Friday, February 7, 2003

Sexual Fulfillment: What Two Retired Lutheran Bishops Have to Say on the Matter, and Why You Should Care

(Book review published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #201, February 7, 2003)

Sexual Fulfillment (for Single and Married, Straight and Gay, Young and Old)
By Herbert W. Chilstrom and Lowell O. Erdahl
Softcover, 182 pages, $13.99
Published by Augsburg Press (

Good news! According to two retired Lutheran bishops, it’s not a sin to be gay and it’s not a sin for gay people to have sex. Well, it’s not necessarily a sin for them to have sex, anyway.

Two retired Lutheran bishops have had the courage to write a book that frankly discusses aspects of sex and sexual relationships (including same-sex relationships) rarely addressed by organized religion. For this alone, they should be applauded.

It might be easy and tempting for many readers of Lavender to dismiss this book, and indeed the entire controversy about the church’s views of sexuality, as old news and irrelevant. But change doesn’t come from ignoring a problem. Rather than ignoring the controversy, members of the GLBT community and other sexual minorities would be much smarter to seize the opportunity created by this book and get involved in the discussion, so that their voices and viewpoints can be and are heard. The publication of this book represents major progress in the struggle for understanding and acceptance of GLBT people in church and in society, and it might never have been written were it not for the involvement of the early members of Lutherans Concerned and what Chilstrom and Erdahl refer to as other “Christ-confessing gay and lesbian persons.”

The two authors have for many years wielded much influence within the Lutheran Church. When the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) was formed in 1987, Herbert Chilstrom was elected its first presiding bishop and served in that capacity until 1995. Lowell Erdahl was bishop of the St. Paul area synod of the ELCA from 1988 to 1996. Both authors had long careers as Lutheran pastors before becoming bishops, and the style of the book’s writing—including the question-and-answer sessions at the end of every chapter—is more reminiscent of a joint pastoral counseling session than of two bishops pontificating.

Much of what the authors write seems at first very traditional and conservative—exactly what one would expect from two retired Lutheran bishops. The surprise comes when one looks past how they sound and looks at what they’re actually saying. Some of their assertions and conclusions, while perhaps quaintly old-fashioned for many Lavender readers, could be considered revolutionary in other circles—to religious fundamentalists, scandalous if not blasphemous. Since its publication the book has sparked much controversy among Lutherans of every stripe.

The authors’ central conviction is a belief that sex is a gift from God, intended for our good, our joy and our well-being. (Martin Luther would approve.) The authors spend the first two chapters of the book discussing “life-giving” sex that is fulfilling, healthy, joyful and a blessing, and “life-degrading” sex that is harmful, predatory, shallow or superficial, and that leads to unfulfilling or painful relationships. (The authors prefer the terms “life-giving” and “life-degrading” to more emotionally loaded words such as “right,” “wrong,” and “sinful.”)

In Chapter 3 they discuss sexual fulfillment in the context of traditional heterosexual marriage. Then it’s off to the minefields, discussing in subsequent chapters sexual fulfillment among single people (pre-marriage, never married, divorced, widowed, celibate); couples who are living together but not married; people in same-sex relationships; and, perhaps most shocking of all, the elderly (Viagra, anyone?). For someone in the church to even acknowledge that people in these categories might be entitled to some sort of sexual fulfillment constitutes a revolutionary act.

For gay people, the good news is that the authors declare their beliefs that being gay is a discovery, not a choice, and that sexual orientation, like sex itself, is a gift from God, and it would be wrong to reject it or try to change it. This is a viewpoint that has been arrived at by the authors literally over decades, and they describe their process of moving from having little understanding of sexual orientation to “loving the sinner but hating the sin” to their present-day stance:

“We affirm life-giving sexual fulfillment for gays and lesbians and welcome the creation of responsible, committed same-sex relationships that are the moral and emotional equivalent of marriage. We encourage those in such relationships to live together with the same kind of mutual love, mutual respect, mutual openness and mutual faithfulness that we have envisioned for heterosexual marriage.”

Throughout the book the authors hold to a very high standard for what constitutes “life-giving” sexual expression—a standard that many readers may feel to be either unattainable or undesirable—and many readers will disagree with the authors’ classification of certain other types of sexual expression as “life-degrading.” (Examples: They don’t appear to look favorably on either SM or polyamory.)

But while Chilstrom and Erdahl might make some severe pronouncements in the book, their manner of making them is unfailingly compassionate rather than judgmental. They thoroughly explain their views and how they have come to feel the way they do, and they acknowledge that not everyone will see everything their way.

Whether you agree or disagree with them, however, reading this book will make you think about these issues and where you stand on them. The book seems to have been written not to provide simple answers to complex questions, but rather to admit to the complexity of those questions and get a discussion going. At that level Chilstrom and Erdahl succeed admirably. In effect, they have invited the GLBT community into the dialogue. Now it’s up to us to accept the invitation and join the discussion.

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