This summer has been a tipping point for the ELCA, the largest of the Lutheran churchbodies in the United States. Somehow, while many observers weren’t paying much attention, but the Holy Spirit was near, this largely Midwestern-based Protestant church slipped from the conservative column to the liberal. Its actions in Assembly a month ago in Minneapolis are still being weighed and measured for significance.
Yesterday, Presiding Bishop Mark S. Hanson (who is also the President of the Lutheran World Federation) issued a “pastoral letter” on the tipping point — what he thinks about how Lutherans should feel about the major change in the ELCA’s view of same-gender relationships and lesbian/gay clergy.
For review, there was no official prior policy against same-gender relationships. No Lutheran pastor has been defrocked or disciplined by the ELCA for officiating at a lesbian wedding. Not so for the Presbyterians and the Methodists, who have drawn their line in the sand way to the right of the Lutherans.
But there was an official policy against rostering (ordaining, commissioning or hiring) out lesbian and gay clergy who are in same-gender relationships.
And there was no policy to forbid gay or lesbian persons from being clergy if they promised to be celibate forever, although the defacto rule is that any congregation that blanched at the thought of a homosexual pastor with a same-sex spouse would have blanched at the thought of a celibate homosexual pastor, too.
You can read Hanson’s pastoral letter on my other web site where I store bigger documents. In it, he takes the institutional high ground, and at times is almost eloquent in reminding the denomination that we have a mission to accomplish and we are only hurting ourselves and our mission if we get into a schism over lesbian/gay clergy.
For the record, the schism will proceed as previously scheduled. Hanson’s letter is not likely to convince anybody to change their mind. But the schism will be small—perhaps 100–200 congregations may bolt, out of a total of nearly 10,000 congregations.
But it still hurts when people we thought understood the Gospel as well as Lutherans do decide to say “we’re out of here,” like where Paul says, “the eye cannot say to the hand, `I have no need of you.’” (1 Corinthians 12:14–27)
Hanson reminds the church that Lutherans have always deftly distinguished Law and Gospel, what he says Martin Luther called “the highest art among Christians.” To make this important distinction and apply each appropriately is in fact nothing less than interpreting the Scriptures rather than shooting them from a gun at a social issue.
My turn: Hanson speaks in generalities, but I would have been a bit more specific, in reminding the whole church that heterosexuality is neither Law nor Gospel. The Christian Church long ago gave up trying to make “be fruitful and multiply” into a commandment that must be obeyed by all believers in Jesus. Heterosexual love, or sexual expression, or even reproduction, cannot be commandments, as Jesus and Paul both made clear.
But neither is heterosexuality Gospel. No one will be saved or redeemed or put on God’s right side by heterosexuality. No one earns a heavenly mansion by virtue of heterosexual behavior. We are saved by grace (Romans 3:23–24; Ephesians 2:4), regardless of Paul’s curious take on women being saved by bearing children. He even says, in 1 Corinthians 7:16, that a woman or man might save the unbelieving spouse —salvation by marriage? But his broadest theme, over and over, is that we are saved by grace alone. Sex, sexual orientation, sexual expression, are not part of the equation at all.
I have continued to say this wherever possible: the ELCA’s ~ or the Episcopal Church’s ~ action to open its doors and its ministry fully to LGBT people is not a departure from traditional or correct Christian doctrine because human sexuality, in all of its perplexing diversity, is not part of Christian doctrine. Christian doctrine is about Jesus Christ and what he has done. It is not about us and what we have done, whether sublime or perverse. No one, whether Jew or Greek, circumcised or uncircumcised, heterosexual or homosexual, “has a leg up” before God.
Yes, I know the conservative rant to the contrary. But it is a hopeless stretch to insist that any one or another specific sexual behavior is a sin which disqualifies one from God’s love – and yes, you can find Bible verses to attempt to so insist – because there are other Bible verses that blow that thesis away! Jesus said “Anyone who comes to me I will never drive away” (John 6:37); and “Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life” (John 6:47). There is just no extra credit for being heterosexual. There are millions of people of faith out there who are not heterosexual. They have come to Jesus and they believe in his message of hope and grace. Regardless of what a congregation or an entire churchbody may say, Jesus will not drive them away, but because they have put their faith in God’s grace through Jesus Christ, they have eternal life.
Moreover, since no one is without sin (Romans 3:23), no one, including no heterosexual has the right to cast the first stone.
No one has the right to judge.
Just say No, when homophobic people start to rant that they are now being driven out of the church. No, they are walking away all by themselves. They are doing, or preparing to do, what millions of LGBT Christians have not done, even when our churches would not welcome us if we were open. We remained faithful to Christ and to his church. Now we rejoice that the ELCA is being faithful to us. If others cannot accept that, perhaps they never did understand the Gospel after all.
— Pastor Dan Hooper