It’s funny how we see things… A little over a month ago the Internet nearly exploded around the debate of what color a dress was and how it seemed to change not only with who was observing the dress but also on when the dress was viewed by an individual observer. Meaning that one person could see the dress as both blue and back and gold and white depending on the moment. It was unnerving, and for 24 hours nearly everyone with an Internet connection or television was talking about it.
I am a nuanced conservative person. As a follow of Jesus Christ, I hold to the authority of Scripture but believe that means I have a responsibility to care for the planet as much as I do to oppose the death of the unborn. I believe the United States government has the duty to extend equal rights to everyone. I believe justice is something we should all strive to maintain, and that freedom is a weight not to be carried lightly.
Last week, the PC(USA) changed the standards of marriage opening the door (through a loop-hole in the Book of Order – BOO) for same-sex marriages to be officiated by its elders. I am a conservative person and a PC(USA) pastor, and my views on same-sex marriage have not changed. I was grieved by the change, but I want to make a point: headlines do not tell the full story… The headlines around the country read things like, “Presbyterians approve gay marriage in constitution…” But there is more to it than that… The BOO does not require that any PC(USA) congregation approve same-sex marriages on its campus or that pastors perform same-sex marriages. Each congregation decides for itself. I believe the new amendment affirms the biblically-taught view that marriage is between one man and one woman, and while there is intentional ambiguity in the amendment, any interpretation to the contrary is erroneous. That’s my view.
It wouldn’t be the first time well-meaning people have falsely interpreted a denominational document, or confessional statement, or the Bible to support sinful behavior. And just because one person or group of people does that, does not mean we all do that.
But what now? I have fielded that question many times in the last 8-10 years, first as the ordination standards changed whereby (again by a loophole of false interpretation in the BOO) practicing homosexuals could be ordained and now with the change in the marriage standards. For some, the only reasonable response is to leave the denomination or to leave a congregation which decides to stay. I can understand that. I’m not willing to say there are no circumstances in which a person should not leave or a congregation should not pursue another fellowship. But it should be extreme.
To some extent, I feel like this issue is like that ugly dress that seems to change color… Not that my personal views have changed on marriage, but that an individual or a local congregation’s response is based on perspective… That can be frustrating for people to wrestle with because it’s not as simple as black and white decisions.
Ultimately, we are called to live and work and breath for one purpose: the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Gospel that reaches the poor, the neglected, the abused, the hurting, the unloved, the neglected, the blind, the deaf, the captive, the sinner. The Gospel that calls people from a life and an identity of sin, not by throwing darts of accusation, but with the compassionate voice of Jesus who says, “Go and sin no more.” While a denominational entity can, and perhaps should, help that cause, it does not have to be a hinderance as long as the people of God are being faithful at the local level. It’s not the name on the outside of a church that makes it strong or weak, it’s the people on the inside.
The question that we should then ask is: what makes me who I am? What makes a church what it is? Is it the label or is it the activity? Just because a person throws on a uniform and swings a bat a few times, that doesn’t make them a ball player. Just because a person puts on a Stetson and wears boots, that does not make them a cowboy.
You might say labels are important, especially when it comes to a church… but doest that mean that because a particular Baptist church acts a certain way that all Baptist churches should be viewed in the same light? Because a number of Catholic churches struggled through and ignored the abhorrent behavior of some in their priesthood, should all be treated with the same vitriolic anger? Am I an agent of the devil because I wear the label Presbyterian and hold to the Reformed faith and disagree with how some who bear a similar label wear it? No.
The church in which I serve has one mission: to make and mature disciples for Jesus Christ. Our Session has voted to uphold the biblical definition of marriage as between one man and one woman, a privilege encouraged in the PCUSA amendment. We are also officially aligned with the Fellowship Community, an evangelical organization and wing of the PCUSA. All our pastors hold to that view as well. The fact that some in our denomination disagree with that view does not change our local congregation’s witness and ministry. As Pastor Tom Christian, one of my mentors and father-in-law, used to say, “if it ain’t local, it ain’t real…” meaning that it is the power of the faithful people in a local congregation that have the power to change a community, and that is separate from any regional or national body.
I understand and share the frustrations of many regarding the direction of the Church in the West. But let us remember
we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Ephesians 6:12.
What now? As always, it is a time of prayer and guidance from God, by the Word and Spirit. It is also a time of action. It is still time to demonstrate radical love and grace to others. That is not short-speak for condoning sin, but it is time to remember that we have all been shown radical, unmerited, undeserved grace and favor in Jesus Christ – that leads to repentance and a new life.
All of us are called to preach, teach, and live out the Good News that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior, Redeemer and Friend… that by his obedient life and sacrificial death he secured the forgiveness of our sins, and that by his resurrection we have the hope of eternal life. We are called to bring that message to EVERYONE. No labels, or sinful behavior should stand in the way of that. Yes there are deceitful practices and false teachings we are to guard against by speaking the truth, but we do so in love. It does not happen when we trade one sinful practice for the sin of hatred, anger, and short-sightedness.
To quote another mentor in my life, my dad – “You can’t shine the light by cursing the darkness…”
For more on the marriage changes see “The Funeral of Marriage in the Church”