Special GA commentary by Brian Ellison and Paul Detterman
It has been one of the privileges of our ministries — our very different, very separate ministries.
Over the past few years, the two of us have addressed PC(USA) gatherings together — some congregations, but more often entire presbyteries. We have talked about marriage and about sexuality, about the Bible and about the denomination. We have expressed deep disagreements and sometimes even taken offense. We have chided and corrected each other (lovingly) and have also found plenty in the other’s words with which we could agree. We have confronted good and faithful people who agreed with one of us and were angry with the other. We have prayed together before and after these opportunities.
In doing this, we are incarnating our conviction that, despite some deep theological differences, we are brothers in Christ, each serving Christ with integrity in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
Neither of us is perfect. Each of us has equal ability to be wrong in our beliefs or in the ways in which we embody them. In our relationship, we each have moments of grace and moments of grudge. In other words, we probably represent the PC(USA) well. In a covenanted relationship, every individual has the ability and responsibility to respond to others with patience, grace and forbearance. No one has a corner on the mind and heart of God.
The Outlook invited us to write this article together. As we do, commissioners to the 222nd General Assembly are preparing to consider an overture that would create a particular dynamic between those who hold one view about what is most faithful and those who hold a different view — a dynamic that effectively asks those in one group to apologize to those in the other for what they believe and how they have acted on those sincere convictions. In writing this, we will reflect on what we’ve experienced, on what we’ve learned and on commitments that shape our common convictions about the Lord we serve, our denomination and the importance of our mutual witness to Jesus Christ amid the confusion, divisiveness and anger in the culture around us. We also hope to articulate a preferred future for the denomination we love and the people we love.
I’ve had the privilege of serving as executive director of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians since 2012 — which is to say, through several years of the great debates that led to that night in March 2015 when we celebrated the majority of presbyteries’ approval of Amendment 14-F. It was a truly great day for the church and a highlight of my ministry.
As a gay man, this celebration was especially important to me. It meant my partner and I would now have the option of becoming married in the church I love and have committed my life to serving. And it called to mind the many shoulders on which I was standing. For many of these blessed forerunners in the faith, there is real need for apology. Many have been hurt; some are hurting still.
But there is another reality. There is need for apology on all sides. Like all of us, I have sometimes characterized my opponents as my enemies. I have sometimes gloried too much in my will being done rather than God’s will. I have chosen to care for some more than others. Today, even where there is need for apology, there is also need for grace. For magnanimity. For focus on what matters most.
This is a pro-LGBTQ position. We are stronger when we are in relationships that include us in the broad community that represents the fullness of the body of Christ. We have LGBTQ pastors, elders, denominational officials and thought leaders now serving ably and openly throughout the church. Let’s live into the new day. Let us devote our attention at this assembly to strengthening the church’s witness to equality and justice for LGBTQ people in church and society and to defeating efforts to weaken the church’s social witness.
And in the years to come, organizations like the Covenant Network will be doing good and important work of advocacy — for LGBTQ people and others who have been excluded. We have a long way to go to reach full and authentic inclusion and affirmation. But that work is going to be done not by winning votes, but by winning hearts and minds. It is going to be accomplished by building enduring and lasting relationships, not by building majority coalitions at a biennial gathering. I look forward to the day when all gifts are honored and all love and commitment is celebrated. I oppose the apology overture because I want to move more quickly as the whole people of God toward that day.
I’ve been national director of Presbyterians for Renewal (PFR) — now called The Fellowship Community — since 2007, but my association with PFR began a decade earlier. I have served three congregations and in the Office of Theology and Worship as a self-identified, practicing evangelical (in the biblical, non-political use of that word). I’m one of the theological conservatives determined to live into my call to stay in the PC(USA) — in part, to help keep our covenanted life civil and Christ-honoring.
Throughout the past quarter century, I have experienced many times when apology has been necessary from people on both sides of a debate: “I’m sorry I pushed that point too hard” or “I’m sorry for the way others in ‘my tribe’ responded to you.” Sometimes apologies have been offered and accepted — other times opportunities have been missed.
In any relationship, apologies, when necessary, must be made quickly and sincerely or else they mean nothing. Nobody “wins” when the playground monitor holds two kids by the collar and demands, “YOU APOLOGIZE!” That might modify immediate behaviors, but more likely it will lead to retaliation.
We are perilously close to that schoolyard scenario with Overture 50. Are sincere apologies needed for words and actions that have demeaned and wounded people? Yes! Is apology necessary when good intentions have led to bad actions? Absolutely! Can conflicting convictions lead to extreme actions and statements? Unquestionably! Is there personal or congregational damage to many, irrespective of their theological convictions, that has been done in the name of biblical or social faithfulness? Most certainly! And for these things, every single one of us is required to confess, apologize and repent.
I agree with Brian that there is need for apology on both “sides.” In the debates on human sexuality, many on both sides of the issue have gone too far in making their case or “winning the day.” I have seen the collateral damage of these battles in the lives of the individuals and congregations on both “sides.” None of this honors the Savior who came “not to condemn, but that the world might be saved through him.” For damage that has been caused by my words or actions, or those of the constituency of which I am a part, I am truly sorry and humbly ask for forgiveness.
However, the same integrity that validates the sincerity of my apology also demands that, like Brian, I cannot apologize for sincerely held beliefs based on valid interpretations of God’s Word. Why is this distinction important? Because this is life in the Kingdom of God. Brian and I model a relationship predicated on the trust that, despite our obvious and important differences, we are both part of something far greater and far more important — the mission of God. This is how we can stand, side by side, in front of theological liberals, theological conservatives or the theologically confused, with respect and affection for each other, caring deeply about our personal beliefs, but caring equally about the way those beliefs shape our relationship with each other and our witness to our Savior Jesus Christ.
I join Brian in opposing the Apology Overture. The Fellowship Community can only continue to build bridges of trust and mission by maintaining fidelity to our beliefs. We cannot apologize for what we believe to be biblical truth. We can and must commit to speak that truth in deep compassion for others and with ever-greater grace.
BRIAN AND PAUL: SO, WHAT CAN WE DO?
The two of us, like the constituencies we represent, will most likely continue to disagree fundamentally about important aspects of God’s plan and purpose for sexuality and marriage, but there is common ground that we think can be useful to the denomination:
- We ask commissioners to the 222nd General Assembly to acknowledge decisions made with regard to LGBTQ people as places where the Holy Spirit was present, even if we differ about the outcome, and not try to expand or overstate the content of those decisions.
- We ask all in the PC(USA) to honor all people, embodying love and grace not only in what we say but in how we say it. This means treading carefully, even as we boldly proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ for all.
- We ask that the response to past and present experiences — the experiences of LGBTQ people wounded by past actions and the different experience of evangelicals who feel abandoned by the denomination’s current direction — be to engage in honest conversation, to commit to the nature of our covenanted relationship and to continue discerning the will and ways of God. This means listening before speaking. This means seeing “others” as people — not as problems. This means relationships, not formal resolutions.
- We believe extreme caution is in order before declaring one of us right and the other wrong in this time and in this place.
Finally, we commit to continuing to model truth and love, justice and grace. We sincerely ask others in our denomination to join us in these commitments — a new way forward that involves less pronouncement and more patient listening, less navel-gazing and more mission engagement. Together, may we make a faithful witness to the reality of our covenanted community and to God’s power to transform every one of us, more and more, into the image of Jesus Christ.
BRIAN ELLISON has served since 2012 as executive director of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians (covnetpres.org), which advocates for the full inclusion of LGBTQ people in the life and leadership of the PC(USA) and for the unity of the church. PAUL DETTERMAN is the national director of The Fellowship Community and lives in Louisville. Learn more about the vision and ministry of TFC at fellowship.community.