A few days ago, I read this article about yet another large PCUSA church leaving the denomination for the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians. I have reconciled myself to the fact that nearly 200 churches have left the PCUSA to join ECO. What bothers me is not that they are leaving, but rather a consistent and ongoing claim made by many (not all, but many) of those who are doing so. Here are a few quotes from the article and from the letter written by the Session explaining their decision. From the article:
“The majority of those in support of the split say the national denomination is no longer consistent with their beliefs, chief of which they say is that Jesus Christ is the one path to salvation and the Bible is God's authoritative word.”
What is the context for the argument that the national denomination is no longer consistent with these beliefs?”
“‘Certainly the ongoing disagreement over human sexuality and ordination standards are signs of our denomination's divergent views on the authority of Scripture,’ the letter reads…. The church's leadership says the divergence with the national denomination has impeded its ministry and efforts to grow in the community.”
SIDENOTE 1: Let me state this clearly for those who might misunderstand or are unfamiliar with the larger context. Churches who are leaving the PCUSA for ECO leave because they do not support the ordination of gay and lesbian people (allowing them to be pastors of churches) or allowing ministers to marry gay or lesbian people. The PCUSA now allows the ordination of gay and lesbian people and allows ministers to marry gay and lesbian people. Churches who leave the PCUSA for ECO and who include statements like the above about human sexuality believe that the PCUSA is going against the Bible and against the command of Jesus Christ in allowing these things. Some churches are leaving for other reasons, but this church is ambiguously clear about why it is leaving.
The session members later state in their letter that:
“Contention within the PC(USA) denomination has served to impede our ministry. Changes to the Book of Order have increased denominational control and discouraged pastors. The impact of these changes and contention has been a steady distraction and dissipation within the denomination and within our congregation. Our FPCB leadership has spent an inordinate amount of time, energy and intellect over many years discussing and debating these issues resulting in diversion from specific opportunities for discipleship, outreach and mission. The contention has also impacted our ability to plan and implement growth on and outside our Center Street campus.”
SIDENOTE 2: I used to assume that this final comment was true, that the long process of talking about ordination standards and marriage equality was damaging the witness of the PCUSA and causing its decline in membership, distracting it from its work of witness and discipleship. Oddly enough, digging into the congregation’s statistics, I discovered that, over the last 3 years of data available from the PCUSA (2011, 2012, 2013), the congregation has grown in all major areas: worship attendance, membership, and Christian education enrollment. According to their own 2014 year end report, they are on the way to meeting all the goals that they set before themselves nearly five years ago: growing worship attendance to nearly 1500, having 1000 people reading “The Story,” “the Psalms,” and “The New Testament,” having 1000 people (of a desired 1200) connected to small groups, having 65 (of a desired 100) young people experiencing God in community, having 850 (of a desired 1000) people engaged in some form of mission or service. It seems as if, despite the decisions of the national church over the last 5 years—the time period during which the session remarks that it “worked on these matters with heightened concern and diligence”—the ministry of this church has not been impeded, but, rather, has succeeded. Also, I now believe that working alongside gay and lesbian people for marriage equality is among the many things that strengthens our discipleship, outreach and mission.
What I really want to challenge here is the notion that a view of human sexuality that is divergent from this particular church’s perspective represents a letting go of belief in Jesus’ Christ as savior and Lord and the Bible as authoritative. I want to say that this is simply not true.
I can only speak personally, of course, though I believe that others who remain in the PCUSA might agree with me. I support marriage equality for gay men and women, and I stand beside my bisexual and transgender and questioning friends who are seeking a voice and recognition of their humanity and belovedness. I also firmly trust in Jesus Christ and consistently wrestle every day with trying to live out what I can clearly discern God to be showing me through scripture. These statements are not mutually exclusive.
I wanted to write a biblically informed, densely theological post that demonstrated my credentials as a “true Christian,” and, especially, as a Reformed Presbyterian Christian. That was the post that was screaming to be written. I was writing that post. And I may somehow publish that post some day.
But then another post burst through. That post, which you are reading, centers on the question, why do I feel the need to prove myself as a follower of Christ? And then all of the follow-up questions: To whom am I responding? Who would actually read this? What would posting this accomplish? Would it actually change any minds or hearts in our current, polarized society? To whom would this post be encouraging, a source of insight, a helpful guide? Why do I feel so defensive about this?
Why should I feel the need to justify the ways in which my love of God is being expressed in love of neighbor (Matthew 22:34-40; Luke 10:25-37)? Why should I feel the need to carefully and exegetically explain how, through reading scripture and putting it into conversation with daily life, I began to perceive Jesus in the lives of those who, because of how my fellow Christians have stigmatized their sexual orientation, are bullied, estranged from their families, suffer from depression, feel imprisoned and endure higher rates of poverty, homelessness and hunger, making them, indeed, the very “hungry, thirsty, estranged, naked, sick, and imprisoned,” among whom Jesus promised we would encounter the Son of Man (Matthew 25:31-46)?*** How could I even express the ways in which my lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Christian friends have inspired me to deeper discipleship through their commitment to a savior who many churchgoers say condemns them and to a scripture that many interpret as license to discriminate, hate, and discourage? And how could I guide anyone along the path of moving beyond what I came to recognize as feelings emerging from pity or guilt, or actions resulting from unhelpful exaltation and setting upon pedestals, to just loving the beautiful, flawed, beloved children of God who both find a sense of self in and simultaneously cannot be reduced to their sexual orientation? Because, ultimately, it has taken me years to even come to grips with all of this, so how could a short blogpost do anything?
And why is this blogpost about me anyway? I suppose because it’s on a blog, on the internet, in the age of social media, where everything is about self-image. When really all I want to say is:
There are Christians, followers of Christ, children of God, who center their lives around the authority of the Bible, who cling to Jesus as the only hope for the redemption of this world, and who not only support lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, but who are, themselves, transgender, bisexual, gay, and lesbian people. Full stop.
And I suppose I wrote the original post to justify myself to fellow Christians. But I wrote this post for those for whom it might be a source of encouragement to know that my bolded statement above is true. I wrote this post in the hope that the young person who posted the following photo and comment on facebook would come to know that Christianity, or, more importantly, Jesus Christ is not somehow the loser in a battle against marriage equality.
I repeat: Jesus Christ is not the loser in a battle against marriage equality. God created us, and that includes you and your transgender, gay, lesbian and bisexual friends. God loves us, and that includes you and your friends. Christ died for us, and that includes all of you. Christ rose for us, and that includes you. Christ reigns in power for us, and that includes you. Christ prays for us, and that includes you. And the Holy Spirit speaks for us when we don’t know how to pray. And nothing, not hardship, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril or sword, not death, life, angels, rulers, things happening now, things to come, any political or social or religious powers, not height, not depth, nor anything else in all creation, not even the very real sin we think we need to hide, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8).
*** Here are a few very beginning links to back up these claims:
On bullying: http://www.stopbullying.gov/at-risk/groups/lgbt/lgbtyouthtipsheet.pdf
On homelessness and hunger: http://usich.gov/issue/lgbt_youth/lgbtq_youth_homelessness_in_focus/
On poverty: http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2013/06/06/study-poverty-rate-elevated-for-lgbt-community