Mark D. Roberts

Part 9 of series: The End of the Presbyterian Church USA? Revisited
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As I pick up my blog series on the PCUSA, I want to consider the question of why we Presbyterians, given that we share the same Bible, differ so widely on the issue of gay ordination. I realize that some of my readers want me to stop analyzing the issue and start proposing solutions (or dissolutions!). I will get to the “What are we going to do about this?” question soon enough. But I believe that it’s essential for us to understand not only what Presbyterians believe but also why we believe as we do. Clarity about these matters will help us make wise choices when it comes to tangible actions. It will also help us speak truly and respectfully of those with whom we disagree. Too often in this debate folks on both sides have misrepresented the other side.
A word of caution: I will be painting with a broad brush here as I try to capture major differences among Presbyterians. The reality is more complex than my analysis. But I think I’m getting the main brush strokes in the right place.
The fact that Presbyterians disagree widely on gay ordination is beyond question. In my recent posts I have tried to show what’s underneath this disagreement. Supporters of gay ordination see their cause as a matter of biblical justice. Opponents of gay ordination see their cause as a matter of biblical righteousness. This means something rotten is the state of Presbyterianism, because God’s justice would never actually be in conflict with God’s righteousness! Somewhere along the line somebody has missed God’s will in the matter.
A Question of Biblical Authority and Interpretation
Opponents of gay ordination often explain why proponents believe as they do by saying something like: “We follow what the Bible teaches. They do not. We uphold the authority of the Bible. They do not. This whole debate isn’t really about homosexuality. It’s about the authority of the Bible.” Supporters of gay ordination sometimes object to this explanation: “That’s not true. We also uphold the authority of the Bible. We just interpret it differently. This isn’t a matter of the biblical authority. It’s about the interpretation of the Bible.”
In my opinion, both sides are partly right. That means both sides are partly wrong as well. In fact, what leads Presbyterians to such different conclusions with respect to homosexuality is a matter both of biblical authority and of biblical interpretation. In the end, these are interlocking issues that can’t be completely distinguished.
Almost all Presbyterians agree that the Bible is authoritative in some sense. Almost all Presbyterians agree that biblical truth comes to us embedded in culture (or cultures, to be more precise). And almost all Presbyterians agree that the Bible is both divine and human. We differ, however in our estimation of just how much of Scripture is divine, and therefore just how much of it is authoritative.
In general, opponents of gay ordination believe that all of the Bible is divinely-inspired and therefore authoritative. The timeless truth of God, because it comes in a cultural package, needs to be carefully discerned, so as to clarify that which is authoritative for us. So, for example, those who believe that the whole Bible is inspired do not argue, on the basis of 1 Corinthians 11, that women in today’s church should be veiled. But they don’t dismiss 1 Corinthians 11 as something that was relevant for first-century Corinth at best, or simply wrongheaded at worst. They believe that Paul’s discussion of veiling contains and reflects timeless truth that is authoritative for us today, and that needs to be unpacked so we can implement it. This truth would include such things as the authority of women to pray and prophesy in church, the essential male/female character of creation and church, and the need for doing in church that which is edifying.
In general, proponents of gay ordination believe that the Bible contains divinely-inspired portions, but also portions that are merely human, and therefore not authoritative for us today. Paul’s claim that women should be veiled, therefore, is seen as culturally-bound, or even as simply wrong. One must look elsewhere for the timeless truth of Scripture, which is found, for example, in Jesus’s instruction to love, or in the consistent call of the Bible to seek justice for the oppressed. The interpreter of Scripture has the responsibility of sifting out the timeless from the time-bound, so that God’s Word might be properly understood and applied today.
When we come to the issue of gay ordination, therefore, opponents of gay ordination believe that the Bible clearly reveals the sinfulness of homosexual activity because such teaching is found in several biblical passages. Proponents of gay ordination deny this. Some argue that the Bible never addresses the case of loving, mature, committed homosexual lovers. But proponents tend to believe that even if the Bible condemned all homosexual activity, this would not reflect God’s inspiration, but rather human enculturation and limitation. As they interpret the Bible, they believe they have the freedom and the responsibility to sort out what is inspired and authoritative and what is neither inspired nor authoritative. The Bible’s consistently negative teaching on homosexuality falls in the neither inspired nor authoritative category.
In my next post in this series I’ll continue this conversation.

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