They’re calling it the M & M Assembly: Marriage and Middle East. These two committees are large, the galleries of observers are full, and the passions are running deep for Presbyterians concerned about these two issues. Today, I was in the room when the Marriage committee voted to approve an Authoritative Interpretation that would allow pastors to perform same sex marriages in states where it is legal to do so. This committee also voted to recommend a change the book of order that defines marriage as between two people. At this point, this is a committee recommendation to the plenary. If the assembly agrees, the AI would go into effect immediately. The redefinition of marriage would need to be ratified by the presbyteries.
Before the vote, there was testimony from those who wished to speak to the committee about the resolutions they would be asked to consider. The testimonies were infused with Scripture and personal stories and represented the deeply held convictions of those who spoke. Those who spoke in favor of the recommendations lifted up legal, psychological, pastoral, and spiritual reasons for their convictions: Saying the words before God really matters. Where there is sanction of same-sex marriage, statistics show improvement in mental and physical health for same-sex couples. In states where same-sex marriage is legal, some pastors want to provide pastoral care to couples who come seeking marriage in the church, without legal/ecclesiastical consequences.
Those who spoke against the recommendations drew upon interpretations of Scripture and personal stories to uphold the traditional definition of marriage and the current authoritative interpretation of the constitution: Ask Christ to transform our sexuality. A man cannot fulfill the role of a mother; a woman cannot fulfill the role of a father. Define marriage, as Christ did in the gospel of Matthew.
In addition to listening to this testimony in committee, I attended a luncheon sponsored by the Covenant Network of Presbyterians. The featured speaker was Mark Achtemeier, an evangelical and formerly vocal opponent of gay rights who has changed his mind on this issue. He has been persuaded largely by the effects of traditional interpretations of Scripture in the lives of gay men and women, effects he describes as toxic fruits. Achtemeier used an analogy dawn from a story found in the writings of Irenaeus, an ancient church writer, who noticed that counterfeit Christians used Scriptures to back up their arguments. He described a mosaic picture of a king, made out of colored stones and then dismantled and reassembled into an image of a dog. Every stone in the new mosaic comes from the original portrait of the King. But that does not make it a true picture of the King.
This is what the false teachers do with Scripture, Irenaeus concluded. Like the individual stones making up a mosaic, they take individual quotes from all over the Bible. But the quotes have been rearranged in such a way that they no longer present a true picture. Individual scripture quotes can lose their connection to the “big picture” of God’s love in Christ that is the Bible’s true focus.
Achtemeier has written a book called “The Bible’s Yes to Same-Sex Marriage,” in which he puts Scripture stones together to create a positive case for gay marriage. He lifts up John 15:5, “Abide in Christ” as central to the witness of the church. “The Word of God cuts in the direction of love, compassion, and justice,” he proclaimed. When we Presbyterians act as if we are of one mind (by our policy) when we are not, we present a false witness to the world. Abiding in Christ means joy, he concludes.
So, where does this leave us? The work of the committee will now go to the General Assembly for action. The committee, concerned for those who would not not find a new Authoritative Interpretation and a new definition of marriage to be palatable, added language that says, “nothing shall compel a teaching elder to perform or a session to authorize a marriage service they believe is contrary to their discernment of the Holy Spirit and their understanding of the Word of God.” Pastors and sessions would retain their freedom to act within the bounds of their conscience.
The M & M Assembly moves into plenary tomorrow. Beyond the Middle East and Marriage, for the rest of this week, faithful Presbyterians will pray and debate a range of issues of importance to our congregations and to our witness in the world. May this work lead us ever closer to God’s love for us and for our neighbors.