On Getting With the Program

Since I work for the Presbyterians, I spent some time this summer watching the live feed from the 220th General Assembly in Pittsburgh.  On the penultimate day of the Assembly there was discussion on allowing ministers to be able to marry same-sex couples.  It was not a surprise to see conservatives quoting scripture.  In fact, one young delegate opened her Bible on the Assembly floor and started reading a verse.  As bothersome as that was, what really bothered me was my own side.  I wasn’t bothered that they were advocating for marriage equality, but I was bothered by how they were doing it.  Time and time again, a commissioner who was in favor would come up to the microphone and say something kind of like this:

Why is the church so behind the society on welcoming gay people?  This is why the young people leave the church.  If we allow ministers to marry our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, then we will be become relevant in the eyes of the young and the rest of society again.  So let’s vote yes!

I have to be honest, as much as I agreed with them at some level, every time I heard something like what was said above, it was like fingernails on a chalkboard.  There was something grating about it.  Presbyterians were being asked to approve this policy not because the body had discerned where the spirit of God was moving, but instead it was doing it to be relevant to the wider society; to get with the program.  These folks were doing the right thing for the wrong reasons.

In a recent article, Phillip Jenkins wrote about the uproar of the wider society when the Church of England voted down the motion of allowing females to become bishops.  The Anglican’s sister body in the United States allows women bishops and of course, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church happens to be a woman. While one could be crestfallen that the vote had not gone the other way, what was disturbing to me and Jenkins was how the wider society reacted:

What has been striking about the recent English debate, though, is the extreme rarity of anything approaching a theological rationale. Both inside the church and outside, the standard argument goes something like this: society has changed fundamentally, and the church has to accept and absorb these changes, as a matter of “moving with the times.” In the words of Prime Minster David Cameron, the Church of England needs to “get with the program.”(emphasis mine)

I think there are many good reasons for having female leadership.  I think there are many theological reasons for having women bishops.  But as much as I like Prime Minister Cameron, the Church of England should not do this just because he thinks its a good idea.  The problem with this line of reasoning is that it assumes that cultural change is always a good thing.  As Jenkins notes, that ain’t necessarily so:

Lost in such rhetoric is any suggestion that this church, or any religious institution, follows an authority over and above that of general social trends and priorities, as interpreted by politicians and the mass media. The church’s sole duty, it seems, is to turn to the editorial pages of the Guardian or the New York Times, and to follow the stern injunction, “Go and do thou likewise!” Any historical sense might remind us that on occasion, “Society” has a bad habit of forming a consensus that is wrong and dangerous, and that it is an excellent idea for the church not to move with these particular times. At times, resistance is justified or even demanded. Dietrich Bonhoeffer had some vital things to say on these matters.

Logically, there is no reason why in decades to come, the church will not face comparable pressures to accept other trends that presently seem monstrous or unacceptable, but which will in due course win popular support. That juggernaut “Program” is a constantly growing and evolving beast. In such circumstances, there are literally no aspects of the Christian tradition or scripture that would give the slightest protection against calls to conform.

What society wants is not always a good thing (cue the scenes of Hitler saluting goose-stepping soldiers with cheering crowds all around).  Even if what is being debated is a good thing, the church should not do it because it’s the modern and new thing.  The church isn’t supposed to follow society, but following Christ.  It is in that light that we determine if something is good or bad.  If we approve having pastors do same sex marriage ceremonies, we have to ask things like what is marriage, or what does committment mean between two people in light Christian teaching.  It doesn’t matter if the rest of society is doing it, we have to judge things by a different standard- even if we come to the same conclusion as society.

Twenty years ago, I was trying to come to terms with my sexuality.  One of the things I sought to do as I tried to figured out if what I was feeling was sinful or okay was to look at what Scripture said.  I didn’t want to accept being gay just because it was fashionable; I wanted to have some theological justification for it.  Thank God that I was working at a bookstore at the time and picked up a wonderful book called, Is The Homosexual My Neighbor? Using that book and my Bible, I was able to come to a theological understanding that allowed me to come to the same conclusion others had come to.  The difference is I used the tools of the church, not society.

As churches start to debate the issue of same sex marriage, I would ask those who are in favor of it to do one thing: ignore or at least pay less attention to what society is saying and look to what scripture, reason tradition and experience are saying.  Listen to the words of the Spirit, not the sirens of modernity.  We might arrive at the same place as our secular friends, but how we got there matters as much and at times more than when we arrive.


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