Sexuality in the ELCA

If it’s synod assembly season, it’s time to debate homosexuality ad nasueum.  Even though this summer’s 2007 Churchwide Assembly does not have a major sexuality study or vote on its agenda, be sure that delegates will try to make their voice known on both sides of the issue.  But for a minute, let’s put homosexuality aside.  A different sexual issue impacts a much larger number of church members and leaders – sex outside of marriage.

It is widely assumed and accepted in the church that sexuality – particularly sexual intercourse – is reserved for the marriage relationship.  The church has long taught that sex outside of marriage is wrong.  Vision and Expectations: Ordained Ministers in the ELCA, the church’s statement on pastoral expectations and conduct, reinforces this.  From Section III. The Ordained Minister as Person and Example, section Sexual conduct:

Single ordained ministers are expected to live a chaste life.  Married ordained ministers are expected to live in fidelity to their spouses, giving expression to sexual intimacy within a marriage relationship that is mutual, chaste, and faithful.

Of course, V&E also has the infamous homosexuality sentence ("Ordained ministers who are homosexual in their self-understanding are expected to abstain from homosexual sexual relationships").  On account of this sentence, many in the church – particularly seminarians – reject V&E as an unjust, unfair, even oppressive document.  By citing this sentence as just cause to do away with V&E, many critics of V&E sidestep the much broader issue of marriage and sexuality. 

But if we take homosexuality out of the equation, how do we really feel about V&E?  What do we really believe about marriage and sexuality?  Is pre-marital sex wrong?  And if so, what does "wrong" mean?

FACTOID: A Center for Disease Control study published in 2005 reveals that about 20% of men and about 30% of women in a 2002 survey reported having zero or one sexual partners over their lifetime (see pages 28 & 29 of Sexual Behavior and Selected Health Measures: Men and Women 14-44 Years of Age, United States, 2002click for abstract, full study linked from abstract).  The other 80% of men and 70% of women reported having two or more sexual partners during their lifetime.

I’ve lived on three seminary campuses – two Lutheran and one Presbyterian.  Given the statistics above, it should come as no surprise that some (many?) unmarried seminarians are sexually active.  Some are conflicted about it, some are not.  Some are sexually active within committed relationships that lead to marriage.  Others are sexually active within less-than serious relationships.  Same goes for unmarried pastors.  Are you surprised?  How should we feel about this?

I believe this is the sexual elephant in the room that no one in the church wants to touch with a ten foot pole.  For most people, the homosexuality debate is about someone else’s life, someone else’s sexuality, someone else’s role in the church.  But the discussion of sexuality and marriage touches nearly everyone in the church.  That’s why it is so darn scary, why our church is much less enthusiastic to discuss it than homosexuality or any other issue.

SIDEBAR: At recent pro-immigration rallies in cities throughout the country, hundreds of illegal immigrants marched down city streets wearing t-shirts proclaiming their illegal status.  What were the police going to do, arrest all those illegal immigrants on the spot?  Of course not.  It was a provocative statement forcing us to confront the issue in an intelligent and constructive fashion.

What would happen if pastors (and lay delegates, too) wore t-shirts to synod assembly saying, "I’ve had sex outside of marriage."  I imagine that a large number of people would be wearing the t-shirts – 25%?  50%?  75%?  What would that do to the assembly and the church’s attitudes toward sexuality?  At the least it would capture our attention, and lead us to conversation.

Is sex outside of marriage wrong, a sin to be confessed?  Or are we willing to change current church teachings on this issue?  Can a committed, serious, non-married relationship be a proper place for sexual expression?

And most importantly, are these questions even worth asking?  Is this too much about nothing?  Sexuality is not atop my list of concerns or priorities of Christian living.  Vision and Expectations also calls on church leaders to be an example of generous giving, to pray daily, to take car of one’s health, to be collegial . . . . How does sexuality rank or compare with these other issues of Christian living?

I’ll look forward to the upcoming discussions on sexuality in our church as part of the study entitled, Free in Christ to Serve the Neighbor: Lutherans Talk About Human Sexuality (I haven’t yet read or discussed this study).  The discussions that flow from this study will lead to a draft social statement on human sexuality by February 2008, and a final statement sent to Churchwide Assembly in 2009.  I hope congregations and people throughout the church enthusiastically participate in this dialog.

About Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. National Guardsman. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.
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9 Responses to Sexuality in the ELCA

  1. PS says:

    Good discussion and questions. I once asked an older pastor if the sex-outside-of-marriage issue was even asked of seminarians before the current debate that seems to center around homosexuality. He said, no.
    There are double standards on this in the church, but also in society.
    I do think that there are plently of good reasons, physical and emotional, [setting aside religious issues for the moment] to not have multiple partners. But, unfortunately, people usually don’t think of themselves as PURPOSEFULLY going into a physical relationship with the intention of this person being one of many.
    And, unfortunately, some people, perhaps mainly women, view virginity as something that is “lost” and then they can’t be “chaste” in the future.
    Even though sexuality is all over the place in our society, we don’t really get around to discussing the heart of the matter very often. I think the heart of the matter is that in a good committed (marital) relationship, the two people are completely ONE, physically and emotionally, for that moment. It is a true blessing.
    So, do we ever say to young people, “Do you really want to do that with lots of people because you run the risk of cheapening your bond to your future spouse.”

  2. LP says:

    I’ll go a step further: when I was in candidacy as a divorced man, I had someone during a developmental interview simply advise using “discretion” in my sex life. In other words, sex was fine while I was dating so long as I kept it on the down low.
    I was asked in candidacy committee meetings the standard question, however. It went something like this:
    Committee chair holds up a copy of V&E. “Have you read this book?”
    “Yes”
    “To the best of your understanding, are you living in accord with what it teaches?”
    “Yes”
    “Good”
    The End.
    I have a real issue when sex is used as the sole litmus test for orthodoxy or faithfulness. I don’t think this gives us sexual carte blanche, but we need to get on with it in the church. These debates seem endless, and I for one am weary and don’t think I am doing any more studies within the congregation.

  3. Andy says:

    When I was single I thought sex outside of marriage was OK. Now I don’t. I like to think that I’ve simply gained wisdom through experience, but honestly I know there’s more to it than that. Still, I don’t think that invalidates the wisdom behind the traditional teaching.
    One of the biggest problems is that the traditional teaching is often defended simply on the basis of being the traditional teaching, particularly in the public debate. And so we come away sounding like prudes. I trust that in pastoral settings the “non-religious” aspects of the traditional wisdom are discussed, but the fact of the matter is that many, many people simply hear the public debate and never bother to talk to anyone about it.
    That said, I agree that the Church as a whole has much bigger issues left unsettled than those dealing with sex — how to interpret the Bible for instance.

  4. hamletta says:

    So, do we ever say to young people, “Do you really want to do that with lots of people because you run the risk of cheapening your bond to your future spouse.”
    How? Why do you say that? I mean, I don’t think sleeping around is good for your physical or emotional health, but how is it supposed to affect the “bond to your future spouse”? Is there some finite resource involved? If so, what is it?

  5. PS says:

    Answering Hamletta: I view sex as a joining of two people. We don’t become unjoined just because we are no longer dating that person. I wish I could remember the exact words of something I heard once, but it went something like this: You bring (a part of) everyone you’ve slept with to the marriage bed.
    This could be viewed emotionally or physically or sometimes it means that you could be bringing diseases.
    Well, maybe I’m naive.

  6. *Christopher says:

    But because V&E was written primarily with homosexuality in mind in the first place, it taints the document not because other matters mentioned in it aren’t important, but because this is the jewel sitting at the center of its moral prohibitions and recommendations–it’s the only one taken seriously by the whole church, that odious phrase that means heterosexuals in the current milieu.
    Being the partner of a pastor whom I met at seminary, and in the eyes of most of the Church, engaged in premarital, not to mention homosexual activity, no matter our commitment in word, rite, and even law (in Germany) and having seen the huge amounts of heterosexual sexual activity that occur at seminaries, from across the gamut (excepting RC sems where homosexuality was more common), I would say that we’re dealing with a mote issue.
    Personally, I think that marriage/unions are a place of ascesis and discipleship and committed monogamy the appropriate place for sexual expression among Christians, but life is also messy, we lack courting rituals, not only for gays but for straights, and that adds to the confusion, where to set bounds, etc. I do think that sleeping around and promiscuity do shape one’s outlook and affect the possibility of commitment and faithfulness in future relationships.
    I like LP can’t make this the sole litmus test for orthodoxy, if it is I’m a heretic who professes the Nicene Creed without fingers crossed.

  7. What others have said about the litmus test: exactly.
    My opinion (but wait: is my candidacy committee looking over my shoulder?) is that the policy often pressures couples to get married before they’re really ready. A pastor in my conference tells the story of marrying his (second) wife after knowing her for six weeks, so that they could go on a church trip to Italy together. Anecdotally, I would say that seminarians get married much, much younger than their peers. You might well say that’s not the policy’s fault, but really, what is sex for? If someone is in love, becoming spiritually and emotionally intimate, physical intimacy is a complementary gesture, enhancing those other kinds of intimacy. Not to judge or criticize those who want to “save it for marriage,” but I would not want to make a lifelong commitment to someone before I had tested that bond.
    And that’s even before the additional points *Christopher brings up.

  8. Chris says:

    I like *Christopher’s comments about the messiness and confusion of sexuality in our culture today. We lack boundaries, courting rituals, and strong communities. Generations of families are no longer living together, and the wisdom and additional layer of family structure they provide to young people is missing.
    I also appreciate what Andy wrote above – that there are many non-religious reasons – (contra the “Because the Bible says so!” attitude – to be cautious and careful in sexuality. From worry about health and pregnancy, to the manipulation of sexuality for selfish purposes, to the countless times that young people are hurt by others with sexuality, there are many non-religious reasons to be cautious with sexuality.
    As a teacher, youth director, and hospital chaplain, I have seen the devastating affects misused sexuality can have. In a society with a vague moral compass, the church owes its members guidance and support on this issue.
    Perhaps we cannot expect our young people, seminarians, or the adults in the pews to be perfectly chaste prior to marriage. But if the church is not going to stick to the traditional teaching of chastity outside of marriage and fidelity within marriage, can we nonetheless promote a sexual ethic of commitment, love and responsibility? That is, if we’re jettisoning the traditional teaching, can the church muster the guts to admit it and offer an alternative teaching that, while more permissible toward pre-marital sex, offers a strong message on responsible sexuality? I worry that the church is unwilling to admit that it no longer holds to the traditional teaching, and as a consequence it simply abandons the issue rather than offering meaningful guidance.

  9. hamletta says:

    We don’t become unjoined just because we are no longer dating that person.
    Speak for yourself; you’ve never met my ex.
    I wish I could remember the exact words of something I heard once, but it went something like this: You bring (a part of) everyone you’ve slept with to the marriage bed.
    Sounds like abstinence-only propaganda to me. And again, speak for yourself. My memory’s not that good.
    This could be viewed emotionally or physically or sometimes it means that you could be bringing diseases.
    That’s what doctors are for. Seriously, people, anecdote does not equal data. And if you’re scarred for life because of a roll in the hay with The Wrong Person, you can get professional help to work through that.
    Well, maybe I’m naive.
    Yes. Yes, you are.
    Simpleton: I’m with you. Your wedding night is not the time to find out you’ve pledged your troth to a furry.
    Chris: In a perfect world, maybe. Sadly, it ain’t bloody likely.

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