St. Luke's has engaged in an extensive consensus building process in an effort to find a consensus on how this congregation should respond to the ELCA's policy changes on the ordination and rostering of partnered homosexual pastors. During this process, several people asked Pastor Frank for a statement about his position on these issues. This page contains the paper that he wrote in response to these requests.
In Search of Consensus on a Contentious Issue
A paper by Pastor Frank Rothfuss
In the recently adopted Social Statement on Human Sexuality, the ELCA has stated ”that consensus does not exist concerning how to regard same-gender committed relationships, even after many years of thoughtful, respectful, and faithful study and conversation.”
Like the ELCA as a whole, St. Luke’s as a congregation is not of one mind on this issue either.
Some people wonder, “Why?” Why can the church not find common ground on this issue when we all accept the Bible as the Word of God?
Some people are confused about this issue. They listen to those with one perspective, and what they have to say makes a lot of sense. Then they hear another perspective, and it also seems very reasonable.
In this paper I will address some of the questions and arguments on the issue of homosexuality. I offer this paper as a contribution to the discussion as St. Luke’s considers its respond to the new ELCA policies, which allow for the ordination and rostering of partnered homosexual pastors and for the blessing of same sex unions.
What does the bible say?
The following five passages specifically speak about homosexual behavior:
Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 both say that a man lying with another man as with a woman is an abomination.
1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10 both include homosexual activity in a list of things that are sinful and contrary to God’s law.
Romans 1:26-27 describes homosexual activity as a “degrading passion.”
In addition, there are many passages that speak about the divine intention that man and woman are created for each other and that marriage between a man and a woman is divinely ordained and blessed by God. The Scriptures are consistent in the position that sexual activity is to be within this marriage relationship. The one exception is concubinage, which is a matrimonial-like relationship, always between a man and a woman in the Old Testament.
For an exegetical treatment of these passages you can read Background Essay on Biblical Texts for “Journey Together Faithfully, Part Two: The Church and Homosexuality” available on the ELCA web site or my paper entitled “A Study of Homosexuality Based on Romans One” available through the church office.
Do these passages speak to loving committed homosexual relationships?
There are those within the church who believe that these passages do not address the context of sexual orientation and lifelong loving and committed relationships that we experience today.
This argument suggests that ancient people did not understand that there were some people with a different sexual
orientation. While it is true that the concept of sexual orientation was only named in the 19th century, this doe not
mean that those living during Biblical times did not recognize people who were different in their sexual orientation, even
if they did not have a defined concept or word for this orientation.
This argument also focuses on orientation while the Biblical passages focus on behavior. The Bible categorically describes homosexual behaviors as wrong in and of themselves – no matter what the context, circumstance, or relationship.
Homosexuals do not choose their orientation.
The causes of homosexual orientation are not fully understood, but it is generally agreed that one does not choose his or her sexual orientation. Sexual orientation seems to be the result of a combination of genetic and environmental conditions.
Therefore, orientation is not a moral issue. This is why homosexual people have never been excluded from ordination in the ELCA.
The moral issue is one of behavior. This is why the previous policies of the ELCA expected pastors not to engage in any same gender sexually active.
Why do we follow some of the Old Testament laws and not others?
The Books of Moses contain different types of laws: civil laws, purity laws, and moral laws. The Holiness Code in Leviticus has laws against tattoos (Lev. 19:28) and against adultery (Lev. 20:10). It also has the commandment “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18).
Obviously, we still follow some of the Levitical laws, but not others. The question is, “How do we decide which laws still apply and which ones do not?”
Christians have long distinguished between the various types of laws. Civil laws are determined by the governing authorities. The civil laws of Moses were in force only as long as Israel was an independent nation.
The purity laws have to do with religious ceremonies and with dietary practices of the Hebrew people in the Old Testament period.
In the New Testament, these ceremonial and dietary laws were abolished. This is why we no longer abstain from eating pork and shrimp and why we do not observe Passover or offer animal sacrifices.
Moral laws are more universal and absolute. While ceremonial and dietary laws are abolished in the New Testament, not a single moral law is. In fact, Jesus deepens our understanding of the moral law when he includes looking at a woman lustfully under the commandment against committing adultery.
So, Christians continue to follow the moral laws which are found in the Old Testament.
There is a disagreement within the church about the laws prohibiting homosexual activity. Some consider them to be moral laws and others consider them to be purity laws.
The fact that the New Testament considers homosexual activity as immoral behavior would suggest that these Old Testament laws have more to do with morality than with purity.
Jesus never said anything about homosexual acitivity.
While it is true that Jesus never addressed homosexuality, this does not mean that he saw nothing wrong with homosexual activity. The only laws that Jesus addressed were the ones that he abolished (ceremonial and dietary) or the ones that he deepened.
Jesus did not address the issue of bestiality, either, but no one is claiming that therefore this is a law that we do not need to obey any more. The fact that Jesus does not mention these laws suggests that he accepted the standard interpretation.
Doesn't Jesus want us to love and accept everyone?
Throughout his ministry, Jesus built a reputation for loving and accepting everyone, especially those who were shunned or marginalized. This included people who were shunned because of their behaviors (e.g., prostitutes) as well as those shunned because of who they were (e.g., Samaritans).
Historically (and still today), the church has not always followed Jesus’ example. People have been excluded from the church for racial, economic, and even political reasons. Homosexuals have been among those who were not always welcome in the church.
The issue before the ELCA is about behaviors, specifically the behaviors of pastors and other rostered leaders. The church has always expected their leaders to live exemplary lives. It is not that pastors were expected to be perfect but that they were expected to be examples of holy living and to abide by certain moral and ethical standards.
Until last August, those standards included the expectation that homosexual pastors would live chaste lives. That was never a matter of not accepting homosexuals, but a matter of not approving of homosexual activity.
The church changed its position on the ordination of women, why not allow partnered homosexuals to be ordained?
Forty years ago, Lutheran churches in America first approved the ordination of women. This was a significant change in policy and practice. Some people look at the policy allowing for the ordination of partnered homosexuals as a comparable change.
There are, however, significant differences between these two issues. The exclusion of women from the ordained ministry was based on gender (who they were). The exclusion of partnered homosexuals was based on behavior (what they did).
The policy and practice of not ordaining women was based upon several Biblical passages which were long understood to mean that women were not suitable candidates for ordination simply because of their gender. The change in policy and practice was based upon a different understanding of these Scriptures.
This change in interpretation occurred when other Biblical passages which supported the ordination of women were given more attention. Once all of these passages were considered together, the ones that were traditionally understood to prohibit the ordination of women were seen as not applying to women in an absolute sense, but rather applying to wives for whom public roles were considered inappropriate in the Greco-Roman culture of the first century.
Therefore, the ordination of partnered homosexuals and the ordination of women are not comparable for two reasons: 1) one has to do with gender the other with behavior (the issue would be comparable if we were talking about prohibiting homosexuals from being ordained because of their sexual orientation); and 2) while there is Biblical support for the ordination of women, there is no Scriptural support for homosexual activity.
If we allow persons who are divorced and remarried to serve as pastors, why can't partnered homosexuals also serve as pastors?
This argument is based upon an understanding of Jesus’ comments on divorce and remarriage in which he compares it to adultery (Matt. 19:9). There are those who believe that marriage after divorce is wrong. There are others who believe that it is not remarriage but divorce that is wrong.
The majority of Christians follow the latter understanding. For them, divorce is something which requires confession and repentance, but once it has been forgiven, the person is free to marry again. In support of this is Jesus’ comment that Moses allowed for divorce because of human sinfulness.
One thing that makes remarriage different from homosexual activity is that marriage is something that the Bible describes as instituted by God. It is fundamentally a good thing. Homosexual activity is never blessed or encouraged in the Scriptures.
What is the ELCA's position on homosexual activity?
The ELCA adopted a Social Statement in 2009 which simply acknowledges that there is no consensus within this church about whether same-gender committed relationships are right or wrong. Therefore, the ELCA decided to allow individual congregations to decide whether to call a partnered homosexual pastor or to bless same-gender unions.
Technically, the ELCA as a whole has not taken a definitive position on this issue. For this churchbody, the question remains open.
Why stay in the ELCA?
If the Biblical position is so consistently negative about homosexual activity, then why would a congregation remain in the ELCA once this churchbody allows for the ordination and calling of partnered homosexuals?
Breaking fellowship with a churchbody to which one belongs is a serious matter. One thing Jesus considered important enough to lift up in prayer the night before he died on the cross was the unity of the church. “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one” (John 17:20). The unity of the church is of critical importance to the mission of the church.
This is why Martin Luther did not want to break away from the Roman Catholic Church. He wanted to reform the church, not start a new denomination. So the Reformers struggled with the question of what was necessary for true unity in the church. The conclusion that they reached is stated in the Lutheran Confessions (Augsburg Confessions).
Confessions (Augsburg Confessions). In Article VII, they wrote: “For the true unity of the Church it is enough to agree about the doctrine of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments.”
According to the Confessions, the central and fundamental issues have to do with the Gospel and with the Sacraments. Disagreements outside of these fundamental issues ought not divide the church. The policy changes made concerning the ordination of partnered homosexuals affect neither the doctrine of the Gospel nor the administration of the Sacraments. Therefore, this is not a church dividing issue because Jesus’ concern for unity is more important than these differences.
The different opinions on this issue seem to come from two different perspectives. Many of those who favor the policy changes that the ELCA made in August tend to see the ordination of partnered homosexuals as a justice issue. They also tend to approach this issue primarily from an affective perspective, based on their care and concern for homosexuals who are, by no choice of their own, in a predicament – caught between their orientation and traditional norms.
Those who are opposed to the policy change tend to see the ordination of partnered homosexuals as a moral issue. They tend to approach this issue primarily from a Scriptural perspective and believe that whatever God reveals in the Scripture is the authoritative norm for our faith and life.
Christian ethics would argue that there is no inherent conflict between social justice and morality. Properly understood and practiced, the two should support and enhance each other, not create conflicts of conscience. So, whenever social justice and morality are pitted against each other, one must consider whether this is a real conflict or only an apparent one.
While the Scriptures do not address issues of sexual orientation, they certainly support social justice and argue for an equal acceptance of all people including those who are homosexual. Certainly, homosexuals have been the victims of prejudice and discrimination for a very long time, not only in society but even in the church. That is a social justice issue. If homosexuals were excluded from the church or from full ministry in the church because of their sexual orientation, then it would be a social justice issue.
The Scriptures do address homosexual behavior, and this behavior is treated as a moral issue and categorically deemed to be wrong. This
is why the previous policies prohibited partnered homosexuals from serving as pastors. This policy was based on behavior, not orientation – a behavior that was considered to be contrary to the divine will.
My conclusions on homosexuality.
In the discussion of this issue, I find no reason to pit social justice against morality. Whether partnered homosexuals should be ordained and rostered is a moral issue, having to do with behavior not orientation. As a moral issue, it must be decided on the basis of Scripture which is the only authoritative revelation of the divine will and the most reliable guide to what is right and wrong.
The Biblical passages, as traditionally interpreted, consistently describe homosexual activity as against God’s will and God’s law. To come to a different conclusion, one must either disregard what the Bible says or interpret these passages in a different way.
Those who would simply disregard what the Bible says in certain passages stand in conflict with the Lutheran Confessions and with the ELCA’s Confession of Faith. As Lutherans, we accept “the canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the inspired Word of God and the authoritative source and norm of its proclamation, faith, and life.”
Those who would interpret these passages in a different way must make a compelling case for doing so, especially since the traditional interpretation is so long-standing and is still held by the vast majority of Christian scholars today.
I do not find the case for a new interpretation of the Scriptures to be at all compelling. So often those who seek to make this case begin with personal feelings and experience. Their interpretation of the relevant Scripture passages seems forced – as if they are seeking some way around what the passages actually say or mean rather than accepting the plain meaning of the texts.
My conclusions on a faithful response to the ELCA's new policies.
Even though I believe that the Biblical witness clearly stands in opposition to the policy changes made by the ELCA Churchwide Assembly in 2009, I also believe that this issue is not sufficient cause for breaking fellowship with the ELCA at this time.
There have always been issues about which faithful Christians have disagreed. Most of these disagreements have been over issues that were not fundamental to our Christian faith or to our true unity. Often, these disagreements have resulted in divisions within the church.
Such divisions are contrary to our Lord’s prayer in John 17, where Jesus fervently prays that we might be one. These divisions are also contrary to numerous passages in the letters of Paul which urge us to make “every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3).
The policy changes made concerning the ordination of partnered homosexuals do not compromise either the doctrine of the Gospel or the administration of the Sacraments – the two things our Lutheran Confessions consider weighty enough to affect the unity of the church. In other words, our unity is more important than these differences.
If we want to be faithful Christians, we must not allow a difference in interpretation of Levitical laws to compromise the true unity of the church. It is more important to honor Jesus’ deep desire that we be one, because every conflict and division only weakens our mission and our ministry.
I realize that there are those at St. Luke’s who do not share my conclusions about homosexuality and others who do not share my conclusions about staying in the ELCA. I believe that St. Luke’s ought to be a place where people of faith can disagree on these issues while continuing to respect, love, and embrace one another. Since this is not a church-dividing issue, there is no reason why we cannot worship together and do ministry together just as we did prior to the ELCA’s change in policy.