Tom Gilson

The PC (USA): To redefine marriage — and justice, and grace, and …

The Presbyterian Church (USA) has voted to redefine marriage as “a unique commitment between two people, traditionally a man and a woman, to love and support each other for the rest of their lives.” The news was “welcomed” by the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, which calls for “a Church as generous and just as God’s grace.”

There’s a lot more being redefined here than marriage.

God’s justice and grace both have to do with the manner in which he handles human right- and wrongdoing. In his justice he rescues the weak from oppressors, he rights wrongs, he punishes sin, and he rewards good, wherever they may appear. In his grace through Christ, he relents from delivering the just wages of our wrongdoing (for we are all deserving of the punishment side of his justice). Instead he releases us from that outcome and grants us the experience of his love—provided we come to him humbly, on God’s terms, which include being willing to admit we’ve done wrong.

Without the existence of wrong, justice is irrelevant. If justice is irrelevant, grace is meaningless.

But the church is no longer talking about justice and grace in terms of how God deals with us when we do wrong. It’s saying that what was wrong before isn’t anymore. Rather than being met with justice and grace, wrong is being met with an editor’s pen making it read “right” instead.*

So this is not a move toward a church that’s just, nor is it one that’s taking God’s grace for its example. This is a church that’s in the process of wrenching both those terms away from their historic Christian meanings; which by the way is impossible to do without redefining the word “God” as well, and leaving actual Christianity behind.

That doesn’t keep an influential subset of its members from using “justice” and “grace” as pleasant-sounding words to promote an agenda, however. The words have rhetorical effect: an effect that depends on ignoring their actual definitions.

Toward a church that distorts God’s justice and grace to achieve ends that make both of them irrelevant.

Hat tip to ordinary seeker

*I need to address a likely objection. Perhaps the justice they think they’re referring to has to do with just attitudes toward LGBT people. The Bible is replete with prophetic calls to stop oppressing the weak, helpless, and disadvantaged; and it certainly calls this a matter of justice. I agree with that. Bullying LGBT persons is wrong. Shunning them is wrong. Discriminating against them where their sexuality is irrelevant (housing, most jobs, etc.) is unjust. Making them feel unwelcome among us in our churches is wrong.

To the extent that simply being LGBT disadvantages a person socially, Christians seeking justice must stand up and shout, “No, don’t treat them that way: They’re created in God’s image just like you and me, and worth every bit as much in God’s eyes!”

That does not, however, entail standing up and shouting, “No, don’t treat them that way: There’s nothing wrong with anything they’re doing!”

Sometimes, you see, justice says, “It’s wrong to treat the person that way, because you’re treating them as wrong when they’re actually right.” Sometimes it says, “It’s wrong to treat another person that way, regardless of whether they’re wrong or right.”

Note, then, that justice does not require us to say the person is right. Whether a person is right or not is an important question, but it’s not determined by, “What’s the just thing to do with this person?”

Justice, then, does not requires us to say that gay marriage is right, nor does justice require us to act as if it’s right–not unless it is, which is determined by other means.

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24 thoughts on “The PC (USA): To redefine marriage — and justice, and grace, and …

  1. Are churches that capitulate on the marriage issue even really orthodox anymore? I have not understood the marriage issue to be a core doctrine, so have not considered these churches as having fallen out of real Christianity. However, I had not considered all the connections that are raised here.

  2. DR84:
    “Are churches that capitulate on the marriage issue even really orthodox anymore?”

    That’s an interesting word choice. Do you think that all of these churches are in some way giving up a fight, rather than sincerely changing their minds?

  3. A church that redefines justice and grace is changing its mind. It might be doing it sincerely. But it’s not doing it in accord with anything remotely resembling orthodox Christianity.

    Is capitulate too strong a word? I’d say that somewhere in the history of that church it would be completely accurate. The PC (USA) capitulated to custom, giving up biblical Christianity, long ago. This is just a further expression of that.

    But yes, it’s also present tense: they’re capitulating on marriage. They’re already given themselves over on the basic issues that would help them remain distinctively Christian, which makes it easy for them to give themselves over on this. Therefore they might not see it as a capitulation; but in terms of what it means to be a Christian church, that’s what it is.

  4. Tom,

    Let’s imagine some church that says this: “We’ve been doing a lot of exegesis, and we’ve come to the conclusion that scripture supports same-sex marriage”.

    Now obviously, you’re going to think that they’ve done exegesis incorrectly; they’ve made some kind of interpretive error somewhere along the line. But would you say that this church is capitulating, just because their exegesis happens to coincide with a view held by society at large that you disagree with? Do you think that the only way such a view of scripture can happen is pressure from outside influence, and if only they’d completely ignored public opinion, they’d have agreed with you?

  5. Yes.

    I have come to a studied conviction that this is capitulation.

    If you have done the exegesis to contradict that conclusion, please share it with me. If you’re only going to present imaginary what-ifs, that’s not very interesting to me.

    I think your question probably assumes that Scripture is unclear on this matter, so that people can come to different scriptural conclusions by landing on different sides of some ambiguity. That’s a false assumption. There’s nothing unclear there.

  6. Tom, can you explain what you mean by capitulation? I think we must be using that word differently.

  7. os, what difference does it make if they’re “capitulating” on something they’re getting obviously wrong, or if they’re getting it obviously wrong for some other reason?

    I can’t see any point in answering your question, in other words.

  8. SF, I was using it in its ordinary meaning. If you want someone to do the work of defining how they’re using it, you’re welcome to do so.

  9. I think their desire to align the church with God’s justice and grace speaks to the genuineness of their belief, and not to a capitulation.

  10. Tom #8, it matters a great deal. If these churches are being coerced by outside forces into changing their position, then that’s a violation of religious liberty. If, however, they’re sincerely changing their minds about a theological doctrine on their own, then no such violation is occurring.

  11. Or if you did read the OP, os, then apparently you thought it would be just fine to speed right on by without paying it the slightest attention.

    I’m not sure whether that’s the case or you just didn’t read it.

    If you disagree with what I said there, that’s your right, but you might at least have noticed that that was what you were doing.

  12. Why be insulting, Tom? What purpose does it serve?

    I thought it was clear that I disagree with your understanding of justice and grace. That doesn’t matter. If the church believes they are aligning with God’s justice and grace, then how can it be that they are being corrected?

  13. I don’t think they were being coerced. That thought never entered my head. Did you read that definition I linked to? Or do you really think that capitulation necessarily means coercion?

  14. I think it’s a moot point. This is more of the same. The PC (USA) has been drifting away from an orthodox understanding of Christian doctrine for 100 years or more. They have been losing membership and congregations for almost that long. More recently the declines in membership and congregations has become precipitous. This is just the latest step along a path that has made their claim to be a Christian organization more than extremely questionable.

  15. I read an article about how gay/pro-gay activists have targeted the United Methodist Church and I believe also the PC USA. They targeted these denominations because of their organizational structures. If I recall correctly these churches having some kind of general assembly where they would vote on doctrine. Something about their organization made these particular denominations targets for the activists to hi-jack. Which is essentially what they did, their tactics have been below board so to speak, they were disruptive and would not follow basic rules (such as staging sit-ins and to prevent people voting against their position). I wish I could find the article, it was very interesting. There may be some truth that these churches have been coerced into changing positions.


    I do not think that one is it, but the one (above) might be. Although, I remember more to the story than what is in the article. Below are some stories I came across while searching. There does seem to be a clear history of activists targeting liberal mainline denominations as opposed to this being entirely a change from within. Not sure to what extent these disruptions and protests count as coercion.
    (The same group that has targeted the UMC and PC USA is now targeting the Southern Baptists)

  17. “Making them feel unwelcome among us in our churches is wrong.”
    You have done exactly that when you wrote

    “That does not, however, entail standing up and shouting, “No, don’t treat them that way: There’s nothing wrong with anything they’re doing!””

    Plus you violate Matth. 7:1 of course. Finally in this article you have promoted yourself to the function of Right Hand of God. That’s exactly the opposite of christian humility.

  18. Mnb,

    This is highly condemnatory and seriously lacking in knowledge. That’s not a very good combination, you know. If you’re going to be that judgmental you ought to at least know what you’re talking about. That’s one of the real principles of judgment the Bible wisely teaches. Matt. 7:1 isn’t the whole story, after all.

    You see, you’re trying to use biblical principles to judge me, but you don’t know the rich fullness of all that the Bible teaches on these things. The Bible is a three-dimensional book of wisdom, and you’re treating it as a one-dimensional supply of snippets.

    The Bible does not say, even in Matt. 7:1, that we should never assess what’s right or what’s wrong. That would actually be fairly stupid, wouldn’t it? I’ve written a bit more on that in a short section of this piece. Your distorted view of this verse comes from disregarding the context.

    I have hardly promoted myself to the Right Hand of God here. Look, Mnb, do you think the Bible tells us what’s right and what’s wrong so that we can ignore it all our lives long? To judge persons’ lives is in God’s hands, but still, throughout the New Testament and the Old, he gave us clear, strong instructions to call sin what it is.

    The church’s welcome has never been, “Come and join us because we’re all really okay people and you’re an okay person. ” It’s always been, “Come and join us because we’re all enjoying the grace of Jesus toward us and our sinfulness, and we’re seeking each other’s help in living more godly lives, and you can do that here with us.”

    It is not, however, a welcome that says, “Everything that has separated you from God is now pronounced holy.”

    Sin is deadly, and it separates us from God, the source of all life and love. Jesus died for us to reconcile us to God, to enable us to draw close to him, through the forgiveness of sin. That’s the welcome God sends.

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