Sexuality Studies: Thoughts on Recommendation One
by Charles H. Borgstadt, Audrey D. Forbes, Mary Carol Strug, and Martin D. Wells (July / August 2005 • Volume 21 • Number 4)
Four rostered leaders deliberate on “finding ways to live together faithfully in the midst of our disagreements.”
Keeping Our Balance
by Audrey D. Forbes
Can we live within the tension?
As I began to read the recommendations from the task force, I realized that I was reading them with anxiety, with preconceived ideas of the results, and with some genuine fear of how this would affect the church that we serve. My first impression, nevertheless, was, “I hear pastoral care and am becoming more interested.” In this article I respond to and reflect on the first recommendation through a pastoral-care lens.
We are called every day of our lives in the church and in the world to provide pastoral care and understanding to those who differ from us in their thought processes as well as their convictions. There are some situations from which we would like to turn away because they make us uncomfortable or produce unwanted fears. Other situations hit us in the face and require us to think, ponder, dialogue, research, and find a way to live within the tension. The ELCA study on sexuality may be one of those situations for many people in our congregations as well as for some of our rostered leaders.
We live in a time of paradox, a time when we try to hold up both ends of the spectrum. A paradox is where two opposing forces are both lived with: for example, war and peace, or joy and sorrow. It is similar to a scale with two dishes, one on each side. To keep our balance we must be able to keep both sides in perspective. We spend much of our existence trying to keep our lives in some state of equilibrium or balance. When one end of the scale becomes heavier than the other, our equilibrium is threatened and we are thrown off balance.
Is this what has happened to the church with the issues surrounding sexuality? Has this study, about which members of our community hold strong and opposing views, thrown us into crisis and into a state of disequilibrium? We define crisis as a turning point, a time when a decision must be made — a decision with consequences. A crisis is a time or situation holding the potential for either danger/decline or opportunity/growth. The church lives within the paradox of decline or growth, and how we face this crisis will determine the future of the ELCA.
Is it possible to hold the opposing forces in balance and let our faith in Christ be our guide, even as we cling tightly to our security that God is with us? We know that changes will occur, but let us pray that we can stay together, balancing our differences, so that we can fulfill the mission that God has for us in this world.
Audrey D. Forbes is a diaconal minister at Calvary Lutheran Church, Mt. Airy, Maryland. She is a former professor of Youth and Family Ministry, Trinity Lutheran College, Issaquah,Washington.
by Charles H. Borgstadt
As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ (1 Peter 2:4-5, English Standard Version).
In my community, there are many new construction projects. Builders use similar materials to create spaces for production, marketing, shelter, and housing. Some use wood, others use stone and brick. Most have multiple doors, various rooms, and spaces in which to interact. One — a new detention center — has iron bars, barbed wire, and spaces to confine and isolate. While many want to go into the new houses and apartments, few are eager to go to the prison. Once there, those in the homes want to stay; in the detention center, they long to leave.
Construction in my community has to be built according to code — the standards developed by experts and adopted by the rest of the community. Without explicit requirements, some buildings would be constructed of inferior materials or with inadequate support. They would be unsafe — a danger to the inhabitants and the rest of the community. Yet, as new construction materials and techniques come along, the community evaluates them and decides if the codes need to be changed or should remain as they have been. This process ensures that we attend to the well-being of all people in the community.
The Task Force for ELCA Studies on Sexuality makes its first recommendation that we should “concentrate on finding ways to live together faithfully in the midst of our disagreements.” Just as the various constituencies in my community seek to accomplish their goals in building, we have many voices in the church with dearly held goals for the kind of ministry we construct. Issues of all kinds can cause us to ask questions about things we have held as foundational to the faith.
It is our heritage as Lutherans to be up front about those questions. Martin Luther’s Ninety-five Theses, a blueprint for discussion, brought clarity to many who were engaged in discussion and remained committed to living faithfully with others who held different understandings in the process. The conversation was not always easy, but it was essential. While the political issues of that time have limited meaning today, the timeless faith upon which they were based endures.
Peter describes the disciples in the church as “living stones” who are being built into a holy house. Examining the foundation and framework of the house will allow us to build with a faithful purpose in mind. Such a structure, constructed with a commitment to “live together faithfully,” allows for movement and interaction, even when there are different viewpoints and disagreement from time to time. The mutual respect held for each other allows for conversation and discussion and makes possible true service to God. Our life together, lived in faithful conversation, invites disciples to stay in a place of grace and hope.
Charles H. Borgstadt is the Youth and Family Ministry Coordinator in the Department of Religion at Midland College, Fremont, Nebraska. An associate in ministry since 1991, he was recently ordained. He is serving Alma Lutheran Church, Mead, Nebraska.
Being the Body
by Martin D. Wells
Recommendation One recommends that the church “concentrate on finding ways to live together faithfully in the midst of our disagreements.” Why? “Because the God-given mission and communion we share is at least as important as the issues about which faithful conscience-bound Lutherans find themselves so decisively at odds.” The task force might also have said that the unity of the church — one, holy, catholic, and apostolic — is not our work or responsibility as the ELCA (“this church”) but is the announcement and gift of God (Eph 4:4-6, Gal 3:28, 1 Cor 12:27, The Book of Concord, eds. Kolb and Wengert [Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000],“Small Catechism,” 6:355).
Adopting the recommendation means two things, according to the task force commentary. If adopted, the assembly will be declaring (1) “that this issue does not have to be church dividing” and (2) that “this church is willing to embrace the commitment to continue mutually respectful dialogue on issues of human sexuality while remaining in mission together.”
As in so many other cases, I hear the task force attempting to make a distinction between ultimate and penultimate matters of the faith. Authority and power in the church are first to be devoted to the mission of the church, proclaiming the free gift of the justifying death of Jesus Christ on behalf of sinners. This mission of communication is paramount, and everything else is of lesser importance. We must not, indeed we cannot, be divided from one another in the essentials of this mission. We are urged to recognize this truth and stay together in mission while sorting out penultimate questions of human sexuality.
The “mutually respectful dialogue” is a consequence of the obligations we owe one another under the Eighth Commandment, to “interpret everything [they] do in the best possible light.” This dialogue (literally, “one-with-another talk”) implies the willingness to be changed by the other and is to be distinguished from the usual culture-war pattern of speeches in close proximity to one another.
The depth of this dialogue is captured for me in the notion that the body of Christ is not a metaphor but the living, interactive embodiment of Christ in the church. We are part of one another, distinctive in gifts but subject to the same head, Christ (Ephesians 4:15). One part of the body cannot say to another part of the body “I have no need of you” (1 Corinthians 12:21).
Within this body, parts can work at apparent odds with one another for a larger, overarching purpose. Even though the opposable thumb works in apparent opposition to the fingers, it is precisely this opposition that permits us to grasp tools and shape our world. Perhaps the task force is asking us to take this larger view of the church and absorb lesser inconsistencies for the sake of the larger goal of mission.
For further reading I recommend The Difficult but Indispensable Church (Fortress, 2002), a book based on writings of the faculty at Wartburg Seminary. In particular read chapters 2, “Life Together is Only in God,” by Duane Larson, and 5,“Re-Membering the Body of Christ,” by Norma Cook Everist.
Martin D. Wells is bishop of the Eastern Washington-Idaho Synod, Spokane, Washington.
by Mary Carol Strug
When the recommendations from the Task Force of the ELCA Studies on Sexuality came out, it was stunningly simple: they decided not to decide. It is and was a counterintuitive decision. But their recommendations certainly seem true to my own experiences as the study leader in the congregation I serve.
We studied Part 2 of Journey Together Faithfully for almost half of 2004 in our adult forum. We looked at biblical interpretation and studied the passages suggested in the study. Obviously, we also had to think about ethics and ethical decisions. All of these things were educational. But perhaps the most important benefit of our study was talking with each other about difficult and potentially church dividing issues in a way that respected and honored our different and strongly held views. We were divided pretty much in the same way as all the respondents to the study were.
As we concluded our long months of study, a few biblical ideas seemed to be most crucial. I’ll briefly describe them here.
First, chronologically as well as in the Christian life itself, comes Jesus. There were no individuals that Jesus could not tolerate or view with sympathy, even those who hated him most. More importantly, no sin can divide people from God. St. Paul has always had the edge in describing that: “For I am convinced that neither death nor life nor angels nor rulers nor things present nor things to come nor powers nor height nor depth nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:38-39). Sexuality, of every sort, surely comes under the rubric of “anything else in all creation.” Jesus is the one who told us to “love one another as I have loved you.” Where did he draw the line? Only where and when we hurt one another. And each of us crosses that line daily in words and deeds.
Second, consider Matthew 7:1-5 in the Sermon on the Mount. We are led often to see someone else’s life in a negative way. Their sin is always more unforgivable in my view than my own sin. Is anybody better than the other one or more deserving of love and attention? Of course not. On verses 1-2, Luther suggests “What is needed here is the virtue called tolerance and the forgiveness of sins, by which one person bears with another, pardons [them] and forgives [them]” (Luther’s Works, American Edition, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan [Concordia Publishing House: St. Louis, 1956], 21:213).
I think this is what the recommendation points to when it recommends “that the ELCA concentrate on finding ways to live together faithfully in the midst of our disagreements.” That idea could (and perhaps should) apply to all of our dealings as a church with one another.
The third passage is Romans 14. It’s based on the distinction between strong and weak: strong and weak people, faith, and conscience. Both “who’s strong” and “who’s weak” depend on the situation and point of view of whoever makes the distinction. There really are no absolute strong and weak standards here on earth. They are fluid. Only God qualifies in power as the strongest; but as we know, God’s strength is shown best as weakness as we serve and love one another. So in Jesus, God was as weak or powerless as God could be.
While God is both strong and weak, our human standards always seem to be that we want to be called strong, whatever that might be. Then Romans 14:4 becomes important: “Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.”
The issue of sexuality draws up feelings that are deep inside of all of us, for we are by nature sexual beings. Yet while that’s true, our sexuality is not all of who I am or who you are. Faith is about more than that part of me or you — much more. Faithful living must always be based on love of God and love of one another. Then Paul’s exhortation in verse Romans 14:19 is important: “Let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding,” and that means we leave the areas where we can’t see clearly to God.
When we look at one another’s lives, our perspective is always skewed by our own sin. We can’t and won’t see from any other place. The solution to our life together as a church seems to me to be expressed in this recommendation: we must keep on living together faithfully in the midst of our disagreements.
Mary Carol Strug is a pastor at Faith Lutheran Church, Eagle Bend, Minnesota.