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.