ELCA Draft Social Statement: My Response to “Women and Justice”

I was tasked by the Board of Lutheran CORE to formulate a response to the
ELCA draft social statement, “Women and Justice.” These are my own impressions and thoughts,
however, and ought not to be construed as The Official Stance of Lutheran CORE
on this statement.


I begin with two editorial observations. First: For a statement that is
centered on justice, and which mentions the word justice several hundred times,
it’d have been helpful to put the definition right up front at the beginning,
not simply hyperlinked to the glossary entry. After the first few dozen
repetitions, “justice” becomes a blur-word.

Second: The brief section on immigration touches on timely concerns but
is almost perfunctory.

Next, I have a few observations that don’t fit neatly in the categories
I’ll use shortly.

or Not?

The document rightly complains that female bodies and physiology were
often ignored in medical studies. But transgenderism, which it supports as a related
“justice category,” posits an almost ontological change, as if male and female
bodies are interchangeable. The document wants to have it both ways. If
women are assumed to be “just like men” but that doesn’t fit a narrative, it is
a sign of sin and injustice. If women are discerned to be “not just like men”
but that doesn’t fit a narrative, it’s also a sign of sin and injustice.

Next: Although “justice” becomes a blur-word, there are a few
exceptions.  In lines 999-1025, the
discussion of “gender justice” speaks of living out our faith in God by love
for neighbor, with God’s grace healing and covering all our brokenness.
Similarly, in lines 522-530 there’s a reasonable description of “neighbor
justice.”  (Although how this differs
from the Golden Rule, aside from trendier language, is unclear). It’s hard,
though, to see in this draft how God’s revealed Word is greater than the sum of
feminist, intersectional, and “gender/sexual justice” language. It’s as if the
ELCA is trying to improve on what God SHOULD have said and commanded, if he’d
just been as “woke” as the This Church.


In the list of sins and injustices committed primarily against women, sex
trafficking and sexual abuse are rightly condemned. Oddly, neither prostitution
nor pornography are explicitly mentioned. Granted, they are specific examples
of the objectification, abuse, and commodification of women’s bodies, but they
are also the most lucrative, widespread, and pernicious examples thereof.
Perhaps the drafters wrestled with how they might have to treat a pronouncement
of This Church’s “public theologian,” Nadia Bolz-Weber, who recently opined
that there is such a thing as “ethically sourced porn” which can be enjoyed and


The draft statement names real evils that injure real people. Lines
1013-1014 properly state, “Being freed in Christ involves being freed from all
that tries to replace Jesus Christ as Lord in our lives….” The document then
names “systems of patriarchy,” apparently all of them, as examples of sinful
bondage. It lifts up, as an example of the justifying freedom in Christ, being
“freed to recognize God’s work in creation through… human expression through
gender. We are enabled to see that humans are not simply gender-based opposites
and that we are not created in a hierarchy.” Elsewhere (Section 3) the document
states: “We believe God creates humanity in diversity, encompassing a wide
variety of experiences, identities, and expressions, including sex and
(emphasis added). “Contemporary science” and “neurological
research” are trotted out to debunk “idolatrous” distortions of Scripture,
especially a binary interpretation of “male and female He created them.” There
is no citation from Scripture explaining how “God’s diversity in creation”
includes multiple sexual orientations or gender identities. This notion is
being imposed on Scripture for ideological purposes.

Under Scripture

This leads to the final section of this essay: more “thematic”
critiques. A fine theologian and churchman (can I still say that?), the late
Lou Smith, warned of the perils of simply trying to understand Scripture,
rather than to “stand under” it. The former puts us in control, using
our own criteria for dissecting, analyzing and judging Scripture. We treat it
as a “dead letter,” or as a merely human document, subject to our standards for
approval, critique, and judgment. The latter reminds us that Scripture
is God’s Word, sharper than a two-edged sword, piercing heart and soul, mind
and flesh, revealing our sinfulness and God’s remedy. It’s therefore something
that has authority over us, whether we approve of it or not.

“Women and Justice” belongs firmly in the former camp.

within the Scriptures?

Section 16 states: “While God’s Word of Law and Gospel speaks through the
Scriptures, there are words and images, social patterns, and moral beliefs in
them that reflect the patriarchal values of the cultures and societies in which
they arose. Their continued misuse contributes to maintaining hierarchies and
patterns of inequity and harm.… Our tradition’s complicity in patriarchy and
sexism is connected to such biblical interpretation and to the nature and focus
of some of the Lutheran theological tradition. We confess that there are
problems within the Scriptures themselves
and that our theological
tradition has led to a theological understanding of humankind that is overly
male-identified. These problems even become idolatrous as deeply rooted but
false beliefs” (emphasis added).

The statement comes perilously close to declaring much of Scripture to be
sinful, or at least to aiding and abetting the sins of idolatry and
patriarchalism. It doesn’t quite cross the line, as it identifies sinful
material as the product (and hobby-horse) of misogynistic males, intent on
preserving their privilege and thereby contaminating, obscuring, or defying
God’s intent.


This does considerable violence, though, to any notion of Scriptural
authority. Section 16 continues: “The Word of God is first and foremost Jesus
Christ, God incarnate. Secondarily, we encounter the Word as Law and Gospel in
preaching and teaching. The Canonical Scriptures are the written Word of God,
which proclaims God’s grace and sustains faith in Jesus Christ…. The Word of
God is living and active, and we take the written form of the Word of God as
the authoritative source and norm for faith. In its use as Law, it provides
guidance and reveals human brokenness. In its use as Gospel, it reveals God’s
love and promise.”

the Parameters

Once again, the statement tries to have it both ways. Yes, Scripture is
held “within the ELCA” as authoritative. But apparently the only way to discern
“authoritative Scripture” is to jigger the parameters. God’s Word speaks
Scripture. Law is contrasted with Gospel love. “Guidance” softens
“God’s will.” Sin is recast as “brokenness.” In this diminished and muted
framework, the Gospel is reduced from “forgiveness of sin, and life from
death” to “God’s love and promise.” The upshot is that the social
statement jettisons anything that a feminist/intersectional arbiter might
declare to be offensive, misogynistic chaff from the “real” Word of God. This
is Marcionism for the Woke Generation.


There is another problem with the philosophical and theological
underpinnings of this social statement. The drafters are shockingly incurious.
They show no interest in asking, “If patriarchy is universally evil, why did
God routinely work within it? God explicitly condemned many evil
practices. Why not this one?” They do not wonder if at times, patriarchy might
be “the best of a bad lot” of options for sinful and broken human beings to
live as a community of men, women, and children.

They insist the scandal of Jesus’ particularity as a male has no bearing
on his work. They do not ponder why Jesus routinely used “Father” language.
There is no engagement with any rationale for “male images” for God the Father,
except to warn of abuse and misuse by those who are so inbondage to the sins of
patriarchy and sexism that they clearly think of God the Father as literally
male: genitalia, patriarchal privilege, and all: “When Christians rely almost
exclusively on male images and language for God, the images and language become
literal understandings of God. This is poor theology because God always exceeds
human understanding. Taking male images of God literally can also lead to
idolatry, meaning we idolize or hold onto only the male ima-ges” (lines

is Opposed to Idolatry

There is no discussion of how God’s self-revelation in Scripture
repudiates the blatantly sexual, copulating deities of surrounding cultures, or
of how the “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” stands adamantly opposed to the idolatry,
fertility cults, and sacred prostitution that were rampant in the Middle East
and entirely too seductive to the people of Israel.

No one examines how relationships within the Trinity help us learn right
relationships with others, male or female. There is no discussion of the
nuptial imagery used for the relationship between God and Israel, or Christ and
the Church, except to tie it to oppression, sexism, and patriarchy. The
possibility that this divine/human intimate relationship could challenge,
purify, and be a model for marriage and family life is not on This Church’s

Instead of Justice?

There is no exploration of how Father language for God might transform
the sinful ways human fatherhood and masculinity are sometimes expressed. No
thought is spared for how matriarchies might foster other, equally harmful
pathologies, or how intersectional feminism might be a form of idolatry,
detrimental to women and men. No one seems to wonder whether intersectionality perpetuates victimhood instead of promoting justice.


There is no interest in exploring why sexual sins in Scripture are
deemed real, even deadly sins. In the Bible, rape, incest, fornication,
adultery, homosexual activity, and prostitution are flatly condemned. They are
linked to idolatry. Why? Surely this is not simply another instance of male

In lines 570-575, we read, “We must continue the task of embracing our
unity and diversity so we welcome and uplift people of every sex and
gender—indeed, every body—in our work together as the Body of Christ in the
world. God’s love feeds the Body of Christ so that it might live in love.” No
one questions whether gender dysphoria or same-sex attraction should ever be
considered anything other than God’s intention and good gifts, to be celebrated
and incorporated into the Body of Christ without comment except “it’s all good.”
No one wrestles with the possibility that “God’s love” be more than sheer
affirmation and welcome, with no dying to self, repentance, forgiveness, or
transformation involved (except for the sins of male privilege and the failure
to rejoice in the marvelous diversity of sexes and genders in God’s wondrous
creation). I ask what, apparently, none of the drafters or leadership in the
ELCA has asked: what if This Church has gotten this all wrong?


It may be a lack of curiosity. Or it may be the determined resolve to
brand such questions as dangerous manifestations of patriarchal privilege.
There’s certainly no attempt to wrestle with difficult passages of Scripture,
much less to consider whether any of them might reflect the will of God.
They’re merely “de-privileged.”


Additionally, only egregious examples of sexism are cited as entirely
representative of most of the early church fathers. Church history, liturgy,
and ministry are seemingly unrelieved by non-misogynistic practices and
pronouncements. “The Christian Church as an institution, including the Lutheran
tradition, has been complicit in these sins” (lines 440-441). Even the
classically Lutheran notion of the “theology of the cross” is deemed
problematic because it might be perceived as abusive, demanding subservience
and suffering – especially by women.


As far as I can tell, there is not one “positive” citation from the early
church fathers, the history of the Western church, the theological “Great
Tradition” that encompasses orthodox Christian thought, or much of Lutheranism
(except for the somewhat convoluted parsing of Law and Gospel, and of
justification by grace through faith, mentioned earlier). Even with qualifying
phrases (“continued misuse;” “can also lead to”), it’s not hard to read the
statement as a thoroughgoing condemnation of Scripture and Tradition from the
earliest stories of the Old Testament until the #metoo moment.


This leads to some genuinely contradictory statements. For example, in
lines 367-372, a perfectly fine observation is made: “The differentiation of
humankind into male and female, expressed in Genesis 2, communicates the joy
found in humans having true partners, true peers: “This at last is bone of my
bones and flesh of my flesh” (Genesis 2:23a). God creates community and family
not a hierarchy…”


But then it goes awry: … “not a hierarchy based on race and ethnicity,
ability, social or economic status, or sex (what our bodies look like biologically)
or gender (how people express themselves)”
(emphasis added). The document
rightly states that the very possibility of family is grounded in God-given
sexual differentiation between peers. But didn’t the writers remember that
they’d identified science as the proper arbiter of sexual and gender identity
and insisted that both are fluid human constructs?
God’s Word, or science:
which is given precedence? And is it not simplistic and misleading – to the
point of intellectual and scientific dishonesty – to state that sex is defined
as “what our bodies look like” and gender as “how people express

Additionally, there are two sidebar graphics (see lines 727-747 and
1048-1060), illustrating how societal attitudes, religious beliefs, and laws,
policies and practices lead either to gender injustice or justice. It’s
presupposed that societal attitudes precede and shape religious beliefs.
Together, they shape unjust or just laws and polities which create communities
of injustice or justice for women and sexual minorities. Referring to lines
1048-1060, on forming a just society: “Working together, we can begin to
transform the circle of injustice…. Individuals and groups can challenge
harmful social attitudes and practices, reject sexist religious beliefs, and
work to change laws and policies that justify and reinforce patriarchy.”

Obvious Question

Nobody seems interested in what to me was an obvious question: If we
believe that God’s Word truly is “lively and active,” the “source and norm of
faith and life,” as this document states, then why is the revelation of
God’s word never considered the starting point for transformation of society?
is “religious belief” always secondary?How does all This Church’s
earnest language about Scripture as foundational allow the Word of God to COME
FIRST to challenge, forgive, and transform sinful human attitudes, and then to
change unjust laws and create a just community?

Let me conclude with this: If the Draft Social Statement on Women and
Justice is approved by the ELCA, then This Church neither understands, nor
stands under Scripture. And the tragedy is, it seems incurious and unconcerned
about what that means for the very real women and men it purports to care
about, and for.