Meeting barely a month after the Episcopal Church voted to end its ban on the consecration of openly homosexual bishops and the blessing of same-sex unions, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America [ELCA] has taken similar steps. Meeting last week in Minneapolis, the Lutherans voted first to adopt a comprehensive statement on human sexuality that at least allows for the recognition and blessing of same-sex relationships in the church. Beyond this, it establishes a platform for the eventual acceptance and affirmation of same-sex marriage ceremonies.
Then, acting just as the week came to an end, the denomination voted to eliminate barriers that had prevented non-celibate homosexual ministers from serving in ELCA churches. The vote to affirm the new statement on human sexuality was close - receiving the exact number of positive votes necessary for passage - but, taken together, the two actions signal a massive seismic shift, not only in the ELCA, but also in the larger denominational world. For advocates of the normalization of homosexuality, the votes in Minneapolis represent a clean sweep of votes their way.
The churches and denominations of mainline Protestantism are being torn asunder over the issue of homosexuality. Denomination after denomination becomes the focus of national attention as it meets for crucial votes and decides its future. Observers of the ELCA had seen this process extended through years of study and controversy. In the view of many, the process mostly served to postpone the inevitable. The inevitable happened in Minneapolis.
The inevitability of the votes to allow the affirmation of homosexual unions and the calling of homosexual ministers is rooted in decisions made prior to those crucial votes. The actions in Minneapolis would be inconceivable but for the fact that the denomination has for decades allowed increasing theological pluralism to mark its membership and its leadership. But plainly, this pluralism allows for radically different theologies to reside within one denomination and for fundamentally divergent understandings of Scripture and biblical authority to coexist. All parties now recognize that this coexistence will be very hard to maintain. For those who believe that the votes in Minneapolis represent the church's endorsement of sin, heartbreaking decisions now cannot be avoided.
The social statement adopted in Minneapolis, "Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust," is itself a parable of the mainline Protestant predicament. More than anything else, the document represents an attempt to present two irreconcilable understandings side-by-side. The document simply cannot avoid acknowledging that some within the ELCA believe that all homosexual acts and behaviors are explicitly condemned as sin in Scripture, while others believe that the biblical text can be reinterpreted to allow for the total acceptance of homosexual relationships on par with heterosexual marriage.
On the crucial issue of blessing same-sex unions, the ELCA now recognizes no less than four understandings. The first represents those who "are convinced that same-gender sexual behavior is sinful, contrary to the Bible teaching and their understanding of natural law." These Lutherans believe that same-sex acts represent "the grave danger of unrepentant sin." Therefore, these Lutherans would call those struggling with same-gender attraction to a celibate lifestyle.
A second group of Lutherans believes "that homosexuality and even lifelong, monogamous, homosexual relationships reflect a broken world in which some relationships do not pattern themselves after the creation God intended." Thus, these Lutherans do not accept the public recognition of same-sex unions.
The third group of Lutherans goes so far as to believe "that the scriptural witness does not address the context of sexual orientation and lifelong loving and committed relationships that we experience today." This group is ready to bless same-sex unions, but not to grant of these unions the status of marriage.
Finally, the report indicates that the fourth group of Lutherans is ready to affirm same-sex marriage as equal in legitimacy to heterosexual marriage. "They believe same-gender couples should avail themselves of social and legal support for themselves, their children and other dependents, and to seek the highest legal accountability available for their relationships."
All this was pretty much to be expected. What makes the Lutheran action distinctive and especially troubling is the effort to claim that a church can remain united even as it is strained by such divergent understandings of human sexuality and biblical morality. In anticipation of the meeting in Minneapolis, some Lutherans were already claiming that the issue of homosexuality simply is not a matter of fundamental importance. This argument is easy to make, but very difficult to defend.
This becomes clear at two crucial points - the authority of Scripture and the significance of sin. A crucial footnote in the new social statement reads: "The difference between interpreters should not be understood as a conflict between those who seek to be 'true to Scripture' and those who seek to 'twist the Bible' to their own liking." In other words, the document seeks to affirm that two contradictory statements concerning what the Bible teaches about homosexuality are equally valid. The statement cited in the footnote comes from a study prepared by two Lutheran New Testament scholars who reviewed the crucial biblical texts concerning homosexual behavior and came to the conclusion that there can be no authoritative interpretation.
The tragedy of all this is accentuated by the fact that Martin Luther, the great Reformer who gave birth to the Lutheran tradition, staked his life and the Gospel he preached upon the principle of Sola Scriptura - the final and exclusive authority of the Scripture within the church. Luther also affirmed the essential clarity of Scripture, affirming that its clarity is a function of its divine authorship. "Let miserable men, therefore, cease to impute, with blasphemous perverseness, the darkness and the obscurity of their own hearts to the brilliantly clear Scriptures of God," insisted Luther.
A revealing statement on the Lutheran decisions came from Barbara Wheeler, who serves as an advocate for the acceptance of homosexual ministers in the Presbyterian Church (USA). "What you're seeing is two things: the society is in the process of changing its collective mind about the moral status of same-sex relationships, and there's a parallel theological movement." She is exactly right, for the theological movement to normalize homosexual relationships is working hard to accommodate the Scriptures and the church's historic teaching so that it matches the changing mind of the larger society.
The claim that these two contradictory understandings of the Bible's teachings on human sexuality can coexist and be recognized as being equally faithful to the Scriptures is nonsense. Those pressing for the normalization of homosexuality must put the Scriptures through hoop after hoop of theological acrobatics. The claim that a church can both condemn and bless homosexual relationships with equal faithfulness falls false on its face. Worst of all, it sows a disastrously deadly confusion about the nature of sin - a confusion that subverts the Gospel and brings eternal consequences. Should homosexuals repent of their sin, or come to the church for the blessing of their homosexual unions? There can be no multiple-choice answer to that question. The actions in Minneapolis will reverberate far into the future. Woe unto those who cloak such decisions with the disguise of faithfulness.