Global Sisters and Brothers
Part of a 7 week course called "Sense and Sensuality" by Rev. Gary Blobaum
The Embrace Offered
A notable characteristic of the ELCA from its formation has been its determination to embrace multiculturalism. We wanted to insure this church would faithfully include cultural and ethnic perspectives other than those of the white males of European descent who had shaped Lutheranism since the Reformation. We therefore wrote a commitment to multiculturalism into our founding documents. By means of a quota system, we stipulated that set percentages of women and “persons of color or whose primary language is other than English” must participate whenever synodical or churchwide policies and practices are created. And a “companion synod” – usually of an African or Asian Lutheran church – was assigned to each ELCA synod in order to keep before this church a global perspective. We were determined to break free of the white, middle-class, western assumptions that had narrowed both our theological vision and the reach of our evangelism. The ELCA wanted to hear and heed other voices from other cultures. “Hospitality,” “inclusivity,” “welcome,” “tolerance” – these were the characteristics by which the ELCA would become known.
The Embrace Withdrawn
But the ELCA now appears in full retreat from multiculturalism and global awareness. We have shuttered the inclusivist vision. Precisely when non-white and non-western voices have become most urgent and challenging, we have silenced them. In a striking reversal, the ELCA now seems as determined to ignore other cultures as it once seemed to welcome them. Many “persons of color and whose primary language is other than English” feel the ELCA has betrayed them. Our global partners decry our indifference to their warnings.
In 2004, well ahead of our most intense churchwide discussions of homosexuality, the Lutheran bishops of Tanzania wrote and signed “The Bukoba Statement,” a document warning the ELCA on this issue. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania is a body of believers of approximately the same size as the ELCA. The bishops wrote out of concern for their own church, but also out of concern for ours. Yet how many ELCA Lutherans have heard of their statement, let alone read it? Why was it not cited in the ELCA study documents on sexuality? Why does the ELCA website (among fifty-one entries for “Bukoba,” most of them highlighting the work of the ELCA) not include a single reference to – let alone the text of – this forthright statement which the Lutheran bishops in Tanzania intended for our reading? Why were the pertinent paragraphs not quoted in The Lutheran magazine? Why do ELCA leaders who insist on the presentation of “both sides” of the issue never mention – let alone hand out copies of –this statement? Why don’t I quit complaining and simply quote for you some excerpts from:
The Bukoba Statement
“The Conference of Bishops of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Tanzania (ELCT) met in Bukoba between the 2nd and 9th February, 2004 for spiritual retreat and prayer. In the said conference we reflected also on numerous issues facing the church and society in Tanzania and beyond. We are aware of our duties and responsibilities to pray for, teach, discipline and forewarn the community of faith in our nation and the larger community worldwide…
“We object to legalization of same sex marriage, which in essence is not a marriage but a complacent act of giving in to human desires. The only marriage act that we can bless is the union between two different sexes. This understanding of marriage is derived from God’s order of Creation of man and woman. The entire order of creation, including other animals and plants, was then declared by God to be ‘very good’ (Gen. 1:31). We thus find any attempt to change God’s intentions for the sake of a few individuals with divergent sexual views and acts is in itself sinful and evil…
“Thus, legalizing, authorizing or accepting same sex relationships is to undermine the institution of marriage and its sanctity. This institution is the foundation of community welfare. To sabotage it is to sabotage God’s command that establishes this important institution…
“The Conference of Bishops rejects biblical expositions done by some theologians and scholars with intent to affirm and legalize homosexuality. The Bible is the foundation of Christian faith and thus the church has an indisputable authority to rightly and scripturally explain faith based on God’s Word…”
And a Message from Asia
“This matter is also of great importance to us in Asia,” wrote the Rev. Nicholas Tai, Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Hong Kong in an open letter to ELCA Bishop Mark Hanson. “Of special concern is the question of homosexual union blessings and the acceptance of ordained clergy in homosexual relationships. A decision to accept these two practices would be a source of embarrassment for the Lutheran Church in Asia. Such a decision would affect our companion relationships, as homosexual practice is regarded as sin in the vast ecumenical community in Asia…
“If the Church accepts and practices homosexual behavior, it will be a big stumbling block for the vast majority of 1.3 billion Chinese, who need the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
“The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Hong Kong regards homosexual practice as a sin and expressly states this in our discipline handbook. If the ELCA accepts such practices, it will be quite an embarrassment to explain to our members why our companion Church allows something which goes against the clear biblical norms of our own Church. We, as part of the Lutheran Communion, could not escape the accusation that the Church is listening to the modern culture rather than to the clear teaching of the Word of God.”
And from Eastern Europe
Prior to the 2009 Churchwide Assembly, an open letter arrived from the Rev. Bishop Stanislav Pietak, of the Silesian Evangelical Church of the Augsburg Confession, the Lutheran Church in the Czech Republic. He wrote: “We closely observe the discussion which is going on in your church body. We pray that your synod would take a clear Biblical stand this summer and vote against accepting the proposed social statement on human sexuality. Any other stand would be very disappointing for us and would threaten our partnership. According to our constitution, our ministry is incompatible with anyone or any organization which is in any way defending the homosexual lifestyle.”
And from Tanzania at the Eleventh Hour
In a 2009 letter, the Rev. Elisha Buberwa, bishop of the North-Western Diocese of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania, reminded the ELCA leadership of the 2004 Bukoba Statement and said, “I, and many other Christian leaders like me, would strongly advise the ELCA leadership to do everything within their ability to delay voting on this matter which is said to be on the agenda of the Churchwide Assembly. If the Churchwide Assembly votes in favor of, say, permitting pastors to bless same-sex unions and permitting bishops to ordain theologians who are actively homosexual in practice; you can be sure, this is going to impact negatively on our (ELCA and ELCT) relationship.”
There are more than 17 million Lutherans in Africa and 8.5 million Lutherans in Asia. The ELCA has less than 4.7 million members.
We Speak, You Listen
Forgetful of its commitment to hear and heed the voices of other cultures, the ELCA, while congratulating itself on multiculturalism, ignored minority voices among its members. At the churchwide assembly, Presiding Bishop, Mark Hanson, and Bishop Craig Johnson of Minneapolis lauded Our Redeemer Oromo Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, an Ethiopian immigrant church, as the fastest growing congregation in the synod. The congregation was commended as a shining example of multiculturalism. What the bishops chose to ignore was the fact that two hundred members of the Oromo congregation had been in prayer before and during the assembly pleading with God that the ELCA might remain faithful to Scripture instead of adopting the proposals of the sexuality task force. The bishops also ignored the fact that members of the Oromo congregation had come to the convention center to express their concern to the voting members.
But in the wake of the churchwide decisions, the Rev. Challo Baro, an assistant pastor of the Oromo congregation, declared at the CORE Convocation in Indiana: “As far as we are concerned our choice is very clear. We have to either give up our evangelical and prophetic ministry in our society and silently die as a denomination or rise to the task of realigning ourselves with churches, leaders and communities of similar conviction and work shoulder-to-shoulder with them.”
The Rev. Eddy Perez of Miami, Florida, brought a similar word to the CORE Convocation: “My friends, in the middle of these uncertainties, we are glad to see that God is using these times of darkness to manifest the light. God is using this time as a time when we, as men and women of God, are called to define ourselves by taking a stand on the basis of our beliefs, on the basis of our convictions, on the basis of our conscience bound to the Word of God.
“My advice to the ELCA members is this: the time for hesitation is now over. God is demanding a response from us. Through the prophet Elijah, God keeps saying to the members of the ELCA congregations: ‘How long will you hesitate between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow Him; but if Baal, follow him.’”
Nor was Pastor Perez speaking alone. Earlier he and nine other Hispanic pastors and one Hispanic Associate in Ministry of the Florida-Bahamas Synod had sent to the ELCA the following response to the churchwide decisions:
“We have received with profound sadness the ELCA Churchwide Assembly decision of passing a Social Statement on Human Sexuality which significantly changes the historical teaching and practice of the Church on Sexuality. We have also read with great disappointment and grave concern the changing of our ministry standards, allowing non-celibate homosexual pastors, associates in ministry, diaconal ministers, and deaconesses to serve as rostered leaders in the ELCA.
“We, Hispanic ELCA rostered leaders of the Florida-Bahamas Synod, REPUDIATE these new policies, declaring them to be incompatible with Christian teaching [and] the tradition of the Christian Church…As Martin Luther did in his own day, we reject the idea that ANY human being, prelate, council, or Assembly, can rightfully vote to invalidate the teachings of Holy Scripture.
“It is clear to us that the ELCA has decided to stop recognizing the Authority of the Bible, presenting a different and diluted Gospel not in accordance with the teaching of the Scriptures (Galatians 1:6-10). Therefore, we RENOUNCE the decision of the Churchwide Assembly and will continue to uphold the clear Biblical standards for marriage, family, and sexuality. May God have mercy on His Church.”
But you will search in vain to find this document on the ELCA website. The position of the ELCA seems clear: Insofar as they enhance the reputation of the ELCA for tolerance and multiculturalism, immigrants and ethnic minorities are welcome. Their authentic voices, however, are not. Pastor Mark Chavez, member of the CORE Steering Committee, recently asked: “Does the ELCA have ears to hear people of African, Asian, Middle Eastern, and Hispanic descent?”
Church and Culture: Captivity or Transformation?
Insightfully, Bishop Tai of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Hong Kong, raises the question whether the ELCA has stopped its ears to the Bible because it is captive to “modern culture.” Indeed, some American revisionist theologians make no secret of the fact that, for them, cultural considerations rank alongside the Bible and theology as sources for deciding whether the Church should bless same-sex intimacy. Attempting to refute a volume by New Testament scholar, Richard Hays, a revisionist scholar, Dan O. Via, argues for the importance of “cultural considerations”:
Richard Hays, in his much-acclaimed The Moral Vision of the New Testament, also defends the traditional Christian view. He points out that Scripture consistently and unconditionally condemns homosexuality and represents heterosexual marriage as the only justifiable expression of sexuality (Hays 1996, 381-82, 389-91), and Hays’s discussion disallows that there are any interpretive moves that can legitimately override this condemnation. Hays seems to feel that the Bible’s unanimous opposition to homosexual practice gives to this position a special force (389). There is, however, no a priori reason why a univocal position cannot be overridden if the countervailing biblical, theological, and cultural considerations [emphasis added] have sufficient strength, as I believe they do (Homosexuality and the Bible: Two Views by Dan O. Via and Robert Gagnon, 2003, pp. 21-22).
But how can the Church grant “cultural considerations” equal weight with the Bible and theology in determining what the Church should believe and practice? Dr. Via explains:
Moreover, the gospel calls on believers to be faithful in the particular culture in which they are placed by God. Thus the church should listen – critically and in light of its own theological horizon – to the best cultural voices (p.18).
According to Dr. Via, being “faithful in” a particular culture means listening to “the best cultural voices” and, in this case, overriding Scripture on account of those voices. We are not told how to identify which cultural voices are “the best.” But is this faithfulness in a particular culture or to a particular culture? Has Dr. Via capitulated to the culture when he makes Biblical interpretation hinge on the cultural context of the interpreter?
There are two basic positions, although each is variously nuanced. (1) The traditional view takes the Bible’s strictures against homosexuality at face value. All homosexual acts are sinful by their very nature. (2) A nontraditional view seeks a more open and accepting position. Homosexual acts are not in themselves immoral or sinful but, like heterosexual acts, are good or bad depending on the context [emphasis added] that defines and gives meaning to them (p. 1).
The sexuality task force also acknowledged its attentiveness to cultural context. The final study document said: “The task force continues to recognize that the long-held consensus in church and society regarding same-gender sexual intimacy has broken down. The task force finds this to be true for the ELCA, for other faith communities in North America, and for North American society” (Report and Recommendations lines 71-74). But why should opinions in society have a bearing on Biblical interpretation and church practice? And why should the stance of “other faith communities in North America” take precedence over the stance of other faith communities across the globe? What a society considers its “best cultural voices” have often opposed the Gospel. And “faith communities in North America” have not been doing so well as compared with their counterparts in Africa and Asia – which is why “the missionary wave no longer flows from Europe and North America to Africa and Asia. It goes instead in the other direction: At present 35,000 foreign missionaries labor in the United States, while thousands more serve in Britain, France, Germany, and Italy” (Robert Bruce Mullin, First Things, December, 2009, p.48).
Why all of sudden are we defining our context as North American society? And why do we suddenly want to take our cues from faith communities in North America? Weren’t we aspiring to understand ourselves in a global context? Or have we found a new affinity with the North American context because homosexuality is more readily accepted in Seattle than in Shanghai? Surely the task force knew it would be inviting chaos into the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church if it concluded that God blesses homosexual intimacy on one continent but not on others. Yet incredible as it seems, that is its conclusion. It recommended “allowing the responsible group closest to the local ministry context to make the decision it discerns to be faithful, even when a different decision might be made elsewhere” (Report and Recommendations, lines 544-545).
No wonder our global sisters and brothers in Christ are bewildered and embarrassed. We have chosen faithfulness to North American society over faithfulness with them to the Word of God. No wonder the ethnic minorities we welcomed into Lutheranism are renouncing our decisions and abandoning the ELCA. We have equated “North American society” with white, urban, middle-class culture and have once again ignored their voices.
The ELCA seems deeply anxious over how it is perceived by secular society. This anxiety is more than hinted at by the task force itself: “Many advocates for change…are concerned about the damage inflicted on this church’s… public witness when the church is perceived widely to be unable or unwilling to take into account the contributions of secular forms of inquiry that have enriched our understanding of human nature, human sexuality, social institutions, and human communities” (Report and Recommendations, lines 201-208). In other words, revisionists were concerned that a decision by the ELCA to disallow homosexual marriage would be perceived by secular society as an indication of the ignorance prevalent in our church. But when has the wider society not regarded Christians as ignorant? One of the perennial “contributions of secular forms of inquiry” to “our understanding of human nature” is that the dead do not come back to life and walk away from their graves. To be a Christian, therefore, is to depart so drastically from “the contributions of secular forms of inquiry” as to believe the Biblical witness to Christ’s resurrection. To be sure, “secular forms of inquiry…have enriched” Christian understanding of the world and human life. But this does not mean that “the contributions of secular forms of inquiry” can be uncritically adopted by the Church. So long as the Church believes God created the cosmos, died to redeem it, rose to transform it, and is preparing to glorify it, the Church will always offer a radically different account of reality than those on offer in secular society.
The documents of the ELCA on human sexuality seem oblivious to this radical difference. Rather, they exemplify what can happen when “the contributions of secular forms of inquiry” receive uncritical acceptance by the Church. For, as we saw in our first session, they identify the harm prostitution brings upon the health of individuals and society, but demonstrate no awareness of, nor concern for, the harm it brings upon human souls. We saw in our second session that they hew closely to current secular jargon in defining marriage as a “social structure” but decline to comment on the Biblical definition of marriage as a “one-flesh” union. We saw in our third session that their preference for “secular forms of inquiry” led them to conclude prematurely that “for some people homosexual orientation is a given” while the latest scientific evidence appears to indicate that homosexual orientation is never “given” at birth. We saw in our fourth session that, in secular fashion, the ELCA documents elevate people’s “experience of their own sexuality” to the status of an authoritative source surpassing the authority of Scripture itself. We saw in our fifth session that they replace the biblical concern for the salvation of those who commit sexual sin with a concern for the temporal “consequences for individuals, relationships, and the community” when sexual sins are committed. And we have surmised in this session that the conclusions of the task force on human sexuality may have been shaped in part by their hankering for credibility in the secular, North American cultural context. Our global sisters and brothers and those who live on the margins of North American society are calling us to become less anxious about how we are perceived by our secular culture and more anxious about how we are perceived by our holy God. A church whose desire is to please God does not capitulate to the culture, it transforms the culture.
But not only does the ELCA seek credibility from secular culture, a narrow band of secular culture also seeks credibility from the ELCA. The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force realizes its “political muscle” increases significantly when the Church makes common cause with it. That is why, according to a report in the October 2008 issue of Touchstone, the “National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Foundation will be giving homosexual activist groups in the mainline churches $1.2 million over the next two years to ‘support a strategic, collaborative effort to expand pro-LGBT faith-based organizing efforts…’ Money will also go to groups in the United Church of Christ and in United Methodist, Evangelical Lutheran, and Episcopal churches. Using the denominational groups ‘holds the potential to transform the larger GLBT movement by greatly expanding its reach,’ said a representative of the foundation that provided the money” (p.43). “Using the denominational groups” – an ominous phrase. Is the ELCA transforming secular culture or being transformed by it?
Go to Response to “The Bible and Our Ethics”