Saturday, August 22, 2009

A Step Forward for Lutherans

On Friday, August 21, 2009, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) became the largest single religious denomination in the United States to permit openly gay and lesbian persons to serve as clergy, including those ordained members presently in committed, life-long relationships. The Churchwide Assembly also approved the efforts of individual congregations to "recognize, support and hold publicly accountable life-long, monogamous, same-gender relationships."

I am proud of the Lutheran Church for making these long-awaited policy changes, which recognize that humanity in all its diversity is affirmed by God and not to be excluded in a house of worship. The ELCA action comes on the heels of similar declarations by the Episcopal Church U.S.A. and the United Church of Christ, two traditionally liberal denominations that often lead the way in Christian social justice. The Lutheran action is particularly significant, however, given its size (at 4.8 million members it is the seventh largest denomination in the United States) and its largely Midwestern, theologically middle-of-the-road membership, as it denotes a broader trend of tolerance and acceptance gradually taking hold in mainline U.S. churches.

I remain somewhat cautious, however, because the real test may be how individual Lutherans and congregations react to the ELCA declaration. As happened with the Episcopalians, already there is dissension in the ranks, threats of division and disunity over what is fundamentally a dispute over the authority and interpretation of Scripture. Lutherans traditionally believe in the doctrine of solo scriptura – that Scripture alone is the final authority on matters of faith and morality. Because one can find biblical verses that seemingly condemn the “sin” of homosexuality, and while Jesus was silent on the subject, those who emphasize Scriptural authority have difficulty accepting any church action that, in their view, would contradict Scripture. Thus, the Rev. Richard Mahan, pastor of St. Timothy Lutheran Church in Charleston, West Virginia, told the Associated Press on Friday, "I can't believe the church I loved and served for 40 years can condone what God condemns. Nowhere in Scripture does it say homosexuality and same-sex marriage is acceptable to God. Instead, it says it is immoral and perverted." Mahan predicted that a majority of his congregation would break away from the ELCA. Others indicated they might leave as well.

More theologically liberal Christians, including many who voted for the ELCA action, believe that Scriptural interpretations should occur in light of the essential teachings of Jesus, aided by modern insight and knowledge – including the near universal recognition among the scientific community that one’s sexual orientation is biologically driven and not a matter of choice. Thus, love and acceptance of all people, black or white, gay or straight, male or female, is a defining imperative: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you . . . By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:34).

There is really nothing radical in a more flexible approach to biblical interpretation, for the Bible has very little to say about homosexuality; there are perhaps a half dozen references to it in all of Scripture, and it is a relatively minor concern in comparison to, for example, economic justice. To disregard verses condemning homosexuality, or to place them in the historical context in which they were written, is no different than what Christians (and Jews in the case of the Hebrew Scriptures) do with respect to the biblical acceptance of slavery (see, e.g., Leviticus 25:44-45; Ephesians 6:5-9; Colossians 3:22-25; 4:1; Titus 2:9-10; 1 Peter 2:18-19, 1 Corinthians 7:20-24). Logically, people who think homosexuality is wrong because the Bible says so, must also think that slavery is acceptable because the Bible says so. Yet I suspect that even Rev. Mahan and those opposed to the ELCA vote (approving openly gay clergy) on the authority of Scripture, would not condone slavery, although the Bible does.

I am glad that the Lutherans chose love and acceptance over ignorance and rejection, for it is only through a glowing ray of hope and love that the Church will remain relevant and valid in the future. It points the Church in the right direction, as a place of hospitality for all of humanity, and suggests openness to thinking, caring individuals who cannot accept an uncritical, inflexible view of the Bible and Scriptural authority.

I am the son of a Lutheran minister and have maintained at least one foot in the Lutheran Church my entire life, though my views on Christianity and Lutheranism are admittedly complex and, at times, contradictory. I have always felt a sense of pride in my Lutheran heritage, particularly when I see the Lutheran Church take a leadership role in advocating for social and political justice, working for peace, and committing resources to the service of others.
  • I am proud of my father, who in the early 1960’s traveled to Washington, D.C., with a group of concerned clergy to lobby for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and who helped several young men achieve conscientious objector status during the Vietnam War by proposing alternative, peaceful means of service.

  • I am proud of my mother, who has devoted her life to serving others, and who, at age 78, continues to feed the homeless and advocate on behalf of the poor and less fortunate, all of which is driven by her devout faith.

  • I am proud of the Lutheran Volunteer Corps, a privately-funded volunteer service program, which annually places over 100 young people into non-profit agencies devoted to social justice – aiding the homeless, advocating for a cleaner environment, providing mental health services to those who cannot afford it, and many other great things – and which helps in small, concrete ways to make the world a better place to live.

  • Finally, I am proud of my former congregation in Washington, D.C., Luther Place Memorial Church, which under the direction of its former pastor, the Rev. John Steinbruck, became a model of Christian hospitality and service. Steinbruck was (and remains) an extremely articulate and passionate preacher of the Social Gospel who constantly reminds Christians of their obligation to care for the least of our brethren. When thousands of mentally ill homeless were released from mental hospitals as the result of legal actions in the early 1970’s, Steinbruck successfully urged Luther Place to open its doors. When Salvadoran refugees fled civil war in their homeland and sought legal sanctuary in the United States, Luther Place again opened its doors as an act of Christian conscience in direct contravention of Reagan’s Justice Department.

If the Lutheran Church were more reflective of these examples, I would feel less ambivalent about my faith. In my experience, however, many Lutheran congregations place little emphasis on social justice and rarely challenge the beliefs and value systems of its members. And although the Lutheran Church has a rich tradition of scholarship and highly respected seminaries, those who struggle with questions of doctrine or who question the language and biases of conventional liturgy, often do so alone. The views of many everyday Lutherans, including most of those opposed to the recent ELCA action, reflect a pietistic faith that proclaims an unwavering belief in the Nicene Creed, declaring that all who fail to accept orthodox church doctrine are not legitimately Christian. To me, this misses the point of what Jesus was really all about, and leads to divisiveness and dissent. I prefer a progressive Christianity that struggles with doctrine but strives for a just world over a theologically certain, one-size-fits-all version that allows no doubters or dissenters.

Nevertheless, I am proud that the Lutheran Church has taken a firm stance for justice, inclusiveness, and hospitality by declaring itself open and welcoming to all persons, gay and straight, and by allowing committed and talented ordained members of the faith, who happen to be gay or lesbian, to serve and lead individual congregations. As stated by Bishop Gary Wollersheim of the ECLA Northern Illinois Synod, "It's a matter of justice, a matter of hospitality. It's what Jesus would have us do."


  1. As a former Lutheran, and as former public policy staff for the church, I have been involved with and followed this eight year struggle in the ELCA.

    Before Lutherans start popping the cork to celebrate this move toward human dignity, I would hope they recognize the number of human tragedies the church has inflicted during the last eight years while it “studied” the issues and did what all political institutions do – try to wear down the opposition – an opposition that has resorted to cherry-picking biblical references in order to support their discrimination. For example, one former colleague made the agonizing decision to leave the ranks of the ordained rather than give up a committed relationship. Who else in this society is forced to make a decision between being loved and being called?

    Many Christian people try to live by Jesus’ example. I dare say, if the reality of sexual orientation was known during Jesus’ ministry, he would not have taken eight years to lead his followers to a resolution that treated everyone equally. Justice delayed is justice denied.

  2. Kathleen,

    Thank you for your comments. Your points are well taken and articulate the frustration one naturally feels for an institution that studies, reflects, deliberates, forms committees, and does everything seemingly possible to avoid taking a hard stance on a matter of justice, in order to avoid divisiveness and disunity. Sometimes the issues are too clear-cut to allow for foot dragging, particularly where, as happened here, there are real persons with real consequences, resulting in pain, hurt, and the loss of dignity. Although I wanted to give credit where credit is due and to emphasize the positive and affirmative nature of the ELCA action -- as the Lutherans have now taken a firm stance for justice, and thus a step forward, ahead of most other Christian denominations -- you are ultimately correct that justice delayed is justice denied, especially for all of the great people that have been harmed by the church's past actions (and inactions).