The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) made headlines last week at its 221st General Assembly. At this weeklong gathering the body made a number of decisions, most of which are overshadowed by the two biggest issues: same-sex marriage and divestment. These are obviously watershed moments for the denomination. One publication described the decision on same-sex marriage as a “denomination-altering moment.” And it certainly is that.
I was not at GA, but I did watch a good bit of the live stream and I followed the conversations on Twitter rather closely. What fascinated me most was not so much that these things passed (I expected the same-sex overtures to pass and figured the divestment vote would be close — seven votes!), but that so much of the dialogue and debate, at least on Twitter, had to do with how people would view the church if these things passed and how many people we might lose. Tweet after tweet after tweet was eager to tell folks either about how the PC(USA) has already declined because of it’s stances on LGBTQ issues or suggested that this will be the nail in the church’s coffin (or even better, calling us the “denomination of demons“!). Others were quick to entreat folks to begin the exodus (also here and here). We even got hit with the obligatory farewell meme (see what you started, John Piper?). Mark Tooley of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (whatever that is) was among the most obnoxious and vociferous. What others were merely suggesting Mark stated bluntly. “By overturning natural marriage the PCUSA is only accelerating its already fast-paced demise. It will become even smaller, whiter and older.” He continued, ” Only declining denominations reject historic Christian standards and in nearly every case that rejection reinforces the decline.” And the Blaze quoted him in a post called, “Will Embracing Gay Marriage Usher in the Death of Major Christian Denomination?” In other words, the sky was already falling and we Presbyterians just did a rain dance.
Interestingly, on the other side of the ideological divide were the folks who were encouraging the decision and celebrated its passage. Obviously many celebrated it as a victory for justice, equality, and inclusion, but many others were quick to point out — perhaps in response to the death-declarers — that this decision may in fact promote growth. Therefore, this is actually a wise decision for long term viability of the denomination. Carol Howard Merritt, for instance, penned an insightful piece all about how the PC(USA) can grow not in spite of these decisions, but because of them. Her reasons make sense, and she might even be right —I certainly hope she is — (she probably is, she’s super smart), but the whole debate about how this decision in particular might impact church membership got me a bit nauseated (not Carol’s piece, just the online conversations before the vote). This has never been how we are supposed to make decisions, especially decisions of this magnitude.
I’m not exactly a polity nerd, but there is at least one line from the Book of Order (which is half of our constitution, along with the Book of Confessions) that I am particularly fond of. F-1.0301 reads, in part, “The Church is to be a community of faith, entrusting itself to God alone, even at the risk of losing its life.” This is perhaps the only question that should matter when deciding difficult issues. Are we entrusting ourselves and our church to God alone? Are we willing to be faithful to God even if it means the death of our church? The answer should be an unequivocal yes, and I believe the decisions made at GA bear that out.
I’m sure we didn’t get everything right this time. In fact, we probably got a lot wrong, or at least not quite right. We always do (ahem, total depravity). That’s why we do this every two years. But what is fundamental to the way we do church is our unwavering belief that we are able to listen to God better in community than alone. We affirm that when we get together like this, however imperfect our gatherings may be, we are better equipped to discern the voice and the movement of the Spirit among us. Again, this does not mean we will always be right or that our process is above reproach. But I think it does help remind us that this was a not rash or brazen decision. This was not the result of a bunch of elders getting swept away by moving stories and groupthink. It was the result of many years of Ruling Elders and Teaching Elders discussing, debating, praying, reading scripture, and genuinely and fervently seeking to be faithful to God alone. And I applaud the decision even if it means, in the words of a non-Presbyterian friend, that we have signed our advanced directive.
Thanks to Jesus’ speech to his disciples in the Mission Discourse of Matthew 10 I was able to preach yesterday morning on the power of fear and Jesus’ constant assurance that we have nothing to fear.
We have nothing to fear, y’all.
While I don’t believe God is done with our denomination I also don’t believe it matters all that much. God doesn’t need us. God has never needed us. But for some reason —grace — God chooses us and chooses to work in and through us. My hope is that God is using the PC(USA) and others to do a new thing and to speak a new word to our church and world. My deepest prayer is that this moment will become for us like Peter’s rooftop experience in Acts 10. That we will all be able to affirm together the words of God to Peter, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”
The road ahead will surely be difficult, and we may not survive it. There are many, even in my own congregation, who feel deeply betrayed and further disillusioned by these decisions. I’m not sure if I am in a unique position or not, but I suppose I am in a bit of an awkward place as someone who celebrates these decisions, especially the decision to recognize and affirm same-sex marriage, yet serving a congregation of folks who are largely against it and feel a profound sense of hurt and grief. I’m still figuring what it means for me to a be a pastor in this context, and probably will be for some time. I hope I can serve these people I love dearly with grace and humility and that they are willing to be led and pastored by someone who may think differently.
But for now at least I rest on the assurance that we are entrusting the church to God alone, whatever risks we might be taking in the process. Should this be the beginning of our end, fine. Should death await us at the end of this journey, so be it. The church has never been called to survival. We are called to be faithful to God alone, while being guided by scripture, and to listen for how the Spirit is moving among us. The story of the church from its inception has been one of ever expanding circles of welcome. Today I rejoice that the Spirit has widened our circle yet again, come what may.