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A brief view from the Presbyterian world

Written by: on March 19, 2019

My friends!  I am sorry to be submitting this paper later than the others and to be behind the wave on this conversation within our cohort. At the same time, in approaching this book and topic, I think that I am also ahead in a certain way.

I say this, because the topic that we are discussing through this book and online this week (around homosexuality and the Bible) is one that my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA) (PCUSA) has talked to death over the past 4 decades.  In reading through the rest of the posts for this week (since I am late in submitting, I get that advantage!) I notice that many of you also have had long-term conversations in your church tribes about this.  For my own denomination, the kinds of questions that are being asked by our book for this week, Two Views on Homosexuality, the Bible, and the Church, have been asked for a long time.

In approaching this book, I thought back to numerous others that I have read or encountered over the years.   These include resources like Homosexuality and Christian Community, edited by Choon-Leong Seow, which in the mid-1990s was a selection of writings from various disciplines of the faculty at Princeton Theological Seminary.  It also includes more specific and in-depth studies like Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality by Jack Rogers who was a Presbyterian pastor and professor.

As Dr. Seow writes in his introduction, “Two general perspectives emerge in these dialogues. On the one hand, there are those of us who believe that nothing less than the survival of the faith is at stake… on the other hand, there are those of us who are equally convinced that the authenticity of the church is in question if it is unchanging and exclusivistic.”[1]  This essential divide in the minds and hearts of Christ’s people is also clearly summed up by Preston Sprinkle where he writes, “few topics have become as volatile, confusing, and debated in contemporary religious and political discourse as homosexuality.”[2]

It is interesting to me that this book is part of the “Counterpoints” series within Zondervan, in which biblical and theological topics are set up in a “point/counter-point” structure.  This probably belies the way that many of us have thought about this topic over the course of our lives.  Most thinking Christians are aware that there are fairly different points of view on this, and so positions can be staked out and then defended and enforced.

From my perspective at this point in my life and journey with questions about homosexuality and scripture, I have two main takeaways.  First, I know that there is a diversity of views within churches across the spectrum and many faithful people will disagree about what the “right” answer will be.  This book may be helpful to some who are in one “camp” or another, but more than likely it is simply describing the contours of differences that run really deep.

This book seeks to describe a diversity of views, but as Dr. Clark expressed in our Zoom call (again, the perverse advantage of writing after the fact), this is largely a debate within the Evangelical church, rather than within the whole Christian community at this point.  Mainline churches and denominations like my own have moved on from this fractured discussion and I am thankful for that.

For the PCUSA, we ratified the possibility of ordination for Deacons, Elders, and Pastors within our churches in 2011.  As one national leader said at the time,“We’ve been having this conversation for 33 years, and some people are ready to get to the other side of this decision… Some people are going to celebrate this day because they’ve worked for it for a long time, and some people will mourn this day because they think it’s a totally different understanding of Scripture than they have.”[3]

This change then led to the 2015 decision to allow Presbyterian pastors to perform same-sex marriages in states where that is legally permitted (and where the church and pastor want to perform such unions).[4]

With that being the recent history of my denomination, this book and the discussion around the topic brought me back in time, to alllllllllll those earnest conversations along the way.  If my first takeaway from the question of homosexuality and Christian faith is that there is a variety of opinion, my second takeaway is that I believe people of good heart and conscience can disagree on this matter and still stay together. While it caused a significant schism within my denomination, it had a much smaller effect on my local congregation. Part of the reason for this is that we have covenanted together to be a unified church, even in the midst of differences over this particular issue.

These days, I am praying for my sisters and brothers in the United Methodist Church as they continue to wrestle quite publically with this question.  At the same time, I do not pine in the least bit for “the old days”, when this issue dominated nearly every gathering of Presbyterian leaders. In many ways our church has moved on from this discussion, and the question now is, “what kind of future does God have for our church?”  What kinds of issues will we spend our time and energy on?  Will we find new ways to relate to our communities and the people in our churches?  How will we follow God into a future that is different from the past, and yet, we believe a future that still holds hope—even for a bunch of Presbyterians!

[1]Choon-Leong Seow et al, Homosexuality and Christian Community (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), vii-ix.

[2]Preston M. Sprinkle et al., Two Views on Homosexuality, the Bible, and the Church, Counterpoints: Bible and Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016), 9.

[3]Laurie Goodstein, “Presbyterians Approve Ordination of Gay People,” New York Times, May 10, 2011, https://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/11/us/11presbyterian.html.

[4]https://www.pcusa.org/news/2015/3/20/what-same-sex-marriage-means-presbyterians/

 

About the Author

Dave Watermulder

2 responses to “A brief view from the Presbyterian world”

  1. mm Dan Kreiss says:

    Dave,

    Great post. Though the PCUSA as a denomination has largely moved beyond this difficult discussion (not without the loss of some significant churches to more conservative branches like the EPC) there are still most in the pews who are not quite as settled. It is nice to be in a position where the heated debates are a thing of the past but as we saw at NEXT Church there continues to be little room for differences of opinion or understanding, particularly if that opinion goes against the now more progressive majority.

  2. mm Kyle Chalko says:

    Thanks for sharing Dave. We are certainly on the opposite sides of the fence on this one. I can see how that, whatever the verdict, you’re glad its settled so we can move on. From my perspective though, its one of those things we have to be vigilant about. Im reminded of the ben franklin quote,

    “in matters of style, flow like a river. in matters of principle, stand like a rock.”

    or the quote went something like that.

    But for me this issue is more a principle, than a style or preference, and thats why this issue can be beat over and over again for 40 years, and some people keep resisting the change.

    Thanks for your insightful post. It was actually interested to read a post-reading-everyone-else type of blog. 🙂

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