Thank You, but No Thank You

 
 
[1] Thank you to the Journal of Lutheran Ethics for this invitation to reflect on the proposed social statement. Thank you also to the ELCA Task Force on Human Sexuality for their work. I imagine it has been a long and difficult journey. It is my prayer that their journey together has built them up in faith.

 

[2] Having said that, I am committed to not burying the lead. It is my judgment that ELCA Churchwide Assembly should vote down the proposed social statement, Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust. Furthermore, I believe the Assembly should also vote against the Recommendation on Ministry Policies. My reasons for recommending these votes may differ substantially from at least some others who oppose the social statement and recommendations, and so I am thankful for the opportunity to articulate these views in a public forum.

 

[3] My reason for opposing the Recommendation on Ministry Policies is best summarized by Dissenting Position 2 in the Report (pages 17-18). I support “full parity for all rostering and call decisions of the ELCA concerning people who are in publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships” (lines 669-670). I cannot articulate my rationale better than it has already been argued there, so I refer readers to that well-reasoned dissenting position.

 

[4] Additionally, as a pastor committed to the unity of the church, I have one other reason for opposing the Recommendation and supporting Dissenting Position 2. The recommendations, which some are calling “structured flexibility,” actually propose a model of church that will lead to confusion and lack of unity. Rather than the church being clear and united on what it teaches (confessing the faith), both the social statement and the recommendations admit that we are divided without offering a clear confession of what we are united in teaching. We have options regarding what we will unite ourselves around - on the one hand, a model of flexibility that allows for individuals with different views, on the other hand a model in which we choose justice whenever we are not clearly of one mind theologically on an issue. I support the second of these two options.

 

[5] It is important to recognize that what is proposed for our prayer and consideration in this social statement and recommendations is not simply instruction on human sexuality; it is also a proposed statement on ecclesiology. Unfortunately, as an ecclesiological proposal it weakens rather than builds up our commitment to being an ecclesial body.

 

[6] The task force makes this proposal under the aspect of “bearing one another’s burdens,” and admittedly, this is one place where the social statement and report make a significant contribution to our ecclesiological reflections. It encourages us to live with “profound respect for the conscience-bound belief of the neighbor” (Social Statement, 671-672). The biblical reflections in Step Three of the Report on “bearing one another’s burdens” (Report, pages 9-10) are some of the most profound and fruitful contributions of the task force and their work. One paragraph specifically is worth quoting in full:

 

The emphasis of “conscience-bound” is not on declaring oneself to be conscience-bound. Rather, we are bound in love by the conscience of the other—that is, we recognize the conscience-bound nature of the convictions of others in the community of Christ (1 Corinthians 10:28–29). For Lutherans, the reality that people hold convictions from deep faith that may be in conflict with the deep faith convictions of others is not merely a procedural or political difficulty. As sisters and brothers in Christ we bear one another’s burdens. For one member to suffer because her or his conscience has been offended is for all of us to suffer (Report, 398-404).

 

[7] This definition of the conscience offers an apt biblical correction to the typical use of the phrase “conscience-bound,” acknowledging that the bound conscience is not primarily a pugnacious stance one takes in opposition to other views, but rather a bearing with others and suffering with them in their bound conscience.[1]

 

[8] This specific theological proposal is worthy of lengthy and sustained reflection in the church. However, as it stands it offers us primarily a resource for pastoral theology; it fails at the level of providing a robust ecclesiology.

 

[9] However, the Journal of Lutheran Ethics has especially solicited me for review and commentary on the social statement itself, so the remainder of these reflections will pertain directly to that document. Rather than offer a lengthy response similar to my review of the first draft of the statement (http://www.elca.org/What-We-Believe/Social-Issues/Journal-of-Lutheran-Ethics/Issues/April-2008/Please-Dont-Omit.aspx), I offer a set of talking points. I might also add that my main points in that essay of 2008 are still not adequately addressed in the proposed social statement. It is difficult to find reflection in the documents on 1) Singleness, the monastic life, and celibacy, 2) the Church as Bride of Christ and the poetry of Song of Songs, and 3) Human fruitfulness and creativity. So my recommendations in reaction to that first draft still pertain to the new proposed social statement.[2]

 

Reasons to Vote Down the Proposed Social Statement

[10] 1. Where is the Book of Faith?: This social statement could have been soaked in Scripture, considering human sexuality is such a rich and prevalent biblical metaphor. Instead, the statement seems more soaked in the tradition of social statements and sociology rather than Scripture itself. Although the document is peppered with some biblical citations and quotations, Scripture is not the “first language” of the statement.[3]

 

[11] It is especially notable that there is very little reflection on the connections between the biblical concept of the body of Christ, the church as the bride of Christ, or the poetry of Scripture like Song of Songs that offers a biblical and ecclesiological poetics of human sexuality. As a result, the report and recommendations shift us even further away from the communio-ecclesiology witnessed in Scripture, as well as the bridal imagery of Song of Songs.

 

[12] Here is an alternative. Imagine a human sexuality social statement composed as a theological commentary on Scripture. A document that weaves together catechetical instruction on trust and faithfulness, but takes time and sits with the narrative of what God has done through the beauty of specific relationships. Many sexual and intimate relationships in Scripture are outside expected norms. Consider Moses, who married outside of the Jewish people. Consider Ruth and Naomi, profound models of trust and intimacy. Consider the beautiful love and friendship between David and Jonathan. Consider even Hosea and his marriage to a prostitute, whose prophecies illustrate the inter-relationship between adultery and apostasy, marriage and covenant faithfulness.

 

[13] Or consider Revelation, which offers a vision of the marriage feast of the bride and the Lamb. In his revelation, John writes, “Let us rejoice and exult

and give him the glory,
for the marriage of the Lamb has come,
and his bride has made herself ready” (19:7).

 

[14] We as the church are that bride. In terms of human sexuality, what does that mean or entail? Furthermore, the church has traditionally understood the love poetry of Song of Songs anagogically, that is, where a visible truth (the love shared between two lovers) signifies a “higher” truth (the love shared between Christ and His Church). Isn’t this the kind of thing the church is called to reflect on? Finally, as I mentioned in my first review of the social statement last year, the Apostle Paul understood celibacy as a gift of God, and Scripture emphasizes procreation as part of the wonder of being co-creators with God. Why is there so little in this social statement on celibacy and procreation?

 

[15] 2. Internal contradiction: We are recommending a process to roster persons in publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships to serve as leaders of this church before we have worked out or offered a way to marry or bless them. As a result, we will be rostering persons who are “cohabiting.” It is perplexing, then, to read the following sentence in the proposed social statement: “Because this church urges couples to seek the highest social and legal support for their relationships, it does not favor cohabitation arrangements outside of marriage” (1044-1045). This appears to set up a double standard, rostering cohabiting couples, while at the same time not supporting it for other non-rostered couples. This is the kind of internal contradiction that should have been more clearly resolved before bringing the proposed social statement and recommendation to the church for a vote. In all likelihood, the contradiction arises because we have the cart before the horse, and are addressing rostering of those in same-gender relationships when we should first be blessing or even marrying them.

 

 

[16] 3. The social statement is far too equivocal, and would fail to function as a catechetical document readable by all in the church[4]: It is far too long (longer than almost all previous social statements), redundant, and often obfuscatory. Take for example the fact that the paragraphs beginning at line 66 and 273 are basically the same paragraph written twice. Or consider this quote, “It is therefore in the midst of daily life in the world that we are called to the vocational task of serving the neighbor” (69), which could easily be shortened to, “We are called to serve our neighbor in our daily lives.” Much of the document is padded with extra words and phrases that are difficult to read. What is needed is a document that can actually be read with understanding by the whole church, and this is not such a document.

 

[17] For the time-being, I once again say thank you to the task force, and then say no thank you, until such time as a task force of the church offers a social statement on human sexuality that is steeped in Scripture, offered in a readable catechetical style that can edify the church as a whole.


[1] The sexuality studies Web page gives readers access to an essay on bound conscience by Luther scholar and task force member Timothy Wengert at www.elca.org/faithfuljourney

 

[2] In point of fact, the terms celibacy and monastic do not appear in the document, and although single people are mentioned, there is no specific guidance or teaching offered for the community of single people or to the church on how to minister with and to them in intentional ways.

[3] See the ELCA’s Book of Faith initiative, http://www.bookoffaith.org/bof_new/about_the_initiative.aspx

[4] In preparation for writing this essay, I surveyed a group of clergy and lay people. Many admitted “sexuality study fatigue,” and said they had not read the social statement or report. I have not yet met or spoken with a lay person who has read the documents in full. One representative colleague wrote, “Thanks for sharing it with us early. I too was saddened to see that yet again the church had created an un-readable document. The difficulty in the language of this social statement, and many others, has kept the members of this church out of the conversation. And isn't that part of the purpose of a social statement - to engage the wider church in mutual conversation? The careful study of theologians in all realms of this church is a wonderful gift, but it is also our downfall if/when we can't/won't continue to speak about our faith in clear and meaningful terms for those around us.” I have experience almost universal agreement that a key question for social statements is, “Will this function as a catechetical document?” In answer to that question, almost everyone agrees that it will not.

 

 


© June 2009

Journal of Lutheran Ethics

Volume 9, Issue 6