The Article on which the Church Stands or Falls
By Karl Wyneken
Matthew Harrison, recently elected president of The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, foresees big things ahead for his denomination, thanks to the unrest in Christendom being created by one hotly debated issue.
The issue is homosexuality, resulting in discord and division in some denominations that have moved to a more tolerant and accepting stance. Harrison appears to be greeting this as a welcome opportunity to extend the hand of fellowship and build closer ties with those who disapprove of their denominations’ policies.
On a recent visit to Ft. Wayne, IN, where he had his seminary training and also served for a time as pastor of a Lutheran parish, an interview with him was published in the Journal-Gazette (Feb. 5, 2011). “The Rev. Matthew Harrison,” the interviewer summarized in her lead-in, “has a vision of what the future of American Protestantism might look like – and it includes a potentially big realignment.”
Harrison listed various evidences he sees for this. One is in mission fields especially of the developing world. Madagascar Lutherans, for instance, 25% of the population and historically aligned with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, have for several years been informally exploring closer ties to the Missouri Synod.
Another sign of the reshuffling of denominational loyalties is the formal dialogue since November 2010 between the LCMS and the Anglican Church in North America, a group that seceded from the U.S. Episcopal Church in 2008.
African mission fields related to the global Anglican Church, such as Uganda, Nigeria, and Rwanda, we are told, are also exploring closer relations with the LCMS. The strong antipathy in Africa toward homosexuals Harrison attributes to the popular belief that they are largely to blame for AIDS. (This view is now questioned; rather, it is largely heterosexual transmission that has brought AIDS to epidemic proportions.).
In Indonesia, he notes, where Islam is prevalent, Islamic radicals seize on the issue as proof that the Western Christian church is decadent and should be rejected. (One is tempted to ask if imitating their animosity should be extended to imitating their murderous treatment of gays and lesbians.)
Closer to home, the LCMS president drew attention to the letter he wrote last year to U.S. lawmakers alerting them to the dilemma some military chaplains may be facing. The repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy “will sorely inhibit our chaplains’ ability to call all sinners to repentance.”
He also noted how broadly ecumenical his involvements are: he recently joined 20 Protestant groups, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and even the Latter-day Saints in signing a declaration that marriage be restricted to unions between a man and a woman.
What gives rise to this major preoccupation with this one single issue? The answer is quite simple: the Bible is at stake. Those who advocate a more tolerant view toward homosexuality fail to take literally the few biblical texts that pertain to it. In the all-or-nothing “domino effect” thinking of biblical fundamentalism, to reject one thing is to reject all. If one thing is suspect, nothing in the Bible can be trusted. And this will mean the Gospel itself.
The newspaper interviewer nailed it: for Harrison, the issue of homosexuality strikes at the root of the authority of Scripture. The article goes on to quote him: “The difficulty we have runs to the very heart of the Gospel – is there salvation outside of Christ?”
Only if the Bible is in toto true and so can be trusted, can there be assurance that the Gospel is true and we can believe it. So goes the argument, essentially at the heart of fundamentalism, biblical literalism, and a theory of inerrancy.
The program for ecumenical realignment with the Missouri Synod leading the way raises various questions. One is whether the fixation on the single issue of sexual behavior and the few passages of biblical legislation pertaining to it is an adequate basis on which to forge this new ecumenical coalition. This intense focus seems to become a kind of touchstone, a sine quo non for the whole theological enterprise. One might wonder if it takes on the character of what theologians, when Latin was their common language, called the “articulus stantis aut cadentis ecclesiae” (the article whereby the church stands or falls).
The problem with this is that Lutherans already have an articulus stantis aut cadentis ecclesiae. It has a long and cherished history, one that continues to play a vital role. It needs no competitor added to it, and certainly no substitute to take its place.
This central teaching by which the church lives or dies can be nothing other than the wondrous Gospel (“good news”; Greek: “evangel”) of God’s reconciling love whereby God justifies unworthy sinners by grace alone (sola gratia), on account of the saving work of Christ (propter Christum solum), through the reception of this gift in faith alone (sola fidei).
Martin Luther condensed this into an apt little formula: the center of the biblical revelation and touchstone of all Christian theology is “was Christum treibet” (that which leads us to Christ). This Gospel is the light that illumines and guides our understanding of all else in the Bible. It is the lens through which we see and interpret all.
From God’s love for us proclaimed by the Gospel flows the transforming love that guides and empowers the lives we live as God’s servant people, producing the “fruits” of our faith. The reconciling love of Christ “compels us” (2 Cor. 5:14, NIV; “impels us,” NAB; the Greek original suggests “controls us” or “holds us in its grip”), so that we live as God’s “new creation” (v. 17). In short, “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
Is not this “evangel”-ical outlook a good perspective from which to search for enlightenment as to how we are to relate to our fellow human beings endowed with a disposition to homosexuality? Without the genuinely biblical “evangel”-centered outlook, could our approach become unduly legalistic and harsh?
Is it even possible that Christians, however well-meaning, could be contributing to the deplorable consequences we read about in the lives of our gay- and lesbian-oriented fellow humans beings? What about the suicides and the statistics on the inordinately higher suicide rate of young people torn by gender identity issues? What about the news reports of brutal bullying, personal injury and even sometimes death inflicted on gays, especially adolescent males?
To put it in positive terms: illumined by the Gospel perspective and the Spirit’s leading, could we be open to ongoing discussion of this heated issue and willing to explore further possibilities for support of our sisters and brothers in their quest for committed and responsible relationships, and the same joy of intimacy that heterosexuals experience?
If the “evangel”-ical thrust of the Bible as a whole is properly considered, why can we not consider the possibility that the few biblical texts that then spoke against homosexuality were merely reflections of popularly and uncritically accepted norms that were simply a part of the social fabric of that distant era?
Might it be that they are not absolutely and unconditionally applicable to all times and circumstances?
Or again, for instance, St. Paul in Romans 1 appears to have been operating on the assumption that homosexual inclinations are a “choice”. He further assumes that heterosexuality is the natural condition with which all are endowed. This is clear from his use of the term “exchange”: they “exchange” the natural, opposite-sex orientation, for the same-sex unnatural. Today we have general agreement that homosexual preference in the vast majority of cases is not a matter of “choice,” nor does one simply and with such ease transform ones proclivities for sexual attraction. This is one of many examples of how social, cultural, scientific (etc.) assumptions held by the Bible’s human authors are not necessarily to be regarded as infallible truth, on a par with the divine truth.
To conclude, a word yet about the future prospects the new synodical leadership has in mind for taking advantage – and quite happily, it seems – of this great opportunity to bring about a grand ecumenical realignment, forging new ecumenical partnerships at home and abroad. The basis for this appears to be something of a novelty, considering the traditional strictures that have governed the synod’s alignments with other faith groups. Since when has agreement on one single issue, in this case a limited area of interpersonal morality, become an adequate foundation for such a venture?
Of course, it probably won’t be that much of a problem if the project is based on a new, up-dated, narrowed-down replacement for our traditional “articulus stantis aut cadentis ecclesia.” But then, what is so bad – particularly for purposes of ecumenical discussion and arriving at hoped-for agreement – about that one we already have?