Friday, October 30, 2009

High view of the Bible, another thought

Another thing occurs to me.

I have heard many people who have a low view of the Bible say, "That's a prescientific understanding" or "today we know more about that" or "They just didn't understand that in the ancient world but today we know better." The implication is that today with our scientific minds we are smarter, better informed, and wiser than the people in biblical times.

I don't believe that. Certainly we know some scientific things that people in ancient Israel didn't know, but in just about every important area I think they were at least as wise as we are. Probably wiser since they didn't have cable TV, cars, ipods, or fast food. They spent a lot of time talking and listening and thinking and living. We spend a lot of time watching other people live. Think about it. So when the writers in the Bible say something about life, or tell a story that gets at some facet of the meaning of it all, I pay attention. Maybe it's quaint and prescientific, but guess what -- when I'm wondering about what time it's legal for me to be hunting tomorrow morning I don't ask, "What time will the earth rotate to the degree that enough of my location will be exposed to the rays of the sun so that it's light enough for me to hunt?" I ask, "When is sunrise tomorrow?" In many ways, those poor benighted people in ancient times were much more in touch with the world around them than we are today. For example, can you tell me without looking it up whether the moon is waxing or waning right now? Nobody in ancient times would have been unaware of that cycle.

So I don't feel so bad when the Bible describes things from the point of view of someone who didn't understand the complexities of elliptical orbits or the periodic table. Truth is, most of us today don't understand that so well either, and even if we do we don't live there much.

I value science and scientific knowledge. But I don't want to put my scientific knowledge -- such as it is -- above the Bible's ability to tell me about my life.

What do we assume about the Bible?

The last thing I want to do is shake my finger at someone else and say, "Your conduct is sinful." I certainly have enough sins in my own life to keep me occupied. So unlike some of the people in this very large argument the ELCA is having, I don't get into detailed arguments about the difficulties homosexual people face -- either persecution or increased risk of STD's and shorter lifespan, etc. I also don't get much into the nature / nurture thing because I don't think that settles anything. I didn't choose to be diabetic but here I am, and I have to deal with it. It's more complicated than just nature / nurture, and I know some people argue as though "it's really a choice" or "they're born this way" would settle the whole matter. We all choose to some extent how we act on our sexual urges and needs, but I don't know of anyone who set out to choose a certain set of urges. In the end I don't think that takes us anywhere helpful.

For me the discussion is how we read the Bible. Here's what I assume when I read the Bible: I assume that the Bible was written by human authors who were fallible like you and me; that their cultural context and the struggles in which they were living determined a lot of what they wrote; that they translated from one language to another, sometimes with less concern about faithfulness to the original language and more about making a point to the audience that would receive their translation; that some of what made its way into the Bible is mythological and some is maybe even plain fiction; AND I believe that the whole process was carefully overseen by the Holy Spirit, shaping and forming a book such that every word is expressly intended by God to be there, to be useful, to be in the deepest sense of the word true. I believe all of it is there because God wanted it there, and not just for someone back in 955 bc. Do I believe it's wrong to eat shellfish? No, we just went to Red Lobster -- Julie had shrimp and I was snitching off her plate. But the New Testament clearly redirects those dietary laws. Is it important for us to know about those? Yes, I think the principles involved provide a powerful way for us to understand some of our own cultural laws and how they may or may not reflect God's desire for us. When what I want is contrary to the Bible, I admit sometimes I close my eyes and do what I want -- but so often I have done what seems right to me and later reaped the negative consequences, that these days I'm more inclined to believe God when he says, "Don't do that" even if I don't understand why.

So the principle for me becomes this: Whatever I'm going to do, either in my personal life as a believer or in my role as a church leader, I expect myself to be able to make a clear argument from the Bible for my actions. When other people try to change my policies or my practices, I expect the same thing of them. So when the ELCA went to change policies, I expect a decisive biblical argument in favor of those changes. So far I have read lots of attempts but none that seems to provide the needed leverage to require change. This is precisely why I think this is different than the arguments in the 60's for the ordination of women -- there were clear biblical arguments in favor of that move. I don't find the same thing with regard to homosexuality. The more I study the cultures of the time, the more I see that homosexuality was NOT always condemned in the biblical world -- many of the cultures around Israel were very enthusiastic about certain practices of homosexuality, whether the Canaanite temples or the Greek poets or the Roman senate. Much of what was present in those cultures was adopted wholesale into Israelite, Jewish, or Christian thought and practice, but somehow homosexual practice was never accepted as something good, and the Bible lays out clear proscriptions against that conduct. So whether I understand just why or not, I believe that God warns against these behaviors for a reason.

I have absolutely no desire to preach on this or even to think about who may or may not be gay. With some it's pretty obvious, with others it's quite hidden. I don't care. They're people who I am called to love, and I don't judge or avoid someone because of what might be true about their sexuality any more than I avoid someone because they smoke, drop a few nickels at the casino, overeat, or spend money foolishly. If God wants to take them to task for those behaviors he'll do that. If they ask my opinion or what the Bible says about those things, I can try to point them that direction. But I don't spend my time sorting people out into "sinner" and "saint" categories -- I know that each one who knows Jesus belongs in both.

Thursday, October 29, 2009


NOTE: The entry below does NOT mean that I simply accept what the Bible says without thinking, asking hard questions, etc. It means simply that my assumptions change. Instead of assuming if something doesn't make sense that it must just be something that applies only to the ancient world, or assuming that Paul, Isaiah, David, or whoever didn't know enough to address the issue, my assumption becomes that this is God's word and I need to keep digging to learn to understand and apply it. Part of that digging is asking hard questions, having the hard wrestling matches with God. But I don't stand over the Bible to judge which parts of it are valid and which are not.

I was in a class in seminary where one of those questions came up. We were dealing with an unpleasant text in Genesis, studying under a professor who was well known as one who subscribed to what is known as "source criticism" -- that is, you try to figure out who wrote something, where it came from, how it was edited or changed in the process, etc., and then you can critique how it may or may not apply today. In effect what happens is often that source criticism dismisses a lot of texts because they've been changed, edited, etc. (Or at least that is the source critic's assumption.) A student in this class put forth a theory about the text, stating how it had probably been edited and borrowed from another, older text and how the unpleasant details had probably been added in for a particular agenda of the editor's. The effect of the student's argument was that this text should not be read in all its unpleasantness.

The professor surprised us all by answering, "That might be, but it's still in the book. It's in the Bible, wherever it came from, and you have to deal with it." I gained a lot of respect for that professor that day.

Highs and lows

We had a pastoral forum at Central last night to talk through some of these issues. We have a congregational vote scheduled for November 8th re. terminating our relationship with the ELCA, so it's important for people to have some way to discuss things and hear some of the reasoning behind this decision.

As I listened to a couple hours of opinions, debate, lament, and questions last night one thing more than any other became clear (not for the first time) to me.

This issue is, as I have said before, NOT about discrimination. It is about whether one takes a low or high view of the Bible.

Simply put, a low view of the Bible means that I see it as a tool I use, a document I can judge and evaluate. If something strikes me wrong I look hard at it and figure out why it doesn't apply, why it is limited by the ancient world's ignorance or the prejudices of the particular author who wrote it. I study how it was all put together to better understand some of the odd sayings and wonder how they got included. Paul's comments about women, for example, are the product of his misogyny. Laws against various sexual practices are the quaint social rules of a primitive people. Somewhere in the book there may be hidden an authentic message from God, but you have to hunt for it among all the clutter from the ancient world and the various human authors.

A high view of the Bible, on the other hand, means that the book reads me. The Bible is not a tool I use, it is the standard by which I judge my conduct. It is the book that reveals to me who God is, who I am, what my condition is. When I go to read it I don't have to hunt for God's hidden message, but rather the Spirit of God who inspired it in the first place is right there speaking through the written word. Every word in it is precious. Certainly I understand that there is context -- the laws against eating pork, for example, are maybe something peculiar to that time or that part of the world. But when I run up against something I don't understand I cannot dismiss it or say that it doesn't apply. Instead, I look to see if that rule or that principle or that concept has been dealt with elsewhere in the Bible, and I let the Bible interpret itself.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

It's not that complicated

I've been thinking this morning that maybe I'm giving the wrong impression here. It is not that difficult to have a biblical view and practice on these issues.

I want you to understand that there ARE careful, sophisticated arguments both from scripture and from the Lutheran tradition for a clear, biblical, loving stance on these matters. But not everyone needs to know about the left hand work of God, the third use of the law or the interactions between Luther and Karlstadt. So what does it come down to?

Simply put, let Jesus (as he is in Scripture, not in your imagination) be all in all.

And following his footsteps, do these things:
  • Love your neighbor in the same ways Jesus loved, no matter who or what they are.
  • Never mix love of the sinner with affirmation of the sin, for yourself or for others. Keep both elements in tension.
  • Do not set aside the scriptures for anything. Jesus didn't.
  • Act with humility and patience, knowing that God is working both in you and in the world around you.
  • If you have to make a choice between following Jesus and pleasing people, follow Jesus. Every time.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Dr. Timothy Wengert and a biblical argument for the ELCA

Dr. Timothy Wengert of Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia has made a valiant effort at a biblical argument in favor of the ELCA's action. You can read his reflections here.

At first glance, Dr. Wengert has a powerful argument. He deals with the relevant texts, in a fashion, and he consistently focuses on the heart of Jesus' message, namely the commands to love God and love neighbor. He asserts time and again that the decision of the ELCA Assembly is in fact a decision rooted in Scripture. I encourage you to carefully read his reflections (they are long but very readable) before going on as I want to take a detailed look at his arguments.

Okay, you're back? Good.

First, let's look at what Dr. Wengert gets right. He says -- and he is absolutely correct -- that "the calls for justice toward gays and lesbians in committed relationships and the recitation of examples of healthy same-gender relations, as important as these are to some folk, finally do not in themselves constitute a complete standard for changing church policy, since even calls for justice must for Christians be grounded in and normed by sound interpretations of Scripture as God’s Word for us." This is true. Our desire for justice must be rooted in scripture. Our norms about what conduct is and is not acceptable in the body of Christ must be rooted in scripture. Now we have to ask the question, does he make a convincing scriptural case for this change in policy?

Dr. Wengert acknowledges that his scriptural argument is "an argument from the law." But he argues in a particular fashion. Lutherans have long had specific ways of dealing with the law. How does Dr. Wengert use the law?

The second thing Dr. Wengert gets correct is that "Christians are free by faith to serve the neighbor." Because we are justified by grace alone through faith in Jesus, we are set free to serve others without doing so to try to get right with God. In other words, because God has done everything needful at the cross, we are now truly free to care for the neighbor not out of selfish motives but following the example of Jesus, out of selfless love for the other.

Now Wengert begins a little sleight of hand. He directs us back to Jesus' two great commandments, first to love God and second to love the neighbor. Picking up on Jesus' comment, "On these [two commandments] hang all the law and the prophets," he changes direction. Now comes the crux of Wengert's argument. He says, "The debate over sexuality in the ELCA in some ways “hangs” on these words of Jesus. The ELCA with its decisions at the churchwide assembly is now stating that in this passage Jesus gave us a key to understand the Scriptures, that is, a lens through which we may interpret every other command in Scripture. Every command in Scripture must be focused by this question: “How does following this commandment enhance love for God and neighbor?” By asking this question of every other scriptural command, one remains truly faithful to Scripture."

Notice that Wengert's argument here has two serious problems.

First, he focuses not on the redemptive work of Jesus' death and resurrection. Nor does he focus (as Scripture does) on the person of Jesus as the fulfillment of the law and the prophets. Instead, Wengert chooses these two commands as the critical lens through which we must view all of scripture. No more vicarious atonement (meaning you are saved by Jesus' death on the cross). No more victorious Christ rising from the tomb, setting his followers free from bondage to death and hell. Instead, we have simply a command to love, that helps us interpret every other "have to" command in the Bible. What Wengert has done, in classic Lutheran theology, is move from the first and second uses of the law, to adopt a "third use." We'll come back to this later.

The second problem Wengert has here is just as basic as the first. He assumes that we know what love is apart from the witness of the Bible. If we just love one another, he says, we will know how to follow the commandments. But what is love, apart from Jesus? The Bible defines love this way: "This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins." (1 John 4:10). Not even the Bible can define love apart from the death and resurrection of Jesus!

What about this "third use" that Wengert adopts? What does that mean? If you've read the previous post on the left and right hand work of God, this will be easier. Luther and those who follow his sense of what the Bible teaches talk about different "uses" of the law. The first use of the law corresponds to what we described earlier as the "left hand" of God. The law, used in this "first" way, helps us to organize an orderly society, provides guidelines for social and civil structures, and provides punishment for those who violate that civil order. Speed limits, court systems, and laws against shoplifting and murder are examples of this first use of the law.

The second use of the law goes along with the "right hand" work of God, the work by which God brings us to faith in Jesus Christ. The law convicts us of our sin, making us see that we fall short of the glory of God, that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. The law kills me in my sinfulness and at the cross of Jesus, God brings me to new life. (See Paul's argument in Romans 7.) This use of the law condemns me, makes me face my own sinfulness and drives me to the cross for forgiveness.

What about the third use of the law?

Lutheran theologians have been debating for almost 500 years whether there really is a "third use." Luther never really settled the debate, but most Lutherans who follow Martin Luther's teachings strictly say that the two uses are enough. It was Luther's close friend Philip Melanchthon who seemed keen on a third use of the law -- that once a person is saved, the law becomes a guide to Christian behavior. (Those who follow Luther but not so much Melanchthon make the claim that even after I am redeemed, my "good works" are either trying to live in good order with others, aka first use, or else they are part of my repentance in response to conviction of sin, aka second use.)

Why is this important in this context? Wengert's whole argument is a "third use" argument. He sees the law not as a "left hand" work of God to build an orderly society, nor as a tool God uses to show me my sin and drive me to the cross of Jesus. Instead Wengert's whole argument hinges on the idea that Christians use the law as a guideline to know how to be good to one another. Wengert cannot talk about the second use of the law because he knows that if he does, he will have to acknowledge that the Bible condemns homosexuality along with every other sin we commit, and his argument in favor of the ELCA's changes would fall apart.

So maybe you've been waiting for that shoe to drop, wondering how Wengert will deal with those texts we've been discussing, the texts that specifically mention homosexuality.

To sum it up, Wengert's argument is, "those texts don't apply." By quoting Martin Luther out of context, from a disagreement with his former colleague Karlstadt, Wengert makes it seem like Luther dismissed certain sins. Without a lengthy history lesson, suffice it to say that Luther did not say anything about certain biblical sins not applying to us anymore. Rather, he said that the structure of Jewish life (the Sabbath requirements, and the complex system of tithes among other things) was not to be applied wholesale to Christians. Note that this argument deals with the Old Testament texts mentioning homosexuality, but does nothing to remove the New Testament proscriptions of homosexual activity.

But Wengert soldiers on, echoing Mel White's arguments that the New Testament texts do not apply to homosexual activity within a committed relationship in our day, but only to certain abusive or idolatrous relationships. His foundation for rejecting Paul's argument in Romans 1 is shaky at best. But if he is simply arguing for a "third use" of the law -- how can we as Christians be good now that we're saved -- perhaps that is all he needs. His words about context and Jesus' two great commandments divert attention from the fact that this is a third use argument. But under the second use of the law, we indeed -- all of us -- stand condemned for our sins, including homosexual activity.

In the end, Wengert's arguments are a vain attempt to make a Lutheran biblical argument for declaring homosexual activity within a committed relationship as a non-sin. He ends up making a very impressive argument but at the cost of negating the death and resurrection of Christ, compromising a Lutheran understanding of the law, and leaving us to define love however we think it should best be defined.

The cost of buying his argument is just too high.

Churches, politics, and sex

The longer these debates go on the more I realize that no matter what congregations decide about their affiliation with the ELCA, ministries will be decimated because of this debate. There is no good way to talk about church, politics, and sex when people are so divided. I'm really looking forward to a day (please God let it be soon) that this blog can go back to focusing on what it means to follow Jesus.

At the moment, though, there is a deep debate about what is authoritative in the lives of those who want to follow Jesus. And people are making claims about Jesus that have to be tested -- so how do we test these claims when people have radically different ideas what Jesus stands for? If we cannot seek to know Jesus through the Bible, we have no access to him. Don't get me wrong, I believe that Jesus is present as I am typing and you are reading; I believe his Spirit speaks to our hearts and reveals him to us. But I can't trust the impressions of my heart and you can't trust the words I type unless we have some greater authority that allows us to test the truth. Many people today want to elevate scientific studies or their personal experience to the level of absolute truth. But those things are no more trustworthy than a person's own emotions. Science is too often skewed by our lack of understanding, by agenda-driven studies, or by people selectively reporting what the actual "findings" are. Personal experience is just that, personal, and while it may be compelling, without interpretation that relies on something absolute, experience cannot rise to the level of truth. The Christian church for centuries has driven a stake into the ground of scripture and says, "Here we will stand. This is authoritative. This is trustworthy. This is the word against which we will test our belief and our practice."

So on to the next set of biblical passages and what they mean for the current debate about biblical authority and the ELCA's decisions regarding homosexuality.

1 Corinthians 6:9-11 comes in the middle of Paul's first letter to the Christians in the city of Corinth. These Christians were divided just about every way you can think of, and this letter deals directly with those divisions. Finally in some exasperation Paul, after talking specifically about some of their unsavory behaviors, tells them what they should not be doing -- and then proceeds to instruct them on the Christian life and what it ought to look like. Right in this transition we find two Greek words that have been the source of much argument in the debates about homosexuality. (These words are also used in 1 Timothy 1:10.) The two Greek words are "malakois" and "arsenokoitai". The root word "koi" refers to sexual intercourse -- we get the English word "coitus" from this root. But Paul says that these two behaviors are things that can exclude people from God's kingdom. What do the words mean?

Scholars have gone round and round about exact translations. Mel White claims that the words refer to dirty old men abusing soft young boys; other scholars have more generalized opinions.

What saddens me is that each "scholar" in the debate seems to spin these terms in a direction that will bolster his or her argument, whatever it is. At the baseline, at the very least these terms refer in some sense to the two partners in a male-to-male sexual encounter. These two passages of scripture include both the active and the passive activity of homosexual intercourse as actions that have the potential to keep one out of God's kingdom, according to 1 Corinthians 6.

1 Timothy 1:10 is an intriguing passage for another reason. Many who favor the ELCA's changes have argued that the condemnation of homosexual activity is a purely Old Testament thing. (I'm not sure how they deal with these two New Testament passages, let alone Romans 1!) But Paul in 1 Timothy 1 is not at all willing to set aside the Law. Though he does not seem so concerned about ritual requirements about food or fabrics, this list of activities is serious. He says that these activities (take time to read the whole list) contradict "the glorious Good News entrusted to me by our blessed God." In other words, these activities stand over against the gospel itself. The Apostle Paul would totally reject the claim that those who follow Jesus can now reject and ignore the law.

The only way we can get around the law is to claim that some parts of the Bible don't apply in this debate. Nearly all the arguments against the biblical condemnation of homosexual activity rest on this basic idea -- the Bible doesn't apply to this situation. What we need to do is read the Bible carefully and understand what to do with that law. It is not a baseball bat for us to use to condemn each other. It is not something for us to throw away and ignore. We need to dig into the Bible and learn how to deal with this law just as Jesus does -- graciously, mercifully, recognizing that heaven and earth will pass away before the least stroke of the pen in the law begins to fade.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Romans 2

One of the interesting twists in this debate: The number of people in favor of the ELCA's changes who leap quickly to Romans 2, especially the first few verses that speak against judging another since we are all guilty. The implication that they draw out is that since we are sinners and are admonished not to judge, we should disregard Paul's argument and his list of sins in Romans 1.

The trouble with this stance is that it nullifies the good news of Jesus. If we do not recognize our sin, we will not recognize our need for a Savior. So in effect these people who claim to be all about acceptance and good will are instead advocating an "I'm okay -- You're okay" gospel that changes nothing.

A parable:

There was once a man who had been tied up with ropes as a child. He developed a pathological fear of ropes. Later in life the man was at sea and his boat went down. He floundered in the turbulent waters, crying out for help. A nearby boat drew up and threw a rope to the man, but he flailed and screamed in even greater terror. The man who had thrown the rope said, "Grab the rope! Grab the rope!" but the drowning man knocked the rope away time and again.

So it is with those who fear judgment. They may react so negatively to the whole idea of God's word naming sin that they push away the very thing that can save them. Some may say that they are simply trying to protect others from being judged. Would you cut someone else off from the grace of God? Telling a critically ill person that they'll be fine is not love, it is hateful.

Friday, October 23, 2009

God's hands

Okay, this one might get a little difficult. Not because the concept is hard, but because we don't usually think this way. This theology of the right hand / left hand of God is one of Lutheranism's unique contributions to the world. Most churches don't believe this, or at least they don't express it in quite the same way.

What am I talking about? Martin Luther in reading the Bible came to the conclusion that there are two very different ways that God works in the world.

First is God's right hand. God's "right hand" work is to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ and his death and resurrection for sinners, saving them from separation from God, bringing them into a life-giving relationship with God through Jesus. Proclaiming this good news happens in two components, "law" and "gospel." Law is the proclamation of our sin. This proclamation convicts us, condemns us, sentences us to death. This is not law as a guideline for behavior, like "you have to eat your broccoli before you can have ice cream" or "you must drive no more than 55 mph". No, this is the law that says, "You must be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect." When we hear this law we are cut to the heart because we cannot keep it. Then the good news -- that Jesus Christ died for sinners, for those who cannot keep the law. As we hear the word of Jesus' death and resurrection, we can receive the gift of new life. We are transformed, made new, re-created. This is God's "right hand" work, to restore his broken creation to wholeness. So a preacher might be involved in God's right hand work as she preaches a sermon that convicts hearers of sin and extends the promise of the cross to them. Or a policeman might be involved in God's right hand work as he shares his faith over lunch with a coworker. But if the preacher is embroiled in discussion of administrative detail in a committee meeting, or the policeman is writing speeding tickets, they are no longer directly involved in God's right hand work.

So we move on to God's left hand. God's left hand is God's hidden work, his indirect work. This is the work God does to keep basic order in the world, to create safe and stable societies. According to the Bible, God's left hand work provides a context for his right hand work to take place. So what does God's left hand work look like? It is frustrating and difficult at best. God institutes governments that are imperfect, but that function to keep order. So even Adolph Hitler had structures in place that kept basic order, reduced crime, etc. I'm not saying God approved of Hitler, but God uses whatever government is in place to provide basic protection for people. This is the job of civil structures, of God's left hand. So, as C.S. Lewis said, the whole reason for government is so that a man can go down to the pub in the evening and have a game of darts and a pint, or a married couple can sit home in the quiet evening and eat supper together. It is the space and safety for these basic activities of life that tell us if a government is functioning as it properly should.

Now ... hang on ... here's where it gets a little dicey. What about the church? In the church we have an odd mixture of the right hand and the left hand. We have sermons and we have committee meetings. But even that is not quite fine tuned enough. Take a look at the offering during the worship service. On one level, this is obviously "left hand" stuff. The church needs to pay salaries, bills, mortgage, and give something for the good of the world beyond its walls. Left hand, right? But as I sit in the row and the plate comes down, this offering plate speaks a word of death to me. The Spirit uses this yawning, empty plate which demands my generosity to bring my greed to death. And as I surrender my tithe into the plate and pass it to my neighbor, the Spirit moves in my heart to bring new life to me. It is the gospel in action. So the offering is a good example, perhaps, of both left hand and right hand at once.

How does this all apply to the homosexuality debate and the ELCA?

One of our real problems in this is that we have not thought well about the left hand and right hand in relation to our decision making. For example, one of the arguments for changing the ELCA's policies was that we don't want to be discriminating against anyone. I agree, but let's be clear -- discrimination is left-hand talk. There's no such thing as discrimination under the right hand of God because in relation to the good news of Jesus we all deserve death and are saved by his sacrifice as a free gift. Under God's left hand, concerned with keeping order in society, it is entirely appropriate to talk about discrimination. We want an orderly society where all people have basic rights, where all people feel basically safe. Discrimination threatens that good order, so we minimize it or eliminate it if we are able, recognizing that our systems of civil order are imperfect. So under the left hand I may advocate for equal rights for all people regardless of race, creed, religion, or sexual orientation. But under the right hand I may recognize that God's word says certain behaviors are sinful, and I may yearn for the sinner (even if -- especially if -- it's me!) to come to the end of themselves and surrender to Jesus at the cross.

So it is possible to push for same-sex partner life insurance benefits AND to maintain that biblically speaking, homosexuality is sin.

Confused yet?

Let's make it worse. For some individuals -- theoretically speaking here -- a Lutheran might even be in favor of their state passing a law allowing same-sex civil unions in order to encourage good order -- long-term stable relationships -- in society, but at the same time that person may reject the idea of blessing those same-sex unions in the church because this says in effect, "God approves of what you're doing." A person can be in favor of good order on the left hand and also take a hard line on what constitutes sin, biblically speaking, on the right hand. In fact, this is a strong Lutheran position!

Of course, Lutherans (along with other Christians) are going to disagree about the best ways to achieve good order. There's nothing new about that. There are purely civil reasons for rejecting same-sex unions in society. But if we begin to say, "We are all saved by God's grace, so we should accept all behaviors as legitimate" -- that is sloppy thinking that confuses the left hand and the right hand of God's work. This kind of sloppy thinking is everywhere in today's debate. Another example is, "I've got a friend who is gay and he's such a nice guy, we should definitely let him be a pastor." This also confuses the left and right hands of God. We've taken a person who contributes to good order -- a nice guy -- and we have used that left hand criteria as a reason to ordain him to proclaim repentance and forgiveness in Christ without considering what the Bible has to say about the issues of repentance and forgiveness in the life of the proclaimer.

Take this one step further. Some people in this debate have said that it is unfair for preachers to be held to a higher standard -- that since we are all saved by God's grace anyway, preachers shouldn't be held more accountable. But the preacher's most critical function is to publicly enter into the right hand work of God -- the proclamation of the cross. It is absolutely critical that the preacher knows his or her own sin, has been convicted and has come to a place of repentance and forgiveness, so that they can authentically proclaim what it is to surrender to Jesus. When we lower or eliminate the standards for preachers, we water down the proclamation of the gospel. If we soften the law, the gospel gets weak. This is not in any way saying that the preacher must be perfect -- exactly the opposite! But the preacher MUST recognize their own sin and repent before God in order to proclaim the good news of Jesus.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Romans 1

We'll start with the big one -- the text that nearly everyone agrees is the hardest one to get past in discussions on the issue of homosexuality. I'm afraid this gets a little long, but it's a tough passage on a tough issue. We may have to come back to it because I don't think we'll cover everything that needs to be said. In days to come I'll deal with the other passages in the Bible that address homosexuality in some way.

To review the text, click here -- Romans 1:18-32.

I'm relying on two main sources to look at the different claims about this Bible passage. On the side that's arguing for the ELCA's decision in August, I'm tapping into Mel White's document, What the Bible Says -- and Doesn't Say -- about Homosexuality. I found this on the Soulforce website many years ago. Mel digs into the main texts in the Bible that mention homosexuality and gives a detailed interpretation of why each one does not apply to the current debate. To his credit, in his own words Mel wants to "take the Bible seriously." He is seminary educated and has studied the original languages of Hebrew and Greek. On the side that argues against the ELCA's August vote, I'm leaning on Robert Gagnon who teaches at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and has written extensively about the Bible and issues of homosexuality. Gagnon has lots of articles on his website as well, but I'm using his book The Bible and Homosexual Practice.

As you read these arguments, I ask that you think carefully about them. Don't give in to sloppy thinking where your assumptions predetermine your outcome. The different sides in this debate come with very different assumptions about the Bible and the authority and validity it has. Mel White begins reviewing the biblical passages on homosexuality with this statement: "I'm certain that you don't agree with the Bible on a lot of its teaching about sex. And you shouldn't ... Often, the Holy Spirit uses science to teach us why those ancient commands no longer apply to our modern times." Robert Gagnon comes with a very different set of assumptions. "First, there is clear, strong, and credible evidence that the Bible unequivocally defines same-sex intercourse as sin. Second, there exist no valid hermeneutical arguments, derived from either general principles of biblical interpretation or contemporary scientific knowledge and experience, for overriding the Bible's authority on this matter."

So we have three questions, three that I find very helpful any time I deal with a Bible passage. The first is, what does this text say? Second, what does it mean? Third, how does it apply?

In dealing with Romans 1:18-32, Mel White says, "For our discussion, this is the most controversial Biblical passage of them all." He then states that "This verse appears to be clear. Paul sees women having sex with women and men having sex with men, and he condemns that practice." Even Mel White says that this is the plain sense of this passage. This would be an answer to the question, "What does this text say?"

Before moving on, let's hasten to add that Paul mentions many other sins alongside homosexual activity. He includes not just homosexual activity but also "greed, hate, envy, murder, quarreling, deception, malicious behavior, and gossip." The list goes on. If you read the passage carefully, Paul is making an argument that all human beings have turned away from God. As they have turned to worship other things rather than acknowledging God, God has turned them over to their sinful impulses. All these observed sins -- even down to disobedience to parents, another item on Paul's list -- are the natural consequence of a self-orientation rather than a God-orientation. Paul concludes this chapter by saying, "They know God's justice requires that those who do these things deserve to die, yet they do them anyway. Worse yet, they encourage others to do them, too." (NOTE: I want to be absolutely clear that I totally reject this passage as an excuse for violence against homosexual persons! Such a reading is nothing less than hateful and irresponsible. Read it again and you will find that if you use this passage as an excuse to hate or excuse violence toward homosexuals, you deserve to die yourself. Don't go there. Paul is making an argument for a theological understanding of sin here, not a plea for vigilante violence.)

So this passage is saying that turning away from God -- which we all do in some form -- results in sinful behavior that can be observed, and if we engage in these behaviors, God will allow us to go our own way and rebel against him. So though God doesn't want me to be greedy, I am in fact greedy and sometimes I behave that way. This is a sign of my imperfect relationship with God, and when I give in to my greedy impulses, God allows me to go that way and suffer the consequences.

This brings up lots of questions, but first let's move on to the question, "What does this mean?"

Mel White's argument is that this passage refers not to homosexuality in general but rather to the sexual orgies -- heterosexual and homosexual -- that were practiced in the pagan temples of Paul's day. Looking at these orgies, Mel says, Paul condemns these sexual actions as idol worship. Mel then answers our third question, "How does this apply?" by saying that "it is unreasonable (and unjust) to compare our love for each other to the rituals of these priests and priestesses that pranced around the statues of Aphrodite and Diana. Once again, we feel certain that this passage says a lot about God and nothing about homosexuality as we understand it."

Is Mel White correct, that this passage refers only to those caught up in the orgiastic practices of idol worship, not to people in general, and certainly not to homosexual practice as we know it today?

Robert Gagnon takes a very different tack on Romans 1. Looking at the structure of the argument and the language used, he makes the argument that Paul is appealing to the story of creation in Genesis 1-3. Just as one can look around at the created order and see evidence for the existence of God, so one can look at the physical structure of male and female bodies and see evidence that they are meant to be complementary -- both for pleasure and for procreation. Gagnon says that for Paul, the absurdity of worshipping the creation and idols made in the shape of created things is similar to the absurdity of males having intercourse with males or females having intercourse with females. It is plainly outside God's created intention. Or, as Gagnon puts it, "Idolatry and homosexual behavior are in some measure parallel (not just successive) phenomena since both are presented as willful suppressions of the obvious truths about God and God's design in the natural world." Notice that Gagnon is not saying anything about homosexual orientation or feelings, but rather simply about what actions we choose to engage in.

To bolster his argument that this passage is an intentional echo of the creation story, Gagnon points out the parallels between Romans 1:23 and Genesis 1:26 -- both mention the image of God and humans, the likeness of humans, birds, four footed animals, and reptiles. Romans 1:25 also refers to a "lie" (see Genesis 3); Romans 1:27 refers to shame (see Genesis 3:8), and the word "knowledge" is all over this passage, bringing to mind the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the garden of Eden in Genesis 2.

What is Paul trying to get at with these textual references? Gagnon puts it this way:

"Both idolatry and same-sex intercourse reject God's verdict that what was made and arranged was 'very good' (Genesis 1:31). Instead of recognizing their indebtedness to the one God in whose image and likeness they were made, humans worshiped statues made in their own image and likeness. Instead of exercising dominion over the animal kingdom, they bowed down not only to images of themselves but also to images of animals. Instead of acknowledging that God had made them 'male and female' and had called on them to copulate and procreate, they denied the transparent complementarity of their sexuality and engaged in sex with the same sex, indulging themselves in irresponsible sexual passion on which stable and productive family structures could not be built. As with Jesus," -- see for example Mark 10:6-9 -- "so with Paul: the creation story in Genesis does not leave room for a legitimate expression of same-sex intercourse."

If Gagnon is correct -- and I think it is difficult to argue that he's wrong about Paul having the creation story in mind as he's writing Romans 1, there are just too many parallels -- then this passage refers not just to idolatrous priests and priestesses, but to all humanity, sinful and broken. Just as gossip and disobedience to parents and murder are evidence of our sinful, broken nature, homosexual activity is part of our brokenness.

How does this apply? In the current debate, the two main issues are 1) the blessing of same sex unions within the church, and 2) the ordination of homosexually active persons. Each of these issues requires that the church pronounce God's blessing on a relationship -- first between God and two persons of the same gender, and second between God and a church and a leader. Can we bless something that is defined in God's word as contrary to God's desire for creation? That goes contrary to the whole idea of what a blessing is.

Clearly, Romans 1:18-32 says that homosexual activity is contrary to God's design. By definition, this puts it (along with all those other items named in the passage) in the category of "sin." The Bible does not say this to judge individuals who are active in homosexual relationships, but the Bible tells these people (and all of us) the truth about ourselves. The goal of God's word is not to condemn us, but to help me understand why I suffer the consequences of my own actions. God's goal is that I would turn back to him, even if I am caught in a sin I cannot escape.

The solution to sin is not to bless what God has declared sin; rather, it is to repent and trust in Jesus for forgiveness.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


Wow -- what a couple days! I am pausing for a few minutes on the drive home from Pete's funeral, waiting to pick up my daughter from school stuff, and trying to sort out the last 48 hours in my head.

Usually when I go "home" it's a quiet time with lots of sitting in the woods and that big silent old house where I grew up. I love it. I loved this visit, too, but it was way different. Nine of us in the big old house, including four under the age of six years. Uff da. I did indeed sit in the woods this morning for about 90 minutes and got repeatedly and thoroughly scolded by a trio of red squirrels. Of course, the family service last night and Pete's funeral today were amazing opportunities to reconnect with family and others I haven't seen in way too long. We laid Pete's body to rest in the southeast corner of the Faaberg cemetery, just a few feet from my Mom & Dad's graves, so after the service I swung past their spot to say hi. There were a few other familiar names on some of the headstones, and as I wandered through on the way back to the church basement I was amazed (again) by the way their faces just pop up from the headstones and I see them singing in church, or visiting over coffee, or in their living rooms as we came to carol them at Christmas many years ago. It's a bit strange when so many of the saints I know are now underground. Their bodies, at least.

We made a point of extending a few conversations over the church ladies' wonderful repast, and then swung by to see one of my other uncles who has a hard time getting out these days. That was very fun. Aging is a strange phenomenon -- you don't get a lot of choice in how it happens, only in how you react to it.

All in all, it was a great time but I sure enjoyed the last four hours of silence on the road. I guess I'm just wired in such a way that I need a lot of processing time.

Monday, October 19, 2009

By request

Well, we're in the thick of dealing with the ELCA's schrapnel at Central. Churches have been put in a no-win position. If congregations do nothing, more conservative members will leave or at least withdraw support, because their congregation is not following the Bible. If congregations act to disagree with the ELCA, members more ingrained to accept homosexuality as an appropriate alternative will leave or at least withdraw support, because their congregation is being judgmental. Probably the hardest thing to see is the fear of division.

Two things I want to deal with in the next few days:

1. The issue of what Lutherans call God's "left hand" -- what should civil government do around the issue of homosexuality? This is an aspect of this whole controversy that has been widely ignored, partly because there is so little agreement. But also, few Lutheran theologians have seriously thought through the issues.

2. I've had a few requests to post the biblical texts that actually mention homosexuality. I'll post them here today but in the coming days I'm hoping to take time to comment on each one. I'll include some of the arguments that both sides have used to deal with the passage, and share how it fits into a biblical view of this issue.

There are certainly many other biblical texts that play into this issue -- for example, many biblical scholars start with the creation story and the creation of humans as male and female. Jesus comments very specifically on that created order in Mark 10:6-9. Those who are looking for acceptance of homosexuality in the Bible sometimes use relationships between David and Jonathan, Ruth and Naomi, or even Jesus and the beloved disciple in John's gospel, insinuating that there seems to be homosexuality of some kind in these relationships. There is absolutely no evidence to back these claims.

But there are about six (depending on how you count and what you include) Bible texts that specifically deal in some fashion with homosexual activity. They are:

New Testament texts:

Old Testament texts:

Some of these readings deal more directly with homosexual activity and others are more incidental to the current arguments. Take your time and read them, and then as I have opportunity I'll post some thoughts about each one.

Meanwhile it's time to get on the road. I'm running Erica back to college this morning, then a doctor's appointment, then check in at Central, then I get to see my niece, Shannon, as we will ride together to Pete's funeral. Why is it families don't get together until weddings or funerals? Lot of road time today -- thank God for cruise control!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Audio comfort

Between physical tiredness and lots of other stuff going on -- what's the line from the old hymn? "Fightings and fears, within, without" -- in the middle of all that and more, Erica sat down tonight and played a ton of old hymns on the piano. What a great source of comfort to have these strains coming out of the piano, matching the lyrics in my heart:

How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,
Is laid for your faith in his excellent Word.
What more can he say than to you he has said,
Who unto the Savior for refuge have fled?

Friday, October 16, 2009

Going Home

I got word this morning that my Uncle Pete passed away last night. I grew up across the road from him and his family, so I can't remember a time when he wasn't an integral part of my life.

I've been thinking a lot this summer and fall about the phrase, "going home." Because he knew Jesus, Pete's death was in the best sense a going home. Now I am changing some plans so that in a couple days I can be going home to Faaberg Lutheran and the farm where I grew up, to an amazing collection of siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles and more.

There's a lot wrapped up in those two words. How important to be able to go someplace that is "home". How tragic for those who -- wherever they may live, under a bridge or in a mansion -- have no place to call home.

Jesus-followers have no permanent home in this world. The Bible says our citizenship is in heaven, and we're waiting for the king from there to set up his kingdom here as well. Until then we live as strangers and aliens in this place.

It's worth pondering, what exactly it means to live as a stranger and an alien here. And what will it mean to go home?

Pete, I have to confess that I am just a tinge jealous. You are experiencing things now that I've longed to see for years. Peace, until we see you again!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Supply and Demand

Apparently Amazon is carefully tuned into the movements of the market. After I posted the other day that my book was on sale for under $7, some of you apparently bought copies -- because suddenly the price jumped to almost $11! It's fascinating for me to watch the whole process. One of the fun things about writing this book was the education I've gotten about the publishing world.

There's also a study guide available through Augsburg Fortress, the publishers. It's a free pdf download. I have talked to a few people who are planning to use the book as a group study, and the study guide is designed for just that purpose.

Agreeing on the big things

I had a conversation yesterday that warmed my heart. I had a chance to talk with a friend who disagrees with my take on the Bible and homosexuality. What was so exciting to me about this conversation was that this friend recognizes that this is a secondary issue that has been forced into the spotlight by the ELCA Assembly vote in August. Now churches and church leaders are in a position where they have to choose how to respond. My friend talked at some length about how things look from his perspective, and shared his bottom line stance.

"I have to do whatever will help our church be most effective in making Jesus known."

Here is a shining example of Jesus-focused wisdom. We can talk about secondary things and try to figure them out as time goes on. As someone who is committed both personally and professionally to the Bible's message -- both the broad picture and the specific details -- I have to say that the ELCA has compromised its commitment to biblical authority, and that compromise will bring consequences. In fact, it's already bringing consequences. Lutheran churches across the globe -- Guam, Kenya, the Czech Republic, and in the United States and other places -- have been distancing themselves from the ELCA since August. That process will continue, and we'll see many, many individuals and congregations leaving the denomination.

But my friend gives me hope that we can keep the main thing the main thing through all this.

Answer to prayer

I had my follow-up appointment with the neurologist yesterday. For the last three weeks -- since I got out of the hospital, really -- I have been pretty much able to do what I want. The docs had told me no jogging, no tree climbing, no wandering around alone in the woods, no mountain biking until this follow-up appointment, so as I've healed up physically I've been running up against those restrictions more and more. I'm afraid I've been something of a source of frustration to Julie and a few others!

But yesterday we got the news I had hoped for -- the neurologist said three things that were music to my ears:

1. We don't know why the hemorrhage happened -- it seems to have been a random thing.
2. Statistically I am no more likely to have a repeat performance than anyone else in the population.
3. There are no activities that I have to avoid for fear of another hemorrhage.

Wow! I was so excited. As we were walking out of the office, I realized just how much I've felt like maybe I'm a walking time bomb waiting to go off. It was an amazing adventure going through all of this -- not something I'd care to repeat anytime soon, but I learned a lot. Those of you who have followed my CaringBridge site and now this blog know that! I have seen God working in the middle of this mess in some amazing ways. It's been very cool. One of the greatest things for me has been all the support, prayers, EVERYTHING that so many people have done for me & my family. I spent a lot of September looking my own death in the face, and that's a good thing to do from time to time. It makes you realize how important the people you love are and makes you reevaluate your priorities.

But it is also good, now, to be able to turn my energy back to life. To work, to hunt, to play Scrabble with Julie and watch movies with Teya.

Life is really, really good. I need to get going so I can swing by Walmart and pick up a bowhunting license.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009


By the way, I'm also for homosexuals -- and gluttons, and thieves, and lazy people, and everyone else like me -- in the church, as Audrey puts it. I want everyone to be coming to know Jesus more and more.

Monday, October 12, 2009

What are the biblical arguments?

Audrey, who is a Bible camp compatriot of mine and these days mom extraordinaire, sent me this email.

"I have not looked at it as a Bible issue--mostly because the people for the change have made it a people issue. So my question is--how do you deal with the other side's biblical interpretations? I don't have any examples off of the top of my head--but I know that there are people on the side for homosexuals in the church that use the Bible to prove their point too. Does the Bible say two things?"

This is the question every person who feels hung on the horns of this issue should be asking, but few are. Instead, the pro-change folks in the ELCA have argued exactly as Audrey describes -- they have made it a people issue, and they have framed the debate in this way. "My cousin / brother / aunt / next-door-neighbor is homosexual and he / she is the most wonderful, loving person I know. It's just wrong to discriminate against him / her in this way." First of all, I know many wonderful homosexual people as well, and I agree that it's wrong to discriminate against them. So we don't disagree on that. But that's not the issue.

The issue is whether the Bible has the authority to determine what is sin and what is not.

(This website includes thoughts from one of the world's preeminent biblical scholars in the area of homosexuality both in ancient and modern times, Robert Gagnon of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. I encourage you to follow the link and read his articles if you're looking for a biblical position in this debate. He's a scholar, and the writing can be a little difficult but it is well worth working through what he says if you want to know what the Bible really says about these matters.)

Some who want to change the church, recognizing that there needs to be a biblical debate, make a two-pronged argument in favor of changing the church's standards. This can get pretty subtle, but basically it boils down to these two things. First of all, these people claim, the biblical writers knew nothing about the kind of loving, mutual, committed homosexual unions we have today. Therefore, what the Bible says against homosexuality is speaking against homosexual rape, bizarre temple rituals involving homosexual sex, or abuse of boys by older men. Second, Jesus' basic teaching boils down to "love God and love your neighbor," which means that we should encourage our homosexual brothers and sisters to express their God-given love for each other however they see fit.

Let's deal with these arguments one at a time.

First, some interpreters go to great lengths to show that the biblical passages that specifically mention homosexuality -- there are a half dozen, depending on how you translate a couple different words and which Old Testament passages you include -- are not written against the kind of homosexuality we have today. This argument has about as much validity as saying that I don't have to tithe today because the Bible was written to an economy based on barter, not on electronic cash transactions. The basic premise of the tithe -- my obedience to God's standards -- is still the same. In the same way, the Bible does speak against abuse and pedophilia, very clearly. But those who argue that the biblical world knew nothing of loving, committed homosexual unions have not done their research. There are volumes of Greek poetry written to express the love and passion between same-sex lovers in ancient times. The term "lesbian" comes from the Greek island of Lesbos which was purportedly inhabited by women in romantic and sexual relationships with each other. Many prominent Greek and Roman men had male lovers throughout their lives, and this was well known in their society. As a well-educated Roman citizen, Paul certainly would have been acquainted with this practice.

These interpreters argue about the specific meanings of various Greek words at great length, but it seems they always stumble a little when it comes to Romans 1. In this passage Paul carefully describes homosexual activity as a turning away from God's design, just as every sinful act we commit is turning away from God's design. Not to say that homosexual activity is worse, but that it is simply sin, like gossip and disobedience to parents (also mentioned in Romans 1) are sins.

What about the argument that Jesus' message of love trumps Paul's petty concerns about specific sins? First of all, it's false to set Jesus against Paul as though their message is substantially different. Jesus certainly called his followers to an ethic and practice of love that went beyond anything in ancient times, and beyond what we know today. But what did Jesus mean by love? Did he mean, "Let your neighbor do whatever he wants"? If that is love, most parents are not very loving to their children. Real love has hard edges. Sometimes we talk about "tough love" because love is NOT just about letting the other do whatever they want. When the doctor told me on September 4th, "We're calling a helicopter and we're going to airlift you to North Memorial," part of me wanted to just go home and take a nap, hoping it wouldn't be any big deal. That's what I wanted. But I needed the doctor to love me enough to diagnose my condition properly, and tell me the truth. That's how a good doctor shows love.

So Jesus calls his people to love. Maybe that means telling the truth instead of affirming what we wish was true. How do we know truth? Not simply by our own opinions. Not by majority votes. We know truth by paying attention to "every word that proceeds from the mouth of God." We need a source of truth beyond our selves, and the Bible is it. These interpreters who say that Jesus' message of love and his death on the cross remove all concerns about these other matters are placing their own wishful thinking over the Bible, and filtering its words through their own desire. Either they must say that the Bible is a time-bound book, and modern homosexuality is just different that what the Bible addresses, or they must say that Jesus' call to love means that the rest of the Bible's words about homosexuality don't apply.

There is a third option that has reared its ugly head in the last few years. Some teachers and church leaders are saying that "God is doing a new thing" and the Holy Spirit is leading us beyond the Bible. Be careful with this one. It sounds great, but if you start studying history it is easy to find dozens of movements that began with those words and ended up either in meaningless obscurity or in tragic violence. In the early 1520's, a man named Thomas Munzer claimed that God spoke to him beyond the written words of the Bible, and that the written words were dead and foolish. "Bible, Babble, Bubble," Munzer preached. He ended up leading the peasants of Germany in a revolt against their princes and thousands of people died violent deaths in 1525. When we set aside God's written word, our imaginations are very quick to take over the role of the Holy Spirit. And our imaginations are deeply tainted by selfishness and sin. Watch out.

The short answer to the question above is that there is no good biblical argument in favor of saying homosexuality is not a sin. To make that claim, you have to leave the Bible behind in some way. While there are some very subtle arguments out there about the meaning of Greek words and how much Paul knew about homosexuality, no one who has truly studied the issue from a biblical point of view can say that the Bible endorses homosexuality.

One final argument that is often used. Many advocates for saying homosexual activity is not sin argue that Jesus never addressed the issue. It is true that Jesus never specifically mentions homosexuality. However, he does mention "sexual immorality" (Greek is "porneia" from which we get the word pornography -- this is a catch-all term in Greek for any kind of sexual behavior outside God's intention) in Mark 7:21, and clearly speaks to God's created intention for heterosexual marriage in Mark 10:6-9. Jesus affirms the Bible's overall message on human sexuality. Because the Bible's overall message about homosexuality is consistent and clear in the passages that mention it, the burden of proof is on those who would change the church's standards. And over and over they have tried but have failed to make a convincing biblical case. The ELCA's vote, and the ongoing arguments about how to implement these resolutions, do not rest on biblical evidence.

Shameless self-promotion

If you've been thinking about picking up my book on finding real freedom in Christ, I just visited Amazon and they're offering it at more than 40% off right now! Not sure if they're winding it down to discontinue it or what, but the book is available on their website for under $7. You can get to Amazon's page and find descriptions and ordering information just by clicking on the image to the right.

How did we get here?

One of the most intriguing book titles I've heard in years is, "Do Fish Know They're Wet?" Interesting question. The premise of the book is that when you're totally immersed in something, it is often hard to see it.

It's the same for us. It is very hard for us to see our cultural assumptions -- things we all just believe to be true without really thinking about them.

For example, when Martin Luther was roaming the world in the 1500's, there was a shared assumption in most of European society that if the Bible said something, it was true. (In fact, Luther himself raised the ante on this assumption by helping the wider population to know what the Bible said and giving them permission to read it for themselves by translating the Bible into the German language.) Now we may think we believe this today, but do we really act as if it is true?

Two hundred years and a little more after Luther we went through a time historians call the Enlightenment. We use that heady term to describe the shift toward a belief that humans can reason things out -- that our rational intellects are the measure of all things. In Luther's time the study of God -- theology -- was known as the "queen of the sciences." During the Enlightenment, science -- the quest for knowledge based on rational observation and repeated experiments -- became the ultimate way of gaining knowledge. It was a subtle shift at first, and it led to a lot of good things. We owe most of our technological advances to this Enlightenment and what followed. Air travel, computers, automobiles, telephones -- all these are the grandchildren of the Enlightenment. So this change in assumptions has changed our lives beyond measure.

But more than just our travel and our communication has changed. In the early 1800's we began to apply Enlightenment thinking even to the Bible. Instead of accepting that the Bible had authority, we began to try to make sense of it, to figure out how it worked. In scholars' terms, we began to do something to the Bible that we call "higher criticism." It is higher in the sense that we put ourselves above the text to figure it out, treating the Bible as a human document written by human authors limited by their time and place. Not all higher criticism is bad. For example, one huge question in higher criticism is the "synoptic problem" -- the question of how the gospels were composed and which were written first. Why do Matthew, Mark, and Luke share so much material? Which was written first? Which second? It's an interesting way to think, but it does not deal with the question of "how do I know the Jesus that the gospels are telling me about?"

As the 1800's gave way to the 1900's, this way of thinking about the Bible began to filter from the halls of academia down into the general population. Christians -- especially in America -- began to divide into "liberal" (accepting this higher criticism and taking a lower view of the Bible's authority) and "conservative" (rejecting higher criticism and holding to a stronger view of biblical authority) churches. At the extreme, this division has led to fundamentalism, on the one hand, and social activist liberalism on the other. The creation / evolution debate gets fought on much these same lines.

Is something true if the Bible says it is? Our culture, by and large, says no. The Bible may say that I should tithe. That message may be very clear and the Bible may teach it consistently, but most people -- inside the church and outside it -- think that's foolish. Why would I give a tenth of my money away? This is why the average giving in protestant churches stays at about 2% of income -- because most of us don't believe the Bible's advice is worth taking. It's the same in other areas of life. Just because the Bible says something doesn't mean it's true. Our culture has largely walked away from biblical understandings of divorce, adultery, gambling, parenting, gossip, pornography, leisure, work, money, and much more. Today those who believe in the Bible's authority and are willing to act based on the Bible's teaching are a small minority even in most churches.

So by the mid-1900's as a culture we had pretty thoroughly abandoned the view that the Bible was authoritative. At that time we still believed our culture was "Christian" but the foundation of that Christian identity had eroded. When the 1960's rolled around, we were reeling from three decades of self-sacrifice -- first from the Great Depression, then from the Second World War, and finally from the fears of the Cold War in the 1950's. When the 60's hit, the pendulum swung hard away from self sacrifice. As a culture we began to believe instead that if you feel like doing something, you should act on that feeling. Pop slogans like "If it feels good, do it" rested on a much deeper cultural assumption. Truth no longer rested on the best of human reason from a scientific point of view; instead, truth was now whatever I feel like. My own experiences became the filter through which I discern truth. We still nod to science as the accepted authority, but the foundation of our belief in science has eroded as well. Today we decide what we want to believe, how we want to act, and we look for science to back up our actions. This works because we see our politicians and even scientists doing the same thing -- arguing about competing and contradictory theories, pulling in experts to back up their latest political campaign. Look at global warming and the controversy surrounding that as one example.

So in the beginning of the 21st century, we find our selves in a place where the authorities have all been stripped of their power, and I get to make up my mind based on my own inclinations. That sounds like a place of great individual power. However, as a lone individual I may not have the resources to make good decisions. So I look at what others are doing around me and try to figure out if they are right. Have you noticed that news broadcasts spend an inordinate amount of time looking at public opinion polls in the last few years? It's natural. If there is no authority, we want to know what everyone else is doing.

The other danger today is that as an individual, making my decisions without authority sources to guide me, I am vulnerable to persuasion. The marketing industry began growing at the same time as our sense of biblical authority began to diminish. (If you doubt this, research the history of Christmas and when it went from being about Jesus to being about Santa Claus and the pile of presents under the tree. You'll find that the shift took place in the late 1800's and early 1900's -- the same time the idea of higher criticism was filtering down to the common people in America.) There are millions of dollars spent every year to try to get you to think a certain way, buy a certain product, drive a certain car.

Do fish know they're wet? Probably not. But if you throw a cat into the lake, it definitely knows it's wet. Those who know Jesus are not called to accept our cultural assumptions without question. We are called to live in this culture like "strangers and aliens" according to the Bible, whose citizenship is in heaven with God. Those who know Jesus need to do a little hard work to understand the culture in which we live. It is not enough to say, "Well, everybody thinks this is okay, so it must be okay." As Jesus-followers we have to have a better reason for our belief and our action. "I want it to be true" works pretty well on reality TV shows, but it won't keep you close to Jesus when times get hard.

Friday, October 9, 2009

This is Minnesota, after all!

On to something a little different -- I just have to pause for a moment to make the observation that this has, so far at least, been the PERFECT Minnesota fall for bowhunting. With the exception of a few steady days of rain last week, it's been just amazing. Tomorrow they're saying we might even have a tracking snow. If this is what happens with global warming, I say bring it on.

I'm waiting for my appointment with the neurologist on Wednesday. Waiting. Very much hoping that he will give his benediction to me hunting for the rest of the fall.

If he sees the need to put restrictions on my activity from here on out, I have to trust that God will use those, as well. So far he's done a good job of using my getting sick, being hospitalized, and being on restricted activity. I have to believe he knows better than I do.

But I have definite opinions about what should happen Wednesday.

What's the real issue?

What follows is part of an email I sent to a friend who expressed some concerns about my stance re. the ELCA's new policies. I have altered the text to remove any reference to this person's identity:

Let me see if I can share a few thoughts about this topic, not in hopes that we will agree but at least in hopes that we can talk about what the real disagreement is. First, you say “I
am a sinner in need of God's grace each and every day.” Amen! Me too. I heartily agree with you. This is why we have access to the love and power of God in Jesus Christ, because he came to seek and save sinners. So here we agree.

Second, you say that “Sin is separation from God and that sin is sin not big and small sins but Sin.” If I understand right you are saying that all sin is equally damaging in that it separates us from God and cuts us off from any hope of saving ourselves, which lands us back at your first point. Again, I say AMEN and I agree wholeheartedly. (Of course, in human terms some sins have more drastic consequences. A murder might cause more harm among us than me having a second dessert. But in terms of our relationship with God all sin is equal in that it cuts us off from God unless he will save us by grace. I think this is the point you were making.)

Third, you say that “If we all (includes Pastors) sin and fall short and sin again and ask for forgiveness again and sin again. we may not be qualified to be pastors. yet we are.” Again, I say Amen. I have no right in my own goodness or skill to be a pastor, but by God’s grace and in spite of my sin I am called, equipped, and sent. This call is not something I merit or earn. I am a sinner and I live before God in repentance and I receive his gift of forgiveness. This grace, and his call to me in spite of my imperfection, is the only thing that allows me to serve as a pastor.

So far I think you and I agree.

But now you say, “Now a sin comes along bigger and worse than others”. Here I must disagree with you. Homosexual activity is not a sin worse than others. We have already agreed that sin is sin. In fact, in terms of its consequences in society, I might even say that a loving, committed homosexual relationship might cause less damage (or at least less obvious damage) than many other sins. I would not agree that it is bigger and worse than other sins.

But here is where you and the ELCA part ways. You have said that homosexual activity is a sin. The argument that persuaded the ELCA to change its policies is very simply that a loving, committed homosexual relationship — including sexual activity between two people of the same gender — is not sin. You said in your email it was sin, but the ELCA no longer accepts this view. This is why we are encouraged to bless homosexual unions in our sanctuaries and welcome sexually active homosexual persons to preach and teach in our pulpits — because their sexual activity is not sin. (I understand that to some extent, local congregations have some say in who will be called as pastor. However, in terms of the denomination as a whole we will be asked to recognize the call and ministry of those called by other congregations, no matter whether we agree with their qualifications or not.) The ELCA says homosexual persons have no need to repent of their behavior, because it is not sin. This is the argument of the ELCA. This argument directly contradicts the Bible’s multiple statements about homosexual behavior. So in approving these new policies, the ELCA contradicts the Bible.

Let me hasten to add that I have friends who are in relationships with people of the same gender. Many of these people have a deep love for Jesus. I have worshipped and studied the Bible with them, played and argued and eaten with them. I have no desire to put some special judgment on these people, and I have no desire to exclude them from Central or any other church.

I do have a desire to live my life faithful to the Bible’s teaching. And if the ELCA says something is not a sin, but the Bible calls it a sin, I’m going to side with the Bible. Homosexual activity is not a greater sin than any other. But unless the Bible is wrong, it is still a sin. The argument is not in the end about homosexuality but about whether the Bible is accurate about what is sin and what is not.

All repentant sinners are welcomed by Jesus. All repentant sinners are welcome in the church. But those who look at their sin and say, “There’s nothing wrong with that” are in deep trouble — whether their sin is gluttony, gossip, or some kind of sexual sin.

In the end the issue at stake is how we read the Bible and what kind of standards we have for leaders in the church.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Reminiscing about the Diet of Worms

On January 1, 1988 the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) was formed through a merger of three other church bodies. That weekend I was at a gathering of Lutheran college students in Houston, Texas. We celebrated the formation of this new church, anticipating what great things we might see in the next decades.

One of the debates at that gathering in Houston had to do with homosexuality. Even at the time, I remember being impressed with the way the leaders had planned the gathering, making sure that the speakers were carefully selected and choreographed. One speaker that made a big impression on me was a young man — he could easily have worked as a model — who stood up on the stage in front of two or three hundred of us. “I love this church, and I have gifts for ministry,” he said. “But this church will not let me serve, because I’m gay — and I don’t have the gift of being celibate.” The crowd booed and hissed. A resolution came forward quickly to send a message to the new ELCA that this policy should be immediately changed.

During the debate, one young man stepped to the microphone on the floor of the hall. He was tall and lean and in his hand he held a Bible. He began to speak. “I hear your frustration and your pain,” he said to the other young man. “And I don’t quite know what to do with this, but I think as a Christian church we need to deal with these words. I ask you to hear this and I ask you to take these words seriously.” He lifted his Bible and he began to read from Romans 1, starting at verse 18. These verses speak very clearly and very openly about homosexuality, that it is not God’s desire for humanity and that it is in fact sin.

The young man and his Bible were booed away from the microphone. He finally closed his Bible, hung his head and (since he couldn’t be heard above the roar) walked out of the auditorium.

For several years I was persuaded by that gathering, by the peer pressure I experienced in Houston. Through the early 1990’s I argued vehemently for full inclusion of homosexual persons in the life of the church, including gay marriages and ordinations.

In 1995 I began attending Luther Seminary in St. Paul. Certainly I didn’t expect my views to be challenged there! But the challenge came to me from a surprising source. One day I sat in a class on the history of the Reformation, and heard again the story of Martin Luther standing before the Diet of Worms in 1521. Luther used a phrase that began to stick in my mind. “Unless I am convinced by scripture and plain reason,” Luther said, “I cannot and will not recant.”

Scripture and plain reason. Over the next several days I thought hard about all the arguments I had used to get around the Bible’s plain words on the issue of homosexuality. I thought of all the friends I knew (many of whom are still friends to this day) who were involved in some way in a homosexual lifestyle. Scripture and plain reason. I realized that I had been using subtle arguments to get around what the Bible said, just because I didn’t want to hear it. If it came down to Scripture and plain reason, I had to pay attention to the Bible.

So I began having conversations with friends of all sexual preferences. And much to my surprise, I discovered that many of them took what the Bible said very seriously. A lesbian friend of mine lamented, “Why can’t I find a church that will call me to repentance in my broken sexuality but still accept me and love me as a person?” She went on to tell how her experience of “accepting” churches was that they descended into an “anything goes” mentality, and were unwilling to call their members to individual repentance of any kind. Sin had stopped being sin in these churches, and that left her hopeless. For her, the Bible was a great comfort — because it spoke the truth about her brokenness, but in the midst of that brokenness it spoke to her of the unconditional love of Jesus.

It has been a crazy couple months in the ELCA. Arguments both passionate and subtle have swirled around these issues and it can be tough to keep your head. If you're close to this debate, I encourage you to think about Martin Luther’s words. “Unless I am convinced by scripture and plain reason ...” Scripture and plain reason makes a powerful combination, a trustworthy guide. It calls us to radical love for our neighbors and a radical commitment to the truth.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

On a more serious note ...

I got to spend a few hours back at work yesterday. Paul, our Senior Pastor, had put out a call for a day of prayer, repentance, and fasting. There are lots of reasons for this; the biggest is that in the face of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's decisions in August regarding homosexuality and ordination, local congregations find themselves in some difficult places. I'll post on the meat of these issues within the next few days. For the moment, suffice it to say that this issue is not primarily about homosexuality. And it certainly is not about the church trying to exclude people. Admittedly, there are a few fringe wackos who are militantly homophobic. But they have always been there and I don't know any congregation personally that wants to live in that fearful place. I know that different churches do a better or worse job of welcoming people for a variety of reasons. But one of the things I treasure at Central is that we have always, always, always said that everyone is welcome. That statement will not change.

No, it's not about who can participate, though that is the way the debate has been handled. It's a question about how a Christian group uses their foundational document, namely the Bible.

Here's a parable.

Let's say you had hired a lawn service to take care of your yard. You treasure having lush, green grass on your bare feet, and for a while the lawn service seems to do a good job. Then one day the lawn guy starts talking about Astroturf and how much better it is than real grass. He tells you that he has a lot of customers who are tired of the whole grass thing and they'd like him to install Astroturf. Each time he works on your grass, he brings up the Astroturf idea. One day he tells you that as a side part of his business, he's started putting Astroturf in people's yards. Then a few months later he tells you that Astroturf is now his main business. He still calls it a lawn service, but it's mostly about Astroturf. You start to notice that the lawn guy is not taking care of your lawn very well. And every time he has to mow or spray he says things like, "You know, if you'd put in that Astroturf we could just vacuum once each fall and you'd be good."

How do you respond to the lawn guy? At the bottom line, all you can say is, "No, I don't want Astroturf. I like having green grass. It's my preference." Astroturf is fine for other people, but you want a lawn service, not an Astroturf service. Pretty soon one of your neighbors puts in Astroturf, then another. You start to feel a little strange. Is it weird to want real grass? Seems like more and more of the culture is wanting Astroturf. They seem pretty happy with their fake lawns. These are your neighbors -- you know they're good people.

One day you're reading through the neighborhood covenants, and you see a provision in the covenants that says, "No homeowner shall install Astroturf." So you go to the lawn guy and ask him about it. "Oh, yeah," he says. "But that's just the way you read it. Besides, that covenant is old. It doesn't really apply any more." You ask your neighbors about it, and one says, "We don't have Astroturf. We've got a newer product called AmazingGrass, so that covenant doesn't really apply to us."

What can you do? How much authority does this neighborhood covenant have? That gets to be the question, doesn't it? That's the question facing churches in the ELCA today. How much authority does the Bible have? We have said for years and years that it's our foundational document. Now, in one specific dimension of life, we're saying it just doesn't apply any more.

So Paul called us to prayer and repentance yesterday. Not to pray for guidance -- the Bible is fairly clear about what's what, if you read it carefully -- but to spend time with God saying, "We are yours -- and we want anything in us that is not in line with your desires to be stripped away." There's a great prayer in one of the church's liturgies that I just love. It says, "Forgive us, renew us, and lead us, so that we may delight in your will and walk in your ways, to the glory of your holy name." That's what yesterday was about. It was a great day to return to work.

In the end this debate is not about excluding or including people. It's about saying yes, the Bible applies to every area of life -- it is a living book that God's Spirit helped write and it is still used by God in a way that is finally beyond our understanding -- or no, the Bible is a great book of stories but we're pretty much on our own to use our own understanding to figure things out today.

Like I said, I'll dig into the meat of these arguments in the next few days. But I treasure working in a church and with a team that sees the value of setting aside a day to say, "Lord, this is not about judging other people, but it is about putting ourselves in every way under the authority of your word in the Bible. Here we are -- forgive, renew, and lead us."