A Still More Excellent Way
We needed a more excellent way. All of us, there in the Convention Center in downtown Minneapolis, were locked into this most unchurchly of debates that would be settled in this most unchurchly of manners. The democratic process of majority rule is good for many things, but determining the path for a church body to thread through a highly contentious theological issue is not one of them. And this church failed. It failed all of us, all those who rejoiced at the outcome of all the votes, all those who sat with their faces like flint at the bitterness of the end of this road. And we failed the Church, all of us together, in that carefully quota-determined equally-chosen membership of those not-delegates not-representative-but-still-speaking-for-all-of-us highest legislative body in “this church,” for we did not, could not find the more excellent way that Paul spoke of in his struggle with his divided church in Corinth...
“And I will show you a still more excellent way.” (I Corinthians 12:31)
We needed a more excellent way. All of us, there in the Convention Center in downtown Minneapolis, were locked into this most unchurchly of debates that would be settled in this most unchurchly of manners. The democratic process of majority rule is good for many things, but determining the path for a church body to thread through a highly contentious theological issue is not one of them. And this church failed. It failed all of us, all those who rejoiced at the outcome of all the votes, all those who sat with their faces like flint at the bitterness of the end of this road. And we failed the Church, all of us together, in that carefully quota-determined equally-chosen membership of those not-delegates not-representative-but-still-speaking-for-all-of-us highest legislative body in “this church,” for we did not, could not find the more excellent way that Paul spoke of in his struggle with his divided church in Corinth.
“If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:2)
Some have claimed prophetic powers in this time of debate. This would be a kairos moment for the ELCA, and beyond it for the Church and the world, as this denomination stepped out and risked its ecumenical and financial future for the sake of justice. We are indeed called to take risks for the Gospel. But while the risk might indeed be to do what the world beckons the church to do, to do a new thing that God is revealing for the first time, it is also possible that the riskier move is to hold fast to what the church has always proclaimed, even though the culture is quickly discarding that truth. Truth is being replaced by truths, or even “truthiness,” and when what I know doesn’t line up with what you know, we are encouraged to manage our conflict as we non-anxiously revel in the paradox.
Growing up Lutheran, I remember being taught to be wary of those claiming the gift of prophecy. However, striving for understanding, knowledge, and faith was always deeply prized in the Lutheran realm. The pastor who confirmed me filled me with awe as he wrote the Greek for “baptism” on the board. The mysteries of the sacraments were explained to me as trustworthy because of the Word of God that promised forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation to all who received them in trust that the Word performs as He says. The mysteries of the sacraments might be inscrutable, but our Lord’s presence could be grasped in faith by a day-old child in the waters of baptism or by a centenarian in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. Faith hungrily seeks understanding. Lutheran pastors and teachers tried to feed that hunger, encouraging me and others to go beyond the bare memorization of texts and to grapple with deeper questions.
The grappling I have experienced in the discussion and debate on the matter of human sexuality in the ELCA is not, I think, exactly what my confirmation pastor had in mind. A discussion in which human experience, as important as that is, is raised to a level of importance equal to, if not more equal than, Holy Scripture itself should have been unthinkable among Lutherans. Are we not people who claim that the Scripture is the authoritative source and norm of our proclamation, faith, and life? Yet at times it appeared that experience was the only source that mattered, the only norm that was truly normative. In debate after debate Scripture appeared, it seemed, in order to support what experience apparently had taught: that if love is served, God must bless. If a congregation loved their pastor, that pastor’s life and practice must be God-pleasing. Where Scripture did not seem to serve love, the love between two human beings of the same gender, love that claimed to be as God-intended as heterosexual marriage, then it must be that our understanding of Scripture was inadequate, flawed, homophobic, and wrong.
Paul warned the Corinthian Christians not to trust in their search for knowledge, their possession of ecstatic gifts such as speaking in tongues or prophecy, or even their willing sacrifices of financial gain or personal honor, to give them assurance of God’s favor. He first points them to the cross of Christ, surely the most foolish idea God ever came up with, much less went through with, in the whole history of the world. A crucified, resurrected Jewish Messiah? Insanity! Obscenity! And having staked his whole life and cause on that shaky platform, Paul then exhorts the Corinthians to try to love each other.
But Paul’s love is not what I heard about so much in Minneapolis and at the assembly. Paul describes a foolish, scandalous love: it refuses to stand on rights and justice, but instead naively, hopefully, helplessly gives away everything, including its rights to justice, in excruciatingly sacrificial endurance. Paul would not have recognized the love so many on all sides of the issue spoke of in that assembly; or perhaps he would have recognized it as the idolatrous love of self and self-serving desire that takes the place of loving God above all things. I am convinced Paul would have recognized the assembly for what it was: Corinth writ large, the wrangling of the members of a house church replaced with the wrangling (even polite prayerful wrangling) of a denomination turned in upon itself. We all needed a good dose of the thirteenth chapter of I Corinthians.
“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.” (I Corinthians 13:4-10)
Indeed, our prophecies end, our tongues have been silenced, and our knowledge will be shown to be the misguided flawed thing that it is. Even our faith is flawed: for a document that spoke endlessly about trust, we showed little evidence of it in that assembly or since. The jockeying for position, influence, and power that existed before and during the assembly has only picked up velocity since then. There are new policies to write, new spoils to be distributed: who will have the most influential place at the table, those voting for or against the changes? Already the accusations are flying, scarcely a month since the votes were electronically recorded.
What would Paul do? Would he exhort us to stay, striving for that love that gives itself away, even to death, in the faith that those who love in God’s name are never abandoned? Or would he tell us to have nothing more to do with stupid and senseless controversies that only breed quarrels upon quarrels? As Paul wrote, to Corinth and to us, alas, “Now we see in a mirror, dimly.” Our prophecy is indeed imperfect.
The promise stands, however. Whatever any of us choose to do in these days after Minneapolis, even when we ourselves don’t understand why we do what we do, we are still fully understood, fully known. God knows us better than we know ourselves. For that reason, He sent us His own heart, His Word made flesh, His Love come down to show us a way of love, of hope, and of faith that even on our best days we can only dream of. That Love which endured all things, even death on a cross, will also endure with all those found in the ELCA, making us scratch our heads in bewilderment, anger, and wonder. Perhaps, before it is too late, that Love can even teach us how to be His church, for what might be the very first time.
Erma Seaton Wolf is vice chair on the Lutheran CORE steering committee and a pastor in the ELCA.