In the ongoing debate over same sex marriage (which Quakers approve), it is interesting to look back at how the Christian thought as a whole is evolving on the issue.
The release this fall of a draft statement on human sexuality by a task force of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) resulted in several days of distorted news reporting. Media coverage focused on the statement’s suggestion that the ELCA affirm lifelong, committed, faithful, same-sex relationships. And it typically reported only half of a statement about masturbation, omitting the cautionary phrase “unless it becomes compulsive or hinders development of life-fulfilling relationships.”
But the news media missed the real news: that in 1993 a mainline Protestant denomination was:
* releasing a sex statement that used the word sin freely to talk about that which the statement’s authors saw falling short of God’s ideal for his human creatures: adultery, for example, and promiscuity, pornography, sexual abuse, and prostitution;
* basing a sex statement largely on Scripture and theology, rather than social science and pop philosophy;
* thinking about sex as much in terms of its relationship to the community as to the individual, and as much in terms of right and wrong as in terms of compassion and caring.
The ELCA task force even called on unmarried couples to abstain from sex and not to live together until they could tie the knot. We commend the task force for not concocting some abstract principle such as “justice-love,” as a commission of the Presbyterian Church (USA) did several years ago, overhauling Christian sexual ethics. The Lutherans listened instead to Scripture and theology.
When the ELCA task force listened to Scripture and theology, however, it listened in a very Lutheran way. Every theological tradition has its strength; and every strength can also be a weakness.
Lutherans traditionally read Scripture Christologically and evangelically; that is, they emphasize whatever is of Christ and of the good news of God’s grace. We find strength in that approach. In the context of Lutheran theology, it is hard to miss the gospel and difficult to become distracted from the one big message of Scripture by its other messages.
That strength, however, can make it more difficult to find the truth embedded in Scripture’s account of bow God ordered creation and made his covenant with Israel. (This is the kind of truth that Calvinists and Catholic natural-law theologians naturally emphasize.) Thus, Old Testament prohibitions against homosexuality do not automatically carry as large a weight for the Lutheran task force, and whatever smacks of law is suspect. In this statement, even the normative creation order of one man–one woman–one flesh–one lifetime seems to be relativized by Jesus’ pattern of welcoming sinners.
At one point, the task force says that ethical standards ought to be dispensed with when they seem to inhibit the spread of the gospel. Surely, the statement here confuses ethics with mores.
The Lutheran perspective need not lead in this direction. In its statement on marriage, the task force notes: “Jesus placed the faithful, mutually loving permanent |one flesh’ union of male and female at the core of the church’s teaching regarding marriage.” They could have carried over Jesus’ explicit affirmation of the two-sex nature of creation to their section on homosexuality. But in that section, the seamless robe of biblical ethics is ripped, and the task force stitches in a vague patch of “neighbor love” to guide us. They call for faithfulness, mutuality, and permanence in same-sex relationships, but they fail to see the implicit critique of any attempt to construct a pattern for same-sex marriages in Jesus’ words that “he who made them from the beginning made them male and female.”
Lutheran Christians will be discussing this statement over the coming months. Their feedback is due to the task force by June 30, 1994; after that, another draft will be prepared, to be voted on in August 1995. The ELCA has, for the most part, built a good foundation. May they have the wisdom to apply the whole counsel of God to the church’s understanding of sexuality.
The ELCA approves of same sex marriage. The LCMS is still waffling on the issue. Quakers can still be divisive. But we believe the momentum is pushing towards approval of same sex marriage in the way that the issue of slavery and racial discrimination was slow to come around.