The 'big tent' and the camel's nose: The ELCA and homosexuality
While it's debatable whether religioustolerance.org consistently adheres, in practice, to the wholly praiseworthy approach to its subject-matter which it espouses, there can be no doubt that this page on the site is an excellent resource for understanding the "Evangelical" "Lutheran" "Church" in America's history on the topic of homosexuality.
Nor, I believe, can it be doubted that the speculation in the article's last paragraph about the future direction of the ELCA on the subject, and its reasons for advancing that speculation, are sound.
The ELCA Churchwide Assembly in Orlando is currently wrestling with a patently illogical and absurd proposal to ordain some active homosexuals while retaining an official policy forbidding their ordination.
Given the history of the ongoing debate on homosexuality in the ELCA, I maintain that the inconsistency and blatant unfairness of this proposal is both intentional and wholly precedented in the ELCA as a political tactic employed by liberals in the past specifically on this issue. It will obviously cause a quite justified outcry against its arbitrary and unjust illogic from both sides, and cannot conceivably be sustained in the long run. It's essentially an attempt to put the ELCA as a whole into a position in which it will be impossible in the very near future for it to refuse to ordain all practicing homosexuals.
By doing an "end-around" once again of the necessarily church-dividing question of whether either practitioners of or apologists for something consistently spoken of by Scripture as utterly incompatible with the Christian faith may be tolerated in a church body which pretends any sort of allegience to Scripture, the ELCA is considering "compromising" its way into a position in which the homosexualists cannot, in the long run, lose.
A second proposal being debated in Orlando would permit ELCA clergy to "bless" same-sex relationships- which, once again, are explicitly condemned by Scripture in both testaments and every stratum.
Two key items on the religioustolerance.org time line need to be pointed out. First,
1991: Homosexuals affirmed: 1991 biennial Churchwide Assembly moved to "affirm gay and lesbian people, as individuals created by God," to participate fully in the life of congregations of the ELCA. However, the church does not bless their committed relationships, nor does it allow gays and lesbians in committed relationships to be ordained or to remain as clergy.
The wording of the 1991 resolution is elegant in both its subtlety and its political acumen. Who can deny that homosexuals are "individuals created by God?" At the same time, the invitation not merely to attend public worship, but to participate fully in the life of congregations of the ELCA, passed virtually unnoticed among those in that church body (myself included) who should have recognized that with the adoption of that language, the question of the ELCA's ultimate acceptance of homosexuality at every level and in every sense was assured.
While consistently approaching ethical matters from a purely antinomian position (except, of course, where "political correctness" is concerned; this, the ELCA bizarrely treats in a nearly identical fashion to the way in which Luther and the Confessions treat the Law), it is significant that the ELCA never saw fit to make explicit that this action put the church body on record as holding that homosexual behavior is fully compatible with the Christian life. Actively gay members of ELCA congregations cannot be denied absolution, Communion, and full membership in good standing on the ground of their sexual behavior without bringing the pastor and congregation which attempt it into direct conflict with ELCA policy!
This, despite St. Paul's explicit teaching in I Corinthians 6:9 that- absent repentance- they will be denied salvation (it should be noted here that while ELCA antinomians both try to avoid this fact, both Luther and the Lutheran Confessions teach that justifying faith cannot co-exist with willful and unrepented sin)!
It is here that we first encounter the "camel's nose under the tent-flap" strategy which I am convinced is behind the bizarre proposal to ordain some practicing homosexuals, but not all: if homosexual behavior is indeed compatible with the Christian life, on what possible grounds can actively gay individuals be denied ordination? And can the church tacitly accept uncommitted homosexual relationships, while condemning committed ones?
This policy of quietly framing the issues at each successive stage of the debate in such a way that only the favored response is logically possible has been consistently followed by the ELCA nomenklatura from the church body's inception. In this case, it resulted in conservative members of the ELCA, without realizing it, agreeing as early as 1991 to a policy which made their own position on the subject logically inconsistent, and thus untenable! More to the point, it essentially and fundamentally settled the question of the acceptance of homosexual behavior in the ELCA. What has followed, and what will follow in the future, is a mere playing out of what the 1991 Churchwide Assembly made inevitable.
The resolution to authorize the ordination of some practicing homosexuals is simply a case of the same strategy being used again, only a little more blatantly.
The second item in the religioustolerance.org timeline especially worthy of note is this:
Theologians remain divided over the homosexual issue. The Rev. Ronald Rude of Denver, CO asked "does the Gospel override the Bible." He said that when the church reached decisions over human slavery, the status of women in the church, and divorce, that various Bible passages were indeed overridden.
It should be noted in passing that while the Bible regulates slavery, it nowhere endorses it. It should also be noted that, while ELCA practice has indeed been to ignore the teachings of Scripture on divorce and the role of women in the Church, its unfaithfulness on these issues is hardly an argument for being unfaithful on others! In any case, the Bible and the Lutheran Confessions (as well as Lutheran theology historically) use the word "Gospel" in two senses.
The first sense is as a generalized term for the entire substance of the Christian faith; obviously, to speak of a conflict between Scripture and "the Gospel" in this broad sense would be absurd for a church body operating out of Reformation (or even historically Christian) understandings of the relationship between the two.
The other, more theologically significant sense of the word- "the Gospel" in its narrow or "proper" sense- is the good news of God's grace and forgiveness in Christ, as distinguished from the "bad news" of God's Law, which does not conflict with the Law but rather is spoken to those who see their failure to meet the Law's demands and embrace (and thus benefit from, through faith) in God's amnesty toward breakers of the Law (though frowned upon in the ELCA, the historic Lutheran position is that the Gospel is efficacious only for those with faith in Christ, and that justifying faith precludes intentional, ongoing violation of the Law).
Partially because of a profound misreading of Article VII of the Augsburg Confession, and partially because of its own liberal theology (universalism- the teaching that everyone will eventually be saved, whether with or without faith- is openly espoused in ELCA seminaries and widely accepted by pastors who have graduated from them in the past twenty or twenty-five years- though those involved will usually lie or at least dissemble about this when challenged), the ELCA has completely lost its understanding of the Gospel in the narrow or proper sense of the word.
This is a serious matter, since from the point of view of historic Lutheranism it raises questions about whether the ELCA (or many of the other liberal churches in the Lutheran World Federation) can be recognized as Christian at all, much less Lutheran. Pastor Rude's remark reflects the chaotically confused understanding of the word "Gospel" in the ELCA, where it generally has a third meaning: a vague, nebulous "bottom line" which- in typical Modernist fashion- consists of what the individual presumes to dictate to God concerning what one chooses to call "the Christian faith" really ought to say. In practice, it always overrides Scripture in both its aspects as Law and as Gospel!
In the face of this intellectual chaos, political deceit and generalized confusion, ELCA presiding bishop Mark Hanson speaks about "living together faithfully" while disagreeing about the whole matter. Typically for the ELCA, this expression simply ignores the actual basis of that disagreement: that the understanding of one side is precisely that the other is not being faithful, and that the ELCA would be unfaithful by adopting its position!
Indeed, in the light of Scripture and the Confessions (especially those speaking of the relationship between willful, on going sin and justifying faith), the ELCA is being unfaithful by merely tolerating in its midst those who advocate the liberal position!
The corollary to any honest reading of the conservative position- that "faithfulness" would require the rejection of unfaithfulness and exclusion of those who seek to make the Church unfaithful- has been embraced by Christianity since the days of the apostles, as indeed it must be by any entity which defines itself by a common set of beliefs (especially, in this case, when- the 1991 Churchwide Assembly to the contrary- those beliefs concern a practice defined by I Corinthians 6:9 as incompatible with salvation!) . But given the chaotic, Modernist and even Post-Modernist state of the culture which has so thoroughly co-opted the ELCA, coherent and effective opposition to the agenda of the official church is no more possible than making the intellectually nihilistic theology of the ELCA itself coherent. What matters is the will to power, and the fundamental right embodied in the very understanding of theology embraced by the ELCA to remake God and Christ in one's own image.
I predict that both initiatives before the Orlando assembly will be defeated. The self-deceived traditionalists who remain in the ELCA will probably rejoice, as if some great victory has been won. But the ultimate triumph of the homosexualist cause is guaranteed by the impossibility of theological coherence in as thoroughly Modernist and Post-Modernist a body as the ELCA- and (to the extent that logic plays any role in this debate) by the adoption of a policy which logically committed the ELCA as early as 1991 to the ultimate ordination of any and all active homosexuals.
If the homosexualists suffer a setback this time, their agenda will simply be deferred until the next Churchwide Assembly, or the next. The ultimate outcome of the debate is as certain as tomorrow's dawn. It's like a basketball game in which expiration of time always results in yet another overtime period as long as the home team is behind- but immediately ends the moment they take the lead. Indeed, the final score was predetermined fourteen years ago, in 1991!
Like everything else in our Modernist culture (as witness the totalitarian impulse manifest in the phenomenon of "political correctness"), diversity lasts only as long as it takes for the Left to get the upper hand- at which point that which it once insisted should be an open question becomes a closed one.
The ongoing tragi-comedy of the ELCA's adventures with homosexuality only provides a classic example of what Charles Porterfield Krauth pointed out long ago:
When error is admitted into the Church, it will be found that the stages in its progress are always three. It begins by asking toleration. Its friends say to the majority: You need not be afraid of us; we are few and weak; let us alone, we shall not disturb the faith of others. The Church has her standards of doctrine; of course we shall never interfere with them; we only ask for ourselves to be spared interference with our private opinions.
Indulged in for this time, error goes on to assert equal rights. Truth and error are balancing forces. The Church shall do nothing which looks like deciding between them; that would be partiality. It is bigotry to assert any superior right for the truth. We are to agree to differ, and any favoring of the truth, because it is truth, is partisanship. What the friends of truth and error hold in common is fundamental. Anything on which they differ is ipso facto non-essential. Anybody who makes account of such a thing is a disturber of the peace of the Church. Truth and error are two coordinate powers, and the great secret of church-statesmanship is to preserve the balance between them.
From this point error soon goes on to its natural end, which is to assert supremacy. Truth started with tolerating; it comes to be merely tolerated, and that only for a time. Error claims a preference for its judgments on all disputed points. It puts men into positions, not as at first in spite of their departure from the Church's faith, but in consequence of it. Their repudiation is that they repudiate that faith, and position is given them to teach others to repudiate it, and to make them skillful in combating it.
Some things just don't change. One wonders how long it will take Krauth's heirs in the ELCA to wake up and smell the camel.