A Visit to Southminster Presbyterian Church in Dayton, Ohio

By Chip Hardwick

(The Rev. Dr. Charles B. (Chip) Hardwick, of Bloomington, Illinois, was named Director of Theology, Worship and Education for the General Assembly Mission Council (GAMC) in 2011.)

Yesterday I had the chance to preach and teach at Southminster Presbyterian Church in my hometown of Dayton, OH.  I was glad to spend some time with family between events at the church.  I preached about stewardship on Thank Offering Sunday, which supports ministry partners of the national Presbyterian Women organization.

What I want to write about today, though, is the presentation I gave in the afternoon to a group who have been spending six weeks covering issues of sexual integrity, in particular in respect to the LGBT community.  They invited me to talk about gay marriage and ordination in the Presbyterian Church (USA).  It gave me a chance to revisit an important paper that two of my colleagues from the Office of Theology and Worship (Charles Wiley and Barry Ensign-George) wrote after the denomination changed its standards on marriage from “a man and a woman” to “a couple, traditionally a man and a woman.”

Click here to read this paper, called “Our Challenging Way.”

People often think about the PC(USA) as an affirming denomination in terms of LBGT issues.  In actuality, it is more complicated than that.  What Charles and Barry talk about in the paper, and what we in the class discussed, is that as a denomination we have chosen to take out any condemnation of same gender relationships in our Book of Order and its authoritative interpretations, but we have not replaced them with affirmative statements.

That means that within the Presbyterian Church, it is a completely faithful position to believe that God calls same gender sexual relationships sinful.  It is also a completely faithful position to believe that God blesses these relationships.  Both are equally legitimate, since both the permission to ordain sexually active LGBT teaching and ruling elders, and to perform a same gender marriage, give space for local congregations and presbyteries to refrain from doing so.

As I taught this yesterday, heads in the classroom nodded as they realized that this position has a sense of humility within it.  Rather than claiming that all Presbyterians do or must agree on issues of sexual integrity, we recognize that not all of us agree.  And that’s okay.  Some churches choose traditional worship and others choose contemporary, and some select vibrant children’s ministries while others reach out to seniors, and some prefer local mission while others prefer international.  We grant room to other congregations to make decisions different from ours on these matters.

Our polity now says that we grant room for other congregations and presbyteries to make decisions different with respect to sexual integrity.  As Charles and Barry point out, this is challenging.  It is challenging to resist the drive toward conformity.  But it recognizes that committed Christians can come to different perspectives on the same issue.  It recognizes that spending time with Christians who do not agree with us sharpens our faith and is a witness to the world.  And it recognizes that we can choose the values of grace and unity over the value of doctrinal precision.