Officially for Presbyterians, is homosexual practice sin?
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.