The ELCA claims to be committed to embracing diversity, seen even in Human Sexuality [ELCA Social Statement] as we embrace multiple positions on accepting same-gender relationality as a Christian lifestyle. So also there exist in the ELCA multiple positions on marriage, divorce, relationality, having children, monogamy, polyamory, sexual expression, and relational intimacy. We lift this multiplicity up and demand that its full diversity be recognized within the Christian lifestyle in our church.
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In the past, I have written about how the Evangelical Church in America has spoken about issues regarding homosexuality and other human sexuality issues. You can see links at the bottom of the post for two such articles. Generally speaking, I have commended the ELCA in its statements for trying to walk a via media and to keep unity within a denomination made up of diverse perspectives. Still, serious breaches have taken place in synods and churches. I have heard most often about certain conservative individuals or groups who left the ELCA to form or participate in groups that sought to uphold more traditional forms of morality.
But conservatives are not the only ones dissatisfied with the ELCA approach. There are groups within the denomination who think the ELCA did not go nearly far enough. From their perspective, the denomination remains a “heteronormative” organization that is advancing oppressive power dynamics and structures upon individuals’ rights to practice sexual freedom as they see fit.
As the quote above shows, these groups will not be satisfied until a full range of sexual practices and relational arrangements are sanctified and “recognized within the Christian lifestyle in our church.”
“Naked and Unashamed” is one such group. Here is how they describe themselves:
We are Lutheran theologians committed to an incarnational theology that rejects purity culture and any theology that is afraid of bodies and their desires. We are not ashamed of our sexuality, our relationality, our queerness, and our genders, because we walk in the promise that God sees our bodies and calls them good.
Naked & Unashamed challenges the theology and expected conduct described in Vision & Expectations, Definitions and Guidelines for Discipline, and Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust, among other ELCA documents.
In their full statement, the group lays out their problems with the ELCA approach in a summary:
- The ELCA documents we are highlighting are being used to perpetuate a pressure for leaders in the ELCA to be married, and to additionally conform to oppressive relational and sexual standards set by our church that are often in contrast with our values and lived experience.
- The expectations surrounding “chastity” purport an ethic of works-based righteousness, positing that certain practices of our sexuality make us a better steward of our pastoral call.
- Singlehood, the dating process, friendships, and committed relationships outside of civil marriage are devalued by the overemphasis on marriage and family.
- The recent inclusion of same-gender relationships in these ELCA documents still utilizes heteronormative language that sets narrow expectations of what an acceptable committed relationship looks like.
- These ELCA documents have created a culture of shame in our community, one that manifests itself in both our experience with candidacy committees and among our cohorts. This culture sits in juxtaposition to our current context, politically, economically, scientifically, and medically.
They argue against the priority given to marriage (a priority which I commended in the article Unique below). “Our argument is that ELCA’s theology is hegemonic in that it prioritizes one cultural theology as the implicit norm, and those who fall outside are demonized and de-Christianized.” Now, I would be the first person to agree that people have “demonized and de-Christianized” people who look, act, and relate to others outside societal norms. I see this as a failure to “love your neighbor as yourself,” however, not “hegemony” that necessarily grows out of a sexual ethic that these folks deem “heteronormative, white-centric, economically oppressive, and non-Lutheran.”
They also argue that our fundamental approach to relationships should be based on an understanding of the power dynamics involved rather than on any particular view of sexuality. In their view, the very rhetoric of giving marriage a special place within a context of “heteronormality” is oppressive and shame-inducing.
We have experienced various overt and internalized pressures from the ELCA to make sure that any romantic or sexual relationship we are in is validated through marriage. This internalized pressure to get married leads to preoccupation with the self and with the fear of unworthiness in our actions. The shame we feel and the daily internal reliving of it does not embody the freedom in Christ that Paul and Luther emphasized. The ideal that the highest level of union is the marital relationship leads to non-marital relationships being characterized by this “burden of unworthiness” instead of love for the neighbor. The idea that sexuality should only be expressed through celibacy in singlehood and monogamy in marriage means that as ministers in the church, we are deemed unfit for ministry in other forms of sexual expression.
I myself have certainly criticized an overemphasis on marriage in certain ways in various Christian communities because it does often lead to ignoring and excluding others and making them feel less than people made in God’s image, claimed and beloved in Christ. In my view this represents a failure to understand and practice a healthy and inclusive doctrine of vocation and should be critiqued on that basis.
And certainly, where “purity culture” has been proclaimed and enforced through bad teaching about God’s good gifts of the body and sexuality, and where forbearance, understanding, forgiveness, and acceptance has not been practiced well, people have been made to feel dirty and ashamed in ways that are not fitting in loving pastoral or community care.
The views expressed in this statement are dogmatic and insistent. They represent the same kind of culture war mindset of those who throw grenades from their bunkers on the other side. An entire tribal rhetoric has been developed that inhibits listening and conversing with others on any kind of neutral ground. They are not approaching these matters as concerned brothers and sisters but as entrenched combatants with weapons of language and doctrine.
Culture war Christianity is as wrong-headed and off-center on the left as it is on the right. Working for “justice” can be as much an exercise of works-righteousness and self-righteousness as any promulgation of rules enforcing traditional moral frameworks. Groups like this, which develop their own constituencies, strategies, and rhetoric can be as unloving, aggressive, and even militaristic as any group touting “traditional values.”
The agenda of a church and denomination should be Christ. When Jesus is removed from the center, it becomes a free-for-all. And it doesn’t matter whether you replace Jesus with “family values” or “justice.” No matter which side of the debate you’re on, you’re missing the point.
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