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Conservative Lutherans Forsake Heritage for Politics
Prepared for those Lutherans thinking about leaving the ELCA over the Minneapolis decision to affirm same-sex pastoral relationships, discussed here are James Nestingen, Robert Benne, others.
By Ed Knudson
At a recent meeting of retired pastors the decisions of the Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) this past summer at Minneapolis on same-sex pastoral relationships came up for discussion. One person reported on congregations which were considering leaving the church including First Lutheran Church in Fargo, North Dakota. That got my attention because I was confirmed in that congregation. I had just this summer been visiting relatives there in Fargo and driven by the church building, remembering that it was there Pastor Quello taught me bible verses by the alphabet, starting with "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." That's not a bad starting point for thinking about the Minneapolis decision. I decided to write something to the leaders of that congregation, encouraging them to remember they are making decisions which affect not only themselves but all the saints of the church who have been members of that congregation in the past. Even though my family moved from Fargo a couple years after my confirmation, my experience there was important for me.(1)
I went to the First Lutheran website and read that leaders of the congregation are going to check out the materials being produced by a group called Lutheran Core, the primary organization promoting division in the ELCA which now is calling for the formation of a separate Lutheran church body. So I went to the website of that group and want to report what I found there to First Lutheran leaders, and others in the church considering this question.(2)
What I found was much articulation of faith and theology as it would be found in most Lutheran congregations and wherever Lutherans gather for worship and teaching. You actually have to look fairly hard for what it is that the group is so angry and upset about to want to form a new Lutheran church. Looking over the proposed constitution for the group nothing popped out at me except for one thing having to do with the belief that "marriage is between a man and a woman." That is the same language being used in political debates over homosexuality which have been occurring in our culture for some time now. The Minneapolis decision did not say that marriage is not between a man and a woman, just that others in the church believe it may also be possible to affirm same-sex pastoral relationships under conditions similar to expectations in heterosexual marriage. So the basic issue has to do with fairness, whether heterosexual pastors can be married and remain pastors whereas homosexual pastors in faithful relationships should or should not be allowed to remain as pastors. The question is the status of homosexual relationships.
So the Lutheran Core materials reveal that those desiring to leave the ELCA are willing to use the full language and expression of the Lutheran heritage and put it all at stake concerning a single issue of the status of homosexual relationships. But as I read more of the speeches at their meetings and the papers presented at their website, it has become very clear to me that this whole matter is not about scripture or theology, it is about politics. It has little to do with confessing the true gospel of Jesus Christ, it is mostly about politics, about allowing the politics of the day to influence the historic understanding of the faith.
As a pastor who believes that the Lutheran confessional theology is of central importance in the church, I am very concerned that some Lutherans would be willing to forsake the historic Lutheran confessional heritage in favor of a particular political position in the cultural wars of the moment. They are willing to put the confessional heritage at stake in what is an important but secondary debate over ethics and matters of interpretation of law and scripture. In other words, this debate is not worth this level of division and hostility in the church.
I want to discuss the Lutheran Core materials in the context of some background factors which may not be considered in the active consciousness of laypersons and some pastors as they approach this question. Such factors, the conditions, attitudes, and assumptions surrounding a specific debate, can be very important. For example, I was a new pastor in a congregation, at my second council meeting, when one issue on the agenda was what meat to serve at the annual congregational dinner. One person on one side of the table recommended beef. A person on the other side of the table said he wanted chicken. And a big debate ensued, really quite heated. Finally someone said, "which do you want, pastor?" Not wanting to anger either side I said, "I like ham." So ham it was that year. Later I asked one of the leaders what was going on and he explained that several years earlier there had been a big fight over a physical expansion of the church and the losers of that debate were still mad about it and it emerges again over such silly items as what meat to serve at a congregational dinner. No one was willing to leave the church over it, but that debate over the expansion was a background factor in how the council approached other decisions. Most congregations have a whole list of past fights that tend to continue on into the future, if we are honest, it has to do with human nature I guess.
Now, some Lutherans feel they lost the debate in Minneapolis and are willing to leave the church over it. One of the Core documents says explicitly that they have spent a lot of money, energy and time on the issue and now they have lost so it is time to give up on the ELCA. Now, no one likes to lose a fight. And winners should be gracious. But now when the losers want to pack up and leave claiming they are the true holders of the foundation of the group, the confessional heritage of Lutheranism, then it is necessary to look very seriously at what is going on. The fact is that the church is divided over homosexuality. The Minneapolis decision admits that fact and was an effort to keep everyone in the church, not legislating an absolute decree on anyone. But that was not enough for some of these folks.
Those opposed to the Minneapolis decision are making their views widely known. And in these discussions pastors and bishops often do not want to take a strong position on one side or the other in order not to antagonize people on either side. But that means a strong view in support of the Minneapolis decision may not be heard among those considering whether to leave the church. So I want to present reasons here why I believe the Minneapolis decision is the correct way for the church to proceed. I will discuss several important background factors to understand what's going on and to encourage congregational leaders not to join the Lutheran Core effort to divide the church.
1) Our Own Sons and Daughters
Reading the Core materials one gets the impression that gay and lesbian persons in the church are actually alien outsiders trying to impose an agenda on the rest of us. There is little respect expressed for gay and lesbian persons in these materials.
So here is the first thing I would like to say to congregational leaders: Gay and lesbian persons in the church are mostly the sons and daughters of our very church, baptized Lutherans, confirmed in the faith, participating in communion, hearers of the gospel. These folks are not outside aliens. They have been raised in the church. They want to be members of the church. They want to serve the church. They want to live in relationships "under the law" the same as heterosexual couples, with the same expectations of faithfulness. The Lutheran Core materials present no understanding of this basic fact, that gay and lesbian Lutherans are not first of all "homosexuals" threatening the moral fabric of the nation but are baptized brothers and sisters in the faith.
This idea, that gays and lesbians can be lumped together as one class of people who are a threat to the moral order of society, has been propounded by the so-called "social conservatives" of the "religious right" in the politics of recent decades. And this idea is stated again and again in the Core materials with the claim that this is what the bible obviously teaches, and that the Minneapolis decision demonstrates the ELCA no longer is concerned for the "law" of the bible. I looked long and hard at the Core website for substantive materials on this question, for an understanding of historical changes in sexual practices over the years, for a quality theological analysis of how Lutherans understand the role of law in scripture, and I found very little on these questions. That is one reason I believe that conservative politics is driving this movement more than real Lutheran theology. The Core group does not have good and legitimate reasons for what they are doing.
There was at the Core website links to two papers by the late Gerhard Forde, one of my teachers when I attended Luther seminary in St. Paul for my first two years. These papers were written in the mid-1990s and have probably been the primary basis for the association of Luther Seminary with a position over-against the full inclusion of gay and lesbian persons in the life of the church. Forde was an outstanding theologian and these papers are a brilliant exposition of the Lutheran understanding of the uses of the law. There is only one little problem, what Forde says does not support the position of the Core group. He says in the article in Word and World (Summer, 1994): "...since Christ ends the law, no direct or literal legalistic appeals to isolated passages of scripture can be taken as decisive. As Luther could say, Moses is dead. We don't want to hear Moses." The Core materials again and again claim that scripture is, indeed, decisive for questions of homosexuality, but that claim is not supported by the writings of Gerhard Forde, in fact, he argues the opposite. The Core group places itself outside the historic Lutheran understanding of law in how it is using scripture. The Core group is using an approach to scripture from the conservative religious right, not Lutheran tradition.
Forde goes on to say, of course, that that does not mean the law is of no use. Not at all. But he says that Luther believed that Moses, for example, may have useful things to say to us as well, it may be "reasonable in the daily tasks of shaping and caring for life." Or, Forde says, it is in "agreement with natural law." But when he uses the phrase "natural law" Forde knows he is then moving away from the use of scripture as authoritive as law, he is moving to the use of "nature and common sense" to "care for human community."
What this means is that Forde is taking the question of homosexuality out of the context of interpretation of scripture and placing it in the context of doctrine. He says "...since we do not wish to proceed in absolutist or legalistic fashion, careful arguments will have to be made. But they must be arguments that seriously strive to honor the biblical perspective. That means that it will not do, surely, simply to isolate and dispute for or against certain passages that speak of homosexual acts. The problems we face are deeper than that."
Exactly. Lutheran theology goes much deeper than the simplistic statements found on the Lutheran Core website which claim that the ELCA is no longer following scripture.
But then in his paper my former teacher goes on to make some arguments about homosexuality which do not make sense. He makes "arguments" which contain a serious intellectual error, what can be called a "category mistake." He lumps all homosexuals together as one group as if homosexuality is one thing and forevermore has been one thing and is today the same as it has always been and can never change. He discusses the "doctrine of the estate of marriage" as a basis for his arguments (not scripture) and makes the assumption that all homosexuals are filled with "vagaries of individualistic and selfish desire" as if this is any different from heterosexuals, as if there are no distinctions among different individuals whether hetero or homo sexual. He says "Generally ignored is evidence of and learned discussion about the destructiveness, both physical and social, of homosexual sexual activity." Notice again that he is not saying that scripture tells us this, but his reading of "learned discussion." He is not appealing to scripture, he is appealing to evidence obtained through reason, evidence that is seriously contested by other learned authorities and experience in our time.
A category mistake is a serious intellectual error. If I say I will discuss the category called "fruit" and then talk about apples and oranges as both being fruits I am telling the truth. But then if I talk about apples as if they are oranges I am making a mistake. Apples are apples and oranges are oranges and they are both fruits but they are not the same. And so there is a category of "homosexuals" and there are stereotypes about all homosexuals but the very important fact is that all homosexuals are not the same, there are immense varieties, including the fact that there are homosexuals who view themselves not first and foremost as homosexuals but as baptized Lutherans, believing in the grace and mercy of a loving God, believers who want to live "under the law" of faithfulness in relationships with one another as in what is called "marriage." The fact that there are baptized Lutheran gay and lesbian persons in our church makes them sons and daughters of our church, just as they are sons and daughters of families of our church. It is entirely inappropriate to refer to these sons and daughters of our church as if they are outside aliens in a general category called "homosexual" without thinking carefully. My former teacher made a serious error in his papers and it is this error that also underlies most of the material at the Core website.
The Minneapolis decision was basically one which said we want gay and lesbian members and pastors in the ELCA, we do not want to kick them out, and we will all work over the next years to try to understand one another and how we can love one another and the neighbor and build up the life of the community. That seems to be a very reasonable decision to me, but some in our church are determined to be unreasonable, homosexuality is such a difficult issue for many that they don't want to make any effort to understand it. But I hope this first background factor is clear, we are not talking about alien outsiders, we are talking about the sons and daughters of our very own church. If a new Lutheran church is formed what do you suppose will happen after a few years, it's own sons and daughters will either be rejected and thrown out or that church itself will face what the ELCA faces today.
2) A Moral Concern for Average Members
The Core materials also reflect almost no awareness that the issue of homosexuality in general is a pastoral concern or a serious matter confronting average members of our congregations. The materials deal with it as a political issue, pushed as a gay and lesbian agenda, as if it is otherwise of no concern in local congregations.
Now, it is true many pastors do not actually become involved in serious ethical issues faced by their members. A pastor who preaches against abortion regularly is not going to receive requests for counsel from women who might find themselves in the situation of considering one. A pastor who rants and raves against homosexuality (as I have seen some do) will not be able to enter into the real life experience of a homosexual member of his or her church. Such pastors have screened out their ability to learn something from their members.
Twenty-five years ago I was teaching a day-time bible study of about fifteen persons in a suburban congregation; we came to the end of a topic series and I asked the group what they wanted to study next. Someone asked if they could study the biblical teaching on homosexuality. I asked the group whether they knew any gay or lesbian persons. The first person said yes, an uncle, then another said, yes, a sister, then another referred to a friend, another to a neighbor. Every person in the room knew someone who was homosexual and wondered what the church taught about this.
The issue of homosexuality is not first and foremost a political issue in the church as the Core materials assume, it is a serious moral concern faced by members of our churches. It was in that bible class that I first myself seriously examined the scripture texts concerning homosexuality with members of my congregation. I was very impressed with their capacity to engage in reflective conversation about this matter and their eagerness to dig into issues of bible interpretation, the distinction between law and gospel, the Lutheran understanding of the uses of the law and how interpretations of "natural law" are different between Lutherans and Catholics.
The important factor here is that I myself did not raise this topic for discussion, I was not pushing what some would call a "liberal agenda," I was responding to a request from my members to study something which had become important to them. I do not think it reflects very well on those people pushing the Core agenda to make out gays and lesbians to be enemies of the church when the issue of homosexuality has become a practical concern for large numbers of our average members.
3) The Role of Science in Ethical Deliberation
A third background factor is hardly addressed at all by the Core materials, it is the role of science in this debate and how faith views the results of scientific study for examination of moral issues. In 1973 the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its psychiatric manual, declaring that homosexuality was not a mental disorder. Similar judgments have been made by other professional groups such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, The American Counseling Association, and the National Association of Social Workers. This does not mean that all the science is conclusive about every aspect of homosexuality, but professional judgments have been a very large factor in the growing normalization of gay and lesbian persons over the past several decades. When gay and lesbian Lutherans come to their church asking to be accepted they have science on their side in the current culture.
Public attitudes toward homosexuality have changed considerably over the past decades, especially among younger adults. Among the general population 50% now say homosexuality should be accepted by society according to a 2007 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, but 63% among those aged 18 to 29. Among mainline Protestants 56% say homosexuality should be accepted, but 69% among those aged 18 to 29. Despite the urging of their bishops 58% of Catholics affirm homosexuality, but 72% of those 18 to 29. Surveys of public attitudes are never the sole factor in determining what is right and wrong, of course, but the growing acceptance of homosexuality is probably the result of not only science and professional judgment but also the fact that large numbers of gay and lesbian persons have made themselves known to others ("coming out") and demonstrated themselves to be persons of dignity and responsibility.
I think this should be a factor that especially lay leaders of the church should appreciate since they in their various occupations also make use of science in many and various ways. This does not mean that the church should accept anything and everything science may suggest, but it does mean that there is some rational basis to what gay and lesbian persons are saying, that they are not just wild-eyed radicals trying to upset centuries of moral teachings as the Core materials suggest. Science is one factor in determining from nature and creation what should be understood as "normal" and "natural." The church has a long history of making mistakes here, claiming that the bible is a science textbook which teaches absolute views of nature and staking the faith on basically flat-earth theories in various fields.
The fact that the Core materials ignore the results of science is, I believe, irresponsible. For a number of years I served on the bio-ethics committee of a major metropolitan hospital. If someone had come before the committee and recommended that medical science should be ignored in treating human illness I would, as I believe all Lutherans would, call that irresponsible. The Core materials just assume that sexual activity by homosexuals is always wrong, refusing to even discuss alternative views based on scientific evidence. They flippantly reject the idea that the bible may not oppose the type of faithful homosexual relationships possible today, over-against the sexual exploitation referred to by the Apostle Paul. This refusal to reckon with the results of science and professional opinion is one of the reasons I suspect that something else is at work here, an importation of religious-political views from other than Lutheran sources.
Lutherans in general and the ELCA as a church body have been more open to use the results of science in its moral deliberation than the so-called "religious right" as will be discussed later. Martin Luther did not stand up before public authorities and confess his belief that the earth is flat, he confessed that human beings are justified by faith in the grace of God alone. And so the Core supporters are flat wrong today by proposing that they are confessional Lutherans when they stand up and proudly state their belief in a flat-earth theory of homosexuality. When they do so they trivialize the heart of Lutheran confession.
4) Confessing Christ, not Cultural Habits
What makes for true "confession" is what is most important about what I am trying to say here. The Core materials are trying to claim they are the true "confessional" Lutherans over-against the ELCA which is thus no longer a legitimate church. For anyone who knows Lutheran theology and history this is a most serious matter. But in the Lutheran heritage to "confess" is to confess Christ. It is not to make an assertion in a dispute on how to interpret scripture concerning a specific matter of morality. What it means to be "confessional" is thus another significant background factor that needs to be carefully understood.
Paull Spring is the chair of the Core group. He says in the December, 2009, Core newsletter: "The ELCA is the one that has departed from the teaching of the Bible as understood by Christians for 2000 years." Then he goes on to say, "The division in the ELCA is not really about sex. It is about the authority of Scripture in the life of the church. The crisis in the ELCA is a direct result of the actions of the 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly." What exactly is he saying here? The issue is not really about sex, yet it all has to do with the actions of the assembly which had to do with sex. He refers generally to "authority of Scripture," yet it is not really about the authority of Scripture but about the interpretation of very specific passages having to do with homosexuality. So when the materials say over and over that the big issue is a confessional issue over the authority of scripture when you really get down to it what they are talking about is a few verses on homosexuality about which there differences of interpretation. Such differences should not be church dividing. That is, anyone who has any love for the church and the scripture would not threaten the unity of the church over a rather small matter in the big scheme of things, so there must be something else going on, some other existential factor not being talked about, something else in the background.
What is in the background is politics. The ELCA does not exist in a vacuum, it is influenced by its political context. That context includes a big debate over homosexuality. What the Core folks are doing is importing into the Lutheran church the culture wars and commitments of other church bodies and political parties which are, indeed, alien to the traditions of Lutheranism. The Core group is engaging in an entirely false form of "confession." They are not confessing Christ, they are confessing allegiance to a particular view of homosexuality. Why are they making that a big issue right now? Because it has been made a big issue by people using it for political purposes in this country. The Core group has chosen a false issue about which to claim to be making a "confession."
Years ago I decided to make systematic visits to inactive members. That congregation had lots of people on the rolls who didn't attend regularly. At the home of one older woman I asked if there was any particular reason she was having trouble getting to worship, if I could help in any way. She said that she had stopped going to worship long before when the church began to allow women in worship without wearing hats. She said the bible says women's heads should be covered in church and she believed it was wrong to do otherwise. I tried to explain how cultural habits change over time and that the Apostle Paul himself distinguished between what was a secondary cultural habit and the central teachings he received from the Lord. But nothing I said could persuade her, she had made her decision and was now determined to stick with it. She had made wearing hats in church her "confessional" issue that separated her from her own church.
That's exactly what the Core folks are doing, making a confessional issue out of homosexuality and no matter good arguments to the contrary they are probably going to stick with it and divide the church over a secondary issue. This is terribly sad to me. It is a complete confusion of how to interpret "law" in scripture and the distinction between law and gospel. Real Lutherans should know better. The Core folks are contributing to confusion in the church about what makes for confession and what are the central doctrines of Lutheranism.
There are many, many cultural habits in the bible written 2000 years ago which the church no longer follows. Paull Spring cannot get by with saying things so incoherent, that it's not about sex but it is really about sex. What he should be asked is why at this particular time in history does he believe that a fundamentalist and legalistic interpretation should be made of passages on homosexuality, that homosexuality is so important that it should be made the basis of division in the church.
The ELCA is not rejecting the authority of scripture. The Minneapolis Assembly adopted a social statement, Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust, which extensively details the role of scripture in faith and ethics. I think anyone considering leaving the ELCA should spend considerable time reading and carefully studying that document. I don't think a decision like this should be made on the basis of generalized hostility and political-type rhetoric as exhibited in the words of Paull Spring and much of the Core materials.
The ELCA has been studying this matter for many long years, and the decision in Minneapolis was made by a vote of the people of God gathered in the context of worship and hearing the Word of God. But James Nestingen doesn't like it, he has no concern for what the people have voted after careful deliberation which he calls "power mongering." He has written this bitter tirade:
"With the action taken in the Minneapolis assembly, the ELCA has made such power mongering official procedure and policy. The Word of God does not create, shape or control it; no, the ELCA controls the interpretation of the Word. Confronted by the Word, it puts the matter to the vote, using all available means to manipulate the outcome. The ploy begins with the best of suburban manners, recognizing various perspectives informing interpretation. But then the knife swings - since all perspectives are equal, no interpretation can claim the authority of the text. On this basis, the Sixth Commandment loses all bearing - the elites of the ELCA's membership can dismiss what they no longer respect, God's determination of sexual limits." (quoted by Kenneth Sauer in a talk to a Core conference)This is a completely unfair tirade. The Human Sexuality Social Statement in no way says there are no sexual limits. Indeed, gay and lesbian Lutherans themselves are not asking for sex without limits, entirely the opposite, they seek the church's blessing on life-long, faithful, trusting relationships, for responsible sexual expression within the context of caring love. What Nestingen is writing here is simply not true, a false accusation, it is a kind of lying, bearing false witness, a breaking of a commandment, a failure to have any respect for the integrity of other baptized Lutherans who are reading the same scriptures.
And can anyone actually believe that it is the "elites" of the ELCA that forced all the Lutherans gathered in Minneapolis to vote the way they did? This habit of thought, to blame everything on elites, is a popular way for some so-called conservatives to speak in politics today but it is terribly wrong to bring this type of (false) political populism into the church. (I say "so-called conservatives" because the terms liberal and conservative are thrown around in ways that are more confusing than helpful in the current hostile political climate.) By speaking this way James Nestingen disqualifies himself as a person who is able to represent true confessional Lutheranism.
5) Yearning for Catholic Authority
There is one background factor that may be surprising to many laypersons and some pastors who may not be acquainted with some of the theological debates going on in the church for several decades now. Some of our best theologians have been writing in such a way as to prepare Lutherans to be able to return to fold of the Roman Catholic Church. Martin Luther did not want to leave the Roman Church, he was excommunicated. With the Vatican II Council in the 1960s there a new openness was expressed in that church and many Lutheran pastors and theologians, including myself, became interested in the possibility of a restoration of the Lutheran church within the church Catholic. Many Lutherans began to think of themselves as "Evangelical Catholics." Alas, it was not long before popes clamped down on that new spirit of openness, in terms of both theology and social ethics. I gave up on that hope years ago. But some of the Core materials speak in such a way as to express a yearning for highly centralized authority, a kind of Lutheran pope who would not listen to or be subject to anything like an assembly of the people of God. I do not know how strong this yearning is among the Core members but it is something I think it important for people to know about this group.
One of the key leaders of this movement is Carl Braaten, my old professor of theology at the Lutheran School of Theology where I finished up my theological education. Among the Core materials can be found an Open Letter to Bishop Chilstrom, a letter which is not very fair to or respectful of the former bishop of the church who had written his own open letter dealing with these matters from a more practical and pastoral perspective, saying the church was able to get through the issues of accepting divorced clergy and the ordination of women without major divisions. But I respect my former professor, have read his books, and agree with his central concern, the theological integrity of the ELCA. Lutherans are known among Protestants for the importance they place on theology and confession and Braaten is terrified that the ELCA will become another "liberal Protestant denomination." The word "liberal" here means to place emphasis on internal subjective experience as a guide to truth and it is rather astonishing in this open letter by Braaten that he so completely rejects his own heritage, Lutheran pietism, because he feels it too placed too much emphasis on internal subjective consciousness.
The reason this has become so important is because gay and lesbian persons have claimed that "their experience" of homosexuality as a given rather than a choice should be a factor in determining its legitimacy in sexual conduct. In many of the Core documents there is wholesale condemnation of such "experience" but Braaten especially goes overboard in his condemnation of this in favor of the "objective truth" of the scriptures no matter other reason or experience. He condemns Chilstrom for placing too much confidence on "reason and experience."
Braaten and the Core materials ridicule the ELCA statements about the "bound conscience" as if this is not a significant concept in Lutheran history. The conscience exists, of course, in the internal subjectivity of the person and Luther gave it a most high authority, greater in fact than civil law to which province Luther assigned matters such as marriage. That is, for Luther marriage was not a sacrament of the church, but a matter for civil law. And he talks about conscience and law in such a way as to promote what we might call evangelical freedom:
“For whenever such a case or error or doubt comes up, where the conscience could not be aided unless the law or statute were repealed, and yet this same law cannot be publicly repealed because it is universal, one should, before God and secretly in one’s conscience, respect the conscience more than the law. And if conscience or law has to yield and give way, then it is the law which is to yield and give way, so that the conscience may be clear and free. The law is a temporal thing which must ultimately perish, but the conscience is an eternal thing which never dies. It would not be right to kill or ensnare an eternal thing for a transient thing to remain and be free. Rather, the opposite should be true; a transitory thing should perish rather than an eternal one be destroyed. It is better to strangle a sparrow so that a human being may survive than to strangle a human being so that a sparrow may survive. The law exists for the sake of the conscience, not the conscience for the sake of the law. If one cannot help both at the same time, then help the conscience and oppose the law.” (Luther's Works, Vol 46 page 318)Not only does Luther raise the internal conscience of the person to such a high level, he also talked about BOTH the Word of God and the response of faith in the internal consciousness of the believer. Neither one stands alone, it is both together that does the deed of salvation. No one can save himself or herself without the Word but the living, spoken Word is blown to the wind unless there is a real person there to hear it and respond in faith. Pietism and the "liberal" church may place too much emphasis on subjectivity, but the real culprits here are those religious right groups in this country who have made "accepting Jesus" the standard of who is able to be called "Christian," which does not reflect the Reformation heritage of either Luther or Calvin. I believe that Reformation theology is crucial for Lutherans, but to deny the role of experience in both law and gospel is to disincarnate the faith in ways that make it non-sensible in actual human life. Braaten knows this, but his writings sometimes can be so abrasive as to lead people to reject his thinking without adequately considering it. I don't think he belongs on the side of the Core agenda, and I don't think either that many of the Core members really know what Braaten is saying, how critical he is of the sort of democratic congregational polity advocated by the group known as Word Alone which is associated with Lutheran Core.
Braaten belongs in the ELCA as do all other theologians with his concerns. The sexuality issues, as he himself admits, have come later and are less important than his theological concerns. Maybe Braaten, like Luther, has become overly grumpy in his old age. If he could learn to express himself without such an air of arrogance and anger he might receive a more receptive audience. It is a terrible waste of an important theological career to have it associated with a negative, sectarian group such as Lutheran Core.
6) Structures are Not Church Dividing
I cannot say the same for one of the other leaders of the whole movement against the ELCA, Robert Benne. He has been complaining and agitating and organizing against his own church since it was founded and before. Now he has found a group which will follow him in attacking the church. He is now using the issue of homosexuality to promote his extremist political views which will be discussed later.
Benne has written a piece on the Core website, reasons for creating a different Lutheran church, because he is worried that some will think the movement is "obsessed about one or two issues." But the reasons he lists are all structural complaints about the ELCA, not fundamental confessional issues. Lutherans historically have considered structures of the church secondary matters, not having to do with the central confession of faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. But Benne hates how the ELCA chooses delegates to assemblies, he abhors the idea of lay persons coming together to debate concerns of the church. This is a little strange since he himself is a lay person, not an ordained leader (he is thus not officially responsible to teach the faith of the church).
If there is one intellectual leader in the ELCA who has done the most to damage our church it is Robert Benne, along with his friend, the late Richard John Neuhaus who chose to reject the Lutheran church and become a Catholic priest. Neuhaus raised funds from conservative foundations to set up organizations to explicitly attack the mainline denominations through the media and organize division within them. It is here with Benne that we see an intentional effort to promote a highly partisan particular political perspective in the church. The fact that Lutheran Core would put him on their advisory council and proudly publish his writings indicates that the Core group itself has adopted a political program; it is not confessing Jesus Christ, it is confessing a perversion of the gospel, it has associated the gospel with a minor difference of opinion over scriptural interpretation of a single social ethical issue.
It is interesting that one of the Core leaders, Kenneth Sauer, a former bishop in southern Ohio, himself comments that what structures the church assumes should not be church dividing. He even quotes Luther who said that structures
"...are entirely external, and so far as time and places and persons are concerned, they can be regulated altogether by reason and are completely subject to it. God, Christ and Holy Spirit ask no questions about these things any more than they ask about what or where we should eat, drink, dress, live, marry, go or stay, except what has been said, that no one ought to without good reason take these matters into his own hands and disturb or hinder the common people."Now, this is a mind-blowing quote from Luther, it completely contradicts all the arguments the Core folks use. The structures of the church, so important to Robert Benne, are "entirely external" and to be "regulated altogether by reason." Notice that word, "reason," exactly the word used by Herb Chilstrom who is criticized by Carl Braaten. Luther says reason should be used to put together church structures, and reason should be used even in determining marriage and human relationships. Such issues are not church dividing, they are secondary issues, people may have different opinions, but what unites us is "God, Christ, and Holy Spirit." If people try to divide the church on the basis of these other things they are not on the side of the Holy Spirit. I am surprised Kenneth Sauer used this quote since it completely contradicts his whole argument for trying to divide the ELCA. The Core folks cannot claim to be standing for a true confessional church on the basis of matters of reason or politics.
7) Use of Homosexuals as Scapegoats
The question of true "confession" raises another very important background factor to consider, differing interpretations of the experience of the church in Nazi Germany, which was the setting most recently for an act of "confession." Conservative political rhetoric today is filled with allusions to Hitler, associating President Obama with Hitler, but it is important to realize the degree to which Hitler promoted a socially conservative political agenda. I do not believe that anyone serious about the study of social ethics and theology today can do so without taking into account the holocaust and how Hitler tried to force the church to promote his racist political program. The church failed to stand up to Hitler except for the group known as the Confessing Church which did so in a document called the Barmen Declaration. The whole topic of what it means to be a "confessing church" is informed by that experience. If there is one book I would recommend on this it is one by a history professor at Pacific Lutheran University, Robert Erickson, Theologians Under Hitler. There you will read about how many theologians, teachers of the church, believed Hitler would be good for the country; they put their politics over their faith and were not able to oppose Hitler even when he sent millions of people to the gas chambers. There was a yearning among the German people for a strong leader who would set the nation straight. Hitler preached a very conservative social philosophy including racial superiority, strong families, and hatred for homosexuals.
Many people are not aware that thousands of homosexuals died in the concentration camps along with Jews and others considered mentally weak. This was justified on the basis that these groups were the cause of Germany's problems, these groups of people were used as scapegoats, blamed for keeping Germany from becoming a strong nation, for causing impurity in society. The weakest members of society were blamed for the sins of the most powerful.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one of the few theologians to stand up, confess Christ, and speak against the practices of Hitler, including those against the Jews. He was hanged just before the war ended for his opposition to the Nazi regime. He said one of the marks of the church should be that it stands with the least powerful in a society. I believe that is important for our time as well, and when the scriptures are read completely, when we read about the ways of Jesus, it is very difficult to come to any other conclusion. If the church stands with the powerful over against the powerless it has lost its way, it has lost its bearings. Martin Luther stood up against what had become an oppressive church because in his heart he cared for the people who were being tormented and terrorized in their hearts by the teachings of that church. He said you know a real theologian by his heart, a heart which knows the suffering one on a cross. The Lutheran Core movement allows itself to be associated with a religious right which makes scapegoats of homosexuals, blames them for the ills of society. This is the opposite from what a true confessing church should be doing.
8) Bringing Politics into the Church
And that leads to politics as an explicit background factor in the current debates in the ELCA over homosexuality. I have become very alarmed over the years by the growth of what the media call a "religious right" in this country, made up of Southern Baptists and Pentecostals and other fundamentalists, supported by television technology to reach large numbers of people, creating large congregations under a business ownership model, and engaging in explicit partisan politics to gain large audiences. The late Jerry Falwell, a Southern Baptist, along with Pat Robertson, a Pentecostal television preacher, blamed the 9/11 attacks on homosexuals, among other groups. Radio commentator James Dobson has carried on a systematic campaign for years against gay and lesbian persons claiming that if their rights are honored it will destroy the American family. What these so-called conservatives are doing is engaging in social scapegoating, just like Adolph Hitler, blaming the problems of society on its weakest members.
And this attack has been joined by one of the two primary political parties in this country. In the 2004 presidential campaign the Republican National Committee sent out leaflets in several states with a picture of a gay couple kissing in one corner and an image of the bible with an "X" over it in the other, with the implication to "Vote Republican." Here is the use of an image of a despised minority along with an image of our Holy Scriptures to elect political candidates. It is using hatred of gay and lesbian persons for political gain, just as many religious right groups send out letters against gay people in order to raise money and gain recruits in their campaigns of hate. The same issue is now being used by fellow Lutherans as the basis of causing division in the ELCA.
I would like each reader here, whether Republican or Democrat or Independent, to pause and just think about this now. Many of you may not quite realize how serious this matter has become, not only in the church but also in the country, and not just about homosexuality. You may not know that Karl Rove, the political strategist for George W. Bush, based his whole campaign strategy on getting out the vote of the religious right in Texas, where Bush ran for governor, and then when he ran for president. The "religious right" has actually been considered to be the "base" of the Republican Party. That is, Karl Rove, who himself is not a Christian, has been successful in electing political candidates through manipulation of religious attitudes and organizations. He has, indeed, included in his strategies efforts to influence conservatives in the Roman Catholic Church and mainline Protestant denominations.
President Bush intentionally tried to use the state to encourage "evangelical revival" even while refusing to meet with mainline Protestant leaders. This is a form of the state trying to influence the internal life of the church, the exact same thing as Hitler's henchmen tried to do in Germany, the exact same thing against which Karl Barth wrote when he and others put together the Barmen Declaration. Neither the state, nor political parties nor political candidates, should be trying to determine the internal life of the church. We confess Christ, not a political program.
And it should certainly not be true that some Lutherans would join in a politically motivated effort against gay and lesbian persons. For the truth is that the Core movement has been energized not by a concern for scripture, this movement has developed over the past years when the Republican Party has turned to conservative social views to get its candidates elected, and it has been energized by this larger conservative political movement, it is allowing the politics of the times to determine the witness of the church. Nothing else explains why they should make such a big deal out of an otherwise important, but secondary matter. The difference over scripture interpretation concerning homosexuality simply is not a big enough issue over which to split the church, unless the leaders of this movement have been influenced by these external cultural factors.
9) The Power of Backlash Politics
And I am afraid that is the case. In the Core materials reference is made repeatedly to the 1960s, such as in the speech by Kenneth Sauer. In the so-called conservative narrative of recent history, the 1960s are the symbol of the beginning of all that is evil and wrong. A while back the conservative columnist George Will wrote that he was so happy for the 1960s since Republicans have been riding the wave of conservative backlash ever since. There has been a backlash against the urban violence of the 1960s in the emphasis on law and order, on more police and prisons, putting very large numbers of black males in jail. There has been a backlash, especially in Southern states, against the gains of rights for black people in the 60s, and this has resulted in the South turning nearly completely from the Democratic to the Republican party. The South was the only part of the country that could not vote for a black president; it hates the federal government and Supreme Court for forcing it to change its ways of segregation; it doesn't want to pay the taxes for education and social services for black people so tax rates in the South are low in relation to the rest of the country. The religious right got its start in the South, of course, when white people began setting up their own "Christian schools," Billy Graham is a Southern Baptist, most of the television preachers are from the South. Much of the religious right hostility represents anger at the North for forcing integration on the South, and the abortion and gay issues are handy emotional issues around which to agitate and organize. Through these means the South seeks to claim moral superiority after facing the condemnation of the nation for its racial segregation. There are many racial undercurrents in contemporary politics that continue to fuel the culture wars, which are about much more than moral issues in the narrow sense of the word.
The 60s have come to represent justice movements for blacks, women, and gay and lesbian persons. Our society has mostly accepted the gains of blacks and women, despite the conservative backlash (especially against women concerning choice to have an abortion) and despite the fact that conservatives have enjoyed the political advantage for the past decades until the most recent presidential election. Most observers expect that gay marriage will become an accepted legal fact in this country. A prominent conservative attorney has just recently taken up the cause of gay marriage in a case expected to reach the Supreme Court. The power of the the conservative backlash movement is waning after four decades. And yet, just as this is true we have a group of Lutherans who want to form a new Lutheran church based on an out-dated and unreasonable view against homosexuality.
These Lutherans face an objective fact they do not want to admit, no matter how they articulate their motivations, no matter how much they say they don't hate homosexuals, no matter how much they claim they are standing up for scripture, no matter how much they claim they are not politically motivated, when they announce they are forming a new Lutheran church it will be received by the larger society in political terms, as a victory for political conservatives, a victory for the religious right over Protestants, a victory for those who are hostile against homosexuals. That is a fact. It will not be a witness to the grace of a loving God who reaches out to all people.
And it will be viewed not only as an action against homosexuals, but an action against women and against black persons as well. This will be a terrible witness in a society already torn apart by fractious and debilitating political rhetoric. It will not be a church confessing Christ as Lord and Savior, it will be a church dedicated to the rejection of gay people. That is the plain fact I hope these conservative Lutherans begin to face and just stop this silliness of trying to form some new Lutheran group.
10) The Politics of Abortion
On Pentecost Sunday, May 31, 2009, in Wichita, Kansas, a Lutheran layperson was shot dead in the head as he passed out bulletins in the narthex of his ELCA church by a man whose mind was filled with hysterical anti-abortion ranting of the religious right and who may have believed his action could be justified by the natural law reasoning of bishops of the Catholic Church. Politically motivated commentators on one television network had repeatedly called Dr. George Tiller a terrible baby killer not bothering to do any careful research to determine what sort of abortions were being performed by this compassionate man of God carrying out his vocation in the world. There is a religious war going on in this nation and Lutherans are being shot and killed for what they believe. Now a group calling itself Lutheran is willing to forsake its Lutheran heritage and join the religious right.
Abortion is a very big background factor to take into account in thinking about whether to leave the ELCA. Some of the Core materials explicitly raise it, such as the paper of Robert Benne. Even more than gay rights, abortion has been at the center of political and religious organizing for several decades. The two political parties take opposite sides on the issue; conservative politicians have used the issue as a key factor in their campaigns. But the issue is not merely about abortion as a moral issue, it also stands as a signal issue for the opposition of the religious right and the Roman Church against the whole movement of women's integrity, freedom and equality in society and church. If you don't believe that women should use contraceptives then maybe you would support the Core movement. If you believe that women should be forced to play only one important role in society, staying home to raise the children, then maybe you would support the Core movement. If you believe that God acts at conception and that all abortions, even for a twelve year old girl raped by her uncle, are a killing of a human being, then maybe you would support the Core movement.
This last point is especially important theologically. Both the religious right and the Roman Church try to claim that science proves that God acts at conception to begin human life. Now, science can be helpful in moral deliberation, but science can never be used, in Lutheran understanding, to determine when God acts. Luther rejected what is called "natural theology." Human beings by their own reason and strength cannot know God, God is known by God's own revelation in Jesus Christ and his cross. When the Core materials place emphasis on "law and creation" as the basis of Lutheran confession they are completely wrong. We confess Christ and God's love as our salvation, and only as we receive God's grace and mercy through faith are we able to also thank God for the gifts of creation as well. The science of biology tells us much about the whole process of the creation of a human being, but to pick out one point in the process and claim that is the absolute single divine moment of creation is an act of idolatry in the use of human reason. At the time the bible was written there was no knowledge of modern biology so there is no scriptural warrant for the current claims of the religious right or the Roman Church. The idea that human life begins absolutely at conception is a relatively recent teaching of Catholicism, not even affirmed by its most respected theologian, Thomas Aquinas.
What I have just written is my own effort as an ordained pastor to put into words what I believe to be the substance of the Lutheran heritage on this question, to teach the true faith of the church. Maybe others would write it a bit differently. Sometimes too many pastors, and even bishops, may not adequately know the degree to which Luther questioned natural theology. But I do not believe for that reason that we should so quickly be willing to forsake that heritage in favor of either Catholic or Calvinist understandings, or in favor of politically-motivated views in current public debates. I commend to you the ELCA Statement on Abortion. It is not a Democratic document based on individual rights, it is not a Republican document based on false views of when God acts, it is a very good Lutheran document based on the best of the Lutheran heritage. I believe that Dr. George Tiller knew that document well, it supported his courageous work in the midst of constant hostile demonstrations outside his clinic by the religious right. Anyone reading about the cases he served, providing service to women in desperate and terribly tragic circumstances, cannot help but conclude he was a most compassionate and ethical man carrying out his God-given vocation in the world as he understood it as a faithful Lutheran. I think we should lift him up as a saint of the church and honor him as a martyr for the faith.
11) Lutherans are Neither Catholics Nor Calvinists
The primary claim presented in the Core materials is that by the vote of an assembly of the members of the ELCA a decision was made which demonstrates that the ELCA as a whole does not value holy scripture about a matter of "law and creation." For these folks it is not a question of a few verses concerning homosexual activity, the whole ELCA is at fault and it has become an illegitimate church against which the Core folks think they must "confess" and form a new church. I have already indicated that in the history of the term "confession" it has always been a matter of confessing Christ, not a matter of "law and creation." When Luther stood up to confess his faith he was not saying he wanted to get married, or that a particular form of marriage was most important, or any other matter of law or ethics. He stood up to confess Christ against a church which was using various forms of law to coerce and control the minds and hearts and lives of the people of his time. Christ is our salvation, not works of the law, there is no more important confession that stands in the history of the Lutheran church. Even at that time, and at other times through history Lutherans have been accused of something that now the Core group is also saying, that the ELCA has become "antinomian" as Carl Braaten brashly says. This term means "against the law" in the sense of not believing the law is important at all. This charge is completely false.
The Social Statement on Human Sexuality very adequately explains the Lutheran understanding of law, the civil law, the theological use of the law, and the distinction between law and gospel. But I want to deal with background factors on this question not present in that statement. There are three primary Christian traditions in this country, the Catholic, the Calvinist and the Lutheran. (The religious right with its fundamentalism and Pentecostalism is a modern commercialized invention which does not represent historic Protestant faith stemming from the Reformation.) The Catholic tradition of "natural law reasoning" relies on the philosophy of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle as articulated through Thomas Aquinas. It is believed here that all persons, Christians or not, are given by God a "natural law" or sense of right and wrong, as in "conscience," and that all of creation has behind it a structure of "essences" which can be known through the exercise of human reason, which means that the philosophers who know how to do such reasoning become the real experts in knowing right and wrong. Now, if disputes emerge about natural law or the nature of creation then the pope is the final authority. In Luther's time everyone had to run to the priest to find out what was right and wrong and the priest would look up the question in his books of canon law and tell the believer what to do.
Luther rejected all this, he hated Aristotle, he thought the Catholic Church at the time was oppressing the people with its law. If you want to dig into this just look up a document of Luther's called the Heidelberg Disputation where he begins to talk about the Theology of the Cross. Luther taught that God does give us a conscience, which in content is informed by the ten commandments, but that the conscience is clouded by sin and not always reliable in daily life, which is why it is important, indeed, to preach both law and gospel. When Carl Braaten says that Luther considered reason the "whore of Babylon" he is talking about Luther's rejection of the ability of natural law reasoning to reveal the mind of God. Luther did not reject God's law, he rejected a particular way the church had come to use the law to dominate the hearts and minds of the people. And Luther was perfectly clear about all this, as demonstrated in this quote in his commentary on Galations:
"Now if our sin has been forgiven through Christ Himself, the Lord of the Law - and forgiven by His having given Himself for it - the Law, that slave, no longer has the right to accuse and condemn us because of our sin; for this has been forgiven, and we have become free by the deliverance of the Son. Therefore the entire Law has been abrogated for believers in Christ." (Luthers Works, Vol. 26, p.447)One would think that it would not be necessary to remind Lutherans about these matters, but the Core materials are full of misunderstandings and false accusations. If these Lutherans want to become Catholics they should join the Catholic Church not form another Lutheran church not informed by Lutheran heritage.
The second tradition is Calvinism and it is the theology standing behind much of Protestantism other than Lutheran. The emphasis here is scripture, that is, John Calvin taught that the details of daily living and how to structure society were given in the bible so if you want to know what is right and wrong ethically all you have to do is read the bible. Calvin believed this so strongly that when he became a powerful figure in Geneva he actually set up a committee to pore through the bible for instructions on how to build the city's sewer system! In other words, from the bible we learn not just the gospel, but details of the moral life under God. It is this emphasis that underlies the effort of the Baptist elements of the religious right to want to change the constitution of this country so that it is founded on the bible. The bible is viewed like the Muslims view the Koran, nothing more needs to be written or said, the Koran is complete in and of itself, the Holy Spirit's work is done. And this is the way that the Core materials suggest is the correct way to read the bible. Again, if the Core supporters want to form a new Lutheran church it would not be a Lutheran church, they would have to call it a Calvinist or Reformed church, except that, wait, most of the other Protestant bodies have long past moved beyond this kind of Calvinist fundamentalism.
When Luther was asked whether he should not follow the law in the Old Testament he replied that God gave that law to the Jews, God may be telling him to do something else. He was referring to detailed rules and regulations, not the general Law of God as in the ten commandments. Luther taught that behind the law is the sword of violence, that God exercises an "alien righteousness" in using governmental law to provide order in the community under threat of physical coercion. The law kills to get its way, but it is an alien righteousness because violence is alien to the nature of God, who is love. The law preached is in the form of "love God and neighbor" as Jesus summarized it. We break God's law when we fail to love God and fail to love the neighbor, as we are constantly doing due to sin. Luther put little stock in the law to make us do what we are told, he believed that preaching the gospel would remake people anew and inspire them to do what God wanted not due to force but through faith in the grace and mercy of a loving God. And, for Luther, the decisions about exactly in detail of how to love the neighbor were the decisions of the individual believer standing themselves responsible before God for what they do, using what I call their "practical reason" to meet the need of the neighbor which could be clearly seen without elaborate natural law reasoning.
That's why ethics for a Lutheran are so different than either Catholicism or Calvinism. The church can crucially help each person in their ethical decisions through moral deliberation in the community of faith, but it cannot take away from the person his or her own responsibility to do what is right and good before not the society or the political party or any other human institution even the church, but before God. Ethics for Lutherans comes out of our relationship with God in the context of hearing the gospel of God's love and participation in the sacrament of communion where we take the body and blood of one who suffered for us into our own bodies. I learned this emphasis on relationship from Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson. We do not finally rely on philosophical reasoning for our ethics, nor on a paper pope, but on our relationship with a loving God.
This openness about ethics in Lutheranism is one of the reasons we can have some good fights among ourselves. But when one side starts to say that they are right on a matter of legal ethics claimed on the basis of their particular interpretation of scripture, and claim the other side is not confessing the true faith, then we are at the point of losing the most treasured center of the Lutheran heritage which is the gospel and evangelical freedom.
12) God and Country
When I was attending Luther Seminary in St. Paul I would go home for holidays and ask my Norwegian mother about her life in the church growing up on a farm south of Grand Forks, North Dakota. One time she told me that her pastor had told the young people not to attend the tent revivals held regularly in the neighborhood because all they preached there was "God and country." Another time she said there was some controversy in her church when a banker who was foreclosing on farms in the area went to communion to receive forgiveness of his sins. The issues of the relation of the church to government and economic institutions are not new. Those pietist Lutherans in my mother's church rejected both partisan politics and commercialism in the church.
I remembered my mother's words when I was a pastor on the southside of Chicago in the early 1980s. Having read a book on the new television preachers I sat down and systematically watched them when I got home at night after church meetings. Night after night what was presented was not Christian faith, but "God and country" preaching, an entirely Americanized form of faith. The American flag was more prominent as a symbol than the cross of Jesus Christ. Many of these preachers were in the Pentecostal tradition of tent meetings her pastor had rightly warned my mother about.
It was during those years when I was gathered one week with other pastors on the southside to study the pericope texts. One of the pastors brought to the attention of the group a full-page newspaper advertisement of a group supporting Ronald Reagan's policy in central America and there on the list of supporters was Robert Benne, who was then teaching social ethics at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, located in our neighborhood on the southside. The group was outraged that a teacher of our church would sign such a partisan statement. Later, the Reagan administration got into a lot of trouble for what is called the Iran-Contra affair. We composed and sent a letter to Benne but he was not interested to meet with us. Since then Benne has become a fierce advocate for the political philosophy known as neoconservatism, even writing an article proposing that Lutherans support a civil religion in the United States around just one person of the Trinity, God the creator, as if it is possible to separate out God and worship one person without the other, to support a concept of god alien to the Lutheran tradition.
Not all neoconservatives are Christians, not at all, but it is a central part of their strategy to appeal to religious believers to support the military adventures of the United States, whatever they may be. In other words, here is another case where a political group wants to use religion for its own purposes, just as Hitler tried to do, in this case to create an Americanized form of religion which would always put God on the side of the country of the United States. Benne was proposing that Lutherans become like the television preachers of God and country. Now Benne has found a group, the Lutheran Core, which agrees with him and features his writings on their website.
Benne in his paper there says explicitly that he does not want the ELCA to be publishing social statements critical of the United States and its policies. This is exactly the position of the extreme conservative wing of the Republican Party, never criticize this country, the sorts of folks who are now demonstrating and carrying signs which say Obama is a socialist and a fascist. Well, as for me, I am proud of the ELCA when it has the courage to carefully examine public issues and is willing to call the country to task when necessary, whether it is a Republican or Democratic administration.
During those years in Chicago I attended a workshop taught by Robert Benne. He actually said in that workshop that anyone who starts to think about social ethics from the perspective of the poor is a Marxist. Wow, I thought, that leaves out Mary the mother of Jesus who talked about lifting up the poor and sending the rich away empty, and Jesus who announces at the beginning of his ministry that he has been sent to release the captives. I guess Benne believes anyone who reads those passages of scripture is a Marxist. There has been in the church a debate over "liberation theology" which in its Latin American form did use Marxism as a beginning analysis of social problems. But to say that anyone with a concern for the poor is a Marxist, I am sorry, but this is plain political rhetoric of the worst sort which was fashionable during the years of the Cold War. In the 1950s Billy Graham preached in Los Angeles that the Communists would come and bomb that city and New York unless the nation turned to Christ. A newspaper titan sent a memo to his reporters saying, "Puff Graham," because William Randolph Hearst believed Graham's preaching would be good for the country. That's pure "God and country" talk but it is the sort of thing that the television preachers have been doing ever since. This incident indicates the important role of the media in promoting a "God and country" type of religion in this nation. That's the sort of thing Robert Benne likes and promotes but it is not in the Lutheran tradition, as my mother's pastor knew those many years ago.
In one of his books Robert Benne talks about a conversion experience, but it was not a conversion to Christ, it was a conversion to a particular economic philosophy which he learned from the economics professors at the University of Chicago. Attending ecumenical workshops involving people of faith from other countries he found that many of them were critical of the way corporations were involved in their countries. So he decided to reject what those people were saying and adopted a particular form of capitalist theory as taught by people like the late Milton Friedman who rejected nearly any form of government regulation over the economy. Benne has spent his career preaching this theory and believes the ELCA should not adopt social statements concerning economic justice or calling for the government to be more involved in assistance to the poor. In his paper in the Core materials Benne repeats these things again as a reason to form a new Lutheran church. Benne apparently does not realize that the Cold War is over, it is no longer credible to call someone a Marxist merely if they are willing to criticize some aspects of capitalist theory or institutional corporate practice. Corporations are not perfect, government is not perfect, the church should be able to criticize both of them from a biblical perspective of peace and justice. Now that the country has faced an economic meltdown due partly to failure of government to adequately regulate financial institutions people are realizing it is necessary to rethink these matters carefully.
But it is just this time when Robert Benne is trying to mobilize a new Lutheran church dedicated to his own type of economic theory. He wants "commercialism" in the church in the worst possible way, and this should concern any faithful Lutheran who has any sense of the history and traditions of Lutheranism.
Benne does not speak for "traditional Lutherans" as he tries to claim. He is a radical extremist in his views of both government and economy. He uses language about traditional sexuality to promote his otherwise extremist political views. That is the plain truth as I have studied his works and watched his activity over these years. My mother knew better listening to her pastor. Sometimes the bankers don't do good things even if that is not a reason to deny them a place at the communion table with the rest of us sinners.
I have spent this time talking about Robert Benne because I believe he is not at all a faithful interpreter of the Lutheran tradition and yet he is one of the primary leaders in the movement to divide the church and forsake the Lutheran heritage. He has been given a large voice in the ELCA over these last years. His are the most numerous of the articles published in the ELCA-sponsored "Journal of Lutheran Ethics." He has had every chance to make his views known in our church, but now since everyone has not agreed with him and the Assembly has made a decision he dislikes, he is trying to lead people out of the ELCA. It is sad to me. As much as I disagree with him he has the right to speak among us. But now that he is going so far as to try to severely damage the ELCA I am making my own views clearly known. And I hope this is helpful to those laypersons and pastors who may be considering leaving the ELCA.
13) God Makes Us Sexual
The Lutheran Core materials provide no background information about the Lutheran understanding of sexuality, the history of sexuality, the context of sexual attitudes and practices in the period in which the Apostle Paul is writing, nor even the way sexuality is used and exploited in the contemporary media and corporate-cultural practices. The materials simply proceed from a negative assumption about homosexual practices as if it is unnecessary to think about these other matters. In other words, the Lutheran Core materials start from the widespread prejudice against homosexual persons prevalent in earlier and current culture and ignore the larger context. One would think that in such a serious matter as leaving the church over a doctrinal dispute about a sexual matter the Core leaders would take these larger matters into account and how to understand them from a theological or faith perspective. They seem to be assuming there have been no changes in either church or society over the past 2000 years! But there was something called a Reformation that happened 500 years ago, and there have been a few changes since then too about sexual attitudes and practices.
Both Robert Benne and Carl Braaten mention in their writings on the Core website their hesitancy about feminist theology and their concern about the "name" of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as if the ELCA is about to reject this traditional naming of God rather than it just being a matter for theological discussion. In fact, when you read deeply into the Core materials it appears that many of these folks are more concerned about the changing role of women in society and church than about homosexuality. And I think it is important for all of us to realize that recent social change in relations between women and men have created confusion, uncertainty, and anxiety in gender role expectations and practices which are still being actively worked out in family relations, society, and church. But that is not a reason to split the church. The fact that men can no longer so easily speak with the same authority without women having a voice is not a reason to leave the ELCA, unless the Core movement wants to return to a male dominated church.
One of the big changes since the Reformation has been the development of modern nation states and consitutional democracies based on human rights. Some historians say that the wars following the Reformation were more based on the emergence of these nation states (Germany, France, etc.) than religion which has often been blamed for the carnage. But the Reformation did create religious divisions which even today continue to divide people and cause cultural wars.
Martin Luther was in many ways still a "medieval man" in the sense of accepting the social hierarchies of that time. If you look in Luther's works for his comments on social questions he often appears to us today to be quite conservative in the classic sense of that term (opposed to democratic forms of authority). With the coming of democratic states the nature of authority changed and in the 20th century of this country politics has been articulated in terms of rights for blacks, for women, and also for gay and lesbian persons. Women have asserted themselves based on their rights in a democratic society and this has led to major changes in the ELCA with the ordination of women as pastors and with cultural practices of how we speak and think about sexual and gender matters and how we establish representation in decision making in our congregations and assemblies. To be "conservative" today is to be uncomfortable with these changes.
But in a remarkable letter to some nuns Luther expressed affirmation of the importance of the free choice for women over against the "rules of men." This went against the power of the religious authority of that time in a remarkably strong way. The nuns had sent him a letter asking if they should leave the convent. He wrote back saying there were two reasons to leave the convent. The first had to do with whether they were being forced to stay in the convent by religious authorities:
...there are two reasons for which life at the convent and vows may be forsaken: The one is where men's laws and life within the order are being forced, where there is no free choice, where it is put upon the conscience as a burden. In such cases it is time to run away, leaving the convent and all it entails behind. If this is your situation, where you are not freely choosing the cloister, where your conscience is being forced, then call your friends. Let them help you escape and, if the law allows, take care of you or provide for you. If friends and parents are unwilling to help, obtain help from other goodly people, regardless of whether your parents become angry, die or recover. For the soul's well-being and God's will are above all, as Christ says (Matth. 10:37): "Anyone who loves father or mother more than me, is not worthy of me."Notice here too that Luther puts one's relationship with God over even the authority of parents and family, as Jesus did. Luther's whole theology was focused on this possibility that each person can have a relationship directly with God, hear the gospel and grow in faith in that relationship and this is what determines "conscience" or how a person determines right and wrong, not finally mediated by any other human structure such as the family, the church, or the state. This idea of individual free choice later was turned into social, political, and economic theories and assumptions leading to constitutional democracies. And this idea of a personal relationship with God was institutionalized in Lutheran pietism in the promotion of a practice of personal devotions each day. Unfortunately we are now living in a time when that practice is no longer emphasized, people like the idea of individual freedom but fail to focus on their relationship with a gracious and merciful God through which a conscience is developed.
But there is a second reason for leaving the convent. And what Luther says here will be difficult to read, especially for women, because his words are what today would be called clearly "sexist". I am going to quote him anyway because there is a strong theological declaration about sex in his words which I think is very important for us to consider today.
The second reason [to leave the convent] is the flesh: Though womenfolk are ashamed to admit to this, nevertheless Scripture and experience show that among many thousands there is not a one to whom God has given to remain in pure chastity. A woman has no control over herself. God has made her body to be with man, to bear children and to raise them as the words of Genesis 1:1 clearly state, as is evident by the members of the body ordered by God Himself. Therefore food and drink, sleep and wakefulness have all been created by God. Thus He has also ordered man and woman to be in marital union. Suffice it to say that no one needs to be ashamed over how God has made and created him, not having been given the high, rare mercy to do otherwise. (Source at ICLNet)Luther's basic attitude toward sex is that it is a God-given function which is to be accepted and affirmed. It's like eating and drinking, people are going to do it, women as well as men. Luther does not separate bodily sex over-against a "spiritual" dimension which rejects sex, his own time in the monastery led him to know the degree to which sexual activity was present in many forms. Luther was an "earthy" guy, very realistic in his views, and very much he believed that this very real, physical, biological, sexual life of human beings was a gift of God. The way to announce this in gospel language is to say "God loves your body" or "God makes us sexual." God is the source of the joy of sex. Luther puts it negatively, "A woman [or a man] has no control over herself [himself]." But there is no reason to be ashamed of our sexuality, it comes from God.
Like God's other gifts, human beings misuse it and abuse it, which is why marriage is the context in which sexual activity should take place. As I said before, Luther did not see marriage as a sacrament, and the regulation of marriage was not a matter for the church but the state. He says: “No one can deny that marriage is an external, worldly, matter, like clothing and food, house and property, subject to temporal authority, as the many imperial laws enacted on the subject prove.” (Luthers Works, Vol. 46: page 265) Recent history of the United States has increasingly affirmed the civil rights of gays and lesbians, and several states now have made it legal for gays and lesbians to get married. So, the Lutheran heritage of assigning marriage to civil law means that we are confronted also with a very practical question of fairness concerning whether to conduct weddings for gay and lesbian persons. None of the Lutheran Core materials even mention this obvious practical problem facing the church. If conservative Lutherans form a new church they will find themselves increasingly marginalized from civil society.
The big question is whether we think it is possible to preach the gospel to gay and lesbian persons, as Luther says to men and women, "God makes you sexual." I believe it is possible, and I believe that it is part of the calling of the church in our time to do so, based on the heritage of Lutheran faith. Not to do so would be a refusal to preach the gospel.
I said earlier that Luther's calling was to comfort the conscience of the people, which had been terrorized by oppressive teachings and structures of the Roman Catholic Church, by preaching the true good news of the gospel of God's love and mercy, that we are justified through faith not works of the law. The church over the centuries has terrorized the minds and hearts of gay and lesbian persons by its use of the scripture to preach law and hate. It is only in our own time that we now know that there is something called "homosexuality" as a condition of existence, not merely a sexual act, and that sexual acts of those given same-sex orientation can occur within the context of on-going, loving relationships, the kind of relationships unknown at the time the scriptures were written. We cannot simply ignore this new knowledge, just as we cannot ignore the changing facts of civil law. The church did not ignore new attitudes about slavery, even though Southern racists during the civil war used the bible to try to justify that evil institution. We are called to preach from the center of the Lutheran heritage the gospel to gay and lesbian persons, that they are in their very sexuality created by a loving and merciful God, that they need not be ashamed of their sexuality, just as Luther says. Not to do this is to forsake the Lutheran heritage in favor of a momentary political viewpoint.
Preaching such a gospel would also reject any notion that gay and lesbian persons are threats to "the family." On the contrary a strong Christian family is one where its gay and lesbian members would be cared for, nurtured, understood and loved.
14) The Dignity and Integrity of Gay and Lesbian Persons
Finally I want to tell you about what happened in the Oregon Synod in the early 1990s when it debated a resolution opposed to an initiative petition promoted in the state by a group called the Oregon Citizens Alliance which was trying to limit the civil rights of gay and lesbian persons. The OCA was a religious right group which originally organized to oppose abortion but was unsuccessful in Oregon. Reading up on its history I discovered this group made a decision not to fold up, but to try to maintain itself by raising money by attacking gay people. That's been the real motive for many of these religious right groups. It's easy and profitable to organize hate groups and use the bible as a justification for such hatred.
A group of us pastors in Portland put together a synod assembly resolution in support of rights for gay and lesbian persons and I had been given the responsibility to be the first one to the microphones after the resolution was put on agenda of the Assembly. When the bishop announced it was on the table I got up too slow, several other people got to both of the microphones before me. I thought I had made a huge blunder, these other folks may be speaking against the resolution so I would not have the first word. Well, what happened brought tears to my eyes.
The first person to speak was a layperson who spoke in favor of gay rights, the second was a layperson who spoke in favor, and every next person to speak for the resolution were laypeople, all unrehearsed and unplanned. I went back to my seat, I didn't have anything to say more than what these laypersons had already said. The resolution passed by a wide margin. The most moving statement was from a male police officer who spoke about the complete trust and confidence he had in his partner officer who was a lesbian woman. This is an example of the importance of "social trust" which is spoken about so well in the Social Statement on Human Sexuality adopted at Minneapolis.
This experience taught me that lay people in the church are probably way ahead of us pastors and bishops in their knowledge of the integrity, competence, and faithfulness of gay and lesbian persons. We in the ELCA should be thankful that gay and lesbian Lutherans want to stay in the church and serve it with all the gifts and talents they bring, and have brought also in the past in more ways than we probably can ever know. They with us are the baptized people of God called out of the world of politics and economics to hear the gracious and redemptive Word of God and then sent back into that very troubled world to live lives of service and love.
Whatever the Lutheran Core group does I hope we in the ELCA will now celebrate the decision at the Minneapolis Assembly as a new day and announce ourselves as an open church preaching the gospel of God's love to all people. As I learned in my confirmation classes at First Lutheran Church in Fargo, North Dakota, all have sinned, heterosexual and homosexual, and fall short of the glory of God, but all are invited to the communion table to be brought together as one in the power of a gentle and loving Spirit of a gracious God. (3)
Respectfully submitted to Lutheran leaders,
Phone: 253-318-1237 Email: edk(at)pubtheo.com
(1) After finishing this paper I contacted the senior pastor at First Lutheran concerning the status of deliberation concerning leaving the ELCA. I am happy to report that he responded that "the majority of this congregation and the senior pastor are not interested in pursuing this tact. Our vision and goal for the future is to continue to be a strong large congregation of the ELCA." I hope this paper will help support this conviction and encourage others to do the same.
(2) The documents referred to in this paper, unless otherwise indicated, were accessed at the website of Lutheran Core in January and February, 2010(http://www.lutherancore.org).
(3) After publishing this article I have learned of an excellent piece by Jon Pahl, Professor of the History of Christianity at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, called The Core of Lutheran CORE: American Civil Religion and White Male Backlash which provides much more scholarly detail for some of the points made in my article.
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