In mid-March, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) Task Force on Sexuality released a draft of what is supposed to become a Social Statement¯a basis for internal church policy and a platform for advocacy in society. Millions of dollars and thousands of hours of effort have been put into an unending series of studies that have wrestled with the vexing problems of assessing the morality of homosexual relations, and from that assessment making further judgments about the blessing of gay unions and the rostering of homosexual clergy who are in committed partnerships. The basic theological/ethical challenge to assess homosexual conduct has never been addressed adequately in any preceding document. This draft Social Statement is no different in spite of expectations: It simply says that the church is divided on that issue. The kind of theological/ethical argument in this current document, however, is precisely the kind that will set the stage for a revision of Lutheran teaching on sexual ethics in the future. Such a revision would mean that the ELCA is no longer a church following in the footsteps of the Lutheran Reformation.
One of the noticeably odd features of the new draft is its absence of “males and females,” “women and men,” “husbands and wives,” “boys and girls,” and “mothers and fathers.” Instead, one reads of “couples,” “partners,” “engendered persons,” “parents,” and “children.” The subjects of the statement seem to have no distinct features, a bit like the amorphous Teletubbies of children’s television. This reluctance to affirm definite forms extends to the statement’s posture toward marriage and the family, commandments and law, guiding principles, and especially toward rules. In fact, this aversion to specific forms seems to be the fatal flaw of the document, leading to a vagueness and fluidity that undermines its capacity for genuine guidance in the church.
This formlessness appears immediately in the statement’s theological and ethical foundations. The law, though affirmed, remains a ghostly, abstract, and empty category. No commandments are mentioned. No covenantal structures¯such as God’s gift of marriage to Adam and Eve¯are affirmed. Indeed, there is no explication of male and female together being created in the image of God. Rather, the statement tries to derive its sexual ethic from the incarnation of Jesus and the justification his work has wrought. One of most astounding statements in the document asserts that ‘a Lutheran sexual ethic looks to the death and resurrection of Christ as the source for the values that guide it’ (emphasis mine).
Certainly Jesus makes relevant statements about sexual ethics, but these have little to do with incarnation or justification. He reaffirms the creation account of woman and man being created in the image of God; he upholds marriage and offers very strict conditions for divorce. He condemns all sorts of sexual sins¯adultery, fornication, lust, etc. But all these are built on the law of God he inherited from Jewish tradition, which gives the basic form and content to the sexual ethics he teaches and sometimes sharpens.
This effort to derive sexual ethics from incarnation and justification is a very un-Lutheran way of making an ethical argument. Luther argued that marriage is located in the order of creation and should be guided by natural law, best summarized in the Ten Commandments. Given that, he thought marriage should be under the jurisdiction of the state for the common good of society. He criticized precisely the Roman Catholic tradition that kept marriage completely under ecclesial authority (governed exclusively by canon law) and that located it in the order of redemption (marriage as a sacrament imparts saving grace). Rather, Luther proposed that marriage is first of all a social estate open to all, non-Christian and Christians alike. (See John Witte’s elaboration of the Lutheran teaching on marriage in his From Sacrament to Contract .)
While it is true that God’s justifying work in Christ enables us to take up our calling in marriage, which can then be made into a Holy Estate in the church’s blessing, the form and content of marriage are given by the structure and guidance of the law. The form is very specific¯a life-long covenant of fidelity between a man and a woman oriented toward loving communion and procreation. It provides the “place of responsibility” where our vocation is lived out. No formlessness there.
The statement clearly de-centers marriage as the touchstone around which Christian sexual ethics are elaborated. It takes up marriage as a topic only near the end of the document. It is even equivocal about the God-ordained status of marriage. It affirms that “Marriage is a structure of mutual promises between a man and woman blessed by God,” yet later suggests that “marriage” (quotation marks in the original document) is accorded legitimacy merely by its “historic origin.” It tepidly allows that this church “does not wish to alter this understanding” but then hurries on to dilute its affirmation by observing that some states already use “marriage” to refer to same-gender unions.
Likewise, the statement remains resolutely formless when it takes up family life. It grudgingly agrees that the nuclear family fosters the development of trust in children and youth, but immediately notes that it has not always done so effectively. Later it opts for a functional definition of the family and suggests that many arrangements can get the tasks done, not just the “conventional one.” Its pastoral compassion for many in “broken” families overcomes the possibility of making a normative statement about the form of the family.
But the biblical and Christian moral traditions are not so reluctant. A child always has a mother and father: Jesus has Joseph and Mary, Cain and Abel have Adam and Eve. Though there may be extended and even “tribal” families, the Bible always depicts a child having a mother and a father. Great care is taken to affirm and nurture this triad. A Commandment is devoted to it. It is biblically and traditionally normative, and no amount of appropriate pastoral accommodation to the fracturing or confusion of the modern family will change that.
The writers of the statement also make a strange move when they decide to use “trust” as the central ethical principle for human relations in marriage and family life, while avoiding the use of “love” as a principle. Indeed, there is little reflection on the meaning and forms of love, yet another example of the aversion to specific forms.
Trust and love are two different things. The former is a more passive quality in which one person allows his or her being to be dependent on the trustworthiness of another. Love is a more active principle that moves outward toward the other. There are distinct forms of love¯libido, eros, philia, agape¯that are expressed in different kinds of relationships. Some forms of love are inappropriate in some kinds of relationship. Libidinous love ought not be expressed toward children or those outside the marital bond. Chastity is the Christian virtue that leads to self-control in these matters. Agape love, the crown of Christian ethics, makes unconditional commitments and heals and restores broken relationships. Sexual love¯a lively mixture of libidinous and erotic love¯is to be expressed fully only in marriage and is appropriate to form. The Bible and the Christian tradition clearly prohibit sexual love to be expressed between siblings, parent and children (incest), between different kinds of species (bestiality), and between those of the same sex (homosexuality.)
These sorts of distinctions are deeply embedded in the biblical material as well as in the Christian moral tradition held by nearly all Christians throughout the ages. Sadly, the Social Statement does not draw upon that tradition to make such distinctions. There is, after all, more in Christian memory than the New Testament, Luther, and contemporary experience, which are the sources employed by the statement. Its amnesia contributes to its formlessness.
The statement promotes an ethic of responsibility¯a good thing for mature people¯but distances itself from any reliance on rules, another example of aversion to form, in this case formalism in ethics. For example, it cannot bring itself to affirm a rule against premarital sex or cohabitation, let along homosexual conduct. Rather, it pleads for responsibility in maintaining a level of sexual intimacy commensurate with the degree of commitment. While not favoring or giving approval to cohabitation, the statement does not proscribe it either. It inveighs against promiscuity but cannot proscribe premarital sex. Its ethic of responsibility might well allow both practices in certain circumstances. And what young person cannot find sufficient reason in his or her circumstances to justify both premarital sex and cohabitation? Clear rules might be important here, just as the rule against adultery makes things very clear for married couples. A solid ethic of responsibility would employ rules, some absolute in character.
The statement’s aversion to form gives it something of a Marcionite whiff. That aversion represents a distinct distancing from our Old Testament heritage. Little development of the creation story and the instituting by God of marriage. Little mention of the Commandments as guidance for Christian life. Little mention of the rather strict rules that undergirded life together in early Christian communities. No mention of the Old Testament¯and New Testament¯proscription of homosexual conduct. Indeed, little use of the law at all, in spite of its claim to honor it. It seems that, whenever Christians want to release sexuality from its created forms and from the commandments that guide it, they move away from the faith of Israel and fasten to New Testament emphases on incarnation and justification. Without the law, such emphases quickly lead to the “gospel of inclusion,” one without repentance or amendment of life. And, in the case of this statement, weak and indeterminate guidance for moral life.
It is not as if the old teachings are totally absent. They are not. But they are constantly qualified by an ethic of responsibility that shies away from forms of all kinds. I can’t say it better than the statement does itself: “A Lutheran sexual ethic deeply attuned to justification and incarnation extends well beyond the application of static principles, even biblical ones, to varying situations. This ethic is more about directing us to find a responsible place for sexuality in the service of God’s ongoing activity in the world than about containing its ambiguous power.”
Certainly the ELCA has not made a conscious decision to adopt the Marcionite heresy. But it, like other mainstream Protestant churches, has been pushed in that direction by strong feminist and gay-liberation movements within its membership. Those movements suspect that heterosexual males have been in charge of the historic faith from Abraham on down to the present time¯and they want to call a halt to that. Shouldn’t women and gays and lesbians refuse to allow those heterosexual males define what to them are oppressive forms and rules? If we remove the sharp edges from the forms and dispense with the rules, won’t our general ethic of responsibility be applicable to all sorts of relationships? The statement seems to be saying “yes” to both those questions. The trouble is, saying “yes” also abandons the specific moral teachings of the Bible and Christian tradition.
Though I expected the statement to make an attempt at assessing homosexual conduct, it didn’t. But if the foregoing argument is at all compelling, the writers of the statement might be in the process of embracing a formless creation, which is a necessary prelude for the positive assessment of homosexual relations.
This unsettling suspicion overshadows the many good features of the statement. Its analysis of our current sexualized society and its many victims is one with which I heartily agree. (It seems to me, however, that the statement forgets about the millions of human beings eliminated by abortion, many of whom were the victims of irresponsible sexual behavior.) Its call for pastoral compassion for all is persuasive. Its spirit of civility and moderation is admirable. At times it speaks eloquently about marriage, though too little and too late. It makes an effort to take up the thorny questions of premarital sex and cohabitation, though it does so with less guidance than I think necessary. And, considering the difficulty of reaching consensus on these contentious issues, the statement proposes a serious line of argument, a subversive one with which I sharply disagree.
Robert Benne is director of the Center for Religion and Society at Roanoke College and the author of several books, including Reasonable Ethics: A Christian Approach to Social, Economic, and Political Concerns .