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Reconsidering ‘Definitive Guidance’

The church has been debating the issue of homosexuality for more than a quarter of a century to the neglect of more important issues and the creation of divisions within our fellowship which border on the catastrophic. So far, only two alternatives have been offered: that the church embrace homosexuality as simply another form of God's will for sexual life, or that the church condemn homosexuality as an egregious form of sin and deny office to homosexuals.

In my view, neither alternative is consistent with Scripture or tradition, nor do I believe they represent the opinions and attitudes of most Presbyterians. The church desperately needs a way out of the conflict between those two positions. In what follows I will propose one.

Our present difficulty stems from a study, “The Church and Homosexuality,” adopted by the PCUSA in 1978, and taken over by the PCUS in 1979 with only minimal changes. The original paper was written in response to requests from the presbyteries of New York and the Palisades for “definitive guidance” regarding the ordination of “persons who openly acknowledge homosexual orientation and practice.” In this context the term self-affirming referred to those who wish to affirm their homosexual orientation and practice in ordained ministry. (All emphases mine.)

The study understood the issue to be whether “the General Assembly [should] foster the creation of a new situation in the church in which practicing homosexual persons would be free to affirm their life style publicly and to obtain the church’s blessing upon this through ordination.” In other words, the study was not undertaken to make determination regarding homosexual orientation or practice as such, but only the forcing of those things upon the church. Unfortunately, this crucial point has been lost over years of acrimonious debate.

Part of the problem lies in the fact that the original study, itself, loses sight of this distinction. In its concluding paragraphs the report speaks of those who wish to affirm homosexual identity and practice in the church, but then in the final paragraph, it states that “unrepentant homosexual practice does not accord with the requirements for ordination set forth in [the] Form of Government . . . .” In this way the “definitive guidance” concludes by answering a question that had not been asked. Instead of answering the question whether a person should be free to affirm homosexuality publicly and obtain the church’s blessing upon homosexuality through ordination, the report concludes that homosexual life, as such, violates the requirements for ordination.

That conclusion is not only inconsistent with the purpose of the study, but conflicts with important elements of it. For example, the requirement of repentance appears at odds with the report’s recognition that “most homosexual persons do not consciously choose their affectional preference.” If such a study were done today we would expect a greater recognition of genetic factors involved and the extreme difficulty of re-orientation, conversion or “repentance” concerning sexual drives for which the homosexual cannot feel responsible.

The study rightly finds that in both the Old and New Testaments the relation of male and female is the creative design of God for human sexual existence, that homosexuality is condemned in Scripture, and thus that “homosexuality is not God’s wish for humanity.” The homosexual, however, can hardly feel guilty for his situation since, as the study admits, homosexuality is “the result of our living in a fallen world . . . [and] may be interpreted as part of the involuntary and often unconscious drive away from God’s purposes that characterizes fallen human nature.”

Homosexuality is here seen as an example of a situation that affects us all, for in our social, economic and political settings we all live and act in contexts which do not conform to God’s will, but which we do not elect by conscious choice. For this reason, in one of its few departures from the PCUSA text, the PCUS study clarifies this point by refusing to speak of homosexuality as “sin” in order “to avoid falling into a shallow and moralistic view . . . .” If, therefore, we speak of homosexuality as “sin,” we can do so only in the sense of an “original” and universal sinfulness in which we all participate.

In the 1978 and 1979 studies, and the “definitive guidance” derived from the former, two inconsistencies become obvious. First, given their recognition of the involuntary, social and genetic aspects of homosexuality, the studies ought not to have required of homosexuals conversion, celibacy or repentance. It may be that God’s grace can “transform [homosexual] desires or arrest their active expression,” but if we are charitable enough to liken homosexuals’ sex drives to our own, we can hardly expect it — or expect them to want it. Second, if the reason the Assembly adopted this study and guidance was to prohibit the imposition of homosexuality upon the church, it makes no sense to deny ordination to homosexuals who do not have that intention.

Where do we go from here? The church cannot approve of homosexuality, but it has in the past (absent public scandal or evidence of injury) accepted into its ministry homosexuals who do not insist upon that approval. The church needs to return to that position. To do so, the church ought to revisit the “definitive guidance” document and amend its conclusions to conform better to its stated intention and logic.

The purpose of the study was to answer the question whether a person who wishes, by public behavior or pronouncement, to impose homosexuality upon the church ought to be ordained. The answer to that question, it seems to me, must still be “No.” On the other hand, the study was not intended to make judgment as to whether a homosexual orientation and life, in itself, prohibits ordination. The church was not in the past troubled by that question, but was content to let the ordaining presbytery make judgments in this matter according to particular cases and circumstances.

Strangely, the study seems to agree with this in the “recommendations” attached to its “definitive guidance.” Not only do those recommendations call for sympathetic understanding and acceptance of homosexuals, but number 6 goes so far as to state that “examination of candidates for ordained office [ought to be] conducted with discretion and sensitivity . . . it would be a hindrance to God’s grace to make a specific inquiry into the sexual orientation or practice of candidates . . . where the person involved has not taken the initiative in declaring his or her sexual orientation.”

Here the issue is not whether a homosexual candidate is either repentant, converted or celibate, but whether, by public declaration, that candidate seeks affirmation of homosexuality in ordination. The same point is made in the last recommendation, which states that church action regarding homosexuality should not “affect negatively” any “minister who has been ordained prior to” such action. This “grandfathering” recognizes the legitimacy of the ministry of homosexual persons who have served the church of Christ faithfully without forcing upon it their orientation or otherwise disturbing its peace — and we must do the same.

If further clarification is needed, let me conclude by stating some principles and notations consistent with the church’s earlier study, which ought to inform our correction of its “definitive guidance” and guide our further reflection and action:

(1) Concerning the ordination of homosexuals, homosexuality itself constitutes no impediment. The church has always granted office to sinners — there being no other candidates. All of its ordinands are victims of non-volitional original sin, and at the same time willfully sin against God in their social, economic, political, and also sexual existence. The church expects its ministers to repent of such voluntary sins and desire to abandon them — even while it recognizes the failure of all Christians wholly to meet such a requirement. In the case of non-volitional sin, the church is aware of the difficulty of recognizing such elements of life as sin, and the greater difficulty of overcoming them. In the case of homosexuality, instances of re-orientation not withstanding, such recognition and overcoming may not be possible. Therefore, the church has historically denied ordination to homosexuals only in instances of public scandal and injurious behavior.

(2) Concerning, however, the ordination of “avowed” or “self-affirming” homosexuals, no one may require the church to accept or ordain them in that which is not in conformity to the will of God. While the church recognizes such elements in the lives of all its officers, its ordination is an act of faith that God will set aside and overrule that within us which distorts his image or injures his people.

(3) The question of the ordination of a homosexual is primarily the business of the ordaining presbytery, which must discern whether any avowal or affirmation of homosexuality accompanies a request for ordination. Such discernment will inevitably require judgment concerning the motivation and implication of public pronouncements and behavior of the person involved. Homosexual identification in itself, however, does not imply either avowal or affirmation of that condition.

(4) Concerning the marriage of homosexuals, the church, because of its understanding of the general will of God for sexual life, is not in a position to celebrate, bless or authorize a homosexual relationship by the service of marriage or any variation of it. On the other hand, the church in its pastoral ministry should support and encourage the virtues of trust, faithfulness and responsibility that may accompany a homosexual relationship.

These principles are more consistent with the 1978 study adopted by the church than the “definitive guidance” attached to it. They will not, however, satisfy folk on the far left or right of this issue, but they may make sense to the great majority of Presbyterians who neither fear nor celebrate homosexuality.

With such a policy in place, the church would then have to reconsider the amendments generated by the current controversy, returning the question of ordination to the presbyteries and the question of pastoral care of homosexuals to pastors — where both questions belong.


A. J. McKELWAY is a retired professor of religion, Davidson College (N.C.).