The debate over ordination: Where has it been? Where is it going?

The decades-long conflict over ordaining gays and lesbians, now bleeding into endorsing same-sex marriage, has clearly reached an impasse for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Early voting trends on the most recent attempt to modify the Form of Government (G-6.0106b) show a slim prospect for passage at the Presbytery level. Even if it passes, however, this option offers at best a lose-win or lose-lose outcome. That result is simply not acceptable for the Church of Jesus Christ.

As a person of the center, I am looking unapologetically for a third way out of the impasse. A third way, however, will probably not look like anything in front of us. From my experience of Presbyterians, the third way out of an impasse is more than a compromise between two unyielding positions. A third way demands hard work, creativity, and persistence by all parties. When it emerges, a third way does better with both sides of the impasse than either side can do on its own. And the result allows the two sides to move forward together.

To find a third way, however, probably cannot happen unless we declare a true impasse, and then actively “wait on the Lord.” The Task Force on Peace, Unity, and Purity paved the way for such a course of action, and the 2006 General Assembly took it but got no support from the next two General Assemblies. The PCUSA obviously wasn’t ready to take that step in 2006. Maybe we still can.

A. The Four Stages of the Debate

The PCUSA debate over the ordination of gays and lesbians has developed in four identifiable steps or stages. The stages include the place of the Bible in the discussion, sin as it pertains to ordaining gays and lesbians to church offices, creation and homosexuality, and relationality as a surprise move beyond the other stages. The discussion below attempts to state both sides of the argument, and show where each stage becomes inconclusive, leading to the next stage.

Stage One, the Bible

As a fact, by all accounts, from beginning to end the Bible uniformly portrays overt, homosexual behavior as sinful. The counter-argument attempts to show that the Bible is historically time-bound and irrelevant to modern day gays and lesbians, for whom sexual orientation is the key. Jesus himself, they say, is silent on the subject, and otherwise: the Biblical view of homosexuality is inadequate; principles of Biblical justice support the claims of gays and lesbians; the Bible cannot function authoritatively for modern Christians across the time gap; and the Bible is a subordinate authority at best. More closely:

a. One approach tries to show that the ancient world only knew very limited models of homosexual behavior, e.g., pederasty and patterns of sexual domination/exploitation by one person over another. Newer models derive from the 19th Century emphasis on self-orientation and relationships. The ancient world, they say, did not know about mutually loving, long-term, same-sex relationships between adult partners. To the contrary, however, this approach largely ignores clear evidence of such relationships at the highest level of Greco-Roman culture from 300 BC to 200 AD, e.g., Alexander the Great (and Haephestion), Julius Caesar (and the king of Bithynia+), even Nero (who formally married his male paramour), Hadrian (and Antinous) along with perhaps others of the “Five Good Emperors” of Rome (who, except for Marcus Aurelius, were childless and appointed their successors by adopting them as sons).

b. Another approach transposes the ordination of practicing gays and lesbians into an issue of justice, like the struggles for basic rights by women, slaves, and other oppressed people. Realigning the topic this way brings the Bible into play from a different angle and by-passes the specific passages on homosexual behavior. To the contrary, however, this approach does not square with the Bible’s understanding of justice. Biblical justice (mishpot) is not in the first instance about giving human individuals what they deserve by right. Biblical justice rescues people from difficulties often compounded by their own sin, to a status they do not deserve, could not attain, and cannot sustain on their own. The office of judge is that of a savior, as in the Book of Judges, in the local practice of justice “at the gate,” and in the Old Testament more generally (e.g., Moses and the Davidic line of kings). The supreme judge, of course, is Jesus Christ, and Biblical justice emerges in the New Testament as the justification of sinners. Such justice does not simply endorse people as they are, but elevates them to a changed reality which in turn alters them from within. As a matter of Biblical justice, gays and lesbians as such hardly fit Jesus’ profile of “the least among us” in Matthew 25:31-46. Unlike women, slavery, and oppression, the Bible views same-sex activity as sinful behavior, not an issue of human rights. And Biblical justice, including specifically the new reality in Christ, neither endorses nor leaves same-sex behavior as it is.

c. As (a) and (b) make plain, the debate seriously challenges whether the Bible can function authoritatively to speak a Word from God to modern Christians about contemporary issues. Proof-texting alone won’t establish Biblical authority, but neither can a people of the Book proceed to disregard the obvious things the Bible has to say and then deny that the Bible has any relevance to the matter at hand. The debate forces us to consider (i) the broader witness of Scripture (OT and NT), (ii) the specific covenant God makes with us in Christ (the Gospel), and (iii) the hermeneutical issue of how to transfer the Biblical message at full strength from one time, place, and people to another—retaining what is essential and filtering out what is not. The discussion so far has yet to answer why the Bible so uniformly opposes homosexual behavior and whether that word is essential or not.

d. The silence of Jesus is hardly the ground on which to base our approach to the Christian life or a major policy decision of the Church. Can we really assume Jesus endorses sexually active homosexual relationships if he knew or said nothing about them? On the other hand, when he speaks of marriage, he clearly has in mind a union of male and female, and no other.

e. The last two attempts to amend the PCUSA Form of Government G-6.0106b appeal to Jesus Christ as a higher authority than the Bible, assuming “a hierarchy of authorities” in the PCUSA ordination vows. For all sides Jesus Christ is plainly Lord in a way that the Bible is not. When the two come into conflict, say amendment proponents, we are to obey Jesus Christ, not lesser authorities, namely, the Bible, church confessions, rules set by church councils, or private opinion—in that order. To the contrary, of course, Jesus says little or nothing about gays and lesbians as such: see (d) above. More still, however, the argument from the higher authority of Jesus Christ fatally separates the Word incarnate from the Word written. We are left with the impossible task of discerning for our selves which parts of the Bible are in conflict with Jesus and which are not. The Presbyterian confessions plainly say that the Bible and Jesus Christ require each other. The Bible is the Word of God solely because in every verse it points uniquely to the Word of God incarnate. Without the Bible we have no other access to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. No substitute exists in tradition, reason, science, or the experience of our own, subjective feelings. On the other hand, without Christ (and the Spirit) the bare words of the Bible are “a dead letter that kills” (II Cor. 3:5). Christ draws the individual words together into a coherent meaning, and the Spirit makes the words powerful as God’s Word for the lives of people and nations. The whole (the Word, centered in Christ, empowered by the Spirit) is thus more than the sum of its parts (the words). The Bible is not identical with Jesus Christ, but the Word of God incarnate is inseparable from the Word of God written.1

In contrast to Stage One, concerning how to read, interpret, and grant the Bible its authoritative function, Stage Two of the argument deals with the moral stigma of sin connected with same-sex activity.

Stage Two, Sin

Apart from the Bible itself, the debate has to consider the impact statement of Stage One, that homosexual behavior is sinful, whether in a long-term monogamous relationship or not. The counter-argument says, this sin is no worse than other sins, e.g., greed, stealing, coveting, etc., and, further, sexual sins should not be singled out above the others. If sinlessness were the sole criterion, they say, no one could be ordained. Therefore, same-sex activity should not by itself disqualify a person from ordained Church offices. This argument is from the negative, i.e., just because we are sinful in this way is no reason not to be ordained.

At this juncture, both sides of the argument acknowledge that the sexual activity of practicing gays and lesbians is sinful. How, then, can we ordain practicing gays and lesbians without justifying the sin as well as the sinner? And how can we approve such ordinations, without at the same time endorsing same-sex activity as acceptable practice for church officers, members, and society as a whole? Does the sin in some sense qualify sinners for office (“make them more human”), the way greed qualifies people for the wisdom it takes to handle large sums of money, or stealing qualifies people for their savvy street smarts, or computer hacking gives people the expertise to develop better computer security measures? Does the Gospel ever simply dismiss overt sin among our leadership? Should our leaders be held accountable for their overt sins? Note: divorce does not raise the same issues as same-sex behavior, because office-holding by divorced or remarried persons in the church assumes a measure of changed behavior, i.e., repentance.

When Stage Two of the argument becomes inconclusive, Stage Three attempts to remove the moral stigma of sin altogether.

Stage Three, Creation

The next stage argues from creation. People with a homosexual orientation, so it goes, were created that way by God and can’t help it. Same-sex activity is simply “doing what is within them,” fulfilling naturally what God intends for them. Not only should the church bless and nurture such relationships among its members, they say, but also their mutual love and constancy qualify them for ordination to church office. Apart from the disputed science as to whether sexual orientation is a birth condition or homosexual behavior can be altered, the argument from creation tends to be a self-sufficient natural theology, i.e., doesn’t depend on either the Bible or Jesus Christ. Natural theology was used to justify slavery and social Darwinism (the survival of the fittest) in the 19th century, plus racism and fascist political ideologies in the 20th century. Arguments based on natural theology have been largely discredited for Reformed theology.

The argument from creation runs into further difficulty, however, when considering the natural basis of sexuality. Human sexuality starts with the gender differences between male and female. Same-sex activity is obviously a possibility and for many an existential reality, but not without the definition of sexuality that comes from two, naturally distinct genders. Apart from that distinction, even same-sex relationships make no sense. From the stand point of creation, therefore, homosexual behavior seems like a distortion of natural reality.

In the end, the argument from creation can both endorse and deny same-sex activity. When Stage Three of the debate becomes inconclusive, Stage Four reaches for a realm that does not depend upon nature.

Stage 4, Relationality

The fourth line of argument asks, Which is primary, our relationships or our gender-based sexuality? That is: Does the gender distinction between male and female call forth the basic relationships of sexuality, i.e., the relationships and roles of male and female in marriage, family, and beyond? OR … Do basic human relationships rise above gender differences, establish non-gender individual equality, and subordinate all sexual activity to relational concerns, including the gender roles of women and men?

Under the concept of “relationality,” the pro-gay-ordination side argues that relationships are primary. The accent on loving, long-term, monogamous, same-sex relationships, they say, belongs distinctively to the modern era and accords well with specific New Testament texts about a new creation in Christ (II Cor. 5:17), the end of marriage in the resurrection (Matt. 22:30), and freedom from gender itself (neither male nor female, Gal. 3:28). Modern technology (birth control, in vitro fertilization, cloning, +) certainly reinforces this point and largely frees sexual activity from the traditional roles of conceiving children and defining set patterns of family.

All sides agree that loving relationships provide the proper context for sexual activity. For gay-ordination proponents, relationships also rise above the physical activity. As a useful tool of relationship, sexual activity cannot be restricted to heterosexual norms. We gauge our humanity by our relationships, not by our actions, for, they say, Grace frees us from the Law, including requirements that may arise from sexual or natural distinctions. Why, then, should a merely utilitarian activity like sex keep practicing gays and lesbians from full involvement in the Church or disqualify anyone from being ordained to church office?

The downside of this position is easy to see. To say that relationships rise above gender differences or heterosexual activity does not then on the face of it warrant homosexual behavior. But, further, do relationships in Christ really mean freedom from sexual distinctions, freedom from our creaturely nature, freedom from God’s Law, freedom from sinning? Or, to the contrary, does our freedom in Christ cast a spotlight on precisely how these several arenas affect the character of our relationships? Further still, does the freedom of relationships in Christ turn us loose from anything that constrains or offends us about church (e.g., doctrines, denominational polity, rules) and society (e.g., public laws, regulations, especially those concerning marriage and family)? From where, then, do the parameters for our relationships come? Or does the “relationality” of the new creation free us to construct our relationships with God and others, almost in a designer fashion? And since, on this view, sex has no inherent value beyond its usefulness, is there any compelling reason to restrict any kind of sexual activity—homosexual or heterosexual—to just one relationship? These questions reach the limit of the debate so far and may suggest the next stage of the discussion.

B. Where Does the Debate Leave Us? (1)

The basic question asks, first, Where does the debate leave us theologically, a crucial concern for a confessional church like the PCUSA? The question asks, second, Where does the PCUSA debate leave us on resolving the point in dispute, whether to ordain practicing gays and lesbians to church office? Section B tackles the first of these, Section C the second.

Intuitively, I believe, many Presbyterians are uncomfortable with the course of this argument to date. Too much of the debate simply doesn’t jive with an honest valuing of Scripture, the Presbyterian confessions, and at times common sense. The assault on the plain meaning of Scripture (Stage 1) is a little too strong. The dismissal of sin (Stage 2) is a little too easy. The appeal to nature instead of the Bible for Christian foundations (Stage 3) is a little too quick. The outcome (Stage 4) goes a little too far, perhaps beyond the Gospel itself. In some ways Stage 4 may be a little too close to home, as we shall see. So, the feelings are mixed and compounded. Most Presbyterians are unsure how seriously to take their feelings of discomfort or how vigorously to resist the final outcome, whatever it is.

From the standpoint of the Reformation confessions in the PCUSA Book of Confessions (6 out of 11 documents + Barmen), Stage 4 plainly leads away from justification by grace through faith alone in the Reformation sense. For Calvin, faith unites us with Jesus Christ (Emmanuel, God with us) and puts us sinners into a totally undeserved, running fellowship with the holy, majestic, living God of all creation. By faith (a gift, the Spirit at work within us) we live as cut branches engrafted into a living root (Christ), as orphaned children adopted into the close-knit family of God (Jesus, the natural son), or as diverse members attached to a single body (Jesus Christ) and governed by its head. Eternal life with God now and forever—our salvation—comes from this faith-union with Christ. The grace here includes both the Way God provides (in Christ) and the believing that puts us on the Path (the Spirit).

Participating in Christ’s life, we share in his accomplishments, and so we are justified before God. By forgiving the sins of humanity on the cross, Christ gives us a freedom from the sins we have committed. By his obedient human life, from birth to death to resurrection, Christ also gives us access to his righteousness extended to us (“imputed”). We are thus free from having to attain perfect worthiness before God for ourselves—but highly motivated to seek it, having tasted the joy of union with Christ. And we are free to fail when we try to live into that worthiness—because we are sheltered by his forgiveness-and-righteousness. Justification focuses upon what Christ does, the freedom of sharing his real accomplishments, and in Christ the terms of our abiding with God and God with us.

Christ’s forgiving-love-and-righteousness bring to the light of day all the shadows and imperfections that block our fellowship with Christ (and with God). Getting rid of those shadows one-by-one is what Calvin calls “repentance unto life,” sanctification by another name. Inseparably linked with the freedoms of our justification, the repenting never stops, sinners that we are. We are both justified and sanctified because through faith alone, by grace alone, we participate in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who defines our lives by his.

By contrast the four-stage, pro-gay ordination/marriage argument moves from one point of self-justification to another. Stage 1 justifies modern wisdom over against the Bible. Stage 2 appears to justify the sin as well as the sinner. Stage 3 justifies things as they are, by creation. And Stage 4 seems to justify whatever we want to construct in the name of freedom from both sin and creation (Stages 2 and 3). The argument may assume Christ or the Spirit dwelling in us by faith, but the justification pertains to our wisdom, releases us from our concern for our own sin, endorses what we are by nature, and justifies our actions. In fact, the phrase “do what is within us” was the height of self-justification for the Protestant Reformers in the 16th Century. The Reformers value what we become in Christ more than what Christ becomes in us.

Furthermore, today’s church culture has moved to largely utilitarian accents on individual salvation, the Church, and Christian theology. For late Modernism-Pietism (1650-1950/present) the Bible is a means of revelation. Christ is mainly a means of salvation (the only means for conservatives; one of many for liberals). Faith is the means by which we as individuals attach ourselves to Christ for salvation (how much faith is enough?). Being saved, we have to demonstrate by means of our good works what a difference salvation makes (how many good works are enough?). The Church is God’s appointed instrument of mission to transform the world (how effective is the instrument, how much change?). The list could go on.

As a collection of tools + techniques, religion seems more practical than theoretical or dogmatic. We can measure the usefulness of tools+ in quantifiable amounts—relative output, efficiency, and effectiveness. As mere instruments, tools+ are simple, straightforward, inherently pure and without defect, not subject to moral considerations (“what matters is not what they are, but how they are used”). Tools + techniques can be easily grasped and used by willing humans. And the context for their usefulness is an array of basic relationships—with God, the World, nature, society, family, and others. Within the framework of late Modernism-Pietism, Stage 4 of the ordination-marriage debate actually makes some sense.

As sinners, however, we tend to concentrate on using the tools+ for maximum effect, and thereby lose track of the ends for which the tools are only means. So, we focus on the Bible and preaching as instruments of spiritual instruction, but we lose sight of dealing therein with God’s Word to us. We make Jesus Christ the means of our salvation and/or an example of how to live, but we lose sight of Jesus Christ as God with us. We cultivate our own inward, private, individual, experience at the expense of covenant fellowship with God as the joy of holistic Christian living. We emphasize our response to the grace offered as a means of blessing, and we miss the gift character of grace that makes it amazing. As the means to our own life after death, we make human salvation our aim, but we displace glorifying and enjoying God forever as the chief end of humanity.

From right to left the Presbyterian Church (USA) seems unaware of the pervasive shift in its message and self-understanding during the era of Modernism-Pietism, especially the last 100 years. That is an issue in itself, isn’t it? Anyone who breathes deeply the fresh, invigorating, Reformation air of our Book of Confessions will resist the sweeping shift from qualitative substance to quantitative systems, from the amazing grace of God to something humanly manageable. I do, and I’m not alone in that.

At the same time all of us have deep roots in the era of Modernism-Pietism. All of us see the changing dynamics and relationships that swirl around us every day. All of us can sense the exciting future that lies ahead of us. All of us want to be faithful to God and the mission of the Church, whether it be evangelism and outreach, hospitality extended to all people, justice to “the least of these,” or the transformation of the World for God’s sake. Above all, we don’t want to get in the way of God’s Spirit, going forward.

Likewise, all of us share the confusion of late Modernism-Pietism. At the very time we need a clear, resounding message of grace, we seem cut off and drifting away from it. Our best sources, the Bible and our confessions, seem remote and unhelpful. The issues of the day seem to stand alone without context or connection beyond the present moment. Apart from the self-standing experiences of isolated moments, we don’t know where to begin when facing the tough subjects of ordaining gays and lesbians, same-sex marriage, the larger issue of sexuality (more than the sex act!), marriage as a covenant in Christ, and major shifts in family formation. On other issues as well—racism, social justice, world mission, unity and diversity in church governance, peace and reconciliation in a world of conflict, or how to live as intentional Christians in an advanced, technological society—we struggle to get a handle on where to turn for resources. I believe that’s where the ordination debate has left us, and the stakes couldn’t be higher.

I also believe the Scriptures and our Reformed confessions still offer authentic resources for such a time as this. The Bible gets its authoritative status from its connection with Jesus Christ and its power from the work of the Spirit. The Bible functions authoritatively, however, when the Gospel moves faithfully across the time gap between our own age and the age of the Bible, i.e., between now and then, them and us, here and there. Ignoring this issue (“hermeneutics”) leaves us with “the strange silence of the Bible in the Church,” as James Smart pointed out decades ago. The Church in the 20th Century explored in depth how to bridge this time gap, a most important contribution. We still have much to learn from these trail blazers. But the Word is indeed a lamp to our feet and a light to our pathway, and God does speak to us on the tough issues of our day.

Likewise, the PCUSA Book of Confessions still bears witness to the heart of the Gospel centered in Jesus Christ. We miss the point of these confessions when we cherry-pick them for lists of essential doctrines to believe and apply, creating a confession above the confessions. These lists are going to differ from time to time, place to place, and person to person. The different lists will either divide us, or they will lead us to elevate a list and ignore the actual confessions. Both dynamics are at work in the PCUSA today. To the contrary, the confessions want us to hear each one as a faithful witness to its own time, place, and setting, when the Gospel was at risk or up in the air for them. Their focus on the heart of the Gospel in another age helps us focus on the heart of the Gospel in our age, though the circumstances may be very different. After all is said and done, the PCUSA remains a confessional church, with excellent resources at its disposal.

C. Where Does the Debate Leave Us? (2)

Several observations for the current situation of the PCUSA follow from the foregoing reflections. First, Scripture and the Reformed tradition focus on behavior, i.e., on active relationships. Neither Scripture nor the Reformed tradition supplies any warrant to endorse same-sex behavior for Christians, whether for church officers, church members, or civil society. As the gay-ordination debate shows, we have to talk ourselves into endorsing homosexual behavior, and, when we do so, the Gospel itself comes into risk in major, unforeseen ways. Great, historic American churches now taking the fateful step of endorsing same-sex behavior (Episcopal, UCC, Lutheran) have begun to unravel right before our eyes.

Largely from the center, the PCUSA has said repeatedly over the last 30+ years that it does not want to endorse homosexual behavior, but it is equally unwilling to exclude people with a homosexual orientation from the life of the Church. The current policies of the PCUSA (including G-6.0106b!) do not in fact specifically exclude people with a homosexual orientation from any aspects of the life of the Church. The objection is to misdirected sexual behavior, not orientation. That leaves a lot of room to work with.

Second, Scripture and the Reformed tradition give us a clear warrant to treat all people with respect, hospitality, and care, regardless of their condition. As Calvin points out, the way we deal with every human—who by definition shares in the image of God—reflects how we deal with the God in whose image she/he is made. Gays and lesbians not only share in the image of God but also they can be and many are intentional Christians as well. The Church therefore has a primary responsibility for their nurture and care within the community of faith, regardless of any tensions that may cause. The numerous votes on G-6.0106b, from 1996 to 2009, reinforce the nuanced approach stated here.

Third, the best way to deal with the current situation in the PCUSA may be to declare an impasse. Under intense church-political pressure, the options before us have become stark: (a) reject gay-lesbian ordination for the PCUSA and same-sex marriage for Christians, (b) endorse same-sex activity as acceptable Christian behavior together with marriage for same-sex couples and gay-lesbian ordination, or (c) declare an impasse and wait (upon the Lord) for a third way to emerge.

The center of the PCUSA does not typically begin with the declared position (a) but is driven to it by the militancy of those pressing for position (b). Constant calls for openness, inclusiveness, tolerance, forbearance, and local option as a solution, only make the situation worse. Such calls de facto push the people of position (a) to make room in the church for position (b), like it or not, even though (b) is not the church’s current practice or stated wish. The cries for “openness” in this context require those who are not-(b), but also those who are neither (a) nor (b), to adopt the agenda of (b) by just being “open” to it. The farmer who tends her livestock by opening the barn doors in the dead of winter will have to face the consequences of the open door, even if she knows such a practice is neither good for the animals nor something on which to bet the farm. Simply put: until we can find a win-win solution, we have to avoid the dilemmas of a lose-win or a lose-lose outcome. Surely we can be united together in Christ, even accept one another across our differences, without forcing an all-or-nothing showdown.

The current pro-gay-ordination strategy of a full press for option (b) will fail even if it wins the vote, for two reasons in my estimation. On the one hand, adopting (b) will not yield the acceptance or openness its proponents want, nor will it end the battle. The battle will rage on, locally if not nationally, until the forces of (b) and the counter-forces of (a) run the PCUSA into the ground completely, to no one’s benefit. That’s a classic lose-lose strategy, and the outcome is predictable right now.

On the other hand, adopting (b) will forestall finding a better solution. When Presbyterians are stymied, in my experience, yet typically wanting to be gracious to all parties, the Spirit drives everyone to look for novel but theologically sound solutions. With time and some willingness for the parties to continue hashing out the matter, a third way usually emerges (not always—no guarantees!). The third way will deal with the problem positively, constructively, and better than anything previously proposed by one party or the other.

The trick is to get to the point of declaring an impasse, which is option (c) above. That was the recommendation of the Peace-Unity-and-Purity report (General Assembly, 2006), which was passed by the center of the PCUSA over the strenuous objections of both right (a) and left (b). If the current attempt to replace G-6.0106b is defeated, maybe we can pursue the impasse strategy . . . intentionally.

For the sake of the Church, I hope so.

Copyright © 2011, by Merwyn S. Johnson.

All rights reserved.

1 The Barmen Declaration states well the position of the entire PCUSA Book of Confessions: “Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death” (Book of Confessions, 8.11). This position is shared by Reformed theologians from Calvin in the 16th Century to Barth in the 20th Century.

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