Monday, August 27, 2007

Renouncing sin is nothing new for church membership

My previous posting has been a magnet for comments. It has also been treated by some almost as a unique point of contention, as if our Presbyterian policy and polity haven't been saying all along exactly what I was explaining in the posting. But my key point was simple: Presbyterian policy names homosexual practice as sin.

Most Presbyterians--including me--think such a policy is entirely appropriate and biblical, while neither easy nor particularly popular in this age. Some theological innovators wish our policy weren't that homosexual practice is sin, for a number of reasons. But with homosexual practice definitely considered sin, then logically, not just the act of ordination of practicing homosexual persons as deacons, elders, and pastors is considered wrong by the Presbyterian Church; it is the homosexual practice that is wrong, which is what makes any such ordinations innately flawed.

And that led to the subject of church membership, and I contended that it would not be lovingly pastoral to admit to church membership anyone bent on publicly flouting Christian morality, anyone unwilling to acknowledge sinfulness and begin to bend one's will to God's gracious purposes instead. Certainly there are no perfect church members; the church is a hospital for sinners. But a key prerequisite for admission needs to be the admission of sin and a desire for healing. Confession is agreeing with God, and that's a necessary starting place for healing to begin.

I referred to a part of the Authoritative Interpretation (AI) of 1978, which read: "Homosexual persons who sincerely affirm 'Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior' and 'I intend to be his disciple, to obey his word, and to show his love' should not be excluded from membership" (at the end of PDF page 57). That led a friend to ask where the AI got that specific language about members needing to affirm Jesus as Lord and to obey his Word.

Is this some new requirement the AI cooked up? Is it an ancient requirement now repudiated? Good questions, but neither is the case.

As best I can discern, the AI quotations come either from the Book of Order of the UPCUSA at the time (1978) or from The Worshipbook (copyright 1970 for use in both the northern and southern churches). Most likely, they came from both. They were nothing new in 1978, in other words.

I don't have the 1970 Book of Order, to see if the phrases are directly from that, but the service for commissioning baptized members in The Worshipbook (page 49) includes four questions:

____________, who is your Lord and Savior?

Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior.

Do you trust in him?

I do.

Do you intend to be his disciple, to obey his word and to show his love?

I do.

Will you be a faithful member of this congregation, giving of yourself in every way, and will you seek the fellowship of the church wherever you may be?

I will.

As you can see, those questions asked of prospective members contain the wording used in the 1978 AI. Those who couldn't honestly respond in the affirmative could not join a church.

But now since 1983, we have a new constitution, some might argue. Yes, but our constitution retains similar statements (emphasis added):

G-5.0103 states in part, "The congregation shall welcome all persons who respond in trust and obedience to God's grace in Jesus Christ and desire to become part of the membership and ministry of his Church...."

W-4.0203 is even stronger. Of new members, it says, in part: "They shall reaffirm the vows taken at Baptism by:

a. professing their faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior,

b. renouncing evil and affirming their reliance on God's grace,

c. declaring their intention to participate actively and responsibly in the worship and mission of the church....

G-5.0202 talks about what is expected of an active member, including voluntary submission to the government of the church. It also permits churches to be more stringent if they believe it necessary:

Other conditions of active membership that meet the needs of the particular church and are consistent with the order and confessions of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) may be adopted by the session after careful study and discussion with the congregation.

Further, in 1985, a book referred to as the "Supplemental Liturgical Resource 2" was published by the Office of Worship of the PCUSA. Note that this is after reunification in 1983. The resource is titled "Holy Baptism and Services for the Renewal of Baptism." This book recommends appropriate liturgy for various worship occasions.

There is a service for "Renewal of Baptism for Those Who Have Been Estranged from the Church" (pp. 78ff). Here is a powerful part of the service, meant for those who are being presented to join the church by reaffirmation of faith:

Now, as you publicly declare your faith, I ask you to reject sin, to profess your faith in Christ Jesus, and to confess the faith of the church, the faith in which you were baptized.

Do you renounce evil, and its power in the world, which defies God's righteousness and love?

I renounce them.

Do you renounce the ways of sin that separate you from the love of God?

I renounce them.

Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Lord and Savior?

I do.

Do you intend to be Christ's faithful disciple, obeying his word, and showing his love, to your life's end?

I do.

[And so on. This same wording for the questions is used for baptisms and for confirmations.]

Obviously, renunciation of sin plays an important role in church membership, as well it should! We become new creations in Christ, and our lives ought to show it and our lips proclaim it. Imperfect we will be. Mistakes we will make, and we will make them again and again. But renouncing sin is necessary, rather than embracing it or declaring it of no consequence.

No. Asking for the renunciation of sin is no new requirement for membership, sprung as a "deeply pernicious heresy." Seeking metanoia--repentance, the turning from sin toward God--is a deeply loving act of nurture.

Heresy would be the Gnostic notion that one's practice is not a part of one's profession of faith! The intention to obey Christ through obeying his Word is part and parcel of genuine faith. And the profession of genuine faith is a requirement for church membership.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Officially for Presbyterians, is homosexual practice sin?

Do you know what the official Presbyterian Church (USA) policy is on homosexual practice? Did you know there is such a policy, and that it is both clear and pastoral?

A public letter by Joan Gray, Moderator of the General Assembly, reminded me once again of how forgotten or ignored is the excellent counsel of the 1978 General Assembly policy statement on homosexuality. Moderator Gray characteristically operates in a wise and pastoral way, and I’m sure that was her intent in her letter. However, her memory of the 1978 policy document, now an Authoritative Interpretation, appears to leave something to be desired.

Moderator Gray argues that “the Authoritative Interpretation of the Constitution delivered in 1978, which is the basis of our understanding of how the church relates to homosexual persons, states that homosexuality or homosexual practice is not a bar to church membership.” That is not exactly correct.

First, as one turns to the actual paper, now available in PDF format on the web, the first 56 pages basically need to be discarded. This first part consists of a deeply flawed report merely “received” from a deeply divided task force. It was never approved. “It is reprinted as an aid to study and does not have official policy status,” the preface reminds us.

Still in effect as the policy of the church, however, are “the policy statement and recommendations, which were adopted as the official position of the General Assembly,” according to the preface. The policy statement and recommendations begin on page 57 on the paper version (page 55 of the PDF version).

So, to better elucidate what Moderator Gray has contended, what does Presbyterian policy say about homosexual practice and church membership? The policy certainly names homosexual practice as sin. Here are some instances:

  • "the practice of homosexuality is sin..."
  • "homosexuality is not God's wish for humanity..."
  • "homosexuality is a contradiction of God's wise and beautiful pattern for human sexual relationships revealed in Scripture..."
  • "the New Testament declares that all homosexual practice is incompatible with Christian faith and life..."

That is the official policy of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Given that, what does one do about the questions of church membership and ordination? Well, starting with the understanding that the practice of homosexual behavior is sinful, then, according to Presbyterian policy, “for the church to ordain a self-affirming, practicing homosexual person to ministry would be to act in contradiction to its charter and calling in Scripture, setting in motion both within the church and society serious contradictions to the will of Christ.” Also, “our present understanding of God's will precludes the ordination of persons who do not repent of homosexual practice.” That’s our position on ordination.

What about church membership? The policy starts out by counseling against homophobia, wanting to treat all people with respect. That’s good and necessary. But then it turns to church membership:

As persons repent and believe, they become members of Christ's body. The church is not a citadel of the morally perfect; it is a hospital for sinners. It is the fellowship where contrite, needy people rest their hope for salvation on Christ and his righteousness. Here in community they seek and receive forgiveness and new life. The church must become the nurturing community so that all whose lives come short of the glory of God are converted, reoriented, and built up into Christian maturity. It may be only in the context of loving community, appreciation, pastoral care, forgiveness, and nurture that homosexual persons can come to a clear understanding of God's pattern for their sexual expression (emphasis added).

As one can see by noting the italicized words above, the emphasis is on someone at least intending to contritely repent and turn away from living in a way that comes short of the glory of God. It involves putting oneself in God’s hands as God points out a clear new pattern for orienting one’s sexual life and expression.

The policy states that “homosexual persons who sincerely affirm ‘Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior’ and ‘I intend to be his disciple, to obey his word, and to show his love’ should not be excluded from membership” (emphasis added). The language is appropriately encompassing for those who have a homosexual orientation.

But given the fact that homosexual practice is sin, the emphasized words show the assembly’s intent that those who seek church membership understand the lordship of Jesus Christ in their lives and what discipleship and obedience to the Word means. This is no free pass for homosexual practice, as if that particular form of sin were inconsequential in respect to church membership.

I find it odd that some of our denominational leaders (although not Joan Gray) seem to be acting as if it were perfectly okay with Presbyterian policy for people to participate in homosexual sex, but, for some obscure reason, we've just decided not to ordain people who do so. Maybe we're just fussy or old-fashioned, they seem to imply.

But the Authoritative Interpretation of 1978 is a whole piece, and the lynchpin is the biblical and theological determination that homosexual practice is not God's will and is indeed sin. The rest of the policy flows from that: not ordaining those who practice unrepentant homosexual sex, not sinning by practicing homophobia either, treating even the sinner with respect, calling for true repentance and discipleship, and so on.

The foundation is that homosexual practice is indeed sin, as the Bible says it is. That simple declaration seems to have been largely lost, as people fall all over themselves not to appear judgmental or rude--or even very confident in what Scripture says to be true!

We do well to remember exactly what it is that Presbyterians have adopted as policy and have always held to be true, despite more than three decades of assault by secularizing ideas that would exchange God’s loving truth for the world’s destructive lies.