Author Topic: Just say no (May, 2009)  (Read 821 times)

Richard Johnson

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Just say no (May, 2009)
« on: July 01, 2009, 03:26:11 PM »
Just say no
by Richard O. Johnson
Reprinted from Forum Letter, May, 2009
Copyright 2009 American Lutheran Publicity Bureau. All rights reserved.

Let me just say it right up front: the churchwide assembly should decline to approve the proposed social statement on sexuality.

I’m talking at the moment only about the social statement itself; the suggested provisions regarding ministry are a different ball of wax, and it is important to keep the two matters separate in considering what the churchwide assembly should do.

Social statements, the ELCA proclaims, “are social policy documents” which are intended to “guide the life of the church as an institution and inform the conscience of its members in the spirit of Christian liberty.” They do not in themselves set church policy, in other words, but they do attempt to teach the church, and to provide general guidelines for the church’s life.

Guiding the church’s life
The record on the second part is a little spotty. The ELCA’s social statement on abortion takes a moderately conservative approach (at least compared to some of our ecumenical partners), but has had little impact on the policy of its health care program for clergy which will still pay for the termination of pregnancy in virtually any circumstance. On the other hand, the ELCA’s opposition to the death penalty has resulted in the complete abolition of executions at churchwide headquarters in Chicago, at least in the literal sense.

Just kidding, of course, but the point is that the extent to which social statements actually “guide the life of the church” is pretty minimal. Various advocacy ministries may take the social statements as charters for what kind of work they do, but beyond that, social statements by their very nature don’t impact “the life of the church” as one might ordinarily understand that phrase.

That leaves the matter of “inform[ing] the conscience of [the church’s] members in the spirit of Christian liberty.” Yes, that is what a social statement should do, in an ideal world. It should be a kind of teaching document, intended to help Lutherans grapple with the issues of how our faith impacts our civic and social life.
And that’s precisely why this social statement should not be approved.

Verbose and rambling
In the first place, the statement is much too long. I think Peter Speckhard nailed it in our last issue when he said it sounded like the work of a student assigned to write a 35-page paper who realized the night before it was due that he only had eight pages of content. It is repetitious, rambling, and poorly written.

To put this into perspective, the ELCA has previously adopted nine social statements. The average length of these nine is just under 6,100 words—and if you were to exclude the exceedingly verbose statement on education from the calculation, the average drops to about 4,850.

But on sexuality, we’re facing a statement of some 13,100 words—and that’s without footnotes and implementing resolutions. That’s more than double the average length. It puts it in a class with, oh, say, the inaugural address of William Henry Harrison, which was the longest in history, was eminently forgettable, and probably contributed to Harrison’s death a month later from pneumonia. At the very least, one has to ask whether a statement this wordy is actually going to be read and studied by anyone in the future.

Not much to say
Now if the statement really had all that much to say, perhaps its verbosity could be overlooked. But it doesn’t. I read through it yet again and tried to identify concrete things that it actually affirms. It does say that marriage is “a covenant of mutual promises, commitment, and hope authorized legally by the state and blessed by God.” Gone is any affirmation that the parties involved would be a man and a woman, though that is noted as the understanding of “the historic Christian tradition.”

Further, it commits the ELCA to support of civil rights of persons of all sexual orientations, and opposes any kind of harassment based on orientation. It stands very firm on opposing sexual abuse of children, and commits ELCA congregations to being “safe places.” It opposes all kinds of sexual exploitation, and comes down in favor of sex education. All these “humble but bold” stands have been made in previous ELCA documents; they are nothing new.

And it says that the church opposes (or, actually, “does not favor”) cohabitation outside of marriage. That’s a bit weaker than the ELCA’s earlier stance (in the social statement on abortion) that “marriage is the appropriate context for sexual intercourse” (anyone remember that?), but at least it does manage to strike this one countercultural note.

No guidance here
Overall, though, the statement doesn’t teach much of anything beyond the importance of trust in human relationships. Trust is a good thing, I’ll grant you that. But it isn’t exactly the basis for Christian teaching on sexuality, or shouldn’t be. A Lutheran looking for guidance on specific issues related to sexuality will not find it here.  Lutheran looking for some kind of insight into Biblical and confessional guidance will come away empty-handed.

Indeed, the only very specific issue the statement tackles is that of homosexuality, and there the curious Lutheran will learn that “we don’t have a consensus.” Apparently the ELCA has nothing to say, because we can’t agree what to say. So the statements teaches us something about the ELCA, but not much about sexuality.

Many others have written quite eloquently about the theological weaknesses of the statement, and I need not rehearse all of that here. If you haven’t done so, you should visit the website of our companion journal at and scroll through the material there on the sexuality statement. You will find pieces by editor Sarah Wilson, Robert Benne, Carl Braaten, Paul Hinlicky and others, as well as a statement from the task force dissenters; they are worth reading and pondering.

But it all comes down to the question of what the churchwide assembly should do, and I repeat my advice: Just say no. Thank the task force for their usually thankless work, and then file this away in the archives.

Or—and here’s a really revolutionary idea, and one that obviously is a bit tongue in cheek, but only a bit—let the churchwide assembly adopt as its own the 1981 statement of the Missouri Synod’s Commission on Theology and Church Relations on “Human Sexuality: A Theological Perspective” (on line at

Well, let them cut out the section on “headship within marriage”; that part isn’t going to fly in the ELCA. But the rest of the statement is really pretty good: theologically sound, ethically responsible, well-written. Perhaps ELCA members wouldn’t expect this, but the statement cites a wide variety of writers: Robert Farrar Capon, Karl Barth, Edward Schillebeeckx, C. S. Lewis and others. One might argue that it is a much more ecumenically sensitive statement, which is quite an irony.

That isn’t going to happen, of course, but churchwide assembly voting members would do well to read it to see what a teaching document on human sexuality could look like. The ELCA proposal will not stand up well by comparison.

And that’s why they should just say no.
 —by Richard O. Johnson, editor

Copyright 2009 American Lutheran Publicity Bureau. All rights reserved.
The Rev. Richard O. Johnson, STS


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Re: Just say no (May, 2009)
« Reply #1 on: July 01, 2009, 05:48:28 PM »
Nicely done, Richard.  It made me go back and peruse the 1981 statement a bit.