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.

No comments:

Post a Comment