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Presbyterians Prepare for Battle Over Clergy Sexual Conduct Standards

"For God's sake, for love's sake, and for the sake of homosexual persons, may it be that this General Assembly will preserve the Authoritative Interpretation, G-6.0106b, and the wise counsel about
( [email protected] ) Jun 04, 2004 05:40 PM EDT

The Presbyterian Church USA has received five overtures that call for the loosening of the church’s ordination standards. The overtures, similar to the failed attempts of the past that seek the ordination of active homosexuals, will be considered at the upcoming General Assembly, slated for June 26-July 3 in Richmond Virginia.

Current sexual conduct standards for men and women explicitly bar the ordination of “self-affirming practicing homosexuals” to the church office. The policies, now entitled “authoritative interpretations” of the denomination’s constitution, was adopted in 1978 and 1979, even before the PCUSA came into existence. This policy was codified some 20 years later by the church’s 173 presbyteries into the PCUSA’s Book of Order. The provision G-6.0106b explicitly requires the church officers “to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness.”

During subsequent years, the more liberal factions of the PCUSA sought to repeal both the G-6.0106b in the Book of Order and the Authoritative Interpretation that grounds the explanation of the law as prohibiting gay and lesbian clergy.

Last year’s proposals to repeal the provisions were deferred to the Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity and Purity of the Church, which is set to make its final report, including recommendations on ordination standards, to the 2006 Assembly.

This year, two of the overtures that have been submitted to the Assembly call for the repeal of “authoritative interpretations” while two others call for the repeal of both the interpretations and the G-6010b. Another overture calls for the amendment of the G-6.0106b to replace the phrase, “the covenant between a man and a woman” with “a covenanted relationship between two persons where a lifetime commitment is intended.”

Meanwhile, Evangelical and conservative Presbyterians have been working to protect the purity of the church by maintaining the current standards of the PCUSA.

On June 2, the Presbyterians for Renewal – a network of Conservative Presbyterians – released a statement on how the Authoritative Interpretation gives the truthful direction on love.

The following is the full text of the statement, as released by the PFR ministry:

Our Presbyterian Love Spat: How G-6.0106b and the Authoritative Interpretation Give Direction to Our Love

Love. But of what sort?

We Presbyterians both agree and disagree about love. We agree that:

· "God is love."

· God's love has been shown in amazing and life-changing ways in Jesus Christ.

· God's love is available to all.

· The church is called to love as God has first loved us.

But we also disagree. We disagree about what such love means with regard to sexual ethics and the standards we hold for our church leaders.

Neither God's love for us nor our love for God is in doubt, nor really is our love for each other. But how we go about loving each other in this contested area of human sexuality is hotly debated. Don't we need to love as Jesus loved—in selfless obedience to God?

This year there are some commissioners who would like to persuade the church that it has erred in its method of love, and they propose basically two options:

• The removal of G-6.0106b, or a reversal of its effect through amendment.

• The negation of all Authoritative Interpretations (A.I.) issued prior to the adoption of G-6.0106b, or the adoption of a radically opposite A.I.

The proponents of these measures claim that theirs is the loving course. But in fact Presbyterians have believed that both G-6.0106b and the Authoritative Interpretations wisely direct us in how best to love as God loves in these contested matters.

The wisdom of G-6.0106b

G-6.0106b—the "fidelity in marriage and chastity in singleness" portion of our Book of Order—is a truthful, loving, and beneficial boundary.

How is G-6.0106b truthful? First, it is truthful about Creation. Male and female were created to be complementary companions, to be hetero, meaning other. It is truthful about The Fall (Genesis 3). Sin tarnished the perfect Creation. That means not every condition is good anymore; rather everything and everyone is in need of redemption

G-6.0106b is also truthful about the Law. For example, by the Ten Commandments, we see that God has always regulated our sexuality. Then Jesus intensified the demand not to commit adultery in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5:27–30). G-6.0106b keeps this broad strand of God's law intact.

How is G-6.0106b loving? We know that rebellion against God always brings suffering and separates us from God and others. G-6.0106b is loving enough to tell the truth about this genuine harm. It is loving enough to hold us accountable. G-6.0106b is loving in the way it discourages ways of life that lead to spiritual death.

Then how is G-6.0106b beneficial? It encourages congruity between our belief and practice. It calls forth integrity. It leads people toward transformation in Christ, which cannot happen when people deny their need.

Answering contrary claims

But wait! Aren't there other claims? Here are some arguments you will hear:

• Isn't the Bible opposed only to casual or promiscuous homosexuality? The Bible makes no such distinction. Homosexual (and extramarital heterosexual!) relations of any kind are called wrong. The act itself is sin, apart from circumstances or motivations.

• But Jesus didn't say anything about homosexuality, did he? Jesus did speak against porneia—unlawful sex, which in his time included homosexuality (Mk 7:20–23). What's more, since Jesus focused upon matters in which he differed with common practice or belief, his relative silence about homosexuality in particular signaled agreement with strict Jewish opposition to homosexuality.

• But we've heard the sin of Sodom is inhospitality. Indeed the Sodomites were inhospitable. But both Jude (verse 7) and Second Peter (2:1–16) make plain that the Sodomites were also judged for their lust and licentiousness.

• Backward people back then didn't understand loving homosexual relationships. Actually the concept of loving same-sex relationships isn't new at all. For some ancient Greeks, homosexuality was considered as normal as heterosexuality, and they, too, knew of some long-term relationships. This claim is not a new slant based upon history so much as it is chronological snobbery based on ideology.

• We've changed our minds about slavery or ordaining women, so why not homosexuality? For Reformed Christians, Scripture interprets Scripture. Concerning the matters of slavery and women's ordination, Scripture itself eventually proved prior practices dreadfully wrong. For homosexual practice, however, Scripture always forbids it. It is the culture that lures us to change our belief, not the Scripture.

• But if all are sinners, why focus on homosexual sin? The only appropriate response to God's gracious forgiveness is repentance. No one is vigorously advocating for the right to continue other sins without repentance. Indeed, G-6.0106b holds heterosexuals to a high standard as well. This controversy continues because advocates for homosexual behavior persist.

The dispute about Bible interpretation

There are no credible biblical arguments for homosexual sex. Rigorous, scholarly Bible study concludes that God opposes homosexual practice.

Certainly there are those who contend there are other interpretations, but they have yet to surmount the definitive scholarly work on this matter: The Bible and Homosexual Practice by Robert Gagnon (Abingdon 2001). Gagnon has painstakingly made an air-tight biblical case against homosexual practice. To date, no scholar has effectively countered its conclusions. While some have voiced vague disdain for the work, and others have ignored it, none has disproved it. Indeed, they cannot. Unless one is willing to jettison the biblical text, the Bible is clear: homosexual practice is sin.

The wisdom of the Authoritative Interpretation of 1978

Before the adoption of G-6.0106b, numerous General Assemblies interpreted our Constitution with statements that serve as "Authoritative Interpretations." These statements continue to offer great wisdom to how we practice love in regard to sexual ethics and our standards of ordination.

Like G-6.0106b, our Authoritative Interpretation of 1978 (A.I.) faithfully agrees with the Bible. It was adopted by the UPCUSA General Assembly in 1978 after years of study. Immediately the PCUS General Assembly adopted it in 1979. Then the reunited PCUSA reaffirmed it in 1993. When the PCUSA wrote G-6.0106b into the Constitution in 1997, its action was based largely upon a common understanding created by A.I. There have been 42 attempts at 11 General Assemblies to remove, amend, or otherwise weaken the force of the A.I., and the church has always defended its wisdom. Since 1978, not one attempt to remove or change it has succeeded.

So how does the A.I. agree with what the Bible says? Here are some excerpts:

• "homosexuality is not God's wish for humanity."

• "homosexuality is a contradiction of God's wise and beautiful pattern for human sexual relationships revealed in Scripture"

• "the New Testament declares that all homosexual practice is incompatible with Christian faith and life."

• "For the church to ordain a self-affirming, practicing homosexual person to ministry would be to act in contradiction to its charter and calling in Scripture, setting in motion both within the church and society serious contradictions to the will of Christ."

• "our present understanding of God's will precludes the ordination of persons who do not repent of homosexual practice"

• "the practice of homosexuality is sin"

Where lies the burden of proof to cause us to change?

The wise guidance of G-6.0106b and our Authoritative Interpretation stand in clear agreement with two thousand years of Christian understanding. Such a consensus across the ages commands our attention! What could justify a total reversal of belief? Only a clear consensus that Scripture calls for such a change.

After decades of detailed study, such a change has not occurred. What has changed? Not Scripture, or God?s immutable will. It's the cultural sexual mores around us that have changed. We now practice our Christian sexual ethics in an increasingly anti-Christian milieu.

Of course this is not new. Christians have always been countercultural! We are commanded to be not conformed to the world but transformed (Rom 12:1–2). God writes our agenda, and we lovingly follow, as God transforms the world. The world's ways have never been models for Christian living.

Why, then have we had three decades of contention in the Church about sexual ethics? Recently in our western society, pressure has been applied against every sexual boundary. In the 1970s, two presbyteries that wanted to ordain practicing homosexuals asked if our Constitution allowed them to do so. General Assembly looked into it thoroughly and said "No," through the 1978 Definitive Guidance. That policy is now called the Authoritative Interpretation, and it makes clear what the Bible, confessions, and Constitution teach us:

• Presbyterians do not have God's permission to engage in homosexual sex.

• Presbyterians may not ordain unrepentant sinners, including practicing homosexuals.

When those who would reverse the church's sexual ethic persisted, a specific constitutional provision became necessary: G-6.0106b ("fidelity and chastity"). It received a substantial majority vote of presbyteries in 1997, and when it was challenged in 1998, it was retained by an even larger majority. In yet another challenge in 2001, G-6.0106b was reaffirmed by a 74% majority vote. No other provision of our Constitution has been so repeatedly affirmed!

We must remember that the A.I. and G-6.0106b are the whole church's provisions. This isn't the doing of some faction. Presbyterians as a whole over three decades—indeed, throughout history!—have recognized and preserved these standards. Agitation by a few has unsuccessfully attempted to reverse the decision of the many and has continually troubled the church.

Moreover, the widespread witch hunts that were predicted have not materialized. Judicial cases have been filed only as a last resort, even in the face of extreme provocation. Presbyterians are not vindictive, but we do believe in a polity that is decent and in order.

Our theology is sound. The Bible, confessions, Constitution, and Permanent Judicial Commission decisions all agree. There is no Christian reason to reverse our standards.

Testimony from other sources

As Christians we listen carefully to others, and we have been informed in our understanding of sexual ethics from a number of quarters.

Science informs us that there is no proof of purely genetic causation of homosexuality. Indeed, empirical evidence indicates that some homosexuals can and do change their orientation. The success of reorientation efforts by homosexuals approximates the success rate of recovering alcoholics. Change, however, is a word the politically rigid dare not allow to be spoken, because the possibility of change brings with it the necessity of personal responsibility for one's behavior. We Christians believe no one needs to be a victim of desires or impulses. Who would dare say our sexuality is the one factor Jesus cannot transform?

Christians around the world have informed us as well. Of the thousands of denominations worldwide, only a tiny handful allows homosexual practice. Our mission partners are deeply scandalized by North America?s sexual licentiousness, and in many places, their witness is harmed by association with our moral laxity. The Episcopal Church U.S.A. provides a sad example of Western moral hubris in this regard. Because they have approved a sexually active homosexual bishop, historic ties with fellow Anglicans around the world are being severed. That denomination is also breaking apart nationally because of denominational failure to remain biblical. We do well to take note.

Youth are asking for moral boundaries and instruction from their church. They seek closure on an issue that ought to be clear, as they read their Bibles. Today's youth are turning away from morally relative churches such as ours.

Former homosexual persons say they need our affirmation. What they don't need is to have their transformation experience categorically dismissed for political reasons. They tell of damaged lives filled with darkness, disease, and despair, and they want fellow Presbyterians to listen, to understand, and to celebrate their new hope in Jesus Christ, who has transformed them.

How can the church best show its love to homosexuals?

When people acknowledge their need for help, love seeks to help in the wisest ways possible. Glossing over sexual problems may seem "nice," but it falls short of love. Jesus Christ transforms lives—including those of homosexuals! We dare not walk by on the other side, unconcerned.

So what should the PCUSA say to practicing homosexual persons? "Don't bother changing. That would be way too hard. God just isn't up to it, and neither are you?" NO! We must never sell the love of God so short. Instead, we must say, "We love you, and we will be your partners and encouragers as God's love transforms us all."

Let us continue to love wisely

May it be that this General Assembly maintains the consistency of the Presbyterian Church in loving as God has called us to love. May it be that neither the sexual confusion of our secular culture nor the easy out of sentimental indulgence would hustle this General Assembly into abandoning wise patterns of love in order to take the path of least resistance. For God's sake, for love's sake, and for the sake of homosexual persons, may it be that this General Assembly will preserve the Authoritative Interpretation, G-6.0106b, and the wise counsel about love that they provide. We encourage commissioners to vote against any measure to amend or remove our ordination standards