The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) made headlines last week at its 221st General Assembly. At this weeklong gathering the body made a number of decisions, most of which are overshadowed by the two biggest: the decision to allow pastors the discretion to perform same-sex marriages and to divest from three companies that sell products to Israel for military purposes. These are obviously watershed moments for the denomination. One publication described the decision on same-sex marriage as a “denomination-altering moment.” And it certainly is that.
I was not at GA, but I did watch a good bit of the live stream and I followed the conversations on Twitter rather closely. What fascinated me most was not so much that these things passed, but that so much of the dialogue and debate, at least on Twitter, had to do with how people would view the church if these things passed and how many people we might lose or gain. The “dialogue” was dominated by folks on both sides, some deriding the PC(USA) for the stances it has already taken on LGBTQ issues and threatening an even swifter death if we allow pastors to decide to marry same-sex couples and those who dreamt of the sea of young people who might flock to us if we become more inclusive. The whole thing got me a bit nauseated.
I’m not exactly a polity nerd, but there is at least one line from the Book of Order (which is half of our constitution, along with the Book of Confessions) that I am particularly fond of. F-1.0301 reads, in part, “The Church is to be a community of faith, entrusting itself to God alone, even at the risk of losing its life.” This is perhaps the only question that should matter when deciding difficult issues. Are we entrusting ourselves and our church to God alone? Are we willing to be faithful to God even if it means the death of our church? The answer should be an unequivocal yes, and I believe the decisions made at GA bear that out.
I’m sure we didn’t get everything right this time. In fact, we probably got a lot wrong, or at least not quite right. We always do (ahem, total depravity). That’s why we do this every two years. But what is fundamental to the way we do church is our unwavering belief that we are better able to listen to God in community than alone. We affirm that when we get together like this, however imperfect our gatherings may be, we are better equipped to discern the voice and the movement of the Spirit among us. Again, this does not mean we will always be right or that our process is above reproach. But I think it does help remind us that this was a not rash or brazen decision. It was the result of many years of discussing, debating, praying, reading scripture, and genuinely and fervently seeking to be faithful to God alone. And I applaud the decisions even if it means, in the words of a non-Presbyterian friend, that we have signed our advanced directive.
We have nothing to fear, y’all.
While I don’t believe God is done with our denomination I also don’t believe it matters all that much. God doesn’t need us. God has never needed us. But for some reason —grace — God chooses us and chooses to work in and through us. My hope is that God is using the PC(USA) and others to do a new thing and to speak a new word to our church and world. My deepest prayer is that this moment will become for us like Peter’s rooftop experience in Acts 10. That we will all be able to affirm together the words of God to Peter, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”
The road ahead will surely be difficult, and we may not survive it. There are many, even in my own congregation, who feel deeply betrayed and further disillusioned by these decisions. I’m not sure if I am in a unique position or not, but I suppose I am in a bit of an awkward place as someone who celebrates these decisions, especially the decision to recognize and affirm same-sex marriage, yet serving a congregation of folks who are largely against it and feel a profound sense of hurt and grief. I’m still figuring what it means for me to be a pastor in this context, and probably will be for some time. I hope I can serve these people I love dearly with grace and humility and that they are willing to be led and pastored by someone who may think differently.
But for now at least I rest on the assurance that we are entrusting the church to God alone, whatever risks we might be taking in the process. Should this be the beginning of our end, fine. Should death await us at the end of this journey, so be it. The church has never been called to survival. We are called to be faithful to God alone, while being guided by scripture, and to listen for how the Spirit is moving among us. The story of the church from its inception has been one of ever expanding circles of welcome.
Today I rejoice that the Spirit has widened our circle yet again, come what may.
Sheldon Steen is a Presbyterian pastor in a small, rural congregation in Jasper, FL and a PhD student at Florida State studying Early Christianity and Second Temple Judaism. He and his wife Mary have three children who exhaust them and give them insane amounts of joy. You can connect with him on Twitter at @sheldonsteen. Whenever he writes more stuff it’ll end up at helping my unbelief.