"B and Beyond"

by Jack Rogers

Professor of Theology and Vice President for Southern California Programs

San Francisco Seminary

[Reprinted with permission of the Editor, The Presbyterian Outlook, Volume 178, Number 11, March 24-31, 1997, pp. 5-6, 17]

[Moderator's Note: This article was published before passage of Amendment B. Its reproduction in the Hesed Forum should not be taken as affirmation that Jack Rogers' personal position is one of advocating a strategy of dissent.]

One can agree with the substance of Outlook Editor Robert Bullock's supportive editorial in the Jan. 27 issue and still feel uncomfortable with Amendment B. My discomfort with Amendment B is that it is asking us to forget many of the valuable lessons we have learned about interpreting Scripture and the confessions. I have spent most of my adult life studying the history of biblical and confessional interpretation. Because of what I have learned, written and taught, I am concerned with how we will live in the future with the implications of Amendment B.

As an evangelical Christian I oppose its selectively literal interpretation of Scripture which lifts up law over grace. As a Reformed theologian, I oppose its selectively literal interpretation of the confessions which lifts up non-essentials of practice over the essentials of salvation.

Amendment B leads us to interpret the Bible with a selective literalism and legalism. Let us do a little Bible study together. Turn with me to Romans, ch. 1. Among the very few texts in Scripture which speak explicitly to homosexual behavior, Romans I is generally regarded as the clearest, and most decisive. Paul, in Romans, deals with why we need grace. In Romans 1:1 8-20, the apostle declares that everyone knows God, but that everyone has suppressed this truth. His conclusion of this passage is that we are all without excuse.

Then, in the rest of the chapter he makes clear that since we know the true God, to worship any other so-called gods is idolatry and worthy of death. He illustrates this with the worst example of idolatry he has ever seen. I have been to Greece and visited Corinth. I have stood on the spot where Paul stood when he was tried by the Roman authorities for creating a disturbance about religion. When you stand at that spot you are looking up at a mountain called the Acrocorinth. On top of the Acrocorinth was a temple to Aphrodite. This god/goddess had both male and female sex organs. Aphrodite's temple was staffed by 7,000 prostitutes. They worshiped this idolatrous god/goddess by engaging in same-sex intercourse with each other and their clients. Paul was revolted by this gross idolatrous worship.

Having begun with the worst example he can think of, Paul then widens the range of the sinful consequences of not worshiping the true God. In vv. 29-31 he lists 15 sins, including envy, gossip and foolishness. The point of this list is made in v. 32: "Those who practice such things deserve to die." That covers all of us. Paul's plea to us comes in the opening verse of ch. 2. "Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things."

How does this apply to Amendment B? Amendment B, in effect, selects one illustration of idolatrous behavior from Paul's long list of sins. It then applies an inflexible law, not to idolatry which Paul is addressing, but to all homosexual behavior without regard to the Christian faith or practice of the people being condemned. In the meantime, we allow ourselves selectively to ignore most of the rest of the list of sins. We thus draw the exact opposite conclusion that Paul drew. An evangelical conclusion from Romans I would be that we are accepted by God individually, not as a class of people. We are accepted in grace because of what Jesus Christ has done for our salvation. As forgiven sinners we are called to submit all of our relationships, including our sexuality, to God who alone is capable of judging us.

There can be no doubt that Amendment B is directed at one class of people- those whose affectional orientation is to persons of the same sex. In a most unevangelical manner the Christian commitment of these persons and their individual behavior is ignored and they are all treated under one negative stereotype. The selective application of Amendment B was made very clear to the General Assembly which passed it. There was a Preface to Amendment B which explained its intent to the commissioners who voted on it. That Preface stated: "It is not the intention of this committee, through this recommendation to the presbyteries, to change anything in the church's present standards and polity in relation to divorce and remarriage." Thus, for heterosexuals there is an exemption from any "practice which the confessions call sin." But gay and lesbian persons are to feel the full force of the law.

If we read the Bible with the literalism and legalism that Amendment B applies to homosexual practice, then in honesty we must defrock every divorced clergy person and forbid all Christians remarriage after divorce. There was a time in my life when I would have recommended just such a hard line attitude toward divorce. I do not do so now. I have learned something over the years. So has the church. What we have learned over the last 30 years is that there is a difference between an ideal that Jesus sets before us to guide us and an inflexible law that breaks us. I believe that we have learned, rightly, an evangelical reading of Scripture on the matter of divorce. But Amendment B forbids us from applying the lesson that we have learned. To be consistently evangelical and biblical we must be willing to apply that case-by-case, contextual, compassionate interpretation of Scripture not just to those of us who are heterosexual in practice but to persons whose practice is homosexual as well.

The same principles that we apply to the reading of Scripture must apply to the reading of our subordinate standard of authority, the confessions. I have always taught that what is authoritative for us in the confessions is not their historically conditioned application of Scripture to particular behaviors, but the great biblical themes that run consistently through the Book of Confessions. There are many behaviors mentioned in the confessions that were considered sinful at an earlier time that we would not consider sinful today. We cannot just ignore that fact but must learn from it. Both Scripture and the confessions must always be read contextually to see what applied only to the particular time and situation in which the passage was written and what constitutes a great theme of the gospel which applies to us as well.

We cannot put a period at the end of our discussion of homosexuality by appealing to the authority of the Bible or the Book of Confessions. The issue is not authority. The issue is interpretation. We all interpret. We must all be responsible to explain and justify our interpretations. To interpret the Bible and the confessions wrongly is to obscure their true authority.

One final point. We must not only read the Bible and the confessions in their historical and cultural context. We must be realistic about our own present situation and history. Amendment B would not be a brave and prophetic word to contemporary society. It just says what most people believe and what the politicians feel pressured to legislate. All we would be doing is reinforcing the pervasive stereotype. In so doing we would be bearing false witness against some of our Christian sisters and brothers who are just as devout and just as faithful in their relationships as any of us. Until we can come to some consensus on whether sexual orientation is chosen or created we are in a poor position to make definitive decisions regarding its ethical implication.

We need to remember our history. Every time we have stereotyped people as a class and not treated them as individuals, we have had to repent and to change our stance. Most of us can remember when we, as a church, stereotyped people of other races and women as unworthy or incapable of leadership in the church. That recent memory should make us very cautious in this instance.

Soon we will be beyond Amendment B. Some seem to fear that if we are open to reconsidering the role of homosexual persons in the life of the church we will blur our boundaries and lose our identity as a Reformed community. The enduring issue in maintaining our Reformed identity is whether, even with emotionally volatile issues, we can maintain an exegetical consistency and a confessional integrity. We would be foolish to close our eyes to what we as a Reformed community have learned in dealing with other controversial issues like divorce. And foolishness is a sin.

The Presbyterian Outlook is an independent publication with 43 weekly issues per year. It is the only independent weekly serving the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Editor is Robert A. Bullock, Jr.

Subscription $27.25 per year ($52.50 for two years and $76.25 for three years). To subscribe or for further information contact:

The Presbyterian Outlook
Box 85623
Richmond, VA 23285-5623


Back to Hesed Discussion Forum

Hesed Index

Hesed Home Page