Less Sex; More Bible; That's What My Church Needs
You shall keep the Sabbath, because it is holy for you; everyone who profanes it shall be put to death; whoever does any work on it shall be cut off from among the people. Exodus 31:14
If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them. Leviticus 20:13
If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father and mother, who does not heed them when they discipline him, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the gate of that place. They shall say to the elders of his town, "This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard." Then all the men of the town shall stone him to death. So you shall purge the evil from your midst; and all Israel will hear, and be afraid. Deuteronomy 21:18-21
You shall not wear clothes made of wool and linen woven together. Deuteronomy 22:11
Those born of an illicit union shall not be admitted to the assembly of the Lord. Even to the tenth generation, none of their descendants shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord. Deuteronomy 23:2
As in all the churches of the saints, women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church. 1st Corinthians 14:33b-35
Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ; not only while being watched, and in order to please them, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. Render service with enthusiasm, as to the Lord and not to men and women, knowing that whatever good we do, we will receive the same again from the Lord, whether we are slaves or free. Ephesians 6:5-8
Less sex; more Bible; that's what my church needs.
Today my church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, voted in assembly (with 559 in favor and 451 opposed) to "open the ministry of the church to gay and lesbian pastors and other professional workers living in committed relationships" (see story).
It's not the first time my church has rejected the clear teaching of the Bible, and formed policies that run counter to what Scripture says.
- In 1838, The Franckean Lutheran Synod of New York passed a resolution that stated, in part: "That we conceive it to be our imperative duty to speak boldly and plainly against this great national and heinous sin [of slavery]" (in clear contradiction to Ephesians 6:5-8).
- In November of 1970, the Lutheran Church in America (which later became part of the ELCA) ordained the country's first female Lutheran pastor, the Rev. Elizabeth Platz (in clear contradiction to 1st Corinthians 14:33b-35).
- I don't know if my church has ever gone on record as being supportive of wearing garments woven of wool and linen, but I'm pretty sure that somewhere along the line we have made it clear that we don't approve of stoning to death Sabbath breakers, homosexuals or rebellious sons.
There is a problem in my church. The problem is not that we misunderstand or despise the authority of Scripture (as some opponents of this initiative claim). The problem with my church is that we have spent too much time focused on how to understand sex, and too little time focused on how to interpret the Scriptures.
Our Lutheran ancestors were on to something, when they wrote of their respect for God's word. In the Formula of Concord (June 25, 1580), we read:
The Word of God is and should remain the sole rule and norm of all doctrine, and that no human being's writings dare be put on a par with it, but that everything must be subjected to it. Formula of Concord: 2, 9
This understanding places the authority of Scripture above all other authorities. It is to be the "rule" and "norm" of all that we say and believe. In other words, a truly Lutheran way of dealing with theological, social or political matters would be to allow our understanding of the Bible's message to shape our opinions and beliefs about these issues.
Unfortunately, far too many 21st Century Lutherans operate in exactly the opposite manner. Far too many of us let our political or social or theological biases "rule" and "norm" the way we read Scripture. Far too many of us believe what Carl Rove or Rush Limbaugh or James Carville or Joshua Micah Marshall have taught us, and then go running to the Bible in search of passages which support that teaching. How else could a believer claim that it is fine to work (or shop!) on Sunday, to wear clothes that are woven of linen and wool, to allow women to have authority in the church, and to oppose slavery... but if a man lies with a male as with a woman, then the Bible has something to say about that? The truth is (whether or not we are honest enough to admit it): we all pick and choose what we want to believe in the Bible, based on the perspectives we ourselves bring to it.
Martin Luther was famous for having once said that the Bible is like the manger. Its purpose is to present the living Christ to us. When it does, it is God's Sacred Word. When it doesn't (Luther admitted that the manger also held straw), it may teach us about our history, and draw us more deeply into the story of God's people, but it doesn't speak to us with the same authority. That is why, in the liturgical church, we stand whenever the Gospels are read (because they have the intent purpose of presenting Christ to us), but feel free to stay seated if we are reading from any other portion of the Bible (because they may or may not serve the purpose of presenting Christ to us). Admittedly, this is another form of allowing a theological bias to "rule" or "norm" the way we read Scripture. But I'll take a Christ-centered bias over any other bias that I might conjure up on my own.
So from that perspective, does Leviticus 20:13 present Christ to us? I doubt it. It may teach us about Ancient Israel, and it may draw us into the story of our ancestors in faith, but it doesn't speak to us with the same authority as the resurrection accounts in the Gospels. Neither, for that matter, do Biblical commands about punishments for Sabbath breakers, the garments we wear, race relations, or the role that women should play in the church.
But when the Bible presents Christ to us -- when it proclaims the power of the resurrection -- when it calls us to hold sacred those things that were most important to our Lord (who spoke often about poverty and hypocrisy and caring for widows, but almost never dealt directly with sexuality, and never as much as mentioned homosexuality) -- then let us stand and sing, "Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. Alleluia."
As Lutherans, we commit ourselves to a Christ-centered view of the Scriptures. When the Scriptures present Christ to us, they speak with a greater authority than when they tell us about the faith journeys of believers who lived thousands of years ago. It is then that the Word of God serves as the "rule" and the "norm" for all that we say and believe. And so we turn to these passages, and stake our lives on them, trusting that the presence of Christ in the written word will lead us to an experience of Christ in our own lives.
My greatest concern for my church is not that homosexuals will have undue influence on our common future. Neither is it that our most conservative brothers and sisters will take their ball and stomp off to find more "like-minded" Christians to play with. No, my greatest fear for my church is that we will continue to let our political or social or theological biases "rule" or "norm" the way we read the Bible, and the way we experience Jesus. My greatest fear for my church is that it really doesn't believe that in Jesus Christ, God is doing a completely new thing. My greatest fear for my church is that it really doesn't believe that through Jesus Christ, God can completely transform the way we perceive the world around us. My greatest fear for my church is that it really doesn't believe that in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has welcomed us into a grace that is far more radical than anything our limited human minds can understand.
This Fall, many of the members of my congregation are going to read through the Bible cover-to-cover (from September 13 to December 6). Not many people walked away from an encounter with Jesus in the first century thinking, "Wow. I guess I had it all right after all." I hope we don't walk away from this experience with that attitude either. I hope that our immersion into God's Word challenges us and shapes us -- to use the words of the Reformers: rules us and norms us. I hope it knocks away our biases and presuppositions. I hope it leads us to that completely new thing Jesus is trying to do in our lives, whatever it may be. That's what it means to believe in the authority of Scripture -- in the power of God's Word. And I hope and pray that as my church (the ELCA) grows and matures, it too will become more and more adept at letting God's Word "rule" and "norm" even our most cherished beliefs, so that the Good News of Jesus Christ may be taught clearly and purely among us.
Here I stand. I can do no other. God have mercy on us all.