SE Minnesota Synod confronts gay blessings, ordination issue
Wartburg Seminary professor helps leaders focus on coming ELCA showdown.
An attentive contingent of clergy and lay leaders from ELCA congregations across the Southeast-ern Minnesota Synod packed a hotel ballroom in Owatonna, Minnesota, for three days in early November to talk about homosexuality-related issues.
The planning committee for the conference responded to a 2000 synod assembly resolution asking for an exploration of two questions to be decided by the ELCA’s 2005 Churchwide Assembly:
* Should the church bless committed same-sex unions? and:
* Should the church permit the ordination of duly trained individuals living in such unions?
Dr. Craig Nessan, Academic Dean and Associate Professor of Centextual Theology at Wartburg Theological Seminary, Dubuque, Iowa, keynoted the November 3-5 event. He addressed the group three times, offering theological and practical guidelines for walking safely through what many see to be a field strewn with landmines.
Can the center hold?
In his first presentation, Nessan asked the group to consider what is of ultimate importance to Christians. He quoted the poet William Butler Yeats, who famously wrote, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passion. The center cannot hold.”
He also referenced John Calvin, who once said, “The human heart is a factory of idols, always looking for a different center.”
The center for Christians, Nessan maintained, is the doctrine of justification. (This teaching, in Lutheran understanding, promises that sinful human beings are made right with God by grace, as a divine gift we cannot earn ourselves.)
Said Nessan, “What Jesus Christ brings is Gospel. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the center that holds everything together.”
He explained, “Justification is not just a theological concept. It is the doctrine by which the church stands or falls.”
The homosexuality debate is not the first to threaten to tear the church apart, Nessan maintained. He reminded the group, “The Christian community at Corinth, Greece, experienced deep division and rival factions.” Paul faced a laundry list of explosive questions when writing his two letters to them.
Nessan said a church facing conflict should take a page from Paul, “who asked congregations to be united in one mind and purpose.” Paul, said Nessan, proclaimed Jesus Christ to be the center before he addressed controversies.
Said Nessan, “We are not required to have unity about every ethical issue. There is room for a variety of viewpoints, as long as there is prior commitment to the theological center.”
From polarization to common ground
In a second lecture, Nessan said, “Being right is not the most important thing in the world. Being charitable is.” In a debate, he said, people tend to exaggerate and to make their arguments personal. Strangely, he admitted, people are repelled yet fascinated by conflict. He asked, “Can we move from a rhetoric of conflict to one of charity?”
Nessan lined out two ways Christians have understood homosexuality and the biblical witness, quoting two representative scholars on either side. Both groups, he said, are engaged in a contest over how to interpret seven Bible texts, two in Leviticus, and one each in Genesis, Judges, Romans, 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy.
He described the two viewpoints like this:
* Traditional, represented by theologians such as Robert Gagnon and Richard Hays. They are convinced that Scripture condemns homosexual behavior, rejecting it as unnatural and an abomination to God.
* Contextual, whose advocates include Martii Nissinen and Robin Scroggs, two scholars whose books have been published by ELCA publisher Fortress Press. They believe that none of the seven biblical texts in question refer to the kind of homosexuality currently being discussed by the church, but deal instead with cases of exploitation and worship of false gods.
Said Nessan, “I’m convinced [responsible textual interpretation] warrants both positions. And that leads to the question: Can the ELCA embrace a spectrum of views without inviting schism?” He reminded the group, “We [in the ELCA] have an umbrella that embraces both principled pacifists and just war advocates. And, we built an umbrella of views before we agreed to ordain women.”
From fear to mutuality
In his concluding presentation, the Wartburg Seminary professor asked his listeners to be clear about what is being advocated. He said,” When I employ the term committed same-gender relationships, I take it to mean lifelong and faithful (not promiscuous).” He suggested that, given the contentious nature of the issues (of blessings and ordinations for same-sex partners), and in light of the fact that proponents of both traditional and contextual points of view are not likely to change their minds, an all-or-nothing solution should be rejected.
Said Nessan, “An individual congregation might be allowed to designate itself as prepared to [approve blessings or ordinations of same-sex partners] should it deem this to be vital to its missionary outreach.” He hastened to add, “no congregation would be compelled to adopt such a practice.”
To put it differently, Nessan proposed the ELCA seriously consider allowing for a “local option” approach. In effect, he explained, “this proposal would permit individual congregations to self-designate, following guidelines established by the whole church.”