Let's Talk

Living Theology in the Metropolitan Chicago Synod
Volume 8, Number 1
Pentecost 2003

Human Sexuality in the ELCA



Thomas D. Pearson




I've got a big problem.  Two of them, actually.  I've been asked to contribute this little essay on sexuality, and on the ELCA's current study of sexuality, including the examination of questions about blessing same-sex unions and ordaining gays and lesbians in active and committed relationships.  The problem is that I have very little to say about sexuality as such.  The various and eccentric episodes of my personal life aside, I'm no expert on sexuality.  Whatever it is that counts as expertise when analyzing sexuality, I don't have much of it.  In fact, I'm not sure I know just what kind of thing "sexuality" is.


Fortunately, there appear to be a lot of people around who do, and these days, many of them are in the church.  And they're talking.  A heavy load of books and articles, study guides, biblical and theological summaries, and semi-official internet on-line discussion groups have emerged during the past few years, all devoted to dilating on the topic of human sexuality, especially on the matter of homosexuality. The study on sexuality mandated by the 2001 ELCA Churchwide assembly is turning out to be a serious business indeed.


However, this provokes the second problem.  A great deal of this material is rife with specious appeals and dubious arguments.  This should come as no great surprise to any of us in the ELCA.  Lutherans do not typically do well with issues of this sort.  The reason that we do not do well with issues like "sexuality" is that our traditional theological loci have addressed a fairly narrow range of topics, and "sexuality" hasn't been even on the horizon of our concerns.  Frankly, Lutherans lack the theological resources for engaging such matters (or so I shall argue in what follows here).   But we want to engage them anyway, and so we go seeking after something -- anything -- that will allow us to speak with a modicum of authority as we try to articulate the "Lutheran position" on questions for which there is no Lutheran position. 


If we take an honest look at ourselves, we discover the truth that there is no distinctive Lutheran stance on sexuality, or on a great many other subjects involving ethical matters, either social or personal.  The fact that Luther was periodically embroiled in such concerns does not in itself support the conclusion that there is any genuine theological value for Lutherans in the act of locating ethical verities.  Theology is not ethics, and Lutherans have typically had a singular allegiance to theology.


Nonetheless, the search for an authoritative talisman that Lutherans can confidently embrace in the current discussion has led many in the ELCA to seize upon the notion that there is a “biblical ethic” on sexuality, usually constructed in one of three ways.  The first involves the perception that there are a number of scattered but specific references in scripture that portray sexuality strictly as a marital activity between husband (male) and wife (female), thereby excluding everything else, including same-sex genital contact under any conditions.  This is a textual ethic; the text, simply because it is a particular kind of text, is uniformly normative.  Second, an alternative ethic is developed out of the biblical injunction to love.  Instead of an ethic framed by rules and laws, firm boundaries and sharp edges, our approach to questions on sexuality should grow out of a prior commitment to love our brothers and sisters, our neighbors, even our enemies.  Finally, there is the newfound appreciation for natural law theory, whereby God established a set of “natural orders” (including male-female marriage) under which God intended human beings to live.  This version of natural law is not explicitly articulated in scripture, but is extrapolated from a few congested passages, especially the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans.  


All of this exegetical activity is grounded in the premise that it is legitimate for Lutherans, operating from within the Lutheran theological tradition, to sculpt a “biblical ethic” from scriptural bedrock.  I confess that it is hard for me to see how this can be done, either by means of a textual ethic, or by invoking the commandment to love, or by recourse to natural law.  Let me explain why this is the case.  In what follows, I will only offer some preliminary observations and reactions to the struggles of the ELCA over the past decade to assemble a coherent proposal on sexuality on the basis of some elusive “biblical ethic.”  No sustained arguments or thorough documentation is provided here; if my comments turn out to be useful, those things can be presented later.  Above all, my scattered remarks reflect my own long-standing frustration in trying to get clear about what is really at stake for the ELCA in this discussion on sexuality.


Traditional Lutheran formulations have emphasized the centrality of the cross of Christ as the point of departure for all of our theological reflection.   This stress on Christ’s death and resurrection has had, to be sure, its existential dimension within Lutheranism (“I must take up my cross, and follow Him”), but its primary significance for the early Lutheran reformers was essentially epistemic and metaphysical.  Luther’s insistence, first in the Heidelburg Disputation and later in The Bondage of the Will, that all of our knowledge of God is mediated through Christ crucified, is matched by Melanchthon’s assertion, in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, that the natural man, because of original sin, has no knowledge of God, and that authentic knowledge of God is conveyed only through faith in the crucified and risen One.  At the core of this knowledge is our understanding of justification by grace through faith, which is “the main doctrine of Christianity,” according to Melanchthon. 


This means that our knowledge of God is going to be severely limited indeed.  If we wish to know God’s Person and His purposes for creation, we have no option but to go to the cross.  This exclusive concentration on the theology of the cross is ordinarily contrasted, in Lutheran thought, with the several varieties of theology of glory, including the epistemic and metaphysical ones.   As Lutherans, we have not normally indulged ourselves in composing encompassing systems, worldviews, manifestoes, and programs.  The occasional exception notwithstanding, Lutherans avoid such schemes for putting the entire cosmos down on a single page, because those schemes represent the hubris that encourages us to rest secure in the glory of our own metaphysical speculations.  Lutherans do not have a “worldview.”  We leave the creation of Summas, Institutes and Church Dogmatics to others.  We have the cross, and the cross alone.


Let me suggest an illustration of what I mean.  In 1953, the philosopher and essayist Isaiah Berlin wrote a piece called, “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” in which he says the following:


          . . . there exists a great chasm between those, on one side,

          who relate everything to a single central vision. . .and those

          who, on the other side, pursue many ends, often unrelated and

          even contradictory. . .the first kind of artistic and intellectual

          personality belongs to the hedgehogs, the second to the foxes

          . . . (from The Proper Study of Mankind, pages 436-437).


The fox knows an assortment of little things; the hedgehog knows one big thing.  Berlin was referring to the profound differences between two contemporary social systems – the expansive and unruly western democracies as opposed to the ideologically disciplined Soviet Union.  But he might as well have been describing various eclectic faith communities within Christianity, and the Lutherans.  In Berlin’s taxonomy, Lutherans would be classified as prototypical hedgehogs.  We are narrowly focused on the cross.  Whatever the issue, if we cannot relate it to Christ crucified (and its corollary, the doctrine of justification), then it is of no significant theological interest.  Lutherans are the ultimate theological reductionists.


This accounts for Luther’s indifference to the totality of the biblical text as authoritative in crafting the Christian’s theological commitments.  He was unimpressed with the specific words and themes inscribed in the New Testament books of James, Hebrews and Revelation, and occasionally pointed out the discrepancies and inadequacies of certain Old Testament passages.  Not all scriptural texts were created equal for Luther (and other early Lutheran reformers).  Whatever proclaimed the gospel – the “one big thing,” the justification we have received as a gift through Christ’s death and resurrection – was the thing to be grasped as of utmost value, wherever it occurred in the Bible.  Some scriptural passages are “thicker” with gospel than others, and Luther taught that these “thick” texts are the ones the Christian is to seek out and cling to for consolation and hope of salvation.


All of this makes it difficult for latter-day Lutherans to treat the Bible in its entirety as a kind of divine encyclopedia, suitable for dipping into here and there, concocting textual solutions to all sorts of modern problems.  The underlying difficulty, of course, is the endeavor to make the biblical text speak definitively to anything other than to the old, old story of how God acted in Christ to reconcile His creation to Himself.  Whenever we sift scripture to find citations that will address this or that issue of ethics, or social justice, or organizational behavior, or institutional polity, we transform scripture from a divine proclamation to a normative program, from a declaration of God’s action in Christ to a compendia of advice on achieving moral rectitude.  It is the way of the fox, not of the hedgehog.


What has any of this to do with sexuality?  Just this: when Lutherans begin their search to locate biblical texts in order to ratify the ancient structures of marriage and family, or to uphold the perennial discouragement of same-sex genital activity (or to overturn either of these injunctions), we had better be asking about the meaning and status of specific passages.  The Lutheran position on this has been pretty clear for a long time:  while everything in scripture is canonical, not everything there is of equal authority.  And because all the texts in scripture are not of equal authority, the effort to collate disparate passages into a unified set of ethical principles, or to extract a macroscopic paradigm – a biblical “theory of everything” – into which we can situate our particular concerns for, say, marriage or homosexuality, is doomed to failure.  Those principles and paradigms aren’t there.  There is no biblical answer to our questions about sexuality.  Nothing remains for us but Christ crucified.  The good news is: that’s all we need.


But what about love?


References to love abound in the Bible, particularly in the New Testament.  There are commandments, exhortations, encouragements to love.  We are invited to consider Jesus as a role model, to “love one another as I have loved you.”  Surely, it should be possible to construct a “love ethic” that is both uniquely Christian and morally vigorous.


However, it turns out that love is not at all helpful when reflecting on moral decision-making in actual ethically congested situations.  This is for two reasons.  First, love has no specific normative content.  We are always left asking ourselves, "Just what is the loving action in this particular case?"  When I was a pastor and someone unknown to me would come to the church office seeking financial assistance, I was routinely confronted with an uncertainty as to what was the appropriate loving act.  Give the person money?  Send her to the food bank?  Refer her to a social service agency?  Sit her down and lecture her on the virtue of self-reliance?  There are a host of possible answers, all of them driven by prudential or pragmatic factors, none of them dictated by the commandment to love.  Even if I am acting out of love for the neighbor, that doesn't tell me what I should actually do in a given instance.  The judgment about what to do will be informed by something else, and that "something else" falls into the domain of ethics, not simply the demands of love.


I've heard many times, as I'm sure we all have, the claim that, "Love is not a feeling, love is an action."  But what is it that allows us to determine that action A is an expression of love for the neighbor, while action B is not an expression of love for the neighbor?  Love itself will not help us make that determination; some other criterion is required.  The Church, it seems to me, has always been interested in making those kinds of determinations, and it has had to borrow from prevailing moral theories in the culture in order to do so.  The Church is a historical community, and it has frequently been parasitic on the surrounding culture, absorbing and sanctifying "whatever is true, noble and good" (Phil. 4:8) from its own historical context.  Why should we think it might be different when it comes to ethics?


Why is the lack of normative content in love in itself a problem?  Simply because, in our culture, the vacuum created by the absence of normative standards in moral decision-making is filled almost immediately by the subject’s own idiosyncratic personal preferences.  Where there are no external moral criteria to inform and guide our decisions – and love by itself cannot supply that criteria – our internal and eccentric predilections invariably take over.  The result is a collapse of the human ability to distinguish loving from unloving acts at all.  The ironic result, in other words, is that by relying on love as an ethical maxim, we experience the loss of any meaningful loving behavior.  But the fact is that we do employ objective normative moral standards as Christians, quite apart from the impulse to love, in order to discern genuinely loving actions; and it should neither surprise nor embarrass us that those standards are habitually derived from our cultural environment, and not from our theological premises.


A second concern is that love is too broad a concept to inform our moral judgments.  There are many things I do, prompted by love, that have no particular ethical significance.  I buy my wife flowers because I love her; I remind my teenage son to drive carefully when he leaves the house because I love him; I keep my front yard tidy because I love and respect my neighbors -- all of us have stories like these to tell, I'm sure.  But do any of us think that there are specifically ethical issues that lie at the heart of these behaviors?  Love may be an excellent motivation for all sorts of things, but there's no ethical consideration involved in the act of buying flowers, or moral principle at stake in the act of mowing the lawn.  Love may inspire our conduct even if it does not directly inform it; indeed, love is nothing more than a motivation to action.  Furthermore, love is only one possible motivational causal factor among many for proper human behavior.  But no one since the days of Joseph Fletcher would say that if I am motivated by love, then whatever conduct I undertake is thereby ethically appropriate.  Actions motivated by love may turn out to be pragmatically or prudentially suitable, but they are not automatically ethical.  For that, some other, more narrowly focused, set of criteria is necessary.  That's where ethics comes in.  And that's why the injunction to love is simply too broad to serve as a consistently reliable ethical principle.


In short, the commandment to love may explain the Christian's motivation, but it will never by itself provide the norms for ethical action.  Without those norms, in our public deliberations about sexuality it becomes equally plausible to claim that the loving action is, for instance, to offer the blessing of Christ to same-sex unions, or to argue the opposite.  Love simply cannot bear the ethical weight that some would impose on it.


Then there is natural law.  Natural law theory has had a long and shining history; both Roman Catholic and Reformed theology are partial to this approach in theological ethics.  Lutherans, on the other hand, have generally been skeptical of natural law, and with good reason.  On inspection, natural law turns out to be yet another version of the theology of glory.  Here’s why.


The fundamental position of natural law is this:  human beings, by observing and reflecting on natural phenomena and processes, can acquire all necessary knowledge of God's nature and God's purposes, including God's intentions for how human lives and human societies should be ordered.  So natural law includes three general claims:


First, a theological claim, portraying God as a rational designer.  Because he is a rational designer, God's ways are intelligible to human reason.  God is a promulgator of laws, principles and standards, which are all embedded in the operations of the natural world.  We can know the Creator, and what he expects of us, by observing his creation. 


Second, an anthropological claim, in which human beings are defined as rational creatures.  Our link to God is via our reason.  We have a robust and incisive rational power, the power to elicit from the natural world the basic truths about reality.  Probably the majority of natural law theorists have assumed that this faculty of reason is the essential ingredient in the Imago Dei.  We can be co-creators with God of our social and technological world, because we share with God the potential for intelligent creation.


Third, an ethical claim, that the human violation of these naturally-occurring dynamics and procedures is identical with the transgression of God's laws and standards, and are therefore, on that basis, wrong.  To violate nature is to violate God.  Among the many principles by which the natural world functions are fundamental moral principles.  Therefore, since God created an orderly universe, and since human beings come rationally equipped to discern that order, any snubbing of that order leads to ethical disorder.


There are two problems here, as I see it.  The first is that, if God has created an orderly cosmos, including the principles by which human beings ought to live, then who needs the cross?  Natural law presents the following plan:  God made a system for human beings to live in, human beings can figure out that system, and human performance within that system is regulated by a series of rewards and punishments.  But Christ crucified only makes sense if the system itself is dysfunctional, if the natural world does not in fact present to us the opportunities and means for aligning ourselves with God.  It is only if the world is so wracked by evil, and human beings so enslaved to sin and death, ensuring that we cannot secure our salvation by working within the system, that the death and resurrection of Christ can be genuinely understood.  If creation operates the way natural law theorists say it does, then the cross is superfluous.


The second problem is natural law theory asserts that God can be authentically known through our observation of nature.  But this means nature would have to reflect reliably the character of God.  But it doesn't.  That character of God is revealed to us historically, through the life, death and resurrection of Christ.  This is the force of Luther's notion of the "hidden God."  All we can genuinely know of God's being is what has been revealed to us, not through nature, but through history, particularly the historical event of Christ.  The God of the natural world, the Creator-God, is hidden from us.  But the God who acts in human life and human history is disclosed through the miracle of Christ.  It is this ahistorical character of natural law that I find troubling.


These two objections, taken together, summarize what I meant by associating natural law with a theology of glory (the information-rich glories of nature), at the expense of a theology of the cross.


I hope that no one is tempted to respond to this by saying something like, "When it comes to natural law ethics and a Christological focus, it's not either/or, it's both/and."  I don't see how that is possible.  You'd have to show me how starting theological reflection with nature (according to natural law) creates the necessity for Christ crucified.   I don't see how it can be done.  But maybe I've just got a blind spot here.


After all this, what else is left to say?  If neither a textual ethics, nor a morality grounded in love, nor natural law theory, can supply a basis for our conversation about sexuality in the ELCA, what other resources do we have available to us?  There is not much, I’m afraid.  But discuss sexuality we will, and must.  So we have become theological scavengers, taking up textual ethics from American evangelicals, or a “love ethic” from the heirs of nineteenth century liberal Protestantism, or natural law as mediated by the Roman Catholic tradition.  We take refuge in these systematic approaches, none of which is congenial to Lutheranism, and snipe away at one another.  It would be better to simply admit the truth: Lutherans can’t do ethics from within our own powerful but extremely narrow theological matrix, and insofar as sexuality is fundamentally an ethical matter, we can’t talk very well about sexuality either.  I’m convinced this is why so much of what passes for dialogue on sexuality in the ELCA embodies specious appeals and dubious arguments.


There is, finally, yet another difficulty.  Despite a history spanning nearly a half-millennium, Lutherans have not successfully developed a tradition of discourse.  Consider the early church, first with its heavy traffic of epistles engaging matters large and small, later with councils hammering out doctrine from the midst of public quarrels.  Consider the medieval church in the centuries leading up to the Reformation, with its incessant chatter of formal disputations and informal mystical effusions.  Consider the Reformed tradition, with its presbyterial structure making hallow the practice of communal deliberation.  Consider American evangelicalism, with its zeal for the platform and the microphone.  There has been a lot of talk in Christian history, much of it shaped by specific practices of rhetoric and dialectic cherished by their Christian practitioners.


Now consider the Lutherans.  We have had sixteenth century bellicosity, seventeenth century orthodoxy, eighteenth century pietism, nineteenth century ethnic isolation, and twentieth century organizational self-absorption.  But not much effort devoted to fostering the practice of internal conversation.  We simply do not have a heritage of intentional interpersonal reflection as a basis for making corporate decisions that allows us to perform well when we demand such decisions of ourselves.  We might be better served if we were Quakers, or Unitarians.  But we are Lutherans.  We inherit our consensuses, we do not make them.  The American experience for Lutherans has encouraged us to view Aristotelian and Renaissance forms of rhetoric and logic as irrelevant to the deposit of confessional theology.  Any attempt to find an effective mode of discourse for American Lutherans has rarely meant little more than an effort to learn English as a second language.


It would seem, then, that our greatest strength as Lutherans – our determined attention to the “one big thing,” the cross of Jesus Christ, which yields the central truth of the Christian message, that we are justified by grace through faith – ill-equips us to engage successfully the topic of sexuality.  We simply do not have the resources within ourselves to investigate the subject.  Sexuality is an adiaphoron for Lutherans, and more than an adiaphoron; it is a distraction.  If we try to treat sexuality as a matter of theological or ethical solemnity, we will fail.  Perhaps if we regard sexuality, including the issues of blessing same-sex unions or the ordination of gays and lesbians in active and committed relationships, as an item of organizational polity rather than as the subject of intense theological or ethical analysis, we will be more likely to reach an acceptable resolution to our current neuralgic discussions.  But it would be tragic if the ELCA, or the Lutheran community as a whole, is disabled or even dismembered by an adiaphoron.  If we remember what we do best, we may not suffer the worst.



Thomas D. Pearson

The University of Texas-Pan American