Commentary

Differences of conscience should generate caution

My critique of the first “Draft Social Statement on Human Sexuality” prepared
by the Task Force for ELCA Studies on Sexuality, written and disseminated in
April 2008, offered this conclusion: “This ‘Draft’ fails to take seriously
distinctive Lutheran principles of theology and ethics regarding human
sexuality. Either the Task Force is woefully ignorant of the Lutheran
confessional tradition regarding theological ethics, or it willfully ignores it to
reach some pre-conceived conclusions for ideological reasons.”

I ended my critique by saying that the social statement of the Task Force is
“not only deeply flawed from a Lutheran theological perspective, it is also so
poorly written that I believe there is very little in it to salvage.”

Now we have before us a revised version of the social statement on sexuality
proposed by the same Task Force that produced the first draft. My first
observation is that it is vastly improved in substance and style. A serious
effort has been made, it appears, to take seriously the criticisms that I, as well
as others, made of the document. It uses traditional Lutheran theological
concepts and language more intelligibly.

Many Lutherans who read this statement will encounter an array of familiar
Lutheran symbols, slogans, and shibboleths that will possibly dispose them
to accept it. However, they are mostly an ornamental covering that hides its
egregious departure from the biblical, doctrinal, and ethical teachings of the
one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church affirmed by the Lutheran
Confessional writings as well as the Constitution and Confession of Faith of
the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).

Let there be no mistake about this: If the ELCA were to adopt the social
statement and approve the recommendation of the Task Force to ordain men
and women living with sexual partners of the same gender, that would
constitute a radical departure from the overwhelming consensus that has
prevailed in historic Christianity through 20 centuries. The social statement
proposed by the Task Force fails to make the case that this is a wise and
legitimate decision for an orthodox Christian church to make.

The Task Force is correct in observing numerous times that there is no
consensus in the ELCA on the rostering of homosexual persons in same-
gender relationships. The Task Force postulates that the difference between
the traditionalists and revisionists is a matter of conscience. The statement
asserts that there are “differing and conscience-bound understandings about
the place of such relationships within the Christian community” (“Human
Sexuality: Gift and Trust,” lines 607 ff). This is a specious non-theological
appeal to conscience.

Of course, when facing a critical moral decision, it goes without saying that
persons should follow their conscience. The question is, what is right in the
sight of God? Has God not said anything about sex, marriage, and family, so
that we are left in the dark to follow our own subjective feelings? For the
church, private personal conscience does not have the last word. It needs to
be instructed and illuminated by the Word and Spirit of God.

Luther said he was bound by his conscience; it was bound by the Word of
God. It is the church’s responsibility to enlighten conscience, to teach the
Word of God.

This social statement fails to be a teaching document of the church. It
professes not to know the difference between right and wrong on crucial
matters of human sexuality. If reflects the cultural Zeitgeist, the spirit of the
age. The church has spent a million dollars to be informed by this Task Force
that there is no consensus in the church on human sexuality. Since there is
no consensus in the church, why not keep the status quo? Why not follow the
sage advice, when in doubt, stick with the tradition? The recommendation of
this Task Force to accept practicing homosexuals for ordination does not
necessarily follow from the social statement, “Human Sexuality: Gift and
Trust.”

This statement states that all of us in the ELCA should show deep respect for
the conscience-bound beliefs of those with whom we disagree. Luther
showed little respect for the beliefs of Erasmus of Rotterdam when he wrote
his diatribe, The Bondage of the Will. St. John showed little respect for the
beliefs of Cerinthus, as he exited the baths when he saw that Cerinthus the
gnostic was inside. Christian truth and church teaching are not decided by
individual conscience. Every heretic in the church was convinced by his
conscience that his doctrine was true, even biblical.

The ELCA is at the crossroads. The Task Force has not helped to enlighten
the church as to what is right or wrong. It makes a proposal to the church
that takes one side of a controversial issue on which it does not expect that a
consensus will emerge soon or ever. It flies in the face of the church’s
tradition, not only Lutheran but virtually that of all others. It offers no biblical
warrant to reverse the magnum consensus that has prevailed in Lutheran-
ism until recently. Yet, the Task Force presents recommendations that it
knows the majority of Lutherans do not favor, but which it believes the ELCA
might accept at its 2009 assembly in Minneapolis.

It is a bold and risky move. No matter what is decided, the church will pay a
heavy price. The issue of homosexuality will not go away. Whichever side
loses will regroup and rise to fight another day. God help the ELCA!

Carl E, Braaten was professor of systematic theology at Lutheran School of
Theology at Chicago and co-founder of the Center for Catholic and
Evangelical Theology in 1991. An extended version of this article is available
at www.metrolutheran.org.

FULL TEXT OF CARL E. BRAATEN CRITIQUE

My critique of the first “Draft Social Statement on Human Sexuality” prepared
by the Task Force for ELCA Studies on Sexuality, written and disseminated in
April, 2008, offered this conclusion: “This ‘Draft’ fails to take seriously
distinctive Lutheran principles of theology and ethics regarding human
sexuality. Either the Task Force is woefully ignorant of the Lutheran
confessional tradition regarding theological ethics, or it willfully ignores it to
reach some pre-conceived conclusions for ideological reasons.” My criticisms
included the following assertions: 1) it confused law and gospel; 2) it reversed
the order of creation and redemption; 3) it wrongly represented Lutheran
ethics of sex as deriving from Christology and the doctrine of justification; 4)
it was antinomian; 5) it did not deal with the Law of God and the Ten
Commandments; 6) it did not exegete the biblical passages that deal with
sexuality, and in particular homosexuality; 7) it avoided the use of the proper
name of the triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; 8) it drew only upon
Lutheran sources, displaying a sectarian attitude that ignores the teachings
of the Great Tradition; 9) it disregarded the Lutheran view of homosexual acts
as sinful. I ended my critique by saying that the social statement of the Task
Force is “not only deeply flawed from a Lutheran theological perspective, it is
also so poorly written that I believe there is very little in it to salvage.”
Now we have before us a revised version of the social statement on sexuality
proposed by the same Task Force that produced the first draft. My first
observation is that it is vastly improved in substance and style. A serious
effort has been made, it appears, to take seriously the criticisms that I as well
as others made of the document. It uses traditional Lutheran theological
concepts and language more intelligibly. Many Lutherans who read this
statement will encounter an array of familiar Lutheran symbols, slogans, and
shibboleths that will possibly dispose them to accept it. However, they are
mostly an ornamental covering that hides its egregious departure from the
biblical, doctrinal, and ethical teachings of the one, holy, catholic, and
apostolic church affirmed by the Lutheran Confessional Writings as well as
the Constitution and Confession of Faith of the Evangelical Lutheran Church
in America.

Let there be no mistake about this: If the ELCA were to adopt the social
statement and approve the recommendation of the Task Force to ordain men
and women living with sexual partners of the same gender, that would
constitute a radical departure from the overwhelming consensus that has
prevailed in historic Christianity through twenty centuries. The social
statement proposed by the Task Force fails to make the case that this is a
wise and legitimate decision for an orthodox Christian church to make.

I. On Theological Method

There is no real theology in this social statement. At best what it offers are
numerous descriptive statements of what it presumes Lutherans have
confessed and believed. That is history and not theology. Simply to state and
re-state what this church (the ELCA) teaches about this or that does not make
it true. The document fails to make theological statements that have any
merit in the face of other Christians and churches. What Lutherans believe,
teach, and confess is not true simply because they say so. Sixty million
Lutherans saying something doesn’t make it true. We must demonstrate that
what we assert is true on the basis of Holy Scripture in continuity with the
classical creeds and confessions which the ELCA accepts in its Constitution.
There is no biblical exegesis in this social statement. A number of times it
makes the gratuitous claim that it has “drawn deeply on our Lutheran
theological heritage and Scripture.” (“Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust,” line
606) It states that “it seeks to tap the deep roots of Scripture and the
Lutheran theological tradition.” (“Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust,” line 1179)
But it fails to do precisely that. For example, the statement refers to the
“seven texts” in the Bible that specifically address the issue of homosexual
behavior. No effort is made to explain or interpret these texts. They are not
identified or quoted, let alone exegeted or interpreted. Instead, the social
statement has implicitly accepted the opinions of some recent biblical
scholars that these texts have no bearing on the kind of homosexuality that
they are talking about — sexual relations between same-gender oriented
persons.

Lutherans affirm that Scripture is both source and norm of their attempt to
hear the Word and heed the Will of God. Well, what about these seven texts?
Do they or do they not express the intention of God for human behavior?
Does not what Paul says in Romans 1: 26-27 merit any consideration by a
Task Force of the church that produces a social statement on human
sexuality, especially when it proposes to overturn the unanimous convictions
of Christians and churches the world over for the last two millennia? After
careful reading I can reach no other conclusion: This social statement does
not take Scripture seriously, and does not even try. Nor does it take church
tradition seriously, choosing instead to go its own way, which is the definition
of “heresy” — to choose an opinion at variance with orthodoxy. This is the
kind of evidence a sister Lutheran Church can use to bolster its nasty
accusation that the ELCA is heterodox.

The Task Force is clearly confused about how to construct the ethics of sex
from a Lutheran theological perspective. In its first draft it stated that the
Lutheran understanding of sexuality is founded on the incarnation of God and
the doctrine of justification. Those two doctrines fall under the rubric of the
“right hand” rule of God in Jesus Christ. In this its final draft the Task Force
places the ethics of sexuality under the rubric of the “left hand” rule of God
through the structures of creation. It is difficult to have any confidence in the
theological competence of this Task Force that shows such utter confusion on
theological method.

II. The Wrath and Judgment of God

In my first critique I quoted H. Richard Niebuhr’s quip about the theology of
preaching going on in liberal Protestantism: “A God without wrath brought
people without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministry of
a Christ without the cross.” This social statement is not reluctant to talk
about sin. It describes how sin pervades all human relations, including sexual
relationships. But it depicts a God without wrath and without judgment.
God’s only response to sin is “love.” God is love. God loves and cares for
everybody; it doesn’t matter what they do. God is a prisoner of his own love.
He can’t do anything else. Voltaire said, “God will forgive, that’s his job.”
This is not the God of the Bible; this is not the God of the great teachers of
the church, Irenaeus, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther and Calvin. Luther
preached Christ against the backdrop of the wrath of God. Take away the
wrath and judgment of God, and you have the wishy-washy God of liberal
Protestantism._ The Luther-renaissance established beyond all doubt that the
idea of the wrath and judgment of God in relation to everything that opposes
his will is fundamental to Luther’s understanding of salvation, the atonement,
and his theology of the cross. This document no doubt represents the idea of
God held by the Task Force; it most certainly does not faithfully reflect the
Lutheran understanding of God.

For Luther the five tyrants or enemies from which Christ on the cross
delivered humankind were wrath, sin, Satan, law, and death. This statement
asserts that “God brings in the coming world of Christ’s rule where sin,
death, and evil will reign no longer.” (“Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust,” line
308) Luther’s “unholy trinity” were sin, death, and the devil. There is no
Devil in this document. In liberal Protestantism the Devil has faded into
invisibility, and here too. In Lutheran theology there can be no talk of God
apart from his diabolical Other. “No Devil, no God,” said John Wesley. Luther
would agree with that, as he hurls his ink well against the wall.

III. The Word of God and Church Unity

In Lutheran theology the Word of God meets us in two forms, as law and as
gospel. And it is important to make the proper distinction. The summary of
the law is love to God and neighbor. This summary, however, does not nullify
the force of the individual laws and commandments of God. They are binding
on the people of God, the church of Jesus Christ. In our first critique we
accused the social statement of repeating the typical “Lutheran heresy” that
reared its ugly head at the time of the Reformation and against which Luther
fought with all his might and mane. That is the heresy of antinomianism.
This social statement never brings it up, never mentions the word, and the
charge is never refuted. Why? The answer is that this social statement
collapses the three uses of the law into two, admitting that it “streamlines its
discussion of law by focussing solely on the two uses.” (“Human Sexuality:
Gift and Trust,” p. 6, n. 8) Since it is the third use of the law that is at stake
when the church discusses ordaining clergy involved in homosexual
behavior, this use of the law should have been treated at length, and not
swallowed up into the first two, neither of which lies at the center of the
church-wide controversy.

But there is an even more serious misinterpretation of the law that bears
upon the unity of the church. The statement makes a number of
questionable assertions, such as: “We believe that the way we order our lives
in matters of sexuality, although important for us as people of faith, is not
central to the Gospel itself.” (“Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust,” line 300)
Here is another: “Thus, we realize that this church’s deliberations related to
human sexuality do not threaten the center of our faith.” (line 326) And
another: “The task force recognizes the deep love that all hold for this church
and the shared commitment to remaining together in spite of differences on
these matters.” (“Report and Recommendation,” line 225) And another: “In
this regard the task force believes that, as this is a matter of God’s civil realm,
‘God’s left hand,’ this church is free to live with a diversity of opinions in this
matter.” (“Report and Recommendation,” line 465) What the task force is
asserting in these statements is that matters having to do with the laws and
commandments of God, and not with the core principles of the gospel,
cannot be church-dividing and are not basic to church unity. Matters that
fall under the rubric of the “left hand of God,” namely, the will and rule of
God in the orders of creation (political, economic, and social structures,
including marriage, family, and sexuality), are not central to the gospel as
such and therefore cannot be foundational for church unity.
The Task Force is mistaken. The church is founded upon the Word of God,
which includes what it believes about God’s activity in both creation and
redemption, both law and gospel, both the kingdom on the left and on the
right.

The church is not founded on only one half of the Word of God. Consider
this: the Lutheran World Federation raised the task of resisting apartheid in
South Africa to a matter of status confessionis. This meant that opposing
apartheid becomes a necessary implication of the church’s confession of
faith. The white Lutheran congregations protested that the racial struggles in
South Africa had nothing to do with the gospel, but only with the kingdom of
God on the left hand. Ergo, the struggle for racial justice, whatever side one
takes on the issue, cannot constitute a status confessionis for church
fellowship. If the LWF was right in its declaration, it shows that the gospel
cannot be separated from the law, the kingdom on the right from the
kingdom on the left. Lutheran Churches in the United States faced the same
issue in the struggle for civil rights when the system of racial segregation
meant that Blacks and Whites were not welcome to celebrate Holy
Communion together. The Lutheran Churches in Germany under Hitler were
confronted by the same problem. The theologians supporting National
Socialism declared that its anti-Semitic policies regarding the Jews have
nothing to do with the gospel, therefore they have no bearing on church unity
and fellowship. The Lutherans in Chile under General Pinochet faced the
same kind of issue.

The Task Force is unrealistic to believe that the majority of members in the
ELCA will so easily separate the law and the gospel, the left hand and the
right hand kingdoms of God. Separating the law and the gospel, the two
integral forms of the Word of God, is as pernicious in church life as confusing
or equating them. The Task Force nowhere acknowledges that many pastors
and congregations, anticipating that the ELCA was heading in the direction of
ordaining same-gendered pastors, have already left the ELCA, and many
others are lining up at the door ready to make their exit. The Task Force
seems to have adopted the slogan of that great American prophet, Rodney
King, who asked, “Can’t we all just get along?” If the ELCA adopts the
recommendations of the Task Force, many pastors and congregations will
choose not to leave, but to remain and protest as a confessing movement.
They will not leave the church in which they have been baptized and
surrender it to those trying to take it in a direction that negates what
Lutherans, along with all other Christians, have always believed and taught.

IV. What Is Marriage?

According to church tradition the ethics of sex must be elaborated in relation
to the institution of marriage. The social statement defines marriage “as a
covenant of mutual promises, commitment, and hope authorized legally by
the state and blessed by God. The historic Christian tradition and the
Lutheran Confessions have recognized marriage as a covenant between a
man and a woman.” (“Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust,” lines 502 ff.) No,
they do more than that. They define marriage not merely as a human
institution that has evolved through the centuries but as an institution
ordained by God. God is the author of marriage. Should not that be the first
thing that the church says about marriage? Marriage is God’s plan for a man
and a woman who enter into a partnership for the whole of their lives.

V. Same-Gender Orientations

Many men and women have deep-seated homosexual tendencies. As a rule
people do not choose their sexual orientation. All persons must choose how
to live with the condition in which they find themselves. This goes for
heterosexuals as well as homosexuals. Their options are different according
to church teaching. But both are taught that celibacy is the moral option
apart from marriage. Many heterosexuals who have never found a marriage
partner remain celibate their entire lives. That is true not only of the many
sisters and priests we know in the Catholic Church who have voluntarily
chosen celibacy. It is equally true of many Protestants who have never found
the right mate and have therefore chosen celibacy as their only moral
alternative. What about homosexuals? The church has always taught that,
like their many heterosexual brothers and sisters who happen not to have
found the right person to marry, homosexual persons are called to a
vocation of celibacy. Many have responded and lived faithfully according to
that call.

The Task Force is now proposing that a life of sexual relations with persons
of the same gender is open to the ordained clergy of the ELCA. Everyone
should be clear that the issue before the church is not the sexual orientation
of a person seeking ordination. All churches welcome homosexual persons
with respect and pledge themselves to reject every form of social
discrimination. The church has always had homosexuals among the ordained
clergy. So clearly the issue is not orientation but behavior. The Task Force is
proposing that the sexual behavior of homosexuals should be no insuperable
obstacle to ordination. Persons in “publicly accountable, lifelong,
monogamous, same-gender, committed relationships” will be acceptable for
ordination in the ELCA.

Who are these persons living in “publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous,
same-gender committed relationships”? Where are they? How many are
there? I have been an ordained Lutheran minister for over fifty years and I
cannot think of a single person who would qualify. What do those
qualifications for the ordination of homosexuals mean? What does “publicly
accountable” mean? This is a desideratum that has proved to be unworkable
even among heterosexual pastors? Pastors by the hundreds up and leave
their spouses with virtual impunity. Where is the “public accountability?”
None to speak of. What would it mean to hold practicing homosexuals
publicly accountable? What does “lifelong” mean? The marriage vow used to
mean “as long as life shall last.” Now it has become “as long as love shall
last.” How long is “lifelong?”

I know an ordained minister who left his wife with five children to enter into a
“lifelong, monogamous, committed relationship” with another man. He was
removed from the rostered clergy. Would such a person qualify to be
reinstated? Many similar cases come to mind. And what does monogamy
mean in this context? The Webster Dictionary defines monogamy as 1)
marriage with only one person at a time, in contrast to bigamy or polygamy,
2) the practice of having only one mate, which goes also for animals, 3) the
practice of marrying only once during lifetime. The social statement does not
state what it means by monogamy. It’s no big deal in our society to be
married with only one person at a time. Even Elizabeth Taylor or Larry King
would qualify by such a definition. This highfalutin category of ordained
clergy who are supposed to enter into a “publicly accountable, lifelong,
monogamous, same-gender, committed relationship” is an arbitrary
concoction of the Task Force. On close inspection its criteria do not even
hold for heterosexual clergy.

VI. Lack of Consensus in the ELCA

The Task Force is correct in observing numerous times that there is no
consensus in the ELCA on the rostering of homosexual persons in same-
gender relationships. The Task Force postulates that the difference between
the traditionalists and revisionists is a matter of conscience. The statement
asserts that there are “differing and conscience-bound understandings about
the place of such relationships within the Christian community.” (“Human
Sexuality: Gift and Trust,” lines 607 ff). This is a specious non-theological
appeal to conscience. Of course, when facing a critical moral decision, it goes
without saying that persons should follow their conscience. What else should
they do? But that does not mean that one’s subjective conscience is right. I
have my conscience, you have yours. So what? The question is, what is right
in the sight of God? Has God not said anything about sex, marriage, and
family, so that we are left in the dark to follow our own subjective feelings?
For the church private personal conscience does not have the last word. It
needs to be instructed and illuminated by the Word and Spirit of God.
Luther said he was bound by his conscience; it was bound by the Word of
God. It is the church’s responsibility to enlighten conscience, to teach the
Word of God. This social statement fails to be a teaching document of the
church. It professes not to know the difference between right and wrong on
crucial matters of human sexuality. If reflects the cultural Zeitgeist, the spirit
of the age. The church has spent a million dollars to be informed by this
Task Force that there is no consensus in the church on human sexuality.
Since there is no consensus in the church, why not keep the status quo? Why
not follow the sage advice, when in doubt, stick with the tradition? The
recommendation of this Task Force to accept practicing homosexuals for
ordination does not necessarily follow from the social statement, “Human
Sexuality: Gift and Trust.”

This statement states that all of us in the ELCA should show deep respect for
the conscience-bound beliefs of those with whom we disagree. Luther
showed little respect for the beliefs of Erasmus of Rotterdam when he wrote
his diatribe, The Bondage of the Will. St. John showed little respect for the
beliefs of Cerinthus, as he exited the baths when he saw that Cerinthus the
gnostic was inside. Athanasius showed little respect for Arius who denied the
divinity of Christ. Augustine show little respect for Pelagius who taught that
the human will is free in relation to God and the offer of salvation. Christian
truth and church teaching are not decided by individual conscience. Every
heretic in the church was convinced by his conscience that his doctrine was
true, even biblical.

Amazingly this Task Force claims that those who advocate for changing the
ELCA policy regarding practicing homosexuals “affirm the same biblical and
confessional doctrines as the advocates for present policies.” (“Report and
Recommendation,” line 151) No they don’t. Otherwise, the proposed social
statement and its appended recommendation would not have set loose such
an avalanche of negative criticisms throughout the church, including this one.

VII. When In Doubt, For the Tradition

The ELCA is at the crossroads. The Task Force has not helped to enlighten
the church as to what is right or wrong. It makes a proposal to the church
that takes one side of a controversial issue on which it does not expect that a
consensus will emerge soon or ever. It flies in the face of the church’s
tradition, not only Lutheran but virtually that of all others. It offers no
biblical warrant to reverse the magnum consensus that has prevailed in
Lutheranism until recently. By recently we mean since the ELCA was born
twenty years ago. Yet, the Task Force presents recommendations that it
knows the majority of Lutherans do not favor, but which it believes the ELCA
might accept at its 2009 assembly in Minneapolis. It is a bold and risky
move. No matter what is decided, the church will pay a heavy price. The
issue of homosexuality will not go away. Whichever side loses will regroup
and rise to fight another day. God help the ELCA! This is no way for the
church of Jesus Christ to function. There is an authority crisis in the Lutheran
Church glaringly exposed by the fiasco of having to deal with the report and
recommendations of another theologically challenged Task Force.

VIII. Back To A Low Congregationalist Polity

The acceptance of the Task Force’s “Report and Recommendation on Ministry
Policies” would return the ELCA to the kind of individualistic
congregationalism that characterized American Lutheranism during the
1900’s. The past fifty years of ecumenical dialogues have taught Lutherans
something about the nature of the church. The LCA, the ALC, and the AELC
entered the merger process that brought about the ELCA with differing
ecclesiologies. The Article on “The Nature of the Church” in the Constitution
of the ELCA came a long way in leaving behind the congregationalist polities
held by some of the predecessor church bodies. We were pleased to observe
that the ELCA was moving toward a higher ecclesiology that aims to manifest
the Church as one, apostolic, catholic, and holy. All of its ministries and
programs are to express that unity, anchored in the apostolic tradition of
faith that is passed on from generation to generation.

The doctrine of the church reflected in this social statement is perhaps the
worst that has ever appeared in the history of Lutheranism in America.
Congregations and synods are invited to go their own way and to reach their
own decisions with respect to the ordained ministry, based not on what is
essential to the church’s witness and proclamation as a whole, but on what
seems relevant to the cultural vision of a new age. That kind of individualistic
mindset puts the ELCA adrift in the ever-changing tides of culture. The
people of the ELCA will then merit the epitaph applied to the people of Israel
in the Book of Judges: “EVERY MAN DID WHAT WAS RIGHT IN HIS OWN EYES.”
(17:6)

Carl E. Braaten