Reflections on Love: Conscience Unbound

Part 1 in a multipart series exploring the scriptural basis and theological explanation of why I say that there is no sin in one’s gender identity or orientation, and that there’s no peculiar sin in these relationships that isn’t present in every marriage or partnership involving human beings.

Based on a comment by a family friend calling me an apostate and telling me I don’t know my Bible; and a second conversation with an old friend the next day who somehow managed to avoid calling me an apostate even though we aren’t eye level with each other, over the next couple of days I’m going to be posting some commentary I’ve written to provide scriptural basis and theological explanation of why I say that there is no sin in one’s gender identity or orientation, or in the relationships associated with these categories except in the general human sense that all of us pretty well agree on, that no one is perfect or loves perfectly. My intention will be to have conversations about the issues, and I’ll likely post them as links to the blog I occasionally write so the formatting is a little better. I may do it over days, or may just drop it all at once…either way, it’s coming.I am sincerely interested in feedback about what I get right, what I get wrong, where you agree or disagree, and about the topic in general.

June is PRIDE month, and over the years I’ve been an outspoken advocate for the LGBTQIA+ community both as citizens of the United States and as children of God and part of the Body of Christ that is the Church. The other day I posted something on Facebook that led to an interesting discussion that took place over a couple of days. Below is that original post with edits for the contextual shift from Facebook to blog format.

This post has some Inside Baseball kind of language about the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), the church body in which I’m a pastor. The document Human Sexuality: Gift & Trust is available here.

In 2009 the ELCA passed Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust (HSGT from here). In that document, we made way for LGBTQIA+ persons to marry and for married persons to serve as rostered ministers (pastors and deacons).

Though it says many good things in that statement, the piece that’s always lifted out of it and almost exclusively quoted is Bound Conscience (p20), a term from Luther that’s now become shorthand for because there are theological arguments that can’t be resolved specifically about gender and orientation, we make room for widely divergent views essentially divided into four positions explained in tragically flawed shorthand here:

1. No marriage, no ordination for persons in same gender Lifelong Monogamous Relationships (the term that everyone knew would eventually mean marriage), living in same gender relationships is sinful and to be preached against. These four positions were troubling at the time, with people on the one side, who like myself at the time, who were in favor of full inclusion but uncomfortable with the idea that it’s not at all sinful (I moved squarely into position 1 very quickly after doing my homework). People on the other side were concerned about the slippery slope into bad sexual whatever.

2 & 3: Uncertain, leaning either toward or away from Full Inclusion, but feel conflicted regarding whether it’s a sin to marry or ordain LGBTQIA+ persons (most people were here in 2009, and probably most still are);

4. Full Inclusion, No Sin Here: marry and ordain all who are called into ministry through the normal discernment process.

For the record, my friends in Position 1 were correct that this was ultimately a way to allow our denomination to speak the language of inclusion and edge traditionalists out of any leadership positions in our Churchwide Organization (the ELCA’s administrative structure, usually called “Churchwide” or “up there” or “up there in Chicago” in at least a minority pejorative sense). I see now that I was naive and believed the ELCA meant what it said about because we’re a big tent Church, this edging out of conservatives wouldn’t happen. That said, I’m not really convinced this the wrong move; it was however a dishonest way of doing it.

Part of what caused me to come to the conclusion that gradually edging out traditionalists from Up There likely a good thing, even if done dishonestly, was coming into the understanding of that it would be tantamount to an act of violence from the perspective of LGBTQIA+ persons, who would have to confront someone that is publicly and fundamentally opposed to their entire lives working in the cubicle next to them. Ironically, from an HR standpoint inclusion is easy; from a Churchwide polity standpoint it’s considerably messier. This has to do with the actual power structure of our denomination. Churchwide can’t make anyone do anything for the most part. It has the authority to speak on behalf of the denomination, enter into partnerships, do big ministries and provide resources, and lots of other things, but it lacks the central power to tell synods and congregations that they must do anything outside of a very few set of prescribed items. On paper, we look very top down; in reality, we’re probably just as congregational (decentralized) as the United Church of Christ, and may well be better called a convention than a denomination.

This is good and bad in some very crucial ways…and people on all sides were very unhappy at the time with how it all came about in 1988 and still argue about to this day; meaning that it’s probably the perfect compromise because everyone seems to hate it so much!

In 2009, when the period of prayerful study of several documents provided for congregations and synods to use for both education and to formulate feedback, HSGT went before the Churchwide Assembly, the governing body of the ELCA, which does have the institutional authority and power to do things, and everyone knew going in that passing this social statement and what went with it would lay the groundwork for “lifelong monogamous same gender relationships” to eventually and finally be called simply marriage, and that it would bring our congregations into the fray as they navigated this huge cultural shift that wouldn’t even become strictly legal until ~2013 when the SCOTUS struck down the Defense of Marriage Act.

The second thing synods and congregations would be left to wrestle with in this relatively early stage is that “partnered homosexuals”, the popular term for same gender marriage at the time, would become eligible to become Rostered Ministers in the ELCA, which is what we call our ordained leaders who make up our pastors and deacons. What do we do for candidacy process? Do seminaries need to do things? And as I know my own congregation was struggling with as this passed, “what if the synod sends us the name of a gay pastor?” — not even really yet considering the further status and complication of that pastor having a family.

Initially I was against HSGT because I believed that we needed to say a firm Yes or a firm No. If we couldn’t do that, I was content to leave it as No until we could legitimately say Yes. I changed my mind for a few years because I saw traditionalists do fine ministry with all people, and saw it as essentially a matter of whether a pastor or congregation would perform a wedding.

That is to say, for at least a little while the big tent was working for me.

Several years ago I discovered ELCA ally groups and joined them, probably after the conclusion of my first call, which was pretty squarely in 2. I love those people. We disagree about a lot of things, but they’re some of the best people I’ve known and had the privilege to serve, and I think I waited till my belonging and support wouldn’t harm them.

When I joined these groups, I learned that while I was comfortable, being told by a beloved pastor that they wouldn’t perform a wedding was an insult and a slap to many, if not most, LGBTQIA+ persons. It felt like a betrayal of the acceptance they’d found until that moment. Ironically, the conservatives opine that it’s better to “live in sin” than make that perceived sin official. In the moment I saw what this does to people — the hurt and sense of betrayal that it causes — I moved back to a position of disagreement with Bound Conscience because it’s both bad theology and bad practice for the same few reasons: it’s fundamentally dishonest because it favors those who are in Position 1, quietly disenfranchising those in Position 4 by virtue of its favoring 1; it causes harm to LGBTQIA+ persons by forcing them to be surprised over and over in a denomination that’s “accepting” and “inclusive”. Third, the idea of Bound Conscience was always essentially a lie, and it’s become more harmful for everyone over time because we didn’t have the courage to say “Yes Yes” or “No No”, but tried to tend the middle ground.

Let me say this: I’m a fan of the middle ground because it’s where the Church belongs in many ways. We stand in the breach between the many peoples and hold firm to the ground that is identified as Home for all of us by the One who is creating us. However, in issues that are literally life and death for people, we cannot afford the luxury of middle ground because it goes against the Bible’s clear command to stand in solidarity with the poor, the slave, the outcast, and anyone being crushed under the wheels of the societal Machine. In this case, the Gospel calls us clearly to stand with our LGBTQIA+ neighbors as an act of solidarity and love.

Though it’s been nearly 12 years and what feels like decades’ worth of cultural progress that I don’t think any of us really expected to come this quickly, the idea of Bound Conscience is clearly a thin veil covering our willingness to keep the peace at the expense of the lives of those we’re called to serve. I’m not saying the ELCA is bad, I’m saying simply that it’s staffed by human beings from bottom to top. As we say in our liturgy, “we are captive to Sin and cannot free ourselves”, and this captivity is evident in such compromises.

I think many of us saw that back then, but what we couldn’t see is the damage it would really do. Our denomination was worried about people leaving to form new “conservative” denominations so we tried the soft pitch and people left anyway. Despite our best efforts at harmony, we have to face the truth that change cannot come without sacrifice. Pain deferred till later will hurt all the more when it comes back around.

It’s time for the ELCA to repent of this previous error and remove the idea of Bound Conscience from our documents. Finally, we must state clearly that gender and orientation are not sinful, that love is love, and that we freely embrace the many expressions of gender and orientation within the bounds of law and consent.

If we’d done this years ago, when it passed we would have seen more congregations leave; but we would have ended up a lot more honest in the 12+ years since. Though I believe it would have failed in 2009 but passed in 2012, it would have been much more ethical than what we have now.

I can say honestly that my current congregation welcomes EVERYONE, but I can’t say the same of my denomination.

The longer this goes on, the more damage we do. The longer this goes on and the more damage we do, the more culpable we are for the sinful pain we knowingly inflict with one hand while offering a cold codependent comfort with the other.

Bound conscience is a foolish lie, and we cannot pretend that this aiding and abetting of violence against our LGBTQIA+ neighbors (or our BIPOC neighbors) through lukewarm policies and empty declarations is morally neutral. This is negligent pride; sinful rationalization of a compromise we all knew was wrong from the start. We cannot ignore this any longer, we must repent. Even if we can’t change what’s transpired these last years, we can live into our core values of repentance and belief.

I’m interested in feedback. Where am I right or wrong? What am I missing?

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