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The Sexuality Debates and the Freedom of Interpretation


by Tim Fisher



In the February, 2002, issue of the WordAlone Network’s Network News, Professor James Nestingen (Luther Seminary; St. Paul, MN) again warns Lutherans about what he feels is at stake in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s (ELCA) current crisis over sexual ethics: the freedom of biblical interpretation. In Nestingen’s view, the ELCA national leadership are abusing their churchwide authority by “push[ing] the church in a particular direction” and “setting up their own mandates.” On the one side of the controversy, he suggests, stand tyrants proclaiming Scripture to be difficult and ambiguous and thus in need of their own slick, learned gloss. On the other side stand the confessing faithful, folks like WordAlone, plain, sensible folks who admit “no authoritative teaching office . . . is necessary” because “the overall message of Scripture . . . rings out of it like a pealing bell.” We’ve been through all this before, Nestingen reminds us. Luther and Erasmus had it out with each other over this very issue, with Luther’s view—that scripture is clear and accessible—prevailing for what came to be called the Lutheran Church.

Yet something is amiss here. Setting aside Luther’s contributions for the moment, let’s discuss the main thrust of Nestingen and WordAlone’s protest: that no individual or body should presume an authority of scriptural interpretation. Theirs is the cry of “tyranny!” In terms of the current case, then, we should allow no one to concoct ecclesiastical rules requiring the congregations to accept particular interpretations of Scripture as they relate to sexual ethics. To do so would be to assert an authority of mankind rather than the authority of Scripture. To be sure, our leaders may discuss and suggest all they want—but in the end our loyalty is to Scripture, rather than to any task force, any Church Council, any churchwide assembly. So let us be ever watchful for any ELCA rules designed to institute somebody’s idea of biblical sexual ethics. When we find such rules—or, rather, when they find us—we are bound to resist them.

And here’s our chance already: big, juicy rules, imposed long before the birth of WordAlone, rules forbidding the ordination of homosexual people involved in loving, monogamous, and chaste relationships. These rules are based on a reading of Scripture; they’ve been written down in Vision and Expectations for several years now without any explicit scriptural support; they’ve been in practice since the incorporation of the ELCA; they’ve been instituted and enforced in all of the predecessor churches for . . . gosh, forever!

Now, here come some ELCA church leaders who might wish to lift the ban on gay ordinations. What is a good, confessing, WordAlone Lutheran to think when tyrants are working to impose ecclesiastical freedom? How confusing! Confusing, since neither Professor Nestingen nor WordAlone has been heard calling for the removal of church impediments to gay/lesbian ordination. Apparently, their confessional conscience has not been pricked by the traditional (and current) ethos, in which “letting various interpretations stand” (an approach Nestingen advocates) has never been the order of the day when it comes to committed, homosexual relationships. Neither Nestingen nor WordAlone seem to recognize that if the freedom of biblical, sex-ethic interpretation is at stake today, then it must have been at stake at all other times in the church’s history. Indeed, if the ELCA churchwide’s intent is to lift the ban, then what jeopardizes our freedom? What ecclesiastical tyranny worth its miter would allow for each congregation to decide the matter on its own? For no congregation would be required to call a gay or lesbian pastor, just as none is required to call a female pastor simply because the ELCA churchwide authority might allow it.

It seems unlikely WordAlone will question the traditional ethos any time soon, not when the Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ (LCMC), an organization born out of the WordAlone movement and acting as a kind of parallel synod within the ELCA, has adopted its own statement on “the sanctity of marriage.” Below is the text of a “Pastoral Admonition” on marriage, adopted at the LCMC’s October (2001) convention: 

We affirm that God created us male and female, and that it is God’s will and intention that human sexual expression and fulfillment take place only within the boundaries of marriage between one man and one woman (Genesis 2:24-25; Matthew 19:4-6; and Mark 10:2-9).

Note especially how the “we” above intends to speak for all of the LCMC: “as individuals and as congregations.” While it remains to be seen precisely what sort of authority this Pastoral Admonition, or any other, will be accorded—that is, we don’t know how the LCMC’s “admonitions” will be implemented—it nevertheless seems clear the LCMC, like the ELCA it protests, is hoping to “push the church in a particular direction.” They hope to put an end to any homosexual-relationships-are-not-sinful nonsense right off the bat. They hope to make sure any congregation considering joining the LCMC will know just what the correct interpretations of Genesis, Matthew, and Mark are.

Not only was the October LCMC convention uncomfortable with letting its laity experience the clarity of Scripture on its own, it also saw need to establish a “Theological Advisory Group” to deal with issues of “theological, biblical, and confessional nature.” They did this because they believe such issues “require a firm theological understanding.” To be sure, the convention is quick to point out that the Advisory Group is not supposed to “dictate policy” but rather to “examine, study, and provide teaching.” It is to “provide theological insight to guide [LCMC], its national board, and national conventions in decision making.” Yet apparently, judging from the convention’s language, national gatherings of LCMC delegates will be making theological decisions for the rest of the LCMC. The advisors will give scriptural guidance, and the delegates will vote on it. 

It’s difficult to see how LCMC’s polity, stated as above, is substantially different than the ELCA’s. To put it positively: each organization recognizes the need for a “firm theological understanding” wherein the best minds of the church are consulted and respected. And each finds itself willing, at times, to formally commit itself as a body to a particular response to the Gospel as it is heard by some governing majority of that body. To put it negatively: each seems to be an organization run partially by stealth (packing the court with advisors, task forces, boards) and sometimes by fiat (claiming an arbitrary authority). That an institutional mandate, however constructed, might be seen to clash with Scripture leads us to a second facet of Nestingen and WordAlone’s protest: the cry of “heresy.”

In an attempt to avoid a hypocritical stance on abuses of “the power of interpretation,” Nestingen and WordAlone find themselves switching from the cry of “tyranny!” to the cry of “heresy!”[1] As Nestingen complained in his 2000 address to the first WordAlone conference,

Once again, we are going to be told that biblical standards on sexuality are ambiguous, that consequently sexual behavior is really a personal question and that the church consequently has no alternative but to accept indiscriminate sexual self-expression.

Let’s ignore the tone of fear mongering here. (No credible person in the church has ever said we should accept “indiscriminate sexual expression,” i.e. rape, pedophilia, sexual promiscuity, prostitution, etc… ; in fact, the movement within the church advocating for change has been carefully discriminating.) Instead, let’s note that Nestingen’s protest here is not about the proper use of authority. It is about proper interpretation, wherein the ELCA church leadership is said to advocate “indiscriminate sexual behavior” and thus disputes Scripture.

Let’s analyze what can be gleaned of Nestingen’s reasoning up to this point, combining the protests of tyranny and heresy. Since Scripture is clear, one party (let’s call it “side A”) should not be forced to “accept” the scriptural incorrectness of the other party (side B). It follows that side A should then not have to “accept” as valid the ordination of clergy involved in loving, committed, monogamous, same-sex relationships. This means if side B wishes to remain in communion with A, it will have to let B dictate what is biblically permissible in this case. Result: A imposes its interpretation of scripture on B. This is a conveniently circular logic, since the opposition can be made out to be tyrants when they attach one regulation based on a particular scriptural interpretation (affecting, for instance, ordination standards vis-à-vis the historic episcopate) and heretics when they want to remove another (affecting ordination standards vis-à-vis sexuality).

In Nestingen’s and WordAlone’s protest against abuse of churchwide authority, it’s not difficult to see the snake eating its own tail.

But what is a Lutheran church to do when it falls into confusion about Scripture? As is often the case, looking to Luther for wisdom is a good bet. In The Bondage of the Will, Luther informs Erasmus that the notion of scriptural ambiguity is

a phantasmagoria [with which] Satan has frightened men away from reading the sacred writingsand has made Holy Scripture contemptible, in order to enable the plagues he has bred from philosophy to prevail in the Church.[2]


As we learn from Luther, it’s sin, not Scripture, that’s the root of misunderstanding and ambiguity. So while Scripture itself is not ambiguous, yet there is ambiguity in our apprehension of it. This distinction is important. Without it, scriptural debates are unlikely to be resolved fruitfully, since each side will simply and tiresomely maintain that its scriptural position is correct because it is obvious or “clear.” Also crucial is Luther’s teaching that the blurring effect of sin is as much a  problem for one side of a scriptural debate as it is for another:

[N]o man perceives one iota of what is in the Scriptures unless he has the Spirit of God. All men have a darkened heart, so that even if they can recite everything in Scripture, and know how to quote it, yet they apprehend and truly understand nothing of it.[3]

But how then does the church fend off Satan’s phantasmagoria? Luther’s understanding of scriptural clarity may provide a hint, but only if we look at it in greater detail than what Nestingen has provided in the Network News. First, in fending off Satan’s ambiguity, Luther himself commanded a formidable arsenal, which included an unparalleled debater’s skill; an uncanny ability to see clearly through several hundred thick years of medieval scholasticism; and, sometimes, a ruthless invective. His weapons of the faith also included an enormous confidence wherein he would remove from “the true canon of my Bible” any scripture he felt unworthy of the Gospel: namely, the Epistle of James, which he complains “mixes one thing with another.”[4] Yes, for Luther, the message of Scripture is unambiguous. But only after a bit of judicious trimming.

Second, Luther’s argument for the clarity of scripture is rather more circumspect, and not nearly as tidy, as Nestingen presents it. The following detail is especially instructive for our case: Luther actually acknowledges the problem of scriptural ambiguity—of a certain type.

I admit, of course, that there are many texts in the Scriptures that are obscure and abstruse, not because of the majesty of their subject matter, but because of our ignorance of their vocabulary and grammar.[5]

Note well: “Because of our ignorance of their vocabulary and grammar.” Where have we heard this before in regards to sexual ethics? Isn’t this the very sort of obscurity with which many of our theologians are struggling—a historical darkness in which the contexts of terms and of cultural assumptions have been cloaked by hundreds of years of human failure? No one can argue against the brutal fact of the church’s failures: of knowledge; of memory; of biblical interpretations often fought over, sometimes died for, and continually supplanted by other interpretations. The endless debate over the ancient Greek terms malakoi and arsenokoitai is a good contemporary example, as is the debate over the nature of Paul’s cultural presumptions in Romans 1. Anyone who is reasonably current with the scholarly research knows that much, if not most, of the so-called revisionists’ work is precisely about the attempt to re-discover the grammatical and historical contexts of scripture. Of particular passages of scripture, that is—for no credible person in the ELCA questions the “overall message of scripture,” as Nestingen correctly identifies it, which is “the promise of God’s abiding love in Christ Jesus.” No one in the ELCA is claiming the Gospel message is somehow unclear and therefore in need of re-interpretation.

Nestingen and WordAlone’s charge—that the ELCA churchwide leadership have put their own word above both the confessions and scripture—is a serious one. Such a charge is only as helpful, and of course only as just, as it is correct. A protest of “abuse of churchwide authority” in regards to sexual ethics based on the confessional grounds Nestingen and WordAlone have established is supported only by an evasive logic. Is freedom at stake? No, our freedom from interpretive tyranny is no more guaranteed by one side of the debate than it is by the other. Sin has led the church to a situation in which, as Romans 1 puts it, our foolish minds are darkened. Is correct interpretation at stake? Interpretative purity is certainly a pretty picture, one which Luther yearned for too, imagining (in the Smalcald Articles) a congruous church which

[couldn’t] be better governed and maintained than by having all of us live under one head, Christ, and by having all the bishops equal in office (however they may differ in gifts) and diligently joined together in unity of doctrine, faith, sacraments, prayer, works of love, etc.… [emphasis added][6]

Yet in the context of the current debate, unless one side wishes to claim a greater possession of the Spirit, and a lesser bondage to sin, than the other, it seems the church is stuck, at least for now, with an ambiguous reading of scripture, although not with an ambiguous scripture, thanks be to God. Acknowledging our stuck-ness would at least put the problem in a better perspective. It might help us avoid the temptation of circular reasoning, where we cry confessional foul when they assert their scriptural views but not when we assert ours. This can only increase confusion and discord.

            Further, Nestingen’s argument—that the ELCA is in violation of the confessions when it constructs an “authoritative teaching office”—allows many of its adherents to oppose the ordination and marital blessings of so-called practicing gays and lesbians without actually arguing the merits of their case. That is, by playing the clarity-of-Scripture card, WordAlone and others can avoid relevant scriptural discussion altogether. This serves to increase the understanding of Scripture not at all, and it misleads readers about Luther’s thought concerning the nature of scriptural authority as it is lived out in the church.

            Luther’s formulation of the clarity of Scripture is at least twice as subtle as Nestingen’s presentation of it in the Network News, and it does not support Nestingen’s conclusion. In The Bondage of the Will, Luther speaks of two kinds of clarity, internal and external. The internal clarity, he writes, “belongs to faith and is necessary for every individual Christian.”[7] It involves judgments “whereby through the Holy Spirit or a special gift of God, anyone who is enlightened concerning himself and his own salvation, judges and discerns with the greatest certainty the dogmas and opinions of all men.”[8] This is the sort of clarity which Nestingen refers to when he writes “the message of Scripture . . . rings out like a pealing bell” and therefore “no authoritative teaching office—professorial, episcopal or papal—is necessary.” By internal clarity Luther refers ontologically to the character of Scripture, which is to speak the Gospel to all who believe.

Yet Luther identifies a second sort of clarity, the external. This involves judgments made by and for the community. And while the external clarity, like the internal, is proved “at the bar of Scripture,” it is also “tested in the presence of the Church:”

This judgment belongs to the public ministry of the Word and to the outward office, and is chiefly the concern of leaders and preachers of the Word. We make use of it when we seek to strengthen those who are weak in faith and confute opponents.[9]

Luther’ point to Erasmus is that an authoritative teaching office is not necessary for the individual—that is, it’s not necessary for internal clarity because of internal clarity. But for the Christian community, some sort of teaching authority is distinctly desirable, since internal clarity or judgment “helps no one else.” Citing Deuteronomy 17:8ff, Luther writes,

[I]f any difficult case arises, they are to go to the place which God has chosen for his name, and consult the priests there, who must judge it according to the law of the Lord.[10]

To put it bluntly, although Luther did not recognize anyone’s right—or even ability—to compel individual faith in any doctrine, he nevertheless believed there were some in the church who knew better than others about Scripture and other spiritual matters. Luther manifestly taught that leaders, when they led well, should be followed. Teachers, when they taught rightly, should be respected. In fact, leaders and teachers are to be honored in the same way one honors one’s father and mother:

The second work of [the fourth] commandment is to honor and obey our spiritual mother, the holy Christian church, and [its] spiritual authorities. We must conform to what they command, forbid, appoint, ordain, bind, and loose. We must honor, fear, and love the spiritual authorities as we do our natural parents, and yield to them in all things that are not contrary to the first three commandments.[11]

By this, Luther does not suggest that ecclesiastical resistance is never appropriate. Obviously, the whole history of the Reformation speaks against such a conclusion. Yet the reformers are quite clear as to what binds the Christian to resistance: “a time of confession, as when enemies of the Word of God desire to suppress the pure doctrine of the holy Gospel”[12]

Does lifting the ban on gay/lesbian ordination throw the church into confession? In order to answer this question, we have to ask another: Does the hypothesis that same-sex sexual behavior among persons involved in loving, committed relationships is not found in Scripture somehow suppress the pure doctrine of the holy Gospel? And to answer this question, we should ask the following: Does the above idea, by its very nature, contradict the doctrine of law and Gospel? Does the idea in itself contradict any tenet of the doctrine of original sin? Salvation? Free will? The righteousness of faith before God? The place of good works? The Lord’s supper? The person of Christ? The Trinity? Divine election? Hardly. Instead, many who are calling for change in regards to sexual ethics have questioned the traditional ways of understanding specific vocabulary and grammar—the very things about Scripture which Luther admits are sometimes “abstruse”—but do not question any of the doctrines of the Gospel. Arguments over vocabulary and grammar have to do with the clarity of exegesis, not with the clarity of Scripture. Those who protest changes in traditional church policies regarding sexual ethics should continue to teach Scripture and preach Gospel as clearly as the Spirit grants, but look elsewhere for signs of a confessional crisis.


Tim Fisher is a writer and independent scholar. He is a graduate of St. Olaf College (Northfield, MN) and The American University (Washington, DC).


[1] The term “heresy” is used here in its simple sense to refer to statements that argue against established opinions.


[2]Martin Luther, vol. 33, Luther's Works, Vol. 33 : Career of the Reformer III, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald and Helmut T. Lehmann, Luther's Works, Vol. 33, Page 25 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999, c1972).


[3]Martin Luther, vol. 33, Luther's Works, Vol. 33 p. 28.


[4] Martin Luther, Martin Luther: Selections from His Writings, ed. John Dillenberger (New York: Anchor Books, 1961). Dillenberger reprints the Bertram Lee Woolf translation.


[5]Martin Luther, vol. 33, Luther's Works, Vol. 33, p. 25


[6]Theodore G. Tappert, The Book of Concord : The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, The Smalcald Articles: 2, IV, 9 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 2000, c1959).


[7]Martin Luther, vol. 33, Luther's Works, Vol. 33, p. 90.


[8]Martin Luther, vol. 33, Luther's Works, Vol. 33, p. 90.


[9]Martin Luther, vol. 33, Luther's Works, Vol. 33, p. 91.


[10]Martin Luther, vol. 33, Luther's Works, Vol. 33, p. 91.


[11] Martin Luther, vol. 44, Luther's Works, Vol. 44 : The Christian in Society (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald and H. T. Lehmann, Ed.) Luther's Works, Vol. 44, Page 87 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999, c1966).


[12]Theodore G. Tappert, The Book of Concord : The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, The Formula of Concord: 2, X, 10 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 2000, c1959).