By the time most people read this post, the issues I am about to discuss will have already been decided upon. Tomorrow morning (very early tomorrow morning) I will be driving to First Presbyterian Church of Marshalltown to vote alongside fellow Presbyterian pastors and elders about three important issues.
There has been significant discussion about this vote, and I decided that in the interest of full disclosure, I would describe how I intend to vote on these three items and why.
The most widely discussed item is called “Amendment 10-A. Gifts and Requirements.” Therefore I will discuss it first.
But first, two disclaimers.
These will be longer posts that deviate from my typical type of writing.
These posts do not reflect the particular opinions of First Presbyterian Church, Fort Dodge. They are my own opinions.
With that said, here goes.
In a nutshell, 10-A seeks to replace specific language in the Presbyterian Church’s Book of Order. The section is from G-6.0106b. As of the now, the paragraph describes particular standards that ordained church officers are called to maintain. Here’s a direct quote:
“Among these standards is the requirement to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and woman, or chastity in singleness.”
The paragraph goes on to explain that anybody who refuses to repent of any self-acknowledged sin shall not be ordained or installed as an elder, deacon, or pastor.
Basically, the traditional language in our constitution, the language 10-A seeks to change, explains that people who are openly engaged in homosexual behavior cannot be ordained as pastors in the PCUSA. In order to be ordained, one must either remain faithful to their spouse or refrain from sleeping around if they are single.
The proposed wording omits all language about sexual ethics. Instead, it states that ordained individuals should submit themselves to the Lordship of Jesus and they will be examined by their individual governing bodies (i.e. Presbyteries). The examination will include a determination of the candidate’s commitment to the Bible, ordination questions, and our historic confessions.
The rationale for this change in language is multifaceted. I will explain some of the major arguments in favor of this amendment as best I can, and then I aim to provide my reasons for voting against 10-A, thereby retaining the traditional language of our constitution.
The PCUSA document that states the amendment provides some background and rationale. It begins by illustrating the tension Christian leaders face. In one sense, ordained ministers must be bound to a higher calling. We strive to serve the Lord and his people with integrity, while living according to God’s will as described in Scripture.
But at the same time, a cursory glance at the first three chapters of Romans demonstrates that all people sin and fall short of God’s glory, even ministers. Therefore, how can we rightfully say that anybody who is unrepentant of their sins should not be a minister? We all have sins that we leave unconfessed. So by holding members of the LGBT community accountable to this standard, we are keeping a double standard. Look at all the other ministers who live in sin. Why don’t be discipline them?
Therefore, this language in our constitution has been used to exclude particular people who feel gifted and called by God to ministry. Besides, there’s no consensus in the PCUSA concerning the interpretation of the Bible and homosexuality. So how can we even claim that practicing homosexuals are engaging in a “self-acknowledged practice which the confessions call sin”?
In order to maintain the unity of our denomination, therefore, we should let each individual governing body decide who is appropriately called by God to ministry.
Outside of the official PCUSA document, I have heard a few other arguments for passing 10-A. The biggest one I’ve heard is that homosexuality is not a choice. So how can we bar certain people from ministry because of something they didn’t choose? Along with that, others have made comments like, “I know somebody who’s gay and they are the most Evangelical person I know!” I’ve also heard that members of the LGBT community have suffered tremendous persecution and our church is failing them. People are being made fun of, ostracized, and even have committed suicide because issues with sexuality. The church needs to be taking these people in, supporting them, showing them God’s unconditional love for them. Meanwhile, fellow seminary students and professors have wrestled with Bible verses referencing homosexuality. About the Bible verses, I heard one professor explain that Leviticus 18 is not a list of sexual sins, but that it really is condemning men who exert their power over others. While a fellow student of mine plainly said that he did not care if the Bible says homosexuality is wrong. If that’s what the Bible says, then he’s not concerned with the Bible for this issue.
I realize that to properly respond to all these arguments would take up significantly more space than what I have here. So I won’t respond to all of those comments, especially the one about ignoring what the Bible has to say. Heck, why go to seminary and learn Biblical Greek and Hebrew if you don’t even care about what the Bible says? Doesn’t that seem like a waste of money, time, stress, and effort? Oops, I just did respond to that one… Oh well.
Ok, the big comment that I’ve heard in multiple ways is that our current language provides a double standard against homosexuals. We can’t even keep our current standards, so what’s the big deal about changing them? Interestingly, I totally agree with the first half of this premise. During an educational Presbytery meeting, a fellow pastor brought this point up. I stood up and totally agreed with him but arrived at a totally different conclusion. He was right. We all do sin. A lot. I don’t doubt Paul in Romans 3:23 at all people sin and fall short of the glory of God. But look at what Paul says just a bit later in chapters 5-7. Because of all our sin, we need God’s grace, and because of that grace we should not keep sinning. Paul knew that if he taught people that we all sin and need God’s grace, then people would accuse him of promoting cheap grace, giving everybody a free license to sin. To that line of thinking, he says, “Absolutely not!”
Just because other people aren’t living up to our current standards, that doesn’t mean that we should throw out the standard. Maybe we should consider following it!
This could not have been more apparent to me than while I was at seminary in Princeton. At least once a month a particular floor in one of the dorms would host a large party where people would get drunk and some times hook up. I saw my first keg stand in a seminary apartment. I heard more stories about people losing their virginity in seminary than I did while in college. And these were future ministers, preparing for ordained ministry, getting drunk on Friday night, and leading congregations in worship on Sunday morning.
Now I say this not to sound self-righteous. I’m ashamed to say that I drank more alcohol in seminary than any other time of my life. Meanwhile, on a yearly basis I would meet with my Presbytery committee on ministry in San Francisco. They were entrusted with the responsibility of guiding me as I was preparing for ordained ministry. Each year when I met with them, about 40% of the faces were new. Most of the questions were about classes I was taking, making sure that I met all of the requirements on their checklist. Mainly, these issues were bureaucratic details like whether or not my chaplaincy was ACPE certified or why I took a particular class Pass/Fail instead of for a letter grade.
And yet they could (and should) have been asking me questions about my faith. They could have asked me what got me excited about ministry. What were my fears in ministry? In what areas would I like (or need) to be held accountable? What challenges was I facing? How was I seeing God move in my own life?
For three years I met with this committee who gave their final stamp of approval for me to begin ministry mainly because I had marked every box on a checklist even though they hardly knew me.
So I agree, our church is doing a terrible job in upholding our current standards. But why on earth does that mean we should get rid of them? Let’s consider how we can actually uphold them.
Another significant concern I would like to address is the comment that members of the LGBT community don’t have a choice about how they are. I’ve heard many passionate comments about whether or not homosexuality is a choice. Once again, I would agree with many people who make this statement, but arrive in a different place. I am totally willing to say that a person can’t choose to be gay. I am sure that there is a very complex interweaving of genetic predisposition and learned experience that combines to dictate the types of attractions one has.
Is this anything new? Don’t we as Christians believe in original sin? Don’t we uphold the belief that on our own we are all powerless to do right? Isn’t sin in our very nature? Does that excuse us from our own culpability, though? We are born into this world as screaming babies, not content until our own needs are met. From the womb we are conditioned to think the entire world revolves around us and yet, that is completely antithetical to the Gospel. That’s why Jesus calls us to pick up our cross and follow him.
A few years ago I took the MMPI, a psychology test that helps you determine if you are crazy. All future Presbyterian pastors have to take it. Don’t worry. I’m not insane. However, I did find that I have a potential for addictive behavior. Knowing my family history, this makes a bit more sense. I’m not the only one in my family with this tendency.
This means that my natural way of doing this can sometimes be out of whack. What feels natural to me sometimes is staying up really late to finish a book or video game (or blog entry!). Instead of just going to bed at a reasonable hour and resuming the next day, I will fixate on something until I get it done. This is what feels right to me. Is it healthy? No.
Was it my choice to have these tendencies? No? I am still responsible for how I act? Yes.
Somehow we’ve developed this idea that if somebody was born a particular way, then it must ok. But that’s simply not how life works. If a kid is born a bully, he will grow up to realize that bullying won’t really give him intimate relationships. That’s really unfortunate for the boy, but that doesn’t mean he’s not responsible for the mean words he always says. It just means that he’ll have to try a lot harder than most people to be nice.
I say all this just to demonstrate that I don’t doubt that gay people are born gay. However, being born gay is not a free pass at life. It does not grant one immunity from responsibility.
In the end, all this really comes back to whether or not we actually believe homosexual behavior is a sin. So I turn to the Bible. As this entry is already overly long, I won’t get into all the references to homosexuality in Scripture, but I’d like to mention one. Leviticus 18:22 says that homosexual behavior is an abomination. This little verse finds itself as part of a list. The list describes all sorts of people a man should not have sex with – various members of his own family, etc…
Early on during my time at Princeton I attended a meeting that was presenting a Biblical case for full inclusion of the LGBT community in church. Leading this presentation were two Princeton professors and an Old Testament PhD student. One professor was an Old Testament teacher and the other one taught systematic theology. The theology professor had recently written a book about this very issue.
So he was talking about this Leviticus passage that the OT professor had printed out for us. The theology professor explained that although many people have believed Leviticus 18 to be a list of sexual prohibitions, that really wasn’t the case. See, back in Old Testament times, men would have sex with people to show that they held power over them. For example, soldiers would have sex with those they conquered, or a rich man would have sex with his slave. This was done to show that they were really in charge. Therefore, the real sin prohibited in Leviticus was the cruel exhibition of power by these men. It was all about men exerting their power over others.
I raised my hand and asked about Leviticus 18:23, which talks about women having sex with animals. I asked why this list would include women presenting themselves to animals if it really was supposed to be about men exercising power over others.
The OT professor literally had to ask me where the verse was on her handout. Upon reading it, she said, “Huh. I’ve never thought about that before.”
And that was it.
A professor of the Old Testament at Princeton Seminary had never even noticed the very next verse that was printed on her own handout. I wasn’t even trying to be obnoxious with the question, but she legitimately couldn’t even answer it. The theology professor who made the original argument (and had written the book…) didn’t say anything at all.
I mention this story to illustrate how great a length people will go in order to make the Biblical text say what they want.
At this point I could sound extremely cold, unsympathetic, and bigoted. So please hear me out as I clarify myself a bit. While voting no on 10-A and keeping the traditional ordination standards, I still hold that God loves everybody. John 3:16 says that God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son – not part of the world, or just a few, but the world.
As a pastor voting against this amendment, I would eagerly welcome any LGBT person into my church, invite them to become a member, or give them pastoral care, to name a few things. I believe that being gay is not a sin, but acting on homosexual desires is. Even still, I firmly believe that God fiercely loves all people, gay, straight, or anything in between, and he intensely desires to know all people. So much so that he would rather die than live without us.
There was a time in my life when I learned that various family members had been dealing with some significant sins their lives. When they told me about their struggles, I never, not once, stopped loving them. Never did I believe that were any less human or that God had made a mistake in creating them how they were. I knew that I would stand by them no matter what they experienced, through thick and thin. However, as much as I loved them, that said nothing about the morality of some of their actions.
The same is true for people of different sexual orientations. The fact that God loves them says nothing about whether or not their particular actions are pleasing to God.
Although volumes could be (and have been) written about this topic, I don’t have the space to address every concern here. This is just a “brief” statement of my perspectives. I’d be happy to hear from any of you about your thoughts on this topic. Feel free to leave a comment, write an email, or give me a call.
In conclusion, I believe God loves all people, but I don’t think practicing homosexual people should be ordained as church leaders so I will vote negatively on amendment 10-A.