Homosexual Ordination: What Must We Do?

What has been going around seems this year to be coming around -- and with a vengeance. Given the so-called "Confessing Church Movement," a plethora of overtures and more deeply drawn lines of controversy, it is clear that the General Assembly will once again be faced with the question of homosexual ordination.

What ought it to do? What it ought not to do, in the opinion of many, is to propose any further changes in the Book of Order regarding this issue. This counsel seems wise. Should it perhaps do nothing? The Assembly might simply state that existing policy and law speak adequately to the various overtures surrounding the issue of homosexuality. Everyone knows that silence will not stop this acrimonious debate, but those who advocate it may hope that, if the majority in the church just pursue more faithfully their proper vocation, those on the right and the left will sooner or later cease to cause trouble — or perhaps they expect that some new sense of crisis will deflect the antagonists’ energies. I doubt such sanguine hopes, and I suspect that the majority of commissioners will also.

What, then, ought the Assembly do? The Assembly may well respond positively to calls for a new study of the issue — but if that were undertaken without specific instruction and direction, such a project would simply replicate the apparently futile discussions recently held among those involved in the dispute. The failure of Amendment O, however, may indicate the direction such a restudy should take. It seems clear that its rejection does not signal an approval of homosexuality among the majority of presbyteries, nor any desire to join homosexual couples in marriage. At the same time, it does indicate an acceptance of homosexuality as part of the life of the church, and the recognition that pastors ought to be allowed to minister to homosexual couples in a positive way. Such “qualified acceptance without approval” ought to guide the direction and aim of any further study of the question of ordination — as well as recommendations derived from it.

Over the years many of us have tried to argue for just such an approach (cf. Lewis B. Smedes: Reformed Journal, January 1978; “Response of Mecklenburg Presbytery,” 1978; and in The Outlook note John H. Leith, “A Confused and Destructive Debate,” Jan. 3-10, 1994; A.J. McKelway: “Theses,” March 11, 1996, “Reconsidering,” Nov.6, 2000, “Forum,” Jan. 22, 2001, etc.). I would briefly state that argument in the following way.

(1) The Definitive Guidance of 1978 got us into this mess when, to the question whether the church should agree to a situation “in which practicing homosexual persons would be free to affirm their lifestyle publicly and to obtain the church’s blessing upon this through ordination,” it concluded that “our present understanding of God’s will precludes the ordination of persons who do not repent of homosexual practice.” In this way the Definitive Guidance answered a question that was not asked. It is significant that the guidance specifically warned that its conclusion ought not to “affect negatively the ordination rights” of any person ordained before the date of its adoption. Why not, if such ordination is contrary to God’s will? Clearly, the reason was that we have long recognized the legitimacy and usefulness of particular homosexual ministers and officers who have not sought the church’s approval or disturbed its peace.

(2) The Definitive Guidance was correct in finding that Scripture does not support the view that homosexuality is simply another expression of God’s will for human sexual existence. Notwithstanding the attempt of a few scholars to argue the contrary, this opinion is still confirmed by a vast scholarly majority — and supported as well by church tradition and a “plain sense” reading of Scripture. To say, however, that homosexuality is not consistent with God’s intention for human beings is not to say that homosexual orientation and life is, in itself, grounds for a denial of ordination. After all, the church accepts into its ministry people who inherit all sorts of beliefs and practices inconsistent with God’s will — so long as they do not assert those failings as virtues or impose them upon the church. In all such cases, including homosexuality, it is the duty of presbytery to judge whether the public life and pronouncements of such persons conform to that rule.

(3) The Definitive Guidance was also correct in finding that homosexuality is largely involuntary. Today we would probably give more emphasis to that point.

While the weighing of nature vs. nurture is still debated, few with intimate knowledge would deny that homosexuals typically recognize their situation only after years of trying to be like everyone else. Thus, the church must approach such persons with particular compassion and understanding, requiring of them neither repentance, conversion nor celibacy. Rather, the church must recognize their condition as a mysterious out-working of a fallen humanity of which we are all a part — and aspects of which we all bring with us to the ministry.

(4) Therefore, and in light of the above, the question before the church is the same as it was in 1978 before it was obscured by the Definitive Guidance’s wrong and unnecessary conclusion. The question is not whether homosexual identity and life in themselves preclude ordination, but whether, and under what conditions, such ordination may or may not involve approval of homosexuality and its imposition upon the church. Put that way, the question will not please either side of the debate, but commissioners seeking a way out of our present impasse ought to press it upon the Assembly, for that question (and, in my view, that question alone) should direct any further reflection upon this issue.


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