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Why, If We Share the Same Bible, Do Presbyterians Differ So Widely on the Issue of Gay Ordination? Section 3

By Mark D. Roberts | Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Part 11 of series: The End of the Presbyterian Church USA? Revisited
Permalink for this post / Permalink for this series

I closed yesterday’s post by suggesting two reasons why many Presbyterians no longer regard the whole of Scripture as authoritative. These were:

1. The fact that this view is held by many seminary professors in PCUSA seminaries.

2. The fact that some passages in the Bible are troubling has led many to reject their authority.

Today I’ll suggest two more reasons.

Third, the rejection of the full authority of the Bible reflects our postmodern and relativistic culture. In general, people today don’t accept established traditions and authorities. They claim the right to pick and choose what to believe and obey, especially in matters of religion. People who affirm the full authority of Scripture and who live in obedience to Scripture are a counter-cultural minority.

Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, many Presbyterians have come to know faithful Christians who are gay and lesbian, people who have truly confessed Jesus as Savior and Lord. Often they have tried to live by biblical teaching about sexuality, but have found this burden to be unbearable. In the end, they have come to believe that their homosexual orientation is not a result of the fallenness of the world, but rather a gift from God. They believe that God blesses their same-sex intimacy just as he does heterosexual intimacy. And some of these people also believe that they are called by God into ministry, and they deeply desire to be ordained. Many good-hearted Presbyterians, paying close attention to the experiences of gay and lesbian believers, and feeling empathy for them in their painful struggle for denominational approval, have chosen to give more authority to the experience and feelings of gay and lesbian Christians than to Scripture. For these Presbyterians, if Scripture teaches that homosexual behavior is always wrong, then Scripture itself simply has to be wrong in this teaching.

I can understand why some of my Presbyterian brothers and sisters have gone this direction. Throughout my life and ministry, I have had several close personal or pastoral relationships with gay and lesbian Christians. As I have walked with them on the tortuous road of their discipleship, I have wished that I could simply bless their homosexual feelings and behavior. No matter how hard I’ve tried to be kind and compassionate, I haven’t been able to tell folks what they have wanted to hear from me. Usually, this has led to brokenness in our relationships, as people have felt personally misunderstood and judged by me. I must confess that if I had only a tad less confidence in the inspiration and authority of the whole Bible, I’d be on the other side of this issue. But my convictions about biblical authority and interpretation, combined with my conclusions about what the Bible actually teaches, leave me no choice but to conclude that homosexual activity is not okay in any situation. I am not able to say, “Well, I guess Paul was wrong here,” even though his teaching contradicts the experiences of well-intentioned Christians I have known.

Because so many proponents of gay ordination do not affirm the full authority of Scripture, arguments by opponents that continually point to biblical texts have fallen on deaf ears. A substantial number of Presbyterians today simply don’t care what Romans 1 actually teaches about the morality of homosexual activity. Similarly, claims by proponents that depend primarily on the experiences gay and lesbian people and not on Scripture have little impact on opponents. We are simply talking past each other because we no longer share a common understanding of how God makes his will known to us.

Thus, every time Presbyterians form groups of people with diverse views on the gay ordination issue, charging these groups to understand and to love each other, hoping that such a process might lead to some sort of compromise on the ordination issue, the results are the same. People with diverse perspectives do come to understand and love each other. They often develop close relationships in the context of mutual respect. Yet they almost never change their minds on the matter of gay ordination. No compromise is produced. No matter what the Bible says, those who favored gay ordination going in continue to favor it. And no matter how many testimonies by gay and lesbian people are heard, those who opposed their ordination going in continue to oppose it going out. In the end, both sides do their favoring and opposing with more love and mutual respect, which is surely a good thing. But it fails to resolve our denominational impasse. The idea that we can somehow sit down and come up with a loving compromise about this issue, one that maintains our denominational unity in practice, is naïve and unsupported by years of valiant efforts.

Topics: PCUSA: End of? |

19 Responses to “Why, If We Share the Same Bible, Do Presbyterians Differ So Widely on the Issue of Gay Ordination? Section 3”

  1. Ted Says:
    July 30th, 2008 at 9:54 am

    Your analysis is spot on. Unfortunately, there’s no middle ground on this issue. So what’s next? My guess is the PCUSA is experiencing what earlier took place in the United Church of Christ. The conservatives eventually left and the composition of the denomination shifted more to the left.

  2. Ray Says:
    July 30th, 2008 at 10:40 am

    After all that we have been through, it is no longer reasonable to expect that more deliberation, no matter how well intentioned, will yeild a positive outcome. Unless we take radical action, one of two things will happen: either one side will be defeated and leave the fold in order maintain its integrity, or we will continue this destructive process until our mutual destruction is assured. In either case the PC(USA) as we know it will cease to exist.

    Now, while we a still a functioning body, is the time to proactively work toward an amicable and equitable division of the denomination that will enable all of our members, clergy and local congregations to effectively pursue the mission to which God is calling us - and quit wasting so many resources arguing about our differences, which are not going to be reconciled anyway.

    This will be the most difficult task we have ever faced, but unlike the current controversy it is a problem that can be solved. And it does not have to be a sad occasion. It can be liberating for both sides, and it might even be a way to join the work that God is already doing…

    Just a thought.

  3. Bill Goff Says:
    July 30th, 2008 at 10:54 am

    Mark, I consistantly find myself in the small minority of your readers who disagree with you about what the Bible says and what we should do with Christian brothers and sisters who have a same-sex orientation. Unlike many of the commenters on your blog, you have exemplified what it means to be a Christian gentleman in efforts to be fair to those who hold opinions with which you disagree. So I am trying to understand the anger I feel at your most recent posting. I think it is because you persistantly align your interpretation of Scripture with the inspiration and authority of Scripture and suggest that all who disagree with your interpretation have less confidence in the authority and inspiration than you do. So I am marginalized, if not belittled, as a “good hearted Presbyterian” (like “bleeding-heart liberal”) because I follow a different hermanutic. No wonder your gay and lesbian friends feel misunderstood and judged by you. I do too.
    Perhaps my interpretation is wrong. But if it is wrong, it is not because I regard the Bible as anything less than the inspired, authoratitive word of God. And perhaps your interpretation of Scripture is absolutely right and that your Harvard education and years of pastoral experience make you a better interpreter of Scripture than me. I may be wrong in considering the seven biblical passages dealing with same sex activity as problamatic and not addressing our Christian brothers and sisters who are gay and lesbian and who are trying to live lives faithful to God. I may be wrong in regarding the thousands of biblical passages (which are not difficult to understand) about justice and mercy and love as speaking to me about how to treat homoxexual people. But if I am wrong in my views, I am willing to cast myself on the mercy of God.
    I feel something like Huck Finn who thought he would surely go to hell for not turning in the slave, Jim, whom he had befrinded as they floated down the Mississippi River and whom he had come to regard as a real human being, not just a slave. Huck was willing to risk going to hell in order to protect Jim.
    I am willing risk your criticism and the (sometimes very harsh) censure of your readers and the Presbyterian church and the Southern Baptists in order to embrace my homosexual brothers and sisters and advocate their full inclusion into the church.

  4. Matt Ferguson Says:
    July 30th, 2008 at 11:34 am


    I believe there will not be “an amicable and equitable division of the denomination” if such a thing is attempted. The reason being, progressives will not allow it. If a significatn number of orthodox folks reached the point of deciding they want to depart, they will need to pay a ransome to leave with their property—any hope of an equitable division is foolish. Just look at what has already been taking place. Consider the “Louisville Papers”. Most progressives are rather nice folks, unless they are dealing with orthodox people/positions. While you can find some orthodox folks who would be just a mean-spirited, it would be a minority within the orthodox group. While you can find progressive folks who would be fair and open-minded about such a division, it would be the minority within the progressive group. I say this after being in this debate for all 28 years of my ordained ministry. I wish it were not so, but just consider what we have seen take place over the past two years to orthodox churches wanting to leave and consider what happened back when the PCA split off. It isn’t going to be pretty if it comes to that and folks should be fully aware of that reality.

  5. Mark Roberts Says:
    July 30th, 2008 at 1:50 pm

    Bill: Thanks for your honest comment. In a sense you are marginalized. But I would argue that you haven’t been marginalized by me. You are in a very small minority of people who affirm the authority of Scripture in a strong sense, and who also believe that homosexual activity could be okay in certain contexts. I wish there were more like you. At least we could have a serious conversation about the interpretation of relevant texts, as well as the whole of Scripture. We might very well disagree in the end, but at least we’d have some significant common ground. I sense this common ground with you and appreciate it, truly. But I do not sense this common ground with most of those in the PCUSA who support gay ordination.

    I should also say that I do agree with you that we need to follow biblical teaching when it comes to how we actually treat gay and lesbian people. All too often we who don’t approve of homosexuality have been extraordinarily unloving in our treatment of individuals. This is surely wrong.

    Anyway, thanks for your input in this conversation. Your voice is an important one.

  6. Jeff Winter Says:
    July 30th, 2008 at 2:02 pm

    To Bill Goff
    Bill, after reading your posting I reread Mark’s latest entry. I don’t sense any anger in the words Mark expressed. I see a pastor/scholar who is trying very hard to understand where the two groups within our denomination are coming from in their respective understanding of homosexuality. Having dealt with this issue for almost 20 years on the national level and pastoral level (I used to pastor a PCUSA church in the heart of the homosexual community of Denver)I see Mark’s posting as quite balanced. I would wholeheartedly recommend what he wrote to people on both sides of this issue.

  7. Doug Hucke Says:
    July 30th, 2008 at 2:27 pm

    I agree not only with the substance of your post but also the sensitivity. We are in a no-win situaiton because there is no common ground. This is not just about homosexuality and ordination. It is aobut the Bible and the Gospel.

  8. David Stearns Says:
    July 30th, 2008 at 3:17 pm

    We have long sought a “Third Way”. Neither to the left nor to the right, this Third Way was the path to take to avoid division of the church. This was the idea behind PUP and local option. But this way is proving to be a dead end, leading only to unprecidented levels of infighting, church withdrawals, and including even litigation in civil courts over property.

    Some would say that we are like little children sitting at the dinner table, who are spending so much time bickering that we aren’t eating the meal.

    So my question is, is it inevitable that some of us are forced to get up and move to another table, or is there some way we can all enjoy the meal set before us?

    On one side of the table are those who insist on being included as full citizens in God’s world. They may have truly accepted Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, and like the rest of us they recognize that they are fallen in many ways, but they are doing their best to follow scripture as they understand it. They may believe that their homosexual life is a gift, or that it is a sin, but either way they feel they deserve a place at the table and are fighting for it.

    On the other side of the table are those who strongly believe that homosexuality is a sin, and that the Bible says this very clearly. It is totally out of the question for either the church, or them personally, to “bless” the sin of homosexuality, and that is exactly what the other side has asked them to do. Ordination is supposed to include a vow to lead a life in Christ, and so accepting them for ordination means that we are accepting their sin as being “in Christ”. And the idea of Presbyterian ministers performing same-sex “marriages” and calling down God’s blessing on the couple is totally repugnant to them.

    However, many on this side of the table may still have respect and/or sympathy for those who in most ways are good christians clearly committed to the Lord, but who are unable or unwilling to let go of what they see as a sinful lifestyle. They believe that God calls us first to love God and to love our neighbor, and that includes the person sitting on the other side of the table.

    So, is there another “Third Way” that would allow full participation of gay and lesbian christians in the life of the church, including being ordained as pastors, elders and deacons, that would not “bless” their fallen selves? Would those on the one side be willing to sit at the table, knowing that their Host truly loves and accepts them but does not bless their sins? And would the others at the table be willing to sit with them and enjoy the good meal their Host has provided, knowing that they too have sinned, and that it is only through the grace of their Host that they are allowed this meal?

    The answer may be no, but if so it is a loss we will all feel and for which God will weep.

  9. Joe Arnett Says:
    July 30th, 2008 at 3:31 pm

    I have been following this series and all the comments with great interest. I thank you all for your input. For many years I have felt as Ray (comment 2) that the groups should split and get on with the basic mission of the church instead of spending all the resources fighting. I was distressed by the actions of the GA in 2006 and considered leaving the PCUSA at that time, but decided to stay until the next GA to see what direction it would take. I guess I’m not really surprised at what happened, but I have had a difficult time deciding to leave. I am 73 years old and did not grow up Presbyterian, but have been in the church since 1962. I have been a member of my present church (about a 500 member church) since 1971. Over the years I have served in many capacities including clerk of session. I am presently a member of the board of Deacons who provide primarly sick and shut-in visition. I have many dear friends in this church and they have provided great emotional and spiritual support through several personal crisis in my life. After much struggling, I have decided to leave the PCUSA and I am at peace with my decision knowing that my hope and trust is in the Lord, not the PCUSA. Like Matt (comment 4) I doubt there can ever be an amicable seperation. We all have to make our own decisions. I’m not sure yet where I will go. There are a couple of PCA churches in my area I plan to visit, but they are farther than I would like to drive.
    Again, I thank Dr. Roberts and all the commentator. May the Peace of Christ be with you.

  10. Bill Goff Says:
    July 30th, 2008 at 3:33 pm

    To Jeff Winter: If you read my entry again, I believe you will see that I was admitting and trying to come to grips with the anger I felt, not suggesting that there was any anger in the words Mark expressed. I admire Mark for being a model of Christian behavior in dealing with this very devisive issue. I just disagree with him. I hope the PCUSA can find a way to hold together with integrity. If it can’t, I will have to afflilate with GPSA (Gay Presbyterian Church of America).

  11. David Stearns Says:
    July 30th, 2008 at 5:33 pm

    To Joe Arnett: Please don’t go yet. We need your voice and your wisdom, and the friends you mention in your church need you as well. If your beliefs are consistent with the your particular church and pastor, you have no reason to leave. If you object to your per capita going to support the denomination, ask that your church not pay your share. Things may be different if the position of your church or pastor has moved out from under you, but even then you may be able to find another PC(USA) church in your area the will support you.

  12. J. Falconer Says:
    July 30th, 2008 at 5:51 pm

    Thanks Again, Rev. Mark Roberts- your thoughtful analysis of this current issue is by far one of the best I’ve seen & encountered and will probably be the best I ever encounter. Thanks Again for your insights & your Website! Prayers & Support ! Amen!!!

  13. crossdotcurve Says:
    July 30th, 2008 at 6:00 pm

    What a kind-sounding, seemingly reasonable justification of bigotry.

    I love the implicit relativism of “If I had a tad less confidence…”

    So it’s a sliding scale I guess. Um…are these “faithful Christians” in danger of going to hell for their sexuality, in your view?

    According to you, they’re not really “faithful” are they? You can’t have it both ways.

  14. Mark Roberts Says:
    July 30th, 2008 at 6:13 pm

    crossdotcurve: If we ended up in Hell for misinterpreting the Bible or for continuing to sin when we are Christians, then we’d all be in a pretty bad way. One can be “faithful” - i.e. truly trusting in God’s grace in Christ - and still be wrong in one’s beliefs and/or actions. Whoever said anything about Hell, anyway?

  15. Jim Yearsley Says:
    July 31st, 2008 at 10:05 am

    Dear Mark,

    I appreciate the thoughtful lovingkindness of this posting and the responses. I think Mark, you have capture my perspective with far more eloquence and grace than I have been able to marshall. I am saving this to ponder and to guide some of the conversations in which I find myself.

    I also commend the thoughfulness and honesty of many of the commentators - particularly Bill.

    Bless you both.

  16. Mark D. Roberts Says:
    July 31st, 2008 at 10:41 am

    Thanks, Jim. Yes, I appreciate Bill’s willingness to hang in there and be honest, even when he’s in the minority of commenters. I wish we could have more respectful conversation about this issues.

  17. crossdotcurve Says:
    July 31st, 2008 at 7:23 pm

    Dr. Roberts,

    “Who said anything about hell anyway?”

    Um…I did. It always occurs to me when I encounter an exclusionary, (quasi) literalist and condemnatory form of Christianity.

    Because that’s ultimately what it’s about, right? Salvation?

    You probably take the position that it is not for you determine God’s mercy - that you must live your life as best you can according to how you interpret scripture and actively witness for it.

    If so - a thought experiment. Let’s say *you* were gay. And had found love. And were called to Christ. And still held the same view of scripture that you do. So in this experiment you are living in a profound state of tension. But you can’t deny that this is how you were made and that the love of your life is your true partner. Would you be worried about your own salvation because of this? Does this put your soul at risk?

  18. Paul Schmidt Says:
    August 1st, 2008 at 8:01 am

    Dear crossdotcurve,

    Your thought experiment can also apply to a marriage between a man and a woman. John Newton, best known for writing Amazing Grace, loved his wife, Mary, very dearly. From the Christian History Institute website (


    “Happy though he was in his love for Mary, Newton never wanted their love to be a substitute for or take the place of their love for God. He felt that many of the problems people had in their marriages were caused by people trying to find all their happiness and fulfillment in a human relationship apart from their relationship with the Lord. While at sea in 1753 John wrote Mary,

    “You will not be displeased with me for saying, that though you are dearer to me than the aggregate of all earthly comforts, I wish to limit my passion within those bounds which God has appointed. Our love to each other ought to lead us to love him supremely, who is the author and source of all the good we possess or hope for. It is to him we owe that happiness in a marriage state which so many seek in vain, some of whom set out with such hopes and prospects, that their disappointments can be deduced for no other cause, than having placed that high regard on a creature which is only due to the Creator. He therefore withholds his blessing (without which no union can subsist) and their expectations, of course, end in indifference…”


    The thought experiment can be modified. If you had a friend with a wife and children, and he wanted to leave his wife for “the love of his life and true partner” how would you counsel him?

    This experiment brings up some good questions: How do we know what God wants? Can we trust our feelings? What can we trust?

    Here is my answer:

    1) If God exists, He exists outside of us.
    2) Since he is outside of us, we can learn about Him through outside sources.
    3) The recognized outside source is the Bible.
    4) The Bible says that God sent His son, Jesus Christ, to die for our sins.
    5) If God loved the world and His son, He acted in this world in an amazing way.
    6) If God did all this, He would not allow the best outside source (the Bible) to be unreliable.
    7) Therefore, the Bible is authoritative and can be trusted.

    From this, I come to trust scripture, and could advise someone that wanted to leave his wife in what God wants. How would you advise your friend?

  19. Jack Sharpe Says:
    August 11th, 2008 at 6:01 pm


    Thank you for this clear exposition of the divide we face on Scripture and your responses to Bill. Bill indeed holds a rare position.

    If I were a “tad less confident in the authority of Scripture,” I might face Bill’s dilemma as well. However, the Word that commands love and justice also contains words condemning same sex behavior. I do not have the freedom to pick and chose which to obey. Scripture is full of passages that I do not understand and that I think are unjust. The instantaneous death of the driver of the oxcart for touching the Ark of the Covenant confused me as a child. Now I understand that my commonsense approach to the issues of life is a poor substitute for obedience to what God commands! As to crossdotcurves’ hypothetical, I hope I would take the eternal perspective. Jesus calls me to take up my cross daily and follow him for the sake of the kingdom. I have given up many things that I thought I loved along the way - and in humility admit that I still love many things that I have failed to give up. Still a sinner - saved by grace.


Thanks for your willingness to make a comment. Note: I do not moderate comments before they are posted, though they are automatically screened for profanities, spam, etc., and sometimes the screening program holds comments for moderation even though they're not offensive. I encourage open dialogue and serious disagreement, and am always willing to learn from my mistakes. I will not delete comments unless they are extraordinarily rude or irrelevant to the topic at hand. You do need to login in order to make a comment, because this cuts down on spam. You are free to use a nickname if you wish. Finally, I will eventually read all comments, but I don't have the time to respond to them on a consistent basis because I've got a few other demands on my time, like my "day job," my family, sleep, etc.

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