Last week, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America voted for the first time for an openly homosexual man to be made a bishop. For twenty years, R. Guy Erwin had been banned from the ordained ministry in the ELCA, then in 2009 the Lutheran church lifted the prohibition and he was ordained. Now, just four years later, Mr. Erwin is set to become the first gay Lutheran bishop.
With over four million members in 10,000 congregations, the ELCA is the nation’s seventh largest Protestant church, and the second after the Episcopal Church to ordain and promote “partnered homosexuals.” The fact that the Episcopal and Lutheran churches have some time ago recognized one another’s ministries and that Lutheran ministers regularly work in Episcopal churches and vice versa means that in many ways there is now one liberal Protestant denomination which might be called the Lutheran Episcopal Church of the USA. It is not my point to quarrel
with the Lutheran Episcopalians about their decision. We should be realistic – any idea of substantial unity between Lutheran Episcopalians and the Catholic Church withered on the branch of ecumenism long ago. For the last fifty years, the Lutheran Episcopalians have been busy not only denying the core moral teaching of the Christian church, but also denying the fundamental beliefs of Christianity. What has happened in Lutheran Episcopal relations with the Catholic Church illustrates the truth that when two roads begin to diverge, they forever become further and further apart.
It is not even my point to argue about the morality of the act of sodomy, or the obvious contradiction to Sacred Scripture and the blatant violation of the natural law and the law of virtually all religions from the dawn of time that homosexual actions represent. Any human being with common sense knows the facts of human sexuality and understands that sexual intercourse between two men is not what God intended.
Putting these debates on one side, there is a more profound and worrying difficulty with their decision to condone homosexuality. This has nothing to do with human sexuality, but with the very core principles of the Christian faith, and indeed of religion itself. The Lutheran Episcopalians have not simply voted
to “be nice to gay people.” By condoning homosexuality, they have acted on an understanding of the Christian religion, which is deadly to religion itself. Let me be plain. The reason the Lutheran Episcopalians felt able to vote in favor of homosexuality is because they believe their understanding and their cultural environment is more important than divine revelation.
They are not uneducated; they know the Bible condemns homosexuality. They understand that virtually all religions at all times and in all places have condemned homosexuality. And yet, none of this matters; instead, they believe that Christianity can be and should be adapted to the cultural context and pastoral needs in which they find themselves. They really believe that their culture and understanding are superior to what has gone before.
There are two basic categories in the Christian church today: those who believe that the Christian faith is a cultural construct that should adapt and mutate according to the cultural and pastoral needs of each society, and those who believe that the Christian faith is revealed by God and that, instead of Christianity conforming to the world, the world should conform to Christianity. The Lutheran Episcopalians hold to the first idea.
Therefore what we are witnessing in the Lutheran Episcopalian decision is not simply the condoning of homosexuality. That is a mere symptom of the disease. The decision to ordain Mr. Erwin as a Lutheran bishop is simply the outworking of a more fundamental philosophical position – that the church should conform to the world. This philosophy was written into the genetic code
of the Lutheran Episcopal church from the very beginning. The Anglican church was founded on the political and sexual needs of King Henry VIII. The founding charter of Anglicanism was established by his daughter. It is called the Elizabethan Settlement —and it basically said, “You can believe what you like as long as you are loyal to the Queen.” Likewise, Luther’s revolution (from which all the other Protestant churches have sprung) was worm eaten with the political intrigues and sexual politics of Germany of his day.
Beneath this revolution was the underlying belief that Christianity could and should be adapted to the cultural and pastoral needs of a particular individual, group or culture. In other words, “Tradition and Sacred Scripture and the authority of the church can be set aside; we will do as we think best.” Why does it matter
? Because a very fundamental choice needs to be made. Does one believe that the Christian faith is a human construct that can be adapted according to every wind of change in society? Does one believe that the church is a historical accident – a man-made institution which simply serves a necessary practical function in the world? If so, then one believes that the whole Christian religion was just made up by people. If it was made up by people to start with, then it can be altered by people whenever they wish.
Does no one else see that this means the very death of religion itself? For if religion is no more than a human construct, then religion really is no more than human wishful thinking. If religion is a human construct then it is no more important than any other noble institution. If religion is no more than a human construct than it is no more significant than the Boy Scouts, the Rotary Club, or the Flower Arranging Guild.
The alternative is to believe that the Christian faith is revealed by God himself through his incarnate son Jesus Christ, and that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, founded his Church on the Apostle Peter and his successors, and that even today the Church, through the power of the Holy Spirit, speaks the truth to the world and administers the sacraments of salvation to reach out and redeem the whole human race. The first choice is not really religion at all
. It is a human artifice. It is a religious mask that human beings wear. The second choice will remain the church of Jesus Christ. As such it will continue to be the sacrament of salvation or a stumbling block to those who simply wish to conform to the world. Fr. Dwight Longenecker is the parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Church in Greenville, South Carolina. Visit his blog, browse his books, and be in touch at dwightlongenecker.com