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Being the church tomorrow

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has been talking about marriage the entire time I have been ordained as a pastor.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Guest commentary by Matthew A. Rich

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has been talking about marriage the entire time I have been ordained as a pastor. I suspect that we as a denomination will not stop talking about marriage now that voting is complete on amendment 14-F. And that is good, for throughout the last 15 years one of the things I have most loved about the PC(USA) is that as a denomination, as presbyteries and as congregations we are willing to wrestle with Scripture and one another about the real issues facing the lives of our congregation members. Every congregation has someone touched by our theology of marriage in general and by same-gender marriage in particular. I rejoice that as Presbyterians we do not have someone who tells us what we must think and do. I love that we struggle together.

However, the ways in which we wrestle with one another is one of the things I have most disliked about the PC(USA) over the last 15 years. So often our struggles and debates seem to do more harm than good. They destroy our life and weaken our faith. Instead of building up congregations and strengthening mission, we seem to mirror the culture around us and tear down one another and the church.

So I anticipated the debate over amendment 14-F with some trepidation this year. However, the conversation in my presbytery encouraged me. Beginning with informational sessions in local congregations, then with six pastors speaking as part of a panel to frame the debate, and finally in the conversation shared by the presbytery as a whole before the vote, I found that all were seeking the very best for Christ’s church and its mission. We all know things are not as God would have them be and so are hoping for the renewal of the church as we talk, debate and struggle together.

As we seek to be the church in the midst of conversations, debates, arguments and votes, I encourage you to remember something that I share often with the congregation I serve. At the risk of sounding insensitive, I remind our members that as we come together to vote, I do not really care what they personally think about an issue. So often in debates about marriage and sexuality, our focus turns to our personal opinions — this is what I believe Scripture says, this is what I want the church to do for my daughter or son, this is what I think. Yet, as their pastor and moderator, I am not interested in their personal opinions.

Instead I ask that take very seriously our calling not to vote what we think is best, but to carefully discern together what is Christ’s will for Christ’s church. In this way, we cannot have opinions that never change or make our decisions these issues ahead of time. For it is through the process of prayer, studying Scripture, conversation with one another and an openness to the Holy Spirit that we might hear not our will, but God’s will.

And that gives me hope that we might be the church tomorrow, despite our differences on marriage and a multitude of other issues. Our primary task as the church is not to hold onto any particular interpretation or tradition that will save the church. It is not to advocate for any particular cause or change that will renew the church. No, our only calling in every moment is to see Jesus and then be a witness to him. So whether you rejoice or you lament the particular decision made by your presbytery; whether you celebrate or grieve the final tally of votes across our denomination, the primary question before us is and must always be: “How is Christ at work in this moment?”

That is the only way for us to be the church today and to continue being the church tomorrow. In “The Church Confident,” former dean at Yale Divinity School Leander Keck wrote about our human plans and dreams for renewing the church: “We could bring to pass everything that has been considered, and more, and still not find the churches renewed. And for that we should be profoundly grateful, because were it not so, the renewal of the churches would not be in God’s hands but in ours.”

So let us put our trust in the God who calls us to be the church, let us listen for the word Christ speaks to us today and may the power of the Holy Spirit continue to draw us into deeper relationship with God and one another today, tomorrow and until the kingdom comes.