What’s at Stake in Our Sexuality Debate?
by William B. Trexler and Gretchen E. Ritola (November / December 2004 — Volume 20, Number 6)
Two parish pastors analyze how this debate may be defining what it means to be “church” in our time
Seeking a More Excellent Way
by William B. Trexler
It took a week for me to respond to the editor’s invitation to write this article. I first thought, “What do I have to contribute to anyone’s clarity on whether or not the ELCA’s current sexuality debate is church dividing or church defining?” Besides, I’ve been rather amazed at the pages of print, the countless hours of debate, and the almost irrational attention already devoted to these issues. Even so, I am nowhere near reaching my own definitive “yes or no” conclusion. So with fear and trembling I said I would write an article, hoping that in the process I might clarify my own thoughts.
Throughout its history, the church has been divided. Even “the Twelve” had their differences. In more recent times, we entered the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America divided on a number of issues. Some of these issues first came to light in our struggles over the doctrine of ministry and then later in our work on the ecumenical agreements. Others have emerged in our sexuality conversations.
And while I am deeply disappointed at the strong hostility reflected by many in their statements, I take heart in knowing that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. There is a real sense in which I see our sexuality debate as providing a very present opportunity to define what is really important for our life together.
What is Really Important
Unity in Jesus Christ — Of prime importance to our life together is our unity in Jesus Christ. This unity is God’s great gift that defines our essence — no matter how divided we may appear corporately. This unity as reflected in Jesus’ high priestly prayer in John’s Gospel defines our ecumenical work and our life in the ELCA. Wherever we find ourselves in the sexuality debate, we must remember that we are the body of Christ and that Christ is the head of the body. With this in mind, we dare not label those who disagree with us as “the enemy,” but rather pray that God’s Holy Spirit will lead us all into a deeper respect for one another’s views and a stronger sensitivity toward all the baptized.
Biblical Interpretation — The current sexuality debates highlight our need for concentrated work in biblical interpretation. Many in our church continue to treat the Bible as an answer book without acknowledging the wide diversity of interpretation reflected in the work of faithful biblical scholars. I am aware that competent biblical scholars, including those in our ELCA institutions, come to very different conclusions based upon their work with the same texts. For Lutheran Christians, “justification by grace through faith” defines gospel. What we do about blessing same-sex unions or ordaining practicing homosexuals has to do with law. Both law and gospel apply to the church as the people of God, but the church is defined by the gospel, and it is the gospel that should inform our decisions relative to homosexuality.
Addressing Difficult Issues — Our current debates also provide ample opportunities for our church to enter into moral deliberation and sharpen its tools for addressing difficult issues in light of the gospel. Critical issues of one era can become minor concerns in another. Morality changes as well. Consider how views of slavery changed from the New Testament times, to the United States’ Colonial Era, to the current age. Rather than “What do I want out of all this?” I should be asking “What does God want us to do with these issues?”
Whose Agenda? — Our debates also cause us to grapple with this question: Does the world set the agenda for the church, or does the church set the agenda for the world? And whose agenda is the sexuality debate? Is it yet another expression of the power of interest groups or single agenda lobbyists? Or is it a justice issue for the whole people of God? Consider our common mission in its most recent expression: “Marked with the cross of Christ forever, we are claimed, gathered, and sent for the sake of the world.” For the world’s sake, what message, if any, about blessing same-sex couples and the ordination of practicing homosexuals does the church need to send?
Winners and Losers
One thing is for certain: the world likes clear, simple answers in short sound bites. “Yes” or “no” answers are preferred. But what if God’s Holy Spirit is still working things out when it comes time next year to vote? Were I to vote today, I’m uncertain how I would vote. Besides, votes on highly controversial issues like this one result in winners and losers, and I cannot help but wonder whose mission will be best served by forcing a vote.
The clock is ticking toward the 2005 ELCA Churchwide Assembly in Orlando. At our recent Virginia Synod Assembly, I was deeply disappointed to discover widespread activity to elect 2005 Churchwide Assembly voting members who passed one’s personal litmus test on “the” issues. While issues of sexuality need to be addressed, I’m beginning to wonder if anything else matters for the upcoming Churchwide Assembly. Will we address with equal zeal the myriad other issues that cry out for attention?
Sometimes things are simple. But our church’s current issues relating to homosexuality are not. While I’ll not be casting a vote at the 2005 Churchwide Assembly, I pray that those who do will have found “a more excellent way” that avoids “winners and losers.” That’s the message I’ll keep emphasizing as I seek to keep our own congregation focused — before and after the Churchwide Assembly — on our unity in Christ, our need for biblical hermeneutics, moral deliberation, mission focus, and prayer for discerning what is best in God’s good time.
William B. Trexler is senior pastor at First Lutheran Church, Norfolk, Virginia.
What Defines Us
by Gretchen E. Ritola
“Marked with the cross of Christ forever, we are claimed, gathered, and sent for the sake of the world.” This mission statement of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America defines us as the church. We are people claimed by Christ with a mission given and shaped by Christ.
As the church we must keep this identity and mission before us as we discuss very challenging questions related to the blessing of same-sex unions and ordaining homosexuals in committed relationships. At stake in our dialogue are questions about interpreting Scripture in a way that is true to Scripture and honors our Lutheran tradition, as well as questions about how to best share Christ with others and how to build up the body of Christ in a time when opinion is divided.
There is considerable fear that dialogue on issues as difficult as the ones before us may divide the church. People on all sides are equally committed to making responsible decisions informed by Scripture and tradition, and yet they come away with very different viewpoints. It can be tempting to think how much easier it would be to just not deal with all of this.
The “Door” Tradition
But as Lutherans we inherit a tradition that does not avoid what is difficult, a tradition where we nail our questions to the door and invite discussion. We have an inherent conviction that we must constantly be in dialogue with Scripture and the tradition about how to best share God’s love, revealed to us in Christ, in and through the lives of people. We need to be in dialogue so that we can discover where we need to stand firm and where we need to “reform” in order to be about this mission of sharing Christ.
We engage in dialogue because we believe that the church as described in Ephesians 4 is where the saints are equipped for “building up the body of Christ” through weaving together the various gifts that are given to people. Those gifts are not just our talents and abilities but also our experiences and our thoughts. In order to weave all of this together with integrity we have to be in dialogue. When we focus on defending our own position without entering into dialogue with others, we risk listening only to our own will rather than being open to being shaped by the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
The questions are difficult, but they are questions that impact people who are part of us as the church, and I believe they have to be discussed. I am called to be pastor to a community of people with a variety of viewpoints, all of whom are the people of God. That means listening to people who are concerned about decisions they believe will compromise our integrity as the church. It also means discerning with them where our true integrity is in our faithfulness to the commandment of loving one another as Jesus loved us and to sharing the news of Christ with others through our words and actions.
I also am listening to the deep concerns of those who have identified themselves to me as gay or lesbian, or as parents of gay or lesbian children. In every case these have been people who love their Lord, who honor Scripture and tradition, and who want to live a life of Christian integrity but aren’t always sure what that means in their circumstances.
Dealing with Differences
Since we all share an identity as the family of God and a mission as the church in our community, we must talk about how we live out Jesus’ commandment of love together in areas where our experiences and viewpoints can be so different.
In the rural community where I serve, we have studied the document Journey Together Faithfully, ELCA Studies on Sexuality, Part Two – The Church and Homosexuality. Every person involved has indicated to me that they were glad we had the discussion. I don’t think many changed their mind in either direction. But people appreciated the opportunity to better understand both how Lutherans interpret Scripture and deal with tradition and what the heart of the questions were, and why those who had differing opinions felt as they did. The discussions did not divide us, but new understanding brought a closeness and commitment to be supportive of one another in our ministry together. We were able to celebrate what we could agree on. We all believe that Jesus is Lord of the church and that we all have the calling to live out our baptismal identity in sharing Jesus’ love wherever we have opportunity. We also all believe in doing whatever it takes to let people know they have a God who loves and cares about them. And that includes loving those who take a different position from our own.
In the areas where we agree, and in the areas where we disagree, we can be the church united when we focus on how we, as the family of the baptized, share the love of Christ. Whenever we have to struggle with what that looks like in situations where we interpret Scripture through different perspectives, there is some risk. But we care enough about all of God’s people to live with that risk. We witness to Jesus who showed us that loving people takes precedence over taking positions. When sharing Christ in our community and beyond is our focus, the Spirit will be with the church, moving God’s mission forward, inspiring, supporting, and challenging us, and where it is needed, forgiving and renewing us.
Presiding Bishop Hanson reminds us that we are not a church searching for identity. We know whose we are, marked by the cross of Christ forever. And we share a mission that unites us in the midst of our diversity. The church that keeps its focus on a mission of sharing the living Word of God’s love for all in Christ will not be defined by what is ultimately decided regarding the issues related to homosexuality.
The church is so much bigger than that. This is an opportunity for the ELCA to witness to the world that we can dialogue and struggle with Scripture and tradition together and then move forward to be the church together. The church will be defined by its conviction that, whatever we do and however we do it, we must constantly strive together to be Christ to others.
And the church will be defined by our belief that God’s love and grace are so much bigger than any decisions we make.
Gretchen E. Ritola is pastor of St. Luke and St. Paul Lutheran Church, Emerson, Nebraska. She suggests that congregations obtain “How Do Lutherans Interpret the Bible,” by Mark Allen Powell, professor of New Testament from Trinity Lutheran Seminary, Columbus, Ohio, from Select prior to a discussion on sexuality.