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Theological Reflections — on the Issues before the ELCA Concerning Homosexuality

by Paul Jersild

April 2004


First, a word of thanks for the opportunity to speak at your annual convention on a subject of real importance to all of us in the ELCA. I appreciate your structuring our sessions with speakers of opposing viewpoints to ensure a fair hearing of each side of the issue. I look forward to genuine dialogue with Marc Kolden and others of you as we have the opportunity.

My task is to address our topic as a systematic or constructive theologian, in distinction from a biblical scholar or a social scientist. This does not mean, however, that I can address our subject without reference either to the Bible or to the data and insights of the sciences. The systematic theologian is often characterized as standing with one foot in the Christian tradition going back to Scripture, and the other foot in the current scene, bringing tradition and contemporary culture into conversation in a way that forges new and hopefully responsible and helpful insights for the church concerning its message and the issues of the day. The very nature of this task may result in ideas and conclusions that challenge and disturb the church, but this is to be expected. The proper attitude within the church should be that we are ready and able to entertain provocative and challenging ideas as long as they are genuinely proposed for the sake of the church and its mission. We need to be confident that open, informed, and respectful dialogue in the church does enable us to arrive at faithful and responsible stances on the pressing issues of the day, even if you or I may not be in full agreement with the positions taken.

In the presentations last night, and most explicitly in that of Randy Freund, the hermeneutical issues surrounding our subject were addressed. Clearly, the hermeneutical question gets at the basis of the differences that exist between many of us who find ourselves on opposite sides of this subject of homosexuality. For that reason, I’d like to begin with some hermeneutical reflections of my own, which should be helpful to you in understanding just where I’m coming from.

Historically, we Lutherans have been in the habit of distinguishing between Scripture, tradition, and experience or reason as sources that enter into the theological and ethical judgments we make. At the same time we recognize a preeminent role for Scripture as the continuing source of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ. The importance of Scripture is often expressed in the Latin phrase, sola Scriptura – but these words do give rise to several hermeneutical questions. In the first place, how are we to understand the sola? I trust that we as Lutherans would agree that it does not mean that Scripture is the only source of truth, whatever the topic being addressed, making irrelevant the other sources we might call on. The church’s history would indicate that this is not the way it has been generally understood. Or, does it mean that whenever verses from Scripture and the experience of the church seem to run into contradiction with each other, that those verses automatically trump everything else? Clearly, this has not been the case either. In many instances Christians have appealed to Scripture in support of unjust or unworthy causes.

My point is that this expression, sola Scriptura, does not function well as an abstraction. To give meaning and point to the sola we must understand it within a particular context. It may or may not be an appropriate slogan, depending on what use or argument is being made of it. It was a powerful expression in the case of Luther, who confronted a corrupt and wayward church that needed to return to the Word of God. And over the centuries I trust there have been many times when the call to be faithful to the Christian witness, to Christian identity and integrity, has been well served by an emphasis on sola Scriptura. Whenever conflicts of this kind have occurred, they have had to be resolved through reasoned deliberation among the faithful, involving exegetical and hermeneutical judgments concerning the scriptural texts, or their applicability to the issues of the conflict, or the weighing of those texts in relation to the broad experience of the church in its historical setting. It becomes not simply an exegetical task, where we focus on the meaning of relevant texts, but a hermeneutical task in which the church must struggle to assess the relative weight and bearing that different sources – Scripture, tradition, the current experience of the church - bring to the situation. This process can result in an impasse between those who cite scriptural texts in defense of their position, and those who believe the current experience of the church is fashioning something new.

The other question relates to the second term, Scriptura. What is the meaning of Scripture in this phrase, sola Scriptura? What we are asking is the age-old question with which Protestant Christianity has grappled from its beginning: How should we understand the Bible as the Word of God – that which gives it its preeminence? In his book, Scripture and Discernment (Abingdon, 1996), Luke T. Johnson makes some distinctions which I believe are quite helpful in answering this question – distinctions, I might add, that should be particularly amenable to Lutherans. One can take the Bible as a collection of texts and bestow upon each of them the infallible authority of God’s Word, so that each verse delivers an authoritative judgment or truth-claim that commands our assent. Or, one can understand the Bible as the Word of God in its capacity (and here I quote Johnson) “to create a certain identity in its readers, to bring a Christian community into existence or renew it.” This identity-forming function of Scripture, and particularly the New Testament, gets at the central, life-changing message in the Bible, centering on Jesus Christ and the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit. This is the proper locus of scriptural authority for the Christian, the central message by which we understand all of the disparate verses that we find in Scripture – as Luther himself emphasized. If we were to bestow upon each verse this kind of authority, we would find ourselves in serious contradiction with any number of them. To quote Johnson: “Every Christian community, like every Christian, stands to one degree or another in disagreement with some part of the New Testament. Anyone who claims otherwise is simply lying.”

Let me summarize what I’ve been saying to this point: In holding to “Scripture alone,” it is a principle that, while conveying considerable rhetorical power, actually means little until it is applied to a particular historical situation in which the question of authority in the church is at issue. First then, where its meaning can be articulated in the setting of a particular conflict, can we begin to assess its validity. But, secondly, I’m also saying that what is meant by scriptural authority becomes itself a point of contention. And here I am saying, with Luther, that the authority of Scripture must be understood Christologically, on the basis of the substance of its message – an identity-forming, community-creating message - rather than on any formal argument that bestows divine authority on every particular verse. Elsewhere I’ve made the point that this is a hermeneutics of engagement, which sees the church in a dialogical relationship with its Scripture, where the church’s questions, concerns, and insights give shape to what it receives from Scripture. The questions we ask give shape to the answers we receive.

How do these observations relate to the conflict we are now experiencing concerning homosexuality and the proper stance of the church in regard to gay and lesbian Christians? They clearly have a bearing on the use of the Bible as particular texts in determining what the church’s stance should be on any particular social issue, including homosexuality. I am raising serious questions about any expectation that a particular verse, or combination of verses, will provide a once-and-for-all answer to a highly contested and complicated social issue – an issue, what’s more, that is likely confronting the church in a shape and form that it has never encountered before. It calls for extended deliberation on the part of the faithful, trying to discern the proper application of law and gospel in this particular setting. I will return to the implications involved here, but I need to sketch out another piece of the picture by addressing the historical development in which the church has been involved – a development that has literally created a new hermeneutical context in addressing this subject.

Any historian of churches in the Western world, surveying the past half century, would tell us that a remarkable development has taken place on behalf of greater understanding of homosexuality and an increased desire to see that justice is done for gay and lesbian people. Why have significant numbers of Christians changed their thinking on this matter, becoming advocates for people whom just a few years ago they rejected and perhaps even reviled? Clearly, a principal reason has been the dramatic change in the visibility of gay Christians. It is much easier to reject a person who is invisible than one who is sitting next to us on the pew, or is kneeling at the altar with us to receive the Sacrament, or who is a trusted co-worker with us on the church council. This development has compelled us to raise questions and search for answers that a generation ago were hardly imaginable. I for one cannot accept this development as a work of the devil, or the result of an increasingly dissolute society that is corrupting the church. On the contrary, I have pointed to developments within the church that have compelled Christians to rethink and reassess this whole subject. (Just as an aside here, I resonated with much of what Professor Sundberg said last night about Gnosticism and the narcissistic character of our therapeutic culture, but to dismiss the current struggle of Christians to reassess our stance on homosexuality as Gnostic, heretical thinking is quite inadequate and unfair.) I believe what we are witnessing are the fruits of the Spirit, where many broken lives are being restored, where people who have been hidden from the church and who have suffered tremendously at the hands of both church and society, are experiencing new life as accepted and welcomed members of the household of God.

This new visibility of gay Christians hasn’t happened out of thin air, of course. It is certainly connected with growing knowledge about the nature of homosexuality, and with growing impatience on the part of the gay community over the way it has been treated. Greater knowledge, as we might expect, has had a liberating effect on our society and our churches, opening the way to broader acceptance of gay persons. This whole process within the church began to pick up momentum in the 1960’s and 70’s, affecting both mainline and conservative evangelical churches. Indeed, one can see a growing convergence of so-called liberal, moderate, and conservative churches in their changing assessments of homosexuality. Greater knowledge has challenged the irrational fears that feed on ignorance, fears that, in this case, have been particularly intense and pervasive throughout society for a very long time.

Let me spell out a bit more some of the hermeneutical implications of this development. I’m referring here to the changes going on in the life-experience of individual Christians that compel for them a reunderstanding of biblical texts relating to the subject of homosexuality. For example, the Christian parents who learn that their son is gay were forced by social pressure in a previous time to remain silent and either disown their son completely, or at least keep him at an emotional and perhaps also geographical distance. Today those same parents are more likely to feel an intense urge to learn all they can about homosexuality, to appreciate the burdens and pressures experienced by their son, to accept him as he is, and perhaps even to take it as their mission to work for greater understanding and acceptance of gay persons.

Or take the example of countless teenagers within the church. Unlike myself and others of my generation, who didn’t think they knew anyone who was gay and would shudder or smirk if they thought they did, today’s teenager not only knows young men and women who are gay but likely claims some of them as friends. They live in a world in which the media routinely portray the lives of gay folks, not as objects of prejudice but as normal, productive human beings – which, of course, the vast majority of them are. Or take professors of Christian ethics like myself whose teaching responsibilities have compelled them to study intensively what we know about homosexuality in order to address it in a responsible way in the classroom – ignorance, after all, will skew any moral judgment, no matter how honestly or fervently it’s held. Many have traveled the same path that I have, from one who as a youth regarded gay people as utterly perverse - known to me exclusively through wild and offensive gay marches and the like – to one whose mind has been gradually changed over the years as I’ve had the opportunity to not only read about the gay experience but to get to know gays, and particularly Christian gays, as friends.

All of these folks – parents of gay children, teenagers, ethicists, and of course many others – now stand at a point at which their understanding of gays and their commitment to justice for gays puts them in profound conflict with the traditional stance of their churches. Among other things, that stance has been shaped by certain interpretations of particular verses that have claimed the authority of God’s Word (going back here to my beginning observations). This conflict has generated intensive exegetical studies of the biblical verses relating to homosexuality, in many cases evoking new insights and reminding us that the meaning of any given text is the result of interpretation. It is not my task here to get into the exegetical questions raised by biblical texts (that has already been addressed today), but suffice it to say that as a theologian of the church, and in light of the church’s experience over the past half-century, I can only believe that a responsible biblical and theological position would never identify Christian gay persons with those whom St. Paul places under the wrath of God in the first chapter of Romans. The apostle is dealing with a subject matter that is quite different from what we are addressing today as a church. (Here I would disagree with Dr. Harrisville when he argues from the Romans passage that there is indeed idolatry and the wrath of God in the background of homosexual people; he would temper the implications involved here by quickly adding that we are all idolaters, but this fails to address the point: Why then aren’t we all homosexuals? Why have heterosexuals been spared this expression of God’s wrath?) The conflict among us on how to interpret certain verses on this subject makes all the more important the necessity of emphasizing Jesus Christ as God’s Word rather than endowing certain verses of the Bible with divine authority in such a way that they become impervious to any kind of understanding or insight that arises within the ongoing history of church and society.

But the problem is not just about how Scripture has been used in shaping the mind of the church. One can make the case that what we call the Christian tradition has actually had more impact in shaping the thinking and attitudes of the church concerning homosexuality than Scripture itself. Tradition covers a broad range of material reflecting many diverse historical and cultural settings, but what impresses the student is the decisive influence of a couple of major theologians on the thinking of the church concerning homosexuality. I refer here to Augustine from the fifth century and Thomas Aquinas from the thirteenth. They provide a theological rationale for their judgments that go far beyond what Scripture has to say, a rationale which has justified a most profound condemnation of the homosexual person.

We’ll limit our brief comments here to Saint Thomas, who begins with the premise that the primary purpose of sexual organs is procreation, which means for Thomas that homosexual practices must be inherently unnatural and therefore contrary to God’s law – the law of nature. Because homosexual acts “waste the seed” and thus defy the Creator’s purposes for the human race, Thomas argued that homosexual acts must be graver sins than sinful heterosexual acts of any kind – even acts of exploitation against other people, such as adultery, or seduction and rape. Whether or not the homosexual acts occur between consenting adults – such as two persons who are committed to each other in a permanent relationship - is irrelevant to the moral judgment, which is exclusively act-centered. While challenged today by many American Roman Catholic theologians, this kind of “natural law” thinking remains distinctive of Roman Catholic moral theology, and its influence reaches well beyond that church.

I would like to raise two questions of a theological and ethical nature that I believe are particularly critical in helping us sort out the changing perspective of the church. How we answer these questions will likely determine our stance as Christians in regard to the homosexual person. The first question is quite hypothetical: 1) If there were no Fall in the story of creation, would there still be people who discover that they are homosexually oriented? Or, to put it in different language: If we were living in a perfect world, would there be any homosexual people? 2) Is it possible for two persons of the same sex, whether gay or lesbian, to unite in a common life that is marked by faith, hope, and love? Or, to put it in different language: Can gay persons, living in relationships marked by permanency and fidelity, demonstrate those gifts we identify with Christian sanctification? Let me address each of these questions in turn.

How do we determine the answer to the first question? I know that many Christians would believe that Scripture’s judgment of homosexual activity as they understand it, from Leviticus to 1 Timothy, makes the answer clear: No, homosexuality must be the result of the Fall. From this view it would follow that the homosexually-oriented person comes under divine judgment in virtue of who he is as a sexual being. In addition to being a sinner in need of repentance like the rest of us who are heterosexuals, he must also repent for his homosexual condition. One might reply that, no, it all depends on whether he engages in homosexual activity; if he refrains, then he is not under judgment in terms of his sexuality. My question then is whether one can so neatly divide people, so that who they are as sexual beings can be divorced from their expression of who they are? “Love the sinner but hate the sin” is based on this rather common dichotomy, but it is much too facile. Where does it leave the gay person, who cannot be himself as a sexual being under these circumstances? If God has designed the outcome of the Fall, then God is intent on subjecting certain people to greater temptation, where their sexuality must be denied or repressed in order to be acceptable to God. Is this the kind of God in whom we believe as Christians?

Some would attempt to evade the impact of this question by claiming that sexual orientation is a fiction. According to this view, people don’t discover they are gay, but rather they choose to be and act like homosexuals, perhaps out of some kind of sinful perversity. It is not my role today to examine the concept of sexual orientation with its competing essentialist and constructivist understandings. The extent to which nature and nurture are involved is a matter for scientific research, but as a theologian and ethicist I find it highly significant that at some point in their lives gay people do discover and must come to terms with who they are as sexual beings; they do not simply decide they want to become gay (in itself certainly an unlikely event, given the oppression of gay persons). But there are Christians who want to believe that Jesus Christ can change the gay person into a straight person, in which case it must be a choice that one can repent of and be converted from. I know that organizations like Exodus International and others representing the Christian Right are ardent advocates of so-called reparative or reorientation therapy – the idea that there is really no such thing as a gay person, and that those who manifest gay behavior can be helped to recover their innate heterosexuality. Whatever evidence has been offered for this point of view – and I recognize the considerable ambiguity that surrounds this whole subject - it has failed to convince the vast majority of scientists in this field. I suspect that some persons who are deeply disturbed by their sexuality may be helped by appropriate therapy, but mixing religious zeal to change the gay person, together with methods of behavior modification, is not a promising combination; it has not only been a useless exercise in the vast majority of cases, but often a damaging experience for the gay subject as well.

Returning to the two questions we have raised: I believe the only way we can answer the first question is through the second one. The significant thing about this second question – whether gay persons in relationship can demonstrate the Christian fruits of faith, hope, and love – is that, unlike the first question, it can be answered through empirical investigation, by observing the lives of gay people. Are there such people who do reveal in their lives a steadfast faith in Christ, who live in hope of his coming, and who demonstrate a spirit of love in their relations with others? The answer is clearly yes – many of us here, I suspect, are quite well aware of such people. But let me remind you that just a generation or two ago we could hardly have answered this question in the affirmative because of the invisibility of gay Christians. First now can we recognize a blessed truth that had been hidden from us. It’s a reminder, once again, that the course of history plays a decisive role in the changing perspective of the church on social/ethical issues.

We conclude, then, that homosexual persons, whether single or living in a committed relationship, can and do live the Christian life. What implications do we draw from this fact? I believe it follows that gay and lesbian Christians are fitting candidates for the ordained ministry of our church in virtue of their baptism, their profession of faith, and their personal qualities, assuming that they warrant the positive evaluation of the church through its candidacy committees. I believe the nature and character of the union or marriage in which the candidate stands can and should be an asset in a gay Christian’s qualifications for pastoral ministry, just as it often is with the married heterosexual candidate. The companionship that comes with marriage or a permanent union is a stabilizing factor that we all can appreciate. Thus from a theological and ethical point of view, I find no reason to deny the gay candidate who is living in a committed relationship entry into the ordained ministry. I realize that there are both heterosexuals and homosexuals who are single by choice; they see celibacy as an integral part of their vocation. I respect that very much, but only because it is a choice, not a requirement imposed by the church

There are those who maintain that the ordination of self-avowed gay persons living in open relationship would constitute a status confessionis issue for the church. This means it would be such a fundamental attack on the core beliefs of the Christian community that to allow it would fatally compromise the church’s identity. In other words, it would justify a schism within the church. I think we must be extremely cautious about bestowing this kind of theological importance to any social/ethical issue. I remember back in the early 1980’s there was a lively debate in our Lutheran churches on whether apartheid in South Africa constituted such an issue. I thought that it did, for the very humanity of a whole people was being denied by a racist policy that was devastating in its effects. It was a social issue, but one with profound theological and anthropological implications. The issue of gay ordination, I would argue, is quite different; here we are enlarging the church, opening our polity to include Christians who in the past have been routinely excluded. The only way one could argue that gay ordination is an assault on the identity and integrity of the church – a repudiation of Jesus Christ as Lord - would be literally to identify gay persons with the Fall (to destroy them, theologically), simply by being who they are as sexual beings and living in a faithful relationship, which, I would maintain, is the most responsible thing they can do as sexual beings. I would like to believe the church will not want to persist with this kind of theology and ecclesiastical practice.

I turn now to the other issue to be addressed by the ELCA – whether to allow pastors to bless the unions of gay persons. This issue does not affect the ecclesiastical polity of our church in the way that the ordination question does, and consequently may not raise quite as intense feelings and concern among Christians. We are not as a church addressing here the issue of gay marriage, which our society is now struggling with. But the blessing of gay unions does at least raise the question whether gay persons warrant similar if not the same treatment that straight folks expect when it comes to an important, life-defining institution in our society – the institution we call marriage.

One response often heard among Christians is the claim that gay people neither desire nor are capable of entering into monogamous relationships such as marriage requires, so it would be foolish for the church to bless these relationships. They argue that gay persons by nature are promiscuous; the male-to-male relationship is at best a surface matter, remaining at the level of sensual excitement and erotic satisfaction without the capacity for establishing a caring relationship. This view, again, reflects natural law thinking. Let me quote from the New Catholic Encyclopedia:

"All true love is a going-out of oneself, a self-giving; but, all unconsciously, homosexual love is bent back upon the self in a closed circle, a sterile love of self, disguised in apparent love for another. What seems like ideal love to the homosexual must be shown to be narcissism."

Unfortunately, this kind of judgment is not based on any kind of empirical investigation of gay partnerships that extend over many years. It’s based entirely on a theoretical framework that one brings to the subject, in this case an interpretation of natural law that doesn’t allow for genuine self-giving among gay persons. And, in case there is any challenge to this claim on the basis of what we actually observe among gay couples, it can always take refuge behind the words, “all unconsciously.” What we see is mere appearance, not the real thing. I think of the heroic support that so many gay people have given to their partners who were dying from AIDS. The kind of faithfulness and genuine love we saw again and again makes this kind of judgment ring pretty hollow. One might add that another reason why people point to a deficiency in gay relationships is the fact that procreation is not possible, and thus the stability and attachment bestowed by family relationships is necessarily missing. Of course, this point ignores the fact that adoption among gay couples, who want the stability of family life, is becoming more common.

Christians have often complained about the promiscuity in the gay community, even making it a reason for the rejection of gay people. Thus there is considerable irony in the fact that these same Christians are now opposed to establishing a monogamous, stable, permanent character to gay relationships. If we have the good of the gay community at heart, as I believe Christians certainly should, then we will want to support the establishing of social structures that enable and encourage gay persons to live in permanent, faithful relationships. Churches should be in the forefront in encouraging state governments to establish the legality of same-sex unions, whether we call it marriage or something else. It is a very serious civil rights issue because of the denial of any number of rights to gay partners that are legally guaranteed to marriage partners. Christians who are opposed to providing a church-sponsored marriage to gay partners should at least recognize the injustice that now prevails in the secular realm where gay couples are denied the benefits of their living together in permanent, committed relationships. For the church to bless the commitment of two gay persons to each other strikes me as the very least of what we should be doing.

Another argument that is often made by organizations associated with the Religious Right is that gay marriage constitutes a threat to the institution of marriage that could possibly destroy it. Both theological and sociological arguments are made, ranging from the biblical account in the story of creation (where it is Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve) to projections of all kinds of bizarre combinations of people who will insist on being married, thus trivializing the institution and inviting all kinds of destructive consequences. This particular kind of “slippery slope” thinking does not strike me as credible. There are far more corrosive forces at work today that devalue and undermine the ideals of promise-keeping and fidelity upon which marriage is based, than one could imagine coming from expanding marriage to include the permanent commitments of gay persons. I recall a comment from a Christian Century article awhile back, in which a heterosexual person observed that the “longest lasting, most faithful, most productive, most socially active and most generous” marriages that he was aware of were those of lesbians. My own belief is that society will eventually take a “live and let live” attitude on this matter, and that the overall, long-term impact of gay marriage or civil unions will be salutary rather than destructive. Stability in the gay community is a very positive development, not only for themselves but for all of society. We could never have imagined it happening just a generation ago.

Let me close by affirming the principle that I believe your convention program this year wants to affirm: No matter how difficult or potentially divisive an issue may be that confronts the church, we can and must lift up the Gospel of Jesus Christ as that which unites us in spite of our differences, a Gospel that runs both deeper and higher than any theological or ethical issue over which we have our disagreements. Our celebration as Lutherans of the overpowering grace of God should enable particularly us, among the churches of our nation, to recognize in ourselves as well as those with whom we disagree the need of repentance and forgiveness, to maintain appreciation and respect for each other even in our disagreements, to avoid a legalistic or moralistic response to an issue as complex as this one, and to dedicate ourselves to an ongoing dialogue that will discourage either side from refusing to listen. If, by God’s grace, we can achieve all of this, we will be an example for all the churches and for the larger society as well.