Protestantism in eastern France is an interesting phenomenon. The Lutheran Church (as well as the Reformed, the Roman Catholic, and the Jewish faith) is state-supported—in diametric contrast to the rest of France, where the separation of church and state goes back to 1905. (The reason is historical: the Alsace was then part of the German Second Reich and an ancient Concordat protected established religions there and continued in force after the Alsace was returned to France following the First World War; the French Constitutional Council has recently affirmed the continuing validity of this special Alsatian religious situation.)
In the rest of France—referred to in the Alsace somewhat depreciatingly as “la France intérieure”—the Lutheran and Reformed churches united in 2013 to form a single Protestant church body. In the Alsace, the Lutheran and Reformed denominations continue to exist in order to benefit from the Concordat protections—but an umbrella organization (the “Union des Eglises Protestantes d’Alsace et de Lorraine”) has been formed to demonstrate commitment to ecumenicity. (There also exists in Alsace the tiny confessional Eglise Libre Luthérienne de France et de Belgique—an independent church body in doctrinal fellowship with the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod in the United States, but this body does not enter into the discussion to follow.)
This year the big concern among Lutherans and Reformed in the mainline churches is whether to bless same-sex unions. In France, since the Revolution and the Napoleonic era, no church has been able to perform legal marriages: that is a prerogative of the state alone. Religions may, however, once the state ceremony has taken place, conduct a religious rite of blessing of their own—regarded by the faithful, but not the state, as the “real” marriage. (My wife and I thus went through two ceremonies—a fairly perfunctory civil ceremony at the Mayor’s office, and the substantial service at the historic, Reformation Lutheran church of St Pierre-le-Jeune in Strasbourg.) Now, with same-sex unions having been legalized by the current Socialist government, the thorny question has arisen: should a similar (or perhaps modified) service of “blessing” be performed for same-sex couples desiring it?
On Sunday, 12 January 2014, a most interesting public discussion of the issue took place at the Protestant Temple Neuf in Strasbourg. A religions professor (Reformed) who is serving on the committee to examine the question in the “France of the interior” preached an essentially neutral, non-committal sermon, followed by the presentation of arguments pro and con by two local pastors, and finally group and plenary discussion involving both clergy and laity. The viewpoints offered are worthy of more than a cursory glance.
On the pro side, there was of course the claim that same-sex union was genetically natural—a product of God’s creation—and should therefore be blessed by the church. It was also argued that homosexuals are outcasts, like gypsies and the homeless (the “SDFs”—those “sans domicile fixe”) and must not be rejected by the Christian community as they are by secular society.
The logic here was doubtful, to say the least, and discussion mercifully did not focus at that level. Thus, for example, criminals are generally societal outcasts, but we would not expect the church to hold ceremonies blessing criminal activity. And the genetic argument hardly holds water, being an illustration of what philosophical ethicist G. E. Moore termed the “naturalistic fallacy”—the fallacious notion that what in fact does go on is what should go on. Even if homosexuality were genetic (and this is surely disputable), that fact would not make it morally right or justify its practice. Analogously, American Indians are said to have a genetic predilection for alcoholic inebriation. Even if true, it would hardly justify—legally or morally—an Indian’s getting drunk and claiming that he should not be arrested for drunken driving because of his genetic makeup. For the Indian, alcohol would function as a powerful temptation, but he or she need not give in to it, thereby (in theological terms) transforming a temptation into a sin. On the distinction between temptation and sin, Luther put it nicely: “You can’t prevent the birds from flying over your head, but you can certainly prevent them from making nests in your hair.”
The more significant discussion centred on what the Bible does or does not teach. The preacher had noted that Protestants, unlike other religious believers, are obsédés par le texte (“text obsessed”). It was generally agreed, on the basis of both Old and New Testament passages (especially Romans 1) that homosexual activity is considered sinful throughout the sacred text. But the proponents of same-sex blessings took the view that even though homosexual activity is a prime illustration of idolatry in the biblical passages dealing with it, there are other illustrations as well: love of money, adultery, etc.—so, presumably, a Christian church, whose members are all sinners in one respect or another, must not rule out blessing one kind of sin and not others.
Again, logic seemed to have been lost in the scuffle. For the proposed blessing is for a specific purpose—a same-sex union; it does not function as a general acceptance of two people as sinners. Suppose, for example (I myself brought up this point) a bank robber wanted to be blessed for his activity as a bank robber. We would clearly distinguish that from blessing him personally as a creature of God and as a sinner like ourselves—and therefore refuse to do it as an ecclesiastical act. Likewise, we would certainly object to providing a church blessing for two adulterers who sought that blessing for their adulterous relationship.
The point often lost in such discussions of the subject is that a church blessing is a church act and inevitably will be seen as the church’s approval of the object of the blessing. It will be interpreted, and quite rightly, as the church’s assertion that same-sex unions are quite all right and consonant with the will of God. But if the Holy Scriptures are to be taken seriously, this cannot be right and the church must have the courage to say so—even in the face of a hostile secular society and the fact that such a position suffers from political incorrectness.
A particularly telling point was that raised by two of the pro-blessing pastors: in the Lutheran and Reformed churches of the Alsace, they pointed out, we now ordain women pastors. Since Paul clearly condemns that (1 Corinthians 14) but we do it anyway, the same can be the case with Paul’s condemnation of homosexual practices (Romans 1)! In response, one might attempt casuistically to distinguish (distinguo) the two passages (1 Corinthians seen as reflecting the sociology of the time, whilst Romans 1 deals with a universal moral issue). But it would surely be far more productive to think more carefully about the legitimacy or non-legitimacy of women pastors in light of biblical teaching.
Do we not have here an egregious instance of the phenomenon of the slippery slope? If the church rationalizes away the clear teaching of biblical revelation at one point, lo! no passage of Holy Writ (including those texts concerning our Lord’s teachings—plus His life, death, resurrection!) is preserved from interpretations that can evacuate the message of its natural sense and meaning. Thus perhaps the same-sex blessing issue is not limited in its significance to France or even to the homosexual question—but turns out to have great importance for the way we treat Scripture in general. If Christian believers want to maintain sola Scriptura as the Reformers insisted, the church must (as our Lord put it to the devil in the wilderness) observe “every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4).
Finally, a consideration of similarly wide application to churches and denominations in general—wherever they may be located. In his remarks summing up the occasion, the preacher argued that whatever the differences in viewpoint as to whether and as to how same-sex unions should be blessed, the most important consideration was to maintain unity within the church. He said that where matters did not rise to the level of confessional subscription there could legitimately be differences of opinion among the clergy and among the laity within the same church body.
The problem, as we have been at pains to point out, is that the issue at stake here far transcends whether and how to bless same-sex unions: it concerns at root the diverse and contradictory understandings of biblical teaching as revealed by the protagonists in the discussion. Surely, it is a matter of overarching doctrinal importance whether one takes Scripture in its natural sense and obeys it or sets it aside in favour of the current sociological climate. To allow such diversity of approach on the “formal principle of all theology” (the Holy Scriptures) is ipso facto to give up the unity of the church. Anglicans have long permitted unity to trump the biblical requirement of consistent doctrinal fidelity. What a shame if Lutherans and Reformed, who have historically insisted on quia, not mere quatenus, subscription to creeds and confessions, allow themselves to fall into the trap of valuing church unity above agreement on the clear, perspicuous teaching of the Word of God.
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Vol. 13, No. 2 of the Global Journal features two articles dealing with a much-the-same thorny apologetics issue: whether the world and the facts in it can be understood and employed per se in defense of classic Christian faith—or whether the meaning of the external world and its factual content lies with the presuppositional orientation of the individual seeker. Hendrik van der Breggen argues that “It’s Not Interpretation All the Way Down: A Defense of Simple Seeing”; and John M. DePoe answers the question, “What’s (Not) Wrong with Evidentialism?” If these gentlemen are on the wrong track, perhaps the Global Journal (and your wife) are really not there at all . . .
This issue also features a book review of Why God Allows Us to Suffer: The Definitive Solution to the Problem of Pain and the Problem of Evil by Kevin Tewes. The reviewer, Gregory Schulz, has published on the topic of suffering.