Delegates at the June 2017 meeting of West Tennessee Presbytery received a “Statement on Homosexual Activity and Marriage in the Cumberland Presbyterian Church” and referred it to the October 7, 2017, meeting for discussion and consideration. The statement requested that ministers and elders who are “unable to agree with these statements” should “state their disagreements and be prepared to defend them, as we are….”
This response is our attempt to answer that request. We do so, not because we need to justify our differences of opinion and insight to the signatories of the Statement, but because we share their concern for the unity of the church.
REGARDING THE UNITY OF THE CHURCH
The Statement notes, correctly we think, that the related issues of acceptance of LGBTQ+ leadership in the church and same-sex marriage clearly have been a source of controversy and divided opinion. The advisory statement adopted by the 1996 General Assembly did not produce the “unity and clarity” that was perhaps intended. Neither do we think the adoption of this Statement by West Tennessee Presbytery is likely to produce unity and clarity.
Unity in the church is not accomplished by the adoption of position statements. In truth, seeking to bind the consciences of members of our church family by force of vote leads to disunity and damages the very relationships essential to our mission, relationships we hope to preserve.
Our Confession of Faith says, “The church is one because her Head and Lord is one, Jesus Christ. Her oneness under her Lord is manifested in the one ministry of word and sacrament, not in any uniformity of covenantal expression, organization, or system of doctrine.” (5.02) It is worth noting that even the 1996 General Assembly statement affirmed that presbyteries and sessions have the authority to come to their own conclusions and act according to their own consciences with regard to ordination. While this two-decade-old statement clearly recorded that body’s opinion that homosexuals should not be ordained, it nevertheless affirmed the authority of presbyteries and sessions to ordain.
Our hope is that the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, and West Tennessee Presbytery, will reach for an understanding of unity that does not require uniformity on this or any issue, one that respects that people of differing opinions may still be bound together in their mutual love for Christ and the Church, and work together to share that love in a hurting world.
The Statement under consideration notes that “disharmony” regarding LGBTQ+ issues “has been damaging to the focus and determination” of the Church as it seeks to accomplish its purpose. We would note that, while this may be true, it need not be. The Cumberland Presbyterian Church has historically understood that our ability to love one another and work together fruitfully has not been predicated on universal like-mindedness. If we insist on uniformity, we disallow the possibility of a prophetic voice being heard in our midst. Prophets always dissent from the “uniform” view.
We affirm our tradition that individual members and sessions have the privilege to “scruple,” to believe and act in accordance with the moral and ethical claims on their consciences even when they differ from a majority opinion within the Church. We have not been a doctrinaire church, but one which has respected that individual Christians may be engaged by the Holy Spirit in ways that lead to differing perspectives on issues. We believe such diversity—though uncomfortable—can be a creative, life-giving feature of covenant relationship.
If we say we can only experience unity with those with whom we are in complete agreement, we do no credit to the power of Jesus Christ to draw all people together in the power of his love.
REGARDING THE SCRIPTURES AND THEIR INTERPRETATION
We affirm the Bible as “the infallible rule of faith and practice, the authoritative guide for Christian living” (COF 1.05). The signatories of the Statement “trust that clear understanding of the biblical position on homosexuality will be a firm foundation on which we may build a framework for responding in love and care to those who experience same-sex attraction.” If we shared the principles of biblical interpretation which the Statement seems to assume to be operative for all Cumberland Presbyterians, we agree this could be true. But such is not the case. Throughout its discourse, the Statement appears to adopt a literal interpretation of texts based on the meaning of words and understanding of actions in our context. A more fruitful, and we believe faithful, alternative is to consider texts in their socio-historical and literary contexts.
The socio-historic context of the Genesis story of the destruction of Sodom would invite us to read this troubling story as coming from a shame-honor culture and a male-power world very different from our own. Coming from such a context, the story is about violence and shame/humiliation. How can an account of an attempted gang-rape ever be used legitimately to oppose committed, same-sex relationships in the present day?
Attending to the literary context of verses selected from Leviticus invites us to consider why we easily disregard the great majority of those purity laws yet grant full authority to verses that serve our purpose. As is well known in our society, most Christians do not uphold those purity laws. Our own clothing and pot-luck dinners are the evidence of this. To be faithful to the Holy Scripture would mean viewing these through the lens of Christ equally rather than ascribing a more literal interpretation to some while completely ignoring others.
Consideration of the literary context of Paul’s comments on sexual behavior in Romans 1 shows us that Paul is addressing Gentiles who had every opportunity to see God’s presence and honor God as God, but chose instead to worship gods of their own making. God allowed them to so choose, the result of which is that they choose what is ‘not natural’ for them. The example that Paul uses to illustrate this main point is sexual behavior, which was notorious and disgusting, in and around Caesar’s household in Rome. Consideration of this socio-historical context tells us that sex in this world was an expression of male power, was primarily about procreation (that is, producing male heirs which is a primary expression of male power), and should be ‘passionless’ so that the male participant remains in control of himself (another expression of male power). So, v. 26 tells us that women exchanged the ‘natural use’ (not intercourse, which doesn’t appear in the Greek) for what is unnatural which, in that context, means they were having sex in ways so that they might not get pregnant. V. 27 begins with ‘likewise,’ so, like the women, the men were having sex in ways so that procreation wasn’t happening, as is obviously true in same gender sex (not to mention that Paul apparently thinks there’s too much passion involved). When considered in context, we find that Paul wasn’t commenting on same-gender sex as such. Today we’d likely disagree with his assumption that sex is an expression of male power and that the ‘natural use’ of sex is for procreation. We probably also disagree with him that sex should be passionless. How does it make sense, then, to pull one phrase out of that context, the ‘males with males’ phrase, and use it to condemn relationships in a radically different context?
Biblical interpretation always involves making choices. What passages will we count as highly authoritative and which may be reconsidered or re-framed in light of modern understandings? On what basis do we make those decisions? Often such choices are made to support long-held beliefs and justify treasured biases. Theological reflection is an essential component of any biblical hermeneutic that has integrity. But not only theological reflection about the Bible; theological reflection about ourselves, as well. Since none of us conform our lives to every word of scripture, we should attempt, at least, to understand the choices we make as we orient our lives in accordance with scripture.
In Acts 10, when Peter was summoned to the home of the Roman centurion Cornelius, everything he thought he knew about what it meant to be faithful to God, including whom he should include as members of the people of God, should have led him to refuse. This refusal would have been based on his interpretation of scriptures as well as the religious tradition in which he had been raised and through which he began his preaching ministry. Regarding scripture and tradition, he would have been theologically correct to do so. Except that God had prepared him. In a vision, God offered a hungry Peter animals to kill and eat; but the animals were ritually unclean so he refused. “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” The voice said to him, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” Fortunately, Peter made the theological connection: “God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” Peter saw that Christ’s redemption was for everyone, even the Gentiles.
We believe that God is at work now showing us that the Good News is larger and more grace-filled than we have imagined. This leads us to challenge the Cumberland Presbyterian Church to include LGBTQ+ persons fully in the life of the Church, along with their families and the gifts God is offering the Church through them. *
Compassion and Empathy. We note with concern the complete absence in the Statement of any word, phrase, or paragraph that reflects an understanding of, or compassion for, the lived experience of LGBTQ+ persons. There is no expression of empathy for the suffering they have endured—and do endure—often in accordance with the influence of the Church. No appreciation is expressed for the struggle of LGBTQ+ persons who seek a home in Christian community and find instead rejection.
We ask the Church to recognize its complicity, intentionally or unintentionally, in propagating a system of belief that leads LGBTQ+ persons to believe they are somehow less than beloved beings, created in the image of God. The religious and spiritual abuse of LGBTQ+ persons leads many times to guilt, low self-esteem, shame, loss of spirituality, substance abuse, and thoughts of suicide. It is important that the Church learn about the lived experience of LGBTQ+ persons through study and research, and through respectful dialogue and relationship. We hope the Church will be open to hearing their voices and learning from them.
There are consequences to the Church’s teaching and response to its LGBTQ+ youth and their families. What does the Church say to young people who are navigating an emerging sexual identity that they do not themselves fully understand and which they may find frightening? What is the Church teaching parents about how to respond in love to their adolescent children who identify as LGBTQ+? The rate of suicide attempts is four times greater for LGBTQ+ youth than for heterosexual teens.** LGBTQ+ youth who come from highly rejecting families are 8.4 times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers.*** There are consequences to our words and actions.
Pastoral Care and Counseling. The Statement under discussion states that “we pray that acceptance of the biblical understanding of homosexual activity will be a beginning in our efforts to learn to behave lovingly toward those who experience same-sex attraction in our relationships with them, in pastoral care and counseling, and in discipleship.” We maintain that it is unethical for any pastor to engage in pastoral or spiritual counseling with a goal to convert persons from a homosexual identity to a heterosexual identity. Medical professionals have repeatedly condemned conversion therapy, as have the American Psychological Association and the American Counseling Association. It is illegal in five states, with a ban under consideration in others. While the signatories of the Statement do not promote conversion therapy, the danger to LGBTQ+ persons of this unethical practice is so devastating to those who are subjected to it that it warrants explicit rejection.
A cherished and compelling narrative from our Cumberland Presbyterian history has told of the radical acceptance and Christian concern our ministers showed those who lived on the literal margins of society. Those early pastors went to the frontier spurred by the conviction that the lives of those who dwelt there mattered; that they, too, would rejoice to find in the light of Christ a salvation for which they may not have known they yearned. But those pastors were convicted, too, that this was what God required of them: to express their love for God by loving their neighbors, even those in the Kentucky and Tennessee wilderness.
This is a history of which we are justifiably proud. It begs now to be repeated for our LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters, their families, and their friends.
Audrey Adams, member Cool Springs
Ellen Allford, elder Cool Springs
Lisa Anderson, minister Colonial
James Batts, elder Cool Springs
William Black, elder Colonial
Whitney Brown, minister
Mark Brown, minister
Michelle K. Brown, elder Germantown
Elinor Brown, minister
Mark J. Davis, elder Germantown
Linda Dinwiddie, elder Colonial
Wilbur Doran, elder Cool Springs
Harold Dunivant, elder Cool Springs
Sarah Edwards, member Germantown
Elizabeth Brown Forester, member Germantown
Eleanor Brown Forester, member Germantown
Byron Forester, minister Hopewell (BC)
Valerie Fowlkes, elder Cool Springs
Jim Glenn, elder Medina
Linda Glenn, minister Medina
Marilyn Godwin, elder Colonial
Susan Hill, elder Shiloh
Bethany Hollingsworth, elder Shiloh
Ellen Hudson, minister
Deanna Kendall, elder Cool Springs
Melissa Malinoski, minister
Debby Marston, elder Colonial
Mitzi Minor, minister
Tiffany Hall McClung, minister
Gene McReynolds, elder Medina
Gwen McReynolds, member Medina
Mike Minton, elder Cool Springs
Robert Minton, elder Cool Springs
Bill Pickle, elder Germantown
Claudette Pickle, elder Germantown
Mike Pruitt, elder Cool Springs
Noah Quinton, minister
Steven Shelton, minister Faith
Allison Stewart, elder Cool Springs
Richard D. Thompson, member Germantown
Terri Mayo Thompson, member Germantown
Chris Todd, minister
Charlie Trapp, elder First Olive Branch
Emily Trapp, minister Colonial
Jackie Tucker, elder Dyer
Lynn Tucker, elder Dyer
Linda E. Warren, member Germantown
William Warren, minister Germantown
* For more details and further study, consult the works of New Testament scholars like Dale Frederickson, Amy-Jill Levine, Dale Martin and Luise Schottroff.
** Statistics regarding suicide rates among LGBTQ+ teens can be found atwww.thetrevoproject.com among other places online.
*** In addition to suicide, homelessness is a serious threat to LGBTQ+ teens of families who reject them. Statistics regarding homelessness rates can be found at www.truecolorsfund.org/ourissue among other places online.