Pastoral Letter to Christ Hamilton United Lutheran Church regarding 2009 Churchwide Assembly
Beloved brothers and sisters in Christ,
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Because of what transpired at the 2009 Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, I feel compelled to write this letter to you. It is not a letter I planned or wished to write. I cannot help but feel that had this moment come after I had served you for several years, you would know me better and be able to “hear around” the words I am sure will imperfectly convey my thoughts and feelings at this moment, hear around them to the love and convictions that guide me as Christ’s undershepherd among you. However, the timing of this letter has been determined by forces beyond my control, and I ask you to read it carefully to its conclusion and prayerfully consider its contents.
The Present Situation
If you are puzzled at this point as to what I am talking about, this is the issue at hand: At its 2009 Churchwide Assembly in Minneapolis, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America approved by a one vote margin a social statement regarding human sexuality. It also passed by simple majorities four resolutions that provide for the blessing of couples in homosexual relationships and the ordination and rostering of church leaders in the same. These resolutions overturn all previous policies and statements of the ELCA.
As I understand them, these policies allow congregations, synods, and ELCA churchwide units (like campus ministry) who choose to do so to call those living in committed same-sex relationships as pastors or in other leadership positions. Congregations of the ELCA may also develop ceremonies for the public recognition of such relationships. As I read them, the actions of the Assembly mean that each congregation of our church must decide for themselves:
- whether or not it believes and will teach that sexual relationships between those of the same sex are pleasing to God and a legitimate option for Christian disciples.
- whether or not it will bless same-sex relationships in a manner akin to marriage.
- whether or not it is open to calling a pastor living in a same-sex relationship.
- how to live in communion with other congregations, synods, and churchwide units who take an opposite position to their own.
Obviously, these policy changes are a significant break with both the Lutheran theology of the past and the broadest Christian tradition not just at the level of their substance, but because they propose that different congregations of the same church body can legitimately confess and teach very different things and still be in communion with each other.
Why This Letter?
If each individual gathering of the ELCA is at this time permitted to make their own choices in regard to the blessing of same sex couples and calling of pastors in committed same sex relationships, how does this affect our life here at Christ Hamilton United? Is it not likely that focusing on these issues will distract us from more important aspects of discipleship like caring for the poor, the life of prayer, helping individuals and families in times of transition, becoming better evangelists, tithing, and just plain old Bible reading? Isn’t somebody’s sex life really a private issue between themselves and God? Isn’t discussing these things dangerous to the life of the church, because everybody has their own opinion, nobody is really open to changing their opinion, and talking about it just gets people angry or hurt? And is it not a touch unfair to single out sexual sin for such extraordinary address, when the Bible is equally strong against other types of sin like idolatry, materialism, gossip, and envy that we can plainly see in our own lives? Some of you are probably asking these questions, and they are legitimate ones.
It would not and has not been my practice in the past to address matters of sexual sin from the pulpit. This is because these matters are so emotional and touch upon the deep core of who people perceive themselves to be and because the human ability to lie to oneself is never so easily observed as in the arena of romantic love (we used to joke in high school that falling in love lowered a person’s IQ by 30 points). Indeed, one of my earliest and most formative experiences providing pastoral care was to a high school student who thought she might be a lesbian and was considering suicide because of it. I know these are issues on which people’s lives turn, and that is why I have always found private conversation to be the best place to address them.
One of my objections to the current fracturing of the church’s witness regarding sexual morality (often referred to as “local option”) is that it forces me to leave my place at the side of the struggling sinner—where my instincts as a pastor most prompt me to be—and ascend to the pulpit to stake out “my position” or “this church’s position.” This is not the purpose of the pulpit. Private opinions have no place in the pulpit of any church. The pulpit is the place where God’s Word is to be clearly proclaimed and explained, so the pulpit is really the place for God’s position to be declared. Do any of us really believe God has different opinions on these issues based on whether you are a member of Christ Hamilton United or St. Stephen’s, Middletown? Are in the Northeast Pennsylvania or Southwestern Texas Synod? Are a Lutheran in America or in Hong Kong? Indeed whether you are a Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, or Roman Catholic?
My own preference when dealing with such sensitive issues would be for counsel, not confrontations, but now, the actions of our Churchwide Assembly have compelled me to write this letter, which cannot help but make some people feel confronted. Indeed it may make some people feel unfairly singled out and attacked, and for that I grieve.
For those that feel this way, I want to pause at this point to quote from my sermon of August 23, 2009:
“If you are struggling with sexual issues, particularly homosexual inclinations, or have friends or family who do, and if you have not felt that you could share those struggles with your Christian brethren, please let me take this moment to apologize on behalf of the whole Church. All of us struggle in some way with sexual sin in thought, word, or deed, and you should not have had to suffer in silence or been made to feel that your affliction is peculiar or of greater consequence than anyone else’s. Indeed, in terms of the number of people impacted and the scope of hurt caused at the level of individuals, families, and society, we who struggle with heterosexual sin have far more to ask God’s pardon for than you do.”
I will add to what I said that morning that we all struggle against more than just “sins of the flesh.” In our modern American context we in all likelihood also struggle against blasphemy, gluttony, lack of faithfulness in worship, greed, anger, envy, sloth, and the perennial temptation to pride. Although the national church’s action has placed sexual sin in front of us, this letter is not meant to target any particular group struggling with any particular sin. We are all sinners in need of God’s mercy, and must each of us confess ourselves to be so, presenting ourselves at the foot of the cross from which His grace flows in the costly river of His own blood.
The question before us now is not, “Which sinners are not welcome at God’s table?” but rather, “Are we going to use God’s grace as an excuse to call blessed what God call sin?” Until now, the policy of the ELCA was in accordance with the plain sense of Scripture and the teaching of the church for two millennia: Pastors were expected to refrain from homosexual relationships and all sexual relationships outside the explicit confines of marriage. Likewise, finding no basis for same-sex blessings in either Holy Scripture or church tradition, ELCA policy forbade the practice of such blessings.
Because these policies have been overturned in favor of a “local option,” and because people will soon be quite reasonably asking what “option” your pastor will be taking, I believe you deserve to know just where your pastor stands on the issues before us:
- Do I believe that sexual intimacy between two people of the same sex is intended or may be blessed by God? No.
- Do I think there is any Biblical justification for the public blessing of relationships between two persons of the same sex or wiggle room that allows the Church to do as she pleases in this regard? No.
- Will I bless (or marry) a homosexual couple if that request is made of me? No.
- Would I welcome an assistant in ministry who is in a sexual relationship with someone of the same sex or likewise serve alongside a colleague in such a relationship at the altar at the request of the bishop or another synodical official? No.
I realize that these statements will be hurtful to some reading this. I beg your forgiveness for the hurt I unintentionally cause and I further pray that you will hear me out as to my reasons for the above statements. For these statements are not all I have to say about where I stand:
- Do I believe that I am less sinful than people who engage in homosexual sex? No.
- Do I believe homosexual behavior is a worse sin than heterosexual sin? No.
- Do I believe that the impact of heterosexual sin greater than that of homosexual sin at all levels of society? Yes.
- Do I believe that all people involved in homosexual sex are going to hell? No.
- Do I believe that parents should shun or otherwise reject children who identify themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, or questioning (LGBTQ)? No.
- Does this mean that LGBTQ people should not be welcomed in worship? No.
- Does this mean that the Church should not minister to those with AIDS who contracted the disease through homosexual behavior? No.
I understand that not everyone feels or thinks as I do in this regard. Everyone is at a different place in their spiritual journey through this life and in their Biblical literacy. But as an ordained pastor of the Church of Jesus Christ, I do not have the luxury of a private opinion in this matter. At the judgment seat, I will answer not only for what I believed and how I lived, but for what I taught others as one called to the preaching office of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. I will answer not only for whether I spoke with Christ’s love and compassion, but for whether what I taught accorded with the objective content of Scripture, whether I spoke faithfully what I heard there, whether I spoke the truth.
This does not mean that there is nothing in homosexual relationships that the Church cannot affirm. Indeed, most of the nonsexual elements present in many homosexual relationships should be affirmed by the Church, including the love and care that members of the LGBTQ subculture often show to one another in the wake of ostracization by friends and family. It seems clear to me that our Roman Catholic brethren have something right when from a Biblical perspective they see such love an inherently good thing that when it becomes sexual and romantic in nature is simply aimed at the wrong target, is “objectively disordered.” Nonetheless, the affection and care itself apart from its sexual and romantic component is a a good thing.
Perhaps this is why some have said, regarding the issue of homosexual behavior and others, that the Spirit of God is “doing a new thing,” that we need to “listen to the Spirit rather than the Word” in regard to the divisive issues facing the Church today. This is such bad Trinitarian theology that most Christians throughout history would have regarded it as nonsensical. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one God, so they act in one accord. The Son is “the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us,” and since the Holy Spirit is never opposed to the Son, the Holy Spirit can never be opposed to the Word. While it is true that the Bible is not Jesus Himself—the Word made flesh—it is God’s Word made ink. It is inspired, and the only way we have to know about Jesus and God’s will for our lives through Him.
If those last two sentences seem a bit esoteric—like textbook theology—here is the practical offshoot: I believe that based upon the Word of God given in Scripture, the Church dare not affirm homosexual behavior in God’s name. This means that if a person would come to me for counsel who is experiencing attraction to people of the same sex, I would tell them that the best thing they could do from a Biblical perspective was to refrain from sexual relationships with others or any romantic entanglement that might lead them to such behavior. I would counsel them to not fall into the common cultural error of believing that their happiness in this life will be largely determined by fulfilling their romantic longings. I would tell them to surround themselves with loving family, friends, and Christian accountability partners who will honor them in the choice to be a faithful disciple and help them fulfill that commitment. I would encourage them to contact one of several support groups of which I know, and if they are uncomfortable with the feelings they have (they feel them to be foreign or undesired), I would encourage them to contact a psychologist who shares their faith commitment and can help them reduce these feelings or at least have a sense of peace about their situation. Most important of all, I would counsel them to do what anyone facing a spiritual crisis should do: pray, read Scripture, and trust God for the strength to be a holy person, which is another way of saying be an obedient disciple of Jesus Christ.
Until very recently, this position and this sort of approach to pastoring was shared by Lutheran, Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox Christians. It remains the approach of the vast majority of Christians from around the world.
A Divided Household
The actions of our Churchwide Assembly in August have separated us from this ecumenical and historical consensus, calling for everyone to respect each other’s “bound consciences.” The language of “bound conscience” comes from Luther’s quote at the Diet of Worms in 1521, when he was on trial for heresy. When challenged to recant his teachings, Luther famously said, “Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason, my conscience is bound by the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience would be neither right nor safe. God help me. Here I stand, I can do no other.”
You will notice that Luther’s conscience is not bound in the abstract, but rather is bound by plain reasoning based upon the content of the Scripture itself. I ask, if the Church claims to speak for God, upon what authority does she do so if not the word of God given to us in the Bible? If the church cannot discern what the written Word of God says regarding an issue that touches upon the lives of nearly everybody, for most people are not naturally inclined to lifelong celibacy, it is time for the church to keep conversing internally, not time for her to say, “Okay, everybody, do what you think is right.” As a friend said recently, “If the Church cannot discern with one mind the will of God, it ought not to speak in God’s name, especially in contradiction to the canonical Scriptures.”
When Luther said, “Here I stand, I can do no other,” the unity of the Western Church was fractured and schism ensued. I must confess with deep sadness that I fear the Churchwide Assembly’s actions in August will eventually do the same. As Jesus said in Luke 11:17, “a divided household falls.” While we are theoretically supposed to honor each other’s consciences, what happens when a homosexual couple who was blessed by one congregation wants to transfer to a congregation that does not perform such blessings? Since the overwhelming majority of seminary professors support the Churchwide Assembly’s actions, to what seminary do I send an aspiring pastor? From what seminary do congregations recruit new pastors or other religious professionals? Will the paperwork that pastors and congregations are required to fill out to be matched with one another have a new line that reads, “blessing or non-blessing?”
From my perspective, I can see only that the Churchwide Assembly’s actions, which were meant to preserve the unity of the ELCA, must in fact undermine it. Forcing each congregation to decide for itself whether or not to accept gay pastors or bless gay unions means that almost every congregation will find itself divided. Whichever decision a congregation makes, they will lose members, as those who disagree with the majority will either stew in silent anger, wait for another pastorate, or vote with their feet and move to a neighboring congregation that has made the opposite decision. For some orthodox Lutherans, a congregational decision to remain with the status quo may not be enough, for they will wonder how they can in good conscience financially support the ELCA’s churchwide ministries with their offerings. Others, like one lesbian couple I know of, will struggle with fear, anger, and anxiety as their private lives and private struggles become the focus of unwanted attention, the cause of debate and division in their church families.
Which brings me full circle to why I felt compelled to write this letter. As I said in the beginning, it is not a letter I planned or wished to write. After all, what does all this mean for our life here at Christ Hamilton since our Re-Statement of Faith stakes out our position as a congregation clearly. Indeed, at least one member of our congregation encouraged me to “tread lightly” upon the subjects in this letter, saying (I’m paraphrasing), “Pastor, it’s the kind of thing that just gets people riled up, and no amount of talking about it does any good because you can’t change anybody’s mind about it.” In essence, he was saying that it is the kind of thing that can split a church, so why address it directly? There are a couple of reasons why I have chosen to address the issue in this format:
First and foremost, I believe that the public nature of the Churchwide Assembly’s actions will force us to deal with this in a public way sooner or later. I would rather begin these inevitable conversations now when we have time to discuss them civilly with one another than when a crisis forces us to come to rushed (and consequently poor) conclusions. Because of the hit piece that was featured in the Pocono Record regarding Pr. Boyer and a gay couple just prior to my arrival, I believe that time is likely to come upon us sooner rather than later here at Christ Hamilton United.
Secondly, I do not believe that “talking about it does no good.” I know too many Christians with widely varying and highly nuanced convictions in the realm of Christian sexual ethics to believe this to be true. In my previous call, I convened a group of pastors to talk about this issue well before the Churchwide Assembly addressed it. Over the course of months, Christians with widely varying perspectives on this issue debated and discussed the issues from different viewpoints. Our conversations illumined one another, and when they did not lead to agreement, at least they led to a respect for people whose perspective differed.
Thirdly, I am a Lutheran at heart, which means that I believe in you as the people of God and the power of the Word to make us into the Church. I believe that “the ministry of the Word belongs to all the baptized,” and I believe every Christian is called to read, learn, and better understand the Holy Bible. We are called to become more mature as Christians, and not remain like children, desiring only spiritual milk rather than solid food. (1 Cor 3:2)
Does this mean all our viewpoints are equally valid? No. The Word itself corrects us in our errors as much as it consoles us in our sorrows. “the Lord disciplines those whom He loves, and chastises every child whom He accepts.” However, through “the mutual conversation and consolation of the brethren” that Luther considered one of the ways you could identify the true Church of Christ, as Christ’s royal priesthood we can discern the will of God and “proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” (1 Peter 2:9)
Lastly, to remain silent at this point would be dishonest to you as your pastor and to dishonor my ordination vows. When I was ordained I promised to preach and teach in accordance in with the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions. I have already been called names ranging from “Neanderthal” to “antiquated” to “hateful” by people in the ELCA. If I were to keep silent for fear of hearing such names repeated here at Christ Hamilton, I would not be the pastor you deserve. A good leader does not spend time managing his public image. A good leader acts from conviction and lets his public image manage itself.
How will I act now? I will begin by listening. I want to encourage you to engage me and each other in conversation. If you are upset or angry by what you read in this letter, I want to hear from you. If you agree with the actions of our Churchwide Assembly, I want to hear from you. If you disagree with them, I want to hear from you. If you are nervous, angry, or undecided about what you think or how to act I want to hear from you. I love and care for each and every person I have met at this wonderful congregation, and I value you no matter how you see this issue.
Next, I will exercise my office as a teacher in the Church. Beginning in October, I will regularly be writing and recording broadcasts for distribution on this and other issues facing us as disciples of Jesus Christ in the early twenty first century. We will have classes offered at the church and “town hall” style discussions wherein people can just express their feelings and offer their views for discussion, whether or not they are well-formed at that point.
In all these congregational settings, my goal is never to be coercive, but rather always to be faithful and respectful.
In all of this, I will seek to continue to be faithful to the call you extended me just a few short months ago. I will continue to baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit and preside at the Lord’s Supper, which is where we most fully receive His life. I will continue to preach on the broad array of topics related to Christian discipleship so that we may discern in them “the narrow way that leads to life.” (Matt 7:14) I will continue to lead this community in worship and encourage us to reach out to people not like us and serve the poor so that our faith might not be dead. (James 2:1-17) I will continue to rejoice with those who rejoice, mourn with those who mourn, and visit the sick, seeking to be with the people of this congregation even as our Lord is forever “Emmanuel,” God with us. I will continue to pray for this congregation and be the best undershepherd I can for you.
You are all in my thoughts and prayers. As we begin the holy conversations before us, let us remember that we are called to bear one another’s burdens in love and pray for those with whom we disagree. Let us remember that we are all of us—saint and sinner, Jew and Greek, homo- and hetero-sexual—“saved by grace and not by works… so that no one should boast,” (Eph 2:8-9) and let us follow St. John’s advice that we “love one another, for love is of God.”
Yours in Christ,
Rev. Brett Jenkins, STS