Seeking a Gracious Orthodoxy
Central Presbyterian Church
We live in a highly sexualized society. As a Christian church, we find ourselves at odds with many of the values of the society around us, and often cannot find consensus even within the Christian community. These issues impact us every day: What is responsible sexual behavior outside of marriage? Is marriage even necessary? How do you handle infidelity? What about divorce? Do you make birth control available to teenagers? What about same‐sex attraction and same‐sex marriage? Because Central is a Presbyterian Church (USA) congregation, and an evangelical local body, people often envision wildly divergent pictures of what Central represents in this cultural debate. Therefore, as the Pastors and Session of Central Presbyterian Church, we feel it is necessary to clarify our approach to marriage and sexuality, and to the vast array of lifestyles surrounding us. This is not a position paper that defines what all leaders or members do believe or must believe. Few, even in the group who contributed to this paper, would agree with it in every particular. Rather, it is an attempt to identify the beliefs on human sexuality that shape our community differently than some other church communities, toward what we hope will be a lifestyle of generous and gracious orthodoxy.
Few topics generate more emotion and misunderstanding in our culture than the current debate over same‐sex marriage. The issue is currently dominating dialogue in the PCUSA. As Christ‐followers and spiritual leaders we are often asked about this issue by people who genuinely want to learn about Jesus, and by people who simply want to pick a fight. There is more genuine confusion (as well as bias and bigotry) on both sides of the divide regarding this issue than on almost any other. Everyone seems quick to judge and slow to listen. What makes it worse is our sexuality is a basic part of who we are, and confusion and conflict over sexual issues deeply wound us. Without a doubt, the church has wounded people inside and outside of the faith community through their ignorance, insensitivity, or even bigotry. By God’s grace, we hope this paper will be a contribution to a more grace‐filled discussion of these pressing matters.
First, we need to clear the air a bit. Controversy over the Christian approach to sexuality is nothing new. For at least a generation there has been a growing rift between traditional Christian values and the values of the culture that surrounds us. We need to acknowledge that marriage has been devalued in our culture for a long time—long before the issue of same‐sex marriage became the issue of the day. In this time of cultural change, many in the church have tried to present to the world a biblical position on these important life issues. Even so, the church has often not handled itself well. In our effort to represent purity, we have often been judgmental or legalistic, reducing the complexity of human sexuality to a bullet list of do’s and don’ts. Christians are often perceived as being anti‐sex. And, despite our lip service to biblical norms, we haven’t been particularly good models of appropriate sexual behavior. In a society where Christian marriages end in divorce at the same rate as non‐Christian marriages, something has happened to the value and sanctity of marriage not only in our culture, but, tragically, in the church, as well. Sexual scandal has hit the church, along with our schools and political institutions. We need to approach these matters with the humility of those who know our own weaknesses. There is no “us” and “them” regarding sexual longings, dysfunctions, or abuses. We are all together in this common human state. We realize that speaking a brief word on these life‐shaping issues does not solve any of the day‐to‐day problems each of us has to face handling the gift of sexuality, but it is a necessary starting point. We must understand our assumptions, our convictions, and our goals with regard to sexual conduct. We hope that this exploration of the issues helps.
A Biblical View of Sexuality and Marriage
At Central we teach that marriage is established by God and understood by Jesus to be a heterosexual union. This is not arbitrary but holds deep theological significance. The first time God’s image is said to be reflected in humankind is in the description of humanity as male and female together (Genesis 1 and 2). To be male and to be female is to reflect uniquely an important aspect of who God is. And when both genders are brought together and united in a loving, lifelong covenant, God’s image is more powerfully expressed. This is the unique biblical relationship called “marriage”. This basic Christian understanding of human sexuality is rooted in creation. When asked about marriage and divorce Jesus pointed to the creation of humanity as the place where we understand God’s design. He said: “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’ So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” (Mt 19:4‐6)
Jesus is quoting Genesis 1 and 2. He is telling us that our creation by God is foundational for understanding human sexuality and marriage. He affirms that sex and gender are God’s design. He talks about the spiritual, social, and emotional contract that we call marriage. We are to view the couple as one unit now in many ways, not just as two co‐habiting individuals. Importantly, Jesus underscores that this union is intended to be permanent. God’s basic design for human sexuality is the exclusive union of one man with one woman, for life. This pattern is established in Genesis 2 and then, despite human failures, is reinforced throughout the rest of the Bible. A man and a woman leave the families in which they grew up and join together in a new exclusive, lifelong intimate relationship. Within the marriage, sexual intercourse is normative.
Children are the usual fruit of the marriage. This nuclear family provides a healthy environment nurturing children toward maturity. Outside of the marriage relationship, all sexual activity in all forms is explicitly forbidden. All of this is for our nurture and protection. Sexual experiences outside of these God‐ordained channels can damage us emotionally. They can lead to the transmission of diseases. And they can lead to the unintended social consequence of bringing children to life who will not have the emotional or economic resources to thrive. Yet the greatest impact is almost unseen: the spiritual. The New Testament intimates that sexual sins harm us in unique ways. Marriage also points beyond itself to spiritual realities. It is a metaphor illustrating Christ’s love for his church: two separate individuals who complement each other coming together to accomplish a God‐ordained wholeness that is impossible when they are apart. Violating marriage blurs its purpose as a sign of God’s faithful covenant relationship with humanity.
Biblical sexual ethics grow out of this foundational understanding of marriage. Any sexual act that is coercive or treats another person as merely an object for our gratification, thus degrading their God-given value as his image‐bearers, opposes God’s design for sexuality. Any act that seeks sexual fulfillment outside of marriage is prohibited. So pornography, prostitution, and any lifestyle that hints at sexual oppression or slavery must be opposed by the Christian. Premarital sex, even among mature consenting partners, is not God’s intention. Divorce is not God’s intention, and so it must be approached with the utmost gravity, even in cases where it seems unavoidable. Having multiple partners in marriage (despite the fact that we see it in the Old Testament) is not God’s plan, as expressed both in creation and in the New Testament’s teaching. And homosexual union is not God’s intention. All happen, and all can be forgiven, but we cannot affirm any of them as being right before God.
Living faithfully in a broken world
Having said that the New Testament will not permit us to condone a variety of sexual practices our culture accepts, we still find ourselves confronted by complex problems that demand careful and compassionate solutions. On the one hand, the church is called to discern clearly between right and wrong, and hold up before people God’s best in his plan for humanity. On the other hand, the church must be known as a place of grace. Of all the people on earth, Christians should be most aware of our deep woundedness, and our innate capacity for failure. And central to the Christian message is forgiveness: vast forgiveness! How do we strike the balance, and live faithfully in a suffering world?
At Central we desire to live faithfully in this tension. We want to be a place where people in any state of brokenness feel welcome to start or continue their journey with Christ. If an unmarried couple is living together we are not going to shut the doors on them. But the matter is different when we seek teachers or leaders. In those cases we expect conformity in their current lives to the biblical standard of sexual abstinence outside of marriage. People enduring the pain of divorce are welcome among us; people actively seeking divorce are not to be put into the leadership offices of the church. As another example, we will now consider in more detail the church’s response to those with same‐sex attractions.
Can people with same‐sex attractions be members of the Christian church? This is rather like asking, “Can envious people or angry people be members of the church?” Of course! If they are not welcome, we all will have to walk out the door along with them, leaving in the sanctuary only those deceived enough to think they are entitled to cast the first stone. This means that for the foreseeable future we must find ways to live within the church in a situation of serious moral disagreement while still respecting one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. If the church were to start practicing the discipline of exclusion from the community, there are other issues where we would also have to draw a line in the dirt: violence, excessive materialism, greed, and pride.
At the same time, the pastoral task of the church is to challenge all Christians to reshape their identity and practice in conformity with the gospel. It is not appropriate for Christians to persist in sex outside of marriage. Nor is it appropriate for gay or lesbian Christians to persist in same‐sex activity. Despite the opinion of popular culture in the United States, sexual gratification is not a sacred right, and celibacy is not a fate worse than death. There is a widespread, but deeply incorrect, notion in our culture that sexual gratification is necessary to be a fulfilled human being. Jesus, Paul, Mother Teresa, and many other people have lived profoundly significant lives without sexual relationships. It’s also worth noting that 1 Corinthians 7:8‐9, 25‐40, commends celibacy as an option for everyone, not just for a special group of leaders. Within the church, we should work diligently to recover the dignity and value of the single life. The church must be a community whose life together provides true friendship, emotional support, and spiritual formation for everyone who comes within that circle of fellowship. The need for such support is perhaps particularly felt most by unmarried people, regardless of their sexual orientation.
Heterosexually oriented persons are called to abstinence from sex unless they marry. For the person with same‐sex attractions, or the heterosexual who would like to marry but cannot find an appropriate partner, there is a summons to a difficult, costly obedience. This is a part of authentic Christian experience, which often has to challenge and frustrate our “natural” impulses.
Much of the contemporary debate on sexuality turns on this last point. Many advocates of sex outside of marriage, or same sex union, seem to be operating with an understanding that assumes whatever is must be good. If one has a deeply felt desire that doesn’t obviously harm or oppress someone, it must be from God. This position has a strong theology of creation but a weaker theology of sin and redemption. It is also prone to equating personal fulfillment with sexual fulfillment, and expects sexual “salvation” now. The biblical portrayal of human beings as fallen creatures in bondage to sin and yet set free in Christ for the obedience of faith would suggest a different assessment of our sexuality. Natural proclivities can be wrong. Many desires are unanswered now. We look to the future resurrection as the place of total fulfillment.
Should homosexual Christians expect to change their orientation? This is a tough question. On the one hand, the transforming power of the Spirit really is present in our midst. There are many who have experienced transformation of their sexual desires. On the other hand, there are many who pray and struggle with no significant inner change. This is similar to the sexual experience of many heterosexuals who struggle with lust. Some are “delivered” and lust ceases to be a central problem in life. Others endure an inner struggle most of their lives. Perhaps for these people the best outcome will be a life of disciplined abstinence, free, at least, from obsessive lust.
Let’s consider the issue of leadership in the church. Can people who have same‐sex attractions be ordained? It is arbitrary to single out same‐sex attraction as a special temptation that precludes ordination. Certainly, the New Testament does not do this. Such matters are left to the discernment of bodies charged with examining candidates for ordination. What is essential is a desire to live in repentance and obedience in the face of our temptations and weaknesses as God grants us power through the Holy Spirit. In particular those who hold the teaching and ruling offices in the church should uphold the biblical standards of sexual morality, and call all who hear to follow.
Is there a “Third Way”?
Often churches fall into one of two categories: those that crusade on sexual issues, and those that embrace cultural norms. This is most apparent today in the area of same‐sex attraction. First, there are large amounts of energy into fighting against any perceived LGBT community agenda. They organize rallies, sign petitions, and keep a sharp eye out for any activity within the gay community that they might perceive as anti‐family. Secondly, there are liberal churches that embrace LGBT lifestyles with no distinction and no challenge toward change. These churches endorse and support same gender marriage, homosexual orientation and practice within certain boundaries of conduct.
We, at Central, want to ask the question, is it possible to disagree with people, yet still respect them and treat them in a loving and understanding manner? No matter what the issue is with regard to someone’s sexuality, we seek to embrace people as they are, and simultaneously challenge them in moving toward sexual purity. We are all precious people, infinitely valued by God. We are also all sexually broken people to one degree or another, needing the healing of authentic community to live as Jesus calls us to live. We invite all people to change their spiritual orientation, toward God and their fellow human beings. When we do this, we will submit our humanness, in all its beauty and brokenness, to God and his way of living as revealed in the Bible. It is in this spirit that we want live and serve.
Living with Disagreements
We are well aware that some who study the Bible have come to different conclusions on sexuality, marriage and divorce, and the sensitive issue of same‐sex attraction. We do not expect that everyone who reads this will agree with all its points. We simply wish to be perfectly clear about our approach as we navigate these contentious times. We understand that with clarity comes the risk of sounding preachy or divisive. That is not our intent where any legitimate uncertainty exists.
In order to be a grace‐filled community of deep convictions, we need to understand the difference between acceptance and agreement. We can accept another person with whom we disagree. Accepting another person, supporting their rights and protections, and wanting them to know God and become whole and filled with joy, does not depend on our agreeing with them in every particular matter even in important ones. We do not expect in this life that all Christians will agree on everything, but we do trust that unanimity around a core of essential Christian beliefs provides a workable basis for peace in our communities. Comprehensive agreement is therefore not the prerequisite for acceptance of one another (Rom. 14:1), and diversity of beliefs on the genuinely debatable matters should not be surprising. What that means at Central is that we will live respectfully with our disagreements on a broad range of issues, including these, even as we strive to clearly teach our best understanding of biblical truth.
As a church community called by Christ to live in faith and obedience, we are called to a commitment to both truth and love. This paper is a small effort to express our commitment to God’s truth. We recognize that it is incomplete, and that there might be blind spots of which we are not aware. But we are aware that the far more demanding task is living faithfully as a loving community. This cannot be expressed in a paper, but rather must be lived out person by person, day by day, with all the heartbreaks and joys that face-to-face love implies.
May God give us the grace, at Central, to be that loving community!