It Weighs on My Heart

[This one, FYI, is for my brothers and sisters in the PC(USA)]

Have you ever had a good friend who was getting divorced? It’s very awkward, particularly if you are friends with both of parties. You hoped the day would never come. You were sad for both of them. You wanted to help and to offer the right words.

In the end, though, a couple has to decide whether or not to stay married. Sometimes only one member of a couple wants to divorce, and the other person, no matter how much they want to make it work, can’t make it work alone. Unfortunately, I have seen this situation as a Christian, as a minister, and as a chaplain many times.

It is one thing if you don’t really know the couple. It is something else if you have a relationship with them. When you do, you feel sad, disappointed, even useless.

This is the same feeling I get when I hear that one of our member churches wants to leave our denomination. It is one thing to hear about “Anywhere Presbyterian Church” wanting to leave the denomination in some distant presbytery. It is another thing when I know the members, have worshiped with them, and have even shared communion with them.

I helped moderate the session of a congregation in Ohio for a number of months while they were between pastors. My stomach fell this week when I heard that they have voted to leave. I have relationships with other congregations, here in the Presbytery of South Louisiana, who want to split from the PC(USA). I have worked with their sessions, worshiped with their ministers and elders at presbytery meetings, and even shared in the Lord’s Supper with them. And now they want to split from the PC(USA)?  I find it so sad.

They consider separation a theological issue about remaining pure. The very idea that they are in communion with congregations that might even potentially ordain a gay person seems so wrong to them that they see no other option. They believe that they are being more faithful to God by divorcing themselves from the PC(USA) and joining another denomination.

Some of these divorcing congregations are fond of saying, “We didn’t leave the PC(USA); they left us.” They will also say that this has been a long time coming, and it has to do with many stances, not just this one stance on ordination. I find this disingenuous. While there have been theological disputes over the years, we have not seen congregations divorcing themselves from the denomination in any significant number until the issue of gay ordination was raised. This seems to be the real breaking point for these congregations (even though actual number of PC(USA) congregations that have ordained a gay person is tiny).

I totally understand their disagreement. I just cannot fathom that disagreement being to a degree of wanting to quit the relationship with the denomination. I want to ask them, Do you really think that everyone in very conservative congregations are in total theological unity? Do you really think that the Lord is primarily concerned in 2011 with the PC(USA)’s stance on the ordination of homosexuals to a degree that God wants Presbyterians to permanently separate themselves from one another when they disagree? There are many sins in the Bible. Are we upholding them all to the same degree? And if sexual behavior is such a vital issue, shouldn’t upholding biblical standards for the other ninety three percent of us be more compelling? And, finally, if our denomination has made a theological wrong turn, shouldn’t you want to be a part of getting it back on course rather than trying to jump ship?

I cannot help but think that both they and we are weaker, not stronger, from such a divorce.

I plan to speak up more. I know that some congregations have already made up their minds, but perhaps there are still others that have not. I worry that in days gone by I did not speak up enough or more forcefully on the importance of staying together. I will not make the same mistake today.

We live in such a vital time. There is so much at play. Is the legacy we want to leave to future generations really that we could not abide one another any more because we disagreed over who could be ordained? I hope not.

Who God has called together, let no one separate.

This is what is on my mind today.

In Christ,

Tom

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30 thoughts on “It Weighs on My Heart

  1. Found the link to this page from Rebecca Harrison on FB … solid thoughts, so thanks. I know that our conservative sisters and brothers are really hurting on this; they’ve drawn a firm line in the sand, and now that the church is moving in a direction contrary to their hopes, I get the feeling that they really don’t what else to do, but leave. If they gave it time, they’d find ways and means of living with it. But as I’ve been told, their greater fear is marriage equality. They can live with ordination, but the possibility of changing the Book or Order on marriage by eliminating or rewriting – W-4.9001 to allow for LGBTQ marriage. Thanks again for offering your constructive questions. With you, I pray that those who many be talking so easily of leaving will have second thoughts about it.

    1. Tom, thank you for your reply.

      I agree that the marriage, or civil union, issue is what causes even more discontent than the ordination issue. It is my hope that we can talk and pray our way forward rather than running off to our own theological corners.

      It is late in the game, as it were, but I am jumping in the best I can to urge us to take a deep breath and talk and pray.

      Thanks Tom,

      Tom

  2. It’s good and helpful to frame these questions as you have in your blog post. What they reflect is your incredulity of the import of these questions.

    Yes, clearly, the current decisions are perceived by these departing churches as so contrary to a biblical faithfulness that it has come “to a degree that [they believe] God wants Presbyterians to permanently separate themselves from one another when they disagree” on this set of topics.

    Put another way, what seems to you a smaller thing is to these churches, as I read them, a very, very large thing. Progressives can’t imagine that this is a big deal, when it is in quite obvious fact a very big deal. The progressive wing of the church either clearly miscalculated the significance and impact of this set of decisions, or knew precisely what it was doing, ie, creating an environment that carried with it the agenda of prompting a substantial set of churches to go through the heart-rending process of separating from our denomination.

    My opinion is the former – that this set of decisions by our PCUSA was the result of clear miscalculation of the “theological size” of these shifts, along with a misreading of the impact.

    1. Dave, thanks for responding to my blog.

      I think there is a big generational division when the topic of homosexuality comes up in any manner or form. It happens both in and outside of the church. I believe the progressives that voted for it believe they were doing the right thing. And I agree with you that many might not have accurately gauged the discontent it would stir.

      Nevertheless, my main contention is that a disagreement on this issue should not warrant wanting a permanent divorce from those we disagree with. We are stronger together than apart. Ever division reduces our impact and influence on this culture which is in need of Christ’s Church as much as in any age, maybe more.

      Thanks again for writing,

      Tom

      1. Whit, when you were younger, were you more likely to listen to far older people or people who were just a little older than you? Who did you look up to and admire? Giving up on a generation isn’t the answer.

      2. In church history we see many examples where some act or decision that seemed to some as not warranting much ado has in fact been a determining factor in splitting the church.

        One example that comes to mind is the controversy over bowing to the Shinto shrine that was asked of Korean Christians during the period when Japan occupied Korea. To some, bowing to the Shinto shrine was not of much significance – a simple thing and then you’re done and no threat. You could even “not believe it” when you did it. Or you could rationalize it away as simply recognizing that Japan was in control of society.

        But many, many Korean Christians (Presbyterians!) saw it as no less than denying Christ as Lord, and refused to bow at great personal cost.

        What I see happening here in our own situation, and why churches are leaving, is that one side of the church is saying to the other, “You are asking us to deny our Lord.” And they just won’t do it, no matter the cost.

      3. Dave, you raise an interesting historical story but the parallel seems a bit strained. The Korean Christians would be in danger of their lives if they did not bow. It was a ubiquitous symbol in their society and a foreign occupying army was demanding it. In our situation, no one is asking any Presbyterian to bow to a foreign god and they are not in any mortal danger. The concept that will bear any cost (even to their and our detriment) of not being in fellowship with anyone who believes differently about gays and lesbians as they do is the very concept that caused me to write the article.

        I believe that God calls on us to focus on sins that we struggle with, not what others struggle with. We surely are called to encourage one another and help one another as well. This is most hard to do when we divorce ourselves from one another.

        God didn’t call us in communion together to then see if we were “strong enough” to shatter it apart.

      4. I’m personally not a good example of who I listened to, when. But I was not advocating giving up on the younger generation, but of withdrawing with our children to protect them from the Progressive culture and theology in the PCUSA.

        My example is the abortion issue. In 1973, everyone thought it was over. But the Roman Catholic Church was a solid foundation. It formed the base from which evangelicals and others were educated in the truth. And today at least half of all Americans view themselves as pro-life. But if the orthodox get swallowed up in the PCUSA, as they must given the current political situation in the denomination, we will not be able to act as that solid foundation speaking truth to the wider culture.

        So, no, I do not think that the orthodox are stronger when their voice is mixed with the contrary, and currently commanding, voices of the religious Left – and not just on issues of sexuality, but also on abortion, the atonement, politics, Israel, etc. etc. We would be much better off seeking alliances with the EPC, the ACNA, the NALC, the LCMS, and other orthodox Christians. Yes, they are not of identical views, but the theological differences are mostly leftovers from the 17th Century. On the issues that matter today, they are mostly in accord.

  3. You write, “…if our denomination has made a theological wrong turn, shouldn’t you want to be a part of getting it back on course rather than trying to jump ship?”

    We’ve been “a part of getting it back on course” for more than two decades!

    Tom, you respond, ‘If they gave it time, they’d find ways and means of living with it”. How much time is enough time? 20-30 years?

    So sad you guys are blinded to what the culture has done to our once great church. You’ve obviously joined the culture fulltime. Sad, sad….

    1. Lawrence, thanks for responding to my blog post. To my knowledge, the only major GA victory the progressives have scored was at the last GA. In every other one, the conservatives tended to win the day. Why quit after one vote goes a way you disagree with?

      I hope I am not blinded by culture Lawrence. I am passionate about Christ’s Church and lament at the many ways we find to divide ourselves from one another.

      1. Are you kidding? The GA is further left than the “Democratic Wing of the Democratic Party.” They pass vote after vote supporting the Progressive cultural, economic, social and political agenda.

      2. I am speaking of the specific topic of how the church handles homosexuals and no, I am not kidding. The only vote the conservatives lost was the last one.

      3. You insist on assuming that sexuality is the only issue of disagreement notwithstanding all the contrary statements of those who wish to leave. Why won’t you accept them at their word?

        And what realistic hope do you think the orthodox have, given recent trends? You are factually incorrect by the way. The GA has sent the repeal of 106B to the Presbyteries (losing votes) several times before it finally passed.

      4. Whit, I understand that you are unhappy with the PC(USA) for many more topics than this one topic. The point of my original essay is that churches have not left the denomination in large numbers over abortion, the PC(USA)’s stance on Israel, or any other topic you have raised but rather this one topic which seems to be the sticking point for many people and hence why I focus on it. But I thoroughly take you at your word that you are unhappy with the denomination on many fronts. I just want to encourage you that being in the church isn’t a campaign to be won like you are in a firefight. It is being a part of a family and even if you feel family members err, maybe often in your view, the way to help them is not to leave them. As for the PC(USA)’s votes on the ordaining of homosexuals, perhaps you view the fact that we voted on the topic a number of times a loss in itself. But in all but one of these votes, the conservatives won.

    2. Tom, perhaps congregations didn’t leave, but people did, one family at a time. And orthodox Christians did not join, or even visit, PCUSA churches. Orthodox congregations that stay face either slow death or slow leftward drift.

      The PCUSA is not co-extensive with The True Church. So my idea of family is broader than yours. And sometimes when the people of a village won’t hear the word, it’s time to shake the dust off and move to the next village.

      1. Whit, I am about as ecumenical as they come. The family is indeed wide and diverse. I serve as a military chaplain and work with Christians from many different branches of Christ’s Church. I call them all rooms in God’s big House (or houses in God’s village to use your metaphor). I never take issue with anyone who feels God is calling them personally from one room to another (or one house to another). Even if folks feel the need to shake the dust off and move on, I accept that. If on the other hand, they feel they need to pull down a few houses before they move on (or load up houses and take them to another village) that is where I do stand up and say, “Wait a second. Is that really what you want to do? You might move your house but it isn’t going to be the same village.”

        The PC(USA) is my room in God’s house. I love its people. I am honored to serve within. I enjoy getting to know and working with the people in the other rooms. And I hope to urge as many to stay, build, and grow as I can.

  4. Tom, I don’t know you at all. Your post seems completely sincere and its tone is pastoral. Yet you call those deciding to leave disingenuous. That is not a helpful word to use. Folks I know who have left really do mean what they say. For the record, you leave out the one thing they say they care about most deeply: that they view the primary issue as being the authority of Scripture. Unless folks can really hear each other no real dialogue can happen. Please try listening a little harder. I will, too.

    1. Mike, I was not trying to call any person disingenuous. I was trying to call an idea disingenuous (giving a false impression of a simple frankness). The Presbyterian Church (USA) has not asked any church to leave. If anything, the denomination has been doing everything it can in the current environment to urge congregations to stay. But I apologize directly if you, or anyone, took this as me name calling on an individual or group. I find that left and right throw out ideas that are disingenuous and certainly don’t see one side as more righteous than the other. On Biblical authority, see my comment to Whit above. Biblical authority is important and is something that churches don’t agree on (within and beyond our denomination). It is something that members of individual congregations don’t agree on. All I am maintaining is that a disagreement over it does not warrant divorcing oneself from fellow believers. We are strong together – not apart.

  5. Two quick thoughts. Most of our past theological disagreements don’t affect the local congregation much. Conserviatives just ignored them. But the current disagreement, particularly the inevitable same-sex marriage decision, will affect congregations directly.

    Second, the fear is not that we won’t come to be able to “live with it” but that we will.

    1. Whit, thank you for commenting. Let’s take a generic Presbyterian Church (USA) congregation. Let’s say they have a family named the Smiths who attend. The family has a twenty something son and a twenty something daughter. In this fictional scenario, let’s say the PC(USA) did go so far as to offer some type of civil union for same sex marriages. If the daughter was gay and wanted to have her union blessed, this is the fear moment that you mention – that Presbyterians would be able to “live with it.” But, what if the son is heterosexual, has slept with two women earlier in his life, found a third whom he is now living with, and he desires to get married because he decides this woman is the woman he wants to spend the rest of his life with. This latter situation is not so fictional and happens in many Christian churches everyday with little heartburn and no qualms about such a person being ordained in the future. I would say most churches would be excited to have a young married couple in their midst and would be loathe to dig into their personal sexual history.

      I am not saying that Biblical authority isn’t important. I am not saying that our sex lives aren’t important. All I am saying is that we are not consistent in our insistent on Biblical guidance being followed and if some Presbyterian churches ordain gay people and if some one day offer same sex unions this should not be the point where we say we want a divorce from the denomination. If God is calling us to a higher standard, it means all of us. And the way to influence that for the better is not to leave. We are stronger together, not apart.

      1. What I mean by affecting the local congregation is this, that a theology professor denying the atonement or the GA taking some Marxist or anti-Israel stand happens far away from the congregation. Conservatives can just ignore it and concentrate on their local congregation. On the other hand, if a Presbytery forces the congregation to elect gays to the Session, or if there is a gay “wedding” in the Church, this is visible to everyone. In your hypothetical, no one is going to question the kids’ background. But when the bans are announced of Tom and Bill getting married, it can’t be ignored. Also in your hypothetical, you presume repentance of the young man. In the case of a gay wedding, there is obviously no repentance. A big distinction.

        And I agree that we should strive for more consistent guidance by Scripture in all areas, and that we all need repentance. But the way to get that is not to start amending God’s Word to benefit one particular group of sinners who claim they are not. And there needs to be a safe place from which to proclaim God’s will for our sexuality.

        My own breaking point was when Chicago Presbytery, over my objection, but by overwhelming vote, agreed to accept the transfer from the UCC of a woman who denied the authority of Scripture (apart from any disagreement over interpretation) and affirmed that one could be saved apart from Faith. I mean, what is left of the orthodox faith? The most disappointing part was that only I and one other elder dared speak, or even vote, against this.

      2. Whit, in my hypothetical situation (which again, isn’t so hypothetical with heterosexuals) my point is that the topic of the sexuality would not come up in the overwhelming number of cases. Congregations would hope that the son would have repented but I have not run across the nominating committee that would say to an incoming elder, “Ok, let’s talk about your sex life in detail.” We, by default, assume that a heterosexual’s sex life is a personal and private thing as long as some type of misbehavior does not become visible. By contrast, by visibility, it is impossible for a homosexual’s sex life to be personal and private. By walking down the hall holding another’s hand, everyone connects the dots from there. But if we are going to get in the business in church of maintaining the sexual standards set forth in the Bible, we should do it evenly and across the board. The 93% shouldn’t get a pass that the 7% never can have.

        If it is any consolation, I would have voted with you on the vote you describe at the presbytery meeting if I assessed an incoming minister as denying that the Bible is the holy and inspired Word of God and he or she viewed that salvation coming by other means than faith. By faith, we are saved, through grace. If a minister believes differently, they would not be ready to be received as a teaching elder in our denomination. At the same time though, I would not say to such a minister, “I am sorry, I can’t worship anywhere with you or share communion with you.” Further dialog might yield great results. It’s just not an all or nothing situation which is how we too often paint things today. And if the presbytery voted for such a person, it could/should give a focal point of where attention needs to be placed in the church today.

      3. Tom, you have unlimited hope. If an entire (large) presbytery overwhelmingly believes that what that transfer candidate affirmed is Christian, then I don’t know what it means to be Christian – and we don’t belong in the same religion.

        I believe that the Sacrament is for Believers only. And a person who does not affirm the Lordship of Christ, the Authority of Scripture and salvation by Grace through Faith is not one.

        That does not mean that I would not talk with this person, but I would not go to the Lord’s table with her.

        I was responding to your question about why the sexuality issue became the line in the sand by saying that, unlike other areas of disagreement, it was obvious in the local congregation and could not be ignored. People, especially conservatives, don’t like change and would bury the head in the sand for as long as they can rather than going through the trauma of a split. And many ordinary people in the pews are simply ignorant of what is going on in the denomination more broadly. But when it gets closer to home, and they start looking at the whole situation, it is way more than the one issue.

        The difference between homosexual sin and most others, is that there is an organized lobby to amend God’s law to make it no longer sin. Even with heterosexual sex outside marriage, while it may be common, there is no organized group in the church denying its sinfulness. In the congregation where I was Clerk for 13 years, I was asked before I was ordained, whether my wife and I were married, and was I faithful, etc. And we adopted several years ago a Code of Ethical Conduct for Church Leaders which prospective leaders had to sign and which touched on many common areas of sin. Of course, if it ever becomes an issue, Presbytery will probably force us to back off.

        The way to deal with unequal treatment is not to give the 7% a pass, but to take the pass away from the 93%. And there are places where that happens, including the congregation I refer to above.

      4. Whit – faith, hope, and love. Yes, that is what it’s all about. 🙂

        What makes a Christian is if they confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. If they have been baptized in His name, they should have access to the sacrament and be in the community of faith.

        I agree with you that many people do not take interest in the larger church discussions and that is something that is human nature (the most popular news programs are not international or national ones but local ones) but part of our nature we need to fight against. We need to raise up denominational issues and help make this important for us all (just as international news is important even though many do not find it compelling).

        As for your church, I am glad if they ask about your faithfulness which every married person is called to be. But if churches seriously reviewed the sexual history of most Christians serving in the church today, the overwhelming majority would have to ask for grace. Even if most are faithful in their marriages (we should all hope) most are not virgins when they get married. This does not cause great distress and certainly is not a focal point of discussion (even though it is far far more frequent than any homosexual sex that ever occurs in the church). But I do agree, we need to hold the 93% to a higher standard and it should be our focus since this is who the overwhelming majority of Presbyterians are (heterosexuals). When sexual discussions in the church are about heterosexuals 93% of the time, we will be in a much healthier place.

        I salute you for 13 years as a clerk. That is awesome. I know that is a challenging position in the church. I would just also maintain that if your congregation breaks off, or has broken off, it is not the same church as it was. Perhaps you view this for the better. I don’t. We need folks like you Whit.

        All the best,

        Tom

      5. Tom, thanks for your kind note. I was going to let you off without any further comments, but it seems to me that we have all sinned and fallen short of the mark. So the issue, for heterosexuals or homosexuals is not past sin, but current sin, and refusal to repent of that sin. Isn’t that a big difference between the homosexual person in a current relationship, and the faithful heterosexual married person who was not a virgin on marriage?

        And doesn’t confessing Jesus as Lord require some understanding of what their Lord expects of them, which we only get from Scriptural authority. Are there not some essentials of the Reformed faith? Don’t leaders need to be able to express the Gospel as written in Scripture?

        And Tom, while I hear your pastoral voice about wanting me to stay, I don’t see what I can contribute going forward. I have done everything I could to bring us back to orthodoxy. The two sides may sit at the same table, but they are not communicating. The two sides interpret Scripture in such different ways that discussion of Biblical authority cannot lead to a narrowing of differences. I just don’t see any hope. For example, when I talk with the other side about the sexuality issue, I refer to Gen. 1-3, Lev. 17-18, Romans 1, etc., those I am talking with ignore the text and talk in vague generalities and about gay people they know who they think are good people. We simply talk past one another.

        I am not, as you, a pastor. My call is to be an advocate for Truth, to lead people to Christ, to teach the Faith of Scripture, to oppose evil and Biblical confusion. The question that I face, as an individual not a congregation, is whether I can heed that call better inside or outside the PCUSA. Leaving the denomination is not leaving the Church, I only leave an imperfect human institution.

        Thanks for your patience.

      6. All the best to you Whit. I totally agree that there is a chasm that exists and people in the church sometimes seem to be speaking separate languages. The connection is most difficult. How can you agree on where to go when you don’t agree on where you are? But sometimes the Holy Spirt can bridge those gaps. 🙂

        Even if you have moved on to another denomination, keep staying in the dialog. I also hope we all will look for ecumenical events where we can all work together on a common mission project for God.

        In the end, what has all been fractured apart, the Lord one day will bring back together. The more we work together, the more we get a taste of the future.

        I have enjoyed our discussion Whit and appreciate your service to Christ’s Church, where you were and where you are.

        In Christ,

        Tom

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