The Elephant in the Room: Divorce
The other night I forced myself to sit down and re-read the Recommendation on Ministry Policies. It had been a couple of weeks, and I thought it time to look at the thing with fresh eyes. This time through I was stunned at the red thread running through the whole document, unmentioned and unacknowledged by the text itself, and largely missed even by our various critiques of it so far. The deep issue is not homosexuality. The deep issue is divorce...
The other night I forced myself to sit down and re-read the Recommendation on Ministry Policies. It had been a couple of weeks, and I thought it time to look at the thing with fresh eyes. This time through I was stunned at the red thread running through the whole document, unmentioned and unacknowledged by the text itself, and largely missed even by our various critiques of it so far. The deep issue is not homosexuality. The deep issue is divorce.
This finally struck home after I’d read the phrase “lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships” for what felt like the four-thousandth time. The unwieldy term is meant to point us to the quality of the relationship, which values all the things that Christians have always valued in marriage: permanence and fidelity, the only difference being the gender of the persons involved. This is also the reason for advocating “public accountability” for such relationships, emphasizing the Christian conviction that sexuality is public and needs the framework of the law to keep it properly ordered.
What is not said once is what would or might happen in the case of “lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships” if they ceased to be lifelong or monogamous. Implicitly, the only reason for defining such relationships as lifelong and monogamous is because are the sine qua non of blessable sexuality, and further the only reason for public accountability is the need to exert pressure if the persons involved begin to falter. Ergo—though unstated—there would have to be discipline and consequences for any kind of lifelong, monogamous relationship that failed.
Yet that is not said. And why is it not said? Because in actuality, the ELCA long ago ceased requiring “lifelong” and “monogamous” of the marriages of its heterosexual clergy, and its public accountability of married couples has all but vanished.
So at best it’s a hoax to say that these standards will apply to homosexual couples. But let’s be honest now. This does not reflect on homosexual couples at all, who perhaps in this statement are aspiring to higher standards than heterosexuals anymore! It reflects on a prior, and far graver, failure of the ELCA’s moral teaching and discipline. Divorce is every bit as problematic for Christians (especially clergy Christians) in the Scriptures, and yet our tolerance of it came without a sound and elicited hardly more than a hiccup in response.
What is there to say now? The sudden flap about these ministry recommendations—in which I myself have fully participated—now seem to me like shouting “Fire!” when the building is already half burned down. It is certainly an indictment of heterosexual disgust at homosexuality. Talk about picking the speck out of your neighbor’s eye while neglecting the log in your own! I repent of this. I call on others to repent of this. It has been hypocritical to focus so sharply on homosexuality with no corresponding response to the heterosexual sin of divorce.
It will not be anywhere near enough, then, to maintain a classical Christian teaching regarding homosexuality. We must also take a far more serious look at the sins of heterosexual clergy. This calls for a complete revision of our policy regarding the divorced. It also calls for true “public accountability” not only of those in intimate relationships but also of those outside of them—in other words, the celibacy of single heterosexual pastors is also a matter of public concern. Unless both of these things go together, I will find it very hard to disavow the charge of homophobia. I may even agree with it.