Because of all the pitfalls and heartache in this essay, I must begin with a number of opening caveats. First, I write this essay because I feel the ideas are important, not because I want to involve myself in an online dustup or controversy. Second, I do not see myself as a Martin Luther kind of figure. I’m certainly not that bright or that brave. But I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in these opinions. Third, I write because I care about the Society of the Holy Trinity (STS, to which I belong) and am confused about its present orientation and its future. Fourth, I can not possibly know what it is like to have close family members who are LGBTQ (I don’t like, but will use those labels for now) and the kinds of pressures that might place on me. I am sympathetic to those concerns, but do not believe they can limit the proclamation of biblical truth. Fifth, as a member of the STS, I have long looked towards Pr. Senn as a clerical role model. I want to have nothing but respect for my elders, but am concerned that a lack of clarity regarding LGBTQ issues compromises the Gospel and the STS.
With all that said, I’d like to address a few points that Pr. Senn makes in his essay “Frank Reflects on the Massacre in a Gay Nightclub.” I realize this is a Pr. Senn’s personal blog and he is no longer on a church roster and no longer serves as Senior of the STS. He is free to write what he wants, and he is always careful and thoughtful in what he writes. Even though he no longer technically represents the STS as anything more than a member, I worry that articles like this will preclude future prospects from joining the ranks. And I hope we can be a body that isn’t afraid of honest introspection and reflection. Given the changing landscape of denominations in America, we (members of the STS) are probably due a real conversation about our mission. For those of us who have left the ELCA and do not have the same intense need for the STS, I’d encourage the conversation to begin soon.
My main concern is that homosexuality simply is the issue on which the world is demanding the Church compromise the Gospel. Orthodox Christians have no wiggle room here regarding the clarity of the Biblical position and our high regard for the Bible’s authority. So when the former STS Senior writes what he does, it presents problems. Let’s look at a few examples.
Pr. Senn writes that, “Omar Mateen’s father told reporters that his son had been upset over seeing two men kiss. This is an expression of homophobia.” I am concerned by the use of the word “homophobia.” This is a near-meaningless word. I’m not saying there isn’t real hatred for gay people and gay acts, but this word literally means, “an irrational fear of gay people.” Very few orthodox Christians have irrational fears of gay people; most I know have principled and Biblical stands against homosexual acts. Simply put, this word is a bludgeon against orthodox Christians and is amorphous in its usages. It generally is used as a form of directed language against anyone that opposes any kind of homosexuality, and puts those described as homophobes in the same camp as segregationists and mysoganists. For this reason, we should not accept this language, but should insist on far more careful distinctions.
Later, Senn writes that Afghanistan sexual mores are “ambiguous,” because young boys are – as reported by US and British military – used as sex toys by older men. This is not evidence of “ambiguous” sexuality, but perverse and evil sexuality. The American academy, media and those concerned with political correctness have a bad habit of giving other cultures a free pass on evil deeds because, well, that’s just the way they do it there. Perhaps Mateen was aware of these practices or was even exploited in such a way. Whatever the case, that kind of sexual behavior is sheer evil. Indeed, it is every bit as evil as killing 49 people in cold blood. It should be labeled as such. I know Pr. Senn does not approve of that behavior, but one’s cultural background is not an excuse for other evils.
What is really troubling, though, is the comparison between Christian churches and gay bars as equivalent “safe places.” Churches – to say nothing of other houses of worship mentioned – are not merely safe places for Christians. In fact, many Christians have died in church buildings and have no ontological right to safety in those buildings, even if we would like to think that we do. But at their best, church buildings are places of holy worship. As one who has devoted his mind and life to the study of Christian liturgy and has literally written the book on the subject, I’m shocked that Senn would compare holy places to gay bars.
Sure, I get that gay people are often ostracized and gay bars are a place they can be their “true selves”, or that’s how the narrative goes. But gay bars are not sanctuaries. Indeed, I wouldn’t take it for granted that any kind of bar or dance club or strip club would be safe at 2:00. Does that mean people who party until the wee hours deserve to be killed? Of course not! But it is strange for a pastor to defend a place of sinful activity – whether gay or straight or anything else – on the basis that it should be safe for those engaged in said sin.
The fact is that there is a huge difference between a for-profit bar or club and a house of worship. Neither place is intrinsically safe. But to compare the two, at best, generates confusion about the differences in nature between those two institutions, and, at worst, suggest gay bars are actually laudable places. Pr. Senn all but says the latter, and that is a huge problem, especially given the picture included. (Mind you, if the bar in question were a “heterosexual” strip club, my feelings would be the exact same. Those are also places of sin.)
Some have suggested – not Pr. Senn – that Jesus might spend time in such places were he around today. What is clear from Jesus’ ministry is that if he did, it would only have been to call for repentance. Pr. Senn seems to have spent time in such places and knows that unsavory things take place there. But the word repentance is never used in this essay.
If there were social institutions that acted as safe places for adulterers, would we mourn for the loss of sanctuary if a terrorist did damage there? We can mourn for the dead, of course, wherever and whoever they may be. But the fact that they died at a haunt that perpetuated the sin of adultery would not be high on my list of concerns as a pastor.
The Matthew Shepherd comparison is another problem. Did Matthew Shepherd deserve to die? Of course not. But there is some evidence he has been used by the LGBTQ lobby to promote “gay rights” while his life is whitewashed. It may be that his death was the result of drug involvement, not just because he made a pass at someone. Certainly, the drug-addled people that killed Shepherd are not representative of orthodox Christians who oppose homosexual acts on principled grounds, and these two acts do not represent a pattern that Christians think its A-OK to kill gay people.
I agree with Pr. Senn that Christians do have grounds for advocating the rights of others. We believe all people are made in the image of God and therefore possess intrinsic human dignity. We also believe vengeance is the Lord’s. We believe acts like this are absolutely evil. But we borrow from the same Law of God to condemn Mateen when we describe normative sexual mores. If we are to attend Gay Pride parades and therefore champion what God would not condone, on what basis do we condemn other sins? That is standing God’s Law against itself.
Again, I write this because I perceive the STS is at a point of transition. I joined the STS because I was hungry for a proud, orthodox, traditional Lutheran body that would fight the slide into relativism and LGBTQ-championing of the ELCA. Now, in the wake of support for the LGBTQ lifestyle and “rights” like this, I’m concerned. I certainly don’t want the confessional Lutherans in my sphere to associate me with articles like this.
And this is on the heels of some very pro-Roman Catholic teaching in the STS that exposes another serious fault line in the STS. Are we Roman Catholic wannabes or are we aware of the very real and Gospel-at-stake differences between Lutherans and Rome? Sometimes, I can’t tell. I would certainly welcome some teaching soon and very soon that defends historic, confessional Lutheranism as opposed to Roman Catholicism. Sometimes, it seems we don’t quite get around to staking our claims against Rome, and in fact, want to become as Roman as possible.
The reality, whether we like it or not, is that most confessional Lutherans in America perceive the STS to be a niche group of Lutheran clergy who are not really all that conservative (because we already approve of the ordination of women), but like to play monk in our cassocks from time to time. I’m not saying that’s accurate or fair, but it is how we are perceived by those who would be inclined to join us on liturgical grounds. If we want to grow, it seems that we have probably tapped out of traditionalists within the ELCA for serious growth, and pro-LGBTQ, pro-Rome, and pro women’s ordination positions makes growth from LCMS and WELS folks all but impossible. Most congregationalist Lutherans already don’t see a need for a ministerium like the STS.
So are we going to become a militant force within American Lutheranism? Or a whimpering band who like to retreat? I see little hope in becoming the former if there is any confusion at all on the LGBTQ issues before us. We are already behind the 8 ball in recruiting so long as we embrace women’s ordination and have a lofty view of Rome. But one issue at a time! For now, I felt the need to put down a marker opposing Pr. Senn’s essay as not representing (I hope!) many in the STS. Even though he doesn’t write in an official capacity, many will assume we agree. And this is not the kind of confusion we need on this issue at this time.