"Sexuality and Ordination (Part 3): How to Stay Together When We Disagree"

by Robert G. Bruce

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

May 4, 1997

I Corinthians 3 (selections)

[Moderator's Note: Part I of the sermon series was given on April 20, 1997, Part II on April 27, 1997.]


Today I finish a three-part series of sermons that have been motivated by the recent change in the constitution of the PC(USA). The change is in the form of Amendment B, which says, in part, that "those called to office in the church.... are to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness." The aspect of this that has received the most attention is that this amendment cuts off the possibility of church leadership for homosexual persons who live out that orientation. Though some have thought that this vote ends the discussion and disagreements in the church, of course, it does not. For we continue with the reality of who we are as people and as congregations; we continue as people who have profound differences about the meaning and consequences of this action of our church.

By the way, so that the process by which this happened won't be a complete mystery to you, let me give you a little Presbyterian polity discourse. Amendment B now becomes part of our constitution, which functions in many ways just like the constitution of the United States. Amendment B started out as an overture from one of the 172 Presbyteries in the United States. That overture came before the commissioners to the General Assembly in the summer of 1996 when they met in Albuquerque. It was debated and it passed.

In our system of government it then had to be submitted to the vote of our 172 Presbyteries where it required a simple majority of 87 to be passed; the latest figures that I have are these: 97 Presbyteries voted yes; 73 voted no; one took no action. The popular vote (commissioner totals) is 13,238 yes and 12,442 no; 51% to 49%. Seldom in any Presbytery was the margin very large one way or another. Mission Presbytery, of which this congregation is a part, voted no by a margin of 219 to 163. In our system of government this was never a matter for congregational vote, though we have obviously had many discussions about it.

Now, the question is, where do we go from here? Obviously, this question is most pointed for those who disagree with the vote - and more pointed still for homosexual persons. Is the will of the majority to be accepted as the way it will be - and we "get on with our business" from this point? And what if you disagree, or dissent? How is that to be expressed? In what form? By what means? Are those who disagree to stay or leave?

Once more, as in the previous two sermons, part of what I am trying to do is simply to describe the reality of the situation in which we find ourselves, without any particular value judgment of that reality. This is the way it is: there are a significant number (a small majority) of people across the PC(USA) who will support this amendment; but a significant number of people are going to dissent, even defy, the amendment. That's just the way it is. One of the reasons that I spoke against and voted against this amendment on the floor of Mission Presbytery is that I was convinced that this vote was, above all things else, divisive and that we did not have enough wisdom to vote yes. But since it is yes, what now? How do we stay together when we disagree?

The question of "what now?" is not one raised in isolation. It is raised within a framework of how we understand the grace of God to be at work in the human family. And it is raised within the framework of the church's continuing relationship with God as we interpret holy scripture. That framework is what I have tried to express in the first two sermons: First, the deepest reality of any person's life is the theological and spiritual reality that they are created in the image of God, loved by God. and called by God in Christ to a life that serves God and neighbor. This is who we most truly are and the lens through which we must most fundamentally see one another.

Second, last week we talked about the fact that it is God who teaches us who we are and how we are to live - and that primarily we learn this as the church engages in a living conversation, a living relationship, with God by interpreting the Bible. This life in an interpretive community is heart and soul of what it means to be Presbyterian and Christian. And it implies that we will submit ourselves to the teaching of holy scripture.

So the practical question of what do we do now, can only be raised and answered in this broader context of who we are and how we learn what God intends for us.

That's the first point I would make about what we do now. We begin by affirming who we are. We cannot know how to proceed until we know who we are. And basic to our biblical understanding of who we are is this: we have been brought into the church by Christ for life together. Moreover, in the church it is axiomatic that we are all here because of Christ - it is Christ who has called each of us. Therefore, we have been given one another, not by our own choice, but by Christ's call. And if we have been given one another by Christ, then we need one another. As I recall from a tape that Carlyle Marney once recorded: "without the other, also created in the image of God and called by God, we cannot know who we are; in part, you have to tell me who I am and I have to tell you who you are; without one another we cannot know who we are. "

Thus, our need for one another in the church is far greater than our need for unanimity of opinion or lifestyle. Let me repeat that: our need for one another is far greater than our need for unanimity of opinion or lifestyle. In scripture this seems clear - when Paul addressed the divisions within the Corinthian church in the first century, he reminded them that they did not primarily belong to Paul's group or opinion, nor to Apollos', nor to Cephas' - these were just people who had varying opinions and theological positions. Rather than belonging to a particular theological position, the people in the church belonged to Christ. "

So let no one boast about human leaders. . . you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God." (vv. 21, 23). Moreover, as the first letter to the Corinthians moves along, most of us are quite aware that in chapter 12 Paul expands on this notion of what belonging to Christ means. There he says in very physical imagery that they belong to the body of Christ: "for in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body - Jews or Greeks, slaves or free - and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. " ( 12:13). He goes on, "if one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it." (12.26-27)

And then, still in this context of parties and divisions and the need to hang together within the Corinthian church, Paul moves to his discussion of the greater gifts, of which in chapter 13 the greatest is love. The meaning of this is unmistakable: no matter our differences we are bound together by love - and not by our love but by Christ's love.

Is that not crystal clear guidance for those of old and for us?

We cannot turn our backs on one another in the Presbyterian church: the conservative is not more important than the liberal, or the liberal than the conservative; the heterosexual is not more important than the homosexual; the dissenter to Amendment B not more important than the supporter. As a matter of fact, on the basis of the New Testament, on the basis of the love of Christ, we could say that all this ranking of positions and parties is of the world; it is not of Christ. We cannot turn our backs on one another, lest we live by the world's standards and not by Christ's.

Let me put that as plainly as I know how: issues and where we stand on them are not as important as relationships and conversations and appreciation for the other person and ultimately the love that shows itself as forgiveness and kindness and mercy and humility.

But why? why would we say this? Why is relationship more important than our position on an issue? We say this because biblical faith leads us to see that the nature of truth is not primarily propositional; it is not primarily an idea or a body of information that can be passed along and decided upon.

Rather, the Truth is primarily a person and as the New Testament witnesses: "we have seen His glory, glory as of the only begotten Son of the Father, full of grace and truth." Since the Truth is a person, knowing the Truth is primarily relational. The mission and vision statement of First Presbyterian tries to reflect this: "Our vision is of a church which is a society of love brought into existence by God - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit - and by the understanding that in God's own life (the Trinity), there is an activity of mutual self-giving." The Truth is relational because God is relational. And that is the second major point. WE can live together when we disagree because the Truth is not primarily an idea.

It follows that if the nature of Truth is relational, then we can only discover the Truth in relationship. We cannot decide about God or Truth so much as we can live with God. In the light of this, the basic character of our life with one another is in the same order: we can only discover the truth about both self and the other as we live with one another, as we relate to one another, rooted in the biblical principles. And if the person who disagrees with me leaves, where will be the one who will push me to a new understanding of myself and you and God?

To live as though the Truth is propositional - something we can look at it and decide about it and once we have decided can reject those who decide differently - is to reject the biblical guidance that tells us who we are on the basis of who God is. While the wisdom of the world points us toward separation, division ("I'm right, you're wrong; I live here, you live there; I'm Anglo, you're African, Hispanic, Asian, Native American; I'm homosexual, you're heterosexual; I'm developmentally challenged, you're developmentally gifted; I'm liberal, you're conservative.") - and the church often follows suit - Christ points us to God and to one another. It is a profound distinction in basic life orientation.

Two more things must be said - and they are both in the line of this dialectic, relational nature of truth. The first is some history of this particular congregation. First Church was established in 1850. It is the oldest Presbyterian congregation in Austin. From that first day, May 26, 185O, to this day, May 4, 1997, this congregation has never wavered from its commitment to Christ through the Presbyterian Church(USA).

So far as I know, this is the only First Presbyterian Church in any major southern city that did not become a Southern Presbyterian Church in and around the Civil War - but remained loyal and committed to the denomination of which it has to this day been a part. It is a grand heritage - and it is unthinkable that we would not continue in this commitment to our denomination and to one another.

The second thing I want to say is this: unity and continued commitment does not happen at the loss of individual opinion or the right to dissent. Deeply embedded within the Presbyterian way of being church and within our Book of Order is the right to dissent - and in conscience to disagree and work for change. Dissent must never be entered lightly; it's serious business to disagree with those God has given us. But the obligation to live by our conscience before God is as deep an obligation as being in communion with our brothers and sisters.

And our Presbyterian way of being church allows, indeed in a sense requires, both things: loyalty and dissent. And remember - if the truth is dialectical and relational more than it is propositional - then this makes perfect sense.

Do you see what a wonderful opportunity this gives us at First Presbyterian Church, Austin - and in our denomination? In our own congregation we have an opportunity to be a small embodiment of the reality of the body of Christ - in which our life together, agreements and disagreements, is a more important reality than our own opinions and positions. Moreover, we have some commitment to see things through with one another.

We have begun a venture here at First Presbyterian - and together, blessed by God and led by God's Spirit, we proceed. We should not be overly concerned that we disagree or that we are different. Let us celebrate our differences as a gift for the wholeness of this community. And what is true of us as a congregation is certainly true of us as a denomination.

I do not think that we could make a larger contribution than this one to this city and to the larger community of the Presbyterian church: conservative and liberal; heterosexual and homosexual; Anglo, Hispanic, African, Asian, Native American; developmentally challenged and gifted - all in Christ's church, living and working together. Yes, we have a great God-given opportunity at First Church.

We have already decided together that Christ leads us to be the kind of congregation where the doors of our common church life are opened wide to any who will come, and worship, and join, and serve. We have no choice in this, for it is Christ who beckons, redeems, changes. For our part we can try to be of help, rather than be in the way. For our part we can stay together as a sign of who we are and whose we are.


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