When the northern Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod joined the predominantly southern Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) in 1982, the RPCES brought with them 189 churches including historic Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia (many of these churches with elected deaconesses) and 400 ordained clergy with names like Francis Schaeffer, David Jones and Robert G. Rayburn to join the PCA’s own 480 pastors. They also brought with them Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Georgia and Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri.
And they brought with them a position paper on Homosexual Christians.
As regional presbyteries investigate recent goings-on in St. Louis to support believers who are “same-sex attracted” or “gay,” it might be helpful for us to consider the historical backdrop of our churches. Before we perceive a “slippery slope” in the language some have used recently concerning sexuality, consider these 10 things that were true in our RPCES churches back in 1980. Many of our local Missouri Presbytery (PCA) churches were originally RPCES, and 38 years later, there remains incredible continuity in Missouri Presbytery’s current perspective and the 1980 RPCES report on homosexuality. This study offers a window on conservative evangelicalism before either the culture war or the ex-gay movement had picked up steam.
Travis Collins’ new book What Does It Mean to Be Welcoming: Navigating LGBT Questions in Your Church (IVP Press, 2018) starts with fairly basic points:
- We are speaking about people, not mere issues. “This conversation, however, is not about dispassionate topics, academic subjects, and isolated matters.” He declares, “This is a conversation about people — people created in the image of God. People who love and are loved.”
- The conversations are complex, our motives are complex, our denominations and congregations, which can be complex in their diversity, are all things pastors and all those in the life of Christ’s church must contend.
Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” – John 6:68
As other reflections start to trickle in and I’ve had the chance to consider what the past few days of the Revoice conference have meant to me, I keep coming back to the words of Simon Peter in the Gospel of John, words that were echoed multiple times in different seminars, testimonies, and conversations over the weekend. They come after one of Jesus’ hardest teachings—one so difficult that many of his followers turn away: “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life,” Jesus says, using such seemingly uncareful language that later on the Romans would accuse the early church of practicing cannibalism.
In one sense Peter’s confession is not particularly encouraging—in fact it feels like a sort of backhanded compliment. “Yes Jesus we’ll keep following you, because there isn’t any other better option”—the apparent implication that if there was, the disciples would be right there with the rest of Jesus’ followers whose retreating backs were all that remained of their loyalty. And yet Peter’s declaration of allegiance to Christ contains the very thing that holds any of us near to Christ despite sin, suffering, and opposition: “You have the words of eternal life.”
On July 26, 2018 from 1-5pm, Spiritual Friendship will host a pre-conference, immediately preceding the Revoice Conference in St. Louis. Featuring Ron Belgau, Matthew Lee Anderson, Johanna Finegan, and Br. Joe Trout, OP, the pre-conference will provide a theological foundation for thinking about desire, the fall, and the sanctification of human love.
All Revoice attendees must RSVP in order to attend the preconference.
How can gay, lesbian, and bisexual Christians love and experience love if God created human beings male and female, and His plan for sexual intimacy is only properly fulfilled in the union of husband and wife in marriage? This conference will provide a theological foundation to answer this question by fleshing out what the Bible and Christian tradition have to say about:
- Human desire in light of the fall and the process of sanctification;
- How beauty can draw us toward truth;
- The role of ascesis in purifying desire;
- Friendship and its counterfeits; and
- How authentically Christian love—in marriage and family life, in friendship, and in Christian community—is outward focused, not turned in on itself.
I’ve obscured a couple of identifying details in the interest of discretion, but here is a true story.
Just before I came out in my mid-twenties, I had preached several sermons at a church where some close friends of mine attended. Those sermons had been warmly received, and many people who heard them encouraged me to continue seeking to discern whether I had a calling to pastoral ministry.
Then I came out.
I started the process of coming out as gay and celibate just over a year ago when I came out to one of my best friends. It was the last Saturday in Lent which, ironically, also happened to be April Fool’s Day. Tragedy and comedy mixed together as Lent with all of its tragic-like focus on sin, its darkness, its cross bearing is mingled with April Fools’ Day, there to make a joke of it all. I’ve thought a lot about that day over the past year and I’ve come to think that there is something theologically significant about these themes of celibacy, tragedy, and comedy. Is celibacy merely a tragic existence that is to be pitied? Or is it a deep comedy, to borrow Peter Leithart’s phrase, in which there is ultimately a happy ending? A happy ending that is not simply a restoration of something lost, but is a surprise that moves us beyond anything that we could ever have been imagined?
A few days after I came out to my friend he sent to me a link to “Treaty,” a dark, haunting song by Leonard Cohen. In the email, he wrote: “Kevin, I’ve wanted to show you this song for several months, but I’ve been afraid to. It seems so fitting for you, and for me. Now, it feels even more fitting than before.”
I have to confess, I loved the song (and still do). After he shared it with me I listened to it over and over and over again. The prospect of coming out had left me gutted, feeling empty. I binged on the song, letting it poke and prod my already festering wound, wanting to feel something, anything. I listened to it at night, alone in a dark house. I listened to it for what I am sure was more than half of the five hour drive to visit my friend the following weekend.
I wish there was a treaty we could sign
I do not care who takes this bloody hill
I’m angry and I’m tired all the time
I wish there was a treaty
I wish there was a treaty
Between your love and mine
Eve Tushnet recently wrote a post titled, “Catholic People’s Histories, Gay People’s Futures.” In a brief aside, she said that the Theology of the Body “is so beautiful and so unaccommodating to me, though that’s a very provisional assessment since I’ve only read the addresses once.”
A prominent Catholic writer and academic shared her post on Facebook, and another Catholic writer commented, “Her love for God and the Church is edifying and a sign of hope, as it should be. Same with her love of beauty and fine art. But her comment about ToB is telling—Anthropology remains the obstacle. Reality can be ‘unaccommodating’ to one who has other commitments.”
Of course, Eve is free to clarify her meaning however she likes. (I would note that reading the Theology of the Body—even only once—is more than most Catholics have done; Eve is not criticizing out of complete ignorance here.) As someone who has spent a lot of time studying the Theology of the Body, I would like to make a couple of points.
To begin with, in the context of Eve’s article, it makes no sense to suppose that the accommodation she wants is support for same-sex marriage, or any similar revision of the Church’s moral teaching. As her first sentence proclaims, the article is about “orthodox gay people, seeking to live in obedience to the Church.” So what might Eve mean when she says that Theology of the body is “unaccommodating” to her? Continue reading
An important passage* in the 1986 Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons was translated into English as follows:
The human person, made in the image and likeness of God, can hardly be adequately described by a reductionist reference to his or her sexual orientation. Every one living on the face of the earth has personal problems and difficulties, but challenges to growth, strengths, talents and gifts as well. Today, the Church provides a badly needed context for the care of the human person when she refuses to consider the person as a “heterosexual” or a “homosexual” and insists that every person has a fundamental Identity: the creature of God, and by grace, his child and heir to eternal life. (§16)
The official text of the Letter is in Latin, promulgated in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis (79 , pp. 543-554). In the Latin text, there is a word—unice, often translated as ‘only’—which is missing from the English translation. Thus, a more accurate translation of the last sentence would be:
Today, the Church provides a badly needed context for the care of the human person when she refuses to consider the person only as a “heterosexual” or a “homosexual” and insists that every person has a fundamental Identity: the creature of God, and by grace, his child and heir to eternal life.
Wes recently wrote a reflection about the Church Clarity website, and what it might mean for someone who differs from a church’s stated beliefs on sexuality to “stay put” as it were, in spite of serious disagreement.
I want to say right away how much I love and appreciate Wes and his writing. He, perhaps more than anyone, has given me a profound vision of committed friendship and helped me to see a path for positive flourishing in the midst of my same-sex attractions. I am deeply thankful to God for his grace to me through Wes.
Furthermore, regarding Wes’s post, I share much of his concern that we not too easily abandon ship in our commitment to a local church, denomination, or broad Christian tradition based on any and every disagreement we might encounter. When it comes to issues not primary to salvation and the heart of the gospel, membership vows should mean a great deal in our decision making. I also recognize that Wes is coming from a context where his broad church tradition is in the midst of significant change in understanding sexual ethics. I am very sympathetic to the tension he must feel as one who affirms the traditional biblical view of marriage and same-sex sexual activity within the Episcopal Church.
However, one of the unique features of Spiritual Friendship is that all of the contributors do not agree on everything. As I read Wes’s post, I must confess that I was not persuaded by his argument. Part of the reason for this likely flows from exegetical differences, as well as the different ecclesial structures in which we are living. Additionally, my reservations flow from the pastoral perspective from which I write. After all, I am a pastor in a local church, so the question of whether to stay or go takes on a particular flavor for me. In other words, I am not asking the question, “Should I as an individual believer commit to stay at a church with whom I am in serious disagreement?” Instead, the question for me becomes, “There are people at our church who regularly attend, seek to become members, be baptized, take communion, and flourish as Christians. In light of these disagreements on sexuality, how can my fellow pastors and I effectively shepherd our church as a whole AND the individual believers of whom our local body is comprised?”
A few weeks ago a website called Church Clarity launched. Their stated goal is to encourage churches, primarily evangelical ones, it seems, to be upfront about their policies regarding LGBTQ members. If, for instance, some churches will hospitably “welcome” LGBTQ members but not allow them to serve in leadership roles or receive Communion, Church Clarity wants those churches to own up to that policy on their websites so that potential members can see ahead of time what they’re getting into. As their own website indicates, they’re developing a database that offers “scores”:
The Church Clarity database scores churches on how clearly their websites communicate their policies. Currently, we are evaluating clarity of policies regarding LGBTQ people. To begin, we’ve published a selection of evangelical churches in America. The goal is to compile a comprehensive database of as many churches, especially evangelical ones, as possible.