The Limits of Niceness
A local church sign contains the slogan: “It’s So Nice To Be Nice, And To Let Others See That You Are Nice.”
It’s hard to argue with that sentiment! I like dealing with people that are nice. I want to be nice to other people. At the seminary, we were encouraged to be “winsome.” And we should.
But it goes without saying that when niceness trumps faithfulness and truthfulness, we have taken niceness too far. The demand that we must always be nice is often used as a means to bully Christians into silence, especially on controversial topics, and in particular, for Christians who hold to unpopular traditional doctrinal positions.
The issue of women’s ‘ordination’ is a subset of the larger and more encompassing issue of sex and gender. Our secular political and cultural discourse is dominated by this issue. Are there sex-based boundaries? Are the categories of male and female immutable natural traits, or are they merely self-designated categories of self-expression?
Ultimately, the question of whether or not a woman can ontologically be ordained is the same question as whether or not people of the same sex can ontologically be married.
The two largest Lutheran bodies in the United States answer the gender question differently.
In the LCMS, we understand the two sexes to be immutable and part of God’s deliberate creative design. We believe, teach, and confess that according to our Lord, marriage is a sacred lifetime bond between one man and one woman. We understand that the pastoral office (referred to in Scripture as the presbyterate (“elders”), the episcopacy (“overseers”), etc.) is reserved by divine definition to men. This has been the consistent Christian position since the days of Jesus and the apostles. The idea that women can be ordained and can marry other women is a novelty introduced nearly two millennia after the Lord called His first disciples and established the New Testament Church.
The ELCA has a very different hermeneutic from the LCMS. They see the categories of “male” and “female” through the lens of a psychological construct called “gender” - which may or may not correspond to biological sex. Thus, they believe that a woman can be ordained and can marry another women. Anything written in Scripture to the contrary must either not be part of the original text, or those parts of the Bible are in error. They also allow for God to be considered feminine in gender, even to the point of changing the Our Father to Our Mother, referring to God as “Goddess,” and for their clergy to refer to themselves as “priestesses.”
A few years ago at our district convention, a female delegate made a remarkable statement that we in the LCMS could ordain women if we wanted to, but the reason that we don’t is because it just isn’t our custom to do so. She made this statement in the context that the fact that a foreign church body “ordaining” women should not impede our fellowship with that church body. I had already spoken to the issue twice and could not correct her. No other delegate corrected her. The District President who was chairing the meeting did not correct her. The message that went out to the pastors and lay delegates of all of our district congregations on that day was that women’s “ordination” is not only ontologically possible, but could well happen in the LCMS by virtue of church fellowship or by a vote of our synod convention. In other words, the gender issue is not ontological and by divine right, but by human right, negotiable according to convention, custom, and fashion.
Given that this issue is on the front burner in both church and society, in law and government, and is being used as a cudgel to accuse traditional church bodies of “hate” and misogyny, it is imperative that we in the LCMS and other conservative traditions stand firm on the gender issue - even if it makes us uncomfortable or targets of hate campaigns. Our ancestors certainly found themselves at odds with the popular religious and legal viewpoints at many times in Church history, and this is what it means to be a confessor. Being a confessional Lutheran is not merely a question of academic theology to be read in a bubble; it is rather a living faith to be confessed in the crucible of the real world, a world that is hostile to the cross.
And so, should an LCMS congregation - through its communications (website, etc.) ever refer to a homosexual or lesbian couple as “married.”? Should a church ever refer to a man as having a “husband” or a woman as having a “wife”? While under the laws of the state, this may well be legally “true.” But we are the Kingdom of the Right Hand, and we are to obey God rather than men. When the State has contradicted the Scriptures and the Christian faith, faithful Christians have responded by confessing - sometimes to their own deaths at the hands of an angry State.
We Christians should never concede this point in thought, word, or deed. We don’t need to be obnoxious about it. We must dissent in love. We must do so by causing the least amount of offense as possible.
But we must confess the truth.
What about the equivalent issue of whether or not a woman can be a pastor? It was recently pointed out to me that an LCMS church’s website had a link to the email address of a women “pastor” and referred members of the congregation to contact “Pastor Sally” (not the actual name). It seems that the LCMS congregation was involved in some kind of joint seminar on finances with a non-LCMS congregation that has a female “pastor.”
This is no different than referring to “Pastor” Sally’s “wife” or referring the congregation to “Bruno and his husband Billy Bob” for wedding planning or some such.
Having had conversations like this over the years, I suspect that the pastor of this congregation would assure me of his orthodoxy, tell me that he believes everything the synod believes, trot out his conservative bona fides, and would then explain that he was just being “nice.”
We are called upon to confess, not to surrender. We are called upon to proclaim the truth of the Word of God, not to contradict God’s Word in an attempt to be nice. In fact, there are many times when Niceanity is in direct conflict with the Nicene faith. Our Lord Himself is often not “nice,” and in fact, sometimes failing to issue a trigger warning and offer a safe space before being what many might call “verbally abusive.”
I do realize this is tricky at times.
As a chaplain, I sometimes have to work with female clergy. I am not dealing with them in the realm of the Church, but rather of the State. If a female “pastor” leads prayers, I politely abstain, and I do so in a very low-key manner. I certainly do not say “Amen” to the prayer. This is not motivated by chauvinism or misogyny, but rather by love for God and for my neighbor, for God’s Word and for my calling to be a confessor of truth. I address my female chaplain colleagues by their first name, by the title “Chaplain,” or by her rank. I do not call her “Pastor” or “Reverend” or “Mother.” This might make some of our clergy uncomfortable. But just remember, that very lady Episcopalian “pastor” also thinks that your ordination is invalid if you were ordained in the LCMS without a canonical bishop as the minister of ordination. So what? Why can’t we all just be honest with one another? None of this needs to lead to a theological fight - which would be unproductive anyway. But neither should we capitulate.
I believe that when it comes to our conduct as Christians and in our online presence as congregations, we need to clearly confess. We should never give the impression that we recognize same sex relationships as marriages, and we should never recognize a woman as a pastor.
Indeed, it is nice to be nice. But it is also nice to be faithful. Let us never allow niceness to trump the truth.