Monday, July 09, 2007

When it comes to gays, 'What would Luther do?'

When it comes to gays, 'What would Luther do?'
Given the way he dealt with issues of his day, the father of the Protestant Reformation very well may have seen the same-sex arguments in a more accepting light.
By Mary Zeiss Stange

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.

it continues...

The movement Luther himself spawned presents a more mixed picture. Among the "mainstream" — that is, non-fundamentalist — Protestant churches, only the United Church of Christ maintains an unambiguously pro-gay stance. In most other denominations, the questions of how to deal with gay marriage, as well as with the ordination of non-celibate gays to the ministry, are bubbling more or less continually on ecclesiastical back burners. In at least two churches — the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and the Episcopal Church USA — those pots have lately threatened to boil over.
In these cases, the issue is not the mere membership of gays in the church, or indeed in the ministry, as long as they remain sexually inactive. But what happens when a gay minister openly enters into a committed relationship, as did the Rev. Bradley Schmeling of St. John's Lutheran Church in Atlanta and Bishop Gene Robinson of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire?
In February, Schmeling was notified that a disciplinary committee had voted to expel him from the clergy. (On Thursday, he was removed from the denomination's list of approved ministers.) Also in February, the worldwide Anglican Communion issued what amounted to an ultimatum to the Episcopal Church, threatening negative "consequences" should it consecrate another openly gay bishop. At stake in both cases is the question not simply of the ordination of gays and lesbians, but also of same-sex marriage: In effect, because these clergy cannot marry in their respective denominations, their openly committed same-sex relationships amount, for their critics, to "living in sin." Writing for the online magazine Blogcritics in December, Richard Rothstein likened the struggle between pro- and anti-gay factions in the churches to "a Second Protestant Reformation."
He was onto something important.
The New Testament trump card
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?"
Mary Zeiss Stange is a professor of women's studies and religion at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. She is a member of USA TODAY's board of contributors.

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The good ship ELCA...

The good ship ELCA...
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