Gnosticism, personal experience, the Word of God, theory, sexual orientation and “a new thing” were all words used in pro and con discussions about homosexuality, ordaining practicing gays and lesbians and blessing same sex relationships at the annual convention of the WordAlone Network held April 25-27 in Roseville, Minn.
The WordAlone board had decided in October 2003 to use the convention to present both sides of these highly controversial issues in an unbiased manner as a model for how the church can deliberate on difficult issues.
Ultimately, the convention voters voiced unanimous support for WordAlone to uphold Biblical stances on marriage and sexuality and to oppose changes to current church standards or definitions that contradict Biblical teaching.
Six professors gave keynote presentations supporting and opposing what is often considered to be the traditional or orthodox outlook on homosexual lifestyles and practices. Pastor Randy Freund of Faith Lutheran Church, Hutchinson, Minn., and church history professor Walter Sundberg of Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minn., made background presentations on how the church has got to the position of questioning the traditional standpoint.
Sundberg blamed the “Siren song of Gnosticism” for the progression away from 2000 years of Christian Biblical teaching and tradition that marriage between one man and one woman is the only appropriate setting for sexual relations. The Gnostic heresy claimed in the early centuries of Christianity that some people had special or secret revelations on what was required for the fulfillment of human life in relation to God.
Quoting Monoimus, an early Gnostic, Sundberg made his point that modern religion looks to humankind rather than to Scripture: “Abandon the search for God and the creation and other matters of similar sort. Look for him by taking yourself as the starting point.”
Freund followed up by noting differing methodologies Lutherans have used in studying issues in recent years. He pointed out that the standing and authority of the Word of God have been diminished in discussions and studies in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America since the ELCA’s constitution identified the Bible as the authoritative source and norm for faith and life.
Using slides he illustrated study methods, first, with arrows from the Word of God as the source pointing to truth, then, with three intertwined circles with the Word merely an equal player with “tradition” and “human experience.” Another method showed the Word sublimated into a circle labeled “tradition,” co-equal with circles of “experience of the faithful” and “society and culture.”
A final study method, a diamond shape with “truth in the center, had “human experience” at corner number 1, then number 2 was “understanding” (deep listening), followed by number 3 “discernment” (Word, traditions, theology and practices of the church) with “action” as number 4.
Freund commented that the Word of God seemed to fade from the picture.
Speaking from the viewpoint of Biblical theology, professor of New Testament David Balch of Brite Divinity School, Ft. Worth, Texas, spoke in favor of ordaining non-celibate gays and blessing their relationships. He cited Galatians 3:28 that says in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, which, he said, breaks down social, political and religious distinctions among persons.
He asserted that all are equals in receiving the Sacraments and should be so in administering them.
On the other hand, Solid Rock Lutherans executive director Roy A. Harrisville III of St. Paul, a pastor and former professor of Biblical studies, supported the traditional viewpoint on homosexuality. He pointed to Genesis 1:27 and 2:21-24, and Mark 10:6-7 as upholding heterosexual marriage, and to Genesis 19 and Judges 19 and Romans 1:18-27 as speaking against homosexual relations.
“The overriding positive context of heterosexual relations demand that even without specific mention of homosexuality or bisexuality that the reader understand that those activities are not accepted, celebrated or blessed as is marriage between one man and one woman. Homosexual behavior is prohibited in scripture, the moral heterosexual life is recommended,” said Harrisville.
Balch asserted that the passage in Romans 1 is not about homosexual relationships or sexual orientation as today’s culture understands them but rather about heterosexuals who “misuse their sexuality.”
Systematic theologians, professor emeritus of theology and ethics Paul Jersild of Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, S.C., and professor of systematic theology Marc Kolden of Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn., essentially disagreed on the authority of Scripture.
Jersild stated that in the process of studying interpretations of Scripture, “the Bible is always giving us something new.” He referred to a “reunderstanding” of Scripture. He said that in studying questions of homosexuality the church should look to context, including “reasoned deliberation” of Scripture, tradition and experience. The dialogue should consider the centrality of Jesus as God’s Word rather than expecting some verses to give conclusive answers.
He said that homosexual people are more visible now and he can’t accept that as the work of the devil. He believes we are witnessing the fruit of the Holy Spirit and that hurt and harmed people are experiencing new life. Society’s growing knowledge about gays is bringing broader acceptance and changing assessments of the issues, he said.
Kolden stated that “present knowledge” is not better than traditional Scriptural interpretations of lifelong marriage between one man and one woman as the ideal and of which “all other forms of sexual expression fall short.”
He said that Christianity is about law and morality, which are minimums for human behavior, and that the law accuses us of being sinful and broken and fallen and brings us to the Gospel, the Good News, which must permeate our lives.
Kolden said the church has forgotten the distinction of law and Gospel when it comes to sex and “the chickens are coming home to roost,” not only regarding homosexuality but also in heterosexual relationships in our church and society.
Keynote speakers from the psychological point of view discussed the scientific method of study, “reparative therapy” for homosexuals as well as the origins of homosexual attraction.
Professor Simon Rosser, director of the HIV/STI Intervention and Prevention Studies Center in the Program in Human Sexuality at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, described culture as being in a modern scientific period where homosexuality is viewed as a normal variant of life, natural and the dominant sexual orientation of 2 to 8 percent of Americans. He asserted that sexual orientation is set by age 8. He presented study results that showed that reparative therapy or attempting to change homosexuals to persons with heterosexual orientation permanently didn’t work and was harmful. He called such therapy a fraud.
Speaking for the other point of view, Warren Throckmorton, associate professor of psychology and director of the College Counseling Service at Grove City College, Grove City, Penn., acknowledged that not all reparative therapies are equal and that some may be harmful. He insisted that some have worked and that individuals’ sexual orientations are flexible throughout life. He asserted that change is possible.
Both men agreed that most scientific statements about homosexuality are theories because most studies and reports are either based upon anecdotal evidence or have not been replicated using the scientific method.
Rosser urged the ELCA to make its decisions concerning ordaining gays and lesbians in relationships or blessing such relationships on “science not fiction.”
Throckmorton said to do whatever you do not because of science but because of what you believe is right or wrong based on the Word of God.