Yesterday was a fairly exhausting day for reasons that I wouldn’t have assumed. I woke up to a text from Aimee Moiso, my boss at Campus Ministry, letting me know when she would be presenting to the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly. The 220th General Assembly for the PC(USA) has been going on the last week or so, and Aimee was called to moderate the Committee on Civil Union and Marriage Issues this year.
This committee would be discussing a number of overtures (ie. suggestions to the committee on different issues, submitted by different presbyteries) before them that sought a number of things: some wanted to redefine marriage as between two persons (as opposed to between a man and a woman), some wanted to strengthen the existing language in the church constitution to make it clearer that marriage is only between a man and a woman, and still others wanted to leave the existing definition of marriage but issue an Authoritative Interpretation (a ruling that explains an interpretation of the PC(USA) constitution) that would allow pastors in states where same-sex marriage is legal to exercise their discretion in how they should proceed in performing marriages for same-sex couples that come to them.
There was a live video stream of the General Assembly, and the discussion began around 1:30pm. The discussion continued for over 4 hours, and I found myself unable to pull away (except of course during the bathroom breaks that the Assembly gave to the delegates there… bathroom breaks that I needed just as much as they did). And it was truly exhausting.
The debate was fierce on both sides. Those who believe that Scripture is clear on the definition of marriage—that it is between a man and a woman—were adamant that redefining marriage was a challenge to the Gospel itself, and that such a change would be an act of blatant disobedience against God. They clearly explained that the church cannot base its views on the actions of the state, but must stand in opposition to anything that goes against God’s revealed will in the Scriptures and the clear explanations of biblical theology contained in the Reformed confessions of faith (this is the view which I also hold).
Those who favored changing the definition of marriage argued passionately that they believed God was leading their denomination to present a unified declaration that all persons, regardless of sexual orientation, were deserving of receiving the blessing of the church in pursuing committed, monogamous relationships, and that to deny LGBTQ individuals that right was to deny God’s love for all people and his radical inclusion of all people who come to Him. They said that the Holy Spirit was clearly leading them to this conclusion, and that the church must walk in a new path in spite of the fear of change or the fear that certain congregations mights choose to leave the denomination as a result.
What was most interesting for me in watching this whole process was the emotional response it elicited from me. I am not, nor will I ever be, a member of the PC(USA) though I would consider myself Presbyterian in my theology (with a few minor exceptions that I am working on). The reasons for this are numerous and entirely beyond the scope of this current post—perhaps more on that later if anyone is interested. Nonetheless, I found myself in tears throughout the proceedings. During the last twenty minutes of debate I cried the entire time as I was praying to God to lead this denomination into the truth and to lead them away from the temptation of compromise. While I am not a member, my heart grieves to see a denomination that was once a bastion of orthodoxy and the teaching of the Reformed tradition to which I subscribe arguing amongst themselves over something that has been so clear and unequivocal for the entire history of the Christian Church—that marriage is between one man and one woman.
I was not emotional simply because I believe redefining marriage is wrong and would lead to gross confusion and deception, but because it strikes at the very center of the Gospel itself, which is the sole hope for salvation for every person. Marriage between a man and a woman is not important simply because God designed two complementary types of people for the continuation of the human race, but also because it is the most concrete sign and image of God’s identity and the very Gospel itself.
When God created the heavens and the earth, He called everything good (Gen.1-2). He then created man and said “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him (Gen. 2:18).” God then caused Adam to fall into a deep sleep and, from the flesh in Adam’s side, He created Eve. Where Adam was created in the image of God singularly, God split that which was one in two and fashioned another that was complementary to Adam. As a result, the union between a man and woman is the re-union of God’s image that had been divided, and this image is most clearly signified by the two becoming one flesh in the covenant of marriage. This is why the Scripture says, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed” (Gen. 2:24-25). The first marriage.
Additionally, our union with Christ through faith is imaged as a marital relationship with Christ as the bridegroom and His church as the bride (John 3:29, Matt 9:15, Mark 2:20, 1 Cor. 11:3, Eph. 5:22-33, Rev. 19:6-9; click here to see those verses.). Though sinful from birth due to the Fall and unfaithful to Him in life, Christ takes us as a people for Himself, washing us of our sins and making us spotless and clean—an unworthy and adulterous spouse given grace and made holy by her beloved Husband. Our salvation is clearly explained as the Lord pursuing us in love and affection, wooing us by His grace, and embracing us in spite of our faults into a covenant relationship with Him. Indeed, at the Last Supper when Christ uttered the words concerning the cup, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood” (1 Cor. 11:25), He was uttering the very words that were used in Jewish marriage ceremonies. When the bride took the cup from her betrothed, the marriage was considered official (for a great video on this, click here). Jesus proposed to His disciples and all who would come to Him through their preaching, and the cup He offered them which we drink from again when we celebrate the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper was His sacrifice on the Cross—the blood of the King.
So we see, even in these brief paragraphs with the few Scriptures mentioned, that marriage and our understanding of marriage has clear and far reaching implications for our understanding of the Gospel itself. And, for the Church, the proclamation of the Gospel—that Christ lived a perfect, sinless life, died on the Cross, bearing the penalty for our sins, and rose again on the third day so that we might too be raised into new life—is our first order of business. The Church exists as prophetic ministers of God, inviting all to come and receive mercy and forgiveness:
From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. (2 Cor. 5:16-20)
But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things? For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ.
(2 Corinthians 2:14-17)
Christ’s message to us was clear: “Repent and believe, for the kingdom of God is at hand” (Matt 3:2, Matt 4:17, Mark 1:15). He made it clear that it was through repentance and faith that we come before God and receive mercy—not the righteousness of our deeds, but our trust in the sacrifice of the Son on the Cross for us. To repent is to turn away from sin and move towards Christ. Apart from repentance there is no salvation.
It is for this reason that the Church cannot compromise the truth of God’s word concerning sin because that would be an overt denial of the very message of the Gospel itself. To teach that sin can be affirmed by the Church would be to lead those who are blind to their own sinfulness away from the salvation that could be theirs. Such an action would be to reject our calling as a people, adulterate the word of God and substitute the truth of God for a lie, and to encourage wickedness and lawlessness among those to whom we minister. Nothing is more serious than that.
And make no mistake—this discussion of sin should not be seen as singling our homosexuality as if it is some particularly heinous sin, over and against other sins that are less serious. While I have been primarily discussion homosexuality, sexual sin of all kinds, pride, greed, theft, murder, racism, lying, drunkenness, etc., are all sins that will lead us to our graves if they are not repented of. Either we die to ourselves and to our sin by being united with Christ in His death and are raised to new life by virtue of His resurrection, or we will each pay the just penalty for our sins before a holy and righteous God. Each one of us is in dire need of consistent repentance and honesty regarding the sin in our lives.
What ultimately occurred brought me some relief. The General Assembly voted to reject the committee’s recommendation that the church change the definition of marriage and, by doing so, affirmed the current definition of marriage as between a man and a woman. I found myself relieved, but that relief is tenuous at best.
The issue facing the PC(USA) and any other denomination that is seeking to redefine their understanding of human sexuality is ultimately one of worship.
Do they (or we) worship the God who created the heavens and the earth and who sent His only Son to die so that we might be freed? Do they (or we) worship the God who, through unmerited grace, adopts sinners as His children and gives them the indwelling Holy Spirit? Do they (or we) worship the God who has spoken through the prophets, apostles, and most plainly through the incarnational life of Jesus Christ who is the God-man, clearly revealing to us His will, commands, and message of redemption?
Or, on the other hand, do they (or we) worship a god that we have created in our own image who allows us to fabricate a morality of our own choosing, a savior of our own design, a plan of salvation that suits our own whims, a Scripture that is not authoritative, an orthodoxy that bows to the demands of culture instead of calling the culture to repent and believe as Jesus did, and a message that ultimately cannot save anyone?
These are the kinds of questions we must all ask ourselves. These are the questions the PC(USA) must ask if they ever hope to be faithful to Christ and move past this debate. If not, this victory against relativism and a radical inclusivism that intends to disobey God while claiming to act in His name will not stand.
The next General Assembly will occur in 2014 and this issue will likely come before the assembly once more. My prayer is that the Holy Spirit will move among that denomination and call them back to a firm commitment to His teachings and that they might experience a true restoration. I pray that they might become a beacon of light, proclaiming the message of reconciliation that has been given to us, wiping away the mud of confusion and moving past the fog of disobedience that has caused the light of Christ’s presence among them to diminish.
There is yet hope.
My prayer is that the song which they sang before they cast their votes would occur and transform each and every member of the PC(USA) as they seek to serve and honor God moving forward:
Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me;
Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.
Melt me, mold me, fill me, use me.
Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.
Spirit of the living God, move among us all;
make us one in heart and mind, make us one in love:
humble, caring, selfless, sharing.
Spirit of the living God, fill our lives with love.
(Spirit of the Living God by Daniel Iverson)