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(Photo Credit: La Salette Journal)

by Nathaniel Torrey

In an open letter published this past Sunday, former presiding bishop Herbert W. Chilstrom of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Minneapolis called out Roman Catholic Archbishop John Nienstadt for supporting the Minnesota Marriage Amendment.  The amendment will appear on the November 6th ballots in Minnesota and if it is passed will define marriage as between one man and one woman in the state’s constitution.

Chilstrom thinks that Niendstat’s advocacy for this amendment is stepping out of his bounds as a leader in his church. Chilstrom writes:

On the marriage amendment, you are described in the media as having “drawn the line.”

In my judgment, you have drawn the line at the wrong place.

I recognize your authority in formulating positions for your own flock in Minnesota. That is one thing. But for you and others to campaign for an amendment that imposes your stance on all citizens in Minnesota, including other Christians, believers of other faith groups and nonbelievers, is overstepping your bounds.

Chilstrom is not merely content to criticize what he sees as the Church scaling the wall that separates it from the state, but goes on to essentially criticize the ecclesiological structure of the Roman Church. Since the Catholic Church resolves issues hierarchically instead of democratically, it has committed the cardinal sin of modernity by being refusing to “build consensus” in theological matters. Chilstrom continues:

In our ELCA, we engage a wide spectrum of clergy and laity in developing statements to guide us in our thinking about complex social issues. When those statements reach our national assembly, they require a two-thirds vote for approval. But no one’s conscience is bound by those statements. Dissent is fostered and welcomed.

This raises the question: If there were a call from Roman Catholic members in Minnesota to vote on an issue of significance, would you allow for such a vote? And if a simple majority voted in favor, would you accept that vote as final? It’s clear that such a vote would not even be permitted in your church.

However, decisions in theology are not reached by majority vote. Sure, there are councils to formally declare stances on theological issues such as the many ecumenical councils in the early Church or Vatican I or II but the issues are hardly resolved by a “one man one vote” process. The Truth is either the Truth or it isn’t. Men err, but it is understood that it is the Holy Spirit is what guides the Church on the correct opinions on these issues. Only until recently has it ever occurred to anyone that the moral status of homosexuality is up for popular vote in Christianity. The tradition of the Church has long held it and other politically divisive issues, such as abortion, to be sins.

What is also troubling about Chilstrom’s letter is the ability to compartmentalize these issues so easily. When Chilstrom says, “we should trust our legislators and judges to enact and guard laws that are for the good of all the people,” or that to impose our beliefs is stepping outside our bounds as citizens makes religious belief sound entirely subjective. It turns religious belief into a world view in a plethora of world views with no claim to its superiority.

But doesn’t a Christian sincerely believe that these issues are not merely his own opinions but are really and truly reflective of the nature of reality? Homosexuality or getting an abortion is not just a simple disagreement or conflict of different viewpoints. A Christian believes that the Church’s opinions about these things are how things actually are. These things are not mere opinions or preferences and they are not conjectures. We believe that people are actually better off when they pursue healthy monogamous heterosexual marriages. We don’t think people who are homosexually inclined are at their happiest when they give in to those desires even if they think they are happy. An abortion is actually murder: we do not simply believe or think it might be. At it’s essence, Chilstrom’s letter is nothing more than a long-winded version of the Dude’s comeback in The Big Lebowski. Sorry, Dude. It is not just, like, our opinion, man.

Issues like homosexuality or abortion are necessarily pre-political or even meta-political issues. They are not up for debate in the same way what might balance the budget, or how many delegates a state should have, or even if the government should be limited or not. They are questions of right and wrong which are the way things are before any particular political order. There is not a Christian common good and then a everyone else common good. To talk this way is a bifurcation of reality and misleading.

This is not a cry for theocracy; just a call for Christians to be honest, consistent, and coherent about what they believe. Christianity is not advocating a way to view the world, but how the world actually is.