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Topics of interest to Clerks of Session, Session Moderators and others who are interested in Presbyterian local-church governance.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Talking Past Each Other

Today I continued to monitor the Civil Unions and Marriage Issues Committee. This is something I’m doing for the Association of Stated Clerks – helping to produce an Amendment Guide to whatever Constitutional changes the Assembly may eventually recommend to the presbyteries.

In this post, I’m going to get a little personal in my comments on the work of the committee. Full disclosure: these comments reflect my own views and are not necessarily those of the Presbytery.

It saddened me to see the same pattern unfolding that I’ve seen at so many other General Assemblies: representatives of the two sides in the sexual-ethics debate earnestly talking past one another.

The conservatives, with unmistakable anger, bitterly accused their opponents of discarding certain individual verses of scripture. These verses, they contended, prove God’s plan for all ages for the proper ordering of human sexual relations.

Their next move was utterly predictable, based on earlier General Assembly debates: they threatened various cataclysmic outcomes that could ensue, should the Assembly allow for any other interpretation of these verses than their own.

Here are some comments made today by those opposing any change to the church’s definition of marriage:

“If you pass this, this denomination will just implode.”

“The General Assembly is one big homosexual party.”

“I don’t know if I could stay in this denomination if this measure got pushed through, and I know there are many churches that are right on the edge and ready to leave.”

Of course, these proof-texters have convinced themselves there’s no interpretation involved in their reading of the Bible. None whatsoever. What they have concluded, after reading the text, is what God says. Period.

Some also warned that any change in Presbyterian teaching about sexual ethics would put us seriously out of step with the rest of the ecumenical church, particularly the fast-growing churches of the Southern Hemisphere. This argument – while true – fails to acknowledge that, if change is going to come, it has to begin somewhere. Somebody, sometime has to be out of step with the pack, if the Holy Spirit is ever going to bring about something new.

The liberals, on the other hand – displaying a calm, conciliatory demeanor, in marked contrast to their opponents – typically roll out moving stories of people who yearn to benefit from the institution of marriage, but are currently excluded by the church’s definition of it. That's well and good, but I’m always dismayed at how few speakers on this side of the debate do the one thing that could maybe, possibly lead some of their opponents to at least think about changing their minds. They fail to explicitly cite scripture, crafting an argument largely based on the findings of modern social science and on personal experience. This makes them sitting ducks for the conservative counter-argument that liberals don't care about the Bible.

Today, speakers on the liberal side of the argument did a little better job of citing scripture than usual. One of them cited the story of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:26-39 (the early church’s acceptance of a member of a sexual minority). Another mentioned Jesus’ greatest commandment (“You shall love the Lord your God... and your neighbor as yourself”). Someone else alluded to the deep bonds of non-traditional family that united Ruth and Naomi, David and Jonathan. Others cited a few passages from the epistles, as well, that I didn't write down. That’s at least a start.

One conservative speaker after another came back to Matthew 19:4-5, in which Jesus cites Genesis 2: “a man shall leave father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” In his testimony in the open hearing, Alan Wisdom of Presbyterian Action for Faith and Freedom gave the most concise summation of this argument. He spoke of God “establishing marriage as the one-flesh union of the two created sexes.”

It’s always astounding to me to hear people present this verse as Jesus’ institution of marriage. That argument only works if they rip the verse completely out of context. One glance at the larger context shatters their argument into tiny pieces.

The larger context is that Jesus is teaching, here, not about marriage, but about divorce. Throughout the last century, the church struggled with how to apply this teaching to real human situations. Based on the “plain sense” of this passage – the very same plain-sense approach the conservatives urge us to apply to the line, “a man shall leave father and mother and be joined to his wife” – Jesus seems to be issuing an absolute prohibition against remarriage after divorce.

The problem for those traditionalists who cite Matthew 19:5 in support of the “one-man, one-woman” definition of marriage is that they themselves have extensively re-interpreted another part of this very same teaching, the part that deals with divorce. How can they justify re-interpreting “whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery,” while at the same time insisting on a traditional understanding of “a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh?” That inconsistency is the proverbial elephant in the living room of their argument.

The basis of the re-interpretation of Jesus’ divorce teaching, of course, is that the institution of divorce of which he’s speaking is not the same as divorce today. In Jesus’ day, a man could divorce his wife on a whim, for a reason as trivial as burning the dinner. More often than not, the divorced woman became, overnight, a social outcast. Unless her family of origin had mercy on her and took her in as a household servant, she had no means of support. She faced a stark choice between prostitution and starvation. With that social context in mind, Jesus is essentially saying to his disciples: “Any married man who follows me cannot abandon his wife to such a terrible fate.”

The Roman Catholic Church doesn’t face that problem of interpretation. Catholics still hold to the literal, plain-sense reading of Matthew 19:4-5. Consequently, that church continues to maintain a near-absolute prohibition of divorce – although pastoral compassion has forced them to open (for those who can afford the hefty fees, anyway) the rather sizable loophole of the annulment process. Through the annulment investigation, couples seeking remarriage after divorce can, after turning an arduous series of intellectual and theological back-flips, finally gain permission to be married in the church. Yet, they do so only by convincing the church that the earlier marriage was never valid in the first place (an awkward and pastorally insensitive ruling, if children are involved).

Would those Presbyterians who get so worked up over even the thought of a Presbyterian same-sex marriage really want to embrace the Roman Catholic prohibition of remarriage after divorce? Not likely. Yet, if their proof-texting argument is to remain logically consistent, that's the only course available to them.

We Presbyterians need to seriously engage these biblical texts, and not in a superficial, proof-texting way, either. We need to do it together, in community. Only then will we stop talking past each other.

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