Amendment 01-A Will Keep All
God's Creatures in the Ark
The Rev. John A. Shuck, pastor of First Presbyterian
Church in Billings, MT, has sent us this essay, in which he reflects
on the benefits that passage of Amendment A would bring to all of us
as a denomination, and to our congregations and members.
It would, he says, be faithful to Scripture,
respectful of differing opinions among us, and in harmony with the
meaning of ordination in our church.
I am a typical pastor in a typical Presbyterian church. I am not a
scholar; I am not an activist; I am not a precise theologian; I am a
pastor. I have some reasons why I feel as I do in regards to Amendment
01-A. These reasons are neither profound nor unique. You have probably
heard them all before. Many people will agree with these reasons, many
will disagree and many will agree with some and disagree with others. I
think that is what it means to be Presbyterian. We find our way to do
ministry decently and in order.
The congregation in which I joyfully
serve is neither conservative nor liberal nor moderate. We are a
collection of individuals with divergent views on many topics. We
disagree with one another now and again, often strongly. But we know the
value of community. And we know that unity is not the result of thinking
alike, but of loving one another amidst all the diversity and complexity
that makes us human. What I would like to do is engage with others in
conversation about this Amendment. I will throw out some ideas under
various headings and hope for fruitful conversation from any takers.
I highly value scripture. On the whole I hear it as
God's Word of boundless love and enduring hope for creation. I preach
from scripture week by week. I believe that our church should be ordered
from the message of scripture. This message is ultimately embodied in
the mystery of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ. I take scripture so
seriously that I cannot take it literally. I always wrestle with what my
beloved New Testament Professor, the late J. Christian Beker, called
coherence vs. contingency. What is the coherent, central and timeless
message of scripture and what aspects of scripture are contingent upon
context, culture and ideology?
As fallible interpreters, we will often
mistake the contingent details of the Story for the coherent Message of
the Story. No one is immune from this tension. That is why we need each
other. If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a diverse
community to interpret God's Word. It is even trickier to apply our
interpretations of various texts to current situations, issues and
people. It seems to me that we must have a clear, fair and intelligent
understanding of contemporary problems in order for the Message of
Scripture to speak with any authority to them.
The contemporary problem we have had before us for 25
years or so is whether or not openly gay persons (my shorthand for
"self-affirming practicing homosexuals"--which I find to be
laborious and dehumanizing) may serve the church as Deacons, Elders, and
Ministers of Word and Sacrament. The actions by various General
Assemblies ("definitive guidance", "authoritative
interpretation"), PJC decisions, and G-6.0106b (and the litigation
that has followed in its wake) seem to suggest that the majority of
presbyters have so far said "no." Are these actions backed by
the coherent message of scripture? Many agree. Many do not.
Prior to the
last General Assembly over half of the biblical studies faculty at
PC(USA) seminaries called the scriptural evidence of denying full
participation of gay and lesbian people in the church into question.
(1) They saw that the contemporary problem (the denial to
ordained leadership of openly gay persons) was not sufficiently
addressed by the selected biblical texts often used to support this
position. To them, some of these texts are contingent to a larger
For example, Romans 1:26-27 is a culturally contingent
example of Paul's larger coherent assertion of humankind's inability to
comprehend and obey God's will. The Levitical prohibitions (i.e.
Leviticus 20:13) are ancient tribal contingents of the larger coherent
Holiness Code which instructs Israel to be Holy as God is Holy. It is
also true that the coherent biblical drama is couched in the contingent
patriarchy from which Israel was embedded. The contingency/coherence
model reminds us not to miss the forest for the trees in biblical
Some passages, such as the Sodom and Gomorrah incident
(2), refer to the sin of inhospitality and gang rape, and the
much disputed word in I Corinthians 6:9 seems to come under the rubric
of what we might now call "sexual misconduct." Neither would
be acceptable then or now. Certainly much of what was acceptable then in
regards to sexual behavior and relationships we would no longer find
acceptable. Much of what was unacceptable then, we do find acceptable
now. (Rather than go into detail on that point, I refer you to Walter
Wink's article, "Homosexuality and the Bible.")
None of these passages speak directly to contemporary
human beings who live in loving, ethical, mutually affirming, and
community enhancing relationships that happen to be of the same gender.
In fact, I might go as far as to say that no contemporary social issue
is addressed directly by scripture. That is why we need the Holy Spirit.
You cannot simply go to the Bible and "look it up."
In my opinion, a more appropriate text to
illuminate this issue would be Acts 10:9ff where Peter beholds a vision
of unclean animals being lowered to him on a sheet. He is commanded to
"kill and eat." The message is not about food, but people,
namely, the Gentiles. What was formerly unclean is now clean. That is
certainly a recurring and coherent message of scripture. God chooses the
unexpected to do God's work. Many of the parables of Jesus as well as
the actions of Jesus were told to counter the prevailing notions of his
time in regards to people who were considered unacceptable, untouchable
sinners. Jesus partied with them.
For me, the coherent message of
scripture is one of radical inclusive grace and an invitation to
discipleship to everyone, which entails living holy lives. If we are
fortunate enough to share our lives in intimacy with another, our
relationship should be based upon the Gospel ethic of love, fidelity,
forgiveness, stewardship, unitivity and hospitality.
(4) I have been blessed to know gay and lesbian couples who
have lived that ethic pretty darn well. They in turn, have been a
blessing to the community and to the Church of Jesus Christ.
Agreeing to Disagree
All of this said regarding scripture, I recognize that
Presbyterians in good conscience may interpret the will of God
differently on this and many other matters. With most other matters
whether they be social issues such as abortion or capital punishment, or
theological issues such as the virgin birth, substitutionary atonement
or eschatology, we agree to disagree and at best we even strengthen one
another by pointing out facets of an issue or problem that the other may
have missed. It seems strange to me that we can agree to disagree on so
many more substantial issues and practices and allow freedom of
conscience and mutual forbearance in that diversity, but this issue
requires a categorical prohibition.
I am not (nor is Amendment 01-A)
asking for agreement on homosexuality any more than I feel that we
should agree on hundreds of other social and theological issues and
approaches. I do not even claim that I am ultimately right on this. I
simply feel that there is room for differing viewpoints. There is no
consensus of biblical interpretation that would categorically prohibit
Presbyterians in same-gender relationships to serve the church in an
ordained capacity. No matter how certain we may feel about our
interpretation of scripture regarding this issue, we must agree to the
obvious fact that there is no consensus. Far from it. A significant and
increasing minority within the Presbyterian Church (USA) faithfully
interprets scripture to include those who have been excluded by our
Part of the beauty, the decency and the order of our
Presbyterian system is not to allow the tyranny of a simple majority to
overbear upon the minority on issues that are non-essential. All
Amendment 01-A asks for is to let the church agree to disagree and to
let the governing bodies determine who may serve particular ordained
ministries based on their evaluation of the character, faith and gifts
of a person guided by the governing body's interpretation of the
coherence of Scripture, the Confessions, and The Book of Order
(excepting of course the recent addition, G-6.0106b).
It is curious to me why the social issue of same
gender relationships centers on the issue of ordination/installation
within the Church. If same-sex relationships are so far removed from the
will of God as to warrant policies specifically excluding these
individuals from ordained service within the church, why stop there? Why
not pass an amendment explicitly excluding these folks from singing in
choir, teaching Sunday school, serving on staff as a youth minister,
playing the organ, sweeping up the fellowship hall or doing the dishes
after the church potluck?
Why stop there? Perhaps self-affirming
practicing homosexuals (there is that dehumanizing phrase again) should
be excluded from church membership and baptism. Those who seek to be
baptized or to join the church on affirmation of faith or reaffirmation
of faith are asked by me in front of the congregation: "Do you
renounce the ways of sin that separate you from the love of God?"
(5) Can a self-affirming practicing homosexual (let's call her
Sandy in a relationship with her life partner, Joan) say: "I
renounce them" knowing full well that she has no intention of
changing her relationship with her partner? Is the Session not in
violation if it is aware of this relationship as well and approves her
for membership? Obviously, I am not advocating for more Draconian
measures against our lesbian and gay sisters and brothers. I am simply
attempting to point out the inconsistencies of the policy to prohibit
installation and ordination of these Presbyterians.
Besides baptism and membership, what of other
Christian service? How does a congregation or Session prohibit an openly
gay person from teaching Sunday School, serving communion, preaching on
occasion, serving as a youth minister (or serving as a paid evangelist
as in Janie Spahr's case), or any of the myriad ways in which
Presbyterians can serve the church, without a direct prohibition in the Book
of Order? The answer is quite simple. Congregations
figure these things out for themselves.
If a Session does not
want someone to teach Sunday School, lead the choir or run the youth
program, it doesn't ask that individual to do so. The same is the case,
whether or not a blanket prohibition is in the Book of Order,
regarding ordained and/or installed service. If a Session does not want
a certain Presbyterian serving in a particular capacity within its
congregation, the Session is adept enough to keep him or her from
serving. But is it really fair to force a congregation that disagrees
with those principles of exclusion to do the same? We should not ordain
(nor prohibit from ordination) people based on category.
We do not
ordain (nor decide not to ordain) communists, cigarette smokers,
abortion providers, men, women, divorced persons, biblical literalists,
grumpy people, or those who have a good word to say about everyone. We
evaluate for service Bob and Sue and Ahmad and Soon Li. That is how
Presbyterians do things. A governing body is guided by
scripture and the confessions (ultimately the Holy Spirit) to evaluate individuals
for particular service. The problem for these past two and
one-half decades is that a simple majority has instituted and enforced a
binding policy of categorical prohibition on one class of individuals
for the whole church. We will continue to have problems until we allow
charity on non-essentials. To quote from Jesus (with gratitude to Walter
Wink for lifting this one up): "Why do you not judge for yourselves
what is right?" (6)
A larger issue?
I think there are two larger issues at work.
One is the social issue regarding human sexuality and how we as human
beings balance diversity, individual autonomy and the common good. It
is my opinion that at some point society (in part because of the
faithful witness of the church), will regard gay and lesbian persons the
way the society regards left-handed persons. Few today would advocate
changing the handedness of a person. This was not always the case. One
gentleman in my congregation told me that when he was a child his
teacher would tie his left hand behind his back so he would be forced to
write with this right hand. The theory was based on compassion. The
reasoning went that since we live in a right-handed world, we should
change the individual to adapt to the larger society.
Since those days
(not too long ago), society has changed. We have become more
knowledgeable and more attuned to adapting to the needs of a diverse
population. Today, we make left-handed golf clubs. Society adapted to
include self-affirming practicing left-handed people because they are
valuable contributors to society. Now this right-handed world makes
space for the left-handed, because it is good not only for the
left-handed but also for the society. Someday, rather than attempt to
change homosexuals, we will regard them as valuable contributors to
society and as such adapt so that they may participate fully in society.
Society is steadily coming to acceptance of openly gay
and lesbian people. This acceptance is happening individual by
individual, family by family, co-worker by co-worker, and yes, church
member by church member. Corporations increasingly provide domestic
partner benefits. Changes happen slowly, but they do happen regarding
civil rights for homosexual persons. Mental health and medical health
fields do not consider homosexuality to be a sickness. So-called change
therapies are for the vast majority of homosexuals non-effective and in
many cases harmful. Evangelical Christian and sociologist, Tony Campolo,
has emphasized this. (7)
Our society is
developing a more open attitude regarding homosexuality. Is this a good
thing or a bad thing? Is this in accordance with the grace of Christ or
is the culture moving against Christ? This will take some thought. Much
of our society's permissiveness is destructive. Marie Fortune,
in her book Love Does No Harm writes: "It is a paradox
that in the so-called sexual revolution of the last 25 years, women won
the right to say 'yes' to sexual activity but all but lost the right to
say 'no.'" (8) Society regards
people as commodities and consumers not as children of God. If there is
an openness to sexual activity for both heterosexuals and homosexuals,
some of that openness is because the society does not care. The Church
rightly does care. Also, our society is not critical of rampant
homophobia. Listen to the comments and the names high school students
call each other in the hallways. Violence against and misinformation
about gay and lesbian people is still far too common.
What does the church do?
This is a question that requires faithful discernment. In times of
social change, the church has often been enlisted to uphold the
conservative social position of the day, a position that in this case is
shaped by unexamined patriarchal attitudes. Neither social conservatism
nor social libertinism reflects the Gospel. What is the Gospel way?
most important thing is to recognize that change is difficult even as it
is necessary. The Holy Spirit is an instrument of change. "I am
about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive
it?" (9) In the midst of change, we
need to love everyone. That means we love gay and lesbian people as well
as our sisters and brothers in the Confessing Church Movement, the
Presbyterian Coalition, the More Light folks, the Covenant Network and
so forth. We need each other. We need to remember that we all
are faithful Presbyterians who love our church.
I also think we need to do our primary job of caring for God's people.
One aspect of this caring is to discuss and explore ethical guidelines
for living in faithful relationships. One resource is the Marie Fortune
book mentioned earlier. I have found it to be an excellent book to get
us to think about relationships of all kinds. It is a great resource for
high school students, particularly heterosexuals. I believe that the
church needs to provide rituals and support groups for gay and lesbian
people and for parents of gays and lesbians so that we can live
faithfully with one another in a culture that can be cold and
dehumanizing. We all (heterosexual and homosexual) need whatever
spiritual guidance and community blessing we can get to live good and
holy lives. I know I do. That is one issue.
The second issue
relates to the direction of the Presbyterian Church (USA). I firmly
believe in the big umbrella. My religious background is
somewhat eclectic. I have roots in the Assemblies of God and the
Southern Baptist Convention. I attended a Roman Catholic High School,
and now I am a Presbyterian. All of these traditions have been of great
value to me. As I mentioned at the beginning, my congregation consists
of individuals of divergent views and experiences. I love them all and
we need them all. All have gifts and views that need to be shared. We
need to share them with civility and love. I have seen this done. When
we do this with great respect and love we build up one another.
issue regarding ordination/installation of openly gay persons has deeper
roots that our new G.A. task force will hopefully trace. We need to
support their efforts. One of the issues that will need to be discussed
is the importance of scripture and its faithful interpretation. There is
much suspicion and misunderstanding of one another in regards to this
issue that I believe can be transcended with assertive and attentive
listening and discussion.
The purpose and mission of the Church is
another issue that needs our attention. We need to engage and dialogue
about Dirk Ficca's ideas rather than either defend or attack him. We
also need to recognize that we are spiritually diverse. Jack Haberer's
book, God Views, can be a helpful resource as we learn to
appreciate our differing spiritual orientations. I do hope and pray that
we can discover that there is room for all on Noah's ark. For if
Christians cannot find room for each other, I shudder to wonder if human
beings can live long together on Planet Earth.
Rev. John A. Shuck
First Presbyterian Church
1. Thirty-three professors addressed a
statement to commissioners at the 213th General Assembly
entitled: "The Whole Bible for the Whole Human Family." This
statement can be found on a number of web sites including www.tamfs.org.
2. Genesis 19:1ff.
3. This article can be ordered in booklet
form from Fellowship Bookstore, Box 271, Nyack, NY 10960. It is also
posted on numerous sites throughout the web.
4. For an excellent discussion on unitivity
and hospitality in intimate relationships see Kathy Rudy, Sex and
the Church (Boston: Beacon Press, 1997), 108-130.
5. Book of Common Worship, 407.
6. Wink quotes Luke 12:57 in
"Homosexuality and the Bible."
7. "Tony and Peggy Campolo: Is the
Homosexual My Neighbor?" is the transcript of a videotape of a talk
at North Park Chapel on February 29, 1996. The transcript can be found
8. Marie Fortune, Love Does No Harm:
Sexual Ethics for the Rest of Us (New York: Continuum, 1998), 68.
9. Isaiah 43:19