ELCA Fallout

In the cover story of this month’s “The Lutheran: ” “Sexuality issue causes division, sadness — and hope: Assessing the fallout from decisions made at the 2009 Churchwide Assembly, one can read the following:

Jo Hollingsworth, an admittedly left-leaning member of Hope Lutheran Church in Fostoria, Ohio, supports ELCA‘s decisions on sexuality issues. She finds her decision strengthened by her first-ever reading of the Bible from cover to cover in just more than a month’s time.

“In a book this extensive — more than 700 pages — of course the writers contradict themselves. They say gays are anathema, but they say divorce is anathema too,” said Hollingsworth, a lifelong Lutheran. She picked up on another theme as well: “You’d better be careful before you go around condemning people, saying that they are wrong.”

You can not see the full article unless you’re a subscriber, but this is all of Ms Hollingworth’s printed comments.  For me they highlight several important problems with Lutherans and Scripture.  First, she self-identifies as “left-leaning.”  That’s fine as far as it goes–I don’t pretend to believe that there is such as thing as pure objectivity–but one has to question the purpose for reading the Bible cover-to-cover after such a vote, in the middle of a controversy, in light of a political ideology.

If someone is just now, for the first time, reading the entire Bible, and doing so with a leftist bent then of course it will “strengthen” her decision.  I can’t imagine any other reason to do so in light of the ELCA controversy on gay rostering than to find what you want to find there.  This sense is strengthened by her description of what she read.

“Of course the writers contradict themselves,” she says.  Well of course she thinks so.  She came at the book already believing the authors are merely human writers of spiritual literature.  Rather than focus on the reader, herself, and what God may want her to have ears to hear, she focus on the writers.  The “of course” shows how she sees Scripture as literature and found what she expected and that there is not one true author but dozens of “writers.”

It’s interesting that she says they “contradict themselves,” not “one another.”  One might expect multiple writers from different cultures over thousands of years to say things that at least appear contradictory. It’s another thing to claim that John, say, asserts one truth in his first epistle and another in his second, or Matthew one thing in one chapter of his Gospel and another in a different chapter.

Nor is she willing to concede that what looks like contradiction may be a flaw with the reader, any reader, including her.  One does not have to believe that Scripture was “transcribed”–God’s mouth to the writer’s hand–in the originals to believe that God is indeed the sole author of Scripture who has a consistent message full of mystery and paradox that He wants us to hunger and thirst for so deeply that we “eat this book.”  It is a message that must be prayerful sought after in communion with the Holy Spirit and God’s people over decades, not a quick cover-to-cover reading in a month in order to confirm one’s political positions.

Apparently, as evidence that “the writers contradict themselves” she offers this: “They say gays are anathema, but they say divorce is anathema too.” What’s the logic here?  That since many Christians shamefully no longer consider divorce to be a problem that we also should think homosexuality is fine and dandy?  That somehow seeing divorce as wrong contradicts seeing homosexuality as wrong?  Does she understand that a contradiction is saying one thing about some thing and then saying something contrary about the same thing?

What’s more, it sure sounds to me like she at least concedes that Scripture condemns homosexuality.  Her solution, then, seems to be that we shouldn’t listen to that condemnation because the writers contradict themselves and also hate divorce.  It begs the question of why should we listen to anything Scripture has to say about any moral truth claim.

(Granted this reasoning can be taken too far, as in “You don’t believe God created the world 15,000 years ago so you can’t believe in the resurrection.” This, however, is not the same thing.  One thing that is clear from reading Scripture is that when it comes to sexual relations, Scripture consistently proclaims that God-pleasing sexual relationships can only be found within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman.)

N. T. Wright addressed just this kind of thinking in an interview on his views on homosexuality.

So the attempt to get around Paul’s language on homosexuality by suggesting that its cultural referent was different than ours doesn’t work?
At any point in Paul, whether it’s justification by faith or Christology or anything else, you have to say, of course this is culturally conditioned. He’s speaking first century Greek, for goodness’ sake. Of course you have to understand it in its context. But when you do that, it turns out to be a rich and many-sided thing. You cannot simply say, as some people have done, that in the first century homosexuality had to do with cult prostitution, and we’re not talking about that, therefore it’s something different. This simply won’t work. So yes, it is impossible to say, we’re reading this in context and that makes it different. What can you still say, of course, and many people do, is that, “Paul says x and I say y.” That’s an option that many in the church take on many issues. When we actually find out what Paul said, some say, “Fine, and I disagree with him.” That raises all kinds of other issues about how the authority of scripture actually works in the church, and at what point the authority structure of scripture-tradition-reason actually kicks in.

That’s really what’s at the heart of this issue, and everyone knows it, and that’s basically Ms. Hollingworth’s reasoning: Paul says x but I say y. I once had a Christian tell me “I don’t care what the Bible says about abortion.”

If it’s just a collection of sacred stories–and I used to love that word, story, and am growing it hate it because so-called “progressive Christians” are using it in a kind of 21st century demythologizing project–from which we can find our own stories validated, and from which we can pick and choose based on supposed contradictions, ignorance of Science at the time of writing and out-dated cultural notions then it’s not really Scripture at all. It’s merely an edifying good read, like Dostoevsky.

Adultery, pre-marital sex, homosexuality are all expressly forbidden in Scripture.  Divorce is allowed because of the hardness of our hearts, but considered sin, and though polygamy was practiced (like divorce) it was not endorsed (like divorce was not endorsed), and may even have been implicitly condemned in such passages as Deuteronomy 17:17 where God commanded that the king “shall not acquire many wives for himself.”

Ms. Hollingworth’s reasoning, and I realize “The Lutheran” could not have done her full views justice, and neither can I, is like arguing “The writers say that stealing is anathema, but they say dishonoring the Sabbath is anathema, too.”  First of all, so?  Don’t do either, then.  Second, just because many people do not “remember the Sabbath and keep it holy” is hardly a rationale for stealing.  And finally, it is no way no how a contradiction of any sort.

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