Monday, June 30, 2008

The Presbyterian General Assembly Vote to Ordain Gays and Lesbians

The Presbyterian General Assembly has been meeting this last week, dealing with a variety of hard issues. The most divisive is one that has come up repeatedly, the ordination of gays and lesbians. The traditional Presbyterian stance is that those actively engaged in homosexual conduct may not be ordained, and is outlined in paragraph G-6.0105b of the Book of Order:

Those called to office in the church are to lead a life of obedience to Scripture and in conformity to the historic confessional standards of the church. Among these standards is the requirement to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman (W-4.9001), or chastity in singleness. Persons refusing to repent of any self-acknowledged practice which the confessions call sin shall not be ordained and/or installed as deacons, elders, or ministers of the Word and Sacrament.

At this most recent General Assembly, the body voted to replace the paragraph above with this one:

Those who are called to ordained service in the church, by their assent to the constitutional questions for ordination and installation (W-4.4003), pledge themselves to live lives obedient to Jesus Christ the Head of the Church, striving to follow where he leads through the witness of the Scriptures, and to understand the Scriptures through the instruction of the Confessions. In so doing, they declare their fidelity to the standards of the Church. Each governing body charged with examination for ordination and/or installation (G-14.0240 and G-14.0450) establishes the candidate's sincere efforts to adhere to these standards.

In other words, the GA has voted to modify the constitution to allow gays and lesbians to be ordained. It's very important to note that (a) this doesn't go into effect until a majority of the individual presbyteries vote to accept it, and (b) similar proposals were voted down by these same presbyteries in 1997 and 2000. That means we're not going to (officially) see openly gay or lesbian ministers in Presbyterian pulpits anytime in the next couple of years, though it certainly moves the debate further down the road. There's worthwhile discussion of the topic here, here and here.

As a (not always very good) Presbyterian, I suppose it's time that I stake out my own position on this issue.

It would certainly be easier for me to support the ordination of gays and lesbians, or gay marriage, than to resist it. It's absolutely the direction that Western society is heading, and any attempt to assert a moral vision that isn't supported by the "plausibility structures" of our society creates tremendous cognitive dissonance. The assumption of every TV sit-com, every radio broadcast from NPR, nearly every newspaper article or editorial, is that society is "progressing" towards a more open view of love and marriage, and that anyone who dissents from this progress is hide-bound, racist, sexist, and eventually doomed to the trash heap of history. It's exceedingly difficult to go against the stream on this issue: virtually nothing in our culture will support you if you try to do so.

But as G. K. Chesterton once noted, "A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it." And in this case, I believe that it is the church's duty to play the role of "alternative plausibility structure", to explain the Biblical witness in a coherent and plausible way to a world which, frankly, doesn't want to hear it.

I've read all the arguments for and against ordaining gays and lesbians many times, and I agree that it's a complicated issue. But we should all be clear that it's not complicated because the passages in question are all that difficult to understand. The arguments that have been advanced for more inclusive readings of, say, Romans 1:24-27 or 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 simply don't hold water. If it wasn't for theologians with an agenda, really, the various exegetical or hermeneutical questions about these passages would never even have been raised: the passages are very straightforward. More than that, it's a persistent and sometimes annoying fact that the Bible (a) consistently holds to monogamy as the divine standard for the relations between the sexes, (b) fairly consistently condemns any departure from that standard, and (c) very specifically and consistently calls out homosexual activity as one of the worst ways to depart from that standard. This is different from parallel issues such as "women in ministry" or "slavery", where the Biblical witness was mixed to begin with. The Bible frequently praises strong women in leadership positions, and recognizes the evils inherent in slavery. The Bible never has a positive word to say about homosexuality in any shape or form (and thus establishes a strong counterpoint to the laissez-faire attitude which the first century Greco-Roman world took to the issue of homosexual relations).

The issue is complicated for a different reason: not because the exegesis of the passages in question is terribly difficult, or even that much in question. It's complicated because there are many ways of understanding the nature of Biblical authority, and many of these different ways are legitimate. It's not enough to say, "God said it, I believe it, that settles it." On many issues, the Bible says lots of things, and points in a whole variety of directions. The New Testament in various places prohibits men from having long hair – but in numerous other places makes it clear that these externals don't matter. It excludes women from leadership while simultaneously praising women in leadership positions. Paul prohibits women from speaking in church, but praises those who publically exercise the gift of prophecy in church. Paul says it's fine to eat meat offered to idols, while Revelation 2:12-26 explicitly prohibits the practice. Paul uses Abraham as an example of salvation by faith alone; James uses Abraham as an example of why faith must be supplemented by works. In Bible college and seminary, I often found myself wishing that the Bible looked and felt more like Louis Berkhof's Systematic Theology: it would make things a lot simpler.

But the fact is, the Bible doesn't look and feel that way, and nearly all the time now, I'm very glad that it doesn't. It makes for a much more interesting and flexible read, though it does complicate the question, "How should Biblical authority apply to the Church?" In other words, if the Bible says lots of things that point in lots of different directions, how do we then use the Bible to pick out a path for ourselves? And to be honest, I'm not entirely sure how to do this. (Though the best approach I've seen outlined comes from Richard Hays' book The Moral Vision of the New Testament: recommended.)

I can therefore understand why reasonable and faithful Christians would disagree about the nature of the Bible's authority, especially when the Bible itself seems to point in multiple directions. But on some topics, such as homosexuality, the Bible has has a consistent and uniform witness, throughout the Old and New Testaments alike. When this is the case, any understanding of Biblical authority which takes the word "authority" seriously must also take that uniform witness seriously. And in these instances, the Church departs from that Biblical vision at its peril.

In other words, I believe that the real issue for the Presbyterian Church is, "Do we wish to remain a church whose standards and norms are informed and shaped by Scripture?" At some level, I can understand the perspective of those who wish to answer that question in the negative. Reading the Bible is complicated and messy, and doing what it says is harder and messier yet. And the Bible constrains and pinches us in all sorts of uncomfortable ways, particularly when, perhaps even for good reasons, we wish to take a different approach. But without the Bible as our center, without a fairly traditional understanding of the authority of Scripture over the church, I don't see any particular reason for the Presbyterian church, or any other church, to exist; and the chances of it doing so are somewhat diminished.

As Wolfhart Pannenberg wrote:

Here lies the boundary of a Christian church that knows itself to be bound by the authority of Scripture. Those who urge the church to change the norm of its teaching on this matter must know that they are promoting schism. If a church were to let itself be pushed to the point where it ceased to treat homosexual activity as a departure from the biblical norm, and recognized homosexual unions as a personal partnership of love equivalent to marriage, such a church would stand no longer on biblical ground but against the unequivocal witness of Scripture. A church that took this step would cease to be the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.

Because biblical authority is the key issue, this is why I also feel that the question is an important and a central one. I have little difficulty belonging to a church which has a different understanding of, say, church governance than I do, or which feels differently about alcohol, or which emphasizes human free will more than I feel is appropriate. Those are clearly secondary issues: they're not central to the church's identity or mission. But it is exceedingly central to ask (and clearly answer), "Is the Church in some minimal respect under the authority of the Bible?" This is not a question a Reformed church can easily open for debate.

Whatever view of Biblical authority we hold, if the Bible does not constrain us on this issue, where the Bible clearly speaks with one, unanimous voice, it will never constrain us on any other; and if it never constrains us, it has no authority. There are many ways to understand and accept Biblical authority, but none which can survive departing from the Bible when all of the relevant texts point in exactly the opposite direction.

For myself, I have no other choice than to belong to a church which accepts Biblical authority and chooses to live under that authority as best as it can. I can understand those who wish to take a different route: but so long as I believe myself to be following the road of traditional, orthodox Christianity, I will have to respectfully take my leave from any church which chooses to travel otherwise.


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