In a previous post, I noted that a broad ecumenical consensus exists that one aspect of the unity of the church is a common vision of the life we are called to lead as human beings and as Christians. A division on an important ethical question thus can be church-dividing.
But do Lutherans agree with this consensus? The Report and Recommendations on Ministry Proposals seems to dissent:“Our perspectives on social realities, in particular human sexuality, are not the basis of our unity or disunity. Our Lutheran unity is centered on the promises of God, our common baptism, and our fellowship in the sacrament of Holy Communion, expressed in our love for the Lutheran church, theology, and tradition” (lines 424-427; cp. 465-467). As long we agree on gospel and sacraments, no disagreement on ethics is rightly church-dividing. While I know of no church that has made such a statement so explicitly, one can find individuals who have made such arguments (e.g., Craig Nessan of Wartburg Seminary). If this view is correct, then the ELCA cannot be divided by the present dispute on sexuality.
I have commented elsewhere on this idea (see here). Let me summarize my argument.
1. This view appeals to Article 7 of the Augsburg Confession: “It is enough [satis est] for the true unity of the church to agree concerning the teaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments.” What must be asked, however, is whether “gospel” here is to be read narrowly – the gospel in distinction from the law – or broadly – the entire Christian message, law and gospel. The term ‘gospel’ is used both ways in the Confessions (Formula of Concord, SD, V, 5-6). In CA 7, “gospel” is explicitly contrasted with “human traditions, rites, or ceremonies instituted by human beings,” not with law. The point of CA 7 is that the church is founded on the divine message, not on human structures.
2. Some have argued that the 1984 action of the Lutheran World Federation in suspending the membership of Southern African churches over apartheid shows that ethics cannot be divisive, because these churches were criticized not for their general ethical view of race, but only for division at the altar, more a matter of gospel than law. The text of the LWF resolution does not support this reading, however. The Southern African churches were called upon “to publicly and unequivocally reject the system of apartheid (separate development) and to end the division of the church on racial grounds.” The ethical issue of racism is explicitly mentioned as itself an issue affecting confessional integrity, not just the issue of internal church relations. (The 1977 LWF resolution stating that confessional integrity is at stake in the church’s rejection of apartheid is similar.)
3. Can law and gospel be separated, so that agreement in the gospel is compatible with any and all diversity in law? As Pastor Ian Wolfe has noted in some comments on this blog, for the Reformation the gospel presupposes repentance. Repentance is not our achievement, but is worked in us by the law. As the Article 5 on Law and Gospel in the Formula of Concord makes clear, law and gospel must both be preached. Without the negative and positive functions of the law as rebuke and instruction, the gospel floats free of concrete life. Unless one has a completely functional understanding of the law (the law is whatever convicts of sin, regardless of content), then one would think that the church would need to have some agreed sense of what we are rebuking and toward what sort of life we are calling. What sort of common life in Christ can co-exist with no limits on diversity in ethics?
None of this is yet to say that our present disagreements on sexuality must be church-dividing, but it is to say that they might be. To say, as the Task Force suggested and as others have said more explicitly, that ethical matters cannot be in themselves church-dividing is to depart both from Lutheranism and from the wider Christian tradition.