Saturday, May 14, 2005

You Must Decide: Do We Have a Hermeneutical Principal of Clarity or Confusion?

Barbara Lundblad, an ordained pastor in the ELCA, is associate professor of preaching at Union Theological Seminary and has taught preaching at Yale, Princeton, and Hebrew Union College. She has been one of the Lutheran preachers on the Protestant Hour Radio program. She is the author of Transforming the Stone: Preaching through Resistance to Change.

"Turning Letters into Laws"
by Barbara K. Lundblad

"During the season of Epiphany, we received a letter---Paul's letter to the Corinthian church. The lectionary brought the letter to us, but we did not start at the beginning. We jumped right into the middle of the sixth chapter. It was on the second Sunday after the Epiphany, after reading about food and fornication, that the lector at Advent Lutheran Church in Manhattan looked up and said, "May God give us some understanding of that word."

People seemed uncertain whether they should say, "Thanks be to God!" The next Sunday the lectionary dropped us once again right into the middle of the seventh chapter of 1 Corinthians without much background: "from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none." (1 Cor. 7:29-31). Well that was startling news to the people at Advent, especially the newlyweds. What does it mean for husbands to live as though they have no wives? How should they act and what should they do? Note that Paul didn’t say, "let even those who have husbands be as though they had none." This seems to set up a perplexing situation: the wives still think they have husbands but the husbands will be living as though they have no wives! (well, you have to understand Paul’s context.) Or consider Paul's words earlier in this same chapter: "to the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am." So if you are coming to church hoping to find an eligible partner, forget it! Stay single -- like Paul. Of course he does add, "It is better to marry than to be aflame with passion." (but again, we have to understand Paul's context.)

In recent publications, in meetings organized to oppose the work of the ELCA taskforce for studies on sexuality, and in letters to the Lutheran, someone almost always says, "we don’t need this study. The Bible is completely clear about sex and marriage. We dare not overturn what the church has taught for over 2000 years." are they thinking about 1 Corinthians 7 when they say such things? If so, perhaps Paul's advice to the Corinthian church will become part of the document adopted by the ELCA assembly in 2005: "as St. Paul writes, "from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none," (of course this is silly, I am taking Paul out of context.)Some hear 1 Corinthians 7 as one more reason to stop reading Paul all together. Others say, "It’s confusing, but it's in the bible and that's all I need to know."

Both positions fail to listen closely enough to what Paul is saying in this letter. It is clear there are problems in Corinth. In the first chapter, Paul says he has received word about quarrels within the young church –some say, "I belong to Paul" others, "I belong to Apollos, or Peter," or, "I belong to Christ." (this was long before people said "I belong to the Network," or, “I" belong to Word Alone.") Paul cares about these people. He is concerned about this young church in this bustling harbor city." I'm not writing this to make you ashamed" he says, "but to admonish you as my beloved children." when we get to chapter seven, Paul begins to respond not to verbal reports brought by Chloe's people, but to specific questions that had come to him in a letter: "now concerning the matters about which you wrote" he begins… and the whole chapter is about sex. He quotes from their letter: "it is well for a man not to touch a woman." Paul won't let that stand. Though he is not too positive about either sex or marriage, he argues with those who claimed that Christians had become completely spiritual people, that they were now living Christ's resurrection. Paul answers by making it clear that he has heard such teachings, but... "because of cases of sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband."

Paul seems to be saying that the only good thing about marriage is to keep a man or woman from sinning; that is, there's nothing good in marriage itself. However, to those who taught that a man should never touch a woman under any circumstances, Paul affirms, or at least allows for, sexual expression within marriage: the husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband…do not deprive one another except perhaps by agreement for a set time, to devote yourselves to prayer, and then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control (1 Cor. 7:3, 5).

Now we might want to say more positive things about sexuality and marriage besides curbing temptation, but Paul was responding to the Corinthians' letter. Not ours. This is a very important distinction. Paul was not trying to answer our questions. He was not writing systematic theology or a social statement on Christian sexual ethics. He was writing a letter, a letter addressed to particular concerns of Corinthian believers, who were struggling to live their lives in light of the good news of Jesus Christ. Paul admits that he doesn't have all the answers. That is what is so disarming about Paul in this chapter. We can hear his struggle in the verses that come just before today's reading. He turns to another question they have asked him. "Now concerning virgins," he says, "I have no command from the lord, but I give my opinion." I have no command from the lord, but I give my opinion.

Bishop Krister Stendahl once said, "I think Paul was the last preacher in Christendom who had the guts to say that." We often confuse our opinions with divine authority. It may be far more honest to say, with Paul," I have no command from the Lord, but I give my opinion" -- "the thought of two men in bed together makes me sick." "Why would a woman want to make love with another woman?" "What do they do?" "I don't even want to talk about sex. It's too embarrassing" "Other boys in school call me a fag and I'll do anything to prove them wrong." "If our church approves same-sex blessings that demeans my marriage." -- it would be wonderful if people could say, "these are my opinions."

That could be a healthy place to begin. It is clear that Paul's opinions were shaped by his sense of urgency. He fully expected Jesus to return within his lifetime. His answers to the Corinthians' questions about sex and marriage were shaped by his sense that the time was short: "are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But if you marry, you do not sin, and if a virgin marries, she does not sin. Yet those who marry will experience distress in this life, and I would spare you that." (1 Cor. 7:27-28). This sense of urgency continues in the next verse: "I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none." He goes on to say the same about those who mourn, those who rejoice, those who have possessions. Live as though this present age is passing away.

It is impossible to know what Paul would say in answer to our questions 2000 years later. He was not answering our questions, but the questions and concerns of particular churches in the century after Jesus' resurrection. If we take Paul's letters as definitive statements on sex and marriage, we misuse the particularity of his letters by turning them into universal, timeless propositions. If we dismiss Paul all together, we miss his concern for the real-life dilemmas faced by Christians in a culture that offered myriad competing claims and values. If we can read his letters as letters, we can learn a great deal about what it means to be Christ’s church in each particular time and place, including our own. The problem comes when we turn letters into laws.

That same week of Epiphany, I received a copy of another letter, this one to Lutheran Christians in St. Paul---but not by St. Paul. That letter came from Peter Rogness, bishop of the St. Paul area synod. He wrote to tell people that he was removing the sanctions against two congregations in the synod. St. Paul-Reformation and Hosanna Lutheran churches had been censured for failing to follow church policies in ordaining pastors. Hosanna, a suburban congregation, had called and ordained people on its staff as pastors without the approval of the ELCA. St. Paul- reformation, an urban congregation, had called and ordained Anita Hill as their pastor after she had served as their "pastoral minister" for several years. While fully qualified for ordination, pastor hill is not endorsed by the ELCA because she is living in a committed relationship with another woman.

Sanctions were imposed on both congregations. These sanctions precluded members from serving on synod council or boards, as officers, or on any task forces of the synod. Yet, both congregations continued to be actively involved in the synod, giving generously to the larger church and reaching out to their communities. Nothing had changed in official church policy, but Bishop Rogness believed that sanctions against these congregations had become only punitive, without any larger purpose.

Like the apostle Paul centuries before him, Bishop Rogness was responding to particular situations within the Christian community: I believe we need to recognize that the occasional church which steps out of the box may, in the long run, be contributing to the life of the church in ways more constructive than destructive… flexibility and diversity are needed for effectiveness in mission in a changing world. I believe it is time to recognize anew that what binds us together as Christ's church is far more central…than are the constitutional infractions of past actions.…it is time to make clear that our relationship with these congregations is a relationship focused on mission and ministry and not on rules…with affirmation of the life we share and the faithfulness of the god who continues to call us into life together in this church, we pray for the continued guidance of the spirit as we move confidently into the future.

I think Paul would understand. Bishop Rogness was responding to questions and concerns raised in this time and place. Of course some will surely remind him -- and me -- that Paul wrote other words that seem to argue against any decision that allows a lesbian woman to serve as pastor. Paul's words in Romans 1 are often lifted up as the definitive word regarding homosexual relationships, though Paul had never heard of the word "homosexual" when people speak about the bible and homosexuality, the argument often goes something like this: even if we set aside passages in Leviticus and other parts of the holiness codes, we must take Romans 1:26-27 as authoritative teaching on sexuality for all time. But what happened to context and particularity?

Well, it is possible to see context as important or irrelevant depending on our” opinions. I think this is true for all of us. Those who affirm Paul’s prohibitions of homosexuality will acknowledge that his strange teachings in 1 Corinthians 7 need to be taken "in context" but that Romans 1:26-27 is true for all time. Those who read Paul's teachings in 1 Corinthians 7 as demeaning or absurd advice for single and married people alike will read that chapter as confirmation that everything Paul said about sexual ethics has to be taken "in context" including Romans 1:26-27. Of course, Paul did more than give his opinions in 1 Corinthians 7: "to the married I give this command; not I but the lord, that the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does separate, let her remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and that the husband should not divorce his wife" (1 Cor. 7:10-11).

Paul is very clear here, as clear as Jesus was when he talked about divorce and remarriage in the gospels. Yet, as a church, we do not prohibit divorced women and men from being ordained, nor do we "remove them from the roster" if they divorce following ordination. Taking Paul and Jesus seriously, should we then amend ELCA documents concerning ordination?

--Resolved: to amend vision and expectations by addition before the last sentence in section iii: persons who are divorced and remarried are prohibited from ordination in this church.

I don't plan to introduce such a memorial at the next ELCA assembly; however, such a resolution would be consistent with scripture and with the teachings of the church for 2000 years. I don't know whether Paul would draft such a resolution. He would probably be surprised that Christians were still waiting for Christ's return. My guess is that he would get more than a little impatient with parliamentary procedures.

I think he would opt for writing a few more letters to congregations struggling to be faithful in confusing times. He would, no doubt, have some opinions about the issues before us, but he might be shocked to find that we had turned his letters into laws. Most of all, I think Paul would assure Bishop Rogness and those who belong to the network and those who belong to word alone and those who belong to congregations throughout the ELCA, that we all belong to Christ. He would remind us of what he said long ago to a church he had never even visited: for I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of god in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:38-39)." –THE END

It is tempting to "fisk" Lundblad's sermon. Perhaps someone will. It would be easy enough.

She is writing in a newsletter (though it feels like a sermon she has preached before) of the organization she was vice president of, so she is just laying out her argument and empowering her activist network.

It must all seems so reasonable to many people. However, I don't think one has to have a mind poisoned by prejudice to begin to see that how if all Lutherans would use her hermeneutic we would have no Lutheranism left!

Lundblad is in essence, what I call a "Confusionist." She has found a way to disregard anything that is in conflict with what she thinks God probably means. Rather than build a strong case for what we should be doing, she says we really can't know from scripture.

This is the real insidiousness of the gay hermeneutic (not just gay liberation but any hermeneutic that denies biblical clarity). In attempting to neutralize the opposition, the accompanying side effect will be confusion about everything. The people of god will return again to the time of, "in those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes." (Judges 17:6)

We are on our way to a time when god is not king, but the autonomous self will sit on the throne. We are on our way to a time when we will become like Lundblad, not really a Lutheran any longer because we deny too many of the reformation principles. Sola Scriptura means that scripture has clarity. Brilliant Confusionists like Barbara Lundblad will lead us into a brave new Lutheran world in which the ELCA will be just another liberal Protestant Mainline denomination wrecked on the rocks of culture

Read the pdf file here. It is a snapshot of a time only a few years ago before the gay activist dream was much further from reality than it is today and it gives the strategy they used to reach the place we are now (which actualaly shows it did not take much to get Churchwide to change).


Norsk said...

But she just may be correct about one thing: why should we ordain remarried divorcees?

Shrimp said...

Of course. The divorce epidemic was one of the first outbreaks of the permisiveness unleashed in the 1960's. if you get divorced you have to spend the rest of your life seperate.
That would keep about 90% of marriages together.

Eli said...

The ol' divorce card. Lame.

How many divorced folks celebrate their divorce as a gift from God? Not too many, I'd wager. Usually it is a bad thing, a sinful thing if you will. At best, it is the better choice of some very bad options. But, no one is saying "I'm divorced, and it is/was a good thing!" Even where neccessary (lives saved from abuse for example) it is not a good thing, just a neccessary thing.

The good ship ELCA...

The good ship ELCA...
Or the Shellfish blog...