My home church is a good reflection of the denomination: we have a broad spectrum of viewpoints represented in the pews. Returning to worship on the Sunday after the assembly, I held my breath as I looked around the sanctuary. I felt overwhelmingly thankful to see that the members of our congregation most likely to be upset by the assembly’s marriage decision were still present in worship.
It hasn’t always been this way. Our congregation also mirrors the denomination in that we have lost families to the sexuality debate. One family complained that the denomination’s stance was far too liberal. Another grew impatient with the slow pace of denominational change.
We all grieve these losses; we miss our friends on Sunday morning. But the result is that we are becoming a community in which nearly everyone has experienced being personally at odds with denominational policy at some point. And those of us who remain are together because we are committed to one another despite our differences. We all sense that our love for Jesus and his love for us are vastly more significant than our inability to see eye-to-eye on this one contested issue. That is a pretty amazing witness in the context of a secular political culture that is horribly polarized. I get excited about being part of a church like that.
I was encouraged at the assembly to find that leaders in the effort to pass the marriage overtures were deeply committed to allowing space for their conservative sisters and brothers to remain in the denomination. The assembly embodied this spirit when it added language to the Directory for Worship amendment saying,
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.
This assembly’s actions were not about establishing a denominational position on gay marriage to which everyone must conform. This assembly was trying to allow individual Presbyterians to follow their own biblically-formed consciences on an issue for which we at present we have no church-wide consensus. With these actions, the church stepped back from coercing conformity on either side of the issue. Pastors whose consciences lead them to support gay marriage will now be able to conduct ceremonies without fear of being prosecuted in the church courts. Those who oppose gay marriage will be free from any requirements to endorse or participate in ceremonies of which their consciences disapprove. If the assembly’s proposed amendment to the Directory for Worship passes the presbyteries, this latter guarantee will be written into the church’s constitution.
I am heartened by this determination to avoid a coerced conformity; it has deep resonances with our Christian understanding of God. The Bible tells us that God desires to be connected to us by bonds of love. This has important consequences, because love by its very nature must be freely chosen; it cannot be coerced. If our obedience serves properly as an expression of our love for God, it must be freely chosen as well.
A faithful church can therefore never be satisfied with a mere outward conformity that is imposed by external pressure or fear of punishment. As Christians who are called to love God and our neighbors, we must always strive to nurture hearts and minds that embrace the truth and live it out freely.
In situations like the present, where there is deep disagreement about what faithfulness to God’s truth looks like, we accomplish little by imposing an outward conformity to one side’s point of view. Our General Assembly has instead sought to nurture a church according to biblical teaching, in which Christ’s disciples respect one another’s consciences and practice forbearance toward those with whom they disagree (Colossians 3:12-14; 2 Timothy 2:24-26).
Ultimately this forbearance is the image of God’s patient loving-kindness toward sinners, of which we are all the beneficiaries. We embrace this forbearance not because we are relativists who think truth does not matter; we embrace it because we are confident that the means of grace are powerful and the Holy Spirit is at work in our common life.
I must also confess that a number of this assembly’s actions strike me as distressingly wrong-headed. This is okay; I have long since given up looking to be a member of the Church of Me.
In fact, I find the mixed record of the assembly oddly inspiring. Stumbling, bumbling and outright folly are nothing new in the life of the church, after all. One of the perversely comforting benefits of studying church history is that one quickly realizes that one’s own time is not unique; the life of the church has been a complete mess over the entire history of its existence! A careful glance at the New Testament demonstrates that these problems go back to the very beginning.
Yet it is precisely this church, awash as it is in errors, misjudgments and confusions, which Christ has called together by his Spirit. Christ has not called the triumphant fellowship of the agreeably perfected that exists in our self-centered imaginings; he has made this church to be an integral part of his body in the world. Christ stretches us by inviting us to love and embrace along with him this fellowship of frail, fallible disciples. And if God can make something useful and redeemable out of this three-ring circus that has ever been the church in the world, God might even be able to do something with a sinner like me.
And so we abound in hope.
MARK ACHTEMEIER has served the PC(USA) since 1984 as a pastor, theology professor and writer. He is the author of “The Bible’s Yes to Same-Sex Marriage: An Evangelical’s Change of Heart.”