Closing Argument for Appellants in Parnell Case

April 28, 2012

Closing Argument before
the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
Meeting in Indianapolis on April 27, 2012

Mary Holder Naegeli for the Appellants

[Following a few remarks in rebuttal of the Presbytery’s argument . . .]

When a person has been at this process for over four years, as we have, it is worth answering the question, “Why does this matter so much?” I know the outcome of the Commission’s deliberations will matter to the candidate, who has waited long enough for a definitive answer, and to San Francisco Presbytery, which desires to be affirmed in a position it has espoused the last few years. But why does it matter to me as a teaching elder and theological educator? Why does it matter to the people I pastor and mentor in the faith, or the people in the back pew? What impact does this discussion and the Commission’s decision have on my best friend and her gay son whom I have known and welcomed for years? And on those people whose struggle to live in sexual purity has been painfully difficult? How will the decision we hope for make things better for the Presbyterian Church?

A declaration that Scripture, as our only rule of faith and practice, prohibits homosexual practice by church officers (and all people of faith) puts God at the center of the discussion. God, whose Word is the Scripture, has given us his mind and will on the matter. God has not obfuscated, nuanced, or otherwise played hard to get with this revelation. If I were to put the six specific Scriptures before you right now, you would easily recognize that they all, without exception or equivocation, say “No” to homosexual practice. Even scholars and theologians who promote gay ordination admit that the Scriptures themselves all say, “No.”

If you were to put those same six scriptures before the back pew of your congregations, they too would recognize that the Bible says homosexual practice is forbidden by God and not worth the spiritual risk God attaches to it.

If a lesbian couple were to ask me, “What does God (or the Bible) say about homosexuality?” this is what I would tell them:

Here’s what the Bible says, let’s say in 1 Cor 6:9: “Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God.” I would remind them, this pretty much sums up what God thinks about all sorts of prevailing sins, all of which on the face of it disqualify anyone from inheriting the Kingdom of God. It is the loving thing to tell them, since they asked, that if they are interested in having life in Christ and enjoying the benefits of citizenship in God’s kingdom, these are activities or lifestyle commitments to avoid. And yes, homosexual practice is one of them. And so is my particular sin. We all have something in common: a sinful nature that drags us down into some sort of addiction, compulsion, or spiritual black hole.

Having said that, this is not God’s last word on the subject! As Paul goes on: “And this is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.” What God offers to any sinner enslaved by wrongdoing is God’s liberating salvation and transformation, if we want it. We are not liberated to perpetuate our sin. We are liberated to no longer need sin and to need and rely on God more.

God is at the center of this dynamic: God is the one around whom we can all find forgiveness of sin and the spiritual power to walk out of the habits and practices that have a hold on us. God is the one who keeps before us the vision of a holy and sanctified life and empowers us to walk in it. God gives us the content of our preaching as we encourage our church members to pursue godliness in all aspects of life.

I am homing in on this point of God at the center, because the alternative is what mixes us up in this discussion. When we place ourselves at the center of the universe—our needs, our desires, our perspective, our “wisdom,” our experience, our rights—that is when confusion and disunity set in. When we’re all after our own way, believing God’s way to be—what? unattainable, unrealistic? unknowable?—nothing good can come from a self-centered life. Good comes out of a repentant, God-centered life, because God promises this.

And so, to get back to my original question, why this matters to the church   is that   what we do here today and the decision you make tomorrow will shape the teaching of the church for those people in the back pew, our children, my best friend’s son, and the lesbian couple. This Commission and others who have authority within the PCUSA to render “authoritative interpretations” are in fact conducting the “teaching office of the church” for the benefit of Presbyterians. And the Church needs its teachers to give clear and accurate information and to set standards that are consistent with the Scriptures when the Word is clear, as it is on this issue. We are a people who embrace the Reformation tenet of Sola Scriptura—Scripture alone. Good discipline rightly administered in the church is the product of faithful and accountable discipleship that offers patient teaching of the Scriptures and generous relational support during times of personal transformation. In response to the Great Commission (Mt 28:18-20), the church baptizes people (incorporating them into the household of faith) and teaches them to obey everything Jesus has commanded us.  Christian Discipleship requires all of us, on a level field, to submit to the Lordship of Jesus Christ and to do what he says in every aspect of life.

If God were silent on the topic of sexual holiness, we would not presume to fill in the blanks. And we must not obscure God’s truth either. The Synod did not presume God’s silence on the matter, but only pointed to confusion among Presbyterian scholars. If this confusion becomes the standard, then no council could ever be held to account. But “God is not the author of confusion, but of peace.” And the PCUSA, at its best, is not a church of chaos but of order, ordered by Word and Spirit given for our benefit.

If diversity of opinion is all it takes to obscure God’s truth, then how can we be sure of anything? It is easy for human beings to become confused; this is not of God’s doing and this is not a sign of the Spirit at work. Is it not the purpose of the Confessions to clarify: to cut through our confusion to establish a clear understanding of our faith and God’s commands? If that is not their purpose, then why have them? Why have a Constitution, or the Bible for that matter? Why require seminary education of our clergy? It is all rendered irrelevant and meaningless: we have called this Nola Scriptura—no Scripture. If confusion reigns, then teaching only makes the confusion worse. If the church speaks with many voices, then none can be heard as the true instructor of our faith. In that case, we have no standard to live by, and we can hold no one accountable, including lower councils. For lack of any standard, if councils are not accountable, then church officers are not accountable either. And then we have arrived at the same place the Israelites did at the time of Judges: “Everyone did what was right in their own eyes.”

But these gifts to the church—the Scriptures, the Confessions— are not meaningless; they do shape our life together, if we will all abide by them as an act of mutual submission to the Lordship of Christ and the God-centered life. This is what we promised to do in our ordination vows.

And so, on behalf of the church, on behalf of the back pew, on behalf of my friend’s son, on behalf of the lesbian couple, on behalf of all who struggle against sin, including me, I ask you to embrace the truth by which we live and
1. declare that Scripture is our only rule of faith and practice (F-3.0107) and that its teaching is binding.

2. declare that Scripture says “No” to all homosexual practice.
3. and declare that ordaining a committed homosexual person violates this teaching and must be overturned.

Thank you very much for hearing our appeal today.


10 Responses to “Closing Argument for Appellants in Parnell Case”

  1. Amen! And thanks again for your faithfulness in this area. God’s blessings to you,

  2. Viola Larson Says:

    Thank you Mary, these are words to return to again and again because they are clear and truthful.

  3. Dave Moody Says:

    Well said Mary. Thank you!

  4. Linda lee Says:

    One thing I am not clear about that comes out from these opening and closing statements. The Judicial Committee is saying that they are not “Theologians.” Does that mean that they only base their decisions on “law” and legal precedence.
    Doesn’t Scripture play a role when making their decisions. Isn’t this what makes them different than the state courts. Praying that the Holy Spirit will lead.

    • revmary Says:

      Hi Linda, an excellent question which gives me the opportunity to clear something up. The last time we appeared before the GAPJC (July 2011), two or three of the commissioners during the Q & A time said, “I am not a theologian; this is above my pay-grade.” That is what Bruce was quoting in his remarks. However, at THIS Q & A time, one of the commissioners piped up with a correction. He made an excellent case right there that they WERE to think biblically and theologically, and we most certainly affirmed him in that!

  5. Mary, thanks for your ongoing committment to this cause. Your closing remarks are to me the clearest explanation I have seen anywhere.

  6. Rev. Adel Thalos Says:

    Amen! Excellent summary. Thank you for your faithful, gentle and kind work. May the Lord bless you abundantly for your faithfulness to His infallible Word.

  7. Gene Says:

    well….as we all allready knew it would, the inevitable result is in. I do not mean that maliciously, just as an honest assessment. The sad thing is that a good, qualified (as determined by the presbytery, and now confirmed by unanimous decision) minister was denied her chance for ministry and to serve God and Gods people for 7 years.

    Now, the only question is are we all going to be able to go forward trusting God, and that our system worked, or will hubris demand we get our own way, and leave.
    time will tell

    • Whit Brisky Says:

      Gene, this is not about getting “our own way” but following God’s way. For the GAPJC I fear that there is nothing in Scripture which is clear enough to actually enforce. If even this is not clear, what is? We have pastors who deny the atonement, the depravity of humans, the Messiah’s divinity, the authority of Scripture, salvation by grace through faith in Jesus, and on and on.

      As for me, I stand on the same Biblical truths that I have stood upon since I became a Believer. If I cease to be a member of the PCUSA, it will not be because I left the Church but because the Church left me.

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