When it comes to lesbians and gays in the ministry, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America speaks with a clear voice. So that doctrinal stance really isn't news anymore.
When it comes to ecclesiastical approval for same-sex marriage liturgies, the ELCA -- at this point -- leaves that decision up to local leaders. So it really isn't news when an ELCA congregation backs same-sex marriage.
When it comes to ordaining a trans candidate for the ministry, some folks in the ELCA have crossed that bridge, as well. So an ELCA church embracing trans rights isn't really news.
So what would members of this liberal mainline denomination need to do to make news, when releasing a manifesto on issues of sex, gender and marriage? That was the question raised by the recent "Denver Statement" that was released by (and I quote the document):
... some of the queer, trans, gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, gender-queer, asexual, straight, single, married image-bearering Christians at House for All Sinners & Saints (Denver, Co).
That was also the question that "Crossroads" host Todd Wilken and I addressed in this week's podcast. So click here to tune that in.
Now, in terms of news appeal, it helps to know that this relatively small, but media-friendly, Denver congregation was founded by the Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber, a 6-foot-1, tattooed, witty, weight-lifting, frequently profane ELCA pastor who has graced the bestseller lists at The New York Times. She's like a superhero who walked out of liberal Christian graphic novel.
So the Denver Statement made some news because it was released -- at Bolz-Weber's "Sarcastic Lutheran" blog -- in reaction to the Nashville Statement that created a mini-media storm with a restatement of some ancient Christian doctrines on sexuality.
So if the Nashville Statement was big news, then it made sense that -- for a few reporters and columnists (including me) -- that the Denver Statement was also news. (Oddly enough, a previous statement on sexuality by the Orthodox Church in America -- strikingly similar to the Nashville Statement -- made zero news.)
But here's another journalism issue: Was the Denver document news merely because it openly rejected what the Nashville Statement had to say? So the Nashville text was seen as this wild manifesto, which would make the Denver text a mere restatement of new cultural norms.
I argued that the statement from Bolz-Weber and Co. was actually a fascinating document on its own, in part because -- if one read carefully -- it jumped far beyond the previous doctrinal innovations approved by the ELCA and others in the world of liberal Protestantism (think "Seven Sisters").
Thus, something like this line in the Denver Statement is not all that newsworthy:
WE DENY that God intends marriage as a gift only to be enjoyed by those who happen to be heterosexual, cis-gendered and fertile.
But what about this?
WE AFFIRM that God created us as sexual beings in endless variety.
WE DENY that the only type of sexual expression that can be considered holy is between a cis-gendered, heterosexual, married couple who waited to have sex until they were married. But if you fit in that group, good for you, we have no problem with your lifestyle choices.
Read that second part again -- especially noting the connection between "holy" and all forms of sex before (and maybe outside) marriage. In terms of moral theology, what limits does the Denver Statement see on sexual activity? Now, I am sure that Bolz-Weber (and the ELCA) believe there are still oppressive expressions of sexuality (pedophilia, sexual trafficking, maybe a few other things), but it's clear that sex outside of marriage is no longer in the list.
So there goes the Didache, a theological document from the second generation of early-church apostles that addresses several hot-button issues in the headlines today.
Frankly, that's news. It would be interesting to see this particular doctrinal issue -- sex outside of marriage -- debated at a meeting of the ELCA and other liberal Protestant bodies. News?
Longtime GetReligion readers may recall that this precise doctrinal (not political) issue appears in the infamous "tmatt trio" list of questions I have used for 30 years when probing the fault lines inside Christian denominations and organizations. As a refresher, here are those questions (as used in discussions with the late George Gallup, Jr., LifeWay Research, pollster John C. Green, and others):
* Are biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this happen?
* Is salvation found through Jesus, alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, "I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me."
* Is sex outside of marriage a sin?
But back to the Denver statement. Check out this passage right at the top:
Christians at the dawn of the twenty-first century find themselves living in an exciting, beautiful, liberating, and holy period of historic transition. Western culture has embarked upon a massive revision of what it means to be a human being by expanding the limits and definitions previously imposed by fundamentalist Christians. By and large, the spirit of our age discerns and delights in the beauty of God’s design for human life that is so much richer and more diverse than we have previously understood it to be.
Just as a matter of Associated Press style (and church history): There were "Fundamentalist" Protestants at work in the ecumenical councils of the Early Church? "Fundamentalist" Christians wrote the Catechism of the Catholic Church? Pope Francis is a "Fundamentalist" Protestant Christian?
But the real eye-opener is the reference to the West (as opposed to Islam, I guess) embarking on a "massive revision of what it means to be a human being." That has serious implications for lots of big news stories.
As one of the framers of the Nashville Statement -- Denny Burk, president of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood -- put it, in my new Universal column about the Denver Statement:
Until very recently, he said, all branches of Christianity shared a common vision that began in the first chapter of Genesis: "So God created man in his own image. … Male and female he created them."
The Denver Statement "is not just arguing for a change or two in Christian definitions and doctrines, it is offering an entire new anthropology," said Burk, who leads the Center for Gospel and Culture at Boyce College in Louisville, Ken. "At this point, we don't even agree on what it means to a human being, created by God in his image."
So there's newsworthy material here. Did any of this make it into headlines?