Tuesday, October 20, 2009

I was recently privileged to appear as a guest on the radio program Issues, Etc. The interview is in reference to the post below on the The ELCA's Statement on Homosexuality and the Gospel of Relationship. Feel free to listen.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The ELCA's Statement on Homosexuality and the Gospel of Relationship

It is with some humor that I recall the 1999 visit of Pope John Paul II to the city of St Louis. I was a student at Concordia Seminary at the time and recall the local news coverage of the event. Everything was related back to John Paul's visit. Every night the local news would air the “Papal Traffic Report”, the “Papal Weather Report”, and the “Papal Sports Report” (okay, not really, but you get the point). Everything was related to the Pope's visit, whether it related or not – to the point of being a bit ridiculous.

There is little to no difference between this and the overemphasis on relationships on the part of the ELCA. Meeting in convention during the month of August, the ELCA decided to position itself as a “relational church body”, a church body ultimately concerned with preserving a positive relationship among all groups and categories of people regardless of race, creed, color, lifestyle or orientation. Of course, we are referring to the official approval granted to same sex couples at the recent Church Wide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Let it be said, an emphasis on relationships is not, by itself, a bad thing. After all the Bible does have something to say about relationships. As human beings we exist in all kinds of relationships: husbands & wives, parents & children, masters & slaves, citizen & Caesar – the Word of God and Jesus himself has plenty to say about all these relationships. But when Scripture would deal with these relationships it always does so in the categories of our sin and God's grace, God's law that condemns our failures in these relationships and God's Gospel that forgives those failures, our repentance for our sin and God's unconditional response of forgiveness. (We also might add in our response of forgiveness to each other as we receive and enjoy God's forgiveness.) In this light, all relationships are governed through the theological lens of the Cross of Christ.

The ELCA would run it differently. Instead of applying Biblical categories of sin & grace, law & Gospel, repentance & forgiveness they employ categories of relationships that they have gleaned from social sciences. While paying lip service to Lutheran theology what they are most concerned to discuss are the relationship categories. Instead of letting Lutheran theology and Scripture speak for itself, it is all crammed back in to these categories.

Prominent in the discussion of Human Sexuality is a category that they call “trust”. Christians talk about trust all the time. We use the term to define our relationship to God. We “fear, love and trust in God above all things.” No problems there. But when “Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust” (the official social statement adopted by the assembly) discusses trust they have a different sort in mind. Theirs is a trust that has been ripped open, dumped out, and then stuffed full of a new meaning. To quote: “Trust, as used in this statement, is a fundamental characteristic of right relationship. God is unfailingly trustworthy to us and all of creation. Just as we learn by faith that a right relationship with God is a relationship of trust rather than rebellious self-assertion, a right relationship with the neighbor is one in which each seeks to be truly worthy of the other’s trust.”

Notice what happened. Instead of trust describing how we relate to God as people who are completely and totally dependent upon him for all our needs of body and soul, trust is simply a component of successful human relationship whereby we behave in a manor that does not violate the confidence of another. It's all about relationships.

The same can be said of sin. A faithful, biblical understanding of sin understands that what makes sin to be sin is that it is offensive to God. It is something God address with a particular command. Not so here. The definition of sin has shifted. Speaking in reference to the Sixth Commandment “Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust” would have us understand as sin those things that simply violate trust. Observe:

Promiscuity and sexual activity without a spirit of mutuality and commitment are sinful because of their destructive consequences for individuals, relationships, and the community. (emphasis added) The Apostle Paul’s list of vices (e.g., fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry) warns believers of the dangers of gratifying “the desires of the flesh,” thereby turning away from belonging to Christ and God’s kingdom (Galatians 5:19–21). The breakdown of trust through the sexual adulteration of the bonds of the committed, intimate, and protected relationship of marriage wreaks havoc for the family and the community, as well as for the people involved.”

Faithfulness to the Word of God takes a back seat. What has suddenly become the most important thing is faithfulness to the new ethic of trust.

Trust continues to take center stage even when it directly intersects with discussions regarding the correct understanding of the Word of God. “Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust” is not so much concerned to take on those biblical passages that do deal directly with the issue of same sex relationships. The document acknowledges that there are different understandings of these all important Biblical texts. However, in the interest of the new ethic of trust we are instructed to set these differences aside and simply respect the bound consciences of those with whom we disagree all in the interest of “Christian Freedom”. All in the interest of trust.

One must wonder, if trust is the primary ethic running the ELCA, how long will it be before those who violate trust through a faithful proclamation of God's Word are suddenly the sinners?

This new ethic creates such grave danger for Christians and for non-Christians alike. Suddenly something that God has clearly identified as sin in his Word has been recategorized and redefined. Homosexuality is no longer sin. It is now simply just a relationship. There is no need for repentance. If there is no need for repentance there is no need for forgiveness. The effect of this move is catastrophic. Christians troubled by and struggling with the sin of homosexuality will stop struggling. They will give themselves over to this sin and they will give themselves over to God's judgment. Unbelievers hardened in their sin will be affirmed and will not be called to repentance.

God's judgment for the sin of homosexuality is important. Likewise God's judgment for every other sin. Why? The world is full of sinners. But the problem with most sinners is that they refuse to believe that they actually are sinners. Most sinners refuse to believe that they are actually bad enough to be condemned. (In that light, we would do well to remember Adam and Eve's sin that resulted in their expulsion from Eden – they ate a piece of fruit; not exactly an “FBI's top ten most wanted list” kind of offense!) We are all guilty. But we need to hear God's law and God's judgment so that we are moved to repentance and so that we are pointed to our dire need for Jesus.

We proclaim the Law, but not simply as an excuse for condemning others – far from it! We proclaim the law as a means for diagnosing sin. Once the sin is diagnosed the medicine of the Gospel is applied. Liberally and often. Homosexual (and heterosexual) sinners need to hear the life giving promise of salvation won for them by Jesus on the cross.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Insights from Our Fathers

A few years back when I was serving in a different district I became acquainted with a congregation that was looking to "revitalize" itself. The senior pastor had cooked up a scheme whereby he would generate new life in his own congregation (a congregation he felt needed to be “revitalized”) through a church planting program. The congregation's method was to plant a new congregation every few years with the intention that this planting process keep them infused with excitement.

I might ask, why is it that when we see the effects of sin drawing away the life of the congregation, our assumption is always that we are the ones who have the where-with-all to do anything about it? (I suppose we might also just as well ask why individual Christians feel the need to "do something" (i.e. go to a conference, recommit myself, etc.) when we personally feel the need to be revitalized?) The aforementioned example proposed an outreach/daughter-church-planting program to build up the congregation. There are plenty of other “revitalization” projects and processes that are currently en vogue in our own Lutheran Church Missouri Synod. Most of them share the common theme of "structure and governance". Most of the time a key component in the changes involves bylaws.

Perhaps we should take a step backward as we are considering how to take the next step forward. History has wonderful lessons to teach if we are but willing to listen and learn.

There is a great piece written originally by Friedrich Pfotenhauer for a conference of visitation pastors back in 1936 that speaks to this “contemporary” issue appropriately and beautifully. It has been translated by Matt Harrision and appears in print in At Home in the House of My Fathers. A worthy read. Check it out and read it here.

Pfotenhauer offers to us today the following guidance:

"First, we must guard against trying to elevate this spiritual life with means that cannot accomplish what we seek. An attempt has been made to elevate spiritual life in the home congregation by rousing the Church to missions and directing her sight to the misery of the churchless and especially the poor non-Christians. To be sure, the work of mission is a glorious and invaluable thing. But to speak and act as though it were through participation in the work of mission that the Word of God must be made living and powerful is simply wrong. To forsake at home the confession of the external Word and the heavenly doctrine while rambling afar in the opinion that the Church must be saved and enlivened with mission is Schwarmgeisterei."

He goes on:

"Others would heal Joseph’s wounds with tighter church governance. They say, if our presidents, visitors, and commissions had more authority, if they could prescribe things to congregations and the congregations had to obey, then life would be brought to these dead bones. Without question, if such a yoke were laid upon the necks of the children, many external works would be produced. Indeed, it wouldn’t even be that difficult to get the money to begin flowing. But that would in no way elevate spiritual life. In fact, it would suffer a terrible retrogression. The Gospel tolerates no hierarchy."

Finally he concludes:

"If we desire to elevate spiritual life, then we must be completely confident in the way of salvation. God from eternity has established and laid down clearly and plainly in His Word this order of salvation. If we do not follow this, spiritual life will neither be begotten nor elevated. And since the way of salvation is so very foreign to human nature, unless we constantly take note of the Word, we will go astray in doctrine and practice.

"Spiritual life comes about, and will be maintained, through faith in Jesus Christ, through confidence in the declaration of justification, which God has created through the redemptive work of Christ and proclaimed in the Gospel. And this spiritual life is realized immediately through holiness and piety, and through living in the commandments of God."

There is much more to his address and it is entirely worthy of reading. The basic point it this: if you want to see revitalization both in the church and in yourself, cling to Christ... where He has promised to be... in His Holy Word! In His Sacraments! There you will find Christ. There you will find the Spirit of Christ. Let us not fall prey to these new measures that would wrestle faith away from Christ where He can be found in His Word. Let us not attach faith to what is its only alternative - our own "good" works!

Monday, October 5, 2009

Brothers in Arms?

There is a curious article that recently appeared on the news feed of the ELCA website that was dealing with the ongoing cooperation between the ELCA and the LCMS. The title of the article is "ELCA, LCMS Leaders to Continue Cooperative Ministries, When Possible".

I am all about playing nice and partnering together with other denominations. While we do not affirm their doctrinal positions, we do acknowledge the "felicitous inconsistencies" and count them as our brothers in Christ. No problems there.

However, there were a few things in the article that struck me as odd. The first was not so much what the article said, but more what it did not say. The article was a general report of the ongoing cooperation between the two church bodies that was discussed in a recent meeting of the Committee on Lutheran Cooperation (CLC) on September 28-29. It acknowledged the gap existing due most recently to the August 19 decision to accept homosexual relationships, but it acknowledged the common priority of human care. The article mentioned as representative voices President Gerald Kieschnick, Raymond Hartwig, and Sam Nafzger. These men are certainly capable representatives of the LCMS. However, it does strike me as odd that there was not a representative from LCMS World Relief and Human Care. This is after all the organization that is most involved in these ministries in the LCMS and it would have provided greater representation and understanding of the work being done. In short, where was Matt Harrison?

Second question. The article reported that Sam Nafzger commented that, "We believe, teach and confess some things that bind us together such as our common understanding of Baptism."

Now I have been in plenty of situations where I was looking for something positive to say and blurted something out that I later regretted. I daily ask the Lord's forgiveness for these sins - and there are many of them. But this does give pause to ask the question, does the LCMS share with the ELCA a common understanding of Baptism? I am not convinced that we do.

Baptism is God's gift for sinners of which I am the worst. I daily confess my poorly chosen words, not to mention my thoughts and actions, that are offensive to God and I rejoice that I have been baptized and those sins are not counted against me. But this baptism is God's gift for sinners who have repented of their sin. (Acts 2:38) If the ELCA has placed a stamp of approval on sin then what need is there for repentance, what need is there for baptism? Read their document - sin is not sin because it offends God. It is sin because it "exploits", "shames", "abuses" another person, because it has "destructive consequences for individuals, relationships, and the community." (See "Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust" p. 4, p. 5)

If this is true, then I don't need to repent when I have violated God's law, I only need to repent when I have made someone feel badly. (I suppose, by that definition, I will then need to repent when I do preach God's law that convicts us of sin and makes us feel ashamed and guilty). While we might still have the Bible and the Book of Concord on the bookshelf in our respective studies - I do not believe that we read them and understand them the same way. I am not convinced that we share a common understanding of baptism.