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Traditional Christian views —on homosexuality and the ELCA’s struggle

by Dr. Marc Kolden (Olin S. and Amanda Fjelstad Reigstad Professor in Theology, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minn.

April, 2004


I – Introduction: law and gospel; morality and church

photo of Dr. Kolden(1) Some years ago Lewis Smedes wrote a book titled “Mere Morality: What God Expects of Ordinary People.” It is a study of the Ten Commandments, both in terms of what they mean and some consideration of why God might have given each commandment—particularly in terms of the commonsense or “first” use of the law (as Lutherans would put it). The first use, you will remember, is the “civil use,” the familiar use of the law in society to prevent evil and promote good. Law in this sense is for ordinary people—for everyone, Christian or not. Everyone, since we are all sinners. Non-Christians too, since the law expressed in the Ten Commandments is the same as the law written in the hearts of all people by the Creator. (And here I am repeating what the Lutheran Confessions and Martin Luther himself regularly say about God’s revealed law and natural law being the same.)

(2) When we speak of law in this sense, we are speaking about morality, about how people treat each other and the larger society and world in ways that are right (or wrong), good (or bad), and responsible (or irresponsible). Morality has to do with the basic daily requirements of human beings so that society, groups, and individuals can exist with enough freedom, justice, honesty, and order (e.g., government, food and shelter, education and health care, protection and services) to be able to flourish or at least survive. Each commandment protects individuals and society from things that would prevent this: such as stealing, murder, adultery, and slander. Morality is about human behavior, in other words. And it is for this world now, not for our righteousness for eternal life. Morality is very important, but it is not ultimate; important, because God cares how we live; not ultimate because only God is ultimate.

(3) Homosexual behavior falls under the heading of morality, as does all sexual behavior. We ask if certain kinds of behaviors are morally right; we ask if they are good in a variety of ways for the persons involved and for the larger society; and we ask if certain behaviors are appropriate or fitting or responsible. In light of the answers to such questions we end up commending certain kinds of sexual behavior and prohibiting other types, in relation to God’s will. Not that we do this all by ourselves or only for ourselves, but that we try to figure this out in accord with God’s law expressed in the Ten Commandments (or the Two Great Commandments) and in natural law as well as in terms applicable to people generally and not only to a few individuals.

(4) Christians have an obvious interest in morality, because God gives commandments and laws to protect human beings and the rest of God’s creation; Jesus helps us to see what they mean and even sharpens them; and the salvation Jesus wins for us through his life, death, and resurrection frees us to be faithful creatures. Currently, the ELCA is engaged in a debate about some aspects of sexual morality about which there is much disagreement; we cannot avoid talking about it because morality is important to God and to us. Sexual morality is necessary for the sake of living faithfully, for the well-being of society, and for the flourishing of certain aspects of human life that we understand to have been instituted by God—particularly marriages and families. This is part of what it means to lead lives worthy of the calling to which God has called us.

(5) Christianity is about more than morality, of course; it’s about more than law, to be sure, but it is also about law. First, because all law also functions in a second way: it points out that we don’t like God’s law and we have not kept it, which would be bad enough, except that the law also reveals that this failure not only affects other people but also affects God. It is sin. Without the law, we might recognize immorality or bad behavior, but we would never know it was sin. And not only does the law tell us that, but it accuses us not only of sinning but of being sinners; thus it drives us to despair, it leaves us broken, it judges us in God’s name, and condemns us.

(5a) Then only the gospel can help, only the good news that even though we are desperate sinners who deserve condemnation, nevertheless Jesus Christ has taken our sin upon himself and suffered the consequences of it. Even though innocent, he died for our sins. Yet God the Father raised this Son of God from death so that the forgiveness of sins could be proclaimed in his name and we could live as faithful creatures, no longer under the dominion of sin and death but with a sure and certain hope lodged in the crucified and risen Jesus Christ. This gospel, not morality, is the reason that there is a Christian church. All people know the law, all have some sense of morality, but only those who hear and believe the gospel have good news in the face of the law’s condemnation. So, while the church has an obvious interest in morality—and rightly so—it has a life-and-death commitment to proclaiming and serving the gospel. Therefore, the gospel and its implications must permeate every aspect of the life of the church and of each believer.

(6) And here’s the rub in the present debate about homosexual behavior. On the one hand, it is about morality. But it is not only about morality, because it has to do also with the place in the church of persons who are in same-sex sexual relationships (and not only with their place in society, where morality resides). More than that, the debate has to do with the connection between morality and official church teachings, policies, and practices—in particular, its official ministerial acts and its official or public ministers. Logically, we ought to resolve the moral questions first and only then move to the questions about the church’s official practices. But, against logic, we have put ourselves in the situation of intending to vote on the latter even if we have not resolved the former. This is putting the cart before the horse, to say the least.

II - The traditional Christian stance on homosexual behavior: a commendation

(7) Several speakers have or will tell you why they think that the ELCA should change its present teachings, policies, and practices. My task is to commend the present stance: to show why we have it, where it comes from, why it’s important, and why changing it is a bad idea. (The ELCA’s present stance regarding homosexuality is that the church does not bless same-sex unions or ordain or call as official ministers non-celibate homosexual persons, including those in long-term, committed, same-sex unions.)

(8) There are several typical ways in which the traditional stance prohibiting homosexual sexual behavior has been justified. There are two major types and they support each other. The first begins with marriage as the context for sexual behavior as it appears in the Bible. Marriage is held to be established by God in creation, prior to human sin. It is designed to provide men and women with an intimate lifelong spouse, who is also a beloved friend and companion, to provide for the continuation of the human race through the conception, bearing, and rearing of children, and to be part of the foundation of human society as ordered by God. The biblical basis for this understanding is located in the Genesis accounts of divine creation (and the echoes of this in other portions of scripture), along with other biblical passages that endorse, order, and protect marriage, sexuality, and family life.

(8a) In its Protestant form this also tends to include attention to the Ten Commandments and other instances of God’s law (against, e.g., adultery, divorce, promiscuity). And it gives particular importance to Jesus’ words in Mark 10 and Matthew 19, which say that “from the beginning of creation ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” (Mark 10:6-9) Marriage is seen as the normative place for sexual intercourse between a man and a woman.

(8b) In the Roman Catholic tradition, while such portions of the Bible are included, the case for the traditional stance is argued in terms of natural law, which involves reasoning in accord with the way that reality, including humanity, is understood to be created and given purpose by the Creator. Biological, emotional, and social aspects of marriage are emphasized in this view of marriage. A potential advantage of a natural law approach is that it gives moral reasoning about sexuality and marriage the possibility of widespread or universal application and intelligibility, since it doesn’t depend primarily on special revelation. Martin Luther and the other reformers understood this and expressed it in their insistence that the institution of marriage is for all human creatures and not only for Christians. Protestants also usually have included reference to complementary physical and other characteristics by which a man and a woman fit together.

(8c) In both of these variations of the most common way of justifying the traditional prohibition of same-sex sexual relations, the conclusion is that sexuality properly understood (through biblical exposition and/or natural law reasoning) is to be expressed only in a marriage of one man and one woman—and all other forms of sexual intimacy fall short, whether with a member of the opposite sex or of the same sex. (For a representative Protestant view, see Richard Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament; for a Catholic approach, see Lisa Sowle Cahill, Sex, Gender, and Christian Ethics, as well as chapters by each of them in Jeffrey S. Siker, ed., Homosexuality in the Church: Both Sides of the Debate.)

(9) A second typical approach for commending the traditional stance is to appeal to passages in the Bible containing laws against same-sex sexual behavior: in particular, two passages from Leviticus (18:22 and 20:13) and two passages from the letters of the apostle Paul (1 Cor. 6:9 and 1 Tim. 1:10). [I will not discuss these passages because they already have been discussed by previous presenters.] This approach has been the main one used by conservative Protestant denominations and their use of it has raised questions for Lutherans, particularly because such groups often have not distinguished between law and gospel. That is, they have not made it clear that our righteousness before God is not achieved by our keeping God’s laws. Rather, being righteous in God’s eyes comes only through trust that in Jesus Christ our sins are forgiven and that on account of Christ God judges us to be righteous. This is the gospel that saves us—altogether apart from our doing works of law. As the Bible makes clear, the gospel sets us free from the law. As Martin Luther famously wrote, “A Christian is the most free Lord of all, subject to none.”

(9a) If we were to suggest that keeping the laws against same-sex sexual intimacy (or keeping any other laws, for that matter) is required for salvation or for righteousness in God’s eyes, then we will have failed to properly distinguish law from gospel. And in doing so we will have lost the gospel by mixing it up with the law, with the result that there is no good news for sinners. We will not have kept the good news good. And we will have raised a moral matter (keeping the law) to the same level as Christ’s death on the cross for our salvation; we will have made sexual morality a requirement for salvation.

(9b) We cannot do that. We must not do that. Then what shall be done with the verses prohibiting homosexual sex? Here our Lutheran heritage draws from the eschatology of the New Testament the distinction between this present age and the promised age to come. And it says that God rules for the age to come through the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Here the law has no place. In Christ, we are set free from the law’s condemnation. Here, through faith in the gospel and the hope it generates, we are not under the law. And our Lutheran heritage teaches us to see that the law of God is intended only for this present age, not to make us righteous in God’s eyes but to bring about love for our neighbors.

(9c) Why does God continue to use the law in this present age even for believers? Because even after faith comes, sin persists. We are simultaneously righteous and sinful. The purpose of the law is to curb sin, to protect all people against evil, and to direct us and even coerce us to do good for others. As forgiven sinners in this present age we still need the law to do this. The proper relationship between God’s law and salvation in Christ is that the demands of the law render us exhausted from serving others and at the same time accuse us of not keeping the law. This is not heard as good news by our old sinful self, although it may be good news for our neighbor who is blessed by our doing works of law even if we hate doing them. For the new self in faith, however, the fact that the law disciplines, condemns, and destroys our sinful self is good news in that it is the other side of God’s raising us with Christ to newness of life: set free from sin, death, and the law—to love our neighbors. Love, says scripture, is the fulfilling of the law. The new self willingly does what the law requires. But we are not bound to the law; we are bound to Christ. As Luther concluded his paradox: “And the Christian is the most bound servant of all; subject to all.”

(9d) For all these reasons the Bible’s laws about sexual behavior are relevant also for Lutheran Christians because they relate to loving our neighbors, seeking their good, working for the common good, and using all of our knowledge and ability to do God’s will. Not for our own gain or happiness but for the well being of others and for their good. Many contemporary Lutherans seem to have forgotten the proper distinction in God’s Word between law and gospel when it comes to sex. They/we have diluted the gospel into “unconditional positive regard” or “affirmation” (a far cry from the forgiveness of sin or from dying with Christ and being raised to walk in newness of life). And they/we have thought that we simply could dispense with the law. Perhaps now the chickens have come home to roost, not only with regard to homosexual behavior but also because of our woeful failure in most areas related to the sexual morality of heterosexuals. Equally troublesome in the present situation in the ELCA—of being at loggerheads over so many things—is that our moral failures may be only a symptom of our theological failures. Thank goodness that we don’t control or even use the law and the gospel; God does. Therefore, there is still reason for hope.

(10) A third way of making the case for the church’s traditional prohibition of same-sex sexual intimacy has involved the argument used by Paul in Romans 1:26-27 (and also deduced by way of simple observation of how things seem to work between men and women) that same-sex intercourse and same-sex unions are unnatural. With regard to Romans, there has been much debate about what Paul was saying and what the words “natural” and “unnatural” mean. Nevertheless, I think that the traditional stance can rightly use these verses for support because in the verses just before these (18ff.) Paul is looking at the world (we might even say “all reality”) explicitly in terms of its being God’s creation and claiming that through the creation God shows all creatures what his will is concerning the way humans are to live and whom they are to worship. Therefore, none of this should be any mystery, according to Paul. All people are without excuse because they have not honored the God that was revealed to them simply by virtue of their being creatures in God’s world. Instead, they worshiped and served the creatures rather than the Creator. This is the basic sin in this whole passage—and it is unbelief.

(10a) And look what happened, Paul continues. Women gave up natural (=created, God-willed—that’s the meaning in the context in this chapter’s argument) intercourse (NRSV; “relations,” RSV; “use,” KJV) with men for unnatural relations with each other. Men gave up natural intercourse (relations, use) with women and were consumed with passion for one another and committed shameless acts with men. And because of all this, God “gave them up”—to the degrading of their bodies (Rom. 1:24), to degrading passions (1:26), and to a debased mind and things that should not be done (1:28).

(10b) This is awful stuff, but not because it is unclear. If anything, it is too clear, too graphic. To reply to it by saying, “but Paul didn’t know about loving same-sex relations and so these words don’t apply,” is to presume to know more about Paul than anyone today can know. Other literature of this period reveals that there were many different kinds of same-sex sexual intimacy, involving people of all ages and classes—some situations that included willing assent and others that involved slavery or other forms of exploitation. Paul was not only a Jew who might have been sheltered from some of this or might have been affected mostly by Jewish caricatures about Gentiles, but he was also an educated Roman citizen; why should we assume that he didn’t know what lots of other people at that time knew? I think it takes complicated mental gymnastics and intellectual sleights-of-hand to claim that these verses as they have been understood for two thousand years do not mean that in our present situation.

(11) There are some others approaches that might be mentioned to support the traditional stance against homosexual sex, which go in somewhat different directions. Many relate to the bad consequences of certain same-sex sexual behaviors, whether for the participants or for the larger society. Statistics, descriptions, health records, treatment observations and results, and the like function in this approach to a much greater degree than the others. A strength of such approaches is that they are understandable apart from faith; but that is also a potential weakness, since they may work with views of humans and morality that lack some essential insights which only faith can supply.

III – Criticisms of arguments for overturning the traditional view

(12) The role of the Bible in revisionist arguments about homosexual behavior varies greatly, from the Bible’s being merely one source among others to receiving much attention but mostly for the sake of relativizing key passages ordinarily used by traditional interpreters. Revisionists claim that such passages actually mean something quite different, which they support by bringing concepts and meanings of words and practices from non-biblical literature, even though in most cases there is no evidence of any direct influence of these on the biblical writers. The statement made by most Christian church bodies that the Bible is “the sole source and norm for all matters of faith and life” is set aside, for the most part, either by claiming that certain passages or teachings should not apply to the present, or by appealing primarily to general principles drawn from the Bible (e.g., justice, equality) rather than to the biblical texts themselves. In either case, the seemingly relevant passages that have shaped the traditional point of view are not allowed to play much of a role. This is a case where the historical-critical method, despite its important contributions to biblical scholarship for two hundred years, has been used tendentiously.

(12a) Often, there is a naïve hermeneutic [theory of interpretation] at work among the revisionists—one that has been discredited in interpreting scripture in other contexts. This is a hermeneutic that seeks to get behind the words of scripture to the author’s supposed intention in writing the words. (This is well known as an important method for getting around traditional authoritative ecclesiastical and dogmatic interpretations of scriptural texts—a prime goal of Enlightenment hermeneutics, particularly vivid of late in the work of the Jesus Seminar). Except that in the case of homosexuality even the author’s apparent intention is no help because he is seen to have been negative on this topic. This means that the interpreter must go behind the author also—to show that much of what he wrote in fact reflects cultural meanings and assumptions that must have shaped him to such an extent that his words really don’t mean even what he intended them to mean!

(13) There are several assumptions and criteria present in most revisionist proposals, that at least need to be noted if one is to consider their arguments. The most influential assumption, in my opinion, is their view of human beings as (i) autonomous individuals. This is not surprising, since most of the modern world (intellectually speaking; i.e., the Enlightenment world) takes this for granted. With individual autonomy come the related concepts of (ii) individual freedom, (iii) individual rights, and (iv) equality—things that all figure prominently in the founding documents of this nation, it might be noted, but that stand in considerable tension with biblical views of human beings. Thus it is not at all obvious that they should play major roles in thinking about Christian faith and life.

(13a) For Christians with a biblical imagination, being a “law unto oneself” (which is what (i) “autonomy” means), is nearly incomprehensible. We do not belong to ourselves; our life is not ours nor are we to do with it what we please. We are creatures of God, first of all, dependent on God in every moment for life itself; and we are creatures who are part of the totality of God’s creative work and intended by God for a destiny far beyond that conceivable for an autonomous individual. Similarly, Christian freedom is a far cry from (ii) “individual freedom,” when individual freedom is understood as freedom of choice to do what I want or what is best for me or for us. Freedom in the biblical and Christian sense brings with it responsibility to serve, but this has disappeared from popular notions of freedom as expressed (among other ways) in much contemporary sexual behavior. Likewise, (iii) “individual rights” are primarily conceivable for a biblical imagination in relation to sin, it would seem, since in most current usage they are focused primarily on oneself. Responsibilities, duties, opportunities, callings (and perhaps certain legal rights related to these) might be acceptable, but the way “rights” language functions in public and private life these days is a great distance from core Christian beliefs and assumptions. Even (iv) “equality,” which would seem to have some obvious connections to biblical ideas (e.g., as members of the body of Christ; or Galatians 3:27-28), is used by revisionists largely in terms of equal rights, especially as it applies to same-sex couples claiming the right to receive the church’s blessing of their relationship and non-celibate gays and lesbians in such relationships claiming the right to be ordained. But equality in biblical terms is not so much about rights as it is about being judged to be equally in bondage to sin, on the one hand, and equally righteous before God on account of Jesus Christ, on the other hand. Trusting in this righteousness, we are free to take lowly positions of service, to forgo various sorts of worldly success, to take risks for the sake of the good of others, and the like without losing self-esteem or judging ourselves to be failures.

(13b) These assumptions and the criteria they generate make many statements in favor of the moral goodness of same-sex sexual relationships questionable. For example, statements such as: “I have a right to act in accord with my orientation.” Or, “As a gay person I have a right to sexual fulfillment equal to that of a straight person.” Or, “I should have the freedom to find happiness even it is doesn’t fit with traditional Christian views of sexual morality.” Or, “Jesus promised abundant life to all who believe in him and as a gay person I should be able to define what it means accordingly and the church should not decide that for me.” Or, that the church’s insistence that gay men in same-sex unions must be monogamous is to impose “straight norms” on them, “since even Christian gay men need the freedom to engage in sex with men other than their partners every once in a while.” (As many of you know, I did not make up that last sentence. The gay Roman Catholic layperson and talk show personality Andrew Sullivan says it regularly.)

(14) The methods of argument used by many homosexual persons (and their advocates) to justify their sexual behavior often are seriously flawed. The most obvious flaw is the claim that, since one’s orientation is homosexual, therefore it is right to act in that way. This is called the “naturalistic fallacy,” namely, the claim that because something seems to be given or natural it is right; arguing this way is to move without any warrant from an “is” to an “ought.” No explanation is included as to why the fact that something is the case should lead to concluding that it ought to be the case. Many things that we consider to be natural or “given” are not good and should not be acted on; in fact, often such things are bad and should be avoided or prevented or corrected. What concerns me most is that some persons who are struggling with gender identity are taught that to move directly from orientation to a moral judgment is proper, when in fact it is empty rhetoric without a warrant (and finding a warrant is very difficult, in this case).

(14a) Another questionable but widely used claim is that personal experience is (or should be) the final arbiter in matters of homosexual identity and behavior. But why should individual experience—with all its partiality, conditionedness, potential for misunderstanding, and tendency to be self-serving (not to mention the aspect of sin in all experience and interpretations of it)—be given authority and trust greater than any other factor in these matters? Yet that is what often is being claimed. We hear story after story (each of which sounds almost scripted) of how someone has had the experience of discovering that he or she is attracted to persons of the same sex. This is followed by the conclusion that it must be true because the person didn’t choose to be that way (with the parenthetical comment, “Nobody would choose to be that way”). Hearing these stories, which simply assume that this discovery is of their permanent and unchangeable orientation, certainly should cause us to be reluctant to make personal experience primary in determining sexual morality. To be honest and properly critical, we should take into account the recent growth of research and findings suggesting that homosexuality is at least as much “socially constructed” as it is something genetic or otherwise set in place at birth. (See 15a, below.)

(14b) A third problem in most arguments in favor homosexual lifestyles is the explicit bias toward the present. Present experience is claimed to be better than past insights; present knowledge better than past understandings, since people in the past didn’t know all that we know; and present interpretations more reliable than previous views. Any of these may or may not be true, but there is little wisdom in automatically placing one’s trust in the latest theory or discovery or the most recent issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association—to say nothing of basing most of what one thinks on the results of internet searches. It seems to me that the church has let down especially its youth and young adults when it says nothing as they trade away their birthrights as God’s creatures for the mess of pottage called freedom of sexual expression. And it is a mess of pottage when the cases made in support of it are so flimsy.

(15) Finally, there is a key word which is used repeatedly in the debate in the ELCA and elsewhere that badly needs critical examination—the idea of homosexual “orientation.” Although the idea of what is now called “orientation” may have been around since the late nineteenth century, the word itself is of relatively recent coinage in popular and even scientific usage. Dictionaries from as late as the 1980s include no references to sexuality of any sort in their definitions of “orientation.” (“Orientation” refers there to getting situated geographically or going through a period of learning to do a new job or attend a new school.) I suspect that the word was chosen to apply to the situation of persons who are attracted to others of the same sex primarily because it had no previous usage related to sex and thus carried no negative connotations, in contrast to words such as “condition” or “pathology.”

(15a) The difficulty is that the word “orientation” sounds like it defines something; it seems to have a certain “weight” when it is used. But it was an empty word, which was filled by things people simply assert or believe, which then take on a sort of objectivity and authority. Obviously, “orientation” as it is used refers to something—the gender of the object of one’s desire—but it does not explain anything. It only asserts it: namely, that a person has discovered in him/herself a certain kind of attraction and believes it to be an aspect of his/her being that is simply there. Already in the late 1980s the idea of homosexuality as an unchangeable orientation was being seriously challenged—even by researchers who approved of homosexual behavior. It seems more accurate to repeat the conclusion of one observer that “orientation” remains a “conceptual battleground of conflicting interpretations.”

(15b) “Orientation” is used most fervently by those who favor defining same-sex attraction in entirely biological or (phylo)genetic terms. Such persons are often called “essentialists,” because they see homosexuality as permanent and definitive (essential) for a person. John Boswell represented this view. On the other side of the debate are those who hold that perhaps one-half or even more of what makes a person attracted to others of the same sex is a result of an individual’s adaptation to particular personal and cultural settings. These persons claim that while genetic or biological factors play some role, homosexual identity is more fluid or elastic and is primarily socially constructed—and thus is not simply “given” or permanent or unchangeable. Many if not most of these “social constructivists” also are supportive of same-sex sexual relationships (e.g., David Greenberg, David Halperin). Revisionists should not uncritically adopt the idea of sexual orientation as something given at birth, over which individuals and the social environment have nothing to contribute, and use it as a decisive, self-evident, unquestionable truth which supersedes what the Bible and the traditional view against homosexual behavior say.

(15c) For examples of this uncritical approach, note the statements in the booklet, Journey Together Faithfully, Part Two: “The ELCA recognizes that for some people homosexual orientation is a given . . .” (p. 19); “ . . . [I]n present-day thinking we recognize that homosexual orientation is not in itself blameworthy . . .” (20); “ . . . [O]ur modern understanding of homosexuality as an orientation . . .” (22); and “The idea that people have a certain sexual orientation is a conclusion of modern psychology” (27).

IV – Conclusions: A better way for Christian to think about sexual morality and implications for the church’s official ministry

(16) Christian freedom finds its place in daily life when Christians are set free to do what will help their neighbors within the large space demarcated by the law’s prohibitions. Being set free from the need to achieve righteousness before God by keeping the commandments, Christians can focus instead on keeping the commandments to serve the needs of their neighbors and the common good. In addition, Christians are free to go far beyond what the law requires—by going the second mile, loving even their enemies, forgoing the exercise of their own rights at the expense of the rights or needs of others, and on acting in other ways that will seem foolish to those who measure their worth only in terms of the law.

(16a) This latter dimension has been down-played to a large extent in the mainline churches’ debates about homosexual behavior. Christians who advocate the acceptance of same-sex sexual intimacy, for example, have tended to make their case in terms of how far the law’s moral teachings can be relativized or stretched in order to include such behavior as morally acceptable—at least, if it is loving. They claim that many biblical laws do not apply anymore and that requirements of equal justice supersede some biblical teachings and commandments. But how divergent may sexual practices be without placing people outside the bounds of God’s will? If same-sex sexual relations are limited to two persons in a long-term exclusive relationship, is that sufficient? Or, it is claimed, Old Testament laws prohibiting same-sex behavior actually only forbid abusive or blasphemous types of same-sex sexual relations. Or, that Paul’s words in Romans 1 about sex between two men or two women being unnatural apply only to heterosexuals, who would be doing something unnatural if they were to engage in same-sex relations, but not to those whose orientation is homosexual, for whom same-sex sexual relationships could be thought to be natural.

(16b) This approach and these questions have become familiar, but is this really the way that the ELCA or any Christian body should decide whether to approve of same-sex unions or the ordination of non-celibate gays and lesbians? This route may be the best that can be taken in a pluralistic civil society in terms of order and justice, but is it appropriate for those who are free in Christ and for the community life of Christ’s body, the church?

(16c) I believe that this approach is too minimal for those who are new creations in Christ. Everyone knows that in a marriage, for example, only refraining from the physical act of committing adultery is hardly sufficient for fidelity, apart from self-giving love, care, consideration, forgiveness, and the many other positive things that a marriage needs in order to thrive. And every parent knows that chaste sexual behavior for a teenager involves much more than only refraining from sexual intercourse in the strict clinical sense while engaging in virtually every other sort of sexual intimacy.

(16d) Yet it is the case, I think, that the recent history of heterosexual sexual intimacy and co-habitation without benefit of marriage, increasingly common even among Christians, has made the church susceptible to more minimalist arguments, such as “Co-habitation is morally acceptable as long as we’re engaged” or “as long as we really love each other.” And our sex-saturated media culture would lead many to reject any sort of obedience at all to the moral law or commandments when it comes to (so-called) “private” behavior between two people. Not long ago a regular columnist in the Minneapolis Star Tribune[i] declared that it is none of God’s business whether people do or don’t have sex. (I imagine that God was surprised to learn that—but then again, probably not.)

(17) Instead of asking how far we can go and still be Christians, or how much we can revise scripture and still be biblical, or how much we can accommodate to culture and still be salt and yeast, we should be asking a different kind of question: “How may we best be faithful”? How may we delight in God’s will rather than in our own? How may we walk in God’s ways rather than in other ways? The first kind of question is a validity question: How little can we get by with and still keep the commandment? How much may we leave out and still have a “valid” moral stance? How much over the speed limit may I drive and still be considered to be observing it?[ii] The validity approach does not rely on trusting God but focuses on the least we may do or the more we may deviate and still “keep” the law. Instead, Christians should be asking an integrity question: How might we best live faithfully in this time and place? How can I best love my neighbor? The integrity approach grows out of faith, trusting that in Christ we are new creatures and asking how we can live in light of that newness when it comes to our sexuality (or any other area of life).

(17a) The history of much mainline Christian sexual ethics during the past half-century has involved acquiescing to validity questions, primarily in relation to heterosexual matters, with discouraging if not disastrous results. If we judge this approach to have been a failure, why would we follow this same path regarding the church’s response to the demand for approval of gay and lesbian sexual practices?

(17b) Here are some additional examples of what an integrity approach might involve—in many areas, including those of sexuality and marriage.[iii]

  • We should ask not “What can I get away with?” but “What am I called to do?”
  • We should ask not “What is permitted? but “What is exemplary?”
  • We should understand Christian obedience to God’s will not as the enemy of freedom but as the exercise of freedom.
  • We should define Christian freedom not as the absence of duty but as deciding which duty is ours.
  • In contrast to popular culture in North America, Christians should teach, for example, that virginity is not a perversion, restraint is not inhibition, abstinence is not self-hatred, desires are not necessarily needs to be met, and biological capacity contains no imperative to action.
  • The Christian contribution to questions about sexuality and sexual relationships is to understand these questions not in terms of liberation from limits but in terms of that true liberation which is the exercise of freedom in the obedience of faith.

(18) We should note that if we try to use the Bible primarily as a law book, we will have a tendency to fall into thinking about sexual morality mostly in terms of validity. In that case, however, we will be thinking in terms of our “old Adam,” our old sinful self, rather than in terms of our being new in Christ. To be sure, since we remain sinful even while we are righteous in Christ, our old self needs the law to set limits. But our new self is free from the law, including free to go far beyond its minimum requirements and to do what is needed and what is best and what is most faithful in each situation. This way is what I am calling the integrity approach. The whole New Testament portrays this new way when it speaks of the life of Christians.

(18a) To seek to evade what has been obvious to Christians for centuries concerning sexual morality is to fall back again into the “validity” approach, to see how little we can live in accord with our new self in Christ and how far afield we can wander and somehow still claim to have a valid morality. Why on earth would Christians settle for this? Few Christians, no matter how liberal, would argue that other sorts of sexual activities prohibited by the Bible, such as adultery, incest, and promiscuity, are to be endorsed as morally acceptable. Why then is homosexual behavior treated as an exception? Is it mainly because of our secular culture’s tolerance of same-sex relations? This is surely an important factor. Many Christians have been reluctant to criticize questionable justifications for homosexual or other sexual behaviors that traditionally have been held to be immoral. It is primarily our liberal Western social/intellectual situation, I think, that makes it so difficult for many Christians to draw out the fairly obvious implications of biblical and theological teachings on sexual morality. Most of us do not want to be seen as fools or Puritans or as intolerant or unprogressive.[iv]

(19) Seeking the best ways of living faithfully and acting morally may help, for it will lead to positive teachings and actions and offer a “better way”—the way of integrity rather than mere validity. In doing this, it is important to distinguish between the theological-ethical and the pastoral aspects of Christianity’s response to homosexual persons. All Christians need to exercise compassion and patience and be slow to judge the behavior of those whom they think to be living in ways that are not pleasing to God, unless the behavior is in danger of causing immediate or long-term danger. The gospel is for all persons and offers forgiveness of sins and time for amendment of life, after all. All Christians are sinners and sexual sins are not different in kind from other sins, so all people must be invited to follow Christ and be members of his Body, the church.

(19b) One of the implications for forgiveness, however, is that those who are forgiven are to “go and sin no more.” (John 8:11) It would be quite inconsistent if the church welcomed persons involved in same-sex relationships, announced the general declaration that God forgives all the sins of everyone who is present, but never said anything about particular sins. It is just at this point that the ELCA’s welcoming of persons who consider themselves to be homosexual has been confusing and misleading, because it has implied (by the phrase “welcoming and affirming”) that the church considers homosexual behavior to be morally appropriate (or at least neutral). Yet is it not the case that all of us sinners who are invited to follow Christ and be part of his body also are invited to confess our sins, be forgiven by God, and then are expected to try to resist continuing to commit those same sins? Wouldn’t it be more accurate and more faithful for our congregations to be “welcoming, but not always affirming” communities? (See Stanley Grenz, Welcoming But Not Affirming.)

(20) Now, finally, we must think about the matters of the church’s blessing same-sex unions and ordaining those in such unions. This is not a question about membership in the church for persons who identify themselves as homosexual, for we are saved by faith in Christ, apart from works of law. However, it is one thing to be aware of what is going on or to acknowledge it and seek to minister in appropriate ways, but it is something quite different to give same-sex unions official public endorsement: to say that this is what the church believes, teaches, and confesses.

(21) For example, there is ample evidence in the Bible that Jesus believed in the divine institution of marriage and even strengthened its bonds by his strict teachings against divorce and by sharpening the commandment against committing adultery. Thus the church is on firm ground in standing so clearly and strongly in support of male-female marriage and of marriage as the place for the bearing and raising of children. But the Bible is silent on the subject of committed same-sex unions and whatever there is in the Bible that can be judged to be about same-sex activity is negative. So, on what basis is the church to give an unequivocal public endorsement of same-sex unions, which is what official blessing ceremonies would signify?

(21a) Consider other such instances. The church may allow or accept divorce as the best solution or at least the lesser evil for a marriage that has become a disaster for all concerned, but it doesn’t endorse or promote divorce. The church may acknowledge or even accept abortion in some extreme situations, as a last resort, but it doesn’t endorse abortion because it considers the taking of human life to be an extremely serious matter and not something to celebrate. The church may offer counsel about end-of-life issues for the terminally ill, but it doesn’t endorse or teach or confess euthanasia. So also with same-sex unions: the church may acknowledge them and encourage persons in them in certain ways, but should not endorse or bless them.

(22) I think this same reasoning rules out the ordination of non-celibate gays and lesbians. There is no clear or direct support of same-sex sexual intimacy in the Bible, and whatever references there are in the Bible that can be judged to be about same-sex sexual intimacy are against it. And there is not only no consensus but there is serious disagreement among ELCA members (as well as the opposition in the larger Christian community) about whether homosexual sexual relationships can be appropriate for Christians. Therefore, the ELCA should not ordain persons involved in such practices into its official public ministry, because such a way of life is not something we as members of Christ’s church have adequate reasons to believe, teach, and confess.