Sunday, August 23, 2009

On the Latest ELCA Headlines

In an effort to be fully disclosed--I was baptized and confirmed in the Lutheran church. Since college, I haven't believed in being a member of a church or of labeling my beliefs. So while I was raised in the Lutheran church, I currently don't label myself "Lutheran." The ELCA does, however, sign my paycheck.

For those in the dark, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has recently voted to accept the ordination of homosexuals in active, monogamous relationships. Previously, homosexuals could be ordained only if they remained celibate.

As you can imagine, this has split the church. While many people agree with the national assembly's decision (and some of those who agree actually surprised me), a sizeable minority disagree with the decision--and many of them vehemently. While I have heard many reasons against the ordination of gays in active, monogamous relationships, all of these reasons have been ideological. I have yet to hear a well thought out theological argument against it. I hope I do, though.

More full disclosure--I am not a theologian. I'm just a dude. I am, however, a sola scriptura dude. When the pastor of my church first told me that the ELCA was considering ordaining homosexuals, my gut reaction was "hell no." Like a good boy, though, I caught myself and decided to check what the Bible said about the issue.

The Bible is almost mute on the issue of ordination of pastors. Aside from the strict rules set out in the Pentateuch, there are very few guidelines on the issue. The Pentateuch's rules are inapplicable today as it is impossible to trace back anyone's ancestry to Aaron for starters. In The Ritual Process, Victor Turner makes a keen observation that the charismatic leaders of religious groups (Jesus, Buddha, St. Francis, etc) are often horrible organizers. The organizing comes from one or more structurally adept disciples. In the case of Christianity, this job falls on Peter and Paul. Turning to Jesus's own words, it is difficult to find direction concering the church in his absence. I was only able to find Jesus's warning of those who would come after him saying "Look here! Look there!" and not all of them would be true teachers. The way to tell true teaching from false teaching is to look at the fruit that they bear. The teaching that bears good fruit is true. I must admit that I don't see how ordaining homosexuals would bear bad fruit, but I will address that a bit more later on.

Since the Bible is silent on the subject of organization, I next looked for sections on homosexuality. As many are well aware, Leviticus speaks quite strongly against homosexuality. Undoubtedly, many of those against the ELCA's decision will point to Leviticus 18 and 20 as proof that homosexuals should not be ordained. Yet they will most likely skip over the same passage that states the punishment for homosexuality is death. If we are going to accept Leviticus as evidence that homosexuals should not be ordained, we must also accept that those same homosexuals should be put to death. That is obviously not an option, thus citing Leviticus in support of a denial of ordination to gays is a bit problematic.

The last point I would like to make concerning the Bible and this issue, and in my opinion the strongest argument to support the ELCA's decision, is that the Bible establishes sin and not-sin. Any human thought or action falls into one or the other category. There is either something that is sinful or something that isn't sinful. We certainly do not expect pastors to be sinless. Christian doctrine is almost uniform in stating that humans are sinners. A person need not be sinless in order to be ordained. The only way I can imagine using homosexuality as a deal-breaker for ordination is to consider it sui generis. For those against the decision, there must be three categories instead of two: sin, not-sin, and homosexuality. There simply is no scriptural basis for this argument.

Now I'll return to the good/bad fruit idea. Many may argue that homosexuality is inherently bad fruit. I am not one of them. Functionally speaking, what is societally important in a relationship is its monogamy. Heterosexually monogamous relationships are important for society because they bear offspring and provide the stability needed for raising those children. Homosexual monogamy may not produce offspring, but it provides the same stability needed for a healthy relationship. In other words, the monogamy of a relationship should be the priority.

This is not a soap box issue for me. I believe the ELCA made the right decision. But what bothers me the most is that those who disagree with the decision are using ideology to argue against it over theology. If the Bible is the book on which Christianity is based, let's use it. If someone has an argument against the decision that is based on scripture, I am sincerely interested in hearing it.

EDIT: It has been brought to my attention that Romans 1 deals with homosexuality, but not as it relates to ordination. It seems even Paul himself viewed homosexuality sui generis. As I mentioned before, there is no scriptural basis for this (other than Paul's own assertion). Let us remember that Paul never met Jesus and that his word is human. Lutherans are Christians--not Paulians. It is also worth considering the fruit that the teaching of Romans 1 would bear. And it would most certainly not be good fruit. While Paul stops short of ordering the execution of homosexuals (among others) he clearly wishes death upon them. That is most assuredly bad fruit. There are times when even Paul himself does not meet Jesus's rubric for right teaching.


  1. Interesting insight and pretty well thought out… Before I respond, I’d like to first point out that, like you, I am by no means a master of theology. I’m just a regular guy trying to make sense of it all and be as Christ-like as possible in my struggle to do so. I don’t place myself in an exalted position above anyone. I sin just as much as the next guy. I do, however, take comfort in the fact that I Christ died to pay for that sin and the sin of everyone else on this earth, regardless of our particular persuasion.
    Now regarding your thoughts… Let me start with your disqualification of Leviticus as a basis for whether or not to ordain a practicing and openly homosexual individual. I don’t argue here that this is the best verse to use as a basis for ordination, but I do believe that it provides insight into God’s overall view of homosexuality and, as such, contributes to the case against. You state that “If we are going to accept Leviticus as evidence that homosexuals should not be ordained, we must also accept that those same homosexuals should be put to death.” In my humble opinion, your logic is flawed here. The two passages are most certainly not a “package” deal. Leviticus 18:22 states “Do not practice homosexuality; it is a detestable sin” (NLV). (Other translations use the word “abomination.”) Taking into consideration the view that all things are either “sin” or “not sin” in God’s eyes (a view with which I agree), it’s obvious to the reader that this is considered to be a sinful act. Leviticus 20:13 goes on to state that “if a man lies with a man as with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death. Their blood shall be upon them.” This second passage describes in detail the punishment for this sin under Old Testament law. Consider that for God’s people living under the Law, the scripture provided not only spiritual and moral guidance but a complete legal framework as well. The death and resurrection of Christ released his people from the Old Testament law and placed them under grace (Rom. 6:14). Therefore, the punishment for specific sins among God’s people was no longer dictated by Pentateuchal law. In summary, it does not change the classification of homosexuality as a sin, but as Christ’s death was the ultimate sacrifice for our sin, grace now saves us from the punishment of the law. Taking into account this requirement for a unique and individual consideration of each verse, it appears to me that your assertion here isn’t quite accurate. (cont.)

  2. Next, let me jump a bit in your text to the “EDIT” in which you make mention of the Romans 1 reference to homosexuality as a sin. As with the above example in Leviticus, it does not necessarily refer to ordination but to the overall behavior as it relates to God’s view. You make the case that this is merely “Paul’s own assertion” and that “his word is human.” Here is where we get into the slippery slope that is either belief or non-belief in the Bible. I would make the case that one cannot selectively believe in parts of the Bible as divinely-inspired and others as merely human opinion. 2nd Peter 1:20-21 tells us that “Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet's own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit." 1st Corinthians 2:13 states, "This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words." God impressed man with His message, then the individual author, using his own style of expression based on his personal, educational, and cultural resources put the message into words.” If these verses are merely the human (and therefore flawed) opinions of Peter and Paul, does not that call into question the validity of the entire scripture? Jesus didn’t write down his own words in the Gospels. Following your logic, the words were subject to the flaws of human scribes (a.k.a.- Disciples). Does that mean that he didn’t actually speak the words attributed to him? Again, I would say that you either agree with Peter’s assertion that all scripture originated from God and was written down by man under the influence of his Holy Spirit, or you don’t. If you don’t believe that 100% of the Bible originated from God, I would assert that it is therefore impossible to use the Bible as the basis for any argument as it is inherently flawed. That would render our entire dialog pointless.  (cont.)

  3. Moving on… I’d like to restate that I agree with your view that homosexuality should not be thought of as sui generis, but is subject to the same classification as either “sin” or “not sin.” I also agree with your statement that, “A person need not be sinless in order to be ordained.” The Bible very clearly states that “…all have sinned and fall short of the Glory of God (Rom 3:23).” If being without sin was a qualification, only Christ himself would qualify for the priesthood/pastorate. 
    However, I take exception with your claim that “The Bible is almost mute on the issue of ordination of pastors.” While it might not say much on the formal “ordination” process, I’ve found it to be very descriptive with regard to the qualifications for a pastor. I submit the following list of examples (which is by no means exhaustive):
    • Titus 1:6-9 asserts that “an elder must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, having children who believe, not accused of dissipation or rebellion. For the overseer must be above reproach as God’s steward, not self-willed, not quick tempered, not addicted to wine, not pugnacious, not fond of sordid gain, but hospitable, loving what is good, sensible, just, devout, self-controlled, holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, that he may be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict.”
    • 1st Timothy 3:1-7 says “ Here is a trustworthy saying: If anyone sets his heart on being an overseer, he desires a noble task.2Now the overseer must be above reproach, the husband of but one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him with proper respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God's church?) He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil's trap.
    • 2nd Timothy 2:24-25 states that “…the Lord's servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. 25Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth.”
    There are numerous other examples throughout scripture, but suffice to say, the Bible definitely has something to say about who should and who should not be a pastor. (cont.)

  4. Now, to tie this all together… In order to make a case against the ordination of openly homosexual individuals, it stands to reason that one must accept that homosexuality is, in fact, a sin. Again, it is no greater or no less than any other sin, but it is, nonetheless, a sin. As evidenced by the above Biblical examples of qualifications for a pastor (a.k.a.- elder, overseer), it is a tall order to be a truly ideal candidate. However, I believe that the scriptures are clear in indicating that a pastor cannot be in open and continuous sin. This does not apply specifically to homosexuality, but if we accept homosexuality as a sin, does not open admission of a continuous sin constitute a means of disqualification for the role? I would submit to you that this is no different than considering an openly promiscuous heterosexual. The particulars of the sin itself are simply irrelevant. Again, we have all sinned, but if one clearly and proudly states that they embrace a lifestyle of ongoing sin and have no intention of repenting, should we openly embrace them as the leader of a congregation of believers? Based on a Biblical view of pastoral qualities, I believe that one can come to no other conclusion than that to do so would be an equal sin.
    Finally, thanks for sharing your view here and allowing me to comment.

  5. Good stuff Shawn. The "open and continuous sin" part of it is something I've heard from others. It is probably the best argument against the ELCA's decision. I'm just not sure how any of us are able to not live in open and continuous sin. The Bible says all human beings are sinners. Not that we're sinners part of the time. There is certainly something there to be hashed out though.

    As for my placing any book in the New Testament from Acts on in a position below the Gospels--I realize it is unorthodox. I am, however, not the first to do it. I also don't agree that you either have to accept the entire Bible or none of it. The canonical Bible is most assuredly a compliation of Man's doing. Some books that are in the Bible I believe don't belong. There may be some books that belong that aren't canonical. I point to the fruit test for determining if anything non-Gospel is worthy of being canon. This makes it possible to merely accept verses that one agrees with while throwing away what one doesn't. Which is why it is important to hold up the verse against not one's personal preference but against the teachings of the Gospel. But again, that's my personal view and isn't orthodox.

  6. Good point, Curtis on the "open and continuous thing." I think the kicker is the motivation and intent of the heart, which, of course, only God knows. I think that's it's one thing to be continually sinning (as we all do whether voluntarily or not) but quite another to openly "flaunt" it and express no remorse.

    Regarding the canonization of the Bible... I'll admit having some doubts on that sometimes, too. The more you read on it, the "rational and earthly" being in me says... "Wait a minute... What makes a bunch of religious leaders qualified to say which books are important and which aren't?" At the risk of sounding like I'm taking what your run-of-the-mill atheist/agnostic would call a "cop-out," I think a lot of it comes down to faith... Faith that God had and continues to have a hand in it all and is working his master plan... Faith that as God has led and inspired his people from the very beginning, so he did with these religious leaders of that day...

    The "fruit" test is an interesting concept, and I certainly can see its applicability on a personal level. Specifically, I can see the "fruit" borne out of the lives of my Christian ancestors leading up to me and contrast that with the fruit coming from the parts of the family tree who strayed. The difference is startling.

    It's interesting to apply the fruit test concept to this particular issue of ordaining homosexuals, though. In contrast to what you said above, I think it has the potential to bear some not-so-hot fruit. No, I don't see it coming in the form of legions of gay pastors converting kids by the score. Rather, I see it coming in the form of a gradual desensitization to sin. John 10:10 warns us that "The thief comes only to steal, kill, and destroy." Thieves rarely do their work overtly in broad daylight but subtly. It's tough because I know a number of gay individuals who, sexuality notwithstanding, have a lot to offer in the way of teaching and sharing with others, even on a spiritual level. That said, I can't help but think it dangerous and irresponsible to place these individuals in positions of leadership and expect such a defining piece of themselves not to spill over in the way of their teachings.

  7. This is all very thought provoking. To the point of interrupting my sleep pattern! I actually have come to accept the open and continuous clause. At first I thought the the part of a homosexually monogamous relationship that could be considered sinful would be the actual sexual act itself. Then I quickly realized a philanderer could use the same logic in arguing he was only sinning when in the act with his mistress.

    Your argument has definitely changed my thought process. I'm not sure if I'll end up changing my mind in the end. Right now what it's boiling down to is a "just how bad a thing is homosexuality anyway" question. The Old Testament, of course, labels it as sin. There are hundreds of mitvot in the OT and many of which we ignore nowadays. The OT is also not a great place to turn for moral guidance to begin with. Keeping in mind what Jesus said about the commandments being based on "love God. . . love your neighbor" I'm not entirely convinced homosexuality is sinful. But then of course, I come back to the reason I gave this blog its title to begin with.

    What I do know is intelligent dialog (such as this) is much better then vitriolic polemic.

  8. "This is all very thought provoking. To the point of interrupting my sleep pattern!"

    Too true!!! I normally sleep like a rock, but I couldn't go to sleep last night to save my life. I guess that's what I get for getting the brain working instead of veging out with a novel. :)

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  12. Shawn and Curtis,
    Thank you very much for a poignant and thought provoking dialogue thus far. I've really appreciated the civility and open-mindedness with which you've both approached this topic.

    I would like to point an item for consideration as well.

    Firstly, Curtis, though I can appreciate your zeal for a sola scriptura approach to ordination (and derivative discussions), it surely is not accurate to posit that the ELCA (and indeed, most ordaining bodies from most ordaining churches) use only Scripture to determine ordination processes and outcomes. You mention your angst over those who've used more ideolocial approaches (rather than theological ones) in developing arguments regarding the ELCA's decisions, but, on the contrary, is it not a core dictum of the ELCA that differentiates it from the LCMS that the Bible can speak through the use of higher critical study and discussion?

    I think this approach (higher critical study/discussion) is most helpful on issues that are particularly divisive, because we read scripture, and indeed, see life, through tinted lenses. In the 80's, Wheaton College commissioned a study on Women, War, Sabbath, and Slavery according to the scriptures. They commissioned 4 theologians with equal training to study the passages of Scripture which spoke to these issues, and to produce an intelligible summary of the Scriptural verdict. Perhaps not surprisingly, each theologian came back with a different perspective. We cannot help but read our culture, our experience, or trauma, or beliefs, our ethnicity - all of it, into the Scripture. So, this higher analysis becomes essential if we are to ask, Que est Veritas?

    So, Shawn having already produced a sound Scripturally-robust response, I ask – isn’t it entirely appropriate that extra-scriptural thought be added to our thoughts on the Christian life, and yay, even ordination requirements? Martin Luther’s 95 Theses seem to say yes, wouldn’t you agree?
    My point is this - when approached properly (a rarity!), scripture is necessary and sufficient for life, but this is not to say that it addresses with astounding depth or clarity every issue we encounter. You seem to point this out by noting the absentia of clear scriptural directives regarding homosexuality and ordination (i.e., there is no passage which reads, “Actively practicing homosexuals cannot be ordained.”), yet turn this logic on its head and request that someone produce a clear scriptural mandate anyhow.

  13. If you can label homosexuality as sin, I think you can tie scriptural principles together pretty seamlessly to point out that the open and continuous policy precludes practicing homosexuals from positions of authority within the church walls. That said, I don’t think there is a clear scriptural statement that says that explicitly. So, it may only lead to frustration if we continue to scour the scriptures looking for one.
    Again, enter the need for extra-scriptural discussions. As a mental health therapist (Master of Arts, Marriage and Family Therapy) whose primary area of graduate research emphasis was in sexuality and gender, I can attest that clients I’ve treated who identify as homosexual have a host of additional pathology because of the nature in which a homosexual orientation is developed. That is to say, contrary to pop cultural assertions and politically (in/)correct research, my research indicates that, like nearly every other sense of “identity” we possess, our sexual identity and orientation comes from a confluence of genetic, social, and systemic factors, all of which are enveloped by spiritual realities. It’s kind of a no-brainer.
    Both in my research and in my practice, the homosexual orientation appears to be the sexualization of a profound area of brokenness physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, familially, systemically, etc. I know this can be considered a shockingly divisive view, but if I seem to walk a hard line, I invite others to come and stand with me a while on the firing lines, holding hands with those who are working through their sexual struggles. A stout heart and resolute belief system is necessary to persevere.
    Can my limited experience be the basis upon which a final decision is made about the appropriateness of practicing homosexuals in ordination? Perhaps not. But a larger body of research in this area exists, and should be integrated into the discussion. We should be considering the following (at least): what is the diversity of opinion about etymology of homosexuality? What is the diversity of statistical opinion about the outcome of a practicing homosexual lifestyle (e.g., what are the rates of reported suicide, homicide, domestic violence, sexual abuse, etc.)? What impact do these items have on psychopathology? What impact does the presence of psychopathology have on one’s ability successfully shepherd a flock? Etc.
    If these extra-scriptural items are not considered, I fear our tinted glasses will lead us to succumb to this frightening scriptural concept: Ephesians 4:14 “…tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive;”

  14. The original blog is now only worth anything because of the comments it has produced. ;)

    As for the desensitization to sin--I am very drawn to this considering my moralist bias. Sin and morality may not be exactly synonymous, but they share some common ground. Another fully disclosed bias is my functional approach to morality--what benefit or detriment to society does a certain thought or action produce? As I mentioned earlier, I am unsure that a monogamous homosexual relationship produces any detriment to society. Ergo I'm not convinced it is inherently immoral.

    As for the theology of sin, I am admittedly out of my league. It appears that sin can fall into one of two categories (or both): sins against God and sins against Man. Sins against Man are easy to spot--murder, theft, deceit, jealousy. These are the types of sins I believe are most synonyous with my idea of morality. Sins against God, on the other hand, would include idolatry, polytheism, Sabbath observances, and the like. Now where might homosexuality fall? Because of my functional bias, I would be unlikely to see how it qualifies as a sin against Man. It is possible that it truly is a sin against God, but there's the rub. No one can presume to know what ticks God off. Unless of course we turn to the mitvot and there we run into the problem of not knowing which are still considered applicable and which are superfluous. I have seen some argue that the mitvot on homosexuality was among the commandments on ritual purity which would fairly easily place it into the superfluous category. There are some who consider it among the mitvot of Divine Law which would make it applicable. As I said, I'm lacking in my theology of sin and must again invoke the title of this blog.

    Let me take a tangent for a second and mention some of the scriptural passages that seem to be so strongly against homosexuality and in specific Romans 1. When reading the conclusion to Romans 1, does anyone really get the impression that Paul is talking about a monogamous, committed relationship? It sounds more like a warning against all the South Beach party/drug/sex-goers that against two homosexuals in a loving relationship. /tangent off

    Finally, the decade old buzz phrase "What would Jesus do?" seems to be a perennial ending point for discussions. The answer, of course, is we never know for sure. But we can imagine. It seems to me that Jesus wouldn't be quite as concerned about this as we are--yet I don't presume to be able to read his mind. The overarching message of love in the Gospels is, however, illuminating in almost all discussions.

    In the end, I just can't accept that committed homosexual relationships are an abomination to God. At the same time, I also admit that I may be forcing my preconception into my reading of scripture.

  15. Wow reading this again 7 months later is enlightening. While my position hasn't changed my reasoning sure has!