A Directory for Worship, not for litigation

DETROIT – Evangelical theologian Mark Achtemeier shared the story of his turnabout from anti-gay ordination activist into a pro-gay marriage advocate with several hundred Presbyterians at today’s Covenant Network luncheon.

After having “worked very hard to pass a constitutional ban” against the ordination of gay people, he assured the crowd that he remains “fully committed to a high view of biblical authority.”  However he said that he’d become “a chastened disciple who now recognizes that the witness of Scripture comes down overwhelmingly on the side of gay inclusion.”

A rousing round of applause arose from the organization that has been advocating for such inclusion for over 15 years.

Referencing a just published book, “The Bible’s Yes to Same-Sex Marriage,” subtitled, “An Evangelical’s Change of Heart,” he said that one of the things that “rocked” him out of his “conservative complacency” was the growing realization of the impact traditional teaching was having on the personal lives of gay persons.

Newly elected Moderator Heath Rada greets Mark Achtemeier following the Covenant Network luncheon.   (photo by Jack Haberer)
Newly elected Moderator Heath Rada greets Mark Achtemeier following the Covenant Network luncheon. (photo by Jack Haberer)

He shared how some of those folks – themselves devout, evangelical believers – had valiantly worked to overcome their same-sex attractions, how they had prayed, sought deliverance.  He also recounted how so many of their evangelical friends responded with “compassion, concern and encouragement.”  They supported them “through an intensive program of spiritual counseling and rehabilitative therapy” and walked alongside them “as supportive friends and colleagues.”

But in spite of their “heroic faithfulness” those efforts produced “broken and despairing people.”  Their efforts proved to be spiritually and psychologically toxic, he said.

Given the seven or eight references to same-sex behavior scattered through the Bible – all of them negative – how could he argue with Scripture on this?

Achtemeier said that he found help from Irenaeus, a second century church leader, whose church was being torn by an array of factions, each quoting texts of Scripture to argue the point, but were contradicting one another.  “How can that happen?” asked Irenaeus. Like a mosaic of a king, whose tiles could be separated and reassembled to look like a dog, so too, Scripture texts on matters addressing love, sex and marriage easily can be rearranged in ways that distort God’s love in Christ “that is the Bible’s true focus.”

“Jesus himself gives us a simple test for telling the difference between true and counterfeit teaching,” he said.  “’You will know them by their fruits.’”

Referencing a much-quoted survey of the Barna group, he reminded the crowd that the church is being perceived as judgmental, hypocritical and anti-gay.  He urged instead to be ones known for abiding in the vine – in close relationship with living Word, Jesus Christ and with the written word, the Bible.  “You cannot have fellowship with Christ, the incarnate Word of God, apart from a vital connection to the written word of God.  So let us have done with hemming and hawing about the Bible,” he exhorted.  “I know there has been suspicion in some quarters that if we allow ourselves too open an engagement with the Scriptures, the result might be to undermine our efforts toward justice and inclusion, most especially with our gay and lesbian neighbors.”  But, he retorted, “The suspicion is a myth and it needs to be set aside.”

He also urged those present to work to keep in close fellowship with those with whom they disagree, and applauded the fact that proposals before the General Assembly supporting marriage between same-sex couples would not require any Presbyterian “to adopt a view with which they disagree, or to participate in a ceremony of which they disapprove.”

“Our whole church needs a Directory for Worship, rather than a Directory for Litigation.”

His address was followed by a summary of Covenant Network’s board of directors, stated simply by David Colby:  “Our hope for this GA is that we can pastor without prosecution.”