A General Assembly commissioner pleaded in the plenary gathering for the assemblage to give direction to Presbyterians living in or near states that have legalized same-gender marriage. A parliamentary maneuver precluded consideration of the commissioner’s dilemma that night. By Friday morning a more disturbing possibility emerged: It appeared that General Assembly would be unable to respond pastorally to the commissioner’s plea. The refusal to have a conversation about such a deeply personal and passionate issue for so many Presbyterians invites – however unintentionally – cynicism in some pews.
We all know the limits to human strength, however, no matter how carefully disguised they are in the robes of piety and procedure. So grace insists that we assume the good will of the 219th General Assembly. Yet we can’t assume that we Presbyterians have discovered all the possible ways forward that God offers us. To what other conclusions might God be calling us beyond the present impasse?
Three positions on same-gender issues espoused frequently in our denomination follow:
Position 1: The Bible authorizes sexually intimate behavior only between married man and woman. All other sexually intimate relationships arise from sin.
Position 2: The Biblical passages that appear to condemn homosexuality reflect ancient prejudices and practices, as do their facile interpretations. They are not reflective of the contemporary experience of the church with gay and lesbian members. The gospels teach us that Jesus emphasized justice, mercy, and faith more than he did moral codes, and he welcomed all types of sinners into the realm of God.
Position 3: The matter is irresolvable and should be discontinued as a conversation.
As the third position seems an unhelpful retreat from conflict, it will go unconsidered in this article. My focus is on the first two positions.
Positions 1 and 2 offer themselves as an intractable contradiction and suggest that good Christians are divided by a common book. A second look, however, confirms that the contradiction lies in hermeneutics, not in the Bible itself. Love does not insist on its own way (I Corinthians 13:5), and it is worth asking if it may be arrogance in Biblical interpretation that invites us to pitch our tents on divided ground.
The hermeneutical contradiction represented by positions 1 and 2 should give us pause. It is produced by Aristotelian western logic: If A and B are contradictory, one of them is wrong. Yet the Bible is more of an eastern book, and Aristotelian logic overlooks the role of paradox in our faith. Christ is both fully divine and human. We partake of bread and wine and the body and blood of Christ. We are simultaneously sinners and righteous. That we have grown accustomed to these formulations does not rob them of the irreconcilable tension that they represent.
This grounding in paradox has a scientific basis. The Bible anticipated the wave and point paradox of quantum mechanics by 19 centuries. Jesus gave a theological interpretation to the defining interaction between the definer and the defined as articulated by physicist Nils Bohr. Bohr contended that the wave/particle duality of matter is undecided until the moment of observation. The definer and his or her device for observation collapse the probability of the wave into the certainty of the point of matter. When Jesus taught whatever we bind on earth is bound in heaven, and whatever we loose on earth is loosed in heaven (Matt. 16:19), he can be interpreted quantum mechanically to mean that only human participation incarnates the full breadth of paradox into a particular and momentary outcome.
Our faith tradition tells us that ethical contradictions, although irreconcilable, can be paradoxical and find their exemplar in the patriarch Abraham. As Kierkegaard noted in Fear and Trembling, the story of Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac at God’s bidding (Gen. 22:2) demonstrates that faith means obeying God. This is true even if obedience seems contrary to God’s character, promises, and God’s own transcendent principles.
We too have not yet reached the end of our saga. Are we invited to live uncomfortably between God’s divine character and God’s call in the present circumstance? Does our interminable haggling tell us that God is summoning us to recognize that positions 1 and 2 represent a paradox to be honored rather than resolved?
On the one hand, God created man and woman for each other. God also created humans to remain naked without shame, to bear children without labor pain, to work without sweat, and to live without violence, perhaps forever (Gen. 3:14-21).
On the other hand, now that we are fallen from the garden, shattered internally and relationally alienated, God calls the church to live realistically in the world. There are no perfect people and no pure relationships. We humans are delusional if we try to bracket out our own situations, as if we could separate them from the pervasiveness of corruption (Rom. 8:22, 23).
The grace of God becomes a leveler when we inquire as to the worthiness of humans for marriage and ordination. Inasmuch as God calls us graciously to bear children, even with labor pain; calls us to work, even with sweat; and calls us to wear clothing to hide our shame; God also calls us to marry committed gay and lesbian persons and to ordain gay and lesbian persons who accept the invitation to serve. The flight from paradox in order to maintain the fiction of achievable moral purity drives gay and lesbian persons into promiscuity and out of the church. Yet the church needs their leadership and gifts. Might a contemporary Paul urge both heterosexual and homosexual persons to remain single? If they cannot control themselves, might he urge marriage? Might Peter see the error of calling homosexual persons unclean when God calls them clean by gifting them spiritually?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer justified suspending his pacifism based on the life of Jesus and joining the bomb plot against Hitler. Bonhoeffer concluded that practicing Jesus’ passivism, in the face of aggression against innocents, lacked moral validity.
In a perfect world no child lies, no pacifist plots murder, and no sinner is ordained or married. Yet we have not inherited a perfect world and this truth leads us into paradox: God’s character and expressed purpose obligate going one direction, and God’s call in the midst of a fallen world demands going in another. It is our inability to recognize paradox and the legitimacy of each other’s positions that leads to the errant assumption that we must choose between them.
This season following General Assembly feels like a time of dormancy. Perhaps it is assumed that parliamentary procedure has successfully locked the gates against contention. Slumber will prevail until overtures make the round of presbyteries.
Some know better: Already the strong man has been bound and his house plundered (Matt. 12:29), the mustard seed has rooted (Matt. 13:31, 32), the leaven has permeated the loaf (Matt. 13:33), the new wine has burst its skins (Matt. 9:17), and the bridegroom has arrived (Matt. 25:10). Those aware are those awake to the inescapable paradox of Biblical faith, now present within our gates and home with us.
Our creature General Assembly will nap fitfully for the next two years. In the meantime I believe that God invites an open-eyed conspiracy driven by conscience. We must keep faith with one another within a denominational covenant that groans for redemption. Yet, with or without solemn assembly, we must find creative ways to bless both man and woman and same-gender couples in marriage, thereby honoring marriage. We must find innovative ways to make baptism the sole definition of ordination, thereby honoring our calling to be truly the gifted body of Christ. Somehow we must pastor all and orphan none, thereby embodying the good news: The distinction between God’s original purpose and God’s present call is not a dilemma to eschew but a gracious paradox to embrace.
SAM MASSEY is pastor of First Church, Iowa City, Iowa.