WASHINGTON (BP)–As the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) took an initial step toward the ordination of homosexuals and lesbians June 15, other Presbyterian groups voiced strong opposition to the move, indicative of a deepening split between the church’s conservative and liberal factions, Crosswalk.com reported June 20.
Delegates to the PCUSA General Assembly, meeting in Louisville, voted 317-208 to lift a ban on the ordination of homosexuals. However the measure must be ratified by a majority of the church’s 173 regional governing bodies, or presbyteries, over the next year before it can take effect.
The ban went into effect in 1996 when the General Assembly approved a new section requiring ministers and other ordained church officers “to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness.”
“Twice in the last five years we’ve voted on this, and each time it tears at the fabric of our presbytery,” said Ted Mikels, an elder of the Salem Presbytery in North Carolina. “To send this out again will create greater rancor and polarization. We need prayer and study and dialogue, not more legislation.”
The Washington Post characterized the vote by the governing board of a mainline Protestant denomination as a clear victory for homosexual rights advocates. “Several denominations have struggled with this issue in recent years, but few have gone as far as the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) did yesterday,” the newspaper stated.
A representative of a pro-homosexual faction within the denomination applauded the action, saying, “We’re not going to buy into a homophobic culture.”
In debating the issue, PCUSA officials had acknowledged the role of scriptural authority in the Presbyterian church, but had contended that Presbyterians generally do not believe in biblical inerrancy. Presbyterians do not insist that every detail of chronology or sequence or pre-scientific description in Scripture be true in literal form, officials said. In holding to biblical infallibility, however, Presbyterians affirm the entire truthfulness of Scripture without depending on every exact detail, they contended.
Opponents to lifting the ban argued that Jesus, in his life, death and resurrection came to fulfill the law, which means the Old Testament law. He upheld marriage between a man and a woman as God’s purpose from the beginning of creation, opponents said, noting that the traditional interpretations fit with the teaching of the whole Scripture on the holiness of sex in marriage and the sinfulness of sex outside of it — which the Bible calls names like adultery and fornication.
Those pushing to remove the ban on homosexual ordination argued that Jesus himself said nothing on the subject of homosexuality.
Meanwhile, other Presbyterians, both within the PCUSA and those who are part of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) are calling for a return to conservative doctrine.
A “Confessing Church Movement” generated by local congregations inside the PCUSA has sprung up across the country. So named for the public confession of “I believe” statements relating to basic theology, the movement has captivated the attention and conversation of many Presbyterians.
Summit Presbyterian Church in Pennsylvania’s Beaver-Butler Presbytery was one of the first to make a public faith statement regarding three foundational points: 1) “That Jesus Christ alone is Lord of all and the way of salvation, 2) That Scripture is the Triune God’s revealed Word, the Church’s only infallible rule of faith and life, and 3) That God’s people are called to holiness in all aspects of life. This includes honoring the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman, the only relationship within which sexual activity is appropriate.”
Bob Davis, executive director of the Presbyterian Forum, said that when Summit Presbyterian issued the confession and adopted it as their own “they made national news and that truly was a catalyst to other folks stepping on board.”
“The real significance of the Confessing Church Movement is that it is a grassroots movement,” Davis said. “The seeds of it have been around for quite a while, particularly as General Assemblies continue to dwell on sexuality as a prime topic.”
What has happened, Davis said, is that congregations around the country “have been embarrassed by the national denomination to the point that attendance and membership is hurt by having the name ‘Presbyterian’ out in front. The Confessing Churches have decided to stop being embarrassed by the denomination and say, ‘This is what our church here will proclaim.'”
Davis said he does not know whether the movement will grow into a separate branch of the denomination. “As far as I can tell, there is an investment in ‘being the church’ where they are. It is not about driving a schism or wedge.
“But I think this last General Assembly is going to fuel the Confessing Church Movement,” he added.
One such separation occurred in 1973, when the Presbyterian Church in America split off from PCUSA because the latter body had shifted from its historic beliefs to a theological liberalism denying core biblical doctrines such as the inerrancy and authority of Scripture.
The PCA also has condemned the PCUSA vote in Lexington. Dominic Aquila, PCA’s news officer, said, “Our concern is for the integrity of Scripture, which clearly gives us guidance for every area of life, including the family and chastity. We believe God has ordained that sexual relationships should be between one man and one woman in the context of marriage, and that neither heterosexual relations outside of marriage, or homosexual relations, are appropriate.”
Aquila added, “We’re concerned that one branch of the church would take a position that gives endorsement appearing to be contrary to Scripture.”
PCA kicked off its own General Assembly June 19 in Dallas. About 1,500 delegates are expected to attend. Some of the issues to come before the PCA General Assembly include clarification on the biblical teaching on creation; the role of women in the church; a study report on women in combat; and the sanctity of life.
Regarding homosexuality, the PCA deliberations will include a recommitment to the sanctity of human sexual relationships, that God’s intent in creation is that the privilege of sexual expression is to be between male and female only in the context of marriage.
Chismar is editor of Crosswalk.com’s Religion Today news service. Used by permission.