Dear Central Family,
Central Presbyterian Church’s birth and history are from within what is now called the Presbyterian Church USA. As a more theologically conservative congregation we have lived in tension with our denomination almost from the moment of our rebirth under the leadership of J. Murray Smoot. This tension has its deepest expressions in our disagreements about Christology and in biblical interpretation. Occasionally, our differences are brought into sharp focus over some particular issue facing the church and society. We are experiencing one of those times with the many questions that surround human sexuality.
Meeting in Detroit, our 221st General Assembly has taken two significant actions on the teaching and practice of marriage according to the PC(USA)’s Book of Order. First, the GA approved an Authoritative Interpretation (AI) that now permits PC(USA) pastors to conduct same-sex weddings, and allows sessions to approve the use of church property for such ceremonies. Secondly, the GA approved a proposed amendment to the Book of Order that would replace current language with a description of marriage as a relationship between “two people, traditionally a man and a woman.”
While the AI goes into effect immediately, the proposed amendment requires ratification by a majority of the presbyteries before any change could be made, a process that takes about one year. Both measures are designed to allow pastors and congregations to participate in same-sex weddings in states where gay marriage is legal. We grieve these actions by the General Assembly. We believe we will look back on this day and see the error of these decisions. But an Assembly of our denomination has spoken, and now we must move ahead without compromising compassion or conviction. It is extremely important to understand that while the AI and the constitutional amendment broaden the denomination’s interpretation of marriage, they do not require any pastor to officiate or any session to authorize the use of church property for a marriage service with which they disagree. It remains up to each pastor and each session to determine what is and is not appropriate for their congregation.
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. This basic Christian understanding of human sexuality is rooted in creation. 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”. Importantly, Jesus underscores that this union is intended to last as long as both partners are living. God’s basic design for human sexuality is the exclusive union of one man with one woman, for life.
Biblical standards for sexual behavior 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 practice and marital 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.
Having said that, we still find ourselves confronted by complex human 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 welcome, grace and forgiveness. 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. 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.
No matter what the issue is with regard to someone’s sexuality, we seek to embrace people as they are, and simultaneously challenge them 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 Jesus Christ, experienced through the work of the Holy Spirit in 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 that spirit that we want live and serve.
We have been learning and changing in all of the discussions and developments of the last 30 years, and we are still learning and changing. We regret our complicity with the abuses and disparaging attitudes over sexual orientation that have all too often been habitual for many Christians in the past, and still are in the present. We also recognize that we must respect and affirm the basic human dignity of even those people with whom we disagree. Even so, we reserve our right to disagree, even with prevailing cultural norms. And this right to disagree extends to relationship with our own denomination.
Our approach to life within the Presbyterian Church USA has been informed by a venerable tradition of faithfulness and renewal that goes back at least to the time of St. Francis. St. Francis was used powerfully by God to bring renewal in the Catholic Church. On the one hand, he did not follow the excesses and errors of the institutional church or his culture. He used every freedom afforded to him to build a community that adhered to a more biblical path of life. On the other hand, he did not define his ministry by consistently taking a prophetic stance against the institutional church. He did not present his teaching with an “us and them” mentality, nor did he insist on separation for the sake of purity. He simply lived well within his society and the broader church. This was a “third way.” The lifestyle of the community was the first apologetic.
Central has been living in that Third Way. We have striven to build a community that does its best to model the red-blooded fullness of the gospel as our first apologetic to culture and the PCUSA. Within our strengths we want to be good citizens of the PCUSA, seeking opportunities to serve them and with them, modeling the life we are called to lead. We do not want to put our major energies toward finding the faults of the denomination. Rather, we have been called to put those energies into reaching a new generation of God-seekers who have little or no concern for the denominational landscape.
Proponents of these two actions at GA have made great effort to invite and welcome those who hold unwaveringly to a traditional interpretation of marriage to remain engaged in the mission and ministry of the PC(USA) with full integrity. Some will resolve to do this-others may not. Those of us who do remain in the PC(USA) will, no doubt, encounter other decisions and actions with which we will disagree. Our greatest concern is not “guilt by association” that comes from being part of an organization that takes what we feel is a non-biblical position. We already understand that we are part of a denomination with grave disagreements, this only one among them, and we have chosen to live and serve as a point of life and witness within it. What does concern us is the potential for the denominational powers to demand that all congregations live in full compliance with a point of polity that violates our consciences on biblical grounds. In this particular case that would mean, for example, that Central Presbyterian
Church would be constrained to ordain practicing gay Christians, or to marry gay/lesbian couples. The Session’s position is that such an act on the part of the denomination or any agency of the denomination exceeds their God-given authority, and would force us to seek remedy, including seeking a gracious separation from the Presbyterian Church USA.
Short of that direct interference into our congregational life we intend to continue to live in the tension of living faithfully to our understanding of Christian belief and practice, even as other churches within our denomination may make significantly different choices.
The Session of Central Presbyterian Church
June 23, 2014