I Think I Want a Divorce
Not from my wife of 35 years, but from my denomination. The grounds of my desire are biblical: infidelity. The covenant we had made was binding: to govern our life together by the Word of God as attested in Holy Scripture as understood by the Lutheran Confessions for mission and ministry in America and throughout the world. It’s partly my fault, I admit. I have long wondered whether my denomination has had some other love at heart, but I looked the other way, busy with my own concerns, not wanting trouble. True, in the controversy at hand, I intervened to argue for a theologically faithful way, which would offer recognition to Christians who have special crosses to bear in the arena of sex, marriage, and the family, yet sustaining the normative teaching of the Word of God. But I have evidently failed to persuade. Now my denomination has come up with a different plan for a new future. Inevitably it changes our relationship; indeed it puts our covenant itself to a vote in August. Now I have to wonder out loud whether it’s all over between us...
Not from my wife of 35 years, but from my denomination. The grounds of my desire are biblical: infidelity. The covenant we had made was binding: to govern our life together by the Word of God as attested in Holy Scripture as understood by the Lutheran Confessions for mission and ministry in America and throughout the world. It’s partly my fault, I admit. I have long wondered whether my denomination has had some other love at heart, but I looked the other way, busy with my own concerns, not wanting trouble. True, in the controversy at hand, I intervened to argue for a theologically faithful way, which would offer recognition to Christians who have special crosses to bear in the arena of sex, marriage, and the family, yet sustaining the normative teaching of the Word of God. But I have evidently failed to persuade. Now my denomination has come up with a different plan for a new future. Inevitably it changes our relationship; indeed it puts our covenant itself to a vote in August. Now I have to wonder out loud whether it’s all over between us.
My denomination still gives lip-service to the article of faithful confession which had bound us together in conscience to the Word of God. In the new Draft Social Statement on Sexuality there is a clear historical description of it.
This church understands marriage as a covenant of mutual promises, commitment, and hope authorized legally by the state and blessed by God. The historic Christian tradition and the Lutheran Confessions have recognized marriage as a covenant between a man and a woman, reflecting Mark 10:6–9: “But from the beginning of creation, God made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one put asunder.” (Jesus here recalls Genesis 1:27; 2:23–24.) [Lines 502-508]
Every word is true. But they appear in this document as “memories—of the way we used to be,” like in Barbra Streisand’s melancholy song. They are acknowledged historically, not normatively as what the ecumenical Church, and therein the Lutheran Confession, has wanted to say on this perpetually difficult matter of Christian teaching. They are not acknowledged as the clear and decisive text of Holy Scripture which is therefore to inform all our thinking, also today. Cast as mere history, these words of Scripture have the form of godliness, but deny its power.
At stake here is Luther’s foundational claim for the plain sense clarity of Scripture as Word of God for the confessing Church in the world, and whether this principle is now to be abandoned to the shifting whim of votes at assemblies without authority or competence to decide matters of binding church doctrine. A non-papal Church that abandons the clear teaching of Holy Scripture in the form of a binding confession that has stood the test of time has no ground to stand on any more. It becomes whatever it can be conned it into being by those who get to frame the question, as in the present Draft Social Statement.
What would that be? In the present case, what my denomination wants to say is announced several paragraphs later.
It must be noted that some, though not all, in this church and within the larger Christian community, conclude that marriage is also the appropriate term to use in describing similar benefits, protection, and support for same-gender couples entering into lifelong monogamous relationships. They believe that such accountable relationships also provide the necessary foundation that supports trust and familial and community thriving. Other contractual agreements such as civil unions also seek to provide some of these protections and to hold those involved in such relationships accountable to one another and to society. [Lines 588-594, emphasis added]
This is a misleading half-truth, beginning with the haughty words, “this church.” In fact, the Church, including member Churches of the Lutheran World Federation, especially the younger Churches of Africa and Asia, Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Protestant evangelicalism, overwhelmingly dispute this unscriptural revision of the doctrine of marriage, as also many do in the declining and dying liberal Protestant churches of North America. The real voice of the people of God across the world and through the ages seems to matter not at all in this Draft, any more than Holy Scripture as parsed by the Lutheran Confessions. Surely, “this church’s” congregations, if given an honest and secret ballot, would overwhelmingly reject the manipulation of language and meaning involved in calling “marriage” anything other than that relation in Scripture and Confession described above.
But this deafness, if not deceptiveness, seems true to form in the present proposal, which goes on to recommend not only a revisionist understanding of marriage, but a local option ordination, reflecting the polity of a federation of congregations, replacing the union at pulpit and altar to which I once conscientiously pledged myself in a binding confession. “This church” is acting like a sect and predictably is about to turn into a dysfunctional federation of sects. Our union, you could say, is turning into a polygamy. I won’t go along with that.
A child could see that the revisionist view of the sectarian “some” is being promoted in this Draft—in ways subtle (citing Scripture and Confession as history, not as Word of God) and in ways obvious (as the above paragraph gratuitously added, and so privileging this view of the “some,” without adding the opinions of the multitude of “others” who would take exception to it, let alone argue against it). No theological argument expressing reservations about homosexuality even appears in the Draft—so much for respecting the consciences of “others.”
In a document that so rightly and eloquently commends trust as the healthy basis of life together, this kind manipulation (even if unconscious) is doubly disillusioning. I am tired of it. Sweet talk, smooth talk, slick talk, it’s abusive all the same. I see that clearly now, and it is the chief reason why I am thinking that I want a divorce.
Christian teaching on sex, marriage and the family is not a matter of personal ethics (personal behavior is the matter of personal ethics), but it is a matter of binding Church doctrine. We would still be sending our sons and daughters to monasteries and convents, and hoping by their merits to cover for the sinfulness of our marital relations which produced them, were it not so, as anyone knows who has any memory of what Lutheranism once taught on this matter. Of course our conditions today are different, but no one with intellectual, not to say spiritual integrity can, as this Draft Social Statement shamelessly argues, dualistically separate the Gospel of salvation from definite social forms in God’s beloved creation on the way to redemption.
We just don’t see things the same way anymore, it seems. As I see it, in this ugly and violent culture of sexual license today, where the divinely blessed institution of lifelong marriage of man and woman is under economic, political, and ideological assault from every side, a genuinely Lutheran Church would bravely take up its inherited doctrine as something binding on the conscience contra mundum (against the whole world), if need be. It would also on this basis call for appropriate civil protections, not only for gay and lesbians persons, but for all the broken forms of family life struggling against internally dehumanizing economic ideals and now also external deprivations (after the burst of the financial bubble) that rip apart the fabric of human community. A true Lutheran Church would dare to teach the Word of God concretely, knowing with Luther that “if you take away assertions, you take away Christianity.” A genuinely Lutheran church would not disingenuously refrain from teaching—even in face of sincerely confused consciences holding contradictory opinions—I say, disingenuously, because the imaginary restraint of this Draft Social Statement is hard to understand except as a ploy to keep those “others” from bolting when the local option for irregular ordination is finally authorized.
In short, putting the very matter of Christian teaching up for a vote by falsely representing the matter at stake as so many ethical options of sincere people gives away the store. It is no longer a Church which acts like this. It has mutated into something else. And that, I fear, is why I am going to be talking with my lawyer.
Luther’s conscience was bound to the Word of God, not to other consciences, no matter how many, no matter how high and mighty, and certainly no matter how erring. Let there be no mistake about this whatsoever. A polity which puts up church doctrine for a vote at a biennial assembly is itself and as such the problem. This Draft Social Statement’s proposal merely exposes what an empty bottle “this church” has become.
In response, this church draws on the foundational Lutheran understanding that the baptized are called to discern God’s love in service to the neighbor. In our Christian freedom, we therefore seek responsible actions that serve others and do so with humility and deep respect for the conscience-bound beliefs of others. We understand that, in this discernment about ethics and church practice, faithful people can and will come to different conclusions about the meaning of Scripture and about what constitutes responsible action. We further believe that this church, on the basis of “the bound conscience,” will include these different understandings and practices within its life as it seeks to live out its mission and ministry in the world. [Lines 629-636, emphasis added]
It is certainly true that in a democratic, pluralist society, good people will sincerely come to different conclusions about all sorts of things and as a result will have to struggle to live together respectfully. It is also true that in a democratic, pluralist society, decisions will be made, policy will be determined, some will win and others will lose. Thus it is also true that in a democratic, pluralist society, freedoms of conscience, of religion, of speech and of association allows losers to opt out in varying ways, especially when the decision touches on conscience.
Why should we stay together? What is the point? We are like four people in an auto, each wanting to drive in a different direction. Be assured, someone will control the wheel! The Draft does not assert Christian teaching on marriage as something binding for the holy society (not the modern, democratic, pluralist State) but the Church of Christ (within it). In it, the Lord says, “but not of it.” Instead we are treated to a description of the range of opinion in the ELCA on the neuralgic question of same-sex relations, concluding with a dishonest and manipulative plea that we stay together no matter what. In thinking along these lines, the Draft Social Statement betrays how utterly secularized its thinking process is, yet grasping sentimentally after Christian unity, when its basis in the true confession of the Word of God has been discarded.
No! The cost of staying together is being and so also acting as Church. If we stay together on the basis which the Draft Social Statement proposes, we cease to be Church. And that is why, whether I want it or not, no matter how it turns out, the proposed vote itself is a prescription for divorce. None of us need “this church” to enjoy the rights and privileges of free citizens. But I with many others took vows at Confirmation, and special vows at Ordination, of fidelity to the Word of God as understood in the Lutheran Confessions, so that I could live and work as a servant of the Holy Community in union with all other pastors at the altar and in the pulpit.
My denomination apparently no longer shares this understanding of what it means to be Church. You might say we have just “grown apart.” You might say our union has become a hollow shell in which the love has died.
The extended analogy with divorce finally breaks down. To the extent that it holds, I will officially stick with my Gomer: separation, not legal divorce, hoping against hope that she returns to the ties of binding confession of God’s Word that really unite the struggling, suffering Church on earth in battle against powers and principalities on behalf of sinning and suffering creatures. To the extent that the analogy does not hold, however, I am not leaving until they throw me out and show the world just how little the supposed baptismal unity really means to them. But in staying I will protest, bear witness against, summon others do likewise, and in every way defy this devious attempt to snare conscience and bind in chains the Word of God.
Paul R. Hinlicky is the Tice Professor in Lutheran Studies at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia.