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Review of the Draft Social Statement on Human Sexuality

What Are They Talking About?#1

“What We Cannot Do”

Pr. Jonathan Jenkins

Easter 2008


The Draft Social Statement on Human Sexuality (DSSHS – pronounced “dishes”) is not easy reading. The drafting committee members plainly have spent too much time talking to each other. Other members of the ELCA will have trouble trying to follow DSSHS as it wanders from assertion to assertion. What are they talking about? Where are they going?

It’s easier in DSSHS to figure out what we can’t do theologically than what we can do. To begin with, we cannot know God’s will in matters of sex from creation. In this claim DSSHS is far more pessimistic than other social statements on other subjects. The difference, however, is relegated to one sentence in a footnote: “Because sin has intervened, Christians cannot ground their understanding of sexuality in nature or creation itself” (FN7).

The point seems to be that God made us male and female, but we are unable to tell what our sexual organs are made for from our anatomy!

If Christians cannot understand what God intended before “sin intervened,” how is it that DSSHS can understand what God intends after “sin intervened”?

We cannot ground our understanding of sexuality in the order of nature, but to our surprise, we can tell when nature is changing for the better. “The concept of ‘orderings’ here is dynamic and provisional. It understands the orders of creation or better, ‘orderings of preservation,’ as subject to God’s ongoing creative activity” (FN7).

If you cannot tell what something is, how can you tell when it’s getting better?

What else can’t we do? “Lutheran sexual ethics cannot limit itself to lists of right or wrong deeds (though some deeds are, indeed, right or wrong)” (273). (That’s odd, because much of DSSHS reads like “lists of right or wrong deeds.”)

Did even one member of the ELCA ever suggest that Lutherans sexual ethics should limit itself to making lists? If so, what is the individual’s name?

“What we cannot do” extends to Scripture: “Scripture cannot be used in isolation as the norm for Christian life and the source of knowledge for the exercise of moral judgment. Scripture sheds light on human experience and culture. At the same time, society’s changing circumstances and growing knowledge help us to see how Scripture can speak to us. Scripture, especially in the law, must be interpreted continually under the Spirit’s guidance within the Church and in thoughtful dialogue with insights of culture and human knowledge” (417).

What is the meaning of this sweeping prohibition? Is God unable to speak to ordinary Christians in the Bible? Is interpretation the privilege of experts? Does the Bible not mean what it says?

What does “in isolation” refer to? Do they mean that “Scripture cannot be used” - by an individual Christian – “as the norm for Christian life and the source of knowledge for the exercise of moral judgment?” What an extraordinary claim! Does it include a norm like, “Do not commit adultery?” Why or why not?

What is going on here? The analysis in another context, of Pastor Henry Chronis, sheds light on the direction of DSSHS, too. He is speaking of passages of Scripture that condemn and prohibit homosexual practices and uphold marriage:

…The strategy is, essentially, to divide and conquer. The condemnatory passages of Scripture are quarantined from one another (presumably, on the assumption that each occupies a time- and culture-bound world of its own) which mutes their harmony…They are also isolated from the rest of the Scriptures – as if the whole biblical witness was not…affirming…the conjugal heterosexual norm…and the proscription of homosexual relations.

Then these condemnatory texts are divorced from Christ – as if our Lord…did not himself proscribe homosexual practice when he condemned not only “fornication” (porneia in Greek) and “adultery” (moicheia), but also the “licentiousness” (aselgeia) that elsewhere includes homosexual relations (see Mark 7:21-22; cf. 2 Peter 2:7), and (as if Christ) is not himself speaking…in the condemnation of homosexual practices throughout the Scriptures.

Most significantly, finally, these texts are separated from us, in this instance by a temporal and cultural divide that is alleged to be so deep and wide as to render them incapable of saying anything meaningful about so-called faithful and consensual homosexual unions today. And this goes on until, by a kind of hermeneutical [“interpretive”] alchemy, the consistent prohibition and condemnation in the Scriptures are made to yield their contradictories, permission and blessing. (Pro Ecclesia Vol. XIV, No. 4, p.396)

What is going on in DSSHS? The reader can discover by looking for the “divide and conquer” approach to the Bible, beginning with its assertions of “what we cannot do.” The reader of DSSHS should also be on the lookout for interpretive “alchemy.” Alchemy was the medieval pseudo-science of creating gold out of a baser substance. Is DSSHS attempting to transform what the Bible forbids into a new thing that we must approve?

What are they talking about? We know, in part, from “what we cannot do.”