Address to the Presbytery of Donegal
The Rev. Tricia Dykers Koenig
Covenant Network National Organizer
January 18, 2011
I want to begin where Presbyterians usually do – with the Scripture. I love the Bible because of how it has taught me to know God in Jesus Christ, and I even went to seminary because I loved the study of Scripture in college so much that I had to have more.
Every principle of biblical interpretation that I learned in college and in seminary – the principles that have been adopted by General Assemblies of the Presbyterian Church, and of which you have a summary handout today – lead me to the conclusion that God does not condemn all homosexual practice…. that God’s will for lesbian and gay persons is that their relationships exhibit the exact same qualities we expect from heterosexual married couples – faithfulness, commitment, tenderness, concern for the other’s well-being, sexual intimacy as an expression of love rather than lust… that the most important commandments as taught by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ – to love God with our whole being, and to love our neighbor as ourselves – are the lens through which we must consider the question before us.
Isn’t the rule of love the foundation of all Christian ethics?
And so let’s begin with Jesus’ commandment to love, and its echo in Romans 13:10: “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” Now to stress the love commandment, is not to say “anything goes as long as it’s for love.” The rule of love means that God calls us to follow the course that is most upbuilding of individual and community well-being.
When I was a leader in the evangelical youth ministry Young Life, our charge was to “earn the right to be heard” – in other words, before we could with integrity share the truth of the Gospel with the kids we were seeking to reach for Christ, we had to listen to the realities of their lives. The commandments of Christ to love require those of us who are heterosexual to contemplate what it would be like to be homosexual before we decide what’s good for them and faithful for the church. Christian love for gays and lesbians starts not with argument, but with listening to their stories.
Imagine, then, growing up with an uneasy consciousness of being different from the majority, with feelings you did not choose and have tried desperately to change but cannot, with a secret you cannot share without risk of rejection from the very people who are supposed to make you feel most safe and secure and loved. Imagine listening to jokes and slurs that bullies or just insensitive folks may or may not know apply to you. Imagine being told that you can never experience honest intimacy with a life partner. Imagine being told that you must repent of the yearning to express your most tender feelings for your beloved, and the added anguish when, having begged God to change you, God does not.
Imagine living with that burden whether or not you have ever engaged in any sexual activity. For make no mistake – the church’s official policy supposedly distinguishes between homosexual practice and homosexual orientation, but the stigma against homosexuality doesn’t draw that distinction. The stigma perpetuated by the church’s teaching that same-sex practice is always sinful does wrong, causes harm, even to people who have never committed the alleged sin. Some of the harmed are young people discovering themselves to be same-sex oriented, forced to choose between being honest and being accepted; or, having shared their secret, being thrown out of their own homes by parents who believe what the church teaches. Some are those taunted because they are only perceived to be gay. The recent rash of tragic suicides demonstrates how much despair some experience.
And what about the harm to others in the community – parents branded with false guilt, or fearing for their children’s physical and emotional safety, or grieving that they are no longer welcome in the church that raised them; families in which non-acceptance by some estranges them from one another; spouses of same-sex oriented people who follow the church’s advice to marry a member of the opposite sex but just can’t make the relationship work; even the harm done to the souls of those who garble the message the church sends, and act out violently in gay-bashing.
“Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” When I consider the actual effects of the church’s teaching that same-sex practice is always sin, I see lots of wrong being done to neighbors. That is the most important reason that I do not believe Scripture condemns loving, committed relationships of two men or two women that the church would bless if the gender of one partner were different. Scripture does not testify to a God whose will results in widespread suffering. The God I worship in Jesus Christ wants his children to do everything they can to minimize suffering in the world. God is love, and I cannot believe that God intends the wrong that inevitably follows the condemnation, even though the harm is not intended by most.
I wish there were time to talk much longer about the Bible. I could explain why I, along with many others who love Scripture, believe that the same-sex behaviors that are condemned in Scripture were abusive, exploitative, or part of idol worship – not the committed, loving relationships that we’re talking about today. We could discuss the different patterns of marriage evidenced in Scripture and how our contemporary and Western view of two equal partners differs from the polygamy and arranged marriages assumed in biblical times. We could study Genesis 1 and Genesis 2, and Jesus’ quotation of Genesis in response to a question not about homosexuality but about divorce – how the use of the phrase “Surely you are my bone and flesh” by Laban upon meeting his nephew Jacob [Genesis 29:14] leads me to the conclusion that the “one flesh” that Genesis and Jesus celebrated was not restricted to man and woman in sexual union, but was a metaphor for kinship, family. And then there’s Jesus’ habit of hanging out with and blessing those his own society scorned; his condemnation of judgmentalism; the trouble he got into with the religious establishment when he broke their laws in order to help people in need. We would spend time with Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, another sexual minority, and with the astounding discovery by Peter that the Gentile Cornelius, against everything the tradition taught him about who’s acceptable in the community of the chosen, was declared clean – and included – by God through the Holy Spirit. Corinthians, Galatians, the Gospels, the Prophets, the Exodus – so many passages and themes to explore.
If you don’t agree with my interpretation, I don’t know whether or not more time would convince you. I hope, though, that you will acknowledge that I have not come to my conclusion because I have ignored the Bible or thrown off its authority. I and many others – including the majority of those teaching Bible in Presbyterian seminaries – take our position not in spite of Scripture, but because of it.
All that said – we could be wrong. If you disagree with our interpretation of Scripture, unless you are claiming the infallibility and omniscience of God, you must also entertain the notion that you could be wrong. Sincere Christians disagree.
If I am wrong, I might be excusing or even encouraging sinful behavior, though it would be action committed in good faith by gays and lesbians seeking to express love for their partners and standing on the promise that is my only hope, and theirs: that nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.
If you who disagree are wrong, in addition to the harm I’ve already talked about, you risk turning people away from the saving love of Christ – lesbian and gay folk who conclude that, because they have struggled and prayed to change and failed, they must be outside of God’s grace; and the kind of people, not themselves gay, who told recent pollsters that their current perception of Christianity was that it’s primarily “anti-homosexual, judgmental, and hypocritical.” [unchristian: What a new generation really thinks about Christianity… and why it matters, by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons] Not exactly the witness we’re going for, as we seek to proclaim the unlimited love of Christ to this hurting world.
Sincere Christians disagree. The current G-6.0106b prohibits ordained service by anyone who “refuses to repent of any self-acknowledged practice which the confessions call sin,” rather a wide net. One of those practices called sin in the Westminster Larger Catechism is “misconstruing intentions, words and actions.” [7.255] I think that some in the church are wrong, indeed causing great harm, but if you disagree with me I will pay you the respect of refusing to believe that you are deliberately cruel or motivated by fear. I will assume you are seeking to be faithful. And I will ask you to pay me the same respect. You are entitled to your interpretation, and entitled to try to persuade me to change mine. You are not, however, entitled to accuse me of throwing off the authority of Scripture, without yourself violating the provisions of G-6.0106b.
Which brings us to Amendment 10-A. Yes, like many of you I am tired of this whole process. I hope you can understand, though, that for those of us who perceive that the current policy is harmful to people for whom Christ died, it is morally unthinkable to abandon the quest to change it. We see this as the latest in a long tradition of expanding understandings of the Gospel, a tradition that begins in Scripture itself and has embraced, for example, the gifts of women – against centuries of tradition and not without terrible struggle.
Presbyterians disagree about some important matters. What the PCUSA needs in order to get beyond the current impasse is a word that all of us can say together. I hope you are reading the amendment carefully and comparing it to the current paragraph. Most of the objections I have heard about 10-A are not about what it says, but what it does not say. Yet as long as the Book of Order imposes one interpretation of Scripture on those of us whose consciences are violated by it, the church will have conflict over this paragraph.
Amendment 10-A does not resolve the difference of opinion about the interpretation of Scripture; it does not replace one view with another, it just allows both to coexist – and the church to turn its attention to other mission imperatives. 10-A is silent on the question of the morality of same-sex relationships, at a time when God has not yet granted us the gift of agreement. Joyful submission to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all aspects of life – what standard could be higher? Isn’t that an affirmation to which we can all agree?
10-A requires rigorous examinations, and emphasizes the constitutional questions which cover all the areas of faithfulness, theological integrity, and readiness for service that we have valued. You can vote for 10-A without changing your interpretation of Scripture, and if your Session or presbytery is presented with a candidate who, in your understanding, doesn’t submit to the Lordship of Christ, you can refuse ordination or installation; otherwise, the question need not come up.
The polity that undergirds 10-A goes back intentionally to the origins of the Presbyterian Church on this continent – the Adopting Act of 1729, which provided for national standards applied to individual candidates by the governing body that knows them best. I have heard this disparaged as “local option,” but if so then “local option” is the description of basic Presbyterian polity , the way we’ve always done it. Freedom of conscience in the interpretation of Scripture, the duty of mutual forbearance, and the decision made by the body in which the candidate seeks to serve.
Will some Sessions and presbyteries accept officers who would not be ordained or installed somewhere else? Of course – that has always been true, without diminishing our connectionalism. Presbyterians value unity, not uniformity. Will we always agree with every decision? If that were the requirement, how many of us would still be around? But I for one want to be a part of a community of faith characterized by trust, by assuming the best of one another, rather than by fear and suspicion and micromanaging. “Presbyterians proclaim together their commitment to the Lordship of Jesus Christ!” “Presbyterians find space for another even when they disagree, because the love of Christ is stronger than their differences!” That’s the witness I long for us to make to the world.
We wouldn’t be having this discussion if we all agreed about the morality of same-gender relationships. Nobody I know thinks that there’s any Christian who doesn’t need to repent – we do! The question isn’t whether any of us needs to repent, but of what? The confessions, in warning us against “misconstruing intentions, words, and actions,” suggest that we are healthier as a community of faith if we more often gave each other the benefit of the doubt that faithfulness to Christ is what we all seek. So in the last analysis, Amendment 10-A is less about what you believe about sex and more about what you believe about being Presbyterian, being Christian, and most of all, about whether we trust God enough to know that God will sustain the church through the changes that are part of the challenge of our time, as God has sustained the church through the ages.
Therefore let me end where I started – with the Scripture. Romans 15:7 to conclude: “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”