"Sexuality and Ordination"

by Robert G. Bruce

from the pulpit of the First Presbyterian Church, Austin, Texas

April 20, 1997

[Moderator's Note: This is Part I of a three-part series of sermons on "Sexuality and Ordination." The second followed on April 27, 1997 (and is also posted in the Hesed Forum). The third - and final - was given on May 3, 1997.]

Note from Robert G. Bruce: The sermons are prompted in part by the tact that in recent weeks if you turned to Time or Newsweek or National Public Radio you might well have heard some perspective on the Presbyterian Church and the vote on sexuality and ordination: a vote that will now place into the constitution of the PC(USA) an amendment that reads: "Those who are called to office in the church are to live a life in obedience to Scripture and in conformity to the historic confessional standards of the church. Among these standards is the requirement to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness. Persons refusing to repent of any self-acknowledged practice which the confessions call sin shall not be ordained and/or installed as deacons, elders, or Ministers of the Word and Sacrament." Since this is headline stuff, it requires us to address it and be honest about it.

I realize that some of you here today are tired of having this subject brought up. I understand that. But this is not an academic question. It is as real and vital as a child that we will baptize today; it is as real as people's life experiences.

As I start I want to make confession that I am glad to be a Christian within the Presbyterian family. I am glad that when I was 18 months old my mother and dad moved from the little railroad settlement of Belsprings, Va., to the village of Fairlawn, built to house the people who were going to work at the Radford Army Ammunition Plant. In our new village there was not a Methodist church, which was the denomination of both sides of my family, but there was a Presbyterian church. By that sort of Providence I became a Presbyterian and I'm glad for it.

I am glad that we Presbyterians engage controversial subjects and do not try to ignore them or duck them. I am glad the we can live without unanimity of opinion and that difference of opinion is viewed as positive and constructive because it pushes us into dialogue and growth as Christian people. After all, one of the principle biblical images of the church is that we are the body of Christ, made up of varying members with a diversity of opinions.

I am sure that most of you feel the same way I do about the Presbyterian Church. It's a glad and good thing to be a Christian within the Presbyterian family of faith. As Jack Rogers at San Francisco Seminary has said, we Presbyterians do not have a comer on the truth, but we remain Presbyterians because the truth makes sense in the light of our faith tradition. If it did not, we should have to become something else.

I begin the sermon with this note of gladness because in our disagreements we sometimes forget this; we may forget what a God-given privilege it is to be a Christian and Presbyterian. After all, we do have some quite controversial matters before us, not least being the continuing conversation about what it means to be God's person in terms of sexual identity. Or to make that very specific, can a person who lives out his homosexual orientation do so with the blessing of God? No matter what we think, we are full well aware that there is little agreement in church or culture about the answer to that question.

This is such a widespread discussion that even if you are a first time visitor here today, you will not find the subject foreign. And if you are visiting here today and are considering this as a church home, then you need to know how we carry on discussions about important matters. You need to know what we believe; you need to know whether or not you want your children to grow up in such a congregation. So, whether you are a Presbyterian or a member here or not, these issues are important to you.

In all three of these sermons what I am basically interested in is not to try to answer all your questions or tell you how to think of what your position should be: so this sermon is not going to be neatly tied up at the end. Rather I am trying to describe a framework; of theological discourse as one possibility of a way to think and converse and make decisions as Christian people. So. this sermon is a small theological exercise that weaves together two strands of theology; two ways of thinking about God and God's relationship with us that have informed the Christian church over the centuries

One of those strands is what we call Confessional Theology, in which we simply confess what we understand to be the faith delivered from generation to generation. We say what we believe. The other strand is Apologetic theology. This is theology that makes a case for Christian faith in the light of what we know about science and history and culture and human persons. It is apologia, a reasoned account of faith in the light of human knowledge.

The model I will use today is first, to describe some observable data of the human experience of sexuality as we know it. Then, second make confession of some part of the church's faith which engages that data; then, third, describe some possibilities of that engagement for a reasoned and faithful Christian life. Let's see how this works and whether it is helpful to us. You will need to practice active listening.

To begin with two observations about human sexuality: There are profound differences about the way we are made up. Not only are we male and female and heterosexual in practice and orientation, we are also homosexual in orientation and practice. (This oversimplifies the reality of who we are in terms of sexual identity, but it presents the issue for us.) We do not fully know why this is so. We do not fully know why the majority of the population is attracted to persons of the opposite sex and a significant minority is primarily attracted to those of the same gender. We are learning more all the time about why that might be so, but the truth is we may never know in entirety why - whether it is genetic or environmental, or more likely some mixture of the two. Which is to say in part, that our sexual orientation may never be settled in a scientific, observable way.

Secondly, sexuality is a significant factor in human joy and happiness, and conversely in human sadness and anguish. There is little question but that in contemporary culture personal happiness is often caught up, even defined, in terms of one's sexual identity and practice. The message from popular culture is that one cannot be happy as a human being without full expression of one's sexuality.

The faith confession that is directly related to this data and engages it is two-fold: We are created in the image of God. Genesis 1.27 says, "So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them." Biblical faith has always said that the primary reality of human life is a theological one and not an anthropological one. In other words, it is God and our relationship with God, not our observable human strengths or foibles or sexuality, that constitutes who we are.

Our chief end is to glorify God and enjoy God forever. Or this may be stated as the Summary of the Law: above all things love God and then love neighbor as self; this is the road to fulfillment and identify and happiness.

As an example of this theological confession, let us consider the life of Zachary Newton, baptized this day in this congregation. To say that his life is to be understood primarily in theological terms means that it is in his life-long relationship and conversation with God and with God's self revelation in Israel and Jesus Christ that Zachary's true life is to be found. No matter what may be his emotional state, or his physical one, or his mental capacities, or his sexual orientation - no matter what these may be, his true life is to be found in conversation with Almighty God as God is known in Jesus Christ. Zachary is one created in the image of God. a child of Cod. a child of the covenant God makes with us.

Therefore, the defining characteristic of his life, of any person's life. is not sexual orientation, but the fact that he is one made in the image of God. And his happiness and identity as a human being is a byproduct of a life centered in God and the love of God.

The third movement in this theological model is to suggest some implications of this engagement of our human experience by our theological confession. These are tentative and are meant to lead us in thinking about how to proceed in our discussions with one another as we seek the will and mind of God.

As we continue in our discussion in the church we cannot afford to separate our human experience from our theological affirmations, or vice versa.

For, if our human experience is the final arbiter, then what each individual persons feels, experiences, decides is the critical matter. Or it could be that the cumulative human experience is the critical matter. But if this is so then our experience has de-throned the God of revelation that we meet in the Bible.

But, on the other hand, our faith tradition, if it is taken in isolation from human experience if it is untempered by the pains and joys, the poems and laments of real persons leading real lives, then our confession of faith will be cold and impersonal and perhaps indifferent to real people.

Rather than either of these matters in isolation there must be conversation, engagement, between what we know in a human sense and what is revealed to us by God in scripture and the biblical tradition. It is in this conversation, in this context of apologetic reasoning, that faith and practice take shape.

A further implication of this engagement of experience and theology is that it is critical that we ask the right questions to guide our conversations. Over 50 years ago Nathaniel Micklem was right when he observed that it is more important to raise ultimate questions than it is to give answers. In these times in the life of the church it is good to keep in mind that our questions are more important than our answers.

Besides, we know that it is possible to ask questions in such a fashion that the answer may be given in the form of the question. For instance, sometimes we have posed the matter of sexuality and ordination as a question of justice. We ask: what is just? what allows a person to claim their rights and their rightful place of leadership in the church?

Understood from the angle of this question then the church's discussion about sexuality will largely take place along the lines of the Civil Rights' and Women's movements. Then the primary issues will be: equal opportunity, equal dignity, equal worth, equal love. All of these issues are matters for the church's concern and action, but they do not move us along in this conversation because everyone is in agreement about the need for justice as equal treatment, but there are a significant number of people in Presbyterian Churches who think that an even more critical issue is what does God require in our personal lives. We will not get far with our conversation if the emphasis is justice as the claiming of rights.

Others have wanted to talk about this issue as though the chief question is how may we be true to the long standing biblical and Christian tradition about sexuality'? Understood from the angle of this question our likely answer is that we must defend the long standing tradition about sexuality. And while there is certainly great truth to this as well, there are many in the church who think this kind of question is used as an excuse to keep things the way they are.

I would suggest that we consider reframing the questions that guide our discussion something along the line of: How shall each person who is created in the image of God and is loved by God and called to glorify God and serve the neighbor - how shall that person live?

Understood from the angle of this question every person stands at the same place before God. There are no inferior and superior persons. There are no marginalized people and who we are as sexual persons does not cut us off from the love of God or the truth that we are the children of God, or the reality that God calls us to be servants of Christ. Rather our baptism would have each of us ask of ourselves: How may we serve God and the neighbor and by so doing find our true identity and happiness?

The third implication of this engagement of our experience and theology is that we do not define the meaning and content of our lives in isolation from God's self revelation. Nor can we define the meaning and content of some other person's life who stands before God. All of us must test our own Lives in the light of God's self revelation, and we must treat the other person as one whose primary identity is child of God and forgiven sinner.

In part this implies that it is moral obscurantism to suppose that we are already the way we should be and that God does not require us to change. Of course, God calls us to change - everyone of us without exception is called to follow in the way of Jesus and to be on a pilgrimage of learning our true natures as the children of God. Since this is so, we will not be able to tell God in advance who we are - we shall have to wait for God to tell us; we shall have to wait for God to tell us what our behavior is to be, sexual and otherwise.

But, at the same time, it is moral self-righteousness to simply parrot the old line that a homosexual person is always outside the will of God. I would suggest that we do not know the answer to this and we would be well served not to pretend as though we do. We must make sure that we read the biblical texts with fresh eyes to make certain that we are interpreting scripture as the Spirit leads us (but that is the subject for next Sunday's sermon). And, of course, that sword cuts both ways: it is both liberals and conservatives who must go to scripture with the new eyes of the Spirit, for maybe the party line we have espoused, whatever that is, is the wrong one in the eyes of God.

At the end of the sermon to make some further affirmations. It is good that we can be here together at First Presbyterian Church and talk about these matters. It is good that we are different persons and that our experiences differ. It is good that God gives us one another. It is good that we have received the biblical and Christian tradition. It is good that the Crucified Christ is in our midst, the Risen One is present. And because He is we shall be able to live and work together and appreciate one another for what we are, the loved children of God.

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