My presbytery, St. Augustine, voted Saturday to remove language from our denomination’s Book of Order that was inserted in 1997 to prevent the ordination of gays and lesbians. It is being voted upon by all of the PCUSA’s presbyteries and we will know in a few weeks whether the language is removed or stays. This is the fifth time in the last fifteen years we have voted on this subject.
What bothers me the most in these debates is the attempt by my evangelical brothers and sisters to turn this from a difference in biblical interpretation to a debate about the authority of scripture itself, which strikes me as overblown.
For one thing, every Deacon, Elder and Minister of Word and Sacrament takes an ordination vow affirming the authority of scripture:
Do you accept the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be, by the Holy Spirit, the unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ in the church universal, and God’s Word to you?
This is the standard that everyone who is ordained affirms– the standard every time they are ordained as well as when they are installed into new position. So most of us affirm this repeatedly across a lifetime.
But, opponents of gay ordination say, the refusal to abide by clear biblical teaching on the matter is an explicit denial of the authority of scripture which proves that the pro-ordination side has crossed the line into heretical belief.
Now it must be stated that the opponents of gay ordination require something like this kind of a “violation” in order to justify the breach they are trying to create in our church’s ecclesiology. Some of them are contemplating the start of a new denomination, which they cannot justify unless they can establish the heretical nature of the church they are in schism with. So this tactic of elevating the issue of a difference in interpretation to a difference in orthodoxy serves such a purpose nicely.
The problem is that it is disingenuous, for which I can provide at least two examples. It’s really a parlor game, and there are scores of such examples, but these two illustrate the point well enough.
The first involves the death penalty as the prescribed punishment for same sex behavior in Leviticus 18 and 20. This is only place in scripture where the community is told what to do with someone who is practicing same sex behavior, and it is nowhere rescinded. So how is it that Presbyterian congregations can welcome gay members if the scripture says we are supposed to kill them? How does one separate the crime from the punishment and still claim to be living under the authority of scripture? The Bible doesn’t support “reparative therapy,” or trying to “heal” someone of their gayness, so on what grounds would the PCUSA encourage such a Freudian response? Furthermore, until the end of the 19th century, homosexuality was an executable offense in the English speaking world because of these Levitical texts, so why would not the evangelicals who rightly point out their hospitality to gays by allowing them to join their churches, not be susceptible of the same charge that they are levelling at the left today, namely that they don’t just have a difference of opinion about the scripture but are plainly ignoring its authority in not executing gays, or at least advocating for such in civil society, as did earlier Christians? Surely the modern day evangelicals would bristle at the charge made by their forebears that they were forsaking the authority of scripture, just the left bristles at the same charge today.
Secondly, there is the prohibition of the consumption of blood in Acts 15. In many ways this is the most destructive point to the evangelical case, for it shows them doing what they say must never be done, which is to ignore an ethical proscription form scripture and to treat it as unnecessary. This is a clear biblical proscription, it is on point in that this, like the homosexuality question, has to do with standing in the community. It is in the New Testament so it cannot be claimed to be part of another dispensation (the law). And nowhere, like the execution of gays, in the scripture is the prohibition ever rescinded. But what church or presbytery holds this to be a standard for either church membership or ordination? I don’t know anyone who believes this–most people laugh at me when I tell them the prohibition is there. But it isn’t followed even by the evangelical congregations who are insisting that the sky will fall if we don’t follow their understanding of scripture on the gay issue. How is it that they can ignore this prohibition and at the same time arguing that they are the defenders of the authority of scripture?
What we have here is a simple disagreement over scriptural interpretation, not a great theological crisis. If conservatives try to blow this out of proportion, it seems to me that they can be hoisted on their own petard. They have clearly done the same thing that all mdoern Christians have done, and at best can only be claim to a difference in degree, rather than kind.
Pot, meet kettle.