Harold Porter and Jerry Andrews, in opposite ways, see the present controversy in terms of our understanding of “sin”; Porter cannot tolerate its application to, nor Andrews its expression in, homosexuality. Despite Porter’s objection, the church has always found in Genesis 3 the source of an “original sin,” a universal disruption of the relationship between God and creation which affects us all, and distinguishes it from the particular “sins” we all commit.
Beginning with humanity’s dismissal from paradise and extending through the pages of Scripture, there is ample evidence to support Paul’s claim that “the whole creation has been groaning in travail together” (Romans 8:22). This “impairment” finds expression in both the natural and spiritual dimensions of life, for neither cancer nor famine is God’s wish, nor are the various social and economic settings that lead us to deny to others what we possess. It also finds expression in homosexuality, which disrupts the divine ordering of male and female — and equally in heterosexuality when power and selfishness replace love.
If the church, in agreement with Scripture and tradition, locates homosexuality within this general and involuntary privation in human life, it does not thereby impose upon homosexuals a condition uncommon to us all. Being largely inherited and involuntary, these negativities of existence are difficult to recognize, especially in the case of homosexuality, but this does not change the fact they contradict God’s creative will and so must not be affirmed in the church.
Jerry Andrews’ response reminds us that from this general, universal and involuntary state of disruption there arise particular and voluntary acts we call “sin.” He is concerned, first, that the position we have taken does not distinguish between the person (who must be welcomed) and the sinful act (which must be condemned.) The trouble is that this distinction breaks down in every act of judgment, for, as in this case, it is not the act, but the homosexual person, who is denied ordination.
Andrew’s second concern is that in accepting an unrepentant and active homosexual for ordination we “implicat[e] the church in tolerating the sin.” The first answer to this must be that, if the church did not tolerate sin, none of us would be ordained. While the church recognizes that any sin, “any want of conformity” to the will of God renders us hopeless apart from the atoning work of Christ, it has always distinguished degrees and weight of sin in ordering its life. In determining fitness for ordination, the church finds some sins intolerable, some (wisely or unwisely) it tolerates and some it necessarily overlooks as common to the life of Christians. The list runs from such things as violence and gross dishonesty; to avariciousness, divorce and abortion; to those various and more or less non-injurious and private acts which even St. Paul confessed made him “wretched.” Typically, the church has placed sexual irregularity (absent adultery, clear injury or public scandal) in this last category.
If the church has not been much interested in the distinction between “person” and “act,” it has always recognized the difference between the “form” or external character of an act and its inner or “material” meaning and intention.
The first is obvious, the second obscure, and either might be right or wrong. Thus, while the form of a homosexual act is clearly contradictory to the divine order of male and female sexuality, that same act, if accompanied by faithfulness, trust and responsibility, may be materially obedient to God’s command that we love one another. On the other hand, while the form of heterosexuality is consistent with God’s order, it may, if accompanied by self-hatred, egocentricity or the will to power, be materially disobedient. The formal disruption of homosexuality is clear, and the church’s judgment regarding it must stand, but, while the church is not in a position to judge the heart, it must keep open the possibility of material obedience even in homosexual relations.
All of this means, as Ben Sparks has reminded us, that the issue of homosexual ordination does not turn so much around the nature of sin (except where its application is denied), as it does the doctrine of the church and its ministry.
It is interesting that in our Book of Confessions only two documents deal much with the qualifications for ordination. The Larger Catechism speaks only of “effective preaching,” “gifts” and “doctrine” (Questions 155, 8, 9). The Second Helvetic Confession in a longer treatment (Ch. XVIII) does the same, and, while it is concerned with the life of ministers, in the section on discipline it identifies only “false teachers” as those “not to be tolerated at all.” At the same place it reminds us that “even evil ministers are to be heard,” and that we are to avoid the ancient heresy of the Donatists, who were condemned by the church because they taught that moral fault disqualifies the ministry.
Consistent with this tradition, we hold that homosexual orientation and life does not in itself constitute an impediment to ordination. If, however, such an ordinand seeks, explicitly or implicitly, agreement to homosexuality, that would be grounds for denial, because it requires the church to allow self-affirmation in ordination, to shape its judgments according to secular trends and to abandon a judgment required by Scripture — in effect, to turn its back on its confessional basis.
Is the path under discussion a way out of our present dilemma? Recently 113 presbytery executives were reported in these pages to have signed a statement urging the church to seek in “openness to the Spirit,” a “third way” on the issue of homosexuality. The Spirit, however, is not apt to provide a middle and neutral way comfortable to extremes on the left and the right, which not only contradict each other, but also contradict essential elements of our confessional heritage. What we are proposing is not a middle way, but it may be the only way as we ponder the collapse of an ordination process afflicted with charge, countercharge, deep suspicion and distrust.
Some will object that we cannot trust presbyteries to determine whether the ordination of a homosexual involves a tacit approval of homosexuality. The answer must be that there is now (and properly) no trust in presbyteries to exercise the moral inquisitiveness required by Amendment B. We must, however, trust them to discern more important matters — such as an ordinand’s convictions regarding the Trinity, the Bible and the atoning work of Christ.
Cynthia Jarvis is right: we ought to be “a church whose polity works because trust and love prevail.” The way here under discussion “will not,” as Laird Stuart notes, “please everyone,” but for many of us it is the only way the church can be faithful to its confession and recover the confidence of the great majority of Presbyterians. We can only hope that others will take it up.
A. J. McKELWAY is a retired professor of religion from Davidson College.