graphic website title banner

New sexuality study — separates law and Gospel

Mark Chavez (Director, WordAlone Network)

December 26, 2006

I read all of "Free in Christ to Serve the Neighbor: Lutherans Talk about Human Sexuality," the third study done under the banner of "Journey Together Faithfully." photo of Pastor Mark ChavezIt is the new Evangelical Lutheran Church in America study on sexuality, on which the denomination is asking members to comment. It's part of the process leading toward a churchwide social statement on sexuality in 2009. To me it's a smorgasbord that includes a few good dishes, a number of mediocre dishes and several dishes tainted with food poisoning. The problem is that it's hard to keep separate the tainted dishes from the good ones and one risks getting food poisoning by sampling anything.

That said, we should do all we can to warn ELCA churches and members about this study and its presuppositions, and encourage them to be sure to respond to the study. There are some members of the task force, a small minority at best, who read the Bible in agreement with the Church's 2,000 yearlong consensus on sexuality and sexual relationships. They'll need our support like laymen Lou Hesse, from Washington state, and John Prabhakar, M.D., from Illinois, did the first time around in the first two sexuality reports. In addition, I believe, the long-term effect of the trajectory set in this new study, if approved, will be devastating for ELCA churches and members, for our nation and for marriages and families.

Information about the study and how to download it are available on the Internet at Responses are to be submitted by Nov. 1, 2007.

It won't be easy to get people to respond because the length of the study (about 140 pages) will put most off. The study's authors, a 15-member task force and two ELCA pastors on churchwide staff in the church and society office, say they want broad participation in the study. You can be sure the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender activists certainly will participate and respond. The churchwide staff and task force might get an overall response that is more supportive of their apparent agenda, which seemingly accepts homosexual behavior, than was the response to the second Journey Together Faithfully study report. That feedback clearly rejected the GLBT agenda.

Here are my initial reactions.

The new study reports the 2001 Churchwide Assembly resolution that got this process started, but does not report the votes of the 2005 churchwide gathering. Why not? Why not tell people that the 2005 ELCA assembly rejected a local option for ordaining non-celibate homosexuals?

This third study reports on the devastating impact of pornography, sexual violence, commercial exploitation and so on, but says very little about the growing sociological evidence that the impact of sexual relationships outside of marriage is not good by any measure. The eminent scholar, Don S. Browning, Alexander Campbell Professor Emeritus of Ethics and the Social Sciences at the Divinity School, the University of Chicago, and Director of the Lilly Project on Religion, Culture, and the Family, has been one of the leading researchers in this area. An entire session of the ELCA study is devoted to "Sexuality and Economic Justice." Yet not once do they report the work of Browning and many other sociologists working with the same evidence:

. . . the modernizing process has done much to break down old cultural pressures and economic dependencies that functioned to support stable marriage formation. As a consequence, there has been more divorce, nonmarital births, and alternative family patterns in modernizing societies. Abundant social-science research has accumulated since the early 1990s indicating that these marriage and family disruptions have not been good for the health and well-being of either children or adults. ( ; see also ;;

The absence of this significant evidence is mystifying given the study authors' well-placed concern for the connection between sexual exploitation and children living in poverty. The ELCA could adopt a social statement in 2009 that would truly speak the Word of God over against the sin-distorted sexuality of our culture if the task force and the church and society staff would look at all the evidence.

The study itself (excluding the resources by David Tiede and Timothy Wengert at the end) is thoroughly antinomian. The glossary includes a decent definition of antinomian but apparently some of the study's authors don't know what it is or are explicitly antinomian. The definition from the study: "Antinomianism: literally it means without or against (anti) law (nomos); the term is applied to the view, rejected by the Lutheran reformers, that the Christian believer is free from the need for any and all moral laws, obligations or principles because they are saved by grace and not by moral effort."

The study begins in the wrong place by insisting that the church's understanding of sexuality must be grounded in the Gospel. While it distinguishes law and Gospel, it makes the mistake of separating them. This is a fundamental error since we are simultaneously and totally saints and sinners as long as we live in this old creation. There are several places where, citing Galatians, the study says we are not free in Christ to do whatever we want, but in the end the study points to doing just that--whatever we want. To be perfectly blunt, the authors of "Free in Christ to Serve the Neighbor" need to reread the Bible.

As I've said, all of us are sinners living in this old creation, and as such we all stand under the law in every aspect of our being including our sexuality and our sexual behavior. Every one of us is accused, convicted and condemned by the law. God the Father uses the law to drive us to His Son, Jesus, the good news of the Gospel. Yes, He forgives us under the Gospel and sets us free in Christ, but we are set free to obey Him, not to disregard the law or to declare that the law no longer applies to us as sinners.

Therefore, the church's understanding of sexuality must be grounded in both law and Gospel. The study's assertion that our understanding is grounded only in the Gospel is an antinomian move.

Ironically, the authors of this third study want it both ways. In the section on sexual violence the study wants to bring the law into the picture by calling for "justice" (clearly a matter of the law) but then in the same paragraph places limits on the law. After all, the authors don't want the law invading the privacy of "lovers" (though they don't mention it, it seems to be an attempt to protect sodomy):

As Christian people we will reflect on correcting imbalances of power, protecting the vulnerable against violence and coercion, and preventing destructive behavior. This is why it is not possible to discuss human sexuality without discussing justice. It may seem a little strange at first to bring justice into a consideration of our most intimate relationships. But the intimacy of these relationships makes us vulnerable, and so justice becomes imperative. Because our sexual lives are so intense, so complicated, and so private, justice can be difficult to sort out and enforce. For a variety of reasons, persons in sexual relationships may find it difficult to recognize that they are being coerced or unjustly exploited. On the other hand, we are concerned about the state intruding into the private affairs of lovers and families. That is itself a moral issue. (p. 44, emphasis added)

The contradictions among the study and Galatians and Tiede's study are glaring. The sexuality study says that the problem in Galatia was that Jewish believers were imposing Jewish religious culture on Gentiles. Paul would be shocked to read this! Tiede's study of Galatians rightly says it wasn't just a matter of culture but of God's law--the Commandments.

The new study commends as a resource the 1999 ELCA church and society resource, "Talking Together as Christians about Tough Social Issues." That document specifically says not to begin a discussion with the Bible. It says to first talk about human experience, next human wisdom and only then Christian tradition and the Bible. This new study, however, says to begin with the Bible. Why is churchwide still selling the 1999 resource and why is the task force commending a resource that explicitly contradicts the way they recommend approaching the study?

The 1999 ELCA resource reduced the Bible to just one of many factors in a discussion and insisted that our discussions must be "grounded" in human experience. Though "Free in Christ" insists otherwise, in the end its methodology is not that different from the 1999 resource--the Bible is just one among many authorities; and human experience ends up being ultimate.

"Free in Christ" says that we view everything with different lenses:

Philosophers, linguists, social scientists, and many theologians recognize that we make sense of things around us by using the lenses or filters we are given." (p. 29)
The matter of the lenses we acquire to make sense of our world is very complex. We never view our surroundings through only one lens. We have many, and they are constantly changing. Some of our lenses even conflict with one another. (p. 30)
We can and do view any matter related to sexuality through multiple cultural lenses, but as Christians we also bring our ‘gospel' lens. (p. 30)
As people of faith, we trust in a living God who continues to work through cultural realities. We believe in the liberating presence and work of the Holy Spirit. We believe that the lens of the gospel introduces us to a radical freedom that has the power to view other cultural practices and assumptions for what they are--as life-giving or harmful. The Reformation has taught us that even the practices and assumptions of the church must be critiqued by the clear lens of the gospel. (p. 31)

Notice the authors don't mention a law lens, but more troubling is the whole notion of lenses and reducing the Gospel to just one of many lenses. Since when is the very Word of God that which we can choose to use or not to use? Since when is God's Word a lens in our hands along with a number of other lenses? This whole approach makes us the authorities over the Gospel rather than vice versa, which contradicts the Lutheran understanding of the authority of Scripture. One of the resources at the end of the study is Wengert's introduction to Luther's treatise "The Freedom of a Christian," in which Wengert writes:

However, what Luther had discovered was that God's Word works on us. . . .More importantly, it is clear that we are not in charge of this Word (as if it left us with things to do or facts to believe) but rather the Word does something to us (namely: humbles and raises; terrifies and comforts; puts to death and brings to life). (p. 125)

Just as with "Journey Together Faithfully" 1 and 2, once everything is in our hands and we are left to decide what is right and wrong, the study repeats the dreary and predictable litany that we will disagree and we won't all see it the same way. The study says we won't even see the same object the same way depending on which lens we use to view it, but adds that differing and conflicting views are not ultimately important:

. . . this study lifts up the theme of Christian freedom in responsibility as a prominent part of the framework for this discussion. It insists that in Christian freedom matters of sexuality are matters for debate but are not essential to salvation or the gospel message. This evangelical (gospel grounded) hermeneutic (a way of interpreting) is crucial to articulate as a guide for moral deliberation in our current context where many people hear discussions of social issues as if Christianity were primarily a religion of law. (p. 2)
This model underlines the fact that Christians of good will can and do disagree about moral questions, even though they share many of the same values and convictions as well as a foundation in salvation by grace alone. (p. 3)
But disagreements in these matters will not by themselves separate Christians from one another or from their non-Christian neighbors. Even when we hold deeply contrary views on moral issues, questions of church and civil law are not necessarily church dividing. The church and its unity are grounded in the gospel. Our identity in Christ Jesus as forgiven sinners provides us with the basis from which to pursue what will truly benefit the earthly welfare of human beings and the world itself. (p. 15)
The differences we discover among ourselves in matters of sexuality and sexual ethics can be deep and serious. The study materials take note of this in various ways as we have seen. The study also operates with the understanding that differing views, when held in good conscience and in respect for God's Word, need not divide us; they are not matters of salvation. This is the clear implication of Paul's argument in Galatians. (p. 69)

In the above sections the blatant antinomianism (separating law from Gospel) shines through. Interestingly, not once does this new study wrestle in any serious way with this passage from Galatians (or parallel passages in the Pauline epistles, not to mention the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament!):

The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. Galatians 5:19-21

The basic presupposition of this study is that believers only need to agree on the Gospel and once we move into morals and ethics we will disagree as believers and that's fine. The result is that the study denies that there are absolute truths and values--except of course to insist that sex and sexuality are good--and worse yet, in the end, places it completely in our sinful hands to determine what might be good for our neighbor.

Watch out neighbor!