Sexuality, status confessionis, and the ELCA

I see that Carl Braaten has issued yet another jeremiad against the ELCA. This one is in response to the recently-issued draft social statement on sexuality and the accompanying recommendations. There’s not much new there, with one important exception. Braaten has now decided that the controversy over the full inclusion of LGBT people in the church’s life (he opposes it) should be elevated to a status confessionis issue, meaning that the integrity of the Gospel itself is at stake. Gospel and law cannot, in his view, be separated in this case.

Braaten goes so far as to compare the present situation to the churches’ position vis-a-vis Nazi Germany and apartheid-era South Africa and, bizarrely, even openly argues against showing charity or respect to those with whom he disagrees. This goes from preposterous to grotesque when one recalls how LGBT people were in fact treated under those regimes, even more so when one considers the emerging anti-gay fascism in Nigeria, which is happening in the name of God’s law and with the full backing of conservative Anglican archbishop Peter Akinola. If anything, why isn’t the issue deserving of status confessionis whether the Christian churches are going to recognize the full humanity of all of God’s children?

The intractability of this argument suggests, to me, that identifying a particular stance on a moral issue with the Gospel itself is generally ill-advised. For example, I feel very strongly that animals shouldn’t be subjected to the kinds of horrors routinely inflicted on them in factory farms. Should I now declare this issue to have status confessionis and anathematize anyone not prepared to make stopping it a priority for the church? Other people feel very strongly that pacifism is constitutive of the Gospel. You can’t wave away moral disagreement between serious, thoughtful people simply be asserting that the Gospel is at stake. The whole point is that people who are equally committed to the Gospel disagree.

Moreover, these controversies aren’t a result of “the culture” somehow insidiously infecting a pristine “church” as though these were two hermetically-sealed realms. They arise from within the church, as a result of the experience and reflections of people who are Christians and who are immersed in and shaped by their culture. This leads to a rather messy situation which can make a lot of people uncomfortable, especially when they want the church to take clear, unequivocal moral stands. Is that why Braaten continues to pine for a “high” ecclessiology with a (quasi?)Catholic magisterium that will cut through the debate and lay down the law in the ELCA?

More from the ATR archives: Moral diversity in the church


5 thoughts on “Sexuality, status confessionis, and the ELCA

  1. I disagree. There are moments when how you treat others cannot be easily teased out from the gospel in the import of the Incarnation. The Dutch Reformed Church was excommunicated in South Africa for its behavior. This isn’t just a disagreement about a moral issue, it is about how you treat others when those others already face quite a few disadvantages in society and church. To suggest, as Braaten comes very close to doing, that violence is okay is damnable.

  2. This seems quite complicated to me…

    Braaten does not seem specifically to elevate this issue to a *status confessionis*. His argument seems to be, rather, that the concept of *status confessionis* shows that gospel cannot be separated from law, and that, if it were right to declare South African apartheid as such an issue, then why should this one not be too, as a matter of gospel and law?

    I agree with you that this concept is, effectively, a club to be brought in to bash any (new) idea one does not approve of. I guess the underlying issue might be this. There are gospel goods, or virtues, such as love, compassion, freedom, human thriving. There are public issues which can be so connected with those virtues that there becomes a tight bond between the one and the other. For instance, apartheid is so contrary to core gospel values of love, freedom and human thriving that it seems impossible to regard support of apartheid as Christianly possible. Note, this gets at the matter another way, and does not elevate the issue to the status of a shibboleth, as Braaten is hinting at for the issue in hand.

    I would want to turn Braaten’s argument on its head and say that support for “publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender committed relationships” is clearly linked to a number of gospel virtues and values, love and faithfulness among them.

    This is political tub-thumping on the part of Braaten. It’s interesting to note, as an Anglican myself, that other denominations are not free of these tendencies!

  3. Fizzog,

    “There are gospel goods, or virtues, such as love, compassion, freedom, human thriving. There are public issues which can be so connected with those virtues that there becomes a tight bond between the one and the other. For instance, apartheid is so contrary to core gospel values of love, freedom and human thriving that it seems impossible to regard support of apartheid as Christianly possible.”

    I think this is right on, and I didn’t mean to suggest in my post that the church should take a laissez-faire approach to moral issues (though I can now see how it could read that way).

    And I think that gets at what I think is non-disagreement with Christopher. I completely agree that there are actions that are so contrary to “gospel goods” (I like that term!) that they call for no other response than anathema. Violence, denying people’s civil rights and liberties, and the effacing of human dignity are always contrary to the spirit of the gospel.

    And yet, I would still want to distinguish between those who call for violence and persecution and those who have a good-faith disagreement about, say, blessing same-sex marriages. I agree–as I emphasized in the post–that Braaten dances perilously close to that line when he talks of writing off those he disagrees with as unworthy of charity, which is strictly unacceptable.

  4. Richard Maxson

    Only fools dissed Jeremiah. Your initial sentence demonstrates irony and I am perplexed that you would choose to use such silliness in your argumentation. Jeremiah was only on a fool’s errand because of the fools he was sent to chastise. So it is with Dr. Braaten. You impugn his intentions and integrity arguing that he shows no charity to his opponents in this debate. You are dishonest in so doing.

    You appear to me as someone who likes to comment w/o a grounding in the argument at hand. You turn the Gospel into warm soup and deflect with discussions of animal cruelty and pacifism.

  5. Dr. Braaten says:

    “This statement [i.e., the proposed social statement] states that all of us in the ELCA should show deep respect for the conscience-bound beliefs of those with whom we disagree. Luther showed little respect for the beliefs of Erasmus of Rotterdam when he wrote his diatribe, The Bondage of the Will. St. John showed little respect for the beliefs of Cerinthus, as he exited the baths when he saw that Cerinthus the gnostic was inside. Athanasius showed little respect for Arius who denied the divinity of Christ. Augustine show little respect for Pelagius who taught that the human will is free in relation to God and the offer of salvation. Christian truth and church teaching are not decided by individual conscience. Every heretic in the church was convinced by his conscience that his doctrine was true, even biblical.”

    Perhaps there’s some interpretation of this passage that suggests charity and respect toward opponents. If so, I’m all ears.

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