The Pastoral Necessity of a Contemporary Lutheran Sexual Ethic

Instead of an anonymous story, today we offer an academically-grounded piece from fellow LSTC student Shane Brinegar, STM, who shares his scholarship on Luther for the benefit of our movement. 

Martin Luther’s critique of late medieval monasticism as the highest Christian calling and the recovery of the estate of marriage as a gift of God had radical ecclesiastical and social implications. It was revolutionary because in this critique and recovery the Wittenberg theologian insisted that marriage, companionship, “the conjugal duty”, and the parenting of children was just as meaningful and holy as the consecrated celibate life. (See Luther’s Works 45.40-42) However, his extoling of the estate of marriage and the vocation of parenthood need not be taken to imply a corresponding universally binding Lutheran sexual ethic for all times and places. In extolling married life as a holy calling the reformer was being revolutionary in his ecclesiastical context and responding to the pastoral needs of that context.

The pastoral needs of our own ecclesial context, namely the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America are not the same. Therefore, we cannot turn to the reformers’ writings on marriage and apply them literally to our present time, but we can apply his pastoral hermeneutic to our discourse about sexual and relational ethics. This pastoral hermeneutic was governed by the principle of Gleichmut or reasonable behavior. There are two striking examples of the Wittenberg pastor applying Gleichmut to questions of sexual and relational ethics. In the first case, a man was unable to fulfill the needs of his spouse sexual due to impotence. The woman came to Luther seeking counsel and he determined that she had the right to seek a new partner because the husband was unable to perform his spousal duties. (See LW 36.103-105). In giving this advice Luther broke completely with medieval canon law regarding marriage and instead using the category of reason and pastoral sensitivity made a decision that he believed was in the best interest of those involved.

In the second case, the local imperial prince, Philip of Hesse was forced into a marriage for political reasons. For years he carried on an affair with his lover, Mechtild and their affair was unspoken public knowledge. The Prince did not receive the sacrament of the altar for many years because as an adulterer he felt he could not and the only way for his political marriage to be dissolved was to appeal to the bishop of Rome. However, the pope was not about to grant an annulment to Philip who was a known supporter of the evangelical theologians. Eventually the Landgrave sought advice from Martin Luther and another prominent reformation theologian Martin Bucer. After some deliberation Bucer and Luther suggested that the prince commit bigamy and secretly take his lover as a spouse. (See Reading the Bible with Martin Luther, Timothy Wengert, 74-75)  Another radical break from medieval ecclesial practice rooted in pastoral care and concern for a prince who was in a challenging political situation and whose conscience was vexed to the point that he absented himself from the holy supper.

In the ELCA today we would do well to make use of Luther’s pastoral principle of Gleichmut or reasonable behavior when addressing questions of sexual and relational ethics. The problem with the sexual ethics articulated in Vision and Expectations is that document seeks to enforce universal sexual and relational norms as law instead of seeing sexuality and relationality as a gift that is a matter of Christian freedom. Yes we do need a sexual and relational ethic because humans in our brokenness can and do abuse and misuse the gift of sexuality. However, this ethic must arise out of a careful pastoral praxis rooted in concern, love, and care for the well-being and consciences of those who are relationally involved. We must also realize that for Luther and the early evangelical theologians, marriage is a social estate and a social construct, not a sacrament. In the Marriage Booklet (1529) Luther asserts, “So many lands, so many customs,” says the common proverb. For this reason, because weddings and the married estate are worldly affairs, it behooves those of us who are “spirituals” or ministers of the church in no way to order or direct anything regarding marriage, but instead to allow every city and land to continue their own customs that are now in use” (BOC Kolb and Wengert, Small Catechism 367-368)

The Wittenberg reformer was hesitant to make universal norms about the institution of marriage because he understood that while marriage was a gift of God it belonged to the social sphere and as such it was not a paramount ecclesiastical matter. Vision and Expectations, in elevating heteronormative marriage as the highest relational calling of the public minister of word and sacrament, has departed from Luther’s pastoral hermeneutic of sexuality and relationality and has made a socially constructed estate a measure of the catholic unity of the churches. Locating our catholicity as church in a universally defined sexual ethic is a grave error because such a quest is often wrapped up in false notions of purity that undermine the clarity of the law-gospel dialectic. Our unity as church must be rooted in the liberative word of Christ crucified and risen for the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation and the right administration of the holy sacraments. With the gospel as our primary hermeneutic we are then free to construct an ethic of relationality that responds to pastoral situations and the lived experience of all God’s people, and that recognizes that human sexuality is a complex gift that cannot be universally tied to one socially constructed universal norm but instead is a matter of Christian freedom.                     

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