Mark D. Roberts

Part 10 of series: The End of the Presbyterian Church USA? Revisited
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In my last post I suggested that the gap between Presbyterians who endorse gay ordination and Presbyterians who oppose it has much to do with their views on the authority and interpretation of Scripture. Opponents tend to affirm the inspiration and authority of the whole Bible, while proponents tend to limit biblical inspiration and authority to certain transcendent passages.
Consider, for example, two New Testament passages that address homosexual behavior. Romans 1:18-32 and 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 both speak of homosexual behavior in a way that, at least on the surface, appears to censure it. Here are the passages in the NRSV translation:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth . . . . Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen! ¶ For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error. ¶ And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done. They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.  They know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die—yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them. (Rom 1:18, 24-32)
Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes [malakoi], sodomites [arsenokoitai], thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Cor 6:9-10)

I don’t want to get into the exegetical issues right now, but rather to make another observation. In my experience, those who oppose gay ordination would say about these passages, “If, after careful study, they can be shown to condemn all homosexual activity, then such activity is always sinful.” Those who favor gay ordination disagree. They tend to say, “If, after careful study, Romans 1:18-32 and 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 can be shown to  condemn all homosexual activity, then these passages are incorrect.” For example, while teaching at San Francisco Theological Seminary, a Presbyterian seminary with an extension program in Southern California, I had a brilliant Christian student who was also a lesbian. She wrote an exegesis paper on Romans 1:18-32. She concluded that this passage cannot be used to support the cause of gay ordination because it condemns all homosexual behavior. Yet she did not believe that gay ordination was wrong because, in her view, Paul was wrong in his views.
For more than thirty years, I have been involved in discussions of homosexuality and ordination. In the early years of this conversation, there was lots of debate about the meaning of biblical texts that deal with homosexual behavior. There seemed to be a common assumption among the debaters that biblical teaching, if rightly understood, should be binding on the church. But, in the last decade, as folks who oppose gay ordination have kept talking about specific biblical texts, those on the other side have mostly stopped this conversation. I haven’t heard one proponent of gay ordination say: “If it can be shown that the Bible truly regards all homosexual behavior as sinful, then I will change my mind and oppose it.” Rather, I have heard many say, in effect, “Whatever the Bible might teach about homosexuality, I am convinced that homosexuality is not always wrong. So, given this conviction, the biblical call to love and justice means that I will support gay ordination, no matter what the Bible might actually say about homosexuality.” Notice that this position is still based, to an extent, on Scripture and its authority. But the individual interpreter assumes the freedom to decide which portions of the Bible are inspired and which are not.
This view of biblical authority is relatively new in the Presbyterian church, and is certainly inconsistent with our Reformed heritage. You can’t exactly imagine John Calvin saying, “Well, the Bible shows that homosexual activity is sinful, but I think it’s just fine.” What has led so many Presbyterians to endorse a view of biblical authority and interpretation that is far removed from our theological roots?
I can think of several factors, though surely there are more. For one thing, the view that the Bible is not fully inspired, but contains culture-bound errors, is held by many if not the majority of professors in PCUSA seminaries. For decades, pastors in training have been taught this view, which they in turn have passed on to their churches.
Second, there are many portions of the Bible that are troubling for Christians, passages in the Old Testament, for example, that call for the killing of Israel’s opponents, or Old Testament laws that contradict our sense of decency. Some people have dealt with this problem by concluding that these offensive passages are simply not inspired. Once they have rejected the authority of some passages, it’s easy for them to do the same with others, passages such as Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 6
Tomorrow I’ll suggest two more reasons why, in my opinion, many Presbyterians have begun to think of the Bible as authoritative in parts, but not in other parts.

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