Essential Grace

There is a huge debate in the ELCA today about issues of sexuality.  There are several different views on the matter, many of which are in bitter opposition to one another.  Some congregations are leaving the church.  Some people are leaving their congregations.  Some, despite opposition on both theological and social grounds, are staying.  But how can we stay together in one church with such differences?  With such heated debate over whose interpretation of the Word of God is right?

We are not the first to have a major conflict within the church.  There have been times before when serious differences of practice and belief have challenged our ability to be a unified church.  This has happened many, many times over the history of the church, over issues that continue to be major and over issues that to us today seem to be largely irrelevant.  What can we learn from our forbears in the faith?  For the reformers in the 16th century, who were trying to create a new identity as Christians after having left the Roman Catholic church that had defined Christianity in the West since the very beginning, the solution was to divide things into essentials–those things that could not be compromised–and adiaphora–those things that were largely peripheral.  Adiaphora might be (and often was) comprised of issues that were at the heart of everyday life and practice of religion.  It was often bitterly fought over.  But those on differing sides of the issues could still come together as the body of Christ.  If we apply that question today, what are the essentials, to us?  What things are adiaphora?

As Lutherans, we hold that the core of the Gospel is justification.  All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; we are all sinners.  But we are also all saints, called and redeemed by God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  Nothing in this world can separate us from the love of God.  We are saved by the grace of God, by his steadfast love.  No action or inaction of ours can change God’s saving will.  This is the core of the Gospel.  While other theological interpretations may change, this stands firm.  No one on any side of the issue is challenging this.

The sexuality question is not one of Gospel, but of morals.  How does God want us to live in this fallen world?  And while the Gospel does not change, morals can do.  A century and a half ago, there were Lutherans in America who believed that slavery was morally acceptable.  A little over half a century ago, there were Lutherans in Germany who believed that Hitler’s treatment of Jews was not only morally acceptable, but even praiseworthy in some cases.  There is a great deal of material in the Bible that can be taken to support either position (much of the Old Testament in the former case, though most emphatically not Exodus, and the virulent anti-semitism of the Gospel of John, in the latter).  Despite their claim to Biblical support, today we believe them to have been horribly, tragically wrong.

I believe both slavery and anti-Semitism to be of much greater concern to Christianity, much closer to issues concerning the heart of the Gospel, than issues relating to homosexuality.  There are only five references to homosexual behavior in the Bible.  Paul’s letters and the holiness codes of Leviticus each contain two one-verse references to homosexual behavior included in a laundry list of forbidden behaviors.  Then there is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, in chapters eighteen and nineteen of Genesis, which in the text is an issue primarily of inhospitality, violence, and xenophobia in which homosexuality is a manifestation of the depravity of those two cities, not the main problem.  (Compare with the parallel story of the Levite’s Wife in the nineteenth chapter of Judges; compare also with Jesus’ reference to Sodom in Luke 10:12 or Matthew 10:15.)  Commentators did not begin to cite homosexuality as the main problem of Sodom and Gomorrah until several centuries after Christ’s death and resurrection.

The Bible is saturated with stories about the grace and mercy and love of God, and with commands to love one another and protect the vulnerable.  And yet we are tearing our churches apart–tearing the Body of Christ apart–over four verses and one dubiously-interpreted story.

For further study, here are a collection of responses to the sexuality issue collected by the faculty of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg.

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One thought on “Essential Grace

  1. There are two aspects to this debate in the ELCA now. The first, you address, is the theological question – “Is homosexual behavior a sin?” The recently adopted social statement addresses this issue. The second aspect of the debate is one of ministry. Since there are a considerable number of people in the ELCA that are very uncomfortable with the gay lifestyle from a cultural (not necessarily a theological) perspective, would a gay pastor be able to effectively minister to these people? People are discouraged from entering the preaching ministry for a variety of reasons including health, personality characteristics,or maturity. Was it wise of the CWA to pass the resolution on gay clergy at this time and risk giving offense to “weaker” Luhteran Christians? Would it not have been better for our church to have waited at least until the next CWA to deal with this issue? – Several questions to ponder.

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