Each successive General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) becomes less controversial: The last six years have seen an exodus of evangelical Presbyterians such that there remain relatively few present to hear the proverbial tree fall in the forest. A denomination known for its conviction that essential tenets ought to remain undefined has become unified around a relatively homogenous doctrinal center of mutual forbearance.
This summer the Assembly will consider, among other things, resolutions celebrating the valuable contribution to the life of the denomination by LGBT+ persons. It is true that LGBT+ members and ministers have borne the brunt of the decades long, often heated, discussion of homosexual practice. While I lament that the denomination has changed its teaching on same sex sexual practice to make it licit, I do acknowledge that (differences aside) gay Presbyterians have been subjected to what must have seemed like referendum after referendum on their place in the denomination. This issue now having been settled, the denomination seems to be moving toward reckoning with its own past.
The denomination will once more enter into the mess of attempting to compel corporations to act in ways amenable to them through the use of boycotts, divestment, and sanctions. Fossil fuels are once more the target as well as companies like RE/MAX that facilitate real estate transactions in the West Bank.
There is a fresh effort to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery citing the harm that it has done as the philosophical and theological foundation for American colonialism and subsequent racism. The doctrine is certainly worthy of critique, but there does not seem to be consensus about what actions ought to flow from such repudiation. Certainly there is much to be commended in teaching people about this doctrine and its legal ramifications such as the summary seizure of indigenous lands by colonists. The question of making amends—reparations if you will—remains a great deal murkier.
Arguably the most significant business coming before the Assembly deals with Christian engagement in public life. After decades of fighting, mainline Presbyterians now find that their agenda for Christian witness—now largely missing any evangelical influence—is in many ways aligned with the spirit of contemporary culture. This gives Presbyterians the opportunity to address those whose views now differ from the secular and mainline consensus. In the upcoming Assembly, the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP) has undertaken to do just that, asking the General Assembly to take a stand against the proliferation of state religious freedom legislation, which it argues is simply a pretext for discrimination.
The resolution asks the denomination to take a stand against this sort of abuse and to undertake certain actions in the public sphere showing opposition to any effort to use religious liberty as a pretext for discrimination.
This proposed action is both disappointing and disturbing. It’s disappointing because the proponents place themselves as judges over the motives of those who disagree with them. They seem incapable of conceiving of conscientious objection as anything other than an expression of hate and therefore deeming it something to be stifled or punished. There is no calculus for sincerity of belief, for historical precedent or lineage of belief.
The resolution effectively relegates religious conviction to the private sphere. It effectively divorces belief and action—something that Christianity has tended to teach against. It makes impossible any sort of pluralism based in principled difference and replaces it with a naked public square where only approved views need appear.
Does the Army Chaplain whose religious belief prohibits him from conducting counseling with same sex couples not also deserve protection as much as the couple themselves? Especially when there is no shortage of pastors willing to perform this service. Does it not follow that if the institution of marriage is so fundamental to civil society that the Court would be willing to redefine it, it also stands to reason that those whose religious belief precludes same sex marriage might see endorsing such a redefinition as inimical to their fundamental religious view of the world?
The ACSWP argues that to decline to bake a cake or conduct counseling or perform a wedding for a couple in this protected class denies their being made in the image of God. Not so. It is precisely because these souls have been made in the image of God that the baker or the pastor refuses to participate in something that fails to honor that image as it should be honored.
This resolution and its rationale successfully has crafted a view of religious liberty that effectively protects the interests and rights of everyone other than individual or group who holds what might be called a traditional view.
But it doesn’t stop there. This is where things become disturbing. Becoming more granular, the resolution encourages the denomination’s highest representative to join existing legal actions dealing with religious liberty issues by filing Amicus curiae briefs in opposition to any legislation that runs afoul of the criteria listed above.
It is clear from the language of the resolution that this is not simply the church urging faithfulness upon its own members. Rather, the ACSWP is urging the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to become an advocacy group that will use political and judicial means to thwart religious liberty protections for those holding traditionalist views. Such actions are the result of their understanding of discipleship: “In our commitment to be disciples of Jesus Christ, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is called to stand against oppression and in support of human dignity for all people.”
It was once said that if you don’t support gay marriage then don’t marry someone of the same sex. It seems that in very rapid fashion, and from religious as well as secular groups, this saying is being phased out. It’s replacement, at least when it comes to the public square, is “if you don’t like it, leave.”
Jeff Gissing is a Presbyterian Pastor in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. His writing–available at jeffgissing.com– focuses on the intersection of religion, theology, and culture. His work has been featured on RealClear religion, worldviewchurch.org, VirtueOnline, and layman,org.