Although the Holston Presbytery voted against the amendment in December, the Rev. John Shuck of First Presbyterian Church of Elizabethton, lauded Tuesday’s decision as a major step forward for the way the church has historically handled the issue of responding to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.We may have differing opinions on this issue but we are not divided in terms of shared ministry. As I wrote in a letter to my congregation and my presbytery:
“Our church’s reaction has most of the time been negative, so taking out official statements that are negative really is important to do, because now we say we really are open and inclusive to people,” he said.
While the new statements don’t outright acknowledge ordaining gays and lesbians, Shuck, an advocate for gay rights since the late 1980s, said the amendment has the practical effect of opening that up to those who may have been waiting for that to happen.
“If you’re going to invest yourself to go through college and then go through three years of seminary, you kind of want to be able to know that you’re going to get a call, and if you’re gay or lesbian that hasn’t been very certain. In fact, it’s generally been negative,” he said.
For the Rev. Louis Imsande of First Presbyterian Church of Johnson City, this decision has more to do with the current church’s views on sexual immorality and temptation.
“Culture is very accepting of different sexual practices, but what the vote was was to remove from the Book of Order the vow that ministers make that says you will be celibate outside of marriage and chaste inside of marriage,” Imsande said.
Replacing language that makes it more accepting in terms of sexual wishes and desires goes against what the Bible teaches, according to Imsande, who voted against the adoption of the amendment.
“I understand the people pushing this through are more on the side of the LGBT’s side of the house,” he said. “The problem that is going to ensue now is that in the more liberal presbyteries, like the Minneapolis one or one in Atlanta, they will be quick to ordain folks who are homosexuals, but then you have your presbyteries like the one here, which is a conservative presbytery, who won’t accept that calling.”
What this creates, according to Imsande, is a larger issue of disunity within the church as a whole. With what Imsande sees as a “watering down” of the ministerial vow, this decision is a step backward for a denomination that was already hurting.
“We’ve lost a lot of large churches and now the process is speeding up to where more churches will leave the denomination,” he said. “The Presbyterian Church used to be a flourishing denomination where we were fairly focused on the calling of Christ. Rather than a Christocentric denomination, we have become an issue-driven church rather than being concerned about the larger issues that are following Christ and spreading the gospel.”
Shuck agreed that the installment of a gay minister within the local presbytery would likely be difficult, but he hoped the decision was a reflection of a larger form of acceptance and change going on in the culture.
While some opponents might say following culture instead of the Bible is the wrong move for the church, Shuck said he believes the Bible can be read many ways. He looked to the abolitionist movement as an example, saying abolitionists had to go against many passages in the Bible that didn’t condemn slavery.
“The culture changed and our reading of the Bible changed and our reading of theology changed. In other words, we’ve adapted. The same thing with the role of women in the church,” he said.
Shuck said he doesn’t think this decision comes down to “culture vs. the Bible.”
“To put it theologically, I think it is a movement of the spirit that is moving us to open our eyes to see more light from the Bible,” he said.
While happy to see change begin to happen within the church, Shuck said he understands the decision will no doubt cause some congregations to leave the church, but he’s also hopeful more will join.
Rev. Allen Huff, Jonesborough Presbyterian Church, agreed, saying they’re all moving forward with the understanding that there will many people saddened and hurt by the decision.
“It will be a very painful change, of course. I’m not jumping and down celebrating, because it will be very, very difficult for people that I love very much, but we have been soul-searching and debating and talking about this issue for several decades now,” he said.
Huff, who voted in favor of the amendment, said there will be many congregations wrestling with what to do now, but he believes the decision was led by God.
“It’s a bold statement of faith. All that the church ever offers is a faith statement, and this statement says that God’s call is given to individuals with gifts for ministry,” he said. Read more
I am also aware that some in our presbytery disagree with this action by the church. Our congregation and I value our presbytery community. We are honored to take an active role in the ministries of this presbytery. We are committed to working on those ministries we share in common and to build relationships. We seek also to respect each other's freedom of conscience.Our executive presbyter, Rich Fifield, posted this on our presbytery's webpage.
While Holston Presbytery (the district of Presbyterian Church (USA) congregations in upper northeast Tennessee) voted to disapprove this change to the Book of Order, we affirm the long-standing Presbyterian commitment to freedom of conscience and mutual forbearance when different convictions about issues threaten to divide us.You can't ask more than that.