Dear Partners in Ministry:
Lutheran theology makes for a narrow and pronounced base of non-negotiable teaching—the center of our faith is found in our understanding of God's creative, redeeming, and continuing presence as it has come to us in the person of Jesus Christ. The structure of the church is not final, nor is the authority of those of us who have positions of leadership in the church. Our primary role is to be proclaimers of this saving and life-giving faith.
How I Speak as a Lutheran Bishop
We look to those we call into the public leadership of the church—bishops and others—to offer teaching that is grounded in the Scripture and the theology of our tradition. Our moral teaching ought to build up the faith and witness of the body, not to demand obedience or compliance. However, we do look to pastors to connect the faith and life, looking to Scripture as authority and valuing what Martin Luther called the "mutual conversation and consolation of the saints"—in other words, listening well to each other. Therefore, as this synod's pastor, I share with you here how I work my way through this matter before us.
Lutherans, Morality and Ethics, Human Relationships, and Marriage
Lutheran theology has long agreed with all Christian theology in understanding marriage as a gift of God. Marriage clearly emerges from the witness of Scripture as among the highest gifts given, even acknowledging the unfolding of several levels of understanding of human morality. (Recall, for example, the "chosen people of God" came into being through the twelve tribes descended from the patriarch Jacob and his twelve sons who arrived from four mothers—two wives and two concubines!) Nevertheless, by the end of the witness of Scripture, the teaching is clear: it is in marriage that human love reaches its zenith. The depth of love, commitment, sacrifice for the other, and the building block of future generations are all rooted in marital love, expressed in the Greek word agape, the same word used to describe God's love for us. Self-giving. Unwavering. It has long been in the nature of human behavior, with few exceptions, that we are drawn to a person of the opposite sex to be our partners for life. "The holy estate of matrimony," we have called it, and believe it to be.
We teach our children that as love and trust and intimacy grow, so does physical love proportionately, thus saving the most intimate of physical expression for that most intimate of relationships—marriage. We name promiscuous sex as the danger it is to stable love and marriage. Relative to our cultural context, this means we Lutherans are seen as quite conservative.
We Lutherans do make a distinction between the core of our theology—God's saving activity in Jesus Christ—and our teachings about ethical and moral behavior. Lutheran theology does not shy away from complexity and paradox. We make a distinction between what Luther called the "Two Kingdoms"—the spiritual and the secular—which frees us to deal with matters of human law and behavior at a level different from understanding God's saving humanity by grace alone. We are not made right with God by the perfection of our behavior or by the perfection of our understanding the will and mind of God for all things secular.
So, being very clear on marriage as a gift of God, how is it that Lutherans might think about the proposed amendment limiting marriage to the relationship between a man and a woman?
Here we live at the intersection of our biblical and theological tradition, on the one hand, and human reason and experience on the other, all which we claim as gifts of God. And all which creates enough complexity that, in facing the question of a constitutional law on marriage, faithful Lutherans may reach differing conclusions, and still find themselves firmly rooted in Lutheran theology and church life. The complexity might be understood in this way:
- We embrace and affirm marriage as being between a man and a woman. Our recent (2009) social statement makes that clear: "The historic Christian tradition and the Lutheran Confessions have recognized marriage as a covenant between a man and a woman...."
- Homosexuality has most often been an unspoken reality, almost never mentioned in the Bible—and where it is mentioned, many scholars will point out, it is likely not the behavior arising from different sexual orientation that is being addressed, but behavior that is aberrant and abusive. But now we find ourselves living in a time and place where, for the first time in our memory, people are open regarding their being drawn towards persons of the same gender for this deep and lifelong love and intimacy. We understand sexual orientation as a given, not a choice.
- So we face a new question: what is the response of the church—of the Christian body of teachings and values—to those who would seek the same life-long, sacrificial, committed, intimate relationship in their lives with partners of the same gender, because that's where their yearning for love takes them?
- We Lutherans, in the ELCA social statement of 2009, recognized that many theologians and congregations come to a position of support and affirmation of such persons and of the health of such relationships. We are becoming increasingly aware of the quality, longevity, and sincerity of these relationships between persons of strong faith and deep commitment to following the God we claim to know in Jesus Christ. They are drawn to thank God for the love they have found in each other and yearn for the support of their faith community. And an increasing number of congregations are coming to believe that giving such support is a part of healthy and faithful ministry. Our 2009 social statement affirmed the faithfulness of congregations that offer such support.
- Yet this same statement, adopted in 2009, isn't so quick to close the door on the traditional understanding of the church in not supporting such relationships. The statement acknowledged that healthy and faithful congregations are coming to different conclusions. What do we make of this paradox? For now, we live in a grey area, trusting God's good time to make things more clear.
The Proposed Marriage Amendment
So this brings us to this amendment on the November ballot in Minnesota this year, and the question of whether we put in our constitution a prohibition against same-gender marriage. My position, informed by the theological and contextual factors noted above, leads me to three observations, a conclusion, and two continuing concerns.
- Let's use language more precisely, without slogans. The amendment does nothing to "defend marriage." Marriage is certainly one of God's supreme gifts to us. It should be of great alarm to our faith tradition that marriages crumble so often and quickly in our culture. No matter what position various churches may take on the amendment, we should stand together to undergird and support the gift of marriage and the importance of stable families for children and society. Marriage preparation, marriage enrichment, marriage counseling—these have been and will continue to be mainstays of the church's ministry. But it is now widely accepted that same-gender attraction is not a choice, it's an orientation, and "marriage" between two same-gender partners only seeks to provide the same depth and richness in their relationships as good marriages do among heterosexual couples. If anything, more open support for same-gender, life-long committed relationship (which is the nature of the relationships acknowledged by the ELCA 2009 statement) enhances stability in our society by including the homosexual community in its affirmation.
- Lutherans embrace both Scripture and the role of reason. ("Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason..." Luther, Diet of Worms, 1521). To re-examine past practice and belief in the light of current knowledge and reason is not caving into culture, it is recognizing reality and using our minds, both godly gifts.
- It is not a cowardly thing to withhold judgment or to hold back from entrenched and absolute positions; rather, it is to be open to unfolding, deeper understandings. To make absolute judgments about same-gender relationships when most of our society has so recently come to be aware of them is to be closed to new and fuller understanding. It is to repeat the mistake of the church of the 1500s which concluded that Galileo and Copernicus were heretical because the Bible plainly spoke of the sun moving around the earth. It is a godly thing to remain open to what God may be teaching us about human relationships in this time.
I do not support this amendment that prohibits the marriage of same-gender couples. I believe such a position is consistent with the work our church has done on these matters. We recognize that neither our church nor our society is of one mind. Our church has said both understandings and practices should continue to exist, side-by-side, both held by the conscience of faithful people. We affirm differing patterns of ministry and response to same gender couples. Some congregations have seen it as faithful and appropriate to offer support to what we have called "publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships." This amendment would appear to preclude these congregations from offering that ministry and that support. More broadly, the amendment removes the possibility of our coming to an increased understanding of and support for such life-long, committed same-gender relationships as a society. It puts into the constitution one view which denies equal treatment to some couples under the law. I don't believe it is either a conclusion to which our social statement leads us or a compassionate way for us to shape human community in this state.
Two Continuing Concerns: Converting the Energy of Division toward Energy for Common Ground
We should recognize that there are a great many concerns on which supporters and opponents of the marriage amendment can find common ground. We all would be well-served if some of the energy spent on this ballot issue could carry over to address these matters:
- Fidelity and stability in marriage. We live in an over-sexualized culture, rife with infidelity and broken relationships. Roughly 50 percent of marriages end in divorce. It may be that the instability of marriage has increased the pattern of couples living together without marriage at all. Social instability has destructive ripple effects in many directions. Healthy, stable, life-long relationships, whether heterosexual alone or homosexual as well, serve the well-being of society.
- The well-being of children. Proponents of the marriage amendment cite the well-being of children as a compelling reason for their support. Whether one supports or opposes the amendment, no one should dispute that society has an overwhelming stake in the well-being of children. Poverty, hunger, unsafe housing, domestic violence, substandard education—all these warrant vigorous advocacy by Christian people who seek strong and healthy structures for our children's well-being. All these have the potential of creating social chaos and damaging our children.
Allowing for the possibility of life-long, committed same-gender relationships poses no threat to faithful heterosexual marriage or healthy settings for our children. But regardless of one's position on the amendment, our whole society would be well-served if the energy and money spent on this political fight were to be spent instead on support for marriage and the well-being of the children of this state. The entire political and religious spectrum would have no differences on these critical issues.
Bishop, Saint Paul Area Synod
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America