Later this week, I’ll be attending Marriage Matters, the annual conference sponsored by the Covenant Network of Presbyterians. CovNet is an organization made up of congregations and individual members of the Presbyterian Church (USA) committed to working for full inclusivity for LGBTQ persons within the PC(USA). This includes issues related to their ordination as deacons, ruling elders, or ministers; creating more LGBTQ-welcoming and affirming congregations nationwide; and working for the PC(USA) to revise its Book of Order to change the definition of marriage as being between “a man and a woman” to being between “two people.” Every day, as more and more Christians reach the conclusions that a person’s sexual identity is inherent, and a gift from God – actually, a significant part of their having been created in the imago Dei – and that same-sex marriages are expressions of love every bit as worthy of blessing by God and the Church; and as more and more states are legalizing marriage equality; this becomes a more significant issue for the church. Increasingly, Presbyterian ministers in states where same-sex marriage is legal have to choose either to refuse to officiate at these weddings – often for their own parishioners, friends, and even family members – or, as a matter of freedom of conscience, to break their ordination vow to uphold the requirements of the Book of Order. The way things stand now creates a truly bizarre twist of polity: an ordained minister in the PC(USA) may be openly gay or lesbian. They may be part of a long-term, non-legally recognized same-sex partnership. They may be part of a legal civil union where such unions are legal. They may even be part of a same-sex marriage where they’re legal. But they may not have their marriage officiated by a fellow PC(USA) minister, or held in a Presbyterian church. This makes no sense at all.
My own journey of understanding the issues of LGBTQ inclusivity has been a long one, and one that required a near-seismic shift in my personal theology. I was originally very firmly in the traditionalist camp. Back then, I thought the PC(USA) was moving away from the “true” faith and throwing away the Bible, allowing itself to be poisoned by the whims of the mood of the times. In fact, it was in part through my determined effort to rebut arguments for LGBTQ ordination and marriage equality within the church that I came to realize that those arguments were sound – that they were entirely consistent with our historical understandings of the nature, authority, and interpretive methodologies of the scriptures. I came to realize that for all of these years, the Church had been wrong – and I had been wrong. At the same time as that scriptural study, I came into contact with many gay and lesbian Christians – many of them fellow seminarians, and many of whom I sensed were at least as gifted, if not more so, for the ministry as I am. Through these and a number of other avenues of study, prayer, and personal introspection, I arrived at the theological position that I hold now – that neither being gay, nor acting upon it, are sins. A person’s sexuality is a gift from God, intended in great measure – perhaps the greatest measure – to enable two people to experience and offer love – for that love to help express the love inherent in the very being of the Trinitarian God, in the jointly divine/human nature of Christ, and in the relationship between Christ and us as individuals. Expressing that love within same-sex relationships, if that is a person’s sexual nature, is no sin. To the contrary, to try to repress or obstruct a human being from expressing love in a committed relationship with another is what I view as sinful, and an attempt to obstruct what God intends for them.
As my personal and theological journey progressed, many things happened. Frankly, I lost a number of long-term, good friends. They felt that I was a traitor to the faith, a heretic, an apostate, and clearly unfit for the ministry, of all things. Of course, I also gained new friends, who understood the journey I’d been on and who had been on similar journeys with similar ultimate theological destinations. For a long while after I’d shifted my views, I spent hours and hours explaining to traditionalists how I could believe the way I now did. I wrote literal books’ worth of explanations and arguments. I could, and can, make very lengthy, detailed arguments related to Reformed understandings of the nature of sin and grace, and the nature of scripture and its interpretation. I could, and can, discuss ambiguities in, and likely mistranslations from, the original Greek and Hebrew texts. I could talk about historical context till I’m blue in the face.
But I’ve really almost completely stopped all that. Oh, if someone really wanted to have a true conversation about the issue; if they’re obviously on their own journey of theological discernment the same way I was, I’ll get into all those lengthy discussions. But no more arguing just for argument’s sake. No more simply restating my ground for the umpteenth time in some argument that isn’t going to change anything.
These days, I cut to the chase. I believe that God creates us very good, and in God’s own image, regardless of what our sexual orientation is. Because of that, I don’t believe that either particular sexual orientation, or the physical and emotional expression of that orientation, is sin – rather, oppressing, discriminating against, and excluding people based on sexual orientation is what is sin. I believe that God calls all people, regardless of sexual orientation, to all aspects of life within the church – including all ordained positions and all positions of leadership. This has always been the case, and I believe it’s time for the Church to accept this reality and honor those whom God has so called, by allowing them the space to be open and honest about the fullness of their being, including their sexual orientation. And as part of that, I believe that it’s long past time that the Church recognize the goodness in God’s eyes of same-sex marriages, as a matter of both love and justice. As I encounter more and more LGBTQ people both inside and out of the Church, I’m appalled at how near-universal their stories of oppression, rejection, shunning, and persecution by their home churches are. Over the past two thousand years, the Church has caused irreparable harm to countless millions of LGBTQ people. It’s something that we, the Church will be held accountable for; for which we should truly be ashamed; and for which we should be working aggressively to repent from and to reconcile and make amends wherever and however possible. All of this, I believe, is what is consistent with Christ – God in the flesh – and his teachings.
Thanks be to God, the PC(USA) has already amended its constitution to permit ordination of LGBTQ persons. Now, it needs to become even more welcoming and affirming to all LGBTQ people, those called to ordained positions and otherwise. And it also needs to finally amend its definition of marriage, and to bless same-sex marriages as covenants of love that are seen as good in the eyes of God. In 2012, an overture to redefine marriage as being between “two people” was narrowly defeated at the PC(USA) General Assembly, by a vote of 338-308. I hope that in its next General Assembly in June of 2014, the denomination finally pushes this much-needed correction over the goal line. It’s just the right thing to do. We need to realize that God has a place at the Table for all of us – including our children, our grandchildren, our nieces and nephews; our parents, our grandparents, our aunts and our uncles; and in some cases, even our selves – who have been created by God as LGBTQ, and whom God calls “very good.”