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Homosexuality debate rekindles among U.S. denominations

Photo from PCAAC.org.

NASHVILLE (BP) – This summer’s denominational gatherings among U.S. churches have deepened fault lines over the topic of human sexuality.

While two Reformed denominations – the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) and the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) – doubled down on their opposition to homosexuality, the historically Anabaptist Mennonite Church USA repealed a prohibition of its ministers’ officiating same-sex weddings. The United Methodist Church (UMC) saw its fracture over homosexuality widen as a conservative breakaway group launched the Global Methodist Church (GMC) May 1.

The actions underscored longstanding divides between liberal and conservative denominations. Five of the seven U.S. mainline Protestant denominations endorse same-sex marriage while evangelical groups claim traditional sexual ethics are a mark of biblical fidelity.

Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a think tank advocating orthodoxy in mainline denominations, said a denomination’s stance on sexuality reflects its view of Scripture’s authority.

Liberal Protestants “thought credo orthodoxy was passe and no longer sustainable and that for the church to remain relevant in the world, the focus needs to be on social-political action rather than espousing archaic creeds and beliefs,” Tooley said. After discarding traditional biblical doctrines, “there was no longer a concrete foundation to retain the ethical orthodoxy.”

The PCA underscored its advocacy of traditional sexual ethics with a June 23 vote to disqualify from leadership anyone who identifies as homosexual.

By a 1,167-978 vote, the PCA General Assembly in Birmingham, Ala., affirmed a measure stating, “Men who describe themselves as homosexual, even those who describe themselves as homosexual and claim to practice celibacy by refraining from homosexual conduct, are disqualified from holding office in the Presbyterian Church in America.”

Known as Overture 15, the measure must be endorsed by local presbyteries before final approval from the General Assembly.

Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said the PCA’s action helps establish a biblical perspective on sexual orientation. “The Presbyterian Church in America took at least an important first step in understanding that a homosexual or same-sex orientation is itself sinful,” Mohler said June 30 on his podcast The Briefing. “It’s not morally neutral. It is itself an identity that is incompatible with a biblical understanding of discipleship.”

The CRC, a small Reformed denomination centered in the Midwest, voted June 15 in Grand Rapids, Mich., to adopt a report declaring homosexual acts immoral and including that stance in the denomination’s confession of faith. The measure carried by a 70 percent majority.

The report stated, “The church may never approve or even tolerate any form of sexual immorality, including pornography, polyamory, premarital sex, extramarital sex, adultery, or homosexual sex. On the contrary, the church must warn its members that those who refuse to repent of these sins – as well as of idolatry, greed, and other such sins – will not inherit the kingdom of God.”

The report added, “To refuse to uphold Christian teaching on sexual immorality would signal that the Christian Reformed Church in North America is deviating not only from Scripture but from the shared confession of the historic and worldwide church.”

The CRC’s action could have implications for Calvin University, the denomination’s flagship university where one-third of the faculty signed a letter in December expressing concern over the now-adopted report. All Calvin faculty members must sign a statement that they affirm the CRC confession of faith, and some professors may leave the university over the stance against homosexuality.

Among pro-LGBT denominations, the Mennonite Church USA affirmed homosexuality at its summer gathering. Meeting May 29 in Kansas City, Mo., delegates voted 404-84 to rescind a longstanding membership guideline stating, “Pastors holding credentials in a conference of Mennonite Church USA may not perform a same-sex covenant ceremony.”

Subsequently, delegates adopted a resolution claiming former Mennonite Church USA policies “caused great harm to LGBTQIA Mennonites and their families” and pledging to include LGBT Mennonites in the church’s leadership.

Two Mennonite Church USA schools – Goshen College and Eastern Mennonite University – withdrew in 2015 from the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities after the schools changed their hiring guidelines to permit faculty who do not hold the traditional Christian view of marriage.

Methodists further divided over homosexuality when the GMC launched May 1. The new Methodist denomination “is committed to the Lordship of Jesus Christ, the inspiration and authority of the Scriptures, and the work of the Holy Spirit in conveying God’s truth and grace to all people,” according to the GMC website.

The GMC formed after a years-long battle over same-sex marriage in the UMC. In 2019, United Methodists agreed on a plan to let conservative churches form their own denomination, keeping their property and receiving $25 million in start-up funds. But after a vote on the proposal was postponed twice, some conservative Methodist congregations grew impatient and formed the GMC.

Of 13.2 million United Methodists globally, more than half hold traditional conservative views of theology and ethics, according to the Institute on Religion and Democracy. Up to a third of the 6.2 million U.S. United Methods could move to the more conservative denomination.

“It’s an opportunity for traditional Methodists to step forward and to provide in the public space a vital form of Methodism that has been missing from much of American Christianity for a long time,” Tooley said.

At their June 2022 meeting, Southern Baptists once again affirmed their longtime adherence to biblical sexual ethics by passing a resolution called “On the Imago Dei and the Helpful Content Submitted in Several Resolutions,” which addressed several issues related to the “value and dignity of every human being as created in the image of God and to the goodness of his design for every aspect of human life in accordance with his will.”

In the resolution, Southern Baptists resolved to “uphold the beauty of the Christian sexual ethic in a world that promotes dangerous and dehumanizing ideologies such as those within the LGBTQ+ movement and other sexual perversions including abuse, pedophilic behavior, and the use of pornography, all of which are fundamentally at odds with God’s design for human sexuality.

“… We seek to love our neighbors as ourselves,” the resolutions continues, “standing firm on God’s created order which recognizes that any sexual desire or attraction outside of God’s design for human sexuality is sinful and is disordered regardless of whether or not it creates feelings of guilt, shame, or anxiety on the one hand or pride on the other hand.”

Some denominations’ compromise on sexual ethics, Tooley said, should serve as a warning for all believers – even those in evangelical denominations and churches.

“It is a warning of what can happen if you begin to compromise creedal orthodoxy and ethical orthodoxy,” he said. “I’m sure some think that’s not possible in their own church, but it’s always at least theoretically possible.”