By Jeff Gissing (@jeffgissing)
Our current cultural moment is a perfect storm with respect to human sexuality. The broader culture has placed sexuality squarely in the hands of the autonomous and sovereign individual. In like manner–perhaps fearing increasing irrelevancy if it fails to do so–the church abdicated its authority to speak into the lives of its members, helping them to understand sexuality in a manner grounded squarely in the history of Christian theological reflection on Scripture.
As a result, with increasing speed it seems that progressive Christians are making headway in subverting the traditional understanding of human sexuality and replacing it with a thoroughly individualistic substitute.
In the process, they have also succeeded in eviscerating the message of the Christian gospel. Perhaps, in the words of St. Paul, they find the gospel to be “foolishness” and in need of replacement with a message more suited to the times. This new gospel is one of “inclusion,” which is understood to be the unquestioning affirmation of the validity of first person experiences with respect to sexuality. There is little room for any concept of disordered or misplaced affections. If you feel, it is argued, it must be true. And if this is true, then it makes sense to allow individuals to express themselves in the setting of the church through the blessing of same sex marriages.
Brian Ellison, Executive Director of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians (an advocacy organization for GLBTQ) in the Presbyterian Church (USA) has written that the affirmation of same sex weddings is the church’s “next big thing.”
The purpose of his organization, he states, is to pursue both the full inclusion of GLBTQ persons and the unity of the church. Recognizing the seeming incongruence of these twin objectives he provides something of a circular justification for them: “a church that excludes some of God’s children can not truly be said to be united, while there is no point in including anyone in a church that is itself a testimony to brokenness and separation.” Presumably, the best way to achieve both is by forcing out those of us who hold both to a traditional understanding of the Gospel and human sexuality.
The changing of ordination standards in 2011 by the passage of Amendment 10-A was a major step towards redefining the church’s understanding of ordination and human sexuality. Ellison refers to the new standards (found in the Book of Order at G-2.0401b) as “historically grounded.” In one sense he’s right. There are no examples of this sort of language in the history of Presbyterianism. Until the twentieth century the church had never really had occasion to insert the requirement of “fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness” into requirements for ordained office because it was assumed. The language was inserted to remedy a pervasive permissiveness in the church. Conveniently, and disingenuously, opponents appealed to both history and scripture in arguing for it to be removed.
The next big goal, it seems, is the redefinition of marriage. Citing President Obama’s inaugural address with it’s evocation of the gay rights movement alongside the civil rights movement—something that is not universally accepted by the way—Ellison argues that we Presbyterians must follow the President’s lead. He writes, “The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), however, has not spoken such a clear gospel word.” There’s that word: gospel. I’m tempted to respond to Ellison with words the famous Inigo Montoya of The Princess Bride: “You keep using that word. It does not mean what you think it means.”
St. Paul defines the gospel for us in his letter to the Corinthians: “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures…” (15:3-4). The President’s message of inclusion is not to be confused with the Gospel. In fact, Ellison’s conflation of the two is somewhat alarming. You get the impression, in reading his post, that Ellison’s gospel has little to nothing to do with the saving grace of Jesus Christ and everything to do with leveraging the current cultural moment—with same sex marriage dominating the media—to force the church align itself with progressive politics rather than biblical truth. “Gospel,” then, is shorthand for a religious justification for progressive politics.
Over the years evangelicals have claimed that progressives are simply arguing for cultural accommodation—the changing of the Christian message to suit the culture in which it is situated. This stands in contrast with the evangelical impulse to maintain a biblically rooted message, but change the means by which that message is communicated.
The remainder of Ellison’s post makes abundantly clear that this is precisely what is going on. In a litany of references to sources such as the Book of Order and the Book of Common Worship, Ellison shows how each uses “out of date” language to describe Christian marriage. Tellingly he asserts that the way the church talks about marriage is no longer true, in fact it is “flatly inaccurate.”
Is this so? This claim cedes too much to the civil authority and almost totally abdicates the church’s duty to uphold a Christian understanding of marriage. There are all sorts of marriages that take place in the United States. Not all of them are Christian marriages. Christian marriages take place within the context of a worshipping community and are understood with reference to Scripture and to the church’s teaching on the nature and purpose of marriage as between a man and a woman for mutual edification and procreation.
With no small degree of scorn Ellison describes the Book of Common Worship as “waxing poetic about the purpose and blessing of marriage in exclusively heterosexual terms.” The reason it does so is because Christian marriage has always been understood as occurring between a man and woman.
Our present cultural moment is a perfect storm. Progressive politics, societal indifference, and ecclesial disintegration all conspire to challenge the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of mankind, the purpose of the church. Within the PC(USA) the year ahead will see continued pressure to redefine marriage in anticipation of next years’ General Assembly. Perhaps more troublingly, the gospel will continue to be confused and conflated with a political ideology of progressive values that enshrine the individual as the sole arbiter of truth. It seems that Ellison may well get his wish: the full inclusion of GLBTQ, even in marriage, and unity in the church. It will, however, be a unity that has come with a high cost: the cost of compromising the integrity and authenticity of the PC(USA) as a Christian church.
Did you like this article? You can more of Jeff’s commentary at www.JeffGissing.com. Visit our website to learn more about the Institute on Religion and Democracy’s programs!