This comes hot on the heels of the reaction of (many? some? a few?) ELCA pastors and congregations connected to the LutheranCORE organization who can not abide the stance of the ELCA on homosexuality at the Churchwide Assembly and are now leaving the ELCA (or pulling funding anyhow) and joining a new denomination, the LCMC, Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ (not to be confused with the LC-MS, Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod).
When read with the same sort of lens as LutheranCORE and others have offered to the homosexuality discussion, the Bible has some pretty clear words on divorce, many from the mouth of Jesus himself, which actually seem less open to interpretation than the ones on homosexuality: Malachi 2:16, Matthew 5:31-32, Matthew 19:3-9, Mark 10:2-12, Luke 16:18, 1 Corinthians 7:10-17. I'm interested in how this will play out, as I imagine that (many? some? a few?) of the people who leave the ELCA for the LCMC will be (or will have in their close friends and family) people who are divorced and remarried. Will the LCMC reach out in welcome to them, even though one could assert, from the Bible, that they are "adulterers"? Will they only allow "repentant" divorced people who agree to remain celebate? Will they allow divorced (and further, divorced and remarried) pastors? Will they bless marriages (or unions) in which one or both of the partners has been divorced?
People think I'm just being snarky when I ask these sorts of questions, but I'm honestly not. I'm concerned where the argument for this sort of way of reading the Bible naturally leads, and how that will affect people who have experienced divorce. And here's a big reason why: In 2006, during my first year as a Lutheran pastor, the Gospel reading for one of the Sunday's in early October was Mark 10:2-16, which included Jesus' teachings on marriage being "joining a man and a woman into one flesh" and "what God has joined let no one separate" and "whoever divorces and remarries commits adultery."
Now, as a Lutheran pastor I am trained to draw my preaching from the Bible, to use the readings presented to shape the message, and to not be afraid to preach "Law" to lead people to long to hear the "Gospel"--to shake them up when needed so they can hear the Good News even more clearly. So I crafted a sermon that had some harsh things to say about the brokenness of human relationships--lifting up God's standard and showing how we fall away from it, how easily we stray from what God created us to be. "Jesus tells us God is against divorce," I told my congregation, "and even calls people who divorced 'adulterers'. But he does so in a 'love the sinner, hate the sin' sort of way. And the Good News is that we all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God." The idea was to shock them with God's standards (which are harsh in this text) so that they Good News that we're all broken might be clearer. But as I looked out at the room, I got the sense that what people were actually hearing was Bad News, and that the promise of forgiveness didn't sound so promising to them.
And then my face fell on a couple, with whom I had been on a hiking trip with the day before (Saturday--after my sermon was done and printed). On this "get to know the new pastor" hike, these folks in their late 50's shared their story with me: how they'd had difficult marriages that fell apart, how they'd felt alone for so many years, how they turned to our congregation for support and care in their brokenness, and found not a harsh critique of what had happened to them, but a loving, welcoming community that has as a guiding principle "Everyone is Welcome" and lives this out every day. And then, by sheer Grace, God introduced them to one another through the church--the best thing that ever happened to them, they said--and they fell in love and got married, transforming their lives and faiths in the process.
By the time I looked to these two (snuggling in their normal place in the pews) it was too late. I was on a roll, the law was flowing forth with gusto, and though I paused, there was not much I could do but keep going. But when I came to the part that was meant to comfort, to console-- to show people that all that law was simply to show us all that Jesus loves everybody equally, forgives sins, and calls us to a new way of life--it seemed somehow less than convincing, even to me. What I was trying to say simply did not mesh the story that I'd heard the day before: that God turns brokenness into healing, death into new life, heals broken relationships when people reach out with hospitality and love. And as I got down from the pulpit I felt like crap, realizing that I'd failed in my calling to preach the Gospel in ways that people can hear it. And though the law is appropriate at times, and we need to call one another to account, I simply couldn't see in this case how it helped--but I could clearly see on the face of these two people, how it hurt them.
So after worship I pulled the couple into my office, explained to them all these thoughts, and apologized for what I had done, how I had hurt them without good cause, and to speak in person the "Good News" part I'd failed to fully communicate in the sermon. And they were unbelievably gracious to me, as only broken and healed people can be, and embraced me. They could hear, even in my sermon, what my intent was and that I didn't mean them any ill will. And since we had started build a relationship (though only a day old) they were willing to cut me some slack (thanks be to God!). But I'm haunted by the fact that there were two visiting families that day who have never come back, whose stories of brokenness and healing I'll never get to know.
Its funny how this law/gospel thing works sometimes, and this experience was a sharp lesson for me in how much context matters. What might be the sort of "law" in one context that could lead to embracing Good News (say if I were counseling a couple to stick it out in their marriage even though it is hard) became something diabolical and merely hurtful in this context. And my attempt at a "law" sermon did preach the law that leads to repentance, but I was the recipient of it. In my own speaking I condemned myself, and only through turning to the reconciliation offered in Christ (which led me to apologize) did I hear the Good News for me. And how ironic that (contrary to my own preaching) these supposed "unrepentant, adulterous" remarried people became God's messengers of both Law (when I looked on them and realized my own sin) and Gospel when, despite what I had done to them, they offered me the unmerited grace I had denied to them.
And while I don't suggest we get rid of the law, we need to recognize that it is a much more mysterious thing than just enforcing God's law or calling for repentance. In this example the preaching of the law had precisely its interned effect--but the effect God had in mind was speaking law to me, not me speaking God's law to someone else. It is a reminder to me that our over focus on law (on rules and who breaks them) can lead us to harm one another and set up a false distinction between "law followers" and "law ignorers." The reality is that both of these false "camps" are harmful, and lead us to mistreat one another. The true power of the law is that it shows how screwed up this whole way of arguing is--we are all brothers and sisters in Christ and when we debate who is in and who is out, who is lawful and who is not, we end up hurting one another. And I'm pretty sure that if God keeps a sin score-card (which of course he doesn't but if he did) "Christians hurting other Christians in the name of Jesus" would fall pretty close to the top of that list. The truth of my sermon on divorce was that we were all broken people in need of reconciled relationships, and we needed each other both to remind one another of that fact, but also in solidarity to give and receive forgiveness as Jesus taught us.
So back to church politics, here's where this teaching of the strict "laws" against homosexuality (to the point where some Lutherans intend to "divorce" themselves from one another) seems to lead down a legalistic path that might be really hard to carry out lovingly in their context on other things like divorce. Its one thing to draw a line in the sand when it comes to God's law for gay and lesbian folks especially if that is culturally acceptable or tolerated, or if there aren't any (openly) gay people in your congregation. But to follow the same line of logic on divorce is going to stir up some major conflict in pretty much any congregation, and will make the task of telling people about Jesus that much more difficult.
Imagine a conversation in a restaurant: Non-Christian couple: "Thank you for sharing the Good News about Jesus with us! What is to prevent us from being baptized? Can we come to church with you on Sunday?" Christian evangelist: "Sure! But wait, is this your first marriage?" Non-Christian couple: "Um...no. We've both been married twice before." Christian evangelist: "I'm sorry, Christians believe that second marriages are adulterous and you wouldn't be welcome. Sorry. Bye!"
I fully understand the desire of my brother and sister Lutherans to stand on conscience and not allow what they understand to be false teaching. Homosexuality, they assert, is contrary to the clear teachings of the Bible. I also understand the desire (following dear Luther himself) to be willing to sacrifice the unity of the Church for one's principles. We are, after all, ecclesia semper reformanda, an "always reforming church." But I worry, if teachings such as this aren't consistent, wouldn't there quickly be yet another split--between those in the LCMC who insist on the same sort of reading on divorce (and perhaps, women clergy?!) against those who disagree. And then, I don't know what argument can be made that wouldn't contradict the one used on homosexuality.
LutheranCORE, wrote a letter sent on 8/21/09 suggesting ELCA congregations join LCMC and either leave the ELCA or withhold their money (but keep their pensions and other benefits of being part of the ELCA. This is bad stewardship in my view, but that's another blog). Sorry, back to my point--In this letter they assert: "The assembly has voted to remove the ELCA from the universal Christian consensus on marriage and homosexual behavior. Lutheran CORE intends to remain faithful to the clear teaching of Scripture and the consistent teaching of the Christian Church worldwide and throughout time.” I honor their claim and their commitment to their principles (and to Biblical principles), but I wonder if they realize how costly this will be for them, especially if they follow they "universal consensus on marriage and homosexual behavior" as taught by the Roman Catholic Church, which gives special honor to celibacy (contrary to Luther's own writings on the subject), and refuses to bless people who have been divorced, ordain women, or clergy in any sort of sexual relationship (with a few exceptions). The Eastern Orthodox Church also requires any clergy not married before ordination to remain celibate, and previously married pastors are forbidden to remarry (even in the case of death of the spouse). And there hardly seems to be "universal consensus" on divorce among protestants (even very conservative ones) and if there was, why don't we see (as disagreement generally plays out in our sound bite culture) signs proclaiming: "God hates divorce! Malachi 2:16" like the "God hates fags! Romans 9:13" signs that have been so "popular" in the past few decades?
To those of you who disagree with me, I would love to hear how the teachings on homosexuality and divorce are different, and why the teaching of groups such as LutheranCORE (or other conservative Christian groups that forbid homosexuality but allow divorce and remarriage) would be different on one arena of sexual behavior forbidden in the Bible than on another. To me, it seems like the approach that the ELCA is leaning into with the newly adopted social statement and decisions on GLBT relationships and clergy is much better able to answer these seeming contradictions.
In a nutshell, the change in the ELCA which the folks at LutheranCORE (and elsewhere) are so upset about isn't to categorically say "homosexuality is totally OK" but to admit to the existing range of Lutheran interpretation and applications a fourth possibility that allows congregations for which it makes sense (and who believe it Biblically) to bless same gender relationships and ordain pastors in these relationships. It doesn't actually force any Lutherans to believe any differently than they do, except to recognize that there are other points of view, and to trust that we can differ on this point without breaking fellowship with one another. This is a very Lutheran attempt to still be one in Christ amidst differences (which are many beyond this issue) and to say there are things we could be spending our time on (say, mission and evangelism) that would be more interesting to fight over than this. Here's the section on this range of understandings from the social statement:
This church recognizes that, with conviction and integrity:• On the basis of conscience-bound belief, some areconvinced that same-gender sexual behavior is sinful,contrary to biblical teaching and their understanding ofnatural law. They believe same-gender sexual behaviorcarries the grave danger of unrepentant sin. They thereforeconclude that the neighbor and the community are bestserved by calling people in same-gender sexualrelationships to repentance for that behavior and to acelibate lifestyle. Such decisions are intended to beaccompanied by pastoral response and community support.• On the basis of conscience-bound belief, some areconvinced that homosexuality and even lifelong,monogamous, homosexual relationships reflect a brokenworld in which some relationships do not patternthemselves after the creation God intended. While theyacknowledge that such relationships may be lived out withmutuality and care, they do not believe that the neighbor orcommunity are best served by publicly recognizing suchrelationships as traditional marriage.• On the basis of conscience-bound belief, some areconvinced that the scriptural witness does not address thecontext of sexual orientation and lifelong loving andcommitted relationships that we experience today. Theybelieve that the neighbor and community are best servedwhen same-gender relationships are honored and held tohigh standards and public accountability, but they do notequate these relationships with marriage. They do,however, affirm the need for community support and therole of pastoral care, and may wish to surround lifelongmonogamous relationships or covenant unions with prayer.• On the basis of conscience-bound belief, some areconvinced that the scriptural witness does not address thecontext of sexual orientation and committed relationshipsthat we experience today. They believe that the neighborand community are best served when same-genderrelationships are lived out with lifelong and monogamouscommitments that are held to the same rigorous standards,sexual ethics, and status as heterosexual marriage. Theysurround such couples and their lifelong commitments withprayer to live in ways that glorify God, find strength for thechallenges that will be faced, and serve others. Theybelieve same-gender couples should avail themselves ofsocial and legal support for themselves, their children andother dependents, and seek the highest legal accountabilityavailable for their relationships.
In addition, the assembly affirmed that we need to respect the "bound consciences" of one another--not just that some will have consciences which are bound to one interpretation, but also that our consciences are bound to one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. We need all of these understandings and applications of the Biblical witness in context because it allows us all to see more fully, and to be in relationship with those who profoundly disagree. This is not how the world works--you are meant to pick a side and battle until one beats the other and the true winner is declared. This other way just doesnt make sense.
The fact that it doesn't make sense (How can people who fundamentally disagree on important matters of faith and scripture not battle to the death until one mind is reached?) is part of its profound beauty, and its reliance on the "strange to the world" Lutheran theological emphasis on paradoxical "both/and" thinking. Christ was both human and divine, we are both sinners and saints, the world is both loved by God and profoundly disordered. Saturday morning at the Churchwide Assembly, Pr. John Nunes of Lutheran World Relief quoted Arthur Carl Piepkorn: "Only Jesus death and resurrection can make sense, ultimate sense, out of our terrifying absurdity." The prospect of holding this range teaching without splintering to little bits is "terrifyingly absurd" (its really haaard, to quote Nadia Bolz-Weber) and I think it reminds us how absurd this whole "one in Christ" thing is--Jews and Greeks, slaves and free, men and women, gay and straight, red states and blue states, and all range of worldly divisions that try to split us apart melt away because all we really have in common, when it comes right down to it, is Jesus. Crazy talk. But that's how we Lutherans roll.
It seems to me that people and groups like LutheranCORE that oppose the fourth option are going to have a much better time sticking things out together within this framework than outside of it. I think its reasonable to say something like: "Because of how we have come to understand together what the Bible means in our context, it makes sense to "bind" the teaching on homosexuality even as we "loose" the teaching on divorce and women pastors. But we don't claim to be totally right for all times and places and so we not only stay in fellowship with people who disagree, but we allow one another to challenge each other, because the capital-T Truth is not really in one understanding or another, but in Christ--the Word of God that comes to us in community through the Bible by the power of the Holy Spirit--and we all see through a glass darkly. "
But, as this assembly has proven over and over to me, that Word of God comes to us first as law, reveals us all to be in bondage to sin (legalists, antinomians, and mushy-centrists alike) at the foot of the cross, and painfully reveals how screwed up our community has become over this. What sort of witness is that we have been offering to the world?
What does speak volumes (and I hope is the witness of this past week) is that Christians, like the Lutherans (screwed up as we may be), can think all sorts of things on important issues, can disagree and even argue passionately with one another, but in the end, we are family--and don't allow these wordly divisions to get in the way of unity in Christ. At the danger of being redundant from my previous posts, what the ELCA claimed (and quite publicly) is to embody the words of the song "Peace" from Church of the Beloved in Edmonds, WA:
"Broken conversations, broken people, we're broken Lord. Terrified illusions, seeking comfort, we're seeking more. We need each other more than we need to agree. Father, Son, Spirit bless us with your love, with your grace and peace. Peace. Let there be peace."
We are a broken people, a screwed up church that can't figure out one authoritative teaching on sexuality for all times and places that will do what God intends. But we know we need each other, and we long to be in relationship with one another as Christ calls us to be. And like the couple from my church who found out what real love looked like because of the brokeness they had experienced in previous relationships and so were able to offer it to me when I needed it, we're just a bunch of broken people connecting to other broken people who find peace not in all being perfect (or even all being the same) but in Jesus who broke himself for us--and continue to break himself for us--so that we could be made whole. And I still wonder what would have happened with those two families whom I never saw again if I'd figured all of this out before now.