As I See It
The Proposed Social Statement on Human Sexuality Needs a Worldview
By Frank C. Senn
I fear that joining together the Policy Recommendations regarding the ordination of persons living in same-sex relationships with the proposed social statement, “Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust” is eclipsing detailed discussion of the proposed social statement. Homosexuality has become the tail that wags the sexual dog. Yet the number of social issues related to human sexuality has been stockpiling for a long time, awaiting some response from “this Church” by way of counsel to pastors and congregations who have to deal with these issues. Isn’t that what social statements are for?
The ELCA says, “Social statements are social policy documents, adopted by an ELCA Churchwide Assembly, addressing significant social issues. They provide an analysis and interpretation of an issue, set forth basic theological and ethical perspectives related to it, and offer guidance for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, its individual members, and its affiliated agencies and institutions.”
We’ll leave aside the fact that a teaching document, i.e. a magisterial statement, loses its authority when it is wrung through the democratic wringer. You don’t decide biblical interpretation or even considered practice by majority or even two-thirds vote. Better to let theologians go at it and see what stands in the end to be affirmed by those who, by their call, must publicly teach and preach in the Church (AC 14).
But that’s not the way “this Church” operates. So we do need to discern whether this proposed statement deals with the issues we face not only in our society but also in our congregations. More importantly, we need to discern whether this statement helps us understand God’s will for humanity.
The statement begins well. It says, “As Lutherans, understanding that God’s promised future is the transformation of the whole creation, we believe that the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is engaged deeply and relationally in the continuing creation of the world. We anticipate and live out the values of this promised future concretely in the present. It is therefore in the midst of daily life in the world that we are given the vocational task of serving the neighbor.”
This strikes me not just as specifically “Lutheran” but as what C. S. Lewis called “mere Christianity” — i.e. the basics. What is God’s promised future as applied to human sexuality? The image used in Revelation 21-22 is the marriage supper of the Lamb. The New Jerusalem comes down out of heaven like a bride adorned for her husband.
Throughout the Bible marriage is the metaphor for the relationship between God and his people, between Yahweh and Israel, between Christ and the Church.
This vision is the rejection of every gnosticism, of every worldview that sees the final goal of the world as the separation of earthly reality from God, of the physical from the spiritual. It is the fulfillment, in richly symbolic language, of the promise in Genesis 1 that male and female would together be God’s image in the world; that these opposites in the world are meant for unity (“the two become one flesh,” Genesis 2:24) rather than competition; that love and not hate shall have the last word; that fruitfulness and not sterility is God’s intention for the creation. Throughout the Bible marriage is the metaphor for the relationship between God and his people, between Yahweh and Israel, between Christ and the Church. The Church is lovingly presented as a bride “without spot or wrinkle” in Ephesians 5.
This worldview, which might frame the issues with which the proposed statements deals, is not developed. If marriage is God’s gift, of which sexuality is the sacramental sign; if the triune God is a community of persons who creates human beings to be in community with each other as a Spirit-created image of himself; then the thrust of the statement should be to address how this gift of community is applied whenever the human situation is but a fallen reflection of God’s intention. How is the gospel applied to those who, through their own fault or no fault of their own, come up short in receiving God’s gift?
I will raise issues that need to be dealt with sort of in order in which they might cluster around the manifestation of human community in the social institution of marriage.
First, there is the issue that many adults are unmarried and some of these people will never be married. As of 2000, the most common household type in the U.S. is people living alone. 27 million American households consist of a person living alone, compared to 25 million households with a husband, wife, and child, according to Frank Hobbs, “Examining American Household Composition: 1990 and 2000” (U.S. Census Bureau, 2005). Breaking down these millions, Hobbs reports that more than one in four American households consist of an adult living alone (25.8%). This includes a proportionate number of our church members.
Probably most of these people will not live without some kind of sexual activity. Do our theological authorities, principally the Bible (“sole rule and norm”), have anything to say about this? The draft statement prefers (my term) unmarried people (especially young people who might get married) to refrain from sexual activity outside of marriage. The statement needs to make a strong case as to why sexual activity should be reserved for marriage and let people’s conscience dictate their response.
Is celibacy something “this Church” can recommend? According to Jesus, some remain celibate for the sake of the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 19:12), in order to devote themselves to the Lord’s work. By their celibacy they also bear witness to Jesus’ teaching that in the resurrection there is neither marriage nor giving in marriage (Mark 12:25). In 1 Corinthians 7 St. Paul discusses the possibility of remaining single because “the form of this world is passing away” (v. 31).
There is a venerable Christian tradition of consecrated celibacy.
There is a venerable Christian tradition of consecrated celibacy. The proposed statement makes no mention of it. Are Lutherans destined to remain silent about this possibility for the life and mission of the church, as well as for human sexuality, just because Martin and Kathryn Luther left their communities of celibates?
Then there are unmarried people living with someone. According to the 2000 Census, there are currently about 11 million people living with an unmarried partner in the U.S. This includes both same-sex and different-sex couples. The number of unmarried couples living together increased 72% between 1990 and 2000. The number of unmarried couples living together has increased tenfold between 1960 and 2000. Assuming, again, that many of these partners are having sex with each other, I ask again: does the Church have something to say about sex outside of marriage? Most of the young couples who come to pastors to get married are already living together. It is noteworthy that many young evangelicals decide to end cohabitation before marriage. It’s a kind of fast before the feast.
Some, including church members, live together and never marry. 44% of American adults are currently unmarried (2000 data). This number has been rising steadily: in 1970 36% of Americans were unmarried; in 1980 39% of Americans were unmarried; in 1990 41% of Americans were unmarried. (See “Marital Status of the Population 15 Years Old and Over, by Sex and Race: 1950 to Present,” U.S. Census Bureau, 2001.) These statistics are troubling. To its credit, the statement does explain why cohabitation does not provide the commitment expressed in and the security provided by marriage.
Divorce and Children
Then there are all those marriages that end in divorce. It is not quite accurate to say that 50% of all marriages in the U.S.A. end in divorce. Rather, the divorce rate in America for first marriage, vs second or third marriage, is 50% percent of first marriages, 67% of second and 74% of third marriages, according to Jennifer Baker of the Forest Institute of Professional Psychology in Springfield, Missouri. According to the journal Enrichment the divorce rate in America breaks down as follows: 41% for the first marriage; 60% for the second marriage; 73% for the third marriage. Contrary to what many of us may experience among our remarried acquaintances, this rate does not augur well for remarriage. How many remarriages should pastors preside over?
It is interesting to compare the divorce rate in America for childless couples with that for couples with children. According to a Discovery TV channel program, couples with children have a slightly lower rate of divorce than childless couples. Sociologists believe that childlessness is also a common cause of divorce. The absence of children leads to loneliness and weariness and, even in the United States, at least 66 per cent of all divorced couples are childless.
Is it the case that “being fruitful and multiplying” is a sign of blessing in marriage? What comfort and counsel do we provide for those couples whose marriages lack this sign? Should artificial means of procreation be approved that do not separate procreation from the context of a loving husband and wife? Would the same approval be given to an artificial donor who is not the husband?
Is the proposed statement able to make a positive pronouncement about procreation as the divine blessing attached to the two becoming one flesh? Is “this Church” able to make a pronouncement on artificial means of birth control in the light of God’s blessing? What does “this Church” have to say about abortion as a means of birth control? If it is not approved, should that not have some bearing on this Church’s health plan? Perhaps abortion is such a big and torturous issue that it deserves a statement of its own.
Speaking of divorce and children, 41% of unmarried partner households have children under 18 living in them, according to America’s Families and Living Arrangements 2000 (U.S. Census Bureau). 33% of all births are to unmarried women, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, 2000 data (report released 2002). 41% of first births to unmarried women are actually babies born to cohabiting couples, not “single” women (Bumpass, Larry and Lu, Hsien-Hen (2000). “Trends in Cohabitation and Implications for Children’s Family Contexts in the United States.” Population Studies 54: 29-41). About two-fifths of children are expected to live in a cohabiting household at some point (U.S. Census Bureau, 2000). What are the social and psychological implications of children reared in single-parent or nontraditional homes? What moral lessons might be communicated to children whose parents are not married?
Sexually Abusive Relationships
The statement rightly comes down hard on sexually abusive relationships, whether between spouses or adults and children. There are uses of God’s gift of sexuality that are simply demonic because they are so contrary to God’s will and so manipulative of human relationships.
Finally, there is that intractable issue of homosexuality and gays and lesbians living in same-sex committed relationships. The proposed statement does not propose to help “this Church” deal with those issues because there is no “consensus” in “this Church.” But in fact the Bible is not silent about homosexual activity and it is even clearer about heterosexual union. The task force has a responsibility to teach from Scripture, our “sole rule and norm” (perhaps providing lessons in hermeneutics while doing so), and to offer guidance to “this Church” on issues related to homosexual desire and practice. At the very least the statement could make a distinction between what Christians might support by way of civil legislation in the states and what the Church teaches and practices.
Pastoral care of homosexual church members . . . is the great issue of our time as regards human sexuality.
Increasingly, it seems, same-sex couples will be able to be legally joined in many states (although Federal benefits remain elusive). What ideas for pastoral care of same-sex couples before and after their legal union might be offered for consideration? Pastoral counseling? Prayers for the couple in public worship? House blessings? “Marriage” as it is understood in the biblical sense of the uniting of opposites (male and female) cannot be applied to same-sex couples.
But surely the Church’s position is not all or nothing. Homosexuals should not have to bear the burden of loneliness when God intends community for all his human creatures even if “marriage” in the biblical sense is not applicable and there is no biblical promise concerning same-sex unions. It is precisely in the face of these limitations that the statement needs to say more than it has said if there is to be pastoral care of homosexual church members. This is the great issue of our time as regards human sexuality. If the statement cannot go beyond the present impasse, we are not yet ready to adopt a social statement on human sexuality.