If you had told me ten years ago that the ELCA was in danger of redefining marriage so that it would not be between one man and one woman, or that the ELCA might be willing to discuss redefining the teaching of Scripture and tradition in order to allow self-defined “committed relationships” to take the place of traditional marriage for both same-sex and hetero-sex couples, including but not limited to those on the clergy roster, I would have said that you were being unnecessarily alarmist and irresponsible. The ELCA has a clear understanding of the authority of Scripture, and a clear understanding and respect for the teaching of Scripture on marriage. I would have said that the understanding of the ELCA -- its leadership on all levels, its seminaries, and its congregations and members -- was identical to that reflected in the above prayer of Martin Luther. Yes, we have disagreements in the ELCA regarding the role of gay and lesbian persons in the life of the church, especially regarding blessing of same-sex unions and ordination of candidates who are gay or lesbian in their self-understanding and are in or seek to be in such a relationship. But such unions are not equivalent to marriage, nor does the ELCA plan to entertain any arguments that they should be considered the equivalent to marriage. As has been stated many times over the past 20 years, Scripture clearly teaches that the only legitimate place for sexual expression to take place is within the bonds of marriage. Outside of marriage, Christians are to be chaste and refrain from sexual relations.
“But now I know the things I know, and do the things I do” as some poet somewhere has written. Part 3 of “Journey Together Faithfully” Bible study seems to make clear that the understanding of marriage as being between one man and one woman is up for grabs. It is “in play” as some would put it. And while the final proposed social statement on human sexuality may not go that far (and probably will not go so far as to propose equating committed heterosexual relationships outside fo marriage as being “good enough” in today’s culture and a reasonable interpretation of the intent of Scripture on marriage), it may be only a matter of time before the ELCA effectively adopts that interpretation.
It will happen slowly at first. It is no secret that the institution of marriage is in the process of being redefined and reinterpreted in the society at large. Couples living together before obtaining a license and going through with the legal ceremony is the rule, not the exception. Increasingly pastors are viewed as draconian in their strictness if they state that they will not officiate at weddings in which the couple is co-habiting before the ceremony. It is common to hear that while no one actually approves of such living arrangements, young people are doing it anyway, and what is one to do? Denying a large, expensive church wedding for the reason that the couple are living “in sin” (how quaint that sounds!) is seen as cruel and inhuman punishment, and for no good reason. After all, no one expects the couple to take up separate residences in the months before the wedding; most would say, what would be the point? And if the pastor enforces such behavior, most agree that the couple would just pretend; that is, lie.
There is so much wrong with this picture that it is hard to find a place to start. And certainly the churches have tried to discourage this sexual laxitude, to greater or lesser degrees. The church is not to blame for the sins of the society, especially with regard to sexuality. Or at least, anyway, not solely to blame.
But the time is coming (and in some places is already here) when marriage will be seen as one among many equally valid ways in which to have a God-pleasing sexual relationship. And those seeking to serve in the church as rostered church workers, including pastors, will not be required to be married, as long as their relationship (gay or straight) is “faithful, loving and committed” as the couple and close friends choose to define those terms.
“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds....” What was St. Paul possibly thinking?