Statement from a grassroots body of concerned Cumberland Presbyterians who take seriously our Call to love and minister in partnership with our siblings in Christ without regard for race, gender identity, or sexual orientation toward the realization of the Kingdom of God:

In anticipation of our 191st General Assembly held in June 2022, many Cumberland Presbyterians were aware that Commissioners to that Assembly would be considering at least two exclusionary memorials, the submission of which represented the culmination of an extended campaign by a group of self-styled “traditionalists”, ultimately, to force adoption of their own legalistic, self-righteous, and hypocritical interpretation of scripture—that God could not possibly call members of the LGBTQ+ community to Christian service and ministry—as the will of our entire denomination. Regardless of one’s stance on the issues the memorials raised, there is little doubt that if fully implemented (or carried out), they would bring untold bitterness and division to the denomination. 

While fomenting such bitterness and division may have been one of the goals of the memorials, reason and concerns for our unity prevailed within the Committee assigned the task of making recommendations on them. After thoughtful consideration and prayer, the Committee recommended denial in both cases. 

Unfortunately, the body chose to reject the wisdom of the Committee and instead to slander the LGBTQ+ community and sanction the inevitable turmoil and pain that surely the memorials’ authors knew would result. It was an action that not only puts our denomination squarely on the wrong side of history, but also leaves us teetering tragically outside the foundations of our own faith. 

At issue in this debate was the simple question, “will we divide the church by refusing to recognize and accept members of the LGBTQ+ community whom God calls and has already planted into the full faith, fellowship, and ministry of the church?” The result of the debate ensured that it would be a sad day for the Cumberland Presbyterian Church—a denomination that has previously been both an outlier and a leader in the history of American Christianity for embracing inclusion. 

While pursuing their missions for good or ill in the world, human institutions—as inventions of the imperfect beings we are—have from time to time, though all too often—been prone to errors in judgment, outright injustices, and even cruelty to others. 

The world’s great religions—and for the purposes of this statement, the many expressions of the Christian faith specifically—have not been immune to the fallout from human imperfection. From the Crusades and the Inquisition, to the Salem witch trials, to the enslavement of Africans, to recent examples of wide-spread sexual abuse having been swept under the rug, the Christian faith has at times reflected the human frailties and imperfections of its adherents and has thus fallen short while in pursuit of its singular charge to proclaim and live the good news, especially when it comes to the most vulnerable among us or to those considered “other”. In short, in our inability to see as God sees, we are not immune from making tragic mistakes while carrying out or defending what we believe to be God’s will. 

In the actions taken by our 191st General Assembly, the Commissioners voted to endorse changes to our Constitution that fall short of glorifying God and modeling emulation of Jesus’ life. That body—for reasons that cannot be justified by any examples in the life and teachings of our Lord and Savior—took previously inconceivable steps down a path of actively and officially excluding children of God who are both members of our church family and members of the LGBTQ+ community. In essence, these were hubristic steps toward questioning God’s wisdom and the prerogative of God to call whom God chooses. They were deliberate steps toward excluding persons, created in the image of God, who wish only to live their lives authentically, as they were created to be, and to respond to the Call God has put upon them to serve and minister in the Cumberland Presbyterian Church.

This issue is not one with a “simple” resolution. Clearly, it is an issue upon which there are a wide variety of opinions within our denomination, and around which much emotion comes into play. We have “agreed to disagree” on other such non-doctrinal controversies, and are a stronger denomination for allowing a “big tent” approach to them. However, regardless of one’s opinion concerning the inclusion of LGBTQ+ folk, called by God to Christian service and ministry in our denomination, it is difficult, at best, to reconcile the Jesus who directed us to “love one another as I have loved you” with the body of professed Jesus-followers in that meeting who said, in effect, “we do not want you—you do not belong here—you are inferior to us.” 

And it is impossible to reconcile our mandate as Christians to love one another as Jesus has loved us with the statements heard on the floor of General Assembly declaring that members of the LGBTQ+ community are “a cancer upon the church” or that “being gay is a birth defect” (a statement that, among other things, revealed an astonishing ignorance of the facts). 

If, as the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr suggested, institutions tend to be more immoral than the individuals who populate them, then with its actions in support of those misguided memorials that would, in effect, result in encouraging presbyteries to overrule God’s Call on members of the LGBTQ+ community, the 191st General Assembly has set us on a path toward a wilderness of spiritual illegitimacy. 

Cumberland Presbyterian members of the LGBTQ+ community, their families, their friends, and their supporters from throughout the church are left to wonder, is there still a place for me and my family in this church? Is this the denomination we really are? Is this the denomination we wish to become? 

Is the Cumberland Presbyterian Church to become little more than an exclusive club, where prospective members—some of whom God has called into its service and ministry—must meet standards for acceptance that Jesus himself never set? 

Does the Cumberland Presbyterian Church—a denomination that has been in numerical decline for close to fifty years—really believe that excluding some of our best and brightest young people based solely upon their sexuality is the key to turning that trend around? To attracting “nones” who are already deeply skeptical about the hypocrisy they have observed in the American church? 

Are we now comfortable with spending our scarce human and financial resources in efforts to “weed out” and dismiss the many members of the LGBTQ+ community who are already serving honorably and effectively in the various ministries of the denomination? Are we comfortable with “going after” LGBTQ+ folk rather than dealing with those who abuse and mistreat them? Will we follow these proposals to their logical ends by also weeding out and dismissing those in ministry who are divorced persons? How about those heterosexuals who have at any time engaged in sexual activity outside of marriage? Will we now take time away from critical ministries in order to define which sexual activities are permissible, when they’re permissible, and which are not? (Perhaps we should be careful what we wish for…) 

Rather than agreeing to disagree, as we have done in favor of unity and maintaining focus on the Great Commission in the past, are we really ready—for the first time in our history—to descend the slippery slope of codifying exclusion of anyone with whom we personally disagree on matters that are by all rights private? Will we abandon our invitation to whosoever will, choosing instead to reject those who, in their prayer and study, have come to an understanding of scripture on non-doctrinal matters that is different from ours?

To these questions, we, a body of Cumberland Presbyterians who take seriously our Call to love and minister in partnership with our siblings in Christ without regard for race, gender identity, or sexual orientation toward the realization of the Kingdom of God, answer with an unequivocal “NO”. 

This year, members of West Tennessee presbytery celebrated with energized hope for the denomination’s future as they recognized and affirmed God’s Call upon a bright, energetic, deeply committed young person who was then taken under that presbytery’s care as a candidate for the ministry. 

Almost as quickly, however, that celebration was dampened by other members of the same presbytery who assumed they knew about aspects of the candidate’s private life that they really had no way of knowing, and then based on their assumptions, became so consumed by parochial fears and an absence of understanding that they found it impossible to celebrate the addition of another co-laborer in God’s work. 

Rather than seeking common ground in pursuit of the Kingdom, they appealed to Synod to split the presbytery along ideological lines and form their own presbytery, threatening to leave the denomination if their wishes were not met—a decision that is necessitating countless hours that could otherwise be devoted to service and ministry, as well as-yet-unknown legal expenses that have nothing to do with spreading the good news of Jesus Christ. Meanwhile, a world of hurting people languish, deprived of the good news that these misspent resources might provide. 

It will be tragic if we cannot agree to disagree on this point of non-essential doctrine—if we cannot continue to work together in ministry to the poor, the unclothed, the sick, the unhoused, the imprisoned, and to those who have been marginalized into “other-ness”—work that should be our highest priority. This inability to co-exist with those whose faith journeys have brought them to different understandings of scripture could well become a stake in the heart of the denomination we all love. 

Homophobic tropes such as those unveiled at our General Assembly threaten to devolve into a litmus test for declaring a person whom God has called to ministry according to God’s standards nevertheless unworthy by human standards, despite the growing body of serious biblical scholarship now suggesting that the Bible actually has very little, if anything, to say about contemporary same-sex relationships. They also often lead to and are used to justify violence and harassment—some of which we have already subsequently seen—against LGBTQ+ folk. For this reason, we need to be ever mindful of such language, avoiding slander and the bearing of false witness against our neighbors. Those who would lead us down that path must, in love, be called to account. 

Therefore, it is out of deep affection for our denomination and out of reverence for the message of love and inclusion that Jesus modeled that leads us to stand in righteous opposition to any actions that would mandate exclusion of persons called by God to minister in God’s name. Drawing inspiration from Martin Luther King’s struggle against the unjust laws that excluded people of color from enjoying the full fruits of our free society, we are committed to working against the unjustified and, frankly, unChristian Constitutional changes proposed to and endorsed by some Commissioners at the 191st General Assembly. Inspired by St. Augustine, we affirm that “an unjust [rule] is no [rule] at all”, and it is our duty before God and to the Cumberland Presbyterian Church to model our ministry on that of Jesus Christ—a ministry of love and acceptance that is without condition. 

While there may be some who choose to leave—or even to destroy—our denomination rather than to recognize God’s Call upon a sibling who happens to be a member of the LGBTQ+ community, our pledge is to remain, and to continue affirming their authenticity as blessed creations of God. Our pledge is to continue offering the best that we have in efforts to help the denomination that we love to heal and to refocus its efforts where they belong—ministering out of love and forbearance, inviting whosoever will to the table, and supporting them in whatever facet of ministry to which God calls them. 

Drawing from another Martin Luther, we declare that, “Here we stand; we cannot do otherwise, so help us God.”

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