Many speakers at the CWA emphasized that we are all sinners in need of the Gospel. But many of these same speakers argued forcefully that non-celibate homosexuals should be able to have their relationships blessed (essentially equivalent to marriage) and to be able to serve as pastors in the ELCA. There is a fundamental disconnect at this point: the conclusion from this argument is that homosexual sex is not sin, and that non-celibate homosexuals are forgiven sinners even if they continue to engage in homosexual intercourse. But the speakers did not argue the second point on the basis of the Scriptures; indeed, such a position would be impossible to hold based on the Scriptures. Let’s be clear: there is not one positive mention of homosexual sex anywhere in the Old or New Testaments. Those who have looked have looked in vain. And it is not simply that there are a few “anti-gay” proof-texts such as Leviticus 18:22, Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9, or 1 Timothy 1:10. All of the Scriptures speak with one voice and place sexual intercourse firmly and completely within the marriage of one man and one woman. All passages that speak of marriage speak of a man and a woman; all references to God and Israel, or Christ and the Church, take marriage between one man and one woman as their human metaphor. Simply try to read the prophet Hosea, or Song of Songs, or Ephesians 5:22-33 or Revelation 19:6-9, or Revelation 21:9 in any terms other than “one woman and one man.” It cannot be done, because from the very first pages of the Scriptures, God created humans to be male and female; “therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:22-24). There simply is no other positive paradigm in the Scriptures. (A helpful reference to the multitude of ways that the Scriptures hold up marriage as the paradigm and all other relationships as deviations from God’s will for creation is Robert Gagnon’s The Bible and Homosexual Practice.)
One reason that supporters of the ELCA resolutions rarely refer to these passages is that they are convinced that these simply do not apply to our current circumstances. (This is related to another difference between the ELCA and the LCMS, to which I will return in a moment.) So, to use Romans 1 as an example, it was argued on the floor at the CWA that when Paul speaks about “exchanging natural relationships for unnatural ones,” it would be unnatural for the speaker, as a gay man, to engage in heterosexual relationships. In other words, “natural” and “unnatural” are understood in reference to “what is natural or unnatural for me.” That is the polar opposite of what St. Paul says. The sole point of reference for Paul in Romans 1 is not what feels right or feels natural for any individual, but how God created things to be. From 1:18-1:32, the whole argument is one from creation, not from individual desires or how “I feel I was made.” Paul explicitly says that God gave them up “in the lusts of their hearts.” Sinful humans will always regard “the lusts of their hearts” as natural, and everything that opposes their (our!) desires as unnatural. Paul is not saying, as some speakers suggested, that it is sinful for heterosexuals to give up their heterosexual relationships for homosexual ones. Since it is God’s creation that sets the benchmark for what is natural, anything that goes against that creation is “unnatural.” And since homosexual sex goes against the way God set things up between men and women, it is fundamentally unnatural. But Paul goes on to list a number of other things that are unnatural, because they go against God’s creation: “all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice…envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness…. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless” (Romans 1:28-32). All of this is unnatural, because it goes against the will of God, which is built into His creation.
To return to one of the differences in how the LCMS and the ELCA read the Scriptures, it was clear from the speakers that those who were in favor of the changes (and probably at least some of those who were opposed), that they believed the Word of God to be something the Bible contains, but that the Bible cannot be unqualifiedly identified with the Word of God. We confess that the Bible, as a whole, is the Word of God because it all testifies to the Word-made-flesh, Jesus. Luke 24:27 says, “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, [Jesus] interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” And Jesus says in Luke 24:44, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” In John’s Gospel, Jesus says to the Jews, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life” and “If you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me” (John 5:39-40, 46). He makes no distinction: the entire Old Testament testifies of Him (cf. 2 Timothy 3:14-17, especially v. 15, on the purpose of the Scriptures, as well as 2 Peter 1:19-21). The New Testament contains the witnesses to Jesus as the fulfillment of the whole Old Testament. We do not have the luxury or the insight into the Mind of God that would allow us to divide the Scriptures into “Word-of-God” and “not-Word-of-God.” Who has the divine insight to see, outside of what is actually in the Scriptures themselves, what belongs in the category of God’s Word and what does not? How would we go about doing so, other than by our own personal preferences? As soon as it is up to us to divide the Scriptures in this way, we place ourselves over the Scriptures, rather than in submission to them.
The ELCA, and those in the LCMS who are sympathetic to its theological commitments, hold that the “Gospel” is absolute, and that the “Gospel” can trump the Scriptures if we cannot see how some passages are compatible with that “Gospel.” But what is this gospel? It seems to be a general “yes” to whatever “seems good to the culture and to us.” And if it seems good, then it must be the work of the Holy Spirit. There are many issues bound together here, but it comes down to this for the ELCA: the Bible contains the Word of God, but it is not itself to be identified with the Word of God. This makes it difficult even to appeal to the Scriptures for standards for Christian behavior and life. Indeed, what is to stop any individual from declaring that some sin condemned by the Scriptures is now approved by “the Spirit”?
Pr. Timothy Winterstein