If homosexual behaviour is unacceptable, and if it is true that homosexual orientation is not a matter of personal choice, then we face a problem. What shall we say to a male who cannot help feeling attracted to men the way most men feel attracted to women? If he cannot change his orientation, and if he is not allowed to act on his homosexual impulses, then the only alternative open to him is to remain celibate.
Celibacy is an honourable option, of course. Evidently Jesus remained celibate. So did Paul who counselled others in Corinth to remain celibate, too, if they could, and not to create families and raise children (1 Corinthians 7:25–28).
However Paul knew that celibacy is possible only for those who have that special gift (1 Corinthians 7:7). Thus celibacy was not a requirement for Paul. Accordingly, Lutherans have consistently rejected the Roman Catholic stipulation that their clergy be celibate.
At the Seventh Biennial Convention of the ELCIC in Regina in 1999, delegates were reminded that in 1989, the Second Biennial Convention, meeting in Saskatoon, received the Declaration of the Bishops that states that "A self-declared and practicing homosexual person is not to be approved for ordination and, if already ordained, is not to be recommended for call."
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) document Vision and Expectations contains a clergy celibacy clause for gay and lesbian persons of the ELCA which says, "Those who are homosexual in their self-understanding are expected to abstain from homosexual sexual relationships."
Potential candidates for the ordained ministry frequently point out the inconsistency that results when a church welcomes gay and lesbian people but rejects their gifts of leadership in the ordained ministry.
Richard Hays and J. F. Harvey do not see this as a problem. They contend that gays can find happiness and blessing in a celibate life. Speaking about celibate clergy, Hays observes, " … there are numerous homosexual Christians —like my friend Gary and some of my ablest students at Yale—whose lives show signs of the presence of God, whose work in the ministry is genuine and effective."
If a straight person's ministry is not jeopardized by marriage and sex, it seems appropriate to ask why the same does not hold in the case of a homosexual person's ministry. Would the ministry of gays be less genuine and effective if they did not have to sacrifice their sexuality in order to be allowed to exercise that ministry? In his celibate homosexual friend Gary, Hays saw "a symbol of God's power made perfect in weakness" (2 Corinthians 12:9). Would that symbol have been diminished if Gary had been permitted to live out his sexuality?
All of us are required to exercise self control in sexual matters. To different people this means different things. Restraint comes to a straight male in the form of saying "Not now, not with this woman!" For a homosexual who is allowed to live in a committed relationship with another male, restraint will come in the form "Not now, not with this man!" However if homosexual behaviour is forbidden, then restraint for a gay male would come in the form "not ever, not with any person!" That means that such a gay male would be required to kill his sexual feelings while a straight male would only be asked to channel his sexual urges in the context of a committed relationship.
What is in question here is nothing less than the place of sexuality in human life, says Timothy Lull. Is genital sexual expression "an optional or essential part of human nature?" If it is an essential part of human life, then the advice to remain celibate may be cruel.
Paul Jersild wonders, "Can the church in good conscience say to its gay members that the only religiously and morally acceptable life is one of sexual abstinence?" Jersild's own opinion is that to force abstinence on anyone, including gay people, is to deny these people the right and freedom to be who they are. It is a rejection of the whole person.
Richard Hays takes the opposite view. In his opinion "sexual gratification is not a sacred right, and celibacy is not a fate worse than death." He points to New Testament passages (Matthew 19:10–12; 1 Corinthians 7) which "clearly commend the celibate life as a way of faithfulness." One might reply to Hays that these passages do commend celibacy, but they do not require it. Paul, himself a celibate, knows that celibacy is only for those to whom it is given. The others, those who "burn" (not with lust, as in Romans 1:27, but with love, as in 1 Corinthians 7:9) should marry.
In support of Hays, one can point out that heterosexuals, too, must learn to cope when they cannot find a partner to marry or when they lose their spouse. Those are the hard realities of life. Must we not say to homosexuals that, while we can give them our sympathy, they must simply learn to bear their plight?
In Ordinary Saints, Lutheran theologian Robert Benne calls upon Christians of heterosexual orientation to practise sexual abstinence, "sublimating their sexual energies into other pursuits." He considers such abstinence to be a "heroic" response. Such sacrifice, claims Benne, has always been honoured by the church.
Others object to this kind of advice. Homosexuality is not one of those handicaps about which nothing can be done, they assert. Why should only heterosexuals be permitted to fall in love with each other, to share their life with each other in a responsible way, and to "find joy in each other," as our marriage service puts it so beautifully? Does the gospel of Jesus Christ demand that homosexuals suffer loneliness and deprivation?
If it is not justifiable to require celibacy of a heterosexual person, can it be justifiable to require it of a homosexual person? If so, on what grounds?
Do we practise a double standard? Does a gay lay person get pastoral counsel and advice, whereas clergy are subjected to required celibacy? If so, is that appropriate?
Inevitably the question arises whether homosexuals should have the privilege of getting married and of having their same-sex unions recognized as fully as heterosexual marriages are. It is argued that such an arrangement would be beneficial not only for gays and lesbians, but for society as a whole. This would "help bring to the gay community a stability that until now has not been possible," says Paul Jersild.
This suggestion commends itself as a rather pragmatic solution. The alternative is not good. By forbidding open relationships, society forces gays and lesbians to resort to furtive and covert behaviour, in which promiscuity and exploitation thrive. Jersild suggests that "by establishing social structures that expect and encourage responsible, monogamous relations between two homosexual persons society could create a more healthy sexual environment."
During the spring of 2000, several ELCA synods passed resolutions to allow the recognition and blessing of same-gender unions. Some see these resolutions as a call to continue the process of deliberation to discern where the Spirit of God may be leading the church. That the resolutions sometimes passed with a narrow majority indicates that there is still considerable disagreement among those who with equal fervor and devotion study the scriptures and seek the will of the Lord.
By same-gender unions these synods understand committed relationships characterized by love, faithfulness, monogamy, respect, and mutual upbuilding. When recognition and blessing of such unions is advocated, it is sometimes spelled out that this would happen only after counselling with their pastor.
What does a marriage ceremony for heterosexual couples really do? Most pastors can tell stories about performing wedding services for people whose union had little chance of succeeding because people sometimes get married for entirely the wrong reasons. What was the function of the church wedding in those instances? Did it fix the difficulties or approve the union? Or did it serve as an assurance that God and the assembled Christian community could be called upon for support if and when the going got tough?
Why should the same provisions not apply for queer couples? Two people, aware of taking a major step in their lives, appeal to God and to the assembled community to be their source of strength and comfort as the two partners express their commitment to act responsibly along the way.
What are the issues in considering the blessing of same-sex unions?
Could the liturgy for a marriage apply to same-sex unions? Why or why not?