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Why, If We Share the Same Bible, Do Presbyterians Differ So Widely on the Issue of Gay Ordination? Section 1

By Mark D. Roberts | Monday, July 28, 2008

Part 9 of series: The End of the Presbyterian Church USA? Revisited
Permalink for this post / Permalink for this series

As I pick up my blog series on the PCUSA, I want to consider the question of why we Presbyterians, given that we share the same Bible, differ so widely on the issue of gay ordination. I realize that some of my readers want me to stop analyzing the issue and start proposing solutions (or dissolutions!). I will get to the “What are we going to do about this?” question soon enough. But I believe that it’s essential for us to understand not only what Presbyterians believe but also why we believe as we do. Clarity about these matters will help us make wise choices when it comes to tangible actions. It will also help us speak truly and respectfully of those with whom we disagree. Too often in this debate folks on both sides have misrepresented the other side.

A word of caution: I will be painting with a broad brush here as I try to capture major differences among Presbyterians. The reality is more complex than my analysis. But I think I’m getting the main brush strokes in the right place.

The fact that Presbyterians disagree widely on gay ordination is beyond question. In my recent posts I have tried to show what’s underneath this disagreement. Supporters of gay ordination see their cause as a matter of biblical justice. Opponents of gay ordination see their cause as a matter of biblical righteousness. This means something rotten is the state of Presbyterianism, because God’s justice would never actually be in conflict with God’s righteousness! Somewhere along the line somebody has missed God’s will in the matter.

A Question of Biblical Authority and Interpretation

Opponents of gay ordination often explain why proponents believe as they do by saying something like: “We follow what the Bible teaches. They do not. We uphold the authority of the Bible. They do not. This whole debate isn’t really about homosexuality. It’s about the authority of the Bible.” Supporters of gay ordination sometimes object to this explanation: “That’s not true. We also uphold the authority of the Bible. We just interpret it differently. This isn’t a matter of the biblical authority. It’s about the interpretation of the Bible.”

In my opinion, both sides are partly right. That means both sides are partly wrong as well. In fact, what leads Presbyterians to such different conclusions with respect to homosexuality is a matter both of biblical authority and of biblical interpretation. In the end, these are interlocking issues that can’t be completely distinguished.

Almost all Presbyterians agree that the Bible is authoritative in some sense. Almost all Presbyterians agree that biblical truth comes to us embedded in culture (or cultures, to be more precise). And almost all Presbyterians agree that the Bible is both divine and human. We differ, however in our estimation of just how much of Scripture is divine, and therefore just how much of it is authoritative.

In general, opponents of gay ordination believe that all of the Bible is divinely-inspired and therefore authoritative. The timeless truth of God, because it comes in a cultural package, needs to be carefully discerned, so as to clarify that which is authoritative for us. So, for example, those who believe that the whole Bible is inspired do not argue, on the basis of 1 Corinthians 11, that women in today’s church should be veiled. But they don’t dismiss 1 Corinthians 11 as something that was relevant for first-century Corinth at best, or simply wrongheaded at worst. They believe that Paul’s discussion of veiling contains and reflects timeless truth that is authoritative for us today, and that needs to be unpacked so we can implement it. This truth would include such things as the authority of women to pray and prophesy in church, the essential male/female character of creation and church, and the need for doing in church that which is edifying.

In general, proponents of gay ordination believe that the Bible contains divinely-inspired portions, but also portions that are merely human, and therefore not authoritative for us today. Paul’s claim that women should be veiled, therefore, is seen as culturally-bound, or even as simply wrong. One must look elsewhere for the timeless truth of Scripture, which is found, for example, in Jesus’s instruction to love, or in the consistent call of the Bible to seek justice for the oppressed. The interpreter of Scripture has the responsibility of sifting out the timeless from the time-bound, so that God’s Word might be properly understood and applied today.

When we come to the issue of gay ordination, therefore, opponents of gay ordination believe that the Bible clearly reveals the sinfulness of homosexual activity because such teaching is found in several biblical passages. Proponents of gay ordination deny this. Some argue that the Bible never addresses the case of loving, mature, committed homosexual lovers. But proponents tend to believe that even if the Bible condemned all homosexual activity, this would not reflect God’s inspiration, but rather human enculturation and limitation. As they interpret the Bible, they believe they have the freedom and the responsibility to sort out what is inspired and authoritative and what is neither inspired nor authoritative. The Bible’s consistently negative teaching on homosexuality falls in the neither inspired nor authoritative category.

In my next post in this series I’ll continue this conversation.

Topics: PCUSA: End of? |

4 Responses to “Why, If We Share the Same Bible, Do Presbyterians Differ So Widely on the Issue of Gay Ordination? Section 1”

  1. Bill Goff Says:
    July 28th, 2008 at 1:36 pm

    I am a proponent of gay ordination and the full inclusion of all homosexual Christians in the church. I believe that the Bible is divinely given and culturally conditioned. As such it is the unique authorative source for belief and behavior. I do not believe that portions of the Bible are merely human and therefore not authoratative. I believe that God used real human beings and real languages (unfortunately not Elizabethian English) to communicate to real people in specific historical contexts what he wanted them to know. In order to use the Bible faithfully we have to translate Hebrew or Greek (or a little Aramaic) into understandable English and we have to appreciate something of the cultural and historical situation into which God’s word first came. In other words, we have to interpret it to understand and obey it.
    Most of the time we are able to do this without much fuss. There is a general consensus regarding such things as women not having braided hair in church. (Sorry I don’t have time to find the verse on that one.) I think those with a very high view of the Bible don’t spend much time warning women against braided hair. Not because they don’t think that admonition was only human or not fully divine, but because they realize that it was relevant in a culture where (apparently) women who practiced an ancient sinful profession tended to wear braided hair and Paul didn’t want Christian women to be associated with that profession. Braided hair doesn’t have the same meaning in our culture as it did in the ancient Greek and Roman cultures in which Paul lived and wrote.
    My analysis of the few Biblical passages which reference homosexual behavior is that they are critical of abusive behavior (such as pedophilia, a common practice in Greek culture), not being homosexual as such.
    Well, I have to get back to my day job.

  2. Jeff Bridgeman Says:
    July 28th, 2008 at 3:05 pm

    Sorry to back track and bring up an issue from an earlier blog, but in this division within our denomination, we’re hearing that some people think it’s time to leave, to take their church out of the PC(USA). With the frustrations over legislation and as you’re pointing out, a differing hermenutic toward the Bible, it sure sounds good to people. Wouldn’t it be nice to be in a place where everyone agrees, the battle’s done and we can focus on what God really wants his church to do!

    But I’m amazed that the level of comfort or relief one gets, the absence of suffering or struggle and the relative success of churches that separate is held up as a proof that God is done with the Presbyterians and the one’s who abandoned her were right. I struggle with the notion that’s implied here that we’re entitled to a problem free church. Just because I’m uncomfortable with the way things are going doesn’t seem to be permission to clear out (I think some prophets might give us insight into that!)

    I don’t know what the future holds for the PC(USA) but the right or wrong choices GA’s make doesn’t seem to me to be a sign of God’s favor or dissatisfaction with us. There is a greater opportunity today to seek God in an effort to be faithful to Him in a distasteful or disagreeable situation then when everything is fine. I think God is far more concerned with our intimacy with Him, especially as a Church than with our comfort over GA actions. Who knows what the Lord’s doing - pruning, thinning, correcting, redirecting? All I do know is that He loves us, right or wrong. I’ve got to hang onto that alone.

  3. Mike Armistead Says:
    July 28th, 2008 at 9:46 pm

    As you mentioned in the start of your blog, the situation is more subtle than just having two opposing camps locked down in battle. One of the big parts of the problem is that the denomination is shifting from being firmly on one side of this issue (traditional biblical authority) to where, at least at the General Assembly and national staff level, the non-traditional view of scripture offering general guidelines but not absolutes has prevailed. This shift cannot be completed (or stopped) without greatly altering the landscape of the denomination.

    When the Authoritative Interpretation of 1978 was first adopted, it expressed the clear understanding of all in the church, save for a tiny minority. It was not very controversial at the time. In fact, its main author, Thomas Gillespie, went on to a long tenure as President of Princeton Seminary, which is not exactly a hotbed of fundamentalism. Many of us who were growing up in the denomination or in leadership at the time were satisfied with that understanding then, and still are today. It remains an excellent statement that should be read and studied for the wisdom it embodies. The human condition has not changed, nor has God’s design for human sexuality. Therefore when denominational leadership refuses to actively enforce three votes on the issue by the presbyteries, and this year’s General Assembly throws out this understanding altogether, there is a very raw perception by traditionalists that something has gone awry. And when Jane Spahr is celebrated as a hero, but faithful members, elders, deacons, and pastors are dismissed as homophobic bigots because they grieve that homosexuality is dead-end trap, the sense of rejection because even more pronounced. The denomination seems to be saying two things. To its evangelical members (40-50% of its overall membership) it seems to be saying, “Those of you who take scripture seriously at its face-value level, you are in error if not evil, and we don’t want you here unless you change your deepest convictions about the Christian life.” To active gays and lesbians (2-3% of its membership?) it seems to be saying, “We embrace your eccentric lifestyle as virtuous, and will do whatever it takes to accommodate you and make you feel comfortable.”

    In other words, it is difficult to take a denomination grounded in a very focused view of scripture along with the Westminster Confession and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms, and bring it to where it is today without alienating a major portion of its constituents. It would have been far wiser to start a new, more liberal denomination, rather than radically alter the one that already existed.

    As much as I have tried to find other possible biblical interpretations, the scriptures do not seem to offer any view other than any sexual expression outside of the bonds of matrimony between a man and a woman falls short of God’s loving intention for humanity. When you look at women in spiritual leadership, the scriptures offer different perspectives. Not so with sexuality. The Bible is clear from beginning to end: “A man shall leave his father and mother and cling unto his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” It is true that Jesus never addressed homosexuality directly. However He does address marriage in detail. As the great revolutionary who enjoyed blasting the sinful barriers of His day, if he thought His contemporary culture was in error on this issue, He most certainly would have addressed it. Instead He hammered us about lust, divorce, adultery, fornication, and all the other cherished vices that we still cling to. Never once did he even hint that intercourse among men or mutual masturbation among women were part of God’s loving plan for humanity.

  4. CD-Host Says:
    August 5th, 2008 at 1:19 pm

    Mark –

    I think this and the first few sections are a good analysis. I disagree that the people in favor of homosexual ordination are rejecting biblical authority. I think a fair way to phrase is that they have a view the bible is less perspicuous than the conservatives do on this issue. On other issues like Christ and poverty, or spiritual marriage the perspicuousness is reversed often it is the conservatives that need to argue that passages don’t mean anything like what they sound like.

    I did a piece for church-discipline on the battles the last time around in the PCUSA which cover the debate from everyone’s perspective:
    Gresham Machen.


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