Sad News

I learned recently of yet another congregation of the Presbyterian Church (USA) that has voted to leave the denomination.  This congregation is in nearby Thomasville, Georgia.  First Presbyterian Church of Thomasville has a special place in my heart because it was one of two spiritual homes during a sabbatical several years ago.

On Sunday mornings during my sabbatical I’d drive 30 miles north to Thomasville.  I’d join the congregation at St. Thomas Episcopal Church for their early service and then meander over to First Presbyterian for their eleven o’clock service.  I struck up a strong friendship with Bill Seel, who was pastor at First Presbyterian at the time.

Both graduates of Union Theological Seminary in Virginia, Bill and I were not always in agreement theologically, but we shared a love of books and ideas.  Bill became a valued colleague and friend.  We shared the Reformed commitment to “the life of the mind in service to God,” but more importantly, we broke bread together and we prayed together.

It saddens me to learn that 83% of Bill’s former congregation have voted to leave the PC(USA).  I’ve always admired this congregation’s strong commitment to mission in far-away places.  I am not privy to the conversations and meetings that led to the decision, but I’m guessing the issues were the same ones Presbyterians have been wrestling with for decades – the ordination of homosexuals, gay marriage, and the “lordship of Christ,” – all grouped under the category of “Biblical authority.”

Along with all of the “mainline” denominations, the PC(USA) is declining in membership and contributions.  That decline has much more to do with cultural shifts, the loss of de facto establishment, and the failure of the church to retain and engage its own children than it has to do with squabbles over how to read Leviticus and Romans.

Despite the efforts of some brothers and sisters to frame the sexuality debate as one between those who accept “Biblical authority” and those who reject it, the issue is not, and has never been, “Biblical authority.”   The struggle is over how to read and interpret the Scriptures as they bear witness to the living Word of God, Jesus Christ.  By and large, Reformed Christians have grounded the Scripture’s authority not in the words of the Bible per se, but in the Bible’s reliable witness to God’s Word made flesh in Jesus Christ.

So-called “liberals” do not reject the Bible’s authority.  They simply read and interpret the Biblical texts differently from so-called “conservatives.”  Just like conservatives, liberals seek to live under the Lord Jesus Christ whom they meet in the words of Scripture.  Until Presbyterians are able to accept one another as sincere followers of the Living Word, they will continue to squander precious gifts of time, talent, and money on an unwinnable debate.

Schism is hardly ever the answer.  The answer lies in loving one another, hearing one another, and working together in mission – and, of course, “in the breaking of bread and the prayers.”

More Light Welcomed

Last Wednesday President Obama announced his support for “marriage equality.”  He was nice enough to write me an e-mail about it — well, me and a few million others.

I have been as forthright as I can be about my struggles with this issue.  Same-sex marriage is not allowed in the Presbyterian Church (USA).  As a Teaching Elder, I must live under the authority of the church. From the standpoint of the church’s constitution, marriage is between one man and one woman.

On the other hand, the General Assembly of Church has repeatedly called for equal rights for lesbian and gays.  I can’t offer a resolution to this matter because neither I nor the Presbyterian Church has arrived at one yet.  But I can at least clarify a couple of points about the President’s position.

First, I respect the President and the stance he has taken.  In his e-mail announcement he said that, although he once thought that “civil union laws that conferred legal rights upon gay and lesbian couples were a solution,” he has now concluded that “same-sex couples should be allowed to marry.”

Of course, the President is speaking in terms of secular law, not church law.  He writes, “ . . . I believe that in the eyes of the law, all Americans should be treated equally. And where states enact same-sex marriage, no federal act should invalidate them.”

As people say these days, “I’m fine with that.”

Second, I appreciate the President’s respect for people of faith who will, based on their religious convictions, find themselves at odds with his position.  He writes, “I respect the beliefs of others, and the right of religious institutions to act in accordance with their own doctrines.”

Some religious leaders are already saying that the President wants to force churches to perform same-sex marriages.  This is not the case, but that won’t keep people from asserting that the President wants to annul the First Amendment.

I have clergy colleagues in the African American community and in the Roman Catholic Church who will find themselves at odds with the President over this matter, even though they are in agreement with him in most other matters.

And, of course, I have gay and lesbian colleagues who are frustrated and angry that they are being denied in church what some states already allow in law.  For them, and for those who love them,  “Justice delayed is justice denied.”

For this Christian President, the Golden Rule trumps any reservations he might have had.  I honor that reasoning.  I also honor those who think that he has framed the matter wrongly.

I thought about preaching on the matter last Sunday, but neither the lectionary texts nor my state of mind would cooperate.  I’m not even sure a sermon would be helpful.  Sometimes a sermon stirs the pot without feeding the flock.

In 1620 John Robinson addressed a portion of his flock upon their departure to the New World.  Convinced that God’s Word is living and active, he told the pilgrims, “God hath more light and truth to break forth from his Holy Word.”

I don’t think God has spoken the final Word in this matter.  I welcome more light.


For other blogs on this issue, see Rev. David Lewicki’s “The Case Against Christian Marriage.”  David makes some good points, but his dismissal of the  the Genesis “myth” is problematic, in my opinion.

Also, see Adam Copeland’s post in A Wee Blether.  I agree with Adam that the theological challenge is to construct a positive case for same-sex marriage based on scripture.