To: The Unified Committee on Theology and Social Concerns
From: A grassroots body of concerned Cumberland Presbyterians advocating for the freedom of conscience bequeathed to all of us by our founders, specifically concerning a denominational position on human sexuality
Pursuant to the granting of its request (from the 189th General Assembly) for more time to consider the issues surrounding the development of a denominational statement on human sexuality, the Unified Committee of Theology and Social Concerns has solicited input from Cumberland Presbyterians as they consider the task before them. It is no secret that passionate debate on this topic has consumed a significant amount time at meetings of Presbyteries, meetings of Sessions, and in private and public conversation among faithful Cumberland Presbyterians. A concern we wish to highlight with this communication is that in much of the debate, a critical detail concerning an essential element of Cumberland Presbyterianism—a detail that arguably has defined who we are to countless Christians who have come to faith precisely because of the freedom we encourage to be open to new understandings of scripture and growth through the influence of the Holy Spirit—has been neglected.
As a reminder, on 4 February 1810, almost 210 years ago, Reverends Samuel McAdow, Finis Ewing, and Samuel King drafted a document organizing a new presbytery within the Presbyterian denomination to which they belonged after that body had failed to address grievances for which they had previously sought relief. Among other precipitating disagreements they had with their denomination was one over the doctrine of predestination, which they viewed as a form of fatalism. In their document establishing Cumberland Presbytery, our founders laid out certain conditions that those who wished to become members of the new body would have to meet. Significantly, one doctrinal condition was that “all candidates for the ministry, who may hereafter be licensed by this presbytery; and all the licentiates, or probationers who may hereafter be ordained by this presbytery; shall be required before such licensure, and ordination, to receive, and adopt the confession and discipline of the presbyterian [sic] church, except the idea of fatality, that seems to be taught under the mysterious doctrine of predestination.” Having outlined this prerequisite for the full participation of licentiates and probationers seeking membership in the new presbytery, though, they immediately went on to say, “It is understood, however, that such as can clearly receive the confession, without an exception, shall not be required to make any.”
In other words—and significantly, in our view—our founders, while clearly preferring a doctrinal position that precluded the acceptance of predestination as a doctrine worthy of embrace, still allowed those who wished to join their new presbytery the freedom of conscience to embrace a different interpretation of scripture on the matter—even one supportive of a doctrine they so strongly opposed. This is, and has been a defining trait of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church since its founding—that members are not only free to question matters of scriptural interpretation (among other things), but encouraged to do so, that through the continuing illumination of God’s own Spirit, by studying the writings of the Bible in their historical settings, comparing scripture with scripture, listening to the witness of the church throughout the centuries, and sharing insights with others in the covenant community, their faith might be strengthened as a result. To avoid judgment of the conclusions our siblings in Christ have reached on doctrinal matters as a result of their own good-faith study—conclusions that differ, even profoundly, from our own—is in our DNA, and a part of who we are.
This—the allowance within our body for different interpretations of scripture as they relate to church doctrines—is the fundamental issue before us—not whether persons with same-gender attraction are to be permitted to participate fully in the life of the church. Our founders clearly valued what many in today’s culture refer to as “freedom of religion” so highly that they specifically allowed for it even on a doctrinal matter. Our Unified Committee of Theology and Social Concerns should do no less. We strongly urge you to develop a statement that, rather than denying any Cumberland Presbyterians freedom of conscience—“freedom of religion” in contemporary vernacular—in interpreting scripture through the guidance of the Holy Spirit as the Spirit speaks to them with respect to such issues—nonessential doctrines—as this, instead upholds and affirms this unique and cherished Cumberland Presbyterian trait.
It is also worth noting that the 189th General Assembly, in its amendment to the Preamble to our Constitution approved at that session, acknowledged in essence that in an increasingly diverse body such as ours, it is the “spirit of the law, rather than the letter, which must prevail.” While we acknowledge that the impetus for this addition to our Constitution was differences which have arisen from the incorporation of the “cultures, traditions, and legal systems of some countries” into our faith family, and that it dealt specifically with our Constitution and Rules of Discipline, we believe that the underlying point is that as long as our actions do not “[compromise] the mission of the church and the spiritual objectives identified in the Confession of Faith”, flexibility and compromise are not only acceptable, but in fact strengthen us as a denomination.
Again, we urge you to honor our historic devotion to a theology that embraces growth through the continuing influence of the Holy Spirit and the God-gifted freedom of conscience that makes such growth possible, to differ on matters of nonessential doctrine such as this by developing a statement that continues to allow for such freedom, and thus for a more healthy future for our beloved denomination.