Monday, July 9, 2007

What Would Luther Do?

Mary Zeiss Stange, professor of women's studies and religion at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and a very thoughtful essay in USA Today in response to news that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America was defrocking a minister because he is an uncelibate gay man. Here are some highlights:

In Christ, "there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female," the Apostle Paul wrote to the Galatians nearly 2,000 years ago. Upon further reflection, might he have added, "neither straight nor gay?"

The question is nonsensical, of course, because in his time the concept of "sexual orientation" had yet to be invented. And yet modern-day anti-gay church activists love to quote the handful of his statements about "unnatural" sexual acts as definitive — indeed, divinely inspired — condemnations of same-sex love.

The same goes for Martin Luther, the father of the Protestant Reformation. Lutheran anti-gay activists routinely, and correctly, point out that Luther had plenty of bad things to say about the scourge of "Sodomites" in 16th century Germany. Like his role model Paul, Luther was a product of the social prejudices of his time and culture: a time when the concepts of homosexuality as an "orientation" or a "lifestyle" were still unheard of. But would the man whose break from Roman Catholicism involved a revolutionary rethinking of the role of sexuality in human relationships take such a negative view of homosexuality today? Most probably, given the way his theological mind worked, he would not.

A major feature of Luther's split from Catholic thinking involved the celebration of physical sex. In his Catechism — written in 1529, and the Lutheran standard book of religious instruction still in use in the USA today — he held marriage to be a "blessed estate," superior to celibacy. He elevated "the natural inclination and excitement" that brings two people together in physical attraction to a sacred state.

In the context of the current debate over same-sex love in a number of Christian churches, therefore, the question is well worth posing: What would Luther do — what would he think — were he alive today?

. . .

In the Augsburg Confession of 1530 (a conciliatory statement of faith intended to unite Lutherans with other Protestants), Luther publicly agreed with other reformers of his day that biblical references that depart from New Testament inclusiveness — abstaining from eating pork, for example, or requiring male circumcision — not only can but should be set aside. A 21st century Luther would surely recognize that the few biblical proscriptions against "sodomy" — shaky in themselves as condemnations of same-sex love and rooted in a worldview vastly different from our own — should not bar the loving union of two gay or lesbian persons. Equally, a 21st century Luther would affirm the ordination of such persons, as in line with his theology of the "priesthood of all believers."

The American church that bears his name will have an opportunity to revisit the question when its Churchwide Assembly (the ELCA's highest legislative body) convenes Aug. 6-12. Schmeling may yet get a reprieve, should the church revisit what the disciplinary board itself called "bad policy" regarding sexually active gay pastors. The ELCA has until Aug. 15 to act on his case.

Meanwhile, The Episcopal Church USA has until the end of September to respond to the Anglican Communion's ultimatum. The American bishops have, so far, roundly repudiated the pressure coming from Canterbury. The extent of the potential rift remains to be seen.

One thing seems clear, however. In working through these issues in the months to come, Protestants in both American denominations would best begin by asking, "What would Luther do?"

Read it all here.

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