A bishop "deeply disappointed"

Started by Richard Johnson, August 13, 2009, 10:10:50 AM

Previous topic - Next topic

Richard Johnson

[Editor's Note: Bishop Larry Wohlrabe of the ELCA's Northwest Minnesota Synod has posted some incisive reflections on the ELCA sexuality proposals on his personal blog  http://larrywohlrabe.blogspot.com, reprinted here with permission.]

It's summer and the ELCA is embroiled in another extended discussion of human sexuality. We do this sort of thing at least every other year (whenever a Churchwide Assembly is scheduled), and it's been going on for decades now. Sex must be a big deal in our church.

But no, we nervously respond, sex really isn't that big a deal—at least it shouldn't be. Sex and what we believe about sex "is not the gospel," we say. It is a penultimate thing. How our church decides about issues of human sexuality should not be a church-dividing matter, we contend. In fact, if we repeat that loudly enough and often enough—"Human sexuality is not a church-dividing issue!"—we hope it may even come to pass. People will settle down, "monitor their anxieties" and stop talking about division in the church over something as secondary as sexuality. Sex isn't really that big a deal, after all!

But it is, dear friends. And we best come clean about that.

Sex is a big deal. In the biblical narrative—the story of our salvation—sex is, at almost every turn, a big deal. It may not be the gospel, but human sexuality is forever entwined with, always bumping up against the good news of God's extravagant love and grace, told in the story of Israel and Israel's greatest son, Jesus, and in the ongoing life of the New Israel into which we have all been grafted. Sex is always a big deal in that story. Sex stories abound in the Bible!

Sex is intimately bound up with the good news of our creation by God. It is not just that, in the creation narratives, God's making of the first humans is the creation of a sexually-paired duo, who are immediately commanded to "be fruitful and multiply" (Genesis 1:28) It's not just that we bear the image of our creator God as a complementary, male-and-female dyad (Genesis 1:27). Sex is intimately bound up with my creation and your creation. When Martin Luther defines the meaning of the First Article of the creed, he begins by saying that "I believe that God has created me...." In the wondrous love, in the amazing sexual congress between Hans and Margarethe Luther, little Martin was created by God. And we all know that to be true for our own lives—it's as basic as that. I am here, writing these words, because my parents, Lawrence and Roberta, met, fell in love, married and conceived me.

Sexuality imbues our most startling images for God's redemption of us and the whole human family, in Jesus Christ our Lord. Searching for the most powerful, memorable images for the relationship between God and God's redeemed people, the apostolic writer speaks of Christ the bridegroom and his bride, the church (Ephesians 5:32). How could that image not pop up, given the Old Testament's predilection for speaking of God's conjugal relationship with Israel, (Isaiah 54:5) his spouse?

In the new community that Jesus Christ has created at the Cross and the Empty Tomb, the language so often chosen for our relationships with one another is grounded in our existence as sexual beings who beget and nurture sons and daughters, sisters and brothers. Such use of family-based similes and metaphors in describing the church makes us nervous, but to ignore or downplay them is to overlook much of the language of the New Testament. Sexuality is never far from the center in Christian existence.

Sex is a big deal in the ordinary lives of human beings, created, redeemed and sanctified by God. Sexuality is elemental, foundational, necessary to our existence as human beings. It's not just that we're "obsessed with sex" (though there is truth in that); it's that sex is a big deal because the "complementarity" of males and females, men and women, is hard-wired into the fabric of our creation by God. Sexuality is the means by which God begets sons and daughters, heirs of the Kingdom, dwellers in the New Creation in Jesus Christ.

And, at the risk of over-simplification, most of our greatest social issues in the 21st century are rooted in sexual matters. Mountains of sociological data point to the fact that as things go in what Alan Carlson and others call the "natural family,"[1] so goes society as a whole. If we care about children, we will care about the parents who beget them and the families that nurture them—simple as that. Which means that we will care deeply about the ordering of sexual attraction between men and women, we will commend marriage to the next generation, and we will do all within our power to strengthen marriages and families.

All of us in the human community have a stake in that; but members of the Body of Christ have a particular stake in that. What we believe, say and do in the realm of human sexuality can—rather than tearing the church apart—build us up in love and make us more faithful servants in God's mission. Heavens--how we handle the issue of human sexuality might even make us a more attractive, faithful, caring church—the kind of church people might want to join!

Sexuality may not be the gospel, but it is a big deal—and we ignore that at our peril. Sexuality is bound up with the question of the human future—the begetting and the rearing of the next generation. Sexuality furnishes the most pungent similes and metaphors in Scripture for describing the intimate, self-giving love of God for the human family. Relationships grounded in human sexuality—husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, daughters and sons—are woven throughout the biblical story. How our church, how any church, treats marriage and family life will either enhance or detract from our service in God's mission in the world. Make no mistake: sex is a big deal!

So, I ask, how have we in the ELCA done in formulating a social statement on human sexuality? Has our great church produced a great document that does justice to the gravity and grace of human sexuality? Have we in the ELCA addressed as powerfully and as richly as possible the real social issues that arise from our life as sexually-differentiated human beings? Are we now poised to be a church that has something powerful to say to our society in the early 21st century about the wonder of human sexuality and the tremendous possibilities of well-ordered sexual lives, for the sake of our human future? Are we ready to speak confidently, compellingly to our society as a church that still believes that "the Lord God in his goodness created us male and female, and by the gift of marriage founded human community in a joy that begins now and is brought to perfection in the life to come?"[2]

Alas, as I read Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust, I cannot honestly say that we have done our best to plumb the heights and depths of human sexuality so as to say something meaningful and compelling to the society in which we live. As a colleague in ministry put it, only we Lutherans could take something as exciting as sex and write about it in such a pedestrian way.

Let me name three deep concerns that I have about Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust.

Framing the Issue. Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust, although proposed to us as a theological teaching document consistently fails to exhibit a deep engagement with and thoughtful appropriation of the Lutheran theological treasury. The rich law-gospel dialectic for which Lutherans are known is not the "operating system" in this teaching document. The document sets aside—in a footnote, no less![3]—our time-honored understanding of "orders of creation" as deep, dynamic, caring structures that God has built into the Creation to bring forth and sustain human life in all its multi-form abundance. In the place of such profound theological and ethical categories, Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust sees everything sexual through the sociological lens of "trust in relationships" or "social trust." (The word "trust" shows up nearly two hundred times in the document!) Now, to be sure, social trust is a very good thing! Even thoughtful pagans will agree to that. But "social trust" is scarcely a suitable "lens" for a distinctively Christian or churchly word about human sexuality.

Sidestepping the Question of Form. The Western Christian tradition has consistently held that human sexuality has about it a normative shape or form. By privileging one form of sexual expression—the one-flesh bond of a man and a woman united in marriage—the tradition has ruled out every competing form of sexual expression. Although this strikes our modern sensibilities as being unfair, the heterosexual structure of human sexuality is actually a divine gift, intimately bound up with the civilizational task of bringing forth and rearing the next generation of human beings. Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust, however, sidesteps the notion that there even is a normative form of sexual expression. All that counts is the quality of sexual relationships (be they heterosexual, homosexual or whatever)—that they be loving, committed, monogamous, lifelong, etc. Driven by the desire to normalize gay and lesbian relationships, this document effectively removes our grounds for critiquing, let alone ruling out, other forms of sexual expression. Perhaps, therefore, we should not be surprised that the following words don't show up even once in this document: bestiality, bisexual, incest, masturbation, or polygamy. (By the way, "singles" are mentioned only three times in the document!)

Downplaying the Fruitfulness of Sexuality. Although Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust speaks often of families (the word "family" shows up nearly fifty times), it says little about just how such families come into existence. An extra-terrestrial could read the section on "Marriage: Shelter and Context for Trust" (lines 607-750) and still not realize that procreation is integral to marriage. Again, the vocabulary of the document is telling: the words "conceive" and "intercourse" each show up just once, "birth" appears four times, and "mother" and "father" are each mentioned three times. It is amazing to me that a proposed social statement on sexuality can speak so often about intimacy but so seldom about generativity. What a rare opportunity we are missing to teach our young ones about the marvelous crucible for begetting and nurturing children that God graciously gives to us in the "first institution" of holy matrimony!

So, with regret, I must register my deep disappointment with this proposed social statement. Our church has invested tremendous "capital" in this project—both money and human capital—with precious little to show for our efforts. The fault here should not be laid solely at the doorstep of the task force that has drafted this document. They are good and decent people, charged with a daunting task, and asked to discharge their duties in the unsettled atmosphere of a society-wide debate over one small aspect of human sexuality, i.e. the place of persons who identify themselves as gay and lesbian within our church and our society. For far too long, our over-focus on homosexuality has been the "tail wagging the dog"—making it hard, if not impossible, for our church to address adequately the whole gamut of human sexuality.

By dwelling on peripheral matters, we have squandered the opportunity to speak compellingly to the heart of the most important issues of human sexuality in our time. We have failed to muster the maturity and thoughtfulness needed to address adequately the issue at hand. We as a Lutheran church body are capable of doing so much better than this!

[1] http://www.profam.org/THC/xthc_tnf.htm
[2] Liturgy for marriage, Lutheran Book of Worship, p. 203.
[3] Footnote 11 in Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust.
The Rev. Richard O. Johnson, STS


Thanks for sharing this.  I find it helpful because it stays out of the ditches that have dominated both sides of the discussion.
Rev. Peter Morlock- ELCA pastor serving two congregations in WIS


A great article and well worth wide circulation.

He is absolutely right to say that a topic as rich as human sexuality deserves a thoughtful, incisive and proclamatory treatment, just as he is correct to note that the banalities found in Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust don't rise to that level.

While he charitably and correctly acknowledges the difficult situation in which the Task Force found itself and doesn't lay the blame solely at their feet, I cannot help now but read some of the names of people on the Task Force and realize that my previous high estimation of their theological ability has been sorely damaged by their participation in creating such a weak document.


Well thought out, often eloquently framed, and serious in tone... I don't know the man from Adam but he sounds like just the kind of Bishop Lutherans need...
Fr Larry Peters
Grace LCMS, Clarksville, TN


An excellent summary of the primary faults of the Statement on Human Sexuality:  Gift and Trust.  In light of Bishop Wohlrabe's critique, one thing that could also be mentioned is the fact that this Social Statement does not actually teach anything.  With regard to the particular issue before the church - how one ought to regard homosesxual sexual relationships - the statement comes to no conclusions.  The Task Force, in that regard, siimply did not fulfill their charge. 

Marshall Hahn


This is a much needed read. I wonder aloud the need to place, bestiality,bisexuality and masturbation,polgamy and incest in the same thought process however. But nevertheless, a most thought-filled and theologically sound sharing of a true shepherd of the Church.


Quote from: vicarbob on August 13, 2009, 11:28:13 AM
I wonder aloud the need to place, bestiality,bisexuality and masturbation,polgamy and incest in the same thought process however.

The reason he mentions those is, as he said, the statement "effectively removes our grounds for critiquing, let alone ruling out, other forms of sexual expression."  And that is a point I and many others have been raising for some time now.

Brian Stoffregen

What substitutions or amendments is the bishop proposing so that the Statement might say what he believes it should say?
I flunked retirement. Serving as a part-time interim in Ferndale, WA.


Another disappointed bishop, Mark Lawrence of South Carolina, gave the following address this morning,,,  http://www.kendallharmon.net/t19/index.php/t19/article/24779/#more


Quote from: Brian Stoffregen on August 13, 2009, 12:53:25 PM
What substitutions or amendments is the bishop proposing so that the Statement might say what he believes it should say?
I took the bishop to be calling for a wholesale rewrite with entirely different premises and taking an entirely different approach. The task force was supposed to build a car and they came up with a bird house. Substitutions and amendments will never be enough. Voting it down in its entirety is the only way forward.


Quote from: peter_speckhard on August 13, 2009, 03:26:05 PM
Quote from: Brian Stoffregen on August 13, 2009, 12:53:25 PM
What substitutions or amendments is the bishop proposing so that the Statement might say what he believes it should say?
I took the bishop to be calling for a wholesale rewrite with entirely different premises and taking an entirely different approach. The task force was supposed to build a car and they came up with a bird house. Substitutions and amendments will never be enough. Voting it down in its entirety is the only way forward.

I agree.  The document is so vapid that adopting it would be, at the least, embarrassing -- even to Lutherans of a non-ELCA stripe as it claims that what it purveys is Lutheran theology.


Re-posted to a more appropriate thread...

Here's a bishop with a sense of "timing" for you- we just aren't listening to these ancient voices anymore:

From, "The Grace of Christ and Original Sin"- Book II. XXXV. 40.

"There is no doubt that marriage would have existed even if no sin had been committed: if for no other reason than that God created the woman to help the man, and not just another man. And the Divine Word: "Be fertile and multiply" is not at all a prevision of damnable sins, but that marriage might be fertile and produce offspring." (Translation mine, from "Saint Augustine
- Philosophie, Polemique, Catechese" Gallimard)

The problem is: concupiscence. In a footnote, the editors state: "Therefore, if God gave a gender to Adam and to his companion, it was in an analogical operatory mode of other bodily members, obeying the orders of the will... (they) were of use to our first parents as arms are to workers and would have been so subservient to the will that they could never have imposed their independent impulses."

What our recent church is in danger of teaching is that ancient temptation, "If it feels good, do it."
Pete Garrison
RC Catechist


Bp. Wohlrabe was an Assistant in the SE MN Synod nearly 20 years ago when my wife was ordained and served in that Synod. I always knew him as a servant of great faithfulness and integrity. It's not surprising that he has responded in this most articulate  and considered way. He is truly a gift to the Church..

Gary Schnitkey

Bp. Wohlrabe is correct that the breakdown of the "natural" family is at the root of many social ills.  Seventy-five percent of the people in poverty are never wed mothers and their children.  The vast majority of individuals in prisons come from broken or never formed families.  Much of the difference in performance between African-American's as a group and Caucasians as a group can be explained by the breakdown in the family among African-American (Don't worry, Caucasians family breakdown is catching up to African-Americans levels). 

However, Bp Wolradge is very wrong in his diagnoses of the homosexuality issue.  The ELCA is considering the homosexual issue because it does not support the family.  The ELCA has failed to take stands against pre-marital sex, divorce, and abortion.   Nor does the ELCA provide support on other family issues.  At its heart, support of a family comes from recognition that marriage is between a man and a women, that marriage is instituted by God and should not be broken, and that sex should be confined to marriage.  Today, the ELCA could not produce a statement to this effect even if homosexuality was not on the table.

The fact that the homosexuality debate is occurring is a symptom of the root problem, not the root problem itself.  The problem is that liberalism and its lax beliefs on the need for family are pervasive in the ELCA.


Quote from: Brian Stoffregen on August 13, 2009, 12:53:25 PM
What substitutions or amendments is the bishop proposing so that the Statement might say what he believes it should say?

I don't think he's saying anything about substitutions or amendments.  Maybe I'm projecting, but I think he's saying the whole statement misses the mark - which is the literal translation for the usual koine greek word for sin in the new testament.  Isn't that strange?

SMF spam blocked by CleanTalk