On the Issues that Divide Us
September 12, 2010 Presentation
Pastor Eric Lemonholm
Note: these are notes for a presentation I gave last year in a different community that was in turmoil about the issues surrounding the 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly’s decisions about human sexuality. I put it together from some letters and emails I had written about the subject during the previous summer. In the actual presentation, I gave a short speech, without directly using these notes.
We are now past the one year mark since the 2009 Churchwide Assembly and the decisions which have caused turmoil, especially in our area.
It is time to step back and take in the big picture.
Let’s start with a basic observation: All sides on this issue are acting out of the best of intentions, and according to our understanding of Scripture.
If we disagree about the interpretation of some verses of the Bible, it does not automatically mean that I am wrong and you are right, or vice versa; nor does it automatically mean that you are a Christian and I am not, or vice versa.
The vote at the Churchwide Assembly, as well as votes in churches around the country, reveal that there is, in fact, a diversity of opinion in our congregations on the issues surrounding homosexuality.
Many congregations will have a 50/50 or a 60/40 split, one way or another, on the issue.
In my congregation, Grace Lutheran Church, we had a vote last December, and 72% of the congregation voted to remain in the ELCA.
That still leaves 28% who disagreed with the decision to remain in the ELCA.
Now, that was not a time for the majority to lord it over the minority.
We respect one another, even in the midst of our disagreements.
It is heartbreaking and tragic that the mission of the church has been hindered by conflict.
How many people did not hear the good news and come to a saving relationship with Jesus Christ in the last year because of the distractions caused by this conflict?
How many people are staying away from their congregations, not because of their opposition to the ELCA, but because they are offended by the divisiveness, the anger, and the quarreling that they hear, and which they know in their heart is not of the Lord?
How many times have our churches been divided by conflict in the past?
I argue that the real issue is not the surface issue, but the deeper issue of how we live and work together as the body of Christ, and how we resolve the conflicts that always develop in our life together.
Especially at issue in this debate is how we read and understand several passages from Paul’s letters; we shall take a look at a couple of them.
But I am going to start with a different Pauline passage:
Hear these words from Paul’s letter to Titus 3:1-11:
Remind them to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, 2to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show every courtesy to everyone. 3For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, despicable, hating one another. 4But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, 5he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. 6This Spirit he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. 8The saying is sure. I desire that you insist on these things, so that those who have come to believe in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works; these things are excellent and profitable to everyone.
9But avoid stupid controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless. 10After a first and second admonition, have nothing more to do with anyone who causes divisions, 11since you know that such a person is perverted and sinful, being self-condemned.
What’s the focus in these verses? It’s about how we live together as followers of Jesus Christ. We focus on the good news of salvation through Christ. The basis of our unity is in the Gospel: that is why I do not feel that there needs to be any division between us.
We have one Lord, one faith. Christians have always had disagreements about how to apply the Law to our lives today; that’s why we have differences between churches about the ordination of women, or about whether Christians can serve in the military, or many other things.
“Quarrels about the law,” like the one that divides the ELCA today, are nothing new.
In fact, Jesus’ problem with some of the Pharisees was not about details of the law, but about how the Pharisees applied the law in such a vigorous way that they put themselves above the common people, and divided themselves from those they considered to be outsiders, unwelcome in God’s community: sinners, tax collectors, Gentiles (like all of us here today), and so on.
It is the same with Paul in Galatians, where he strongly opposes the circumcision group who was trying to assert the Old Testament law of circumcision on the men in the church in Galatia. Read Galatians, especially chapter 5, for a strong message about how Christians relate to God’s law in the Bible.
We rightly speak of the importance of God’s law in the Bible, and Paul’s words in Titus 3, and in many other places, are an important part of God’s Law.
I believe that we will be judged more by what we do, or fail to do, to share the Gospel with our neighbor, than by how harshly we judge our neighbors according to our understanding of the Law. This current conflict has caused so much turmoil in some parts of the ELCA. But I challenge you to answer this question: how is this conflict not a stupid controversy or quarrel about the law? And if it is, let us not let it divide us.
Here’s a novel idea: let us devote ourselves to good works and to sharing the good news of Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit!
Listen. We are human. We are fallen. We are not God. So we don’t read the Bible from God’s all knowing, all wise, all righteous perspective.
It’s a question of humility: we see in a mirror dimly, and we will continue to do so until we are in the new heaven and new earth of God’s Kingdom.
We always read the Bible from our own limited perspective.
That is why we need to continue to wrestle with Scripture together with others – especially with fellow Christians who see things from a different perspective.
That is why we need to pray for God’s Holy Spirit to speak to us through Scripture. God does speak to us through God’s Word, but not in a way that gives us infallible knowledge – we are still limited, fallen children of God; we are creatures, not the Creator.
I try to preach clearly and simply from the Bible, but I do not claim that my reading of the Bible is perfect; only God is perfect.
That does not mean that anything goes in reading and interpreting the Bible.
I think that that is the fear that underlies this debate – the fear that if there is not one infallible, inerrant way to read the Bible (yours, mine, or whoever’s), then anything goes, and everything is relative.
That’s a false dichotomy. We can, with humility and being open to other people’s perspectives, read the Bible and struggle to understand God’s Word to us, without asserting that our way to read Scripture is the only way.
That’s actually part of Paul’s message in Romans: we walk by faith, not by sight; being a Christian does not make us all knowing or all wise or all good; we are still creatures. We are still sinners. We don’t make ourselves right with God – we can’t. The law’s purpose is to let us know that we are sinners, and drive us to Christ, through whom we are made right with God as we hear in Romans 3:21-26.
To claim that we have the absolute truth is to claim too much, and to make an idol of our own understanding of the Bible: only God has the absolute truth.
Let’s take a moment to reflect on what many consider the central Biblical text in this debate on homosexuality: Romans 1:26-27.
Often, it’s so tempting to take a couple verses of the Bible out of context and use them as proof texts for whatever point we’re trying to make, and that often happens with these verses. So, let’s put those verses in their context.
In 1:18-32, Paul paints a picture of human sin at its most extreme: worshiping and serving creatures rather than the Creator (v. 25). Paul includes pretty much every kind of sin imaginable. Let’s hear the whole passage:
18For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth.
19For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; 21for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. 22Claiming to be wise, they became fools; 23and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles. 24Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, 25because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. 26For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, 27and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error. 28And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done. 29They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, 30slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, 31foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32They know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die—yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them.
As part of that picture of sin, Paul includes men and women exchanging their “natural” intercourse for “unnatural.”
Now, I accept those verses as part of Scripture, as you also do. They apply to us as a word of God’s law – but, they do so in the context of Paul’s Letter to the Church in Rome: it is both a particular letter from Paul to a particular church, and God’s Word for all times. We have to keep both of those truths in tension: that’s what we do as Lutherans!
These verses are a part, as I have stated, of Paul’s litany of humankind’s guilt in 1:18-32. And, that list of humankind’s sin is applied directly to the church starting in Romans 2:1. Paul sets his readers up: as we read 1:18-32, we are thinking “How awful those sinners are!” In our context, many people automatically think, “How awful those gays and lesbians are!”
I have no doubt that for some of you, verses 26-27 jumped out at you as I read the passage and you thought to yourself, “Ah ha, see! I’m right! God condemns those homosexuals!” Those verses seem to back up and reinforce what you already believe.
Often, those two verses get all the focus, without the rest of the sinful thoughts and actions that Paul refers to. The verses become a weapon used to condemn other people, rather than ourselves.
But then, Paul turns the tables on us in the very next passage, in Romans 2:
Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. 2You say, “We know that God’s judgment on those who do such things is in accordance with truth.” 3Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God? 4Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?
Let’s take Paul seriously here. Those verses in Romans 1 that we may have thought applied to others actually apply to us!
In fact, it is a basic truth that, when we hear God’s word of judgment, we hear it as a word of judgment on ourselves, and not, first of all, as a word of judgment against others – certainly not as a judgment on a whole class of people – as if Romans 1:18-32 applies only to gays and lesbians today.
Taking these verses seriously means taking them all together, as a word of judgment especially for us followers of Christ – and especially as a word of judgment against self-righteousness and judging others, which is how these verses function in Romans. Paul is revealing that we are all sinners, and that we all need God’s grace and mercy. The picture of sin that Paul paints in 1:18-32 applies to all of us, without exception. What difference does it make for us when we take Romans 2:1 seriously?
We probably still disagree about the particular understanding of 1:26-28 – whether all gays and lesbians are, in fact “exchanging natural intercourse for unnatural,” or whether it is possible that God has purposely created them with a nature that is not identical with heterosexual nature, but is nonetheless created by God as part of God’s good creation.
My sense of all those verses in Scripture that deal with homosexual acts is that they were addressed to contexts wherein men used sexual abuse of men (and women) as tools of violence against slaves, conquered peoples, and other outsiders. It was about the abuse of power and authority, which is very much how we see sexual abuse occurring in modern times, especially in the Roman Catholic Church. We all stand strongly against all abuse, no exceptions, as well as all promiscuity. That is our very significant common ground on this issue. Let’s not forget that.
The Churchwide Assembly decision from last year really deals with the question of what to do when a Scriptural debate about the law hits a deadlock.
All sides of the debate come at the issue of homosexuality and Scripture from a cultural, religious perspective.
I think of our sources for theological reflection in terms of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral: Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience. Scripture is primary, our number one, ultimate source; but as finite, fallen human beings, we don’t have access to the pure, unmediated word of God. We read Scripture through the lenses of the other three, and we don’t really have a choice about that.
Whenever someone says, about this issue, that they’re just reading the Bible straight (while I am ‘interpreting’ it), I know that they are mistaken – in the context of the conversation, inevitably other reasons are revealed about why they read the Bible on this issue the way they do. I often hear statements like, “This is the way I was brought up,” or “This is what our church has always taught,” or “This is how I have experienced gays or lesbians.”
Think about it: there is no knock-down biblical, theological argument that either side has that will suddenly resolve this cultural divide. We in the ELCA cannot appeal to an external authority (like a pope) to decide the issue for everyone else.
It really is like cultures, or generations, colliding. That’s why I appreciate and support the decision, as awkward as it may be: it’s a decision to live with paradox, to live with disagreement, to try to work together despite our cultural differences. It’s a choice against a winner take all, win-lose way of deciding the issue. Remember that the decision was to leave it up to individual congregations and individuals to decide for themselves on the issue.
At the Diet of Worms, Martin Luther said this in the midst of a much larger conflict:
“Since then your serene majesty and your lordships seek a simple answer, I will give it in this manner, neither horned nor toothed: Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither sale nor right to go against conscience.
“I cannot do otherwise, here I stand, may God help me, Amen.”
Notice that he says “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason.” He also states that his “conscience is captive to the Word of God,” and that he does not trust in tradition alone.
Here’s the question I have: what if both sides of an argument are convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason, but come to different conclusions?
Many people seem to assume that one side (presumably their own) is bound to Scripture, while the other side is not.
On this issue, that’s not the case.
I also often hear the importance of sticking to tradition on this issue; while I don’t dismiss tradition, that’s also not our only basis.
And, in reality we never rely only on Scripture – Luther did not either. We also have tradition, reason, and experience.
We never resolve contentious social issues (like slavery or civil rights) on biblical grounds alone – reason, tradition, and experience come into play also, if we’re honest about it, and it takes time and prayerful effort to discern the truth.
What seems to each of us like the one clear meaning of Scripture on this issue holds up as long as we are in a community of like minded people; once we step out of that community – like going from a Word Alone meeting to a Lutherans Concerned meeting – other meanings arise, and we have to decide between them.
One thing we don’t have in the ELCA is a papal magisterium to decide on one meaning for us; but Luther wasn’t too keen on that idea either. A big question is, is there room in the church for people who disagree on this issue? Can we live with the disagreement, or do we need to segregate ourselves? Why would we want to make this issue the one that divides us?
We read the same Scriptures, but we weigh them and apply them differently. I apply the verses that prohibit some homosexual acts to me: as a heterosexual and married man, by nature and commitment there is only one person in the world with whom I may rightly have sexual relations: my wife. Anything else would be adulterous and, in the case of homosexual acts, unnatural.
But, when I get to know gays or lesbians, who have endured persecution for being who they are (especially in small towns), and who are involved in healthy, faithful, committed same-sex relationships, I do not see their relationships to be sinful – as breaking their relationship with God and one another. In fact, their relationships are pretty normal, having similar concerns, struggles, and joys as my marriage relationship.
Those verses condemn abusive, cultic (think temple prostitution), or adulterous behavior, or behavior against one’s nature: none of that applies to gay or lesbian adults in loving, committed relationships.
When I get to know many Christian gays or lesbians, it is very different from getting to know someone who is stuck in a persistent sin, such as alcoholism, drug addiction, sex addiction, greed, malice, envy, etc. – their sin is both clear from Scripture and from experience, that is, it is clearly destructive of their relationship with God and others.
In contrast, gays and lesbians are sometimes the most spiritually grounded and alive people I know; they manifest the fruits of the Spirit; they are deeply aware of the hurt and needs of other excluded groups; there relationships are not curved in on themselves but focused on others.
Therefore, it becomes difficult or impossible to deny that they are, in fact, not condemned for being homosexual but blessed by it; it’s a gift, just as my heterosexual nature is a gift.
There is no easy way to bridge the gap between people who disagree on these issues, which is what makes coming to a quick decision so seductive: decide that one way of seeing the issue is the only way, and send everyone else packing.
The real difficulty is that we are in the middle of a cultural movement, rather than at the end of one.
Was the biblical basis of women’s rights or civil rights for all as clear to everyone 50 years ago as it is today? I don’t think so.
More and more, this is how I see this issue: there is a minority group in our midst whose whole existence and way of being is condemned by people, for whom their supposed sin is not even a live option. In a small town, like yours (and mine), how are gays and lesbians treated? I can tell you that in my town, adulterers are winked at and rewarded at work and in the community, while faithful gays and lesbians are harassed and shunned. Is it any wonder that gay and lesbian teens have a high rate of suicide in small towns and conservative churches?
It is my hope and prayer that we do not continue to let this quarrel about the law to continue to divide us. Please know that, whatever you decide to do in this community, you are in my prayers, and I will continue to see you as brothers and sisters in Christ.
Luther, M. (1999, c1958). Vol. 32: Luther’s works, vol. 32 : Career of the Reformer II (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther’s Works. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.