When the 220th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) meets in a couple of weeks, it will consider a proposal to change the definition of marriage thereby allowing same-sex marriages. If the redefinition proposal passes, it will rapidly increase the splintering of the church. Why?
Same-sex marriage is sticky–it has several of the qualities outlined in Heath & Heath, Made to Stick. Sticky ideas get traction and cause action–by both traditionalists and progressives. The image of two grooms being united in a Presbyterian sanctuary is a simple, concrete image that gives credibility to what critics (or advocates) of the church have been saying and is deeply emotionally evocative by its power to capture the story of the church’s decline (or liberation) in a single image.
Secular people looking at the Presbyterian Church (USA) from the outside often claim that it is obsessed with sex. Progressives within the church often claim our fights are unduly focused on sex. On one level it might seem that there is some merit to these claims. For the last twenty years there has been a steady, rhythmic attempt to alter the way the church thinks about sex and sexual practice. Some of this has come from outside, some from within.
What’s often lost is the deeper conflict that is simmering just below the surface–the fault line where slight movement causes the surface tensions so easily perceived. The thing about theological fault lines is that they tend to be anything but sticky. For the most part they easily escape the attention of many clergy, and the vast majority of parishioners.
Take for example the nature of Scripture. Presbyterianism has traditionally placed the Scriptures at the center of its life and as the source of its speaking about God. The Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) devotes it’s first chapter (of which there are ten sub-parts) to describing the nature and purpose of Scripture:
Although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence, do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men inexcusable; yet they are not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of his will, which is necessary unto salvation…
In the first paragraph alone the framers of the confession have dealt with at least three weighty topics:
- That you can know something of God without the Bible, but that it is an inadequate type of knowledge
- That those who never have read or heard the Scriptures are without excuse for their sins
- That there is a certain level of understanding required to be converted
This paragraph is full of heady stuff. In the past hundred years, however, consensus around each of these topics has shifted. A simple example of this is the plight of the person who never hears the Bible preached or reads it for himself. Will God hold this person responsible for his sin?
- Some, with the Confession, claim yes. Ignorance of the law is no defense and nature reveals something of the concept of a right and wrong, which presupposes a law-giver (my view).
- Some claim no–how could God eternally punish someone for his ignorance?
- Some claim no, but because of Jesus. God so loved the world that in Jesus God reconciles the world to himself, even those who don’t know it.