My Longest Post EVER

March 1, 2011 — 13 Comments

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.

The Amendment

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.

Rationale

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.

My Response

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.

In Conclusion

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.

Austin

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I'm a pastor, writer, speaker, husband, father, and follower of Christ, to name a few titles. You can find my contact information in my About page.
  • I read every word you wrote and fully agree with everything you said. I have known about this amendment and it has been burdening me since I heard about it several years ago. I am relieved to know your stand on the issue and grateful for how you have voted. Thank you for standing up for righteousness both in how you have voted, and in sharing your thoughts publicly through your blog.

    • austindhill

      Thanks for the encouragement, Elise! It’s always easier to make your voice known when you see other people who are willing to lift you up.

  • Thanks Austin. I think it’s precisely well-thought out positions like this that need to be voiced at the presbytery level, and that’s why I’m voting “yes” on 10-A, since it will force each examining body to ask what it means to a faithful Christian. Unfortunately some folks still have the idea that 10-A is equal to ordaining homosexuals, and that’s just not the case. But it does open the possibility, and that might scare some folks.

    • austindhill

      Chris, thanks for your kind words about the post. With you, I also think that we definitely need to be having these sorts of conversations at our Presbyteries. However, in my (limited) experience as a part of my Presbytery, I’ve seen very little discussion of this nature, especially during examination of candidates. I get the feeling that there are many important but difficult questions we could (and should) be asking our candidates, yet we most often don’t. So my fear in bringing authority to Presbyteries that we are losing what limited accountability we have. How has your experience with this in Tennessee?

  • Andy Thompson

    Well said Austin. Way to engage thoughtfully with the community that God has called you to serve.

    • austindhill

      Thanks man. How’s life been for you and Whitney lately?

  • Dave

    Good points teen.

  • Dan

    Austin,
    You write well and are articulate in making your arguments.

    I’m not a Presbyterian. However, I agree with your principal arguments, with the exception of choice vs. birth predisposition to homosexuality. We are indeed stuck in a spiritual environment in which original sin dominates. The fall of original man is our curse. However, ALL sin is a choice, not just some.

    With regard to your argument about adhering to Biblical principles rather than diluting them, I entirely agree. I know as a charismatic, that there are differences in the labels we would use to illustrate this, but we should not be afraid of the principle of holiness. Some groups/persons/denominations misuse this label or principle and execute it in extremes not defined scripturally, because they attach legalism to it to enforce it. But the basic premise of holiness is to live with the objective of being righteous, knowing realistically that we will not always continue taking steps forward toward that goal and will occassionally slip back. But, it is still to be our objective.

    Holiness (in its scripturally defined context) must be our objective (because its an act of obedience to God). With our individual progress toward it, many of the issues you raise become very clear to us through the influence of the Holy Spirit and then they are not controversial at all. Controversy only arises when we try to mitigate God’s instruction to us in human terms and understanding.

    • austindhill

      Dan, thanks for bringing up some great points! You are totally right in that all our sins are a choice. I guess I make a distinction between homosexual attraction and behavior. I believe that it’s possible that some people feel most naturally attracted to the same sex. For me, this person doesn’t sin until he or she acts on that attraction by lusting or sexual activity. That’s where the choice comes in just as it does for a single heterosexual person. We all can be attracted to others, it just depends on what we do about it.
      I also really like what you said about holiness. I know in my own life I frequently ask the question, “How far can I push the limit before I’m sinning?” When I really should be asking, “How can I honor God the best with the way I live my life?” Many gray issues become more black and white when viewed that way.

  • Patrick

    Hey Austin –

    I’m not a Presbyterian, so I’m not going to argue with how you voted, or how your church should be run. But I do think that you would do well to deal more directly with the argument of your classmate who 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’m also not a Biblical scholar, but it seems to me as though most people do ignore verses in the Bible. For instance, Paul’s words on women in church leadership, the lines in Leviticus about the uncleanliness of periods, (again) Paul’s advice that slaves be “okay” with being slaves. I mean, there’s a lot of crazy lines in the Bible! And most Christians don’t follow all of them. After all, when it comes down to it we’re trying to follow God, not the Bible, per se. And if there’s a line in the Bible that doesn’t match with what we know of God, then we don’t follow it (see “stoning any member of the community that sins”).

    When Jesus is comforting his disciples at the Last Supper, he promises that the Holy Spirit will guide them. He doesn’t say, “Chill out, I’m gonna give a book to you that will tell you what to do.” So hopefully, we place God above the Bible.

    I’m not trying to diminish the Bible here, since it’s obviously one of the primary ways that we know who God is, who we are, and what kind of relationships we’re supposed to have with each other and God.

    Rather, I’m trying to say that when it comes to Biblical interpretation, it’s not fair for you to dismiss your classmate’s point-of-view in such a glib way. Perhaps your classmate’s point-of-view is totally ridiculous (I don’t know him, so I’m not going to try and defend his particular exegesis), but the issue of which parts of the Bible we follow literally and which parts we see in the greater context of scripture and who we know God to be is not ridiculous, so please don’t equate it with one ridiculous dude you met in seminary. I think if you want to strengthen your argument, you’re going to need to engage with the issue of whether the verses in the Bible dealing with homosexuality are actually different in their nature than the verses calling for stoning of adulterers, submission of slaves, etc.

    I know that arguing rarely changes anyone’s mind, so I’m not hoping to force you to agree with me on everything. I’m just hoping that you’ll consider this issue in a little more detail in the future.

    Patrick

    • austindhill

      Patrick,
      Thanks for your comments. You raise a lot of good points. I know you are not simply trying to argue. I don’t really like arguing either, and I hope I’m not becoming one of those bloggers who spends countless hours arguing over the internet (but I might be beyond hope for that…) Hopefully I can provide some clarity about the points you raised here.
      You’re totally right about people ignoring particular verses of the Bible, especially some of those in the OT about stoning adulteresses and approaching a woman during her period. The reason why I spoke about the Leviticus 18 passage was mainly to demonstrate the types of exegesis people are doing concerning these pertinent passages. I think that when it comes to many of the OT directives, we need to examine the Scriptural witness of the NT to look for confirmation. Were the OT commandments simply Jewish distinctives that Christians no longer need to follow, or were they normative for all God’s people? Paul wrestles with this very issue extensively in the book of Galatians, and he condemns the false teachers who claim that true Christians must also follow Jewish customs like dietary restrictions and circumcision. I find it fascinating that even with that intimate understanding of the issues concerning Judaism and Christianity, Paul acknowledges in at least 2 different places that homosexual behavior is not part of God’s plan for people. (Romans 1:26, and 1 Corinthians 6:9) So to me, when Paul is also talking about it in the NT, the issue becomes bigger than just an “outdated Jewish purity code” (to quote a member of my Presbytery who spoke on this issue) .
      Regarding the passages about women in public offices of ministry, I think the reason why some people ignore some of what Paul says in his pastoral epistles (and by some people, I mean me) is that there are other instances in Scripture where we do see women holding public offices of ministry – both Old and New Testament. When King Josiah found the book of the law in 2 kings 22 he went to speak with the prophet Huldah, the wife of Shallum. We also hear about the judge, Deborah. In the NT Paul sends his regards to the deacon, Phoebe, and other women who are active in the church. So in the case of what Paul says to Timothy about the women of Ephesus, I hold that in tension with the witness of other passages in Scripture that seem to provide counterexamples. However, I don’t see any explicit places in Scripture that show actively homosexual people in any type of ministry that God blesses.
      You’re also totally right in the fact that I barely scratched the Scriptural surface of this issue in my blog post. I did that intentionally because throughout recent years I have noticed that most of the arguments made to change current ordination standards have been made not from a Scriptural basis, but because of experience, philosophy, and theology. So I tried to answer some of those responses in a similar way. The rationale in the official PCUSA document didn’t allude to Scripture at all (or if it did, it was a very peripheral usage that I don’t remember).
      You also bring up a great point about the seminary friend. Here’s some more context for you. A guest lecturer had just come to our campus and given three presentations on Biblical interpretation. The main point of his three lectures was that in his mind, the Bible clearly prohibits homosexual behavior, and not just the violent, pederastic, polyamorous type, but even the loving, committed, consensual type. It was after hearing this detailed and thorough presentation, that my exasperated classmate basically concluded, “Well, if that’s what the Bible actually says, then that’s not for me.” I was definitely being tongue in cheek in my comment on the blog. It was an attempt to bring some levity into a tough subject, but it obviously didn’t go over well.
      I’ve got one last thought. You are once again right that in Jesus’ farewell discourse in John 14 he tells us to fear not because the Spirit is coming. However we also see in Scripture, like 2 Corinthians 11 that the devil disguises himself as an angel of light. So we need to test the spirits. Paul also says in Galatians 1 that anybody who teaches a Gospel contrary to what he as taught the Christians should be cursed. Now, I’m not saying that we need to curse anybody who disagrees with us today or that people who have different opinions from me are the devil in disguise. But I do think that the primary way we test the Spirit’s work is to see how it matches with Scripture. Jesus says in his farewell discourse that the Spirit will testify to Christ. It will point us back to Christ. So if I say the Holy Spirit has showed me something new that seems to be in direct contradiction to what we know to be true in Scripture, then we really need to think about whether I actually heard from the Holy Spirit.
      So those are just some thoughts and clarifications for the comments you made. Let me know what you think. Thanks for reading my post and actually taking it seriously enough to respond!
      Austin

  • Marshall

    It’s issues like these that make me appreciate the fact that I’m non-denominational. The whole “gay issue” keeps popping up all over the place. Quite honestly, it bugs me, especially when it involves the Church.

    Before I go any further, I would like to say that I do not have anything against gays. The Bible explicitly states that homosexuality is wrong in multiple places, but I believe that I have no right to judge them for their sexual orientation, because in the end we’re all sinners. I’ll just let God do the judging come Judgment Day, and until then I’ll just be the best witness possible.

    Back to the main issue. What is PCUSA thinking with the proposed 10-A amendment? Apparently, “there’s no consensus in the PCUSA concerning the interpretation of the Bible and homosexuality.” What exactly is there to interpret?

    “We also know that the law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, for the sexually immoral, for those practicing homosexuality, for slave traders and liars and perjurers—and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine” 1 Timothy 1:9-11 (NIV)

    “‘”Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable.”‘” Leviticus 18:22 (NIV)

    “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” 1 Corinthians 6:5 (NIV)

    Maybe it’s just me, but I get the strange feeling that the Bible is very clear on this issue. Some people argue that, “The laws have changed since then.” and the only thing I have to say in response to that statement, is that it’s irrelevant. Those are three entirely separate verses that deal with homosexuality. In each case it checks out as something detestable or abhorrent. What is there to disagree with on this issue? Nothing, at least not to legitimately disagree with.

    Excellent work writing this, Austin. This longest post was certainly worth your time.
    Marshall

    • austindhill

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments and kind words, Marshall! One thing that I have found in the Presbyterian church is that people have been wrestling with this issue for years and years. Many of the Presbyterians I know strive to follow God’s Word while also engaging culture in authentic ways. Obviously, this is a very difficult task to do well. Sometimes people engage the culture at the risk of losing the heart of the Gospel. However, at the same time, I’ve met some people who aren’t willing to meet people where they are because they are so intent on maintaining the purity of the Gospel (something I hope we all value).
      So even though there are multiple passages that deal with homosexuality like you pointed out, we need to strive to the best of our ability to communicate God’s love to all people. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13, even if we do tons of great stuff, but do it without love, we are like a clanging gong.
      I commend people for taking this so seriously that they are willing to forgo a more strict understanding of Scripture in order to communicate God’s love, but I (and I think you would be to) am convinced that we can convey God’s truth while also boldly proclaiming God’s grace and love. We just have to work really hard at it!