This is the third article in the Epiphany (Winter) issue of the Daystar Journal on the subject of missions. It inquires whether the present synodical directives are the best way to reach out to those affected by the homosexual debates going on in the nation.
“Marriage Policies” of the LCMS: Are We Seeking to Reach Out or Build Walls?
*Dr. Norm Metzler taught Systematic theology and Ethics at Concordia University in Portland Oregon. He has participated with biologists, heath professionals, and others in seminars dealing with homosexuality. Before he retired, he headed the Division of Theology in the College of Theology, Arts, and Science.
The LCMS Headquarters recently issued a document, “Information on Marriage Policies for Member Congregations,” (LCMS Nov. 2013) that gives guidance to congregations on protecting themselves legally, should a pastor and congregation refuse to perform a gay marriage. The document ends with the advice: “We urge all our congregations not to live in fear, but to engage our communities winsomely, lovingly, and faithfully with the glorious truths of God’s Word and, above all, with the saving Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.” This very fine counsel would seem to be in tune with a missional understanding of the Christian faith. However, the content of the document which precedes this statement sets the Church in strong and direct opposition to the unfolding complexities of the religious and cultural understandings of marriage. There is no question that “these societal and legal trends present great challenges. Pressure on churches to accommodate their teachings and practices to the changing societal view of marriage is increasing.” The cultural shift on gay marriage is challenging the traditional Christian understanding and practice of marriage between one man and one woman, and Christians must properly wrestle with the implications of this major cultural shift.
However, this informational piece from LCMS officialdom fails to reflect appropriate Christian awareness and understanding of the complexities and ambiguities involved in this issue that would guide congregations in seeking to engage their communities “winsomely” and “lovingly.” We will challenge on biblical grounds some of the assumptions and blanket statements of this informational document from the LCMS, precisely for the sake of “winsome, loving” missional outreach to our society in our time.
Now granted, the Christian tradition in the West eventually developed an expectation of monogamous marital practice that has persisted throughout virtually the whole of Christian history. This arrangement certainly reflects the beginnings of humanity and God’s intention for marriage (Gen 2), and monogamy is encouraged by St Paul for those who would serve the Church as presbyters or deacons (1 Tim 3). Genesis also does connect human intimacy with child-bearing, along with the joy and mutual support of such intimacy. These marital values have been maintained and nurtured throughout the history of Christianity.
However, a number of concerns arise, given the glib LCMS equation of its “doctrine” (as if Synod has its own “doctrine”?!) with the biblical understanding of marriage. First of all, the blanket assertion that “marriage cannot be rightly understood apart from another gift: the gift of children” fails to reflect Christian sensitivity toward those couples who cannot or choose not to have children. Is their union any less a fully “biblical” marriage because they do not have children to evidence their “one flesh?” Does Genesis really equate the two becoming one flesh with the child that may result from sexual intimacy? Is not that “one flesh” far rather in the first instance that full commitment of the two persons to each other, including physical union, whether or not that sexual union produces children? This interpretation of Scripture by the LCMS authority who wrote this document is NOT so obviously the clear teaching of Scripture regarding marriage and children.
Secondly, while Paul’s advice in 1 Timothy regarding presbyters and deacons, and various passing mentions in his letters, indicate that monogamy was the preferred marital arrangement among Christians, his references also clearly imply that other marital arrangements existed among Christians and could be maintained among Christians. Multiple marriage was a common practice within Old Testament society, and was still common among the Jews at the time of the New Testament. It actually served socially to protect and make proper provision for women, their alternatives to marriage being slavery, prostitution, or starvation. Interestingly, polygamy was forbidden by law in the Roman Empire at the time of the New Testament, and later references from early Church history indicate the conflicts between Roman law and ongoing Jewish polygamous practice. In any case, the Bible does not flatly and categorically rule out polygamy among Christians, even though monogamy is the preferred arrangement. And in contemporary cultural situations where those engaged in polygamous marriages convert to Christianity, it is not expected that they would divorce other wives to attain a monogamous arrangement; indeed, such divorce would transgress another clear teaching of Jesus regarding marriage and divorce, and conflict with common Christian compassion for the multiple wives. Therefore the document’s blanket declaration that “To believe that marriage is a sacred union of one man and one woman is not a political opinion or a cultural bias, it is the clear teaching of Scripture,” is simply not as unambiguous and categorical as the document would want us to believe.
Thirdly, and most importantly for the issue at hand, the document states in a “Sample Marriage Policy” for LCMS congregations, “that homosexual unions come under categorical prohibition in the Old and New Testaments (Lev. 18:22, 24; 20:13; 1 Cor 6:9-10; 1 Tim. 1:9-10) as contrary to the Creator’s design (Rom.1:26-27).” If one reviews these passages, and indeed any other biblical passages typically cited in relation to this issue, it is clear that the Bible nowhere expressly addresses and therefore prohibits gay marriage (assuming this is what the LCMS document means by “homosexual unions.”) These passages may (depending on translations and context, 1 Cor. 6 and 1 Tim. 1 may not) address homosexual behaviors, which taken on their own would imply opposition to gay marriage, but they do not expressly speak to the issue of gay marriage itself.
Even more significantly, in the Christian discussion of homosexuality, the Bible nowhere explicitly addresses the issue of gay Christians. It is assumed in the Bible that gay behavior is equated with our sinful humanness, and evidences the brokenness of God’s original intention for humanity. Such most clearly is the argument of St Paul in Romans 1. But nowhere does the Bible go beyond gay behaviors to address the condition of homosexual orientation, a critical element of awareness and sensitivity in any contemporary conversation regarding homosexuality and gay marriage. We know today that a certain small percentage of humans, perhaps 1 to 2 percent according to current studies, has a special sexual condition of homosexual orientation. Whether or not these persons act on what is to them their “natural” attraction to the same sex and so engage in homosexual behavior, they have this inescapable and apparently irreversible homosexual orientation.
The very personal, pastoral, sensitive and compassionate question for Christians to address is then: how shall we work most “lovingly,” “winsomely,” effectively with Christians who have this special homosexual orientation, to assist them in best living out their Christian life and calling? Shall we advise them to remain celibate, that is, forego in their lifestyle any gay sexual intimacy, given their attraction to the same sex? Or shall we encourage them to attempt to become more androgynous, and learn to go beyond their natural homosexual attractions to find a meaningful and workable heterosexual relationship? Or if gay Christians are convinced that the Bible does not address their special sexual condition, are they therefore biblically allowed to follow their natural inclinations and seek a monogamous intimate relationship with another gay person, following the biblical guidelines for lifelong commitment and fidelity in marriage as prescribed for the vast majority of Christians that are heterosexually oriented? (The “option” of “reparative therapy” that supposedly can “change” a person from gay to straight, has been very broadly discredited by psychologists, psychiatrists, and even gays who earlier claimed they had been “converted” to heterosexuality through their faith in Christ.) Whatever approaches Christians may take in dealing with this very complex and difficult situation for gay Christians, they cannot categorize gays as any more sinful than any other Christians. If this condition is a result of the fall into sin, and so an evidence of our human brokenness, so are the various manifestations of sinfulness in all of our Christian lives…all of them equally damning before the perfectly loving Law of God. All of us Christians are broken sinners, saved by grace alone, and dealing with our various broken conditions the best we can.
If the LCMS is truly interested in reaching out with the Gospel to all conditions of humanity, including those who have a homosexual orientation, it would do well to discontinue the present approach reflected in this simplistic, insensitive and blanket “advice” regarding the rising and complex issue of gay marriage in our society. Such advice can only build barriers to any meaningful conversations. Synod should rather address itself to the more fundamental matter of how most effectively to interpret Scripture in a way that speaks God’s gracious acceptance and love to gay persons, as well as to those with other special sexual conditions such as bi-sexuality, transsexuality, and intersexuality (hermaphrodites). Christian humble acceptance of our radical equality under sin and grace could speak much more positively and winsomely to our society than the self-righteous, judgmental, categorical pronouncements expressed in this document and in other LCMS documents dealing with homosexuality. Let us in the LCMS indeed commit ourselves to reaching out “winsomely” and “lovingly” on this very complex but crucial personal, pastoral, and social issue of our time.
For further reading on the content of this article, one might consult a good encyclopedia regarding marriage, monogamy and polygamy in ancient Greco-Roman culture and in Second Temple Judaism. Eric Marcus’ book Is It A Choice? (Harper San Francisco, 1999) provides a lot of brief answers in question and answer form regarding homosexuality, and Mel White’s Stranger At The Gate: To Be Gay and Christian In America (Penguin, 1994), is a powerful personal story from a once-highly-connected evangelical Christian. The most extensive biblical investigation of homosexual practice is Robert A.J. Gagnon’s The Bible and Homosexual Practice (Abingdon Press, 2001), while James Nelson in his classic text Embodiment (Pilgrim Press, 1978, Chapter 8) addresses churchly responses to homosexuality.