Wednesday, August 12, 2009

A Response to Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust

A Response to Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust

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.

1. 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.

2. 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!)

3. Downplaying the Fruitfulness of Sexuality. Although Human Sexuality: Gift and Task 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!

[2] Liturgy for marriage, Lutheran Book of Worship, p. 203.
[3] Footnote 11 in Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust.


  1. Dear Bishop Wahlrabe:

    Thank you so much for exercising your teaching function within the church. It is SO refreshing.

    The Rev. Clinton Kersey

  2. Thank you for your thoughtful comments, Bishop Wohlrabe. I am a voting member to the Churchwide Assembly and, I must say, I am embarrassed by the Statement the Task Force has developed and is being proposed. Will you be offering or supporting any amendments or substitution for this statement at the assembly? I would appreciate hearing of any you might propose.

    Rev. Marshall Hahn
    NE Iowa Synod

  3. Thank you, Bishop Wohlrabe (okay, we've known each other a long time: "Thank you, +Larry"). My prayer is that some folks figure out how to fit this into the 3 minute oral snippets allowed by the proposed Rules, so that this important critique can get out on the Assembly floor during the debate on the proposed Social Statement.

    I'm attending as a Congregational Observer. and hope to thank you for this in person.

    Pax, Steven+

    The Rev. Steven P. Tibbetts, STS
    Peoria, Illinois

  4. This is the best assessment of the proposed social statement I have read. It is also the clearest explanation of sex being God's gift I have ever read. Thank you for restoring my confidence that our church can manage to provide sound teaching according to the Scriptures.


  5. Jaynan L. Clark, Spokane, WashingtonAugust 15, 2009 at 1:16 AM

    Thanks, Larry. . .

    and Amen to what you have written. It is solid, sound, sensitive and most importantly faithful to the Word.

    Look forward to seeing you soon.

    How about a run? (Milwaukee grin:>)


  6. Hey there ... a olleague from the past looks forward to hearing you address this matter on the churchwide assembly floor -- provided, of course, that there's enough streaming capacity on the ELCA website to allow us all in.

    AMDG (ad majorem Dei gloriam), if you know what I mean. +;-)

    Pr. Sheepherder

    You're invited to visit Shepherd's Notebook, the online journal of Pastor Sheepherder's Sheep Camp - where we're knee-deep in God's Word, rural ministry and life on the ranch. Hosted by a real, live sheepherder and pastor of an open-country ELCA congregation in SE Nebraska. Drop in any time!

  7. I am curious about your statement "procreation is integral to marriage" - is it, really? Are marriages without biological children something 'less'?

    I have been married to a Lutheran clergy person for over 25 years and we do not have children. My relationship with my spouse is deep and caring, longstanding and nothing short of a gift from God.

    My best friend's family is blessed with a son, via the gift of adoption. Is her marriage less than whole?

    I would encourage you to wonder a bit more about this kind of blanket statement and consider 'drawing the circle a bit wider' toward inclusion. Words are powerful.

    I pray there is room enough for all of us in the ELCA.

  8. Dear Mr. Wohlrabe,

    I am a Catholic living in Fargo, ND. I saw the article in the paper yesterday and found it to be deeply disturbing and completely misguided. As you know, as Christians we are called to Holiness, our one goal. Homosexuality is not in God's plan...period. It cannot be supported. There are so many other important topics that need your attention such as Abortion, Euthanasia, etc...Please come back to God, the Truth, the Way, and his one Church.


  9. Thanks, Bishop, for making it clear that we should not simply sweep sexuality under the rug. Right now I expect you are in the heat of discussions at the Churchwide Assembly, so let me keep this response short. I see more potential support for your bold proclamation (about the centrality of the nuclear family bound, in part, by the mutual sexual attraction of the parents) in Reformation thought than in Biblical or pre-Reformation tradition, and would be happy to discuss that with you if you have any taste for such discussion once the sexuality document and recommendations are voted up or down.

    Can't we, as Lutherans, just say that sexuality is important because it is a dimension of our lives that opens us up to great loves, great betrayals--all the good and bad that resides in us? OT prophets use the sexuality of the unfaithful wife to explain why God is so furious at the breaking of the covenant (eg, Hosea)--a prime example of the power of sexuality to open up vulnerability. Sexuality, in this sense, refers not so much to glandular desire and attraction as to its enormous potential to enrich or destroy relations. As such, it is the red thread that runs through marriage, friendship...and child abuse and domestic violence, etc. It is the fact that we are sexual beings, rather than Spocks, that helps engenders noble love, base jealousy, enormous hurt and betrayal--you name it, in the range of human attachments and destructive de-tachments. I think this is what the social statement is trying to get at when it makes 'trust' central to ethical reflection about sexuality. Once opened up to the possibility of love, we experience the potential for abuse and betrayal. We can't be
    Spocks any longer (sorry, my daughter clued me in to the new Star Trek.)

    (first part of comment, second part follows..._

    Stewart Herman, a member at Trinity in Moorhead (although of course I speak here for no one except myself.)

  10. (second part of Stewart Herman comment)

    This destructive as well as constructive potential of sexuality warrants caution. Families are the incubators of great good, and great evil, and that is why I am skeptical of your declaration limiting God's design to what looks awfully suspiciously like a modern form of family which has proven eminently fallible and greatly in need of redemption. Let me put the matter with a bit more edginess: how does your robust endorsement of God's heterosexual, family design protect us against idolatry of the family?

    The good news we need to bring has to do with being liberated from the tyrannies of misdirected sexuality, which are legion--and penetrating to the very heart of the relational forms we hold most dear. (I speak as a family man, by the way, firmly committed to the institution of marriage and the other 'mainstream' affirmations the sexuality draft makes.) What we should be doing is holding up the core values, and worrying less about the specific relationships those values are worked out in. I can't see strong Biblical or traditional grounds for excluding homosexuals from the fraught and difficult work of covenanted dyadic relationships. (See Mark Allan Powell's terrific little essay on a Biblical logic appropriate to Lutheran thinking.) We have such a great tradition from Luther for thinking about relationships--why don't we use it?

    Since you want to see more law and gospel dialectic as a theological tool, which I think would be a fine idea, I suggest that one fruitful place to explore would be in turning this dialectic on the kinds of problems that the sexuality draft raises up for consideration: concerning the ways that sexuality goes bad. Luther had no starry-eyed naivete about sexually complementary dyads and families.

    I think we have ample grounds in Lutheran thinking for a firmly relational approach to sexuality; in this respect, I think the sexuality statement is very Lutheran, even if it doesn't restrict itself to doctrinal language. End of comment.

    These musings no doubt come at the wrong time, and I apologize if they add any unwanted pressure. Let me express again my appreciation for the fact that you are engaging the issue, and I hope that the results in Minneapolis will in some way reconcile us around what truly should not be a church-dividing issue.

    Again, my best wishes --

    Stewart Herman

  11. Dr. Wohlrabe,
    Thanks for your thoughtful words. Your brothers and sisters in the LCMS are praying for a God-pleasing assembly. Please pray for us as well next summer in Houston.

  12. Dear Bishop Wohlrabe:

    I continue to have the highest respect for your integrity and faithfulness in theological deliberation. This is one of the best responses to the Social Statement that I have read. You have not only articulated the weaknesses of the document, but have focused on the center of what the statement "should have said."

    Rev. Steven King

  13. This comment has been removed by the author.

  14. How dare you or any one else pass judgement on my family. Being a gay person in a commited relationship of 10 years with 5 children. And for you to say our family is less thane anyone else. SHAME on you!!!