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Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Presbyterian Church Gets It Both Right And Wrong

I grew up in the United Presbyterian Church which became the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA). And I was a member until around 1990 when we moved over to the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. We moved because the minister who was leading a discussion on homosexuality refused to acknowledge that homosexuality could partially be due to spiritual problems--that is sin. Such denies what the Scriptures say.

So I have followed the recent proceedings of the General Assembly (GA) of the PCUSA with interest especially with regard to their decision on same-sex marriage. In addition, having protested with Jewish Voice For Peace for divestment regarding Israel, I also had much interested in the GA's decision on divestment. And from what I have read, the GA went 1 for 2 in terms of its most recent decisions.

First, is the bad news. The GA voted in favor of legitimizing same-sex marriages in the denomination. Though it is moral and right to support marriage equality in society, this GA decision simply goes against the Scriptures especially the New Testament when applied to the Church. The GA did this in a way that was calculated to cut its losses. It didn't demand that its ministers perform same-sex weddings. Rather, it allowed their ministers to decide for which couples they will provide services. And the GA changed the language of what constitutes a "Christian" marriage from one man and one woman to "two people" (click here).

As wrong as this decision was scripturally speaking, it is understandable why some voted for the change. The Conservative Church has equated declaring homosexuality to be a sin with marginalizing gays in society. Thus, the Conservative Church has made disagreeing with homosexuality identical to denying equality for gays by insisting on stigmatizing and even persecuting them in society. The behavior of the Conservative Church toward gays has been both unconscionable and against the Scriptures.

We should note that such behavior neither spurs repentance nor, in a Post Modern society, wins people over to your side. Noting that Post Modernism rejects both one's ruling over others along with any supporting narratives used to justify such a relationship, truth is then determined, or disqualified, by whether a viewpoint CAN be used to justify domination and oppression. If it can, then one's viewpoint is obviously false. Since the Conservative Church has repeatedly shown that its opposition to homosexuality will result in the oppression of gays, too many of today's people have concluded that the only way to treat gays as equals in society is to reject the notion that homosexuality is sin. And thus, we have the GA's new decision regarding homosexuality. 

Because of the valid intentions of sensitive caring people to rightfully protect gays from the Conservative Church, the GA violated the Scriptural teaching on homosexuality. And despite the previously mentioned attempts at damage control exercised by the GA, one problem that will now exist in the PCUSA is when a same-sex couple that was married in a more liberal church tries to move to a more conservative church. And just perhaps, if the Conservative Church had paired a biblical understanding of homosexuality with an adamant and Biblical insistence that gays were to be treated with dignity and as equals in society, the GA just might not have had to make the decision it just made.

And now some good news, the GA has voted to divest from 3 multinational corporations whose business dealings assist Israel in its occupation of the Occupied Territories. This partially follows the BDS program of boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel, a program designed to use economic pressure to end the occupation of the Occupied Territories. Could the GA have gone farther by declaring that Israel is practicing apartheid? Yes, but it didn't. However, this is a step in the right direction. And again, what we see is a sensitivity by the GA for those being oppressed, that is the Palestinians. And in contrast to those whom the GA was defending with its pronouncements on same-sex marriage, we can say that there is no sin that comes with belonging to the group being protected this time. 

Conservative reactions to the GA's approval to divest from the 3 multinational corporations, as printed in the Presbyterian Layman (click here and there),  were negative. One of the primary reasons that the conservative reaction gave for opposing the GA here is that such was an affront to the only democracy in the Middle East. But this reasoning lacks reflection. For what it suggests is that we must support every decision Israel makes regarding the region simply because it is a democracy.

There are two problems with the above conservative reaction. First, such a answer encourages tribalism. Tribalism is when loyalty to a group trumps commitment to principle and morals. Thus, one of the end results of tribalism is the embracing of relative morality. So to show loyalty to Israel by supporting all of its decisions simply because the structure of its government is similar to ours is to practice tribalism. 

Second, the notion of Israel being a democracy has been credibly challenged by Israeli activist, Jeff Halper.1 Halper reasons that because a nation is suppose to belong equally to all of its citizens in a democracy, Israel cannot be counted as one because it belongs more to the Jews than to its non-Jewish citizens. This is what he calls an 'ethnocracy' because it is where one ethnic or religious group has given itself privileges over all of the other groups because of the power it has in determining its nation's laws.

In both GA decisions, regardless of whether the news was good or bad, there are consistencies that seems to have sailed over the heads of some. One consistency is that liberals in the PCUSA are erring on the side of compassion. Another is that conservatives are erring on the side of tradition and authoritarianism. Thus we see the liberal leaning in the GA by its decisions to side with and protect those who have been marginalized. At the same time, the reactiong against the GA decisions show a conservative leaning by siding with the old status quo. And because it would be an oversimplification to always side with one or the other, we need to examine what we can learn from both groups. 

With regard to the divestment decision, it is conservatives who call for the uncritical support of Israel regardless of how it treats the Palestinians. And though there is more than legitimate concern for the suffering of Israel from terrorist attacks, the lack of concern exercised by conservatives for the greater suffering of the Palestinians shows an unbiblical preference in how they treat the two groups--remembering that God is no respecter of persons.

With regard to the same-sex marriage decision, it is liberals who reject a straight forward exegesis of the Scriptures, particularly the New Testament, in favor of showing compassion. Liberals have a partial out here because conservatives have associated their interpretations of the Bible which call homosexuality sin with a societal call to punish homosexuals and treat them as second class citizens. But regardless of the desire to avoid error on one side, if proper exegesis is not practiced, then a wrong interpretation of the Bible is the result.

If Conservative Christians want to lament their losses and the growing secularization in their own nations and the world, they should listen to the blues sung by Liberals who are rightly opposing the domination of one group of people by another. Thus, perhaps, it is time that Conservative Christians exercise some serious self-reflection. It is a reflection that would teach them to learn how to be sensitive to those who are outside their groups. Yes, Conservatives might have a better idea than liberals on how to exegete the Scriptures regarding sexual issues, but using those Scriptures to lovelessly and self-righteously judge others neither helps Liberals hear the Gospel nor honors God's Word. 

As for liberals, compassion that is not guided by God's Word does not always lead to a compassionate end--ironically, here a parallel can be drawn between this and Bertrand Russell's observation that one needs both love and knowledge to lead the good life. Thus, Liberals cannot afford to let the sins of Conservatives blind them from seeing what is plainly written in God's Word.

So it seems that both liberals and conservatives in the PCUSA have shown that both have sins and both have something to learn from the other. And because of their commitments to either compassion or tradition and authority, both find ways to misinterpret the Scriptures.

References

  1. An Israeli In Palestine: Resisting dispossession, Redeeming Israel, by Jeff Halper, Pluto Press







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