A couple of years ago I saw a video by Joseph Small and Charles Wiley of our denomination’s Theology and Worship Office in Louisville. The video talked about how when we read difficult Bible passages, it is helpful to look at the interpretative witnesses both of the worldwide church and of the Christian Church throughout history. Small and Wiley noted that this hermeneutic corresponds to two affirmations in the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe in the holy catholic church,” and “I believe in the communion of the saints.” If we were to apply these principles to the reading of important Bible passages relating to human sexuality (like Romans 1:26-27; 1 Corinthians 6:9; 1 Timothy 1:10; Jude 7; cf. Matthew 19:4-6), we would note that the witness of the church for almost two thousand years is that scripture prohibits same gender sexual relations. (This is abundantly clear in the writings of John Calvin, but to cite just two PC(USA) confessional documents, the Westminster Confession cites Romans 1:26-7 as authority for the assertion that the seventh commandment prohibits “sodomy and un-natural lusts,” and section 9.47 of the Confession of 1967 reflects much of the basic teaching of Jesus on marriage between a man and a woman at Matthew 19:4-6 and parallel passages and also cites as characteristics of our culture “anarchy in sexual relationships” and “confusion about the meaning of sex..”) Returning to the second of the interpretative principles mentioned above, we would also find that the overwhelming witness of the worldwide church in our own day is that God’s plan as revealed in scripture is for human sexuality to be limited to marriage between a man and a woman.
In a recent address in Houston before the Covenant Network, a group favoring the ordination to church office of practicing and self-affirming homosexuals, former PC(USA) stated clerk Clifton Kirkpatrick who is now retired from that office said “God intends for us to change this,” “I think this is the year it will happen,” and “our only intolerance should be an intolerance of efforts to exclude those who are different.”
As Cliff himself pointed out in that address, the same 1996 General Assembly which first voted to elect him as stated clerk of the General Assembly was also the Assembly which voted to send to the presbyteries G-6.0106 b as a proposed addition to our Form of Government. Clearly he is more comfortable with their first decision than with their second! There are several ways to read Cliff’s comments in which he endorsed the removal of G-6.0106b from the Constitution and its replacement by Amendment 10-A. Some, no doubt, will see the endorsement by the PC(USA)’s former chief ecclesiastical and ecumenical officer as indicating that, to paraphrase the late John Leith in his book Crisis in the Church, many church leaders, paid by the offerings of the people, do not share the peoples’ values and seek to depart from longstanding church teachings. Others may see Cliff’s statement as a sign of the inevitability (if not the desirability) of G-6.0106b’s removal. Still others will rejoice that he can now be completely freed from his previous cumbersome duty to “preserve and defend” (even if unenthusiastically) the church’s aging Constitution, or at least those portions of it which they see as antiquated and prejudiced.
On the other hand, some of the worldwide ecumenical partners with whom Cliff worked for many years in Worldwide Ministries may truly wonder how he could have so quickly forgotten the voice of the worldwide church. They [along with many in the PC(USA)] might also ask with near-incredulity if he can really mean that he favors “intolerance” of their deeply-held theological positions on human sexuality which would exclude people like unrepentant adulterers and self affirming practicing homosexuals (who in the words of G-6.0106b, “refuse to repent”) from church office. My own view is that a majority of PC(USA) members still agree with the universal church in our own day (as well as with the church throughout the ages) that God’s Word establishes the boundary for human sexuality that it be exercised only in marriage between a man and a woman. I do not think that it is God’s will that we change our longstanding interpretation of scripture, nor do I think “this is the year it will happen.” In fact, even though there are strong forces in our culture (which I will discuss below) which are pushing us towards the acceptance and legitimization of homosexual practice for leaders in the church, I expectantly hope for a resurrection in the church as well as for a renewal of core values in a large part of our culture, perhaps precisely because our society and culture are in such crisis.
There really is a sharp and significant division between those who think that the changes represented by amendment 10-A are desirable and inevitable, (“the wave of the future” they might say) and those of us who believe that amendment 10-A is symptomatic of a culture and of a church which is not only in decline, but also in many places is approaching freefall. One wonders why the Covenant Network and its confreres are not more concerned by the alarming truth that those mainline churches of Europe and North America which are most likely to endorse homosexual ordination are precisely those churches whose membership numbers are plummeting towards zero. Clearly any victories they may win (by taking control of declining churches whose decline will likely only be accelerated by their victories) will be pyrrhic at best. Such “victories” of “new truth” would be not altogether unlike like the “victory” of a virus whose triumph over its host is shortly followed by the host’s demise–an unfortunate and unintentional result of which (for the virus) is also its own death–since it cannot live in the absence of that which it attacks. But as long as the patient lives, there is hope that the deceptive virus of “new truth” can be defeated, if only the patient realizes that her life is threatened! Or to put it another way, as the German writer Goethe once said, “when eras are in decline all tendencies are subjective, but when matters are ripening for a new epoch, all tendencies are objective.” Using Goethe’s observation, we see that the “new” (western) subjectivist interpretations of scripture which have arrived at the novel conclusion that homosexual practice can be pleasing to God, far from being new revelations of truth, are simply the product of cultures and institutions in full decline whereas the rising churches of the third world (as well as those in America!) have retained (or rediscovered) a more objective view of the truth of God’s Word.
The cultures of North America and of Western Europe are clearly in decline. They are obsessed with sexuality and have narcissistic and hedonistic tendencies, which, when combined with a desire for immediate gratification, are literally killing them. That western European and North American cultures are obsessed with sexuality can be seen from its presence as a driving force in our media, from the acceptability in many circles of both sex outside of marriage and of living together, and from the prevalence of serial monogamy in America where many people move from heterosexual relationship to heterosexual relationship. (Note also in this same vein that the former “gay” lobby in the US has added “bisexual” to their coalition label, raising the inevitable question of whether or not they advocate people being able to switch serially back and forth between heterosexual and homosexual relationships.) The narcissism, hedonism, and desire for immediate gratification in western cultures can be seen in the degradation of the environment which we will bequeath to future generations, in underfunded and overly generous entitlement programs which will be unavailable in current form to future generations but for which they will still have to pay, and in huge current account deficits (and in the case of the US, huge balance of payments deficits), through which these societies borrow on the backs of future generations to pay for more conspicuous consumption and immediate gratification of citizen-consumers today. (Those of us in mainline churches are also passing on to the next generation churches which are much more theologically impoverished and numerically diminished than the churches we received from our forebears though those of us who are ministers will probably receive more generous pensions than our forebears would have thought possible.) How can any one think that the morally sick (and even dying) institutions of North American and European culture are in any way competent to overturn 1970 years of Christian biblical interpretation about human sexuality and to completely ignore the testimony of the larger (and healthier) worldwide church which affirms the biblical view that same-gender sexual practice is sinful? Instead of concentrating so much on criticism of the Bible, North American and Western European Christians would do well to cast a realistic and much more critical eye on our own distorted and blinding cultural presuppositions and to more humbly rely not on our own flawed wisdom but on the teachings of God’s Word.
One of the uninformed myths surrounding the sexuality debate, at least in the Presbyterian Church (USA), is that those who favor the ordination of practicing homosexuals are somehow more thoughtful and more compassionate than their opponents. My own impression, after listening to these debates for years, is the exact opposite. Certainly it could be said of the former PC(USA) clerk’s simplistic statement “Our only intolerance should be an intolerance of efforts to exclude those who are different,” what the late Lefferts Loetscher of Princeton said about an earlier decision of a church commission: The former clerk’s statement that we should not exclude those who are different (presumably including not only all differences in theology but also all differences in the moral choices people make every day) is, in Loetscher’s words, “a principle which has much broader implications than the Church has yet had occasion to draw from it.” To continue with Loetscher, if the former clerk’s advice were to be followed, then “ecclesiastical power is seriously hindered for the future from preventing more radical…innovations….” (Loetscher, Broadening Church, p. 135)
Winfield Casey Jones, D. Min. is a PC(USA) pastor in Pearland, Texas. He was a candidate for PC(USA) stated clerk in 2000 and 2008. A few of these remarks were also made in debate on Amendment 10-A in a recent meeting of the Presbytery of New Covenant in Houston. Jones can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.