Friday, February 27, 2009

Benne: No Grounds to Change? Then Don't

As with last year's first draft of an ELCA Social Statement on Sexuality, Prof. Bob Benne offers a critique/response to the work of the Sexuality Task Force. Or you can download a pdf version from the Lutheran CORE website.

For reminders of how important this is to me, see this blog entry and this one for the story of this photo I took at the 2007 ELCA Churchwide Assembly. Zip+

When There Are No Biblical or Theological Grounds to Change, Don’t

Dr. Robert Benne, Roanoke College

The Statement and Recommendations of the Sexuality Task Force have been released, and they are as disappointing as I expected them to be, though the statement itself is much improved in some ways. It moves closer to the Lutheran way of doing Christian ethics as well as to the church’s rich understanding of the centrality of marriage. Yet, the key problems remain: the statement avoids making normative judgments about homosexual conduct by neglecting the testimony of the Bible and the Christian moral tradition on that issue. In doing so it departs from the moral consensus that the church has held for millennia, a consensus that was reflected in the social statements of the predecessor Lutheran churches. We essentially will have no teaching at all on this matter. Yet, the Task Force moves forward anyway, violating the settled prudent conviction that there should be overwhelming evidence against a moral teaching and practice of long standing before it is changed. The two documents admit we have no consensus on that key issue but yet propose major changes in teaching and policies anyway. This is “journeying together faithfully?” This is more like “we respect your bound conscience by adapting those policies to which you are opposed.”

The “Bound-conscience” Doctrine

There are two erroneous judgments that anchor the statement. The first has to do with the “bound-conscience” doctrine that is so central to the documents. Both documents argue that we can have major differences in our convictions about central matters of faith and life and live with them as long as we sincerely hold different views of biblical interpretation and Christian doctrine. This relativizes Christian teaching by appeal to sincerity. Luther did not doubt that his opponents were sincere at Worms, or that they held different views of biblical interpretation and church teaching. He thought they were wrong and he was right, on the basis of the Word of God and clear reason. Further, he appealed to the teachings of earlier authorities in the church in his debates with the Church of Rome at that time. He thought the weight of Scripture and authentic Church tradition was on his side of the tough issues of that day.

Likewise, I believe it is incontestable that the Scriptures and the moral teaching of the Christian church throughout the ages—and presently that of the ecumenical church—proscribe homosexual relations of any sort.[1] (Conversely, I am quite certain that the revisionist side believes it is right and I am wrong.) Thus, I am not satisfied with appeals to sincerity and tolerance, especially since I think Christian teaching is clear. And I am certainly not satisfied with those appeals when the recommendations of the Task Force lead to no teachings at all on the subject, but yet lead to sharp changes in practice. Appeals to sincerity will not do. We may have to separate amicably rather than journey faithfully, since the right construal of the faith is at stake.

Another dubious facet of the “bound-conscience” doctrine is the claim that the revisionist side will respect the convictions of the orthodox or traditionalist side over time. Richard Neuhaus famously opined: “Where orthodoxy is optional, in time it will be proscribed.” He hit the nail on the head. The revisionists already control the “commanding heights” of the ELCA—the headquarters, the Church Council, the majority of the Sexuality Task Force, most of the seminaries and colleges, the publishing house, and many Synods. They make sure that outspoken proponents of orthodox teaching on these matters do not disturb the near consensus they have forged. (If you keep quiet about these things, you may get hired or appointed, but you must remain quiet in order not to be shunned.) I have been in so many ELCA contexts where this process of selection has been at work that I don’t have space to enumerate them. Let’s just say that the most of the cards are held by those in the “commanding heights” and they will not respect those with orthodox convictions who might threaten their hand. And in time those orthodox convictions will not even be allowed to surface. This, by the way, has been the trajectory of those orthodox voices in the Episcopal Church. Finally, orthodox voices were so marginalized that they began another church.

A cynic might charge that the appeal to respect consciences is a convenient instrument to mollify those orthodox among the laity who are very upset by the moves being made. The revisionists do not want those laity to bolt the ELCA or send their money elsewhere. So the statements promise that their consciences will be respected. But beyond the congregational level, such respect will be hard to come by in a few years. Indeed, it already is.

The Demotion of the Law

While this draft definitely bolsters the role and evaluation of the Law of God—his commandments—in the first part of the draft, it forgets about them theologically and practically when the chips are down. First, Lutherans have always believed that the Word of God includes both the Law and the Gospel. Indeed, one could say that the full meaning of the Gospel includes the Trinitarian faith—the revelation of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Without the first and third persons of the Trinity, the Gospel of justification is either unintelligible or leads to cheap grace. The first part of the new draft does affirm the Law in principle, but when it comes to disagreement over what the Law commands, it says that such disagreement is not church-dividing. This reduces the importance of the Law and makes agreement on justification the sole source and sum of our unity. “Thus, we recognize that this church’s deliberations related to human sexuality do not threaten the center of our faith, but rather require our best moral discernment and practical wisdom in the worldly (left-hand kingdom) realm.” (10:326) Likewise, Task Force Chairman Peter Strommen states that “This ought not to be church-dividing, even if there are differences.” Stanley Olson, representing the ELCA , follows this line of thinking: “…Our Christian unity does not depend on agreement about ethical matters.”

This is quite a novel teaching. Would it be church-dividing if the ELCA suggested we alter the Sixth Commandment to allow adultery if the two spouses agreed upon the practice? Did the Lutheran World Federation allow the Apartheid-supporting Lutheran Church in South Africa “to journey together faithfully” with the rest of the Lutheran churches? If I remember correctly, denouncing Apartheid became a matter of status confessionis, and that little church was tossed out of the LWF. Did the Christians of the Barmen Declaration resist the Nazis because they attacked the doctrine of justification? Hardly. Rather, they resisted because the Nazis demanded that they violate the First Commandment by recognizing the Nazi regime as a higher authority than God. Did the southern and northern branches of the Lutheran Church divide over the doctrine of justification during the Civil War? Indeed, did not the Episcopal Church split over violations of Christian moral teaching, something we Lutherans seem eager to imitate?

There definitely is a sense in which we can live with our differences when it comes to public policy. Lutherans live with all sorts of differences in social and political ethics. The left-leaning pronouncements of our Bishop and the ELCA in this realm are merely irritating, not church-dividing. Most agree that Christians of good will and intelligence can come down differently on the issue of recognizing civil unions in society. But the sexuality issues under discussion have to do with the teaching and practice of the church. They strike much closer to the core of Christian life and teaching—what does it mean to love the neighbor in sexual matters? What does it mean to confess Jesus as Lord in our personal life? Are the Commandments a guide in these matters, two of which assume the heterosexual nature of the marriage?

The demotion of the Law and the isolation of justification from repentance and amendment of life will not do. These disagreements are far more serious than the statement suggests. Further, as in the case of the Episcopalians, disagreement on the matter of the Law reveals other differences, especially on the authority of Scripture and the church’s tradition of moral teaching. The Episcopal shipwreck had little to do with disagreements about justification.

A Continuing Problem: Aversion to Form in Christian Ethics

I complained about the formlessness of the first draft of this document. I called it an “Ethic for Tele-tubbies” because it refused to recognize formal principles in ethics: male and female forms, ethical rules, the Commandments, different forms of love, the created forms in which those different forms of love are properly expressed, and the God-intended forms of marriage and family. This statement bolsters that formal element by recognizing and explicating the Commandments of God as a guide for the Christian life (6: 204ff. and the footnote on 6) and extolling marriage as an institution established by God.

But, oddly, I believe, it relies on the concept of “trust” to make the case for right relationships in personal and social life. However, “trust” is not really a principle of moral guidance; rather, it is the quality in a relationship that arises when moral actions elicit trust. It is the proper actions and the guiding principles and intentions lying behind them that elicit trust. Trust is not the active principle but rather the response. Thus, love in its various forms elicits trust—the love of God for each sinner, loving actions among friends, between husband and wife, between parents and children, and so forth. But it is very clear in Christian ethics that different forms of love are appropriate to different forms of relationship. Erotic love does not and should not elicit trust if it is directed from parent to child. Such love is also forbidden for those outside the marriage bond. Filial love is directed toward parents but does not include erotic love. The love of friends is of yet another sort. Agape love, the crown of Christian ethics, seems appropriate in all forms of relationships that need mending and/or mercy.

It is on this issue that the statement fails. By relying on “trust,” it avoids the Christian moral tradition’s distinctions about forms of love and their appropriate expression. The Bible and Christian sexual ethics throughout the ages prohibit sexual love with those who are too close to us (incest), those who are too different from us (bestiality), those who are too different in age and maturity (pederasty), and those who are too much like us (homosexuality). One part of that settled Christian moral consensus is now being challenged and that is a very serious matter, one that is likely to be church-dividing. (Logically, once the prohibition against homosexual conduct goes it seems unlikely that other challenges can be resisted. Trust can emerge in all of those forbidden relationships. It is the actions that are morally illicit.)

Further, in the long section on family life the statement seems unable to affirm the God-intended pattern of a mother and father bearing and nurturing children. It grudgingly accepts the “nuclear” family’s ability to “foster the development of trust in children and youth,” (20: 727ff) but it cannot bring itself to hold up that triad as the ideal for Christians. (By this I do not mean that we should be uncaring or unwelcoming of other forms of family, but in this confused world we should be able to impart a normative vision of what God intends for his creation.)

The statement also shows reluctance to employ rules regarding pre-marital sex. It relies on the principle that “degrees of sexual intimacy should be carefully matched to degrees of growing affection and commitment.” (27:1005) But that convenient principle leaves it up to the individual to decide the level of commitment present in a relationship. Does sex come with a promising relationship, with “going-steady,” with engagement, with living together, none of which are “non-monogamous, promiscuous, or casual?” (27:1012) Fairly fuzzy teaching, that.[2]

Likewise, the statement is pretty fuzzy on cohabitation. While “this church does not favor” cohabitation, it offers many reasons why it might be tolerated or even allowed. (28: 1045-1066) It certainly muddles the C.S. Lewis’ famous summary of the rule of Christian sexual ethics: “Complete fidelity within the marriage bond; complete abstinence outside it.”

Finally, how can a statement on sexuality avoid the issue of abortion, particularly when we will soon have legislative efforts before congress to strike down all limits on that practice? If men and women have sex, children are often the result. The classic Christian understanding of marriage is that it is a one-flesh union of complementary beings (man and woman); oriented toward new life; and a protection against sexual sin. This would have been a perfect time to offer a strong endorsement of the sacrality of all nascent human life, which should be taken only for the weightiest of reasons.

Robert Benne
Professor Emeritus Roanoke College, Virginia, and Director of the Center for Religion and Society


[1] I want to make it clear that clear public teaching on these matters does not preclude compassionate and even flexible pastoral care in private. The issue at stake is what the teaching of the church should be. The revisionists in the ELCA aim at changing our teaching and public practice, not primarily at deepening and enriching its pastoral care.

[2] I offer a course in Christian sexual ethics at the end of which I survey student opinion on the issues discussed above. The students often turn out to be more “traditional” than I expect. I also ask them if the church’s teaching should be more “realistic,” more accommodated to their opinions. To a person they say “no,” they want the Christian sexual ethic in all its challenging grandeur to be taught and encouraged. They want something clear to aspire to and, if they fail, something before which to repent and amend their lives.

Prof. Benne is director of the Center for Religion and Society at Roanoke College. He came to Roanoke from the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago in 1982. He is a leading figure in Lutheran ethics and social thought. A selection of his publications illustrates his interests: The Ethic of Democratic Capitalism: A Moral Reassessment; Ordinary Saints: An Introduction to the Christian Life; The Paradoxical Vision: A Public Theology for the Twenty-first Century; Seeing is Believing: Vision of Life Through Film. Dr. Benne is also a member of the Lutheran CORE Advisory Council.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Initial Thoughts: ELCA "Ministry Policies" Proposal

Having read the Report and Recommendation on Ministry Policies last Wednesday evening, I first want to commend the Task Force for the way they make their four recommendations
1) RESOLVED, that the ELCA commit itself to finding ways to allow congregations and synods that choose to do so to recognize, support, and hold publicly accountable life-long, monogamous, same-gender relationships.

2) RESOLVED, that the ELCA commit itself to finding a way for people in such publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships to serve as rostered leaders of this church.

3) RESOLVED, that in the implementation of these resolutions, the ELCA commits itself to bear one another’s burdens, love the neighbor, and respect the bound consciences of all.

4)... RESOLVED, that this church, because of its commitment to respect the bound consciences of all, declares its intent to incorporate structured flexibility in decision-making into its policies and procedures so that synods, bishops, congregations, candidacy committees, and others involved in the candidacy process and in the process of extending calls will be free to act according to their convictions regarding both the approving or disapproving in candidacy and the extending or not extending of a call to rostered service of a person who is otherwise qualified and who is living or contemplates living in a publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationship; and be it further
RESOLVED, that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America make provision in its policies to eliminate the prohibition of rostered service by members who are in publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships;...
The recommendation is that #1 is presented, if it passes then #2 is presented, if it passes #3 is presented, and only if it passes is the final recommendation -- to allow for those in publicly-accountable, committed, same-sex relationships to serve in ELCA ministry -- presented for approval. They very easily could have skipped the first three, leaving any implications of accepting the fourth unsaid. They chose not to hide some very important implications of their final recommendation, but rather to make them conditions for it. I appreciate the honesty and wisdom of that choice.

I was disappointed, but not terribly surprised, that in describing the two basic, opposing perspectives on continuing or changing "the current policy of prohibition regarding lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships," they appear to offer no sense of judgment between the two. They are put out as two equal, but opposing perspectives -- whether that judgment be theological, moral, exegetical, or whatever.

There is, though, one particularly sly indication (beyond the recommendation itself) that the Task Force has concluded that the "acceptance" perspective is ultimately the superior -- that being the use of the word "celibacy," rather than "chastity," in describing what reasserters of the Faith say the Faith asks of homosexual Christians, especially those who are (or would be) ELCA pastors and rostered lay leaders. And as long as one perspective's mischaracterizations are used as basic definitions, the debate itself is false. (See my friend Pr. Dick Johnson's July 2004 Forum Letter article, "Controlling Chastity.") But that seems to be where we are.

As for the recommendations themselves, unless there is something new in Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust (confession: I've not read through it yet), the Task Force has still failed after 7 years of work to offer a theological case for altering the ancient teaching of the Church in order to grant acceptance of publicly accountable life-long, monogamous, same-sex relationships.

Thus, to approve that first resolution would be an act of, at the very least, irresponsibility by the Churchwide Assembly -- after all, the task force has had at its disposal every resource of the ELCA over 7 years to find ways to allow them. Frankly, when this process was re-started 7 years ago, I had hoped that they may find ways -- as I had not found any through all the other studies of the last quarter-century, even though it certainly would have made my life much easier as both a pastor and a Christian.

Yet, that said, for me as an ELCA pastor, it is the third recommendation, "to bear one another's burdens, love the neighbor, and respect the bound consciences of all," that is the most unworkable. Frankly, the 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly could accept it only by deceiving itself and the rest of the church.

For, as I told Zion's Congregation Council last Thursday evening,
I do not see how it is possible for the ELCA to actually "respect the bound consciences" of those of us unable to support ministers in committed same-sex relationships.
Granted, the formation of the ELCA itself gravely wounded the ministerium. We have seen the ill-effects of that throughout the 21 years of the ELCA being the church we identify with. Yet even now, my default answer for parishioners who visit or move to other cities is, "Go to an ELCA congregation." Yes, there have been particular exceptions to that -- Ebenezer Lutheran Church in San Francisco might be interesting to tour, but that's not Christian worship; congregations (such as the one I in which I was baptized, confirmed, and ordained within) that purport to "marry" homosexual couples, etc.

But my conscience, bound by Scripture and the Faith as taught in the ELCA and her predecessors, cannot recognize those in publicly accountable same-sex relationships as ministers with whom I am in fellowship. Unlike some ELCA pastors, I can imagine being satisfied with just my own Synod -- after all, while Lutherans ordain into the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church, we are also on the roll of a Synod and/or Ministerium -- and prior to the ELCA such rolls were maintained by the individual synods, not the national church body. Pastors in publicly-accountable gay relationships will not be acceptable to the congregations of the synod in which I serve.

But that would mean a different understanding of the roll/roster of pastors than has been the ELCA's. The only way resolution 3 works is if the ELCA becomes more like the United Church of Christ and its much more individualistic understanding of the church, congregations, clergy, etc. And of all that Lutherans have worked towards since the repudiation of Schmuckerism (see the important, indispensible, and -- alas! -- out-of-print Lutherans in Crisis: The Question of Identity in the American Republic by David A. Gustafson for the full story), the ELCA will have been a terrible detour to Muhlenberg's dream (and the raison d'être for the ELCA's formation) of one Lutheran church in America.

The preceding is based on comments I posted earlier today on ALPB Forum Online.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

ELCA's Sexuality Proposals Released

From the ELCA web site:

On Feb. 19, 2009, the Task Force for ELCA Studies on Sexuality released the proposed social statement on human sexuality, Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust, and the Report and Recommendation on Ministry Policies. The work of the task force is now complete.

Both documents will be reviewed by the Church Council at its meeting in Chicago, March 27-30, 2009. At this time the Church Council may amend the proposed social statement, the ministry policy recommendation or both.

The Church Council is expected to transmit its recommendations to the 2009 Churchwide Assembly, August 17-23, 2009, in Minneapolis. The assembly will consider both the recommended proposed social statement with impending resolutions and the ministry policy recommendation.

Please visit the frequently asked questions pages for the proposed social statement and for the Report and Recommendation on Ministry Policies.

On this Web site you will find resources and up-to-date information about the process for the development of the social statement as well as historical documents related to the issue of sexuality.

Thank you for joining us in this journey of discernment.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

One More Time -- the ELCA and Sexuality

Sometime around Noon tomorrow (Wednesday the 18th) I'll be among the thousands of ELCA pastors and rostered lay ministers receiving an e-mail from the church HQ with the URL to download the final report of the Task Force for ELCA Studies on Sexuality. Twenty-four hours later, everyone will be able to download it from here.

Yes, our church is still paranoid about repeated release of our first draft social statement on human sexuality back in the autumn of 1994 -- when the press and the few people then on LutherLink had access to it while snafus at Augsburg Fortress meant that the mailing to the ELCA pastors was delayed. Which became a problem when headline writers became enamored of some rather startling (at least to the press) comments in the proposal about homosexuality, masturbation, and non-marital sexual relations while most ELCA pastors found out about this when 1) the local press called them for reactions or 1) we read about it in the paper.

That statement was kiboshed a few months later and the whole idea of a statement on sexuality, which had been put on the front burner largely because of the controversy over ordaining practicing gays, was quietly set aside until 2001, when the illicit ordination of a lesbian re-ignited that controversy and the ELCA Churchwide Assembly chose to study sexuality once again. And every step of the journey since the ELCA has gone to great lengths to make sure that we pastors have a 24 hour head start over the official release of a study or a draft proposal -- though the press hasn't been nearly as excited any of those times as it was in 1994.

The proposed Social Statement coming out this week along with a separate recommendation on the rostering of gay/lesbian candidates for ministry are the culmination of that 2001 decision. And less than 13 hours before its pre-release release, the question remains, "Will we be presented with anything worth 7 years of work?"

I'm not holding my breath. Which is really quite sad.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Another Concordia Treasure: Visitation

While at the Concordia Publishing House store in St. Louis a couple weeks back, I picked up from the pastoral helps shelves a nice looking large pocket-sized, black leather-covered book entitled (in a nice gold script) Visitation. I think I was expecting a generic, protestant "minister's manual" type book -- you will find those in most any "Christian" bookstore, even the denominational ones like Augsburg Fortress and CPH -- but it was an unfamiliar title and, what the hay.

I immediately knew I was in for a treat, though; the subtitle is "Resources for the Care of Souls" and the editors are Arthur A Just, Jr., and Scot A. Kinnaman. I first met Art Just when he addressed the Society of the Holy Trinity for our 5th anniversary and have gotten to know him better since then through events at Concordia Seminary in Fort Wayne, where he is Professor of Exegetical Theology and former Dean of the Chapel. I wish I'd had a professor like him at PLTS.

It's another brand new pastoral resource that can be used by pastors or lay visitors but, while it certainly draws on the Missouri Synod's fine, new Lutheran Service Book resources, it is clearly something different from LSB's excellent Pastoral Care Companion. Prof. Just writes in his preface, "More than thirteen years ago, I made a comment in class that someday I would like to put together a book of lessons and prayers to assist pastors, deaconesses, and caring Christians in their visitations to the sick and the suffering." Pastor Kinnaman was a seminarian in that class and that book was published only a few months ago.

At $28, it ain't cheap (though CPH's discount for pastors helps). I'm already glad I bought it. And in an upcoming post, I'll show you an example of why.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Do You Be Somebody? Or Do Something?

An interesting snippet from a speech given by our Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, at the Air War College in Maxwell, Alabama, last April, where he talks about Col. John Boyd, the "architect" of the American victory in Desert Storm.
As this new era continues to unfold before us, the challenge I pose to you today is to become a forward-thinking officer who helps the Air Force adapt to a constantly changing strategic environment characterized by persistent conflict.

Let me illustrate using a historical exemplar: the late Air Force Colonel John Boyd. As a 30-year-old captain, he rewrote the manual for air-to-air combat. Boyd and the reformers he inspired would later go on to design and advocate for the F-16 and the A-10. After retiring, he would develop the principals of maneuver warfare that were credited by a former Marine Corps Commandant and a Secretary of Defense for the lightning victory of the first Gulf War. Boyd’s contributions will resonate today. Many of you have studied the concept he developed called the OODA loop– and I understand there is an “OODA Loop” street here at Maxwell near the B-52.

In accomplishing all these things, Boyd – a brilliant, eccentric, and stubborn character – had to overcome a large measure of bureaucratic resistance and institutional hostility. He had some advice that he used to pass on to his colleagues and subordinates that is worth sharing with you. Boyd would say, and I quote: “one day you will take a fork in the road, and you’re going to have to make a decision about which direction you want to go. If you go [one] way, you can be somebody. You will have to make compromises and you will have to turn your back on your friends. But you will be a member of the club and you will get promoted and get good assignments. Or you can go [the other] way and you can do something – something for your country and for your Air Force and for yourself … If you decide to do something, you may not get promoted and you may not get good assignments and you certainly will not be a favorite of your superiors. But you won’t have to compromise yourself … To be somebody or to do something. In life there is often a roll call. That’s when you have to make a decision. To be or to do?”

For the kinds of challenges America will face, the Armed Forces will need principled, creative, reform-minded leaders – men and women who, as Boyd put it, want to do something, not be somebody. An unconventional era of warfare requires unconventional thinkers.

This range of security challenges – from global terrorism to ethnic conflicts; from rogue nations to rising powers – cannot be overcome by traditional military means alone. Conflict will be fundamentally political in nature and will require the integration of all elements of national power. Success to a large extent will depend less on imposing one’s will on the enemy or putting bombs on target – though we must never lose our will or ability to unsheathe the sword when necessary. Instead, ultimate success or failure will increasingly depend more on shaping the behavior of others – friends and adversaries, and most importantly, the people in between.

This new set of realities and requirements have meant a wrenching set of changes for our military establishment that, until recently, was almost completely oriented toward winning the big battles in the big wars. Based on my experience at CIA, Texas A&M, and now the Department of Defense, the culture of any large organization takes a long time to change. The really tough part is preserving those elements of the culture that strengthen the institution and motivate the people in it, while shedding those elements of the culture that are barriers to progress and achieving the mission. All of the Services must examine their cultures critically, if we are to have the capabilities relevant and necessary to overcome the most likely threats America will face in years to come.
Secretary Gates may have been speaking to up-and-coming military officers, but his observations fit with any organization that (as nearly all do) develops a bureaucracy, large or small: business enterprises, schools, social service organizations, churches, etc.

Hat tip to Gary North's Specific Answers.