By Matt McDonell
Are we to be distracted by questions about sexual orientation, when we allow murderers to stand in the pulpit?
Okay, I admit it, that headline is sensationalized and intended to grab your attention, but if you’re willing to stick with me for a bit I think you’ll see what I’m trying to say.
There has been sharp division among Christians on the question of killing for as long as there has been a church (well, maybe not that long, but going at least as far back as Constantine). Is it ever permissible for a Christian to take a human life? The earliest church fathers held to a conviction that taking up the sword was not permissible for adherents to The Way. No less an authoritative voice than Saint Augustine argues for the permissibility of Christians to participate in a war so long as it is a “just war”, and Thomas Aquinas himself argued that a Christian political leader should use all force and authority available – up to and including the threat of execution – to compel adherence to the tenets of the faith by all under their influence, whether they identify as Christian or not (and who wouldn’t agree to identify as Christian under such persuasive incentives?).
Among the worldwide fellowship of believers from those times up until today, there remain individuals, congregations, and entire denominations that hold firmly to the belief and practice of pacifism with the conviction that the taking of any human life is forbidden to Christians under any circumstances. The importance of these convictions is recognized even by our secular government, which will grant exemptions from military service on the grounds of conscientious objection for anyone holding to a conviction that their Christian faith prohibits the taking of a life no matter the circumstances, and their determination to hold fast to these convictions is seen as a mark of devotion.
There are just as many who hold to a conviction that there are situations where the taking of life is not only justifiable but even morally necessary, whether in cases of self defense or the defense or others, in the line of duty for law enforcement officers, or in times of war for military service members. These faithful Christians firmly believe that the responsibility of making split-second decisions over whether the loss of one life is necessary to protect countless others is a heavy burden that is borne by a few on behalf of all of us. Many congregations will take time during worship services to thank, bless, and lift up in prayer those who have taken on – at great personal risk to themselves – the sober responsibility of necessary killing on our behalf and for the protection of all.
One can find countless believers on both extremes of this issue – faithful and devoted believers who love Jesus and the church and submit to the authority of the Bible – who can point to scripture passages that they interpret as giving very strong support to their position. And while (as with any issue) there are any number of people who hold to convictions simply because it’s something they were told in their youth and accepted without question – or at least without reading up on the variety of interpretations based on linguistic, cultural, and historical considerations published over the centuries by Biblical scholars – anyone who does choose to devote themselves to such study will find that a “plain reading” of a given passage in that fuller context is anything but. (And let’s not even get into debates over abortion or the death penalty. There isn’t enough paper in the world…)
I suspect that within our denomination, within each presbytery, and most likely within most of our congregations, we find ourselves unified to fellow Christians who hold convictions on these questions of justifiable killing that are sharply different to those we hold ourselves. Yet in our denomination I know of no individual church nor Presbytery that has formally adopted as part of their rules, bylaws, or other polity a prohibition on the ordination or service of anyone who as part of their duty in law enforcement or the military has been called upon to use deadly force, nor have any required that anyone nominated for ordination or service make a pledge to lifelong abstention from the use of deadly force should they ever be called upon to use it in the future. We understand that while we may differ in our interpretations, and while we feel very strongly that we personally must adhere closely to our own convictions, we allow grace for others with whom we disagree to hold to their own understanding on the issue and tolerate their behavior based on that understanding. Put simply, we don’t demand that those with whom we differ in conviction or practice be cast out of our fellowship or denied access to leadership roles. We can disagree on issues, even issues as important as the question of killing, and still be a unified community with each other.
As many of you no doubt suspect, my chief purpose in writing is not to have us reflect on just war theory or Christian sanction (in both senses of the word) of the use of deadly force in law enforcement or military scenarios. I am writing to express my dismay over the proposed amendments to our denomination’s constitution concerning the ordination, ministry, and marriage of gender and sexuality minorities within our denomination, which changes would not only limit the ordination of potential elders and ministers going forward, but would threaten many currently serving faithfully at the behest of their congregations and Presbyteries with official church discipline. I’ll start with a bold statement: differences in convictions and practices regarding human sexuality are not the most important issues at stake in our consideration of these amendments. These amendments at their core are about whether unity between faithful believers is possible amidst disagreement.
On both sides there are faithful believers who have come to different interpretations of the same texts with intellectual and spiritual integrity. On both sides there is fear that those in opposition are allowing cultural and contextual norms to have an undue influence on their interpretation. And, yes, on both sides there are individuals who are pursuing one or the other conviction driven more by personal biases rather than their own thorough study and devotion to Biblical scholarship. But only one side is demanding that we hold all accountable to strict adherence to their particular interpretations and convictions. The defeat of these amendments will not demand that any person, congregation, or Presbytery that currently holds to what we may call the “traditional” interpretations accept and implement policies and behaviors consistent with those held by what we may call “affirming” believers. What the defeat of these amendments will mean is that we agree to once again uphold the core tenets of our denomination: that the authority to decide and uphold policies relating to ordination and access to the sacraments is held by the session of a given congregation and by Presbyteries, rather than making each one of us subject to edicts issued by the General Assembly according to a vote passed by a slate of commissioners (some of whom, according to troubling assertions I have heard, may have in this case been selected and pressured by means explicitly forbidden by our polity).
The defeat of these amendments would mean that we recognize the diversity of convictions, even deeply and passionately held convictions, among all of us who have been called by the Lord into community with each other, among whom we cannot deny the animating presence of the Holy Spirit to be at work proclaiming the good news of the gospel to the world even as we differ in our interpretations of the scripture, the authority of which we all hold in high regard.
The exclusionary amendments on limiting the participation of gender and sexuality minorities in the life, sacraments, and ministries of our congregations that are before General Assembly are not primarily about whether we will demand that all must adhere to one or another interpretation of scriptures (on which there is a diversity of scope and intensity of convictions among our members, our congregations, and our presbyteries). What is really at stake is whether we can abide to be joined to others with whom we share a love and devotion for our Lord, his teachings, and his church; with whom we share in the gifting and indwelling of the Holy Spirit animating and equipping us for ministry within our congregations, our communities, and to the wider world; alongside whom we approach the cross unwashed and unworthy and are bathed in the waters of baptism and cleansed in the blood of salvation, recipients of unmerited grace and unbounded mercy…
…can we abide being joined to such companions as these with whom we differ in our convictions and practice on this particular issue? Enjoying as we do unity with many of differing convictions and practices on issues such as remarriage after divorce, infant vs. believer’s baptism (let alone sprinkling vs. dunking), the ordination of women, traditional vs. contemporary worship, and even something so grave as the question of the justifiable taking of human life, is this the issue where we will insist that unity amidst diversity is not possible?
Let us not be deceived into believing that the best route to unity amongst diversity of convictions is a contentious vote on a divisive issue. Scripture tells us that the greatest witness we bear to the power of the gospel before a broken and needy world is not in our uniformity but in our unity, and that diversity among us is not a hindrance to our witness but in fact the power behind it. Yes, let us debate. Yes, let us attempt to persuade. But let us start with eyes to see the image of the Creator borne by each and every one of us, eyes to see the overwhelming belovedness of God that is extended to and envelops each child in which He delights, eyes of humility that recognize the limits of our own imaginations and interpretive powers yet does not exclude us from the invitation to the Lord’s table, to the Lord’s abundant grace and mercy, and to the generous gift we are to each other.
I urge all General Assembly commissioners to vote against these amendments because I want us to cling to unity rather than uniformity. I want us to acknowledge and celebrate the life and work of the Holy Spirit in those with whom we disagree on this important issue. Let us remember the testimony of the Apostle Peter before the council in Jerusalem where a similarly important question of inclusion despite diversity in adherence to traditional beliefs and practices was being debated, specifically the question of whether uncircumcised Gentiles would be allowed full access to the life of worship and ministry of the church: “And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us.” (Acts 15:8-9)
I am not urging anyone to give up their personal convictions on this or any issue. I desire a deeper unity that goes beyond agreement, a unity that only the work of the Holy Spirit can achieve. A vote to approve amendments such as these can do nothing to achieve that type of unity, it can only harm it. For that reason, I call on all commissioners to vote “no” on these harmful and divisive amendments.