A while ago I was asked to prepare a paper for a church was that considering leaving the PC(USA) over the issue of same sex marriage (among other things). This is what I wrote to them. In light of the fact the denomination recently officially allows same sex weddings, I thought I might post this for your consideration.
I have a serious concern to bring up with you, my friends, using the authority of Jesus, our Master. I’ll put it as urgently as I can: You must get along with each other. You must learn to be considerate of one another, cultivating a life in common. I bring this up because some from Chloe’s family brought a most disturbing report to my attention—that you’re fighting among yourselves!
You realize, don’t you, that you are the temple of God, and God himself is present in you? No one will get by with vandalizing God’s temple, you can be sure of that. God’s temple is sacred—and you, remember, are the temple.
I Corinthians 1:10-11, 3:16-17
In the play Luther, one of the characters says, “You know, a time will come when a man will no longer be able to say, “I speak Latin and am a Christian” and go his way in peace. There will come frontiers, frontiers of all kinds between men and there’ll be no end to them.”
There are borders all over Christendom, and even within denominations. The Presbyterian Church is no exception to this. Many good churches are leaving the denomination and creating new borders. In doing so, they need to understand that they are diminishing the overall effectiveness of the church.
The Christian church in America is shrinking by alarming rates. Even denominations that have formerly been growing, such as the Southern Baptists, are now losing members.
The largest enemy of the church today is not atheism or any rival organization; our biggest enemy is apathy. People do not care about the Church anymore, especially young people. They believe that church has little or no relevance to their lives. They see what the church is against, not what we are stand for. In a recent survey, people 16-29 were asked what their dominant perception of Christianity was. Ninety-one percent of non-Christians and 80 percent of Christians in this group said that the word that best describes today’s church is “homophobic.”
Add to that the fact that the mainline churches are fracturing themselves through church splits and church schisms, is it any wonder that they have little or no interest in becoming active in a church?
At the signing of the declaration of Independence, Benjamin Franklin said, “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.” He understood that if the fledgling country split into factions, it could not survive.
That is true of the Church today. As the overall number of Christians decreases, the PCUSA is shooting itself in the foot with the internal fights we are having. We are splitting a declining denomination into smaller and smaller pieces.
We know these are troubling times, and sometimes it feels like we are bending too far to accept people whose beliefs are very different from our own. We are watching the definition of marriage change in our country. We are watching as the role of gays and lesbians in the United States is changing. And we are seeing those changes played out in the sanctuaries of our own churches. Change is always hard. It is hard for the people who want the change, and hard for the people who do not.
Let it be known that this Presbytery does not want your congregation to leave. We believe we are one church in Christ, one Body of Christ. We may be different, and we may believe and practice our faith a little differently one church to the next. “Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.” (I Corinthians 12:12)
When congregations leave denominations, they are hurting the overall body of Christ, and our Christian witness to the world. They are proving our disunity to the world, giving the world a reason to say that, in spite of all our good words, we are no different from any other secular organization.
The plea for unity is a plea for us to live with our differences. We are not writing this to change what you believe, but to ask you to accept those within our denomination whose beliefs differ from yours, and live peaceably together as the One Body of Christ.
1. Based on Scripture, how does our denomination argue for the ordination of homosexuals and redefinition of marriage?
The church is not necessarily arguing FOR the ordination of gay and lesbian people. It is saying that being gay or lesbian may not automatically disqualify someone from ordination.
Based on Scripture, our denomination cannot argue for the ordination of anyone, nor for the marriage of anyone. (There is nothing like Presbyterian ordination explicitly mentioned in scripture, and taking Paul on marriage, he tells us that marriage is NOT the most desirable state, and only allows it because we are not generally strong enough to remain unmarried.)
So let’s rework the question: How can a person who takes the Bible seriously as the inspired, infallible Word of God come to the conclusion that the Bible does not condemn, in every instance, any and all homosexual behavior. How can the church accept the marriage of two people who are of the same gender?
First, it is not a major topic in the Old or New Testaments. Jesus is completely silent on the issue.
It is found in two places in the Old Testament; indirectly in Genesis in the story of Sodom, and in the book of Leviticus.
In the story of Sodom the men in wanted to rape the angels, and rape of any kind is never justified. What is being referred to there is the kind of sexual behavior that would be condemned between any two people, not just homosexuals. Also, Ezekiel tells us why Sodom was destroyed: Ezekiel 16:49-50 “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty, and did abominable things before me; therefore I removed them when I saw it.”
Leviticus is where we see the issue come up directly. It says clearly, “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.” (Leviticus 18:22) and “If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.” (Leviticus 20:13)
In the New Testament, as stated before, Jesus is silent, but Paul mentions same sex relationships in his letters. In the book of Romans he writes that humans “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images” (1:23) and because of that, “God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity” (1:24) and then, “their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another.” (1:26, 27)
He also says, in 1 Corinthians 6:9-11: “Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”
Given these verses, how on earth can the Presbyterian Church possibly accept ordaining or marrying gays and lesbians?
Let’s start with the Leviticus verses.
We have two choices here. We can accept these verses as eternally valid condemnations of same sex behavior, because we accept all that the Old Testament has to say about sexuality as eternally valid. The Bible says it; it therefore must be believed and followed.
Many people chose this option.
If people chose to take the Old Testament commands and law at face value, and believe that ALL of God’s word is valid for today, there are a few other things they need to consider.
The Old Testament also forbids:
1) Usury (More on this later.)
2) Mixed planting (Leviticus 19:19, “‘Do not plant your field with two kinds of seed.”)
3) Women wearing pants or other male garments (Deuteronomy 22:5, “A woman must not wear men’s clothing, nor a man wear women’s clothing, for the Lord your God detests anyone who does this.”)
4) Rare meat (Leviticus 19:19, “‘Do not eat any meat with the blood still in it.”)
5) Tattoos (Leviticus 19:28, “‘Do not cut your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves.”)
6) Wearing material made of two different types of fabric such as polyester, (Leviticus 19:19, “‘Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material.”)
7) A host of foods, including shrimp, lobster, pork, and escargot (Leviticus 11)
8) Wearing pearls, gold or fancy hair styles. (Actually this is a new Testament prohibition, I Timothy 2:9, “I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes.”)
9) Gossip (Leviticus 19:16 “‘Do not go about spreading slander among your people”.)
10) Treating illegal aliens different from the way you treat your own citizens. (Leviticus 19:33,34, “‘When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt.”)
In other words, it is fair to say that over the years we have decided to pick and choose which Old Testament commandments we will keep and which ones we can say are not relevant to faith and practice today.
Why then, given how we can disregard parts of the Bible as not relevant, would we insist that the Bible clearly teaches that two people of the same gender who are in a loving, monogamous relationship are outside of God’s will? If we can marry a woman who has tattoos and is wearing a pearl necklace, and the husband is a banker in a Presbyterian church, and then serve shrimp and pork at the church reception, why would we not marry two men or two women who are willing to commit their lives in love to one another?
There are other people who believe that this is a major inconsistency in the Presbyterian Church.
After careful study some have come to the conclusion that we cannot just take the verses concerning homosexuality in the Bible and apply them broadly to the church today.
How did they come to this conclusion?
First, some people see a big difference with the sexual ethics of the Old Testament, and those of the New. For example, polygamy is an accept practice in the Old Testament. But no Presbyterian today says, “Polygamy was good enough for Jacob; it is good enough for me!” In the Old Testament, Tamar seduces her father-in-law in order to bear his children on behalf of her deceased husband, and is exalted as a righteous woman for that! How many Presbyterians would say that a woman in similar situations should seduce her father-in-law?
In the passages on sexuality in Leviticus, many sexual relationships are forbidden. But these passages do not forbid sex between a father and his daughter. In fact, it describes how a father can give his daughter to another man as a slave, and what happens, if the daughter does not please her master. (Exodus 21:7-11) The daughter is more a piece of property than a human being in these cases.
“Is it possible,” some people ask, “that these few verses in Leviticus do not reflect the entirety of sexuality and sexual ethics? Without saying that were wrong at that time and that place, is it possible that they do not apply today, just as the story of Tamar is not a good example for how a widow is supposed to deal with her in-laws in today’s world?”
As pointed out before, we have done that with other, more explicit areas of Old Testament ethics. For example the Old Testament clearly forbids usury, (loaning money at interest).
• Exodus 22:25— “If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not treat it like a business deal; charge no interest.”
• Leviticus 25:35-37— “‘If any of your fellow Israelites become poor and are unable to support themselves among you, help them as you would a foreigner and stranger, so they can continue to live among you. Do not take interest or any profit from them, but fear your God, so that they may continue to live among you. You must not lend them money at interest or sell them food at a profit.”
• Deuteronomy 23:19-20 “Do not charge a fellow Israelite interest, whether on money or food or anything else that may earn interest. 20 You may charge a foreigner interest, but not a fellow Israelite, so that the Lord your God may bless you in everything you put your hand to in the land you are entering to possess.”
• Ezekiel 18:17— “He withholds his hand from mistreating the poor and takes no interest or profit from them. He keeps my laws and follows my decrees. He will not die for his father’s sin; he will surely live.”
• Psalm 15:5—“ Who lends money to the poor without interest; who does not accept a bribe against the innocent. Whoever does these things will never be shaken.”
The Old Testament clearly has more to say about usury than it does homosexuality. Why do we not take these verses as God’s law for us today? How many of us believe we should leave the Presbyterian Church because it ordains bankers? (For the record, I used to work for a bank.)
In short, some say, standards have changed between the Old and New Testaments, and if we can accept bankers, then maybe we can accept gays and lesbians who have monogamous, loving relationships.
When we say standards have changed, we need to be very careful however. This NOT to say that “anything goes.” Not at all! There is a trajectory of behavior, which we should follow.
In the Old Testament, women were treated more like property than human beings, eunuchs were not allowed in the assembly, and circumcism was an absolute requirement to be a follower of God. The early church had a wider acceptance of women. One of the earliest new converts was an Ethiopian eunuch, and uncircumcised gentiles were accepted. In other words, the Church has moved toward wider and wider acceptance of people. Is it possible that today that same trajectory moves us today to accept gay and lesbian members?
But what about the New Testament verses? It is one thing to say that perhaps the Old Testament is not as relevant to us today, but what about the New Testament?
Let’s look deeper at those verses.
In the Romans passage Paul is not saying that homosexuality is condemned. He is saying it exists because people have turned away from God. The whole of creation is fallen because of this, and one piece of evidence we have is that men want to have sex with men, and women with women. (By the way, this is the ONLY time that lesbianism is mentioned.) In a perfect world, men would love women, and women would love men, and they would not be sexually or romantically attracted to their own gender.
Of course, in a perfect world, there would be no denominations, no church fights, no examples of Christians killing other Christians, and Christians would love their enemies, choosing to give their lives rather than retaliate against an enemy.
But we all know the world is fallen.
So the question is, how do learn to live in a fallen world, one where there is war, where there are denominations, church fights, and churches who leave denominations? There are even churches who sue other Christians about property issues.
And there are men who fall in love with men, and woman who fall in love with woman. We have made accommodations for other aspects of our fallen world. Why not this aspect?
Well, then, what about the Corinthians passage, where Paul is condemning homosexuality?
Paul uses two words which are described as “men having sex with men,” μαλακοὶ (malakoi) and ἀρσενοκοῖται (arsenokoitai).
The first word literally means “soft,” and is generally used in reference to garments. Nowhere else in the New Testament is it used to refer to humans. Malakoi could just refer to effeminate or “soft” men, who cannot stand up for themselves. Most likely though it refers to male prostitutes. In the first century male prostitutes were always the recipients (or passive partner) of sexual activity from their clients. (In that time frame, it was acceptable to the male who did that penetration, but the passive (or soft) partner was usually a slave, or someone of a lower social status.)
If that is the case, then there is no problem with this, since the Church will not condone prostitution.
Or (It is often translated as effeminate.)
Arsenokoitai is the other word Paul uses. It is a rare word in the New Testament, appearing only here and in Timothy, but nowhere else. It is generally taken to mean sodomite, and could refer to any sexual activity outside of genital to genital to coitus, by any two people, same gender or not. If this is true this passage refers to people of all genders who engage in sodomy.
Arsenokoitai literally combines the Greek words for “men” and “bed,” which is why it has been translated to refer to homosexual activity. But when people say that politics makes strange bedfellows, they are not referring to sexual behavior of the politicians in question!
However when the word is used outside of the New Testament it refers to people who take advantage of other people, like slave traders. In other, non-biblical references, it refers to men who are in cahoots to do evil to other people.
This is to say that the possibility exists that this particular verse is not about homosexuality at all, at least not the kind of homosexuality where two people have a caring, monogamous relationship.
In the end, these may or may not be convincing arguments, and many people will continue to read these passages as condemning all homosexual behavior. We are not trying to convince you to accept these arguments for accepting gays and lesbians, but to understand why people some do. When people say we should accept gays and lesbians, it is not like they are just throwing the Bible and theology out the window. There is a legitimate way of understanding the Bible that does not require the Church to reject all gays and lesbians simply because of their sexuality. It may not be what you believe, but we are not requiring everybody to believe the same thing. We do ask that we accept those with whom we disagree on this issue.
When Presbyterians look at these passages, there can be room for different ways to understand homosexuality and the Bible. The Presbyterian Church does not require you to either accept or condemn homosexuality. There is room for people on both sides of the argument, if we allow people to have different views of this issue.
This means that people who believe that gays and lesbians should be fully included in the church must also accept and embrace people who believe differently. And people who believe that homosexuality is sinful behavior can accept that not everyone feels that way, and those who disagree with their position are still Christians, and still their brothers and sisters in Christ.
Churches that do not accept homosexual behavior are not required to ordain people they believe do not qualify. But they should be able to accept churches which do accept gays and lesbians as partners in Christ.
2.If churches start to allow same sex marriages, will they be forced to perform them, even if they do not think the two people should get married?
No pastor is under any obligation to marry ANYONE. There are a variety of reasons why a pastor could refuse to perform a wedding, and many pastors will continue to refuse to perform same-sex weddings, even if the denomination approves them and their state allows it. While the Presbyterian Church is certainly capable of surprising people, almost no one can imagine a scenario where a pastor would be obligated to perform any specific marriage.
Could this occur on the issue of the ordination of gays and lesbians? This is more of a possibility, however given the controversial nature of this specific issue, it is hard to imagine a scenario where churches are forced to accept the ordination of gay and lesbian people in their congregation, or a Presbytery forced to accept the ordination of gay and lesbian teaching elders.
Let’s have a little reality check here. When someone is ordained, they have been in a congregation for a long time. They are known by the congregation. The congregation votes to ordain them. Many, if not most congregations do not have openly gay members. When the church was discussing the ordination of women, there were women in every single Presbyterian Church. What was at stake was the potential ordination of at least half of all Presbyterians.
While we do not know how many openly gay people there are in our churches, it is certainly not half or more! Presbyterian Churches will not be forced to ordain any person who their congregation does not believe is qualified to be ordained.
The worst that can happen is that churches who do not believe it is right to ordain or marry gays and lesbians will be in the same presbytery with churches who do ordain them.
3.Why does the Presbyterian Church get involved with so many social issues?
One of the Great Ends of the Church is, “The promotion of social righteousness,” and this is clearly the most controversial one. One the one hand the church can simply ignore the world around it, and not say anything, or the Church can issue harmless platitudes, encourage people to be good. Either of these would be the safer route.
However the church has taken the risky and controversial stance of believing that the Gospel is not just for people in the pews, and is not just a private thing between a person and their god. The Presbyterian Church has always believed that social righteousness is an important part of the Good News. Evangelism is more than just telling people about God; it is also about showing people how God wants us to live.
That said, this is a messy business. Church and politics has always been a messy business, and here, more than perhaps any other area in our existence, we find the ability to go off track. Personal political agendas, from both the conservative and liberal side of things tends to get in the way of how we define what the Good News means in terms of social righteousness. We are human, and as such are subject to all the errors of humanity. (John Calvin called that “total depravity.”)
So to say that mistakes have been made (by Presbyterians and all other denominations) is a huge understatement. But then, what area of faith and practice is free from human error?
The answer is not to avoid all political issues altogether. Our Barmen Declaration shows us how important it is for the Church to engage with society. Where the Church struggles is an area for grace and forgiveness, for new learning, for more input, and for learning how to do better. But to ignore one aspect of the Church’s call because it might cause controversy is to ignore the call of God.
5. What about…
Everyone has different fears and concerns about this, but these are among the greatest; that the Church is marginalized and becomes irrelevant to the world; that we lose young people and never gain them back; that we have more and more smaller churches that can no longer afford a pastor; that we are not able to plant new churches, and that we are not making new disciples of Jesus Christ; that our mission, here and abroad, becomes so limited it is no longer effective; that
All of this is saying in different ways we are afraid that the decline and marginalization of the Church sends a signal to the world that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is not important, and not applicable to their lives.
To be truly inclusive, the church MUST include a variety of points of view. Granted, it is hard to the minority representative of a viewpoint in the room. (Ask some of the early African American or women pioneers in the Church about their experiences.)
The Church is richer when there is more than one voice at the table. This goes to the heart of what it means to be a Presbyterian. John Calvin, and our other founders feared putting too much authority in the hands of a few. No one person has the market cornered on what constitutes correct faith and practice, and Calvin would say anyone who does is bordering on idolatry. That is why we do almost EVERYTHING in the PC(USA) by committee!
Unfortunately this discussion about gays and lesbians has turned into an argument before it even became a decent discussion. Both sides are at fault here. Too many people are talking and not enough people are listening. It is important for the health of our denomination that we hear each other out.
Both sides of this discussion have valid points, and both sides have some things they can learn from the other side. It is easy to say this though. We need to practice it.
We hope you can see from our response to these questions that we take your concerns seriously, and we take you seriously. It is important for us to listen. Later in this process each member of your congregation will be given an opportunity to submit questions, and all of them will be answered to the best of our abilities.