At the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) General Assembly this month, delegates from across the country and around the world voted to remove the ban on ordination of homosexuals, sending shock waves throughout the denomination. But an even bigger issue is simultaneously in question: salvation of humanity through Jesus Christ.
The very essence of Christianity was debated at the annual denominational conference as some delegates proclaimed Jesus is one way to salvation – but not the only way. The significance of this issue cannot be overstated, as Presbyterianism has historically been considered the bastion of conservative Christian theology.
Theological matters pertaining to Jesus Christ – known as Christology – made waves in the denomination last year during a “Peace-Making Conference.” At the conference, some attendees declared their belief that humanity can attain salvation through various religions. Belief in the death of Christ as atonement for humanity’s sin is just one of those methods, they claimed.
Outraged, several groups of congregations known as “sessions” wrote to the denomination’s general counsel demanding disciplinary action against the proponents of such theology. Additionally, the congregations asked for a reaffirmation of the church’s historical doctrine that Jesus Christ is the one and only way through which humankind can be saved. The denomination ultimately decided against disciplinary action, and the christological question was debated at General Assembly.
In the end, an acceptable resolution affirming Jesus as “uniquely Savior” was approved by nearly 80 percent of the Assembly’s commissioners – about 550 delegates representing presbyteries in the United States and around the world. But the debate has left more conservative members of the church wondering where their denomination is heading.
“Everything in the life of the church has become so politicized” that it has become difficult to find agreement even on the most basic of issues, said Joe Rightmyer, executive director of Presbyterians for Renewal. “It doesn’t get any more basic,” he said of the christological issue. “That’s the bottom line.” Indeed, Rightmyer overheard one attendee at the debate remark, “I didn’t know that was something you could debate.”
While the Theological Issues Committee at the General Assembly finally drafted the agreed-upon statement – which was not the first choice of a group of conservative commissioners – “the whole debate and the demeanor of it made you think, ‘Good grief, why was this so difficult?'” remarked Rightmyer.
Though the christological resolution received less media attention than the one allowing ordination of “self-affirming homosexuals,” it deserves to be noted as commissioners believe the issue will come up again. Indeed, Rightmyer believes the church’s division over ordination of homosexuals is just a symptom of the deeper theological issue of the nature of salvation. And it’s a symptom that won’t go away.
Local presbyteries must now decide whether to accept the General Assembly’s decision on accepting homosexual leaders. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is a representative democracy, not unlike the federal government. Changing the church’s constitution to reflect the new proposal requires ratification of the proposal by a majority vote of the presbyteries over the next year.
Rightmyer believes the pro-homosexual resolution’s provision for local control could backfire on resolution proponents. The measure would allow local presbyteries to decide independently how homosexuals should be regarded – an unusual move for such a significant issue.
If the resolution is approved within the presbyteries and the local option installed, “then there needs to be a huge apology to those who opposed the ordination of women,” noted Rightmyer. The denomination “bound the conscience” – or made a binding, denomination-wide decision – affirming the inclusion of women pastors. Basically, congregations were told, “If you don’t agree, you don’t stay in the church,” according to Rightmyer.
The same group advocating a binding of conscience on ordination of women is now saying no such binding should occur regarding ordination of homosexuals, Rightmyer noted. Such a position could open a “Pandora’s box” of issues of conscience – such as property ownership, unified giving and other issues where difference of opinion may exist.
“Whether or not [the homosexual ordination resolution] passes, it is a disturbing development in the denomination, and it’s kind of the latest extreme in a 20-year battle over sexual ethics in the leadership of the church,” said Greg Roth, senior pastor of Centerville Presbyterian Church in Fremont, Calif., and a General Assembly delegate. “Many people believe that the extreme liberal factions have been advocating their own agenda and imposing it upon the church. Many conservative leaders in churches are frustrated and feel like this might become the last straw for them to feel included in what has been historically a very conservative and grounded church denomination.”
But proponents of homosexual leadership spoke out at a press conference, rejoicing in the resolution’s passage.
“We join together in giving thanks to God for this action of the General Assembly that paves the way for the ordination of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Presbyterians,” said Bill Moss, co-moderator of More Light Presbyterians and an openly homosexual elder at Old First Presbyterian Church in San Francisco. “Today the church has returned to its historic principles of allowing local churches and presbyteries to make decisions about ordination.”
In a media release, Martha Juillerat, director of the Shower of Stoles Project, said the decision impacts more lives than the Assembly commissioners imagine. The Shower of Stoles Project is a collection of over 800 stoles donated by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals called to serve in ordained positions. About half of the stoles are from Presbyterians.
“The stoles bear powerful silent witness to the host of impassioned, qualified and faithful people knocking at the church’s door, or waiting silenced within the church for the day they can serve openly,” she said.
Additionally, Don Stroud, commissioner from Baltimore Presbytery, said, “No one can box up and contain the Word of God. A legislative process can never put God in a box.”
In response to what many in the denomination categorize as heretical teachings by liberal PCUSA theologians, conservatives have begun the “Confessing Church movement.” Individual congregations sign up as “Confessing Churches,” which affirms its “historic faith that Jesus Christ is lord. It affirms secondly the authority of scripture, and thirdly, it holds up holiness and righteousness in personal relationships and as standards for leadership,” Roth said.
About 400 churches out of the PCUSA’s 12,000 congregations across the country have already joined the Confessing Church movement, “and I imagine the actions at General Assembly will kind of add fuel to that movement,” continued Roth, who commented on the oft-cited virtue of tolerance.
“Tolerance doesn’t mean inclusion everywhere all the time. It says you can have a right to believe what you want, but go where that’s one of the norms,” he remarked.
So what does the future hold for one of Christianity’s largest denominations?
“This is the end of the church as we know it,” remarked Roth.
There will likely be a move toward non-geographic presbyteries, allowing like-minded churches from varying locations to network more closely, rather than relying on geography to form local presbyteries, he explained.
The “obviously orchestrated maneuver” to “stack” General Assembly committees with liberals left “people walking away feeling discouraged,” Roth added. “Most churches that see themselves as centrists or conservatives are finding this ongoing debate to be very distracting from what we really need to be doing. It comes back year after year after year. They want to get on with the task of reaching out with the grace of Christ and ministering to hurting people.”
Both the homosexual and christological debates have diminished the church’s ability to minister, observed Rightmyer.
“We as Presbyterians don’t have an effective witness to our world. Think about what we’re saying. We’re a church who questions the deity of Jesus and now has approved homosexual unions so that the rest of the world’s just laughing at us. It just diminishes our witness, and I think the witness of Christianity overall,” he said.
“The lines are really drawn in the sand,” Rightmyer summed up, adding, “The amazing thing is that the Lord still loves us.”
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