Monday, August 24, 2009

My "Manifesto"--An Open Letter Written in 2005, on the Occasion of my Leaving the ELCA

What follows is an open letter, written in 2005 within days of officially leaving the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) for a congregation in the United Church of Christ. The move was in part an act of protest, a way of expressing my moral opposition to ELCA policies that, in my understanding, made God’s gay and lesbian children into second-class citizens within the life of the church. It was also made for a range of personal reasons, some of which are described in this letter. The letter was distributed via e-mail and I have really no idea how many have read it since 2005. I post it now in recognition of the historic votes that were made last week during the 2009 General Assembly of the ELCA, votes which overturned the policies that drove me into “exile.”

Dear Friends,

The other day, I officially became a Lutheran in exile. My family and I joined Fellowship Congregational Church in Tulsa, OK, making a commitment to drive one hour from home to attend a church that is open and affirming in its stance towards sexual minorities. Our experience at Fellowship has been wonderful, and I know that my family has found what is already proving to be a spiritually enriching church home.

Even so, my heart aches over this decision. In my heart and by my theology I am Lutheran. My heritage is half-Lutheran, and it is this heritage that I came to embrace in my adult faith journey. I have had and will always have a Lutheran identity and a personal commitment to the central Lutheran doctrine of justification by grace through faith, a doctrine which has been so beautifully and powerfully developed within the Lutheran tradition. I will always be committed to the future of the Lutheran Church. And yet I find that I must, for the sake of my conscience and the spiritual welfare of my family, worship elsewhere. I have resigned my position on the church council of my home congregation and said goodbye to a community that has been my church home since moving to Oklahoma in June of 2000. My heart aches, but I cannot see another way to proceed.

Why do I leave? There are many answers. Here is one: I leave because my wife and I cannot imagine raising our son in a denomination whose policies formally exclude non-celibate gays and lesbians from the ministry and withhold from same-sex couples the kind of sacramental recognition that heterosexual couples take for granted. We believe that such policies formally endorse the marginalization of human beings based on their unchosen sexuality, excluding some of God’s children from full participation in the life of the church. Our hopes that these policies might be change at the 2005 General Assembly were dashed, compromised from the start by timid recommendations from the ELCA Task Force on Sexuality, a procedural decision by the ELCA Church Council that would require a supermajority to effect any changes in current policies, and a clear indication that the majority within the ELCA stands on the side of perpetuating these policies. And so we left.

That is one answer. But it is superficial. It expresses controversial ideas as if they were matters of fact. It doesn’t explain why I think the current policies are wrong or why I think that the ELCA’s error is so significant that I, at least, must worship elsewhere. And so I offer a deeper answer in the hope that someone might hear, perhaps even be moved to fight for change.

Here are some things that I know: the sexual orientation of gays and lesbians is such that they can know fulfilling romantic intimacy only with those of the same sex. For most gays and lesbians, if not all, a change of sexual orientation is impossible—even for those of faith who for years fall on their knees and pray fervently for such change. If God miraculously transforms the sexuality of some, he is rather sparing with this so-called miracle. And, as Luther noted, celibacy is a gift given to few. As such, it is a gift given to few gays and lesbians.

How do I know these things? The social scientific research supports these views, but that is not the main reason why I believe them. I believe them because my gay and lesbian friends and neighbors have shared their stories with me, have told me what it is like to be gay and a Christian. I have tried to listen to them with the kind of compassion and attention that I think is demanded by a commitment to an ethic of love. I know that these things are true because my gay and lesbian friends have told me so, and I know them well enough to know they are not lying, that they have no reason to lie.

The ELCA’s policies relating to homosexuality are not nearly as offensive as those of other Christian denominations. The Southern Baptists, for example, declare with a confidence bordering on arrogance that “homosexual conduct is always a gross moral and spiritual abomination for any person, whether male or female, under any circumstance, without exception.” They hold that even the desire for same-sex relations is “always sinful, impure, degrading, shameful, unnatural, indecent and perverted.” For a time it seemed to me that it was enough that the ELCA’s stance was more nuanced than this, more fallibilistic. But it is not enough.

Historically, Christians have held that all forms of homosexual conduct are sinful. The implications of this teaching for gays and lesbians has been clear: they must suppress their sexuality. They must either enter into marriages with persons they cannot love, doing both themselves and their partners a profound injustice; or they must forego romantic intimacy whether they have the gift of celibacy or not. The current policies of the ELCA impose a requirement of celibacy on gay and lesbian clergy, a requirement that those fortunate enough to be straight need not observe. The ELCA imposes this requirement even though the Lutheran church has historically stood against clerical celibacy. Luther thought it was presumptuous to assume that God would call to ministry only those to whom He also gave the rare gift of celibacy. But the current policies of the ELCA formally declare that gays and lesbians in committed relationships shall not be ordained—declaring, in effect, that God would never call to ministry anyone who fits this description (as if we could know what God will or will not do).

The current policies of the ELCA also officially exclude gays and lesbians from participation in the only model of responsible sexuality that the Christian community has historically recognized: holy matrimony. As such, Christian gays and lesbians, as well as gays and lesbians more generally, grow up feeling fundamentally disconnected from their community, knowing that when they grow up, their dreams of life partnership and romantic intimacy will never receive the kind of social affirmation and support that their straight friends take for granted. Many feel like outsiders looking in a window at a feast they cannot join, like the little match girl in Hans Christian Anderson’s famous story. They feel cut off, and their sexuality is given no framework for its development and expression. Or, perhaps better, the only framework for understanding and expressing their sexuality that they are left with is the model offered by the secular world: media images that glorify objectification and reckless self-gratification, that say “do whatever feels good.”

These policies of exclusion are justified by two kinds of traditional appeals: appeals to Scripture interpreted in a conservative way, and appeals to inherited Christian theories about the nature and purpose of human sexuality. The ELCA, while acknowledging the controversy over traditional teachings, has chosen to err on the side of fidelity to these traditions rather than on the side of full inclusion. This choice strikes me as a dangerous mistake, in part because I think that commitment to a love ethic requires erring on the side of inclusion, but more significantly because I do not think that the justifications for the traditional views on homosexuality are very compelling.

The appeal to sparse biblical passages strikes me as a tragic misuse of Scripture, a misuse similar in kind to the historic use of Scripture to subordinate women. Yes, there are scriptural passages that put women in a subordinated place, that even preclude them from speaking in church. Yes, the subtext of Old Testament laws and stories is fundamentally patriarchal. But to treat these facts as sufficient to justify the subordination of women is to turn Scripture into a text suitable for the justification of moral horrors. And it is to ignore the broader themes of Scripture: themes of liberation, themes of compassion and love.

Any sincere holistic reading of Scripture reveals a clear commitment to an ethic of love. As such, it seems utterly clear to me that we must reject any approach to Scripture that leads to the endorsement of teachings that marginalize some of God’s children, that contribute to suicidal depression in gay teens, that stifle compassion and inspire otherwise good people not to hear the anguished cry of their gay and lesbian neighbors. Traditional teachings about homosexuality do all of these things. If our approach to understanding Scripture and its authority leads to these teachings, then it violates the ethic of love, and hence is a profound violation of the spirit of Scripture itself.

Scripture calls for us to love our gay and lesbian neighbors, to treat their needs as if they were those of Christ Himself. In other words, Scripture calls us to look beyond Scripture, to God and to our neighbor. If we attend to our gay and lesbian neighbors, we will hear stories of how traditional Christian teachings on homosexuality have crushed their souls. We will hear stories of how, rather than coming to them as a joyous chorus proclaiming the good news of reconciliation and redemption, the Christian church comes to them as a force of oppression and pain, as a life-deadening power. We will hear stories whose implications are more than clear: teaching that homosexuality is always a sin is itself a sin, because it poisons the lives of our gay and lesbian neighbors.

We do not hear these stories. While our gay and lesbian neighbors are crying out to be heard, to be received as full members in the life of the church, we ignore them in favor of discussing and debating the significance of Romans 1:26-27. This is a tragedy. We cannot afford to shout out Bible verses so loudly that we drown out the voice of Christ when He comes to us in the person of our neighbor. Any religion that, in the name of a high doctrine of Holy Scripture, cares more for isolated sentences on a page than it does about the anguished cry of our neighbors is, to borrow Martin Luther King’s language, a spiritually moribund religion only waiting for the day to be buried.

But what about tradition, some may ask? What about the historic witness of the church? For two thousand years the church has taught that homosexuality is a sin. Can we so lightly ignore two thousand years of Christian witness? Isn’t the acceptance of homosexuality nothing more than the act of abandoning traditional Christian values in response to current trends in secular culture?

To these questions, I respond with a question of my own: Isn’t it more loving to begin our reasoning about homosexuality with sustained sensitive attention to the lived experience of those most affected by our doctrines on the issue—gays and lesbians—than it is to rely on traditional teachings that were fashioned at a time when the social and historical realities made it impossible to have anything approaching an adequate concept of what it is like to be gay? The sexual mores we have inherited from our Christian forebears were formulated at a time in history when no one really knew anything at all about homosexuality. Those who had a homosexual orientation would not have had any name for their experience, no readily available concepts for describing it, and no opportunity to receive a fair hearing. The conditions under which it has become possible to understand the gay and lesbian experience have emerged only very recently in history. To simply assume that our inherited theories and doctrines adequately account for this new data, without careful critical reflection, goes beyond respect for tradition and treads headlong into blind dogmatism.

For these reasons, I cannot condone current policies in the ELCA. For these reasons, it is not enough for me and my family that the ELCA agrees (at the discretion of the local bishops) to deliberately turn a blind eye to violations of existing policies while keeping those policies in place. It is certainly not enough to have a few ELCA congregations defy the policy with the understanding that they won’t be prosecuted for it so long as they do it quietly and do not make a public stand for the cause of our gay and lesbian neighbors. And it is simply na├»ve to think that the needs of pastoral care for our gay and lesbian neighbors can be satisfied by a scattered and localized embrace of them, one that occurs in a context that officially denounces any kind of unqualified embrace of who they are.

These are the reasons why I cannot accept the current perspective of the ELCA. By themselves, however, these things do not explain why I leave. After all, there are many who share my views who have chosen to stay and fight. A part of me wants to do the same. A part of me fears that leaving will mean handing the ELCA over to those who, out of a misguided devotion to tradition or scriptural authority, perpetuate the oppression of sexual minorities. A part of me fears that if too many like me leave the church, ELCA congregations will become even more hostile to sexual minorities, and children who grow up gay in the ELCA will feel even more excluded, even more rejected. A part of me fears that, because of this choice, some child I might have lifted up will be beaten too far down by the messages of exclusion, and in a moment of despair will choose death.

So why do I leave? There are many reasons. I have two-year-old son. I do not know what his sexual orientation will be. But if he should turn out to be gay, I do not want him to be that child who is beaten down by messages of exclusion. I do not want him to be told that belief in God and Christianity requires us to make second-class citizens of our gay and lesbian neighbors. I do not want him to be fed an understanding of the nature of Scripture and its authority which has us exalt two sentences from Romans above the life stories of countless gay and lesbian people who have experienced those sentences as a strangling yoke.

Such practical injustice infects even the most beautiful theology, degrading and distorting its meaning. The Lutheran doctrines about Christ and our justification before God have, as their backdrop, a normative understanding of God as a creator whose essence is love. The normative centrality of love is fundamental to Lutheran theology, without which none of that theology makes sense. But it seems to me that current Lutheran practice with respect to our gay and lesbian neighbors lifts up certain beliefs about the sources of divine authority (Scripture and tradition) higher than the law of love, thereby fundamentally infecting the heart of Lutheran theology: its understanding of God and the justification wrought by Jesus of Nazareth.

I cannot help but believe that practice speaks louder than words, and that when a formally endorsed policy violates the law of love, the implications for how core theological principles are understood by the faith community—how they will be understood by my son—cannot help but be compromised. The fact that so many Lutherans today have no authentic understanding of the meaning and significance of Lutheran theology, that their theologies are often closer to those of moralistic televangelists even though their pastors preach traditional Lutheran theology from the pulpit, speaks powerfully to these dangers. It seems to me that my son is more likely to understand and appreciate the essence of Lutheran theology if I share that theology with him while attending a non-Lutheran faith community whose explicit teachings may be less powerful articulations of that theology but whose practices, worship life, and social commitments are fully consonant with it.

There are other reasons why we leave, reasons that have more to do with our emotional lives than with reasoned reflection. After a difficult, often emotionally trying process of going through the “Journey Together Faithfully” study at our church, my wife and I were drained and in need of spiritual renewal. What we received instead from the ELCA was a dashing of our hopes. Worship in our home congregation became tainted by those dashed hopes. It became increasingly difficult to find there the spiritual sustenance and rejuvenation that we so urgently needed as a family. We were worn out by the fight, and because the ELCA was the battleground it was not the place where we could find the spiritual food needed to fight on. And because the ELCA refused to provide so many of our loved ones with the kind of unqualified welcome and affirmation that makes a place feel like home, it could no longer feel like home to us.

I believe that it is possible for people to disagree vigorously about important issues and yet still be fully participating members of the same community of faith. But the “issue” of gay and lesbian ordination, of holy unions, is precisely about who gets to be a fully participating member of ELCA. The policies of the ELCA say that I have that privilege but my cousin Jake does not. My best friend John does not. Other people I love do not. Can I disagree and still be a fully participating member of the ELCA? Yes, but only because I have the good fortune to be straight.

And this is the final reason why I must leave. The ironic truth is this: Were I gay, I would stay and fight for change. I would clamor at the gate for full inclusion. Were I gay, to leave the church would be to embrace the message of exclusion that current ELCA policies convey. And so, as a way to protest that message, I would refuse to leave. But because I am straight, the only way I can clamor at the gate in solidarity with my gay and lesbian loved ones is to deliberately step outside. The ELCA policies are discriminatory, but they discriminate in my favor. They do not exclude me because of who I am. And so, because I am straight, I must leave under my own power. To fight for change alongside my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, I must become an outsider with them. I must become a Lutheran in exile.


  1. Thanks, Eric. That was really good. I agree with everything you said.

    Will you join the ELCA now that they've opened up the door to homosexuals to get ordained?

  2. Arni--See my feature article in Religion Dispatches tomorrow, which (in a way) picks up where this letter leaves off. Nothing is decided, except that my family is likely to visit our old ELCA congregation this Sunday.

  3. This is a very moving letter. But the critique carries the seeds of incoherence, since if we pay attention first and foremost to reality as we face it, then what of scripture at all? The "broader" theme of love is something of an interpretation on your part, since Jesus handed out quite a few damnations and burnings in hell fire during his ministry. Is theology to be only what we make of it? Is there no authority?

    The US constitution faces similar instability, between those who think they can (and should) recover its "original" interpretation, and those who think of it as a "living" document, to be liberally interpreted in light of changing times, rather than amended to cover each change in circumstance and interpretation. In the latter case, constitutional interpretation becomes rather loose and something of a political exercise. Conservatively staying a step behind the tenor of the times, perhaps, but still following the culture wherever it may lead, stretching and bending (or ignoring) the text as needed.

    It is a difficult problem, even for an amendable text. But how much more for a text set in stone!

  4. "But how much more for a text set in stone!"

    I do not treat the Bible as a text "set in stone." Those who think it needs to be taken in these terms or not at all might be interesting in reading Karen Armstrong's THE BIBLE: A BIOGRAPHY. With respect to the collection of documents that have become the scriptures for Jews and (with further additions to the collection) Christians, the idea that these are the immutable and inerrant foundation for religious doctrine is hardly consonant with the book's history, which is one of constant amendation and reinterpretation.

    There are those who treat the Bible as the inerrant reference point for Truth. But--as those who have read earlier posts in my ongoing series on the Bible presumably know--I'm not one of those. My view of the Bible is far more complex than that--too complex to express in a comment, which is why I've been developing my series of posts.

  5. Thanks for sharing that. It's too bad you had to leave though. I hope that the conservatives in the ELCA do not follow the same path because of the equal strength of their own convictions. I am probably in the tiny minority of people who feel that the "rightness" or "wrongness" of issues often trumps the more important question of how people can get along with one another and remain in community while each holding significantly differing viewpoints on issues of great importance.

  6. True, the history of scripture is something of a pastiche. But do you see any scriptures being added today? No. Unless you add Lutheran exegisis, quotes from nice people like Martin Luther King, etc. But those are not considered scripture.

    The deeper point is that, if your standard of interpretation is facing reality, personal contact with the numinous, and current conditions, and you draw on selected principles found in scripture, depending on the foregoing, then you have not only left inerrantism behind, but any kind of solid base of interpretation/authority. The text could just as well not exist, and your ethics be drawn from your personal experience and learning, as they are. You might just as well be an atheist (which is a complement, by the way!).

    This is not a specific or personal criticism, but a very general one of all who claim to hold to some absolute morality and ethics, as interpreted by their own lights. The interpretation makes it not absolute, or even "based" on the source, since exercises of interpretation in the moral sphere inevitably generate divergence and idiosyncrasy. One would be better off just acknowledging one's own moral authority and going from there into negotiation with society at large, instead of claiming to march under a banner so differently interpreted by each adherent. Communities of fellow-feeling are fine and coherent, but disparate (even conflicting) communities that each claim to adhere to a founding text seem rather ludicrous.

    Compare all this to science, which has a hard enough time adhering to its standard, which is empirical findings. Views in science have to be overturned from time to time, but everyone knows what the standard is, and agreement is exceedingly broad on all points short of the most pioneering ranges of inquiry. Interpretation is limited by having a standard to work from. In the case of morals, the true standard, as you have articulated, is us- our feelings, and our knowledge of humanity. Any scripture is obsolete as soon as it is put down, and should by rights be powerless to hold future allegiance of those who have their own moral senses far more powerful than those more or less dimly communicated through parchment.

  7. Thanks, Eric, for your testimony regarding the heart of Lutheran confessing. Have you ever read Luther's "How Christians Should Regard Moses" (LW 35, 157-174)?

  8. "What oft was said, but ne'er so well expressed."

  9. Tells me a lot that you're even more affirming of perversity than the very-liberal ELCA.
    It's a shame, but, and no offense to you personally, I'd be ecstatic to see you leave my church, if you went there. Men who want to create their own religion should do so... in their own religion.


  10. I don't understand why sexual freedom has become a religious cause. Never will.


  11. Jonathan,

    Just noticed this comment today. If you think that, for me and other Christian reformers on this issue, this is about championing sexual freedom, you radically misunderstand us.

    You may never visit this site again, but if you do, please reread my manifesto. Do I anywhere advocate promiscuity, casual sexuality, infidelity, etc.? On the contrary, I hold up marriage as analogous to the banquet feast from which the little match girl is excluded. The banquet which gays and lesbians long to participate in is one of covenanted intimate and faithful loving union witnessed and supported by the community. Cast out of participation in this primary model of responsible sexual expression, gays and lesbians too often fall into patterns of sexual expression that are entirely unregulated by anything but contemporary cultural images that celebrate sexual freedom.

    The marital relationship can be and often is a crucible within which we can learn about what it means to love another person in a committed and self-giving way. As such, it has deep spiritual connection to the law of love which Christ laid down. It is one of the ways in which we learn how to love as Christ taught us to love. As such, this is for me about extending to my gay and lesbian neighbors a means of grace that has too long been denied them.