Same-gender Marriage

… how we are approaching it.

I didn’t get into ministry for the weddings. While the relationship between a husband and a wife always has been theologically and ethically important to Christians, I’m aware that the marriage service was a latecomer into the sanctuary. Sometimes, I’ve been troubled by an expectation that the pastor will give an ecclesiastical imprimatur to what is essentially a civil contract between two unchurched individuals.

When an unchurched couple approaches me with a request to officiate a wedding, I explain that Christian marriage pays attention to many relationships: to each partner’s respective family and friends, to the faith communities of which they may have been a part earlier in life, and in which they now are seeking a blessing, to the clergyperson they are asking to officiate, and, of course, to God in Jesus Christ. I tell them that I don’t officiate weddings without spending time getting to know the couple, and the couple getting to know our church. I say, “Worship with us a while, get a sense of what it feels like here. Listen to my sermons to see whether you really want someone like me officiating your wedding. Join us for a class, hang out with us for social functions. After a few months, if you’re still interested, ask me again.” Not every couple wants to devote time and energy to develop relationships, and that is a chief reason the congregation I serve rarely hosts weddings for people with no previous connection.

When a member of the congregation requests a wedding, the approach is different. As pastor of the flock, I am obligated to provide instruction and counsel about the relationship between Christian faith and marriage, and to engage in a discernment process about each partner’s understanding of marriage, and fitness to enter it. The couple signs a “statement of intention in preparation for Christian marriage” that provides a written basis for my recommendation that the session (governing board) approve the marriage.

This always has been true for a marriage between a man and a woman.

Today, we’re faced with a new question: How do we respond to a request for a same-gender marriage, particularly when it comes from a church member who is baptized, nurtured, confirmed into faith, and active in the life of the congregation?

For those with interest and patience to read on, following you will find the bulk of a proposal received by our session for a first reading during November, and approved following a second presentation in December, individuals willing to be known, but de-identified for public internet posting.

I. BACKGROUND

During the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) June 14-21, 2014, several overtures related to same-gender marriage were considered, and the following actions taken:

By a vote of 371-238 (61%-39%), the Assembly approved an “authoritative interpretation” of section W-4.9000 of the Book of Order to grant pastors discretion in determining whether or not to conduct same-gender marriages in civil jurisdictions where such marriages are legal. The ruling, which currently applies to 19 states and the District of Columbia, e­ffectively removes a ban on Presbyterian pastors conducting marriages for same-gender couples in those jurisdictions that was imposed by an authoritative interpretation issued by the 1991 General Assembly. The authoritative interpretation takes effect immediately. (currently in effect).

The Assembly also proposed an amendment to W-4.9001 that would change the constitutional definition of marriage from “between a man and a woman” to “two people, traditionally [between] a man and a woman.” The vote on the proposed amendment-which goes to the denomination’s 171 presbyteries for ratification during the next year-was 429-175 (71%-29%). (currently NOT in effect. If a majority of presbyteries approve, then the amendment will take effect in mid 2015).

The dual actions came after the 2010 Assembly appointed a special committee to study marriage issues for two years. The 2012 Assembly then called for an additional two years of churchwide study.

The Assembly was careful to protect the consciences of pastors on both sides of the issue, including protective language in both measures. A clause in the proposed amendment states:

Nothing herein shall compel a teaching elder to perform nor compel a session to authorize the use of church property for a marriage service that the teaching elder or the session believes is contrary to the teaching elder’s or the session’s discernment of the Holy Spirit and their understanding of the Word of God.[1]

Approximately the same time that news of this action was being received by Presbyterians around the nation, First Presbyterian’s ministers were engaged in conversation by a member about the possibility of performing a same-gender marriage, a conversation that eventually grew into a formal request. One partner in this relationship was baptized, nurtured in faith, and confirmed in our congregation, and holds active member status. The other partner is not a member, but is known to many of us, and has participated in worship and service activities on an occasional basis.

From Oct. 5 – Nov. 9, a ruling elder coordinated a six-week study on “Christian Marriage in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).” The class allowed members to discuss marriage with respect to scripture, our confessional tradition, and historical context. It presented an opportunity for a limited but significant exploration of the topic of Christian marriage, and to ponder how that definition may apply to the relatively new prospect of Presbyterian Christians and congregations blessing the union of same-gender couples. This prospect is no longer an abstract possibility, but a tangible reality for session of First Presbyterian Church, Edwardsville, which must take action in the near future.

II. BIBLICAL CONSIDERATIONS

At the outset, your Pastor wants to acknowledge the daunting nature of the task to provide adequate information and guidance for taking action. It seems impossible in a brief period to reassemble more than 35 years of scriptural and theological debate on this topic, and equally impossible to absorb it all. On any topic of great controversy in church circles, you are likely to receive information in a way that reflects the faith journey of the person sharing information. In this case, you are receiving information as assembled by a minister who, earlier in life, was immersed in a Presbyterian seminary that definitively shaped his understanding of scripture.

The booklet “Presbyterian Understanding and Use of Holy Scripture,” adopted by the 123rd General Assembly of the PC(US), offers a fine summary of the principles of interpretation generally accepted in our tradition:

(1) The Purpose of Holy Scripture: Scripture’s purpose is to tell us about God and what God wants from humanity. It is not, for example, an astronomy or biology textbook.

(2) The Precedence of Holy Scripture: Scripture comes first, before all other sources of knowledge; it does not replace other sources of knowledge.

(3) The Centrality of Jesus Christ: Jesus is the central message of Scripture. Although this does not imply a “canon within a canon” any decision made on the basis of Scripture should be coherent with the way Jesus taught and embodied God’s person and will.

(4) The Interpretation of Scripture by Scripture: When faced with one text, investigate all the other texts relevant to the same issue. This includes interpreting the Old Testament on the basis of the New, and the New on the basis of the Old.

(5) The Rule of Love: The fundamental expression of God’s will is the two-fold commandment to love God and neighbor, and all interpretations are to be judged by the question whether they offer and support the love given and commanded by God.

(6) The Rule of Faith: Scripture is to be interpreted in light of the past and present Christian community’s understanding of Scripture. For us, that means the confessions and catechisms. That does not mean new interpretations are automatically discounted, but anything new must be evaluated in the context of Christian tradition.

(7) The Fallibility of All Interpretation: Every reading, confession, and theology that refers to Scripture is subject to testing by further and more faithful searching of the Scripture to see if it is genuinely in accord with the Bible’s witness.

(8) The Relation of Word and Spirit: Our tradition has always believed that the role of the Spirit in illuminating the reader is an essential part of Scripture’s authority.

(9) The Use of All Relevant Guidelines: Hold law and gospel in tension, use both Old and New Testament, and use all of these Reformed guidelines for interpreting Scripture.[2]

Within our interpretative tradition, even with careful attention and diligent effort to the interpretation of scripture and confessions, it still has not been possible to achieve consensus on this issue. This lack of consensus has to do, in part, with differing perspectives on which passages of scripture are “culturally contingent” upon a particular understanding that has been superseded by new knowledge and understanding, and which are “eternally coherent,” God’s standard regardless of time or place.

As I said in a sermon to you a few years ago:

 In our Mainline Protestant portion of the Church, there are two major categories of response to homosexuality.  Both ways of responding share a commitment to relate to all people with respect and in Christian love. But each way is distinctly different in its understanding of homosexuality and response to it. One type of response might be called, “Welcoming but Challenging,” while the other might be called, “Welcoming and Affirming.”[3]

Those who welcome homosexuals in the church, but challenge their homosexual orientation are likely to be convinced that homosexuality is more a matter of nurture than nature. They may point to studies in which experts argue that homosexuality stems from unhealthy relationships with parents or authority figures, or environmental influences that encourage same-sex curiosity and exploration. Because homosexuality is rooted in social conditioning, they say, an individual can make a choice for it or against it. From this perspective, homosexual behavior is a matter of moral choice, and therefore should be classified as a sin.

The “welcoming but challenging” crowd has biblical support.  There are a handful of passages about which it’s possible to debate whether the sin being condemned is homosexual behavior or something else like prostitution or rape. Eliminating those passages, I still count four that speak clearly against homosexuality in strong terms (Leviticus 18:22, 20:13; Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10).  When we read the passage in Leviticus (addressed to men), “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination,” the “welcoming but challenging” crowd believes that this is God’s word for humans in all times and places. When Paul writes, “Their woman exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men … committed shameless acts with men, and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error,” this part of the church says, “we will love the sinner, but we must hate the sin.”

Those who welcome homosexuals in the church, and affirm their homosexual orientation are likely to be convinced that homosexuality is more a matter of nature than nurture. They may point to studies in which experts argue that homosexuality stems from genetic makeup or hormonal activity. Because homosexuality is rooted in biology, they say, an individual cannot make a choice for it or against it. From this perspective, homosexual orientation is not a matter of moral choice, and therefore cannot be classified as a moral sin. From this perspective, homosexual behavior expressed in the context of a monogamous, committed relationship should be considered as valid as heterosexual behavior expressed in the context of marriage.

The “welcoming and affirming” crowd recognizes that the Bible contains some texts that describe homosexual behavior as sinful. But they’re likely to understand these passages as conditioned by social circumstances that were quite different from ours, and to believe that the authors did not have benefit of enlightenment about the true causes of homosexuality.  Like passages relating to slavery or the submission of women, the texts relating to homosexuality are believed to be dependent upon a particular culture and circumstance rather than God’s universal rules for all people in all places at all times.

Furthermore, they ask, even if one accepts homosexuality as a sin, why is this sin so often singled out for special condemnation? If we’re concerned about protecting the institution of marriage shouldn’t we speak out more against heterosexual sin? When a popular celebrity like Kim K. is divorced 72 days after a multi-million dollar wedding, doesn’t that harm the institution of marriage far more than two people of homosexual orientation who commit themselves to one another for a lifetime?

During my ministry, the Church – Church with a capital “C” – has expended a lot of time and energy on this topic. In every congregation I’ve served, Christians who “welcome but challenge” have worshipped and worked alongside Christians who “welcome and affirm.” I see no evidence that we’re going to achieve consensus about a single definitive and correct Christian position anytime soon.

What I think we can do is to focus less on our differences and more on the values and priorities we share. While we can’t agree whether to “affirm” or to “challenge” homosexual orientation and behavior, we all can agree that God loves gay people as much as straight people. When we memorized John 3:16, it didn’t say “God so loved straight people in the world,” but rather “God so loved the world,” the whole world. I think we can all agree that we want to relate to others – gay and straight, affirming and challenging – in Christ-like ways.[4]

III. THEOLOGICAL CONSIDERATIONS

Given the Presbyterian Church’s history of disagreement about same-gender marriage, for many years my personal response has been to nurture learning and to moderate debate. But there comes a time when abstract theological debate must be enfleshed in tangible practice. Together, we are faced with the real-life situation of a child of God, baptized, nurtured, and confirmed in faith through the life of this congregation, who comes seeking God’s blessing on her monogamous, committed, same-gender relationship, and who formally makes a request to session to approve her marriage at FPCE.

When I pause to reflect upon scripture in relation to the proposal we will consider, two principles (#5 and #3, above) appear most frequently in my thoughts. In every conversation and encounter, I wonder how what we say and do reflects the “rule of love” given and commanded by God. I wonder how what we say and do is consistent with the witness of Jesus Christ, the central message of Scripture. The wise theologian Karl Barth, writing about the Book of Romans, talked about daunting necessity of such discernment, saying it is for us to perceive and to make clear that the whole (text) is placed under the (judgment) of the Spirit of Christ. …. The extent to which the commentator will be able to disclose the Spirit of Christ … will not be everywhere the same. But he will know that the responsibility rests on his shoulders.[5] In interpreting Scripture in relation to the current proposal, we are faced by a similar daunting necessity to discern the Spirit of Christ, to the best of our ability.

I might frame the challenge to discern the Spirit of Christ in two pairs of basic questions:

  • Do the words of Moses (Leviticus 18:22, 20:13) and the words of Paul (Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10) reflect God’s eternal word on the subject, applicable to all children of God, regardless of time or circumstance? Or do these words reflect flawed human bias, contingent upon the limited knowledge of an earlier time and culture?
  • When it comes to same-gender marriage, is the Spirit of Christ reflected best in the infrequent passages of scripture that condemn homosexual practice? Or is the Spirit of Christ reflected best in the texts we typically apply to mixed-gender marriage, with their themes of grace, steadfast love, and the encouragement to exercise responsible freedom?

When we examine our Confessional and constitutional tradition for guidance and instruction about what Scripture leads us to believe and do, we face a similar responsibility to discern the Spirit of Christ. Time and energy prevents me from delving deeply into this rich tradition, but I will make some limited comments about our current Book of Order, which is a living and ever-changing document. For many years, its changes have been on a trajectory of greater inclusion of all people of faith in the church’s life and ministry. There was a time when people of color and women were excluded from full rights in the Presbyterian Church. Each exclusion was based, in part, on a particular interpretation of Scripture that was challenged and changed. Each exclusion was, in effect, brought under the judgment of the Spirit of Christ, and deemed contrary to things like the rule of love and the witness of Jesus.

When we look more deeply into the Book of Order, we will find passages that seem to be at odds with an interpretation of W-4.9001 that limits marriage to a man and a woman. For example, consider the following sections from the opening major section “The Foundations of Presbyterian Polity,” in which I have highlighted certain passages in bold font:

F-1.0403 Unity in Diversity

“As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise” (Gal. 3:27–29).

The unity of believers in Christ is reflected in the rich diversity of the Church’s membership. In Christ, by the power of the Spirit, God unites persons through baptism regardless of race, ethnicity, age, sex, disability, geography, or theological conviction.

There is therefore no place in the life of the Church for discrimination against any person.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) shall guarantee full participation and representation in its worship, governance, and emerging life to all persons or groups within its membership.

No member shall be denied participation or representation for any reason other than those stated in this Constitution.

F-1.0404 Openness

In Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all creation, the Church seeks a new openness to God’s mission in the world. In Christ, the triune God tends the least among us, suffers the curse of human sinfulness, raises up a new humanity, and promises a new future for all creation. In Christ, Church members share with all humanity the realities of creatureliness, sinfulness, brokenness, and suffering, as well as the future toward which God is drawing them. The mission of God pertains not only to the Church but also to people everywhere and to all creation. As it participates in God’s mission, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) seeks:

*a new openness to the sovereign activity of God in the Church and in the world, to a more radical obedience to Christ, and to a more joyous celebration in worship and work;

*a new openness in its own membership, becoming in fact as well as in faith a community of women and men of all ages, races, ethnicities, and worldly conditions, made one in Christ by the power of the Spirit, as a visible sign of the new humanity; a new openness to see both the possibilities and perils of its institutional forms in order to ensure the faithfulness and usefulness of these forms to God’s activity in the world; and

*a new openness to God’s continuing reformation of the Church ecumenical, that it might be more effective in its mission.

In the Presbyterian Church, the blessing of Christian marriage may be denied to any couple based on many factors, including no evidence of faith in either partner, or discernment by a minister that marriage is unwise due to immaturity, or evidence of other relational problems or challenges. But, in the case of a member baptized, nurtured, and confirmed in the life of the church, I find it problematic to deny the blessing of marriage solely on the grounds of a same-gender relationship. My reading of our Scripture and Reformed Tradition, and my best effort to discern the Spirit of Christ, leads me to place the following proposal before you for a first reading. Following a period of prayer, reflection, and opportunity for questions and comments, I propose action at our December meeting.

IV. PROPOSAL

Approve the wedding of active member A to B on date, Teaching Elder C and D officiating.

BACKGROUND: The session approves all services of public worship in the life of the particular church (Book of Order, W-1.4004 e and f).

V. IMPLICATIONS

The approval of this proposal does not entail approval of any additional policies or procedures beyond what already exist in the Book of Order and the Wedding Policies of First Presbyterian Church. It sets no precedent to indiscriminately officiate or host all same-gender couples who approach us for a wedding, just as we do not indiscriminately approve weddings for all mixed-gender couples. The right of the session to approve weddings on a case-by-case basis is preserved.

ENDNOTES

[1] The Assembly in Brief: 221st General Assembly (2014) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) June 14-21, 2014, a partnership of the Presbyterian News Service and Office of the General Assembly, written by Jerry L. Van Marter, ed. Toya Richards Jackson.

[2] As summarized in Marriage & The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.): A People’s Guide for Study & Conversation, More Light Presbyterians, marriageguide.mlp.org

[3] Martin Thielen, from whom I have taken my sermon title, uses the labels “welcoming and affirming” and “welcoming but nonaffirming,” in “God Loves Straight People But Not Gay People,” chapter nine in What’s The Least I Can Believe And Still Be A Christian?: A Guide To What Matters Most, Louisville: WJK Press, 2011, pp. 52-58.

[4] John C. Hembruch, God Loves Straight People, But Hates Gay People. Are You Sure? A sermon delivered to First Presbyterian Church, Edwardsville, IL, 18 March 2012.

[5] Karl Barth, “The Preface to the Third Edition,” The Epistle to the Romans, Sixth Edition, Trans. Edwyn C. Hoskyns, Oxford University Press, 1968, pp. 16-17.

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~ by JohnH1962 on December 18, 2014.

4 Responses to “Same-gender Marriage”

  1. John,

    Good details in explaining both sides of the argument and how you came to your conclusion on how to move forward. Very challenging subject matter.

    Best Regards,

  2. William, Thanks for your comment, and taking the time to read. I appreciate both very much.

  3. John,
    This is perhaps the best and most thorough discussion and explanation of this topic I have read. As a long time Presbyterian and one time seminarian (left to pursue other vocation) I have worshiped and served in churches who fall on both sides of this conversation. I find your discussion enlightening and your conclusion very sound. Thank you for the excellent essay on a topic that can certainly be divisive, but probably shouldn’t be so.
    I appreciate your thought provoking message, and as I relocate to Edwardsville within a couple of weeks, I look forward to visiting First Pres.

    Eric

  4. Eric, Thank you for taking the time to read and respond. I don’t get too many comments on WordPress, but my cross-posting to Facebook sparked a dialogue more representative of the diverse perspectives on this issue. As you settle into Edwardsville, I invite you to join us for worship and/or Sunday class. I look forward to meeting you!

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