Several People have asked…
“Pastor, have you been following what the Episcopalian Church is doing? How will that affect our church?” What they’re asking about is the confirmation of the first openly gay Episcopalian bishop, Rev. Gene Robinson. Mindful that our denomination has crafted a close ecumenical relationship with the Episcopalian church, they are concerned that this is the direction that the Evangelical Lutheran Church is heading. “Is this what the ELCA is going to do? What will we do?” I am asked more and more frequently.
In order to answer this, I need to break down the issue into two questions: What does scripture say about homosexuality? And how should we react and respond to those who are gay in the church and the community? These are tremendously important issues and can only be touched upon in this article. I am sure we will have opportunity for further study and discussion as time goes on.
The Scriptural Problem
But is this scripture’s last word on the subject? Or even from the Apostle Paul? Here it gets interesting, contradictory and controversial. The same Apostle, writing in Galatians 3 tells us, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). So here Paul tells us that neither nationality, social or economic status, nor sexuality will keep us from oneness in Christ. And back in Romans we read, “That is why it depends on faith in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed…” (4:16), and “… the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law…” (3:21), “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (5:1), and finally, “There is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death” (Rom. 8:1-2).
Do you see the scriptural problem here? Homosexuality is explicitly forbidden and condemned; yet we are told that our salvation in Christ, oneness and freedom are based in faith and grace. What if a gay person has faith? Since salvation is based on faith, not works (or behavior or whatever), isn’t that person saved in Christ? If so (and I certainly believe they are saved), then why shouldn’t he/she have full rights and privileges of church membership (the oft-heard complaint) and (the real goal) be able to serve as a pastor or even bishop?
This gives me a headache. And it is giving the church an even bigger headache because rather than owning up to the genuine contradiction in scripture and dealing with it in a way that honors and respects scripture, the church is reinterpreting scripture so that what was previously a sin is now acceptable. Or it simply ignores the parts of the Bible that don’t fit its current theology and ecumenical and sociological plans and views, and then silences the conservative voices that dare disagree. By treating scripture so, using these and even more seemingly sophisticated arguments, the church has severed its connection with its very source of life and understanding of the Gospel. The Bible, even at its most plain and understandable, becomes irrelevant if we don’t like what it says. By treating conservative Christians, pastors and churches this way, the church risks schism a risk that seems more and more likely as time goes on.
Perhaps it seems an acceptable risk to the ELCA to play a waiting game in which the denomination hopes that those who agree with their current theology (especially newly educated/trained clergy) will come to outnumber the conservatives (who die, retire, or just give up out of frustration or fear of losing their pensions). This is the primary reason, I believe, that retired clergy lost their votes when the ELCA was formed in 1988. They can’t vote at any assembly or in any election, so their opinions don’t matter. The theological memory, conscience and sense of history of the church were lost in a single moment. It was a brilliant, but truly sad, moment in the life of the church.
How Should We Respond?
This is the dilemma upon the horns of which the church currently finds itself impaled. It simply can’t live with the contradiction and finds itself having to make a choice: scripture or political correctness and ecumenism. Scripture (and the Lutheran confessions in the process) have clearly lost, and so, I fear, has the church (Sometimes, by the way, living with contradictions is the best and only real solution available).
Is prejudice towards anyone, gay or straight, woman or man, gentile or Jew, slave or free (as Paul says), allowable in the church? Certainly not. Can we honor the prohibitions in scripture and offer the forgiving, affirming and life-changing gospel of Jesus Christ to all, even if we don’t invite them to be clergy? I really believe so. Many people are excluded from the ranks of clergy because of lifestyles, past deeds, and attitudes. This is nothing new, and is altogether appropriate.
I’m sorry if what the scripture says on this issue offends some, but it isn’t for you or me, or for a bishop or a gathered group of delegates persuaded to vote one way or another, or even for the church itself, to bypass scripture. Even the “answers” that science offers, suggesting that there is perhaps a genetic disposition involved in one’s sexual identity, do not negate scripture (people blame genetics for all sorts of behavior that would preclude leadership in the church even pedophilia, murder, drug dependency, alcoholism, violence even shoplifting! This is, in my opinion, no different). We as Lutherans, more than any other denomination, should know that without scripture, we are lost.
People of the Book?
Recently (according to an LA Times article on July 26th, 2003, “Lutheran Youths Vote to Accept Gay Members”), at the ELCA national youth gathering the youth voted to become an organization affiliated with “Lutherans Concerned,” meaning they buy into the whole gay rights agenda. I’m sure most youth are theologically and biblically sophisticated enough to make such a decision based on what scripture actually says and means, and I’m also quite sure the leadership of the organization took the trouble to explain the conflict to any who may have actually had concerns (that was sarcasm, by the way). From the very beginnings of the ELCA, this has been the agenda of those mentoring our youth in the church.
Why We Need to Worry
Where does this leave conservative churches like ours? Utterly disenfranchised and alone, expected to just go along with the vote, pay our benevolence dollars to the synod, and be happy about it! As soon as that vote happens, official policies allowing the blessing and performing of gay marriages will be in place and we won’t be able to refuse to participate in them (especially in states where they are legalized). Churches won’t be able to refuse to call an openly gay pastor or youth worker because the denomination approves it. To do so our action would be then labeled as unsanctioned discrimination. We would be required to hire gay teachers in our school (again, can’t discriminate!), and we dare not say anything about it or risk antidiscrimination lawsuits because our denomination no longer would have policies that give us any protection.
I have already had an openly gay organist threaten me because we didn’t hire him (that wasn’t the only reason). Imagine what would happen if, after the vote in 2005, we refused to call an openly gay clergyperson or teacher and could not point to policies of the church that prohibit such behavior in fact the policies would bless and encourage it! We will need simply to go along, or find another option.
Some conservative American Episcopalian churches see the writing on the wall and (too late) in a surprise move are petitioning the Anglican Church of England to allow them to disaffiliate from the American Episcopalian church and become a part of the more conservative Church of England. I hope this works, but I doubt that the Episcopalian hierarchy will permit it. There is far too much money at stake and money is always what it comes down to. We Lutherans have no such recourse. Conservative Lutheran churches are, however, looking at other options. Many are withholding contributions to their synods and the national church. Some have affiliated with the “Word Alone” group (WWW.WordAlone.org) , which may grow into an alternate Lutheran denomination for conservative Lutherans.
In the months to come we will have much to discuss on these issues. Controversy is never fun, and we have so much to do to in our work to proclaim the gospel of forgiveness and salvation in Christ. But this is a controversy that we cannot ignore. Sorry for the rant, but you asked for it!
Pastor Larry Becker