the Triune God is the free, joyful, and unanimous act of those assembled by the gospel. But in “this church,” confessing the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit has already become an increasingly begrudged option. With the adoption of the new hymnal—a project that was never subjected to doctrinal review—unconscionable and unjustified revisions in the language of the creeds, the Psalms, and hymn texts were made. You can bet that, given the ELCA’s inclusiveness policies, that if the Social Statement, including Position Number Four, is adopted, it will be open season on the gospel’s name of God. Why?
The Fourth Position recognizes as legitimate the teaching that homosexuality is a good creation of God, that such relationships ought to be blessed with the blessing of God, and that persons in such relationships should be admitted to official ministries. If we permit that teaching and still read the Bible with a straight face, or claim to be trinitiarians in claiming that the Scriptures speak in this way of God, then we are also saying that anything in the Bible can be reread and rewritten to say whatever anyone wants it to say—and then solemnly pronounced a legitimate option. Chief among the things the religious Left wants to say is that we construct names for God out of our own experience. That “enthusiasm” is the deeper reason why the Bible and the Lutheran Confessions have to be robbed of their formative power in theology and neutralized in the life of “this church.” Homosexuality represents a perfect opportunity.
2.02.b. The proclamation of God’s message to us as both Law and Gospel is the Word of God, revealing judgment and mercy through word and deed, beginning with the Word in creation, continuing in the history of Israel, and centering in all its fullness in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
The church which bears the name of Luther bears it truthfully when it teaches, as Luther taught, that “the true people of God are those who bring to bear the judgment of the cross on themselves.” One would never know from the Social Statement that the Bible contains a sharp word of judgment based upon God’s revealed Law protecting marriage and the family against any and all sins in the arena of sexuality, chiefly heterosexual sins like fornication, adultery, and divorce, but also homosexual relations. Far from pastoral care speaking God’s Word of judgment and mercy, the Social Statement offers nothing but a so-called “ethics of responsibility” in which consenting adults can do as they please so long as they don’t hurt anyone else. That’s understandable, perhaps, as a very minimal standard in secular, liberal society, but it is a cataclysmic fall from New Testament exhortation, the preaching of the prophets and the law of Moses, which our Lord does not slacken but rather radicalizes. You can bet that the progression towards antinomianism in the ELCA will proceed apace with the adoption of this Social Statement, just as the religious Left wants a church in which the Ten Commandments, let alone Luther’s exposition of them, disappears so that there is no ethical tension at all between being a good secular liberal and being a true Christian. Once again, homosexuality presents the perfect occasion for a much grander transformation.
2.02.c. The canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the written Word of God. Inspired by God’s Spirit speaking through their authors, they record and announce God’s revelation centering in Jesus Christ. Through them God’s Spirit speaks to us to create and sustain Christian faith and fellowship for service in the world.
The Social Statement does not shrink from attacking canonical Scripture and Luther’s belief that God speaks through the plain sense of the canonical text. It disowns this “sola scriptura” teaching, just as the religious Left regularly attacks as “fundamentalism” any position serious about the Bible’s teaching as binding doctrine normative for the life of the church. But the new enthusiasts think that when the ELCA is gathered in assembly, God’s Spirit speaks to them to create and sustain a new Christianity that overrules the written Word of God.
2.03. This church accepts the canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the inspired Word of God and the authoritative source and norm of its proclamation, faith, and life.
But the Social Statement does not take the notable texts of Genesis 1:26-28 and our Lord’s invocation of this text in Mark 10:2-12 as the authoritative source and norm of its proclamation, faith, and life in the arena of sex, marriage and family life; it rather ignores their weight and force entirely. The reason is obvious: homosexuality would not be able to serve as the pretext for a brand new “Christianity,” if we took up such weighty texts. I ask: as a matter of integrity, for heaven’s sake, what does the name “Lutheran” mean theologically if not that we want to belong to a church that is pleased and delighted to receive the Scriptures, for which theology is the work of making their teaching alive and instructive for us today—not doing intellectual somersaults to avoid the plain sense meaning of Scripture and replace it with something manifestly the opposite of what it teaches? If this Social Statement is adopted as it stands, the next resolution I intend to submit is that the ELCA delete the words “evangelical” and “Lutheran” from its name.
2.05. This church accepts the Unaltered Augsburg Confession as a true witness to the Gospel, acknowledging as one with it in faith and doctrine all churches that likewise accept the teachings of the Unaltered Augsburg Confession.
But the Social Statement utterly ignores the Reformation-era controversies regarding monastic vows and the theology of marriage that the Reformers developed out of the Holy Scriptures and professed in the Augsburg Confession in the light of the gospel. One of the most important social consequences of the Reformation gospel is therefore ignored as an embarrassment and left behind as an impediment to the sexual liberation intended for us by the religious Left. I am just waiting for some fool to argue that, as Luther insisted against monastic vows that sexual desire implanted by God cannot be denied, so also homosexual desire cannot be denied. I am just waiting, as I said, for some fool to try that silly piece of reasoning. It overlooks the central issue in contention in this controversy, whether God has created and blessed homosexual desire, or whether such desire is a deformation of God’s good creation. Well, let’s be merciful. Cogent reasoning has never been the strength of the religious Left, which looks instead for emotional symbols to serve as pretexts to fool people.
3.01. All power in the Church belongs to our Lord Jesus Christ, its head. All actions of this church are to be carried out under his rule and authority.
One looks in vain for this Spirit of Jesus Christ in these documents, let alone a procedure which would reflect the lordship of Christ in any meaningful way. On the contrary, the Social Statement never even thinks to say that the church (even “this church”) does not belong to me or to you or even to all of us together, but to Jesus Christ: “with His own blood he bought her and for her life He died.” Instead, the Social Statement and the processes informing it proceed as if the church belongs to us, so that we can turn it into whatever we want, as supposedly led by the “Spirit” apart from the external word and news of the gospel of Christ’s redeeming lordship as authoritatively witnessed to in Scripture. The rule of Christ and His authority in His church are thus mocked in action, reduced to nothing but pious window-dressing for moving “this church” in the way its elite in the religious Left want it to go, not according to the will of its one and only Lord, whom we are to hear and obey in life and in death.
3.02. The Church exists both as an inclusive fellowship and as local congregations gathered for worship and Christian service. Congregations find their fulfillment in the universal community of the Church, and the universal Church exists in and through congregations. This church, therefore, derives its character and powers both from the sanction and representation of its congregations and from its inherent nature as an expression of the broader fellowship of the faithful. In length, it acknowledges itself to be in the historic continuity of the communion of saints; in breadth, it expresses the fellowship of believers and congregations in our day.
But members of the commission who drafted the Social Statement were instructed not to represent their own congregations, nor to think their own theological thoughts, nor to argue for the truth that binds us together in love on the basis of canon, creed, and confession. All this was disallowed and instead they were instructed to seek institutional consensus. We have this on the express witness of task force member Marit Trelstad in her posted comments on this website in response to the statement of the three task force members behind Dissenting Position #1. Likewise, at the assembly in August, the delegates will be instructed that they are not representatives of their congregations and synods but constitute some unique and historic expression of God’s will for these sacred ten days in which they will be led by the Spirit to throw historic continuity with the church through the ages out the window. Never were the task force members asked, nor will the assembly delegates be asked, to preserve, protect, and defend the broader fellowship of the faithful.
What we have just seen, point by point, in reviewing the present proposals vis-à-vis the ELCA’s own confession of faith and ecclesiology, is that what is at stake in this vote in August is not the pastoral treatment of homosexuality, but a theological coup d’etat by the religious Left. Homosexuality is just the catalyst of a profounder division that already runs through “this church.”
If anything, homosexuality is being used as a wedge issue by the theological Left. Our problem in turn is not so much with a decent and Christian acceptance in the church of homosexual persons, like all the rest of us, with concrete issues, with brokenness, in penitence and humility. The real issue is the theological makeover of Lutheranism that is occurring in the process: the allergy to the divine name of the God of the gospel, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, in the liturgical life of “this church”; the open attack on the authority of the canonical Scripture as the source and norm of faith and life; the abandonment of the historical mission of the Lutheran confessional movement to advocate and advance the reform of the Western Church (i.e. Roman Catholicism) and to unify other Protestants in this cause; the shift towards “enthusiasm” in theology under the pretext of “contextual” exegesis; the snide vilification of the Great Tradition as well as of the Lutheran heritage; the abandonment of evangelical mission overseas to call to faith in Jesus Christ, as well as its minimizing at home…
I could go on, sadly, for pages. You get the picture. Behind all of this must we not see the loss of confidence in Jesus Christ as given to us in the Holy Scripture in the Holy Church by the Holy Spirit as our identity and mission in the world? In its place, must we not see the rhetoric of Lutheranism being dishonestly employed to pursue a kind of Christianity, which honestly goes by the historical name of liberal Protestantism? I wish such revisionists of the theological Left would have the spiritual integrity and intellectual honesty to recognize their lineage in Zwingli rather than in Luther and move on, whether to the high-church Episcopal Church or the low-church UCC, both of them hemorrhaging members even faster than the ELCA. But they won’t. They want the property and name of the ELCA, and don’t seem to care what damage they do to the rest of us in the process.
We have just looked and seen. These proposals are a pretext for the systematic and massive dismantling of the ELCA’s doctrinal commitments to Scripture, creed, and confession in order to advance the agenda of the religious Left. It won’t stop with blessing homosexuality. To fail to see this is to stick one’s head in the sand, in the deluded hope of saving the ELCA institutionally, while the heart and soul of “this church” in the Word of God and Luther’s doctrine is being sacrificed on the pretext of compassion for homosexuals. In fact, homosexuals are being used by the religious Left, among other things in not being challenged by genuine pastoral care to acknowledge with the rest of us their own specific form of brokenness.
From the ruins that may follow after August, we should want to belong to a church in which those trained in Lutheran and ecumenical theology, and who have earned the pastoral trust of their congregations, will deliberate theological issues on the basis of canon, creed, and confession as the norms by which faithfulness to Jesus Christ and His gospel are discerned. What we desperately need in our church of the Reformation, “without emperor or pope,” is the re-establishment of a ministerium pledged to our binding confessions, since these persons bear the office and evangelical authority to judge questions of doctrine. We need as well the confirmation of the people of God, representing congregations that are the local form of the church, in a lay synod of people who know that they are not to heed the voice of a stranger but only that of the Good Shepherd.
Out of this crisis foisted upon us by the religious Left, we who are faithful to God’s Word and Luther’s doctrine need to abolish the broken, manipulated, expensive, demoralizing governance which has brought the ELCA, half-a-million members less in its twenty brief years, to this brink of irreparable damage, and to replace it with a serious church of Lutheran conviction in but not of this society in service to the world and the ecumenical Church.
Paul R. Hinlicky is the Tice Professor in Lutheran Studies at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia.