How This is Not like the Ordination of Women
A background issue to the ELCA Task Force Recommendations, not mentioned in the document itself but still in the minds and mouths of many, is how this whole situation does or does not compare to the ordination of women. People on opposite extremes tend to link the two...
A background issue to the ELCA Task Force Recommendations, not mentioned in the document itself but still in the minds and mouths of many, is how this whole situation does or does not compare to the ordination of women. People on opposite extremes tend to link the two.
On the one side, the ordination of women is the first step in a progressive movement to award the right of ordination to those who have previously been denied it. Ordaining women is the logical precursor to the ordaining of homosexuals, and praise God in both cases that our old bigotries are falling away.
On the other side, the ordination of women was the first step of devolution away from fidelity to Scripture and mass sexual confusion. It is a big old slippery slope: if you start ordaining women, you’ll inevitably ordain homosexuals, and heaven only knows what will come next.
There is a linkage between the two, but it is not a theological linkage, rather a sociocultural one. The issue has been forced on the church from the outside, to a certain extent, by huge social changes. Responding to the culture is not in itself good or bad. The church has done so wisely in some cases (rejecting slavery and racism) and badly in others (embracing Hitler). The decisive issue for the church is whether movements in the culture, and proposed responses to it in the church, are in keeping with the gospel of Jesus Christ which is witnessed to normatively by the Scriptures.
So, for instance, when the ordination of women has been accepted in the church as a matter of rectification for past injustices within a narrative of liberal democracy’s upward track of overcoming all oppression, or in deliberate opposition to the tradition of church as altogether a bad egg, or in utter disregard of the Scriptures one way or another, it has been a heresy. When the ordination of women has been accepted as a practice in keeping with the church’s teaching on the trinitarian God, the incarnation of the Logos in Jesus for the salvation of all persons, and the anthropological unity proclaimed in the Scriptures and modeled in certain women (Gen. 1:27, Gal. 3:28; the judge Deborah, the prophet Huldah, the apostle Junia, the teacher Priscilla), it has been orthodoxy. I think it is safe to say that the churches that ordain women today have accepted the practice in both heretical and orthodox ways, and which mode of acceptance is the winning one is still not clear.
But it is important to see here what the key difference is between the ordination of women and the ordination of homosexuals. The argument against ordaining women has pertained to two things: 1) their competence and 2) their nature or ontology. The first argument has been dispensed with by nearly all persons in the church at this point in time (though, sadly, not all). The second argument, regarding their ontology, received fairly minimal attention until the 20th century. (When it did get attention earlier, it was generally linked to a belief in women's inferiority and incompetence, not simply "otherness," which is the way it is usually read today.) Relevant to the discussion here is that it is an absolute kind of argument: a woman is a woman is a woman, and no amount of competence will change that. Nature bars her from service, period. The change in practice hinges on how the ontology of “woman” is understood, in the light of the Trinity, the incarnate Christ, and the Scriptures.
The argument against the ordination of homosexuals is not about either their ontology or their competence. It is actually of little relevance whether homosexuals are born or made (if such an absolute distinction could be made anyway). The issue pertains strictly to a matter of behavior. Certainly there is no doubt that homosexuals can be competent for the ministry. By contrast, no amount of behavior one way or another could make any difference to a woman barred from ordination on account of her ontology. So here the change in practice hinges on how the behavior of homosexuals is understood, in the light of the Trinity, the incarnate Christ, and the Scriptures.
For strategic reasons, the two changes in ordination practice have been linked, in one case to promote the ordination of homosexuals, and in the other case to invalidate both. But it is a logical error to link them; they are distinct issues. If there is any connection beyond the cultural, it is anti-theological rather than theological, in the sense that the heretical promotion of the ordination of women outlined above very possibly set a precedent for how Scripture is handled in the ELCA and other mainline churches today.
I end on an autobiographical note. In my very young adulthood I was opposed to the ordination of women because I had not heard adequate arguments for it from a theological point of view. What changed my mind were the scriptural and patristic arguments of the Eastern Orthodox theologian Elisabeth Behr-Sigel (on whom I eventually wrote my dissertation). It was through her that I saw for the first time the theologically and scripturally faithful and orthodox case for the ordination of women, and as a result I changed my mind (and even got ordained!). Despite the Task Force’s claims that equally scriptural convictions are held on all sides (though note the subtle differences in language when the two principal positions are described), I have yet to see any arguments in favor of blessing homosexual behavior that even come close to touching those in favor ordaining women. Intellectually and theologically they are worlds apart. I suspect that the distance between these worlds cannot actually be bridged.