Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Wolfe: "Broken Keys"

An excerpt from an excellent essay, "Broken Keys," by my brother pastor Ian Wolfe, STS, posted today at Lutheran Forum:

Our liturgical tradition has witnessed to the belief that the pastor speaks in the place of and with the full authority of the eternal Son of the Father. Thus we have the absolution spoken by the pastor in the rite of Confession and Forgiveness, “Cling to this promise: the word of forgiveness I speak to you comes from God. [Name], in obedience to the command of our Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins.” And going back earlier within the tradition, the Service Book and Hymnal offers these binding words from the rite for Public Confession in preparation for receiving the Holy Sacrament:
On the other hand, by the same authority, I declare unto the impenitent and unbelieving, that so long as they continue in their impenitence, God hath not forgiven their sins, and will assuredly visit their iniquities upon them, if they turn not from their evil ways, and come to true repentance and faith in Christ, ere the day of grace be ended.
From this theological and liturgical tradition within the Lutheran church, a pastor whose bound conscience belief in the Word of God that homosexual behavior is sin for the sake of pastoral care exercises the keys and binds that sin until repented. In doing so, that pastor speaks God’s own binding word upon such a person. His sin is not forgiven, neither by the pastor on earth nor by God in heaven. The Office of the Keys is exercised in this way so that a person might be convicted by the law and saved by the gospel. This is the ministry of the gospel and a fulfillment of the pastoral calling to be ministers of the Word. I must be painfully clear this concerns every unrepentant sinner and every unrepented sin. I only address homosexual behavior, because it is the issue upon which the ELCA now struggles and according to the bound conscience doctrine the keys are a valid and correct response to this sin and must be respected.

The social statement, however, affirms and lifts up the exact opposite teaching and interpretation. According to the statement, an equally valid and correct interpretation of Holy Scripture is that, not only is homosexual behavior not a sin, but that it is something that the church should recognize and possibly even bless. The same Word of God as is taught above to be correct is now also correct in the opposite interpretation and application. The Office of the Keys rightly used above by pastors has no place in this interpretation.

The ELCA formally holding these two opposed positions as equally correct raises obvious and difficult challenges to the ministry of the keys and the unified witness of the gospel. Because the social statement puts forward the bound conscience, which cannot be violated, as the criterion for allowing opposite interpretations of Holy Scripture to be normative within the church, it is also putting forward two different and opposed ministries of the gospel. One ministry of the gospel is to use the Office of the Keys on those who engage in homosexual behavior. The other ministry of the gospel is to use the Rite of Marriage (for lack of a clearer term for a rite for recognizing a publicly accountable lifelong monogamous same-gender relationships). One ministry of the gospel is to stand in the place of Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God and be His representative and witness to the vows that same-gender couples make. The other ministry of the gospel is to speak in the place and stead of Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, to call a person engaging in homosexual sex to repent amend her life and strive to avoid it at all costs to save soul and body. And now in the ELCA according to the social statement and ministry policy resolutions both ministries of the gospel are correct, valid, and equal.

The implications of these two opposite ministries of the gospel are unthinkable. I truly pity our homosexual brothers and sisters who now hear from one pastor in the ELCA the keys and from another pastor blessings and welcome. Does Jesus speak to such a one, through the office of pastor, a word of admonition and warning to their soul or does Jesus speak to such a one, through the office of pastor, a word of joy and blessing for that same behavior? Which Jesus is speaking the truth to our homosexual brothers and sisters? This church unfortunately has confused the gospel to the point that a person engaging in homosexual sex doesn’t know whether he’s condemned by God or blessed by God! The bound conscience doctrine now condemns a person to his or her own conscience to determine whether this behavior is or is not sin, because this church can no longer give a clear witness. How can any one do that?

The social statement condemns us because, due to our fallen nature, we truly cannot discern our sins. We need an outside word. We need the Law of God (second use) to show us our true nature, to say “no” to our sinful desires and to show us what truly is good, right, salutary and God pleasing....

Read it all here.


Petersen said...

Dear Brother,

I hold to the catholic position of inerrancy and thus I always find your arguments puzzling. I am sincere in this request, and do not mean to be hostile. I would like to understand how it is that you confess what you do.

You hold that homosexuality is a sin based on the Scriptures. But don't you also confess that the Scriptures are erroneous and inaccurate due the corrupt nature and prejudices, cultural and personal, of the human writers? If that is not a fair description, please correct it. If it is, or if it isn't, how do you know that the few places homosexuality is spoken of in the Scriptures is not simply the cultural or personal prejudice of the human writers? Do I misunderstand the proponents of homosexuality in the ELCA? I understood their argument to be that even as St. Paul was a sexist and sinfully brought out his prejudice against women as a mandate from the Lord, even though it wasn't, and that he and Moses were also prejudiced against homosexuals and did the same thing to them. Homosexuality is called a sin only by the error and prejudice of the human writers. It is is not God's Word or intent. Even as God always intended for women to serve as pastors in His Church, but was kept from it by the sinful will of men, so also He created some men as homosexuals and has desired to bless them in this and use them in His church but has been kept from this by the sinful will of men. Again, is this not fair?

If it is fair, and is at least partially your confession, that is that St. Paul sinfully prohibited women from the Office, isn't this also a problem for the Office of the Keys? How do you know that the Office of the Ministry has the authority to exercise the Keys? There aren't a plethora of passages that explicitly state that authority, fewer even than those that prohibit women from the Office. Those passages were written by human writers who were serving in the Office. Perhaps, even as they sinfully prohibited women from the Office due to prejudice and ignorance, so also they wrote this from class prejudice and from love of power.

I suppose this is the question: Is your confession that the writers of Holy Scripture have already demonstrated extreme and ungodly prejudice regarding women? Couldn't we expect that such persons might also hold to the demonstrable prejudices of their cultures and classes?


Dave Petersen
Redeemer Lutheran Church LC-MS
Ft. Wayne, IN

Pastor Zip said...

But don't you also confess that the Scriptures are erroneous and inaccurate due the corrupt nature and prejudices, cultural and personal, of the human writers?

No, brother Petersen, I do not confess that. (I do not believe Pastor Wolfe does, either.) Perhaps I was too subtle in stating my confession when I addressed "inerrancy" -- so let me clarify.

My confession regarding Holy Scripture is the same as that found in the Lutheran Confessions. Your description is not an accurate one.

And, frankly, the argument you attribute to "the proponents of homosexuality in the ELCA" is one that I've not seen held very widely in the ELCA -- except amongst the most radical of such proponents. I have heard such arguments, but I don't recall seeing them in the mainstream ELCA discussion -- from the "Journey Together Faithfully" series through the debate on the CWA floor. So I don't think your description there is "fair," either.

Thanks for asking.

Petersen said...

Dear Pastor Zip,

Thank you for the link. Having just seen your blog recently, I had not seen that answer before. I now have the Sacrastic Lutheran for radical left opinions in the ELCA and you for the radical right. That is helpful to me.

We could quibble about the word inerrancy. I am not quite as tied to it as I am to the word "Trinity," but I grant you that it is not the Scriptures or the Confessions. But something needs to be said about the Scripture's authority and trustworthiness, and there is no doubt that the Church from time in memorial held that inspired meant the very words and thoughts of Scripture were God's own. Inspired should be enough, even as the Shema and Our Lord's Words to the apostles on the Mount of Ascension should be enough for the Trinity. But it seems quite obvious to me that inspired isn't enough in our context, since it leaves quite open the idea that the the spirit is in there somewhere but not in the details and our job is to flesh out the hidden, spiritual meaning covered up with all that "human author" stuff. Such a sentiment is clearly novel in the Church and only really gained traction in Lutheranism within the last 100 years.

I am sorry that I misunderstood your position on the Scriptures and also that of the mainstream proponents of homosexuality in the ELCA. Did I also misunderstand your position on women's ordination? I had thought I was being fair. I though the passages were dismissed because it was thought that Paul corrupted God's Word and that God actually wanted women to serve in His Church as pastors. That is the only reason I have ever heard for dismissing those passages. Thus I would be most interested in why you feel the prohibition against women pastors doesn't apply to us while still confessing that those passages are the very Word of God, indeed, as you say, the sole norm for our doctrine and life.

I would also be interested in knowing what the rationale is amongst the mainstream proponents of ELCA for homosexuality. I can't imagine what it is. The only reason I've ever heard was that the passages aren't God's Word and don't apply because the human authors were products of their time and couldn't overcome their bigotry. But, of course, we can, and therefore dismiss their childish and ignorant ideas, much as we would dismiss the ideas of racial superiority from a few generations ago.

Pastor Zip said...

Ah, dear brother, I'm not quite the "radical right" in the ELCA. And there are more radical ELCA voices in the other direction that the Sarcastic Lutheran.

Regarding the arguments in favor of blessing committed homosexual relationships and permitting persons in them to serve as ministers in the ELCA, a simplified version of the main argument would center around Jesus' "acceptance" of, well, sinners, tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers, etc. That is the core of the mainstream argument. This will sometimes be followed with, "and the church changed its mind on slavery and women."

When dealing with St. Paul's letters, we're hearing more and more the assertion that homosexual relations are "natural" for homosexuals. Since St. Paul doesn't want us engaging in "unnatural" relations, it would be wrong for a gay person to enter into a marriage. (And almost hidden in the Social Statement is the declaration that marriage is "a covenant between a man and a woman.")

More common has been the assertion that St. Paul and the ancient church were ignorant of committed same-sex unions, and thus he is not offering judgment on them so we have the freedom to authorize those that are "publicly-accountable, lifelong, and monogamous."

That's a simplified version of the argument. My Bishop is currently pointing to the Journey Together Faithfully materials, particularly JTF Part 2 and its Background Essays (they can be found here) for a theological/biblical defense of the CWA's action. You might want to read them (probably with a pen in one hand and an adult beverage in the other).

I'd have to look through them again (it's been about 6 years since we did that study). If I recall rightly, though, we end up with something like the Social Statement's, "Some say this, others say this," with no way of judging between the various options -- except, of course, for a rejection of anything "hateful."

As for my position on the ordination of women, I believe the closest I have come to addressing it on my blog is here.

One of the unintended side-effects of the Ministry Recommendations is that suddenly ELCAers are beginning to talk openly about the ordination of women, how the ELCA's precedessors came to authorize it, and -- since it is constantly used has a justification for the ordination of those in gay relationships -- whether or not it was a wise decision. For most of the ELCA's history, even raising a question was enough to mark one as a serious troublemaker, and any attempt at discussion was silenced.

Some have noted my support for Bishop Ackerman (now retired) and the Diocese of Quincy and my participation in the Society of Saint Birgitta and have drawn their own conclusions from that. Those who've concluded that I believe it to be a mistake have generally not raised the question with me. But on the few occasions where I've found myself in the position of quietly expressing my views -- it is an ecumenical dead-end for Evangelical Catholics; it was a mistake -- those who know me well aren't surprised.