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After the VoteAlan WisdomMay 05, 2009
The question has been decided. On Saturday, April 25, the 87th (and 88th and 89th) presbyteries cast their votes to preserve the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s constitutional requirement that its officers practice “fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness” (G-6.0106b). Those votes ensured that a majority of PCUSA presbyteries rejected the latest attempt to delete the denomination’s standard for sexual conduct of its ministers, elders, and deacons. (The defeated amendment would have accepted any “candidate’s sincere efforts to adhere” to its unstated standard.)
What does this vote mean? In an IRD press release I praised Presbyterians who “have stood against the cultural pressure to legitimize any relationship between ‘people who love one another.’ They have maintained the Church’s historic teaching: that God’s provision for human sexuality is found in marriage—the ‘one flesh,’ lifelong, life-giving union of the two created sexes.”
This is the fourth time in twelve years that PCUSA presbyteries have upheld “fidelity and chastity.” IRD board chair Terry Schlossberg, who coordinated the campaign against the deletion, commented: “It is well past time to acknowledge that the Church today, as throughout her history, knows her mind on this matter, and that it is the mind of Christ. It is time to call for forbearance from those who constantly disturb the peace and unity of the church [by forcing the issue again and again].”
A radio interviewer asked me if Presbyterian proponents of homosexual and other non-marital relationships would indeed desist after this vote. “Unfortunately, no,” I had to answer. They have already signaled another assault on “fidelity and chastity.” More Light Presbyterians declared, “The trends are clear: the Presbyterian Church (USA) is remarkably close to removing the barriers so that Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender people can faithfully answer God's call to serve.“
More Light seized on the fact that this year’s vote on “fidelity and chastity” was closer than the last vote. In 2001-2002, with many moderates reluctant to change the constitution while the “Peace, Unity, and Purity” task force was starting its studies, the attempt to delete “fidelity and chastity” lost in the presbyteries by a whopping 127-46 margin. This year, in a simpler up-or-down vote, the results will more closely resemble the 97-74 margin by which the “fidelity and chastity” passage was originally installed in 1996-1997.
I suspect, however, that it’s more than math that’s driving More Light’s determination to force the issue yet again. There is a larger “progressive” narrative operating here. Our liberal friends are convinced that history is on a steady leftward course: towards greater individual moral autonomy, greater freedom in entering and exiting sexual relationships, and reduced relevance of traditions or authorities that might restrain individual autonomy and freedom. (If they are religious, our friends hail these trends as the will of an “inclusive” God.)
Progressives see themselves as “prophetic.” History will vindicate them, they are sure, and they will become the majority and sweep us conservatives into the dustbin. If they don’t win a vote today, they will win it tomorrow. And if society goes their way, then the Church must surely follow.
This “progressive” myth has many obvious problems. The Church does not always follow the culture. Sometimes it resists the culture. Sometimes it changes the culture. Christians in past generations have taken stands against dueling, abandonment of unwanted infants, and polygamy—all common in their day, and all rare today.
Nor is it true that today’s leftist cause is always destined to become tomorrow’s mainstream reality. Think of all the past liberal enthusiasms—communes, “God is dead” theology, Freudian psychotherapy, divorce as a wonderful growth experience, open classrooms with no grades, Fidel Castro and Mao Zedong as great liberators—that have largely faded away. Sometimes the left is right about the future, and sometimes it’s terribly wrong.
The tragedy is when orthodox Christians—who should know better—buy into the leftist myth of inevitability. I have heard friends saying, “Well, we won [the vote on ‘fidelity and chastity’] this time, but they [proponents of non-marital relationships] will win next time.” It is that kind of defeatist attitude, I believe, that caused this year’s vote on “fidelity and chastity” to be so much tighter.
Close examination of this year’s presbytery votes shows some striking patterns. Not only has the margin between supporters and opponents of “fidelity and chastity” narrowed, but the turnout is way down (about 15 percent, by my calculations). And the decrease is almost entirely among conservatives.
The votes to delete “fidelity and chastity” have held steady. Contrary to common perception, the sexual revisionists are not persuading many new people; however, they have motivated their longtime friends to show up at presbytery meetings. They believe they are on “the winning side” of history. The people who are staying home are the supporters of “fidelity and chastity,” whose vote totals have dropped about 25 percent. It’s easy to become weary and give up the fight if you have been convinced that you are destined to lose eventually.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. A biblical worldview recognizes that the course of history is in the hands of a sovereign God who is working out his purposes in his time. No human political agenda is inevitable. There is much that both liberals and conservatives fail to understand.
God allows the wheat and the weeds to grow together, and it often may appear to us that the weeds are growing faster. There are times when God’s people become inattentive and “do what is right in their own eyes”; however, there are also times when God’s Spirit refreshes his people and renews their love for him and their devotion to his ways.
Our duty is to be faithful in seeking God’s righteousness, regardless of today’s apparent trends, and to pray for the times of refreshment. Ministers and elders turn out for presbytery meetings because they have promised to participate in the church’s government—not because they have any certain knowledge about the outcome of a particular vote.
In the long run, we know that sin does not bear good fruit. In the case at hand, we can be sure that a society or a church will not prosper if it downgrades God’s good gift of marriage into just another option on the lifestyle menu. (Just look at Europe with its catastrophically low birth rates—a continent that is committing a slow-motion spiritual and demographic suicide.)
Sooner or later, the prodigal will come to his senses. We pray and work that the time of repentance and restoration may be sooner rather than later. This denomination can (and may) turn around before it goes all the way down the road to the “far country” of individual autonomy. We can give thanks for good signs such as these repeated votes to uphold the biblical “fidelity and chastity” standard.
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