By almost every standard for measuring such things the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America stands on the conservative side of mainline Protestantism. It maintains cordial relations and some measure of cooperation with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, which nobody would place in the mainline. Pastors and congregations subscribe formally to the authority of Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions, and that subscription is taken seriously. The creeds and liturgy provide an additional support for the dogmas of the church catholic. A continuing pietism flavors that orthodoxy with a deep concern for personal conduct and devotion. Lutheran identity counts, and that identity for most Lutherans still includes clear doctrinal and ethical content. In 1994 in North America many of these commitments and characterizations are much shakier than they were one or two generations ago, but the best aspects of Lutheran particularism are still identifiable.
Then there are the Lutherans themselves. Overwhelmingly German and Scandinavian, they are properly known for their solidity, hard work, reserve, and, well, conservatism. The civic progressivism of the upper Midwest, where the ELCA is so heavily concentrated, does not contradict this in the slightest. Minnesota, which has many Lutherans and only somewhat fewer Catholics, has been a seat of resistance to state funding for abortion and a leader in strong parental consent legislation. The next largest concentration of ELCA Lutherans (12 percent of about 5.5 million) is to be found in my socially conservative state of Pennsylvania. On the basis of election data and demographics, it can be estimated that 70 percent of ELCA voters went for George Bush in 1988, and this would suggest an even larger vote for Ronald Reagan.
Lutherans and Lutheranism would not seem to provide very fertile soil for the utopians who have tried to revolutionize sexual ethics in other denominations. In addition to sociology, tradition, and biblical authority there is Luther’s teaching on marriage and family life. But utopianism found its way to the ELCA too, in a task force on human sexuality. On Wednesday, October 20, 1993, an AP story about the task force’s draft of a social teaching statement, “The Church and Human Sexuality: A Lutheran Perspective,” hit the press around the country-even before the pastors had received their copies. Though the story highlighted the most controversial sections of the document, it was accurate and made plain that some ELCA bishops had already expressed serious reservations. Fair as the reporting was, however, it did give rise to some striking headlines. The best of these was, without a doubt, “Lutherans Endorse Masturbation, Condoms, Gay Unions.”
A firestorm followed. On the very next day, 20,000 phone calls clogged the lines at church headquarters in Chicago. Callers to local pastors expressed deep worry and concern whether they could remain in the ELCA. Bishops bewailed the possible impact on giving; October is the heart of budget season. My own bishop put an ad in every newspaper in the synod making it clear that the document was only a first draft and dissociating himself from it. Older members of my parish reported their sense that the standards by which they had struggled to live their lives had been betrayed, and parents were less than grateful. In its first five-and-a-half years the ELCA had already been rocked by a series of mainline-style radicalisms, but none had drawn anything like the fire that the task force on human sexuality had brought on the church and on itself.
No one who had been paying attention should have been surprised. Just two years earlier the task force had released a study document that made the group’s assumptions and its direction clear, even though much of the rhetoric was phrased in the tentative language of discussion. The study, issued in late 1991, relied heavily on the feminist depiction of sexual relationships as expressions of power, and in every way indicated that “committed relationships,” rather than the created order of marriage, would frame its discussion of sexuality. The task force determined early to focus on “quality not kind” of relationships. Equally telling was the second sentence of the preface to the 1991 study, which began by announcing that it intended to “stimulate reflection and dialogue with Scripture.” With that any genuine Lutheran commitment to the normative character of Scripture vanished and the outcome of the study became predictable.
The task force subsequently made no serious effort to accommodate the heavy criticism that the 1991 study document had drawn, although in the 1993 draft the radical feminist obsession with issues of power is less overt. But where the study, for instance, only hinted at normalization, the draft forges ahead with a strong bias toward full acceptance of gay unions, explicitly ruling out the traditional opposition of the church toward homoerotic behavior.
It would, however, be a serious mistake to focus unduly on the issue of homosexuality, as did the media and many Lutherans in their initial outrage. The gay lobby and the gay members of the task force were forceful and successful in pressing their agenda, but the more fundamental shift in the draft is to be found in the evaluation of relationships on the basis of quality rather than kind. This shift intends far more than the normalization of homosexuality. Relativizing marriage is the driving agenda, and it is feminists, not gays, who are the primary beneficiaries. A certain priority is conceded to marriage, but the norm of heterosexual monogamy is scarcely celebrated. It cannot be, since all sexual arrangements are judged as instances of “committed relationships.” The modernist and feminist assertion of personal independence in shaping one’s life is the ruling ideology. The biblical assumption that our lives are in fact lived out in structures and orders ordained by God for our good is virtually ignored. Ignored completely is the Lutheran and Augustinian doctrine of the bondage of the will which sees with stark clarity the folly of our claims of free agency. The document is indissolubly wed to the category “committed relationships,” which is in fact nothing but a loophole that can only be defined-oxymoronically-by the independent self.
The document does invoke Christian tradition when that suits its purposes, again more feminist and modernist than homosexualist. It opposes prostitution, pornography, sexual abuse, adultery, and the like, though one is hard put to see how adultery can be ruled out if a couple in a committed relationship were to decide that it would be stimulating and meaningful. And it is telling that the section on adultery does not bother to mention the Sixth Commandment.
The draft bears easiest comparison to “Keeping Body and Soul Together,” the proposal dumped by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in the summer of 1991, just before the ELCA task force released its preliminary study. The Lutheran document is mercifully much briefer than the Presbyterian one and does a better job of concealing its radical feminist assumptions. The Presbyterian report starts and ends blaming everything on the feminist bugbear of patriarchy-that most useful theory of a grand universal conspiracy of all men against all women. The Lutheran draft is not that overt, but you don’t have to push too hard to see that the assumptions are the same. What the task force appears not to have learned from the Presbyterians is the unlikelihood of getting away with it.
The other parts made much of by the press, condoms for kids and the commendation of masturbation, are pretty much what one might expect. Although the report does not “condone” teen sexual activity, contraceptives will “reduce the risk of unintended pregnancy” and condomization will do the same for sexually transmitted diseases. The comment on masturbation is gratuitous and seems to reflect somebody’s need to address a pet hang-up. What didn’t hit the press was that, like the Presbyterian proposal, this one pays minimal attention to procreation-although the few positive sentences on the subject are pretty good. There is, however, not a hint that any question needs to be addressed to married couples who do not see parenting “as part of their calling.” Sex and procreation are essentially separated; only the human will remains. Any understanding that sex is teleologically oriented toward the necessary institution of marriage is utterly absent.
The question is, how did this happen? To begin with, while the Lutheranism and the Lutherans described above are genuine enough, the reality is getting shabbier. Though not in the camp of liberal Protestantism, ELCA Lutheranism is so positioned in the American religious scene as to be deeply affected by all the movements, “theologies of,” and liberation forces of the past decades. While Lutheranism has been generally more prudent in its social activism than other Protestant churches, the trend has been in the activist direction. And Lutherans sometimes have tried too hard to prove that they are not the immigrant quietists they are rumored to be. In the period prior to the 1988 merger of three predecessor bodies into the new ELCA, homosexual and feminist activism had been growing and pushing with increasing success for recognition of their agendas and “repentance” for past discrimination. Guilty pietists were eager to accommodate, not least among them an aging white male leadership that had never recovered its confidence after the earthquakes of the sixties.
Some of the motives were of course good. Church response to human sexuality had often been rigid and priggish. The realization that homosexuality, while still something of a mystery, is not merely the result of choice-as St. Paul of course recognized-does force some reflection. Church people don’t want to drive away those who have trouble with classical teaching. They do not wish to punish those who have been unduly shaped by the culture; they want to prevent further harm. They know marriage and courtship customs have been fluid. But dealing with these realities requires sure footing, and many find it easier to bend with the times than to confront a popular cultural shift in spite of its obvious hazards and horrific social results. The very conservatism of traditional Lutheran culture may weaken the resolve of the current generation as it overcompensates for past shortcomings. Finally, a simple desire even by moderates and conservatives not to appear too conservative explains a lot of the motivation behind the document.
There was a structural factor as well. ELCA Lutheranism might be the least theologically liberal component of the mainline, but one feature distinguishes this new church body from its peers and sets it somewhat to the left of them. As a denominational structure, the ELCA is state-of-the-art. It is the newest and most fully embodies the kind of interest group pluralism that characterizes older denominational structures. But where other churches had to slot this pluralism into existing structures, the ELCA made it constitutionally central. “Inclusiveness” was the governing ideology of the group that created the ELCA-tellingly named the commission for a New Lutheran Church-and as other Protestant bodies and institutions were cautiously backing off from rigid quotas, the ELCA imposed them on every structure within reach. A Commission for Women and a Commission for Multicultural Affairs were set up to watch over pluralist purity, and in keeping with the activist and inclusivist mood of the designers, much of the recruiting for the new staff was done from among a pool of individuals far to the left of most of the clergy and laity. A quota system, rationalized and marketed as a tool both for mission and overcoming past injustice, had from the first another, and deeper, goal: to serve as a Trojan horse for importing the largest possible number of activists into the church bureaucracy. Further, by limiting clergy participation in all boards and commissions to 40 percent it cut back on the number of theologically trained persons who might stand in the way of progress. Finally, by making it necessary that elections be conducted as contests of like against like (female against female, minority against minority, etc.) the system extended vast powers to the nominating process and enabled those in power to recruit just those board members most likely to agree with their purposes and keep them in power.
Structurally, then, the ELCA is designed to give the religious left maximum power in the name of justice, repentance, and inclusiveness and to exclude troublesome voices who know the tradition. Nowhere has this worked better than in the Church in Society bureaucracy and its ally in this enterprise, the Commission for Women.
In the Commission for Church in Society (now after a reshuffling merged with the Division for Social Ministry Organization into the Division for church in Society) the program worked to perfection. The critical position of Director of Studies went to Pastor Karen Bloomquist, a product of the most radical influences at Union Seminary in New York, and the formation of the ELCA’s social statements was to be her responsibility. When it came time to assemble a task force on human sexuality, she bore primary responsibility for assembling it. The bishop chosen for the task force was one of the few known to be sympathetic to reconsidering church teaching on sexuality, and a de facto quota for homosexuals was created and filled.
Throughout this period gay activism was increasing, spearheaded by a group called Lutherans Concerned. Illegal ordinations of three homosexuals in San Francisco soon after the merger evoked much fretting but little actual discipline. Synods began to pass resolutions advocating minor parts of the gay agenda. These were customarily cast in a kind of “motherhood” language that made them very hard for nice people to resist. Committed supporters of change, while not that great in number, became increasingly bold.
At the same time the bishop of the ELCA, Herbert Chilstrom, was overt in his own support for reconsideration of the church’s teaching on homosexuality. Early in his tenure he sent a patronizing letter to the clergy urging compassion and understanding in dealing with homosexual persons, as if such a warning were needed. As a private citizen he sent a very public letter to President Clinton supporting his position on gays in the military. For some time he had mused publicly about whether we might not come to see monogamous homosexual relationships in a different light. He cited the ordination of women and more open views on divorce as precedents. These were of course poor precedents, since no clear-headed person had ever argued that women should not be ordained because being a woman was a sin, while many thoughtful people had noticed that the shift toward increasing tolerance of divorce had been at best sloppy and at worst downright unfaithful. Virtually alone in the conference of bishops, the head of the ELCA was visibly identified with the party of change. The person in the best position to stop the process was an advocate. A week after the news hit the papers he wrote the clergy a “pastoral letter” in which he blamed the media for the uproar, supported the integrity of the task force, and called for “partnership” and calm. There was no hint in the letter that either the draft itself or the process that had produced it might be the problem.
The firestorm did, however, shake the Chicago leadership severely. Though it is hard to believe, they were astonished and shaken by the extent of the backlash. In the early days much was done to put a bold face on the disaster. Bloomquist and her superior, Pastor Charles Miller, executive director of the Division for Church in Society, immediately wrote a memo to the bishops, which, like Bishop Chilstrom’s letter, called for calm and blamed the media. Both documents expressed regret at the timing foul-up that left the pastors of the church with no advance warning when the thing hit the press, but neither of them conceded the possibility of substantive error. As close as they got was to remind the denomination that after all it was only a first draft. The only voice in the national church to admit forthrightly that the product was the problem was the editor of The Lutheran , Pastor Edgar Trexler, who in the December issue wrote an editorial calling the distribution of the draft a “disaster” and the draft itself “mortally wounded.”
Soon, though, it became clear that the administration was not going to be able to tough it out. It would not do to promise to hear the input of an outraged church when the process had already proven its bad faith. At the suggestion of Charles Miller, Karen Bloomquist stepped aside from further participation in the project, but here again no effort was made to assume blame. Rather, it was asserted that her removal was out of fairness to her, since she had suffered “unjust and abusive personal attacks.” Regrettably, she had suffered abusive attacks, even threats, but the implication that responsible criticism of her leadership was unjust distorted the very public record of her ideological commitments.
The church council (the national executive board of the ELCA) took up the issue in early December and even seriously entertained dropping the whole process, although that motion failed by a wide margin. There was a convention mandate for the study, which, however imprudent, could not easily be evaded. The council also elected not to dismiss the task force and start from scratch, and thus missed the opportunity to do the one thing that would both restore confidence and improve the likelihood of a decent result. Instead the council designed an eleven-member consulting panel to help and to oversee the task force. Most of its members would be bishops, parish pastors, and seminary faculty, and thus the panel would be better equipped for the task than the task force it would be overseeing. It quickly came to be referred to as the “watchdog commission.” The device, while clumsy, is likely to guarantee that nothing like the task force’s first draft will reappear in the ELCA. That will not stop the activists, but for the time being they have been denied the victory they won by being able to call the shots at the beginning and middle of the process.
The foregoing merely chronicles the events that made “The Church and Human Sexuality: A Lutheran Perspective” predictable to anybody who cared to pay attention. The more important question is how magisterial Lutheranism could stumble into such a repudiation of classical Christian teaching on sex and marriage. Bureaucratic misconduct by itself can happen anywhere, but there is more here than that, for the incident is an especially poignant example of the collapse of authority, memory, and tradition in contemporary Protestantism.
It would be appropriate-if not all that illuminating-to round up the usual suspects. The challenge of the Enlightenment continues to destabilize the Church, causing it to doubt the substance and sources of its tradition and tempting it to resort to authoritarian reassertion on the one hand or to accommodation to the prevailing culture and private revelation on the other. The Church is sociologically the kind of “soft” institution where, notwithstanding formal adherence to authorities like Scripture, the easier contemporary route of accommodation is frequently chosen. These are tough times for the Church, and in such fairness to the task force as can honestly be mustered, we should grant that major blunders can be expected. Blunders have loomed large in modern church history. In this sense the ELCA task force on sexuality is only a footnote to a much larger story.
The culture of denominationalism also plays a role. Increasingly, denominations are loose coalitions, but the one thing they do best, as sociologist Nancy Ammerman has observed, is to behave like denominations. They provide certain services to parishes, or try to. They negotiate with each other. They aspire to publicly represent their tradition. They maintain pension and health programs. They merge. They take cues from each other. And they try to comment officially on hot issues in the culture. On sexuality, for instance, advocates of the task force’s work announced that the issue won’t go away. Most of us may be relieved to learn that, though the reality of sex does not in itself supply any reason to suspect that a denomination might capably address it. But denominations believe in their enterprises, and people who go to conventions want to believe too. So when some synods asked for help on the question of sexuality, the denomination complied.
Another reason for the specific shape of this misfortune is the commitment of the ELCA and most other Protestant denominations to representation as the best way to seek theological and ethical truth. This is rather different from the quota system, though related to it. Simply put, the assumption is that the best route to the truth is to assemble a wide variety of persons who have some personal involvement with aspects of a particular issue, hold hearings and meetings, write papers, and then vote in committee and convention on what the Christian position ought to be. It is not exactly a democratic ideology-that would require churchwide voting or at least the polling of congregations. It is rather a kind of elitism common in bureaucratic institutions: get the experts together. On the other hand, it masks an anti-elitism: keep the clergy and theologians at a distance. That is largely what the ELCA task force did.
This representative methodology empowers a new elite, made up not so much of the individual experts who constitute the committees and task forces-and surely not the theological elites and ordained leaders of the church who should be leading such discussions-but the bureaucratic inner circle who shape the committees, lead the process, pull along the reluctant, and, more often than not, draft the final documents. The “dysfunctional politeness” of church culture empowers the most aggressive, and virtually no one says so until things have gone too far, especially if someone who claims to have suffered pain is pressing the issue.
Yet without reference to theological causes, historical and sociological observations still leave unanswered the question, “Why did this happen?” Two initial moves mentioned earlier cast the die. The first was a paper presented at the task force’s first meeting advocating that sexual relationships be evaluated on the basis of “quality not kind.” The second was that Scripture became a dialogue partner rather than rule and norm. That low view of Scripture reduced it to a sourcebook for the enlightened. From these two commitments the rest quickly follows.
But even identifying these two very consequent decisions does not explain how in Lutheranism, of all places, the authority of Scripture could be so undermined and why in Lutheranism, with its strong theology of God’s orders of creation and preservation, anyone could hope to get away with proposing that sexual arrangements be judged on quality not kind. A prior decay of theological coherence must first have set in for such options to present themselves and then prevail. And indeed it had.
The Lutheran and Calvinist Reformations have been called “magisterial” by historians for their coherence and their intellectual and theological seriousness. Unlike the radical reformers, the Lutherans, and to a lesser degree the Calvinists, saw themselves in continuity with the great tradition of Western Catholicism-its teachers, its creeds, and its dogmatic decisions. In Lutheranism the retention of the ancient liturgy, sacramentalism, iconography, and much of the music and ceremony of the medieval church made-and makes-it apparent that the Lutheran Reformation did not start a new church but continued the ancient teaching and life of the catholic community.
With time, though, that has become less true. The Protestant communions increasingly act like new churches, uprooted from the catholic tradition and the biblical narrative. More and more, Protestantism seems unable to say why it claims what it claims or to cite compelling grounds for the positions it takes. Forgetful of its catholic roots and ambivalent about the authority of Scripture, Reformation Christianity has begun to look more and more like an empty Protestant principle, a mere negation of hierarchy and tradition with no positive content of its own.
Earlier in their histories a polemical, but still genuine, conversation with Roman Catholicism helped maintain the magisterial integrity of the major Reformation traditions. A shared world and worldview bound them together on many ethical and dogmatic questions that now increasingly separate Protestant and Catholic thinking-the ecumenical movement notwithstanding and not much helping. Polemically, Reformation theology grounded its teaching on Scripture alone, rather than on Scripture and tradition, the polemical pole represented by the Roman and Greek churches. But in truth the Reformation’s sola scriptura principle was always nestled in the catholic tradition and came to expression in the uninterrupted affirmation of ancient dogma and a long coherent tradition of ethical interpretation. The canon had been determined by bishops and rabbis and received from the ancient church without question by the Reformers, just as they continued to receive the dogmatic decisions of the ancient councils.
Centuries of separation and polemics have led Protestantism in some quarters to imagine that the biblical witness could be disentangled from the Church’s history, tradition, and teaching office. Under the assault of critical scholarship, Protestantism tended then to make one of two bad choices: either to reaffirm Scripture’s authority by ignoring the critics or to accept the criticism and in some degree to abandon the Scripture principle. One part of Protestantism fragmented and hardened into a series of contradictory biblicistic positions; the other continued to meander beyond the limits of Scripture and tradition and, uncontrolled by any legitimately established teaching authority, to become a dogmatic and ethical free-for-all.
Bishop Chilstrom’s post-firestorm letter to the pastors of the ELCA perfectly exemplifies the collapse of teaching authority in modern Protestantism. After assuring his colleagues that the document was only a first draft, he reminded them that it would still have to pass in convention. Those points were fair enough, but then came the clincher: even when a document does pass, he noted, it cannot bind anyone’s conscience. Which is to say that this typically Protestant church has no way of saying “Thus says the Lord” and that its representative deliberations are therefore nothing more than an assessment of opinion with no binding authority whatever. The obvious question, then, is, “Why bother?” The obvious answer is that votes on controverted issues serve to advance the interests of parties powerful enough to push for them.
That Protestant teaching thus degenerates into a mere power struggle is depressing enough; that it seems in the process to have lost its basis for believing, teaching, or confessing anything is far worse. Freedom of conscience and freedom conscientiously to take exception to church decisions are not to be scoffed at, and Luther was not the only practitioner. But conscientious protest has meaning only insofar as the Church seriously endeavors to teach, not in the name of its of its own pseudo-democratic consensus, but in the name of God. It is, however, just this that the mainline Protestant churches can no longer do, and their efforts to teach collapse into turf battles to see who can grab the helm to advance their own causes. Thus the Protestant principle of conscientious freedom has metamorphosed into the modern assertiveness of the individual and the party.
Aspects of the problem date back to the Reformation itself. In that emergency situation much was taken for granted about the continuity and substance of the Christian Church. The mutually recognized authority of Scripture served well in the debates with the papacy, but the Reformers and their successors never did a terribly good job of saying why they received what they received from the ancient church. When modernity finally put the question, most Protestants proved unable to give a compelling answer, took refuge in moralism and religious subjectivism, and waited.
To be sure, orthodox Protestantism continued to flourish, but the termites chewed on and a theology independent of Scripture, tradition, and magisterial authority flourished. Efforts at post-Liberal reconstruction have, of course, long been under way. Barth’s initial moves were salutary, but he was too Protestant to face the question of why he dared reassert the authority of Scripture. Other contemporary theologians in the non-Roman West are working very hard to reinvigorate Protestant ecclesiology and to put Scripture, Church, and the teaching office back together, to reconstruct, non-polemically, the earlier dialogue with the continuing catholic community. A good deal of the theology is excellent; its prospects for success are another matter. Much of American Protestantism is, astonishingly, still pre-Barthian. Lutheranism, in the past never liberal enough to fit such a designation, is in these latter days finding a way.
In mid-century it seemed that Lutheranism might be able to avoid the unsatisfactory choice between fundamentalism and liberalism. Lutheran theological reconstruction has, however, turned out to be part of the problem that makes possible something like “The Church and Human Sexuality: A Lutheran Perspective.” In keeping with Luther’s Christocentric orientation, much of modern Lutheran theology sought to find and proclaim the Gospel as a free and freeing Word, precisely apart from biblical text and ecclesiastical context. Reacting to the biblicism and narrow dogmatism of old Lutheranism, a variety of neo-Lutheran movements in the twentieth century sought to free the liberating Word of a gracious God from the constrictions of a dogmatic, rationalistic, proof-texting theology. The effort was worthy in its own right and in some measure provided a way to use modern biblical criticism without falling into liberalism.
But as the twentieth century approaches its blessed terminus, it has become apparent that this Word-centered, Gospel-centered theology has not succeeded in evading the modern Protestant predicament. It has not been able to say well enough what the Gospel is and by what authority the Church dares to proclaim it. Neo-Lutheranism has been vulnerable to the reduction of the Christian faith to experience. Indeed the kind of Protestantism that fades into abstraction owes much to Lutheranism for its peculiar tendency to reduce the whole of the Christian faith to the doctrine of justification. When this reduction takes place, theology becomes essentially a set of negations. First, and fundamental, is the doctrine of justification by faith alone: we are not saved by our works. But much more is often thought to follow. If that negation of human works (and by implication of all human structure and conduct) is what Christianity is, then morality, tradition, authority, the Church, sanctification, discipleship, liturgical order, and even dogma are secondary at best. In some minds they are actually anti-Gospel.
From this Lutheran reductionism all sorts of conclusions can be, and frequently are, drawn. Since salvation is about liberation from Law and structure, binding decisions about truth and conduct are virtually impossible. This has led some Lutheran theologians to the conclusion that Christian morality can be little more than a vague Interimsethik (open-ended decision-making between Pentecost and the last judgment). Some Lutheran thinkers have been more than ready to say that all we can do is to muddle through. In this understanding there is no use for God’s Law as a guide to Christian conduct. There are no ethical absolutes for us in the Law or in the teaching of Christ and the apostles, and there is no natural law, at least not one about which any reliable conclusions can be drawn. Sanctification (holiness of life) must be utterly distinguished from justification (God’s decree that we are holy in spite of our sin) and is to all intents and purposes irrelevant.
In this apophatic Lutheranism, then, justification tends to become mere liberation from some bondage or other. Where sin, death, and the devil are no longer the bondage in question and where fear of God’s judgment has been diluted or dissipated into political correctness, then justification becomes liberation from anything that anyone experiences as bondage. Whatever liberates may even take the grammatical place of God in theological sentences. From this kind of Lutheranism it is no step at all to the claims of the task force on sexuality.
I would hasten to add that this, while widespread and only slightly caricatured, is very bad Lutheranism. Indeed, most of these neo-Lutheran negations (save the first one, that we are not saved by our works) negate Luther and other early orthodox Lutherans. They were not, in the modern sense, Protestants; they were not reductionists. They sought no Protestant principle at the center of the onion. Conscience did not reign supreme and reign alone. It was, as Luther said at the Diet of Worms, “captive to the Word of God.” At that Rubicon of Protestantism, there was no modern Protestant in the room. Luther and company were medieval catholics on a mission to reform.
And the Word of God itself did not exist in isolation. Luther plainly asserted the natural law, as did the Aristotelian thinkers of high Lutheran Orthodoxy; he even defended the truth of the Ten Commandments on the basis of natural law. Early Lutheranism never let its critical theological distinction between justification and sanctification moot the question of ethics, as a cursory reading even of the hymnody would reveal. For the Reformers the Church was real and visible, a nurturing mother to every Christian. It was a real Body of Christ, even though a mixed Body of saints and sinners, and according to Article VII of the Augsburg Confession it will endure forever. It has legitimate bearers of authority. In Reformation theology justification is not a mere negation of human works but is itself utterly dependent on the classical dogmas of the Trinity and the incarnation-for it is per Christum . Luther said that if you take away the dogmatic assertions, you take away the Gospel. And while the Bible’s authority arises from its being in Luther’s splendid term “the cradle in which Christ lies,” it is not thereby restricted.
Modern Lutheranism has forgotten much of all this in executing its initially promising end run around the Enlightenment. The pattern is familiar enough. Building on the emphasis on the individual in pietism, moving through Kant, and in this century appropriating existentialism, Lutheranism has too frequently tried to construct in the private experience of justification an area for faith that cannot be touched by the challenges of modernity. But inasmuch as postmodernity has become precisely the flight from foundationalist certainties about truth and morals in the wake of its own assertions of relativity and liberation, Christianity so interpreted simply collapses into modernity. Personal commitment, personal choice, faith as pure subjectivity, social liberations advanced by organized groups of self-designated victims-these become the substance, or rather non-substance, of the Christian faith. Sadly, then, the products of Lutheran, Presbyterian, and other commissions on sexuality are not only predictable, they are inevitable, symptomatic of the collapse of Protestantism into subjectivism. Lutheran theology’s antinomian tendency makes it perhaps more vulnerable than the other Reformation traditions in spite of the countervailing forces of its sociology and its doctrinal tradition, although here and there an older methodology, which understands that the Gospel does not negate the commandments, lives side by side with neo-Lutheranism and makes possible at least a tentative no to the likes of the task force.
Anyone who reads these last paragraphs as a commendation of Veritatis Splendor would be correct. Luther would recognize the arguments of the Pope; he would be scandalized by the task force. For classical Lutheranism there is a clear structure of reality and morality accessible to natural reason and illumined by revelation, as the Pope claims. For classical Lutheranism the commandments still apply. For classical Lutheranism we live our lives within the God-given and liberating limits of wholesome structures. Within them we serve God and our neighbor. For classical Lutheranism, truth is determined not representatively but magisterially-in Scripture and Creed, in patristic testimony, and under the guidance of the theologically trained and ordained.
So we can in the end blame the Enlightenment, I suppose, but that would be a cheap excuse. It is Protestantism’s feeble response to the Enlightenment that has brought us to this pass, and things are not getting any better.
But what then should Lutherans-and the rest of post-Reformation Christianity with them-do about sexuality? A period of silence might be in order, and with it, a recognition of the silliness and irrelevance of the argument that the issues raised by the ELCA document on sexuality won’t go away. A faithful church will find that it already has enormous resources, most obviously in a deep tradition of teaching on sexual ethics that already exists. An honest denomination would show decent respect for its pastors and people and realize that they are already doing something about sexuality-in trying to live as Christians, in celebrating marriage, in teaching and preaching, in compassion and example, in pastoral sensitivity to those who fall outside the norms, in refusing to rush to judgment, and in mediating the forgiveness of sins. A lower-key approach might avoid the very elevation of sexual issues above other ethical matters that the liberated say they want to avoid.
Responsible denominations could heed the Hippocratic injunction, “First, do no harm.” They would realize that by these sorties they harm not just their own already shaky credibility but also the people who will be shocked, feel betrayed, and respond with fury. They will also harm those whom they intend to help. Young people are not assisted when the church gives them the same advice they could get from Planned Parenthood. Cohabitors need from the church a push to the altar not to some ephemeral subjective commitment. Singles enjoying the fruits of the sexual revolution need some old-fashioned warnings for their spiritual, psychological, and physical good. Married people and parents, almost all of them by now survivors of the sexual revolution, weren’t asking for the task force’s kind of help, and homosexuals will not be assisted by the church’s lying about Scripture. The relevant issue here is not the few places in Scripture where homosexuality is mentioned, and efforts to explain away Romans 1 and its deeply rabbinic connection of homosexuality with idolatry inevitably fail in any case. The relevant loci are the creation story, the Sixth Commandment, Ephesians 5 with its meditation on marriage as a sacramental sign of the union of Christ and his Church, the end of Revelation with its depiction of the marriage of the Lamb, and the whole narrative stream of Holy Scripture that assumes the heterosexual monogamous norm, despite the fact of royal and patriarchal polygamy. The Church is the last place that should be separating sex from marriage.
Most of all, the churches need to realize that they are the body of Christ, his sacramental sign in the world, and that this sign is not exercised by a bland niceness spiced with politically correct prophecy. It is a sign to be exercised by hard faithfulness, by the proclamation of real grace to real sinners, not the redefinition of sin or any other humanly concocted good work. That’s what the Reformation was supposed to have been about. A church that is clear-headed about issues of sexuality will realize that it is not the great social fixer-it is both too unimportant sociologically and too important eschatologically for such false servanthood. The call of the Spirit is a call to discipleship, and the Church simply lies if it obscures the high price of that call. Does this mean that, for instance, some homosexual Christians will stumble or hurt or at times dissemble? Of course. So do we all. We are at one and the same time saints and sinners-that too was a major point of the Reformation. Misguided pastoral care that improperly defined good works and softened the condemnation of the Law was exactly what Luther attacked. A church that does not see itself as a coalition of interest groups but that finds its unity in the faith will be able to provide the quiet and confidential pastoral care and casuistic adaptation of norms that have always been the case. The church politicized can only sell indulgences by pretending to lower the norms.
In Luther’s terms what we have, then, in the proposals of the ELCA task force on sexuality and its several counterparts in other communions is a theology of glory, a utopian belief that the Church can dole out full liberation now. But a true theologian, said Luther, is a theologian of the cross. We can bear the cross together with those for whom Christian sexual ethics are hard, but we cannot take it from them. The task force, to its credit, sought to relieve very real pain, but the tools it used-enlightenment personalism, liberationist feminism, reductionist Lutheranism, and great quantities of naivete and sentimentalism-are not up to the job. Only God finally can dissolve the ambiguities and pains of human sexuality. What the Church should be doing is to engage the modern spirit in a vigorous debate precisely where it elevates raw experience and the unformed conscience above both reason and revelation. But such an undertaking was beyond the competence-and the wildest imaginings-of the ELCA task force and its all too numerous advocates and counterparts.
Leonard Klein is Pastor of Christ Lutheran Church in York, Pennsylvania, and Editor of Lutheran Forum.