Don’t Ask Me to Cross the Line

October 24, 2011

Conservative congregations around the country, and certainly within my own presbytery, are researching possibilities for some kind of creative and equitable way out of the crisis of conscience they are facing in the PCUSA. We are in an unprecedented moment of change in this denomination, wrought by a stream of decisions now trickling down to the local level. Before the new Form of Government was incorporated into the Book of Order and Amendment 10-A was inserted (removing the ordination standard of “fidelity & chastity” in the process), arguments made in debate assured theological conservatives that it was all about Christ’s Lordship and the mission of Jesus Christ, not sexuality. [To be fair, we conservatives never believed this.] Conservatives were promised that no presbytery or congregation would be obligated to accept departures from Reformed faith and practice by their ministers and candidates. [We had our doubts this promised would be enforced.] We can enjoy a unity of mission and purpose if we maintain mutual forbearance, while giving every person freedom of conscience in their interpretation of Scripture: this was the claim. Amendment 10-A was promoted as a way to stay connected, under a big tent, and to promote peace and avoid conflict in our dealings with each other.

The problem is this: Congregations and individuals in our denomination hold one of (at least) two points of view that cannot peacefully coexist in the same church. Put on your algebra hats for an illustration that will make the point:  If you plot the graphs of two algebraic functions, 1/x=y and 1/-x=y, on a two-dimensional graph (with a horizontal x-axis and a vertical y-axis), you get two curves which cannot intersect. Because x can never be zero, the two curves are always separated by the y-axis between them. This is the asymptote (your new word for the day).

The asymptote illustrates the reality we experience in our presbyteries and higher councils. One side, 1/x=y, says, “Because the Bible prohibits homosexual practice and sex outside of marriage, we cannot ordain a person who practices such things.” The other side, 1/-x=y, says, “The Bible promotes justice and love, and because of this we must affirm the loving, monogamous, committed relationship between persons of the same sex, and affirm their ordinations if they are so gifted and called.” In the wake of 10-A’s passage, liberals are asking conservatives to accommodate to the new rule regarding ordination by letting presbyteries ordain those who are disqualified by biblical standards. They say, we are so close here, can’t we just reach across the aisle (the asymptote) and shake hands?

But they can’t both be right; to say they are violates one of our Historic Principles of Church Order, “no opinion can either be more pernicious or more absurd than that which brings truth and falsehood upon a level, and represents it as of no consequence what a man’s opinions are” (F-3.0104). According to our graph, “shaking hands” is possible only if conservatives redraw the fundamental defining parameters of their faith. This situation is illustrated by a change to the graph that results in the two lines crossing. If the right curve is redefined as 1/x-1=y, then the two lines would cross. This is tantamount to saying, “The Bible is wrong on homosexual practice. God’s word on the matter does not hold authority for today.” But conservatives are simply not willing to sell their biblical, historical, confessional, and evangelical soul to make such an assertion. This is why we have an untenable and unsustainable chasm within the PCUSA.

[Changing metaphors…] As a result of this, the earthquake fault between the two tectonic plates of conservative and liberal is under stress. We are feeling the adjustments in jerks and rolls even now, because the two plates cannot occupy the same space. This week I will continue to describe what I see happening, as the hallmarks of Presbyterianism—Constitution, Connection, and Confessions—erode and readjust to accommodate the adoption of so-called local option by ordaining bodies.

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8 Responses to “Don’t Ask Me to Cross the Line”

  1. Tom Gray Says:

    Being a lifelong nerd, I truly appreciate your analogy. It works well!

    • revmary Says:

      Oh yay!, Tom! I know I’m going out on a limb when I use a math example, especially with “fuzzy studies” pastors and the like…so thanks for the good word!

  2. Whit Says:

    I agree completely, Mary.

    I spent the weekend at the national conference of the Christian Legal Society which includes lawyers from many faith traditions, Presbyterian/Reformed, Lutheran, Baptist, Catholic, Anglican, Eastern Orthodox, etc. I would say that while there were disagreements on some of the fine points of theology, there was far more agreement in this group than there would be at, say, a Chicago Presbytery meeting.

    I dare say no one questioned the Lordship of Christ, His divine nature and that He died for our sins. We would have all agreed on the authority of Scripture though there might have been disagreements on some details of what that authority says – and we would mostly agree on the Scriptural framework in which such disagreements might be narrowed or resolved.

    While it is perhaps easier to see with your ilustration about homoerotic conduct, the lack of any consensus about the more important issues I mention in the last paragraph is, I think, more critical to the divide. If we could agree on these fundamental issues, trust might be restored, and we might be able to live with disagreement over the interpretation of the Scriptures that deal with homoerotic conduct. The trouble is, of course, that if we had anything close to an agreed framework for interpreting Scripture we would likely be able to reach consensus on homoerotic conduct as well. That is, our disagreement on homoerotic conduct is a mere symptom of our more fundamental disagreements.

  3. Steve Says:

    Asymptotes and theology in the same article – you are truly a renaissance woman.

  4. L. Lee Says:

    You are like Daniel described by King Belteshazzar in Daniel 5:14 ..”I have heard of you, that the Spirit of God is in you, and that light and undestanding and excellent wisdom are found in you.” You are full of these Holy Spirit gifts which you are willing to speak forth. THANK YOU and God bless you!
    Furthermore, maybe the “hand writing on the wall” is the same message for PC(USA) leaders: MENE,MENE,TEKEL,UPHARSIN
    Mene: God has numbered your kingdom, and finished it, (used two times for emphasis)
    Tekel: You have been weighed in the balances, and found wanting;
    Prees: Your kingdom has been divided and given to the Medes and Persians
    Or maybe the leaders will take heed to your message and provide a place for conscience and truth for those who are not willing to go along with the disobedience to Scripture that seems to be required in the name of unity.

  5. Isaac Moon Says:

    The function is actually f(x)=1/X^2.

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