PRESBYTERIAN TEACHING ON HOMOSEXUALITY
Stephen Hamilton Wright, Ph.D.
Senior Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, Wausau, Wisconsin
As with most issues, there is not a unanimous Presbyterian opinion on the many issues related to the status of gays and lesbians in the church or in society. The issues are many and complex, and individual members as well as whole congregations differ in what they think. That is normal and expected within the Presbyterian Church.
While there is not a unanimous opinion, and no one is required to think in a certain way, there is church law, which is binding on officers including elders, deacons, ministers, and staff. There is also official church teaching, which is intended to instruct without requiring agreement. With most Christian churches, Presbyterians long believed homosexuality to be sinful, citing about a dozen Scripture passages as support. In our official doctrinal statements (creeds and confessions) there are a few references to homosexuality as unacceptable. In the past few decades, careful study of the relevant Bible verses has prompted a majority of professors of Biblical studies at Presbyterian seminaries to issue a statement that the Bible does not condemn homosexuality as such; each of the familiar passages is colored by other concerns, including ancient social context that is not always obvious from the plain English sense of the text. Others have pointed out that while the Bible has a dozen verses about homosexuality, it has many more which portray slavery and the inferior status of women as normal; the majority of churches and individual Christians now disagree with those aspects of the plain sense of the Bible as being clearly culturally conditioned. Without saying so directly, the official teaching of the Presbyterian Church still strongly implies that homosexual sexual activity is sin.
Church teaching also clearly states that we do not single out one group of sinners as worse than others, or deny them membership. The 1978 document “The Church and Homosexuality” that clearly prevented the ordination of homosexual persons also states that “There can be no place within the Christian faith for the response to homosexual persons of mingled contempt, hatred, and fear that is called homophobia.” Further, “The church must turn from its fear and hatred to move toward the homosexual community in love and to welcome homosexual inquirers to its congregations.” “The church is not a citadel of the morally perfect; it is a hospital for sinners.” Therefore, “Homosexual persons who sincerely affirm ‘Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior’ and ‘I intend to be his disciples, to obey his word, and to show his love’ should not be excluded from membership.” In regard to civil society, the document says that
There is no legal, social, or moral justification for denying homosexual persons access to the basic requirements of human social existence. . . . Sexual conduct in private between consenting adults is a matter of private morality to be instructed by religious precept or ethical example and persuasion, rather than by legal coercion.
Current church law prohibits the ordination or installation of sexually active gays and lesbians as ministers, elders, or deacons. It does not require the removal of those who are continuing in office in a particular place. Discussion of ordination status continues across the church, including several reports and overtures to its national level General Assembly in June 2006.
In regard to same sex unions, current church law does not prohibit these, as long as the ceremony is not construed as
a marriage. The worship section of our Book of Order (constitution) states that
Marriage is a civil contract between a woman and a man. For Christians marriage is a covenant through which a man and a woman are called to live out together before God their lives of discipleship.
In regard to various state laws restricting the definition of marriage and limiting the rights of unmarried partners, the 1978 document says
Vigilance must be exercised to oppose federal, state, and local legislation that discriminates against persons on the basis of sexual orientation and to initiate and support federal, state, or local legislation that prohibits discrimination against persons on the basis of sexual orientation in employment, housing, and public accommodations.
One of the possible consequences of the proposed Wisconsin constitutional amendment would be to limit or deny housing rights, shared employer benefits, hospital visitation, and other legal protections and benefits, not only for homosexual partners, but possibly also for unmarried heterosexual partners.