The Use of Scripture in the "Draft Social Statement on Human Sexuality"


[1] My assignment is to evaluate how Scripture is used in the "Draft Social Statement on Human Sexuality" published in March of 2008. I will for the most part limit my focus to that single topic. All references to the document are by line number.


Use of the Bible

[2] By design, I start with a study of the document's specific uses of the Bible. From that narrower starting point I will expand into broader issues.[1]


Accurate Use of the Bible

[3] I define an "accurate use of the Bible" in two ways: a) a citation or quotation of the Bible that supports what the document says it supports; b) a citation or quotation of the Bible that clearly fits the argument into which the document places it. Meeting either criterion constitutes what I label an "accurate use of the Bible." The criteria are standard criteria used in biblical scholarship.


[4] Using the criteria, I identify twenty-six times that the document uses the Bible in an accurate way.[2] So, for example, 2 Corinthians 5:16-21 is used to support this statement: "Our first calling as ambassadors for Christ is not to judge others but to testify to God's costly reconciliation for the world" (302-5). When one reads the 2 Corinthians passage, one sees that it does indeed support what the document says it supports, as do the other uses listed in note 2. Admittedly, there may be in this category a usage or two that some might question. In addition, it is striking that when Mark 10:7-9 is cited (1005-7) there is no indication that most of that saying from Jesus is a quotation from Genesis 2:24. The same approach is taken at the beginning of the document, when Matthew 22:36-40 is quoted-but with no reference to the fact that most of the material is a quotation from Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18. Still, these many uses fall into the "accurate" category.


Inaccurate Use of the Bible

[5] On the other side of the ledger, there are ten times that the biblical material seems to be used inaccurately according to the criteria outlined. Only a few examples can be given; readers are invited to check out other passages on their own.[3] 

  • The document likes the phrase "law of love," which is never clearly defined. None of the passages listed uses that term (15: Romans 13:9-10; Galatians 5:14, 6:14), and the final passage does not deal at all with the concept. 

  • Colossians 1:19-20 is cited to support the idea that God values our bodies, but the passage does not refer to bodies (105).

  • 2 Corinthians 5:19 is quoted as support for God's entrusting people with "the care of the neighbor and with the preservation of good social order enacted through law" (607-9). Unfortunately, within the context of 2 Corinthians the passage has nothing to do with the way it is used in the document.

  • The use of Matthew 10:37 is especially problematic (641-42). The document reads, "While Scripture places family as secondary to the community of God's people," which is followed by citing Matthew 10:37 and 12:49. But the issue in 10:37 is the believer's relationship with Jesus and contains no reference to "the community of God's people."


[6] In other instances the document cites a passage in a way that is partially but not fully correct. 

  • Thus 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 is cited to support a statement about the cross and resurrection (405-7). The passage does not address resurrection.

  • The document wants to affirm that "Christian social and political thought long has centered on the idea of the common good" (1212). Then Galatians 6:10 is quoted-but only the first half of the verse, "So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all."  The other half of the verse (still the same Greek sentence) reads, "and especially for those of the family of faith." The second half of the verse qualifies both what is quoted and the point the document wants to make.


[7] Thus the document needs to exercise greater care in the use of biblical material to make sure that it truly supports what the document says it supports.


Non-Use of the Bible

[8] More striking are the many times the Bible is not used in the document. The reader traverses vast stretches of the draft with nary a biblical signpost.


[9] An illustrative set of examples follows.[4]

  • Sin is discussed with no reference to any text, including Romans 1, which is never cited in the document (57-58, 132-33).

  • "God cares about our bodies," a theme easily supported by the Bible, although not here (111-12). What about 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 (never cited) or 1 Corinthians 15?

  • The section running from 142-207 is especially odd. The topic is that "the Apostle Paul and Martin Luther emphasized the important role of the law …." (142). All of the supportive material is from Luther. There is not one quotation or citation from Paul. The closest is an allusion to Galatians (173-75), but only Luther is quoted, and there is not even a specific citation from Galatians. See also 238-39, where the only reference to the Bible is Romans 10:9-as used by Luther! One could argue that Luther has a stronger lobbyist than does Paul!

  • The connection between the resurrection body and the present body is an important ethical insight (362-66, for example), which would be strengthened by showing where in the Bible we find that connection.

  • The section on faith (582-608) deals with another traditional Pauline and Lutheran theme, but the section is all-but-devoid of biblical material. The only biblical reference is to Hebrews 11:1-found in note 22, in a quotation from the Augsburg Confession! One also searches in vain for Paul's important insight that faith involves obedience (for example, Romans 1:5, which is never cited), an understanding of faith that certainly has implications for ethical behavior.

  • The sections on strong families (626-726) and protecting children and youth (728-828) utilize as references three passages, one of which is not used accurately (642; Matthew 10:37). Surely there are many texts in the Bible that deal with both topics, including the New Testament tables of household duties (Ephesians 5:21-6:9; Colossians 3:18-4:1; 1 Peter 2:18-3:7), which are never cited either positively or negatively.

  • No biblical material is utilized in the section on sexuality and self (830-90), and where there are good places for using supporting citations (863-65 and note 34, with Luther and not the Bible cited in the note), they are not listed. There is also nothing from the Bible in the section on gender and friendships (892-948). The one passage in the section on commitment and sexuality (950-94) is on indulging desires (978-80). No biblical passages are used in the discussion of relationships involving sexual relations outside of marriage (1054-1101).

  • The section on marriage (996-1052) presents a remarkable instance. The one passage listed is Mark 10:7-9; as noted above there is no reference to the quotation of Genesis 2:24, which means that the reader does not realize the canon-wide approval of marriage. The beautiful statement of Paul on marriage found in 1 Corinthians 7:1-6 is found nowhere in the document.

  • Many readers will want to know what the document says about committed same-gender relationships (1103-55).  Romans 3:21-26 and 5:1-11 are appropriately cited as indicating that God makes us acceptable through the righteousness of Christ. There is, however, no discussion of the passages from Genesis, Leviticus, Romans, 1 Corinthians, and 1 Timothy that are at the center of the discussion on same-gender relationships. The document clearly wants to move the church in the direction of full acceptance, but it has not entered into the discussion that needs to happen if it wants to persuade Lutherans to accept the document's view. 

  • Many other sections also contain no biblical citations, quotations, or arguments (please see note 4).


[10] The only Old Testament material utilized in the document is Genesis 1:26-27, 2:18, 2:23-25; Exodus 20:12; 2 Samuel 11 and 13; and Song of Songs 4. The great bulk of the Old Testament is never touched, including the laws of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, none of the Ten Commandments save one (Exodus 20:12), and the prophets. Neither the Sixth Commandment (on adultery) nor Luther's conclusion in the Small Catechism to his discussion of the Ten Commandments, in which he refers to keeping the commandments, is utilized.[5] The Sermon on the Mount/Plain (indeed, Luke is not used at all), Acts, Ephesians, Philippians, 1-2 Thessalonians, 1-2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, James, 2 Peter, 1-3 John, and Jude are all missing, and in five of the New Testament books that are used only one passage appears in the document. The "I" of Romans 7 who struggles between good and evil has no role, either, nor does the task of the community to discern God's will (Romans 12:1-2).


[11] The current document has, therefore, a certain Marcionite tendency and thereby sends the message, unintentionally I am sure, that the Old Testament is not very important in developing Lutheran ethical positions. Certainly the laws of the Old Testament are not utilized. The New Testament fares better, but it also is seriously underused.


[12] That is not to say that all of the content is non-biblical, but it is to say that the Bible is not incarnated in this document. Certainly for a document to be biblically-based it needs more than simply to cite or quote a lot of passages, but the presence or absence of citations or quotations is an indication of how thoroughly immersed in and based on the Bible a document is.


Hermeneutical Issues
What the Document Understands the Role of the Bible to be

[13] Readers looking for reassurance that the document understands the Bible in line with traditional Lutheran thinking will be encouraged. The document states that "our Lutheran heritage" is "grounded in Scripture" (23), and in addition to the Confessions and the Lutheran heritage of theological reflection, "this church turns in hope to the witness and wisdom of Scripture" (69-70). The section on Scripture and moral discernment opens with a classic statement on Scripture within Lutheranism (390-99), including reference to the ELCA Constitution's statement that "it is the authoritative source and norm of this church's proclamation, faith and life" (391-92). Many will also be heartened by the identification of Scripture as "the basis for Christian ethics" as it "functions as both law and gospel" (401-2). And the draft identifies itself as tapping "the deep roots of Scripture and the Lutheran witness" (30-31).


[14] A source of potential confusion is the view that "Scripture cannot be used in isolation as the norm for Christian life and the source of knowledge for the exercise of moral judgment. Scripture sheds light on human experience and culture" (417-19). True enough, but how does that view coordinate with the constitutional view that Scripture is "the authoritative source and norm"? Or another way to pose the question: What norms human cultural experience and human scientific views (424-29)?


[15] A question that also needs to be addressed in a future draft is why the document prefers the term Scripture over the term Bible. The word Bible is used four times in the document, with two occurrences used in a pejorative sense.[6] The adjective biblical is used five times, with only one being negative.[7] The term Scripture, on the other hand, is used twenty-three times in the body of the document and five times in the notes. The word scriptural is used only once.


[16] I do not know the thinking of the authors. I do know that I have lived (and been a Lutheran!) in Nebraska, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, California, and Ohio, I travel widely in the ELCA, and I rarely hear the term Scripture used but almost always the word Bible. Not one of the ELCA seminary web sites refers to their Bible Division as the Scriptural Division. The one place I regularly hear the word Scripture is at the Catholic Biblical Association. So an explanation for the use of this language or an alteration of the document would be helpful.[8]


[17] Finally, to state the obvious: there appears to be a gap between the high view of the Bible enunciated in the document and the relative lack of its use.


How the Document Makes Its Interpretive Moves

[18] A major question I brought to my reading was how the document would evaluate Old Testament material, especially the laws, use them, and move into the use or non-use made of them in the New Testament. It does not appear to me that the document does that work. So, for example,

  • What are the implications of Jesus' quotations of Genesis when he talks of marriage (Mark 10:6-8/Matthew 19:4-5)?

  • What are the implications of Paul's use in Romans 1:18-32 of the Genesis creation stories and of the Leviticus laws regarding same-sex relationships?

The lack of such attention to interpretive principles (or hermeneutics) is especially telling regarding the second example. The document leaves the readers on their own, without guidance as to why the task force has not studied those and other texts.


[19] One implicit move the document does make is to lessen the role of the law as providing ethical guidance-what is usually called the third use of the law. The document begins well: "In our daily living we are thus rightly constrained and guided by the wisdom of the law" (59-60; also 142-44 and note 8). But as the document proceeds, Paul's use of the law in that way is not addressed, nor is Luther's use of the Ten Commandments. Moreover, one wonders after reading note 19 if there is, for this document, any positive use of the law that is possible for Christians: "'Legalism' indicates a belief in the need for literal adherence to or trust in commands and 'shoulds,' whether from Scripture or elsewhere." If that is what legalism is, then it appears that following any command from the Bible is eliminated. Note 19 feeds the sense that the document has a strong anti-nomian bent and has lost the Lutheran concept of the law-gospel dialectic. And so, while the document elsewhere is correct in saying that law without gospel can lead to legalism  (271-72), it fails to balance that view with concern that gospel without law can lead to libertinism, for which we have ample evidence in the problems that led to the writing of 1 and 2 Corinthians.


General Comments

[20] I have identified where I think the document is on target. In addition to what has already been noted, I would like to mention:

  • the good and balanced statement on sexual love (490-93);

  • the basically solid section on marriage (especially 968-74 and 997-1003), although the lack of biblical basis for the material remains troubling (see above);

  • the discussions of sexual abuse (734-52) and the exploitation of sexuality (754-828).


[21] Over and above earlier observations, I want to mention the following areas of concern:

  • I find it strange that the document does not discuss divorce and remarriage. 

  • I need help in understanding why, in a document on human sexuality, the concepts of holy/holiness and sanctify/sanctification are missing.[9]

  • While some may object to incarnation and justification as the starting points of a discussion on sexuality,[10] my major question has to do with the rationale for starting there. Note 6 reads, "Because sin has intervened, Christians cannot ground their understanding of sexuality in nature or creation itself." But has not sin intervened in our understandings of incarnation and justification just as much as in our understanding of creation? In general, the document may fall too heavily on the already side of the already but not yet dialectic it uses.

  • It is of note that the Response Form does not ask respondents what they would like to see deleted from the document, nor are respondents asked any questions about the use of the Bible in the document.


[22] My overarching concern remains twofold.


[23] First, the document is written in part to persuade people to agree with the positions it takes. Lutheran people in North America are very responsive to arguments based on the Bible. I do not think that the present draft represents the task force's best attempt to marshal the biblical support it desires for the positions it has taken. 


[24] Second, by not engaging the debate regarding same-sex relationships, the document, I believe, has done a disservice to gay and lesbian people, as well as their family members and supporters. The document gives the impression that there is no argument to be made, only assertions to be stated. Thus any change to current practice that might be suggested will appear arbitrary and in conflict with the Bible. If the task force has a biblical argument to state, I think it needs to state it-for the sake of the ELCA, but even more for the sake of the people whose lives are most immediately affected. 


Concluding Remark

[25] Having been involved since 1993 at a national level in the ELCA's discussion of human sexuality, I appreciate the exhaustion of the members of the task force and the pressure they as a larger group and the writing team as a smaller group have experienced.  I know nothing about the details of the writing process, nor do I know who was on the writing team. It does seem to me that the Confessional and Luther material is significantly more developed than the biblical material, and I have made many suggestions for improvement. But I make those suggestions out of deep pastoral interest for gay and lesbian people and their families, who have written me and visited my office in large numbers since 1993, and I make my suggestions out of gratitude to the task force and writing team for what we all know is ultimately a most difficult task.


I have looked up every citation in the NRSV and checked the original languages in many cases to see if the document was dependent on the original language rather than the NRSV. I have not found an example in which the original language text helps to explain a given use of the Bible.



5-9, 119-20, 139, 305, 322-23, 342, 344-45 (three different Bible passages), 352, 355-57, 358-61 (Genesis 1:27), 376, 395, 441, 442 (two passages), 458, 525-26 (three passages), 978-80, 1005, 1125, 1126, 1222-27.



15, 105, 358-61 (Galatians 3:28), 407, 459, 607-9, 641-42, 1212-14, 1413, note 5 (Galatians 6:10 does not have the word neighbor) (all passages are listed, including the ones discussed in the body of the paper).



The fuller list of places where biblical material could have been and often should have been utilized includes these locations: 57-58, 84-86, 111-12, 132-33, 135-37, 142-207, 238-39, 247-316, 362-66, 582-608, 626-726, 728-828, 830-90, 892-948, 950-94, 996-1052, 1054-1101, 1103-55, 1157-84, 1246-90, 1292-1365 (1293-94 refer to the Large Catechism on idolatry but that Luther's thought goes back to Romans 1 is not acknowledged), 1367-1403, note 23 (the New Testament has the same view).



Romans 13:9, cited with 13:10 at 15, does quote commandments six, five, seven, and nine, but the document neither quotes the verse nor details its content.



410-11, 412-14; the other uses are 84-86, 397-98.



310-11; the other uses are 329-31, 341-42, 521-26, 1115-16.


[8] Canonical Scriptures

and Holy Scriptures are, indeed, used in the ELCA's Confession of Faith, which is part of the ELCA Constitution, 2.05 and 2.06.



Except in the term Holy Spirit, the word holy occurs zero times in the document, the word holiness occurs zero times in the document, the word sanctify occurs zero times in the document, and the word sanctification occurs zero times in the document.



And indeed there are substantive questions to be answered regarding the shift of human sexuality from the realm of law to the realm of gospel, as opposed to how Luther handled sexuality.


© September 2008
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 8, Issue 9