I want to write you today about some things I believe to be true. I do not write as one speaking for the entire church body or the even the entirety of our church’s leadership, but speaking purely for myself and speaking as your pastor. I think it would be helpful at this point for me to communicate with clarity where I personally stand on some of the issues taken up recently by our denomination and to share with you how I understand those convictions to impact my ministry with you and our shared ministry together.
After I share these things with you, I want to share with you one action item that the session has taken regarding same-sex marriage.
I believe there is room for disagreement in the church on non-essential matters. I see lots of great examples of this in the New Testament community; a community passionately committed to unity in Christ and, at the same time, committed to loving and serving one another in humility, even where there are differing convictions of what should rightfully be the faithful practice of Christian discipleship. The community of Christ from its very beginning has had to work to live together in unity because there were so often differing conclusions around non-essential matters of faith and theology.
I believe the essential matters where there must be unity in the church are:
- Jesus is Lord. The earliest followers of Jesus Christ expressed their faith in this simple statement. The defining statement of the church is an acknowledgement that Jesus Christ is himself fully God and fully human.
- We are saved by grace alone. Our salvation is due, from first to last, to the work of God and not to our work, nor our works.
- We are saved through faith alone. God’s gracious work of salvation is received through faith in Jesus Christ.
- We are saved by Christ alone. Jesus Christ is utterly and absolutely unique. We are saved through the merits of Christ alone and we come to God through Christ alone.
- Scripture alone is the rule for life and faith in the church and it is God’s written word to us.
- The Priesthood of all Believers. Every follower of Jesus Christ is called to ministry. The church exists for the world and for God’s glory, and the responsibility to be salt and light to the world is shared by every believer.
There are oceans of theological literature explaining and expanding upon each of these statements, but in their most unqualified form, these are the things that I would argue constitute the essential matters where the church ought to find its unity.
I believe in a traditional understanding of marriage as intended by God for one man and one woman. I have arrived at this position because of my understanding of Jesus, my interpretation of Scripture, and my reluctance to overthrow centuries of Christian tradition without a strong biblical case. I continue to wrestle with this position and to listen to others who are moving strongly in a different direction. I do not believe that this is a major biblical issue, nor an essential church doctrine.
I do not plan to perform same-sex marriage. I am in favor of justice in all areas of life. I support civil rights for all members of our society, including the members of the LBGTQ community. However, given my understanding of the biblical passages about marriage, my interpretation of Scripture and pastoral honesty will not allow me to officiate a same-sex service.
I am committed to remaining in fellowship with those who disagree with me on the topic of same sex marriage. There are many people, whom I love and respect, whose piety I am impressed by, whose lives bear witness to Jesus Christ, who are united with me in conviction to every essential matter of Christian faith, and who disagree with me on this issue. I do not believe our disagreement on this topic prevents me from being their colleague, brother in Christ, pastor, or family member. I love them. And I know they love me. I am committed to listening to their convictions, to sharing my own, and to partnering with them in mission and ministry.
I believe I might be wrong. I hold these beliefs now and am contented with them. This is where my study of scripture, the council of my brothers and sisters in the church and my convictions have led me. However, it is my deep conviction that I can be wrong. This has been proven true to me through lived experience. I would welcome any conversation or disagreement with me on any of the things I have written above, provided that you are willing to admit that you might be wrong.
I believe the church should strongly reject conforming to modern culture when it comes to being polarized and divided on this (and other) issues. I am committed to continuing, in unity, to disagree and wrestle together. It has historically taken the church decades to come to an understanding around difficult theological issues and I am willing to sit with the tension. As our society as a whole is becoming more polarized, Jesus expects something different from us. Christ prays for us that we would be one. The Apostle Paul implores the church over and over in his letters to them (and to us) to live in unity and in peace. Christ tells us that our love for one another will be THE MARKER by which the world will know that we are Christ’s followers. I believe that we simply must refuse to model our actions and life together on the pattern of disagreement we are surrounded by in today’s culture.
I believe our congregation needs a clear policy on the sorts of weddings we will host and perform. While there is room, in my opinion, for disagreement on this topic, I believe the peace, unity and purity of the church will be best served by a clear articulation of the official position and practice of our congregation. At the end of the day, while there is a diversity of opinion on this topic, our congregation needs to express what our policies will be.
Accordingly, the session has been studying the topic of marriage for a number of months ahead of the meeting last month of the PC(USA) General Assembly in anticipation of the need for some action on the topic. After much prayer, debate, study, disagreement, and mutual forbearance, the session has voted to adopt the following statement regarding marriage:
We believe Scripture teaches that sexual holiness is expressed through faithfulness within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman as established at creation by God or through embracing a celibate life as established in the new covenant by Jesus, who experienced human desires but without sin. Therefore we teach Christians to submit their sexual desires (whether hetero- or homosexual) to God and pursue holiness and wholeness as defined by Scripture and demonstrated by Jesus and the apostles. Our pastors will perform Christian weddings which marry a man and a woman.
I know that for some in our congregation this will be welcome news and for others, this is concerning or even painful news. Wherever you are with regard to this statement, I can almost assure you that your position was present in the room as the session studied, deliberated and debated. While the session’s studies and conversations these past months did not lead us to a position of unanimity on the topic, our process did lead us to a place of unity on the topic of marriage. I am proud of the work the session has done these past months, and I pray our congregation as a whole will demonstrate the same concern for the Kingdom of God, the mission of the congregation and the unity we share in Jesus Christ as the session has in its work.
Lastly, I believe our congregation ought to stay in the PC(USA). While I sometimes disagree with actions and decisions of the PC(USA), I can find nothing in the stated beliefs that would be large enough to break covenant. The Bible speaks often and strongly about maintaining the unity of the body. In my opinion, the Presbytery of Chicago is and has been deeply supportive of the particular ministry of this particular congregation, and I believe remaining in the denomination is the action most obedient to the teachings of scripture, healthiest for our ministry and fruitful for our community. I know there are those in our congregation who disagree with me on this topic. I hope, pray and expect that we will continue to grow together in the midst of our disagreement.
I hope this letter has been clarifying. It has been one of the great honors and joys of my life to serve as the pastor of this congregation for the past 2½ years, and I am looking forward to many great years of shared ministry ahead.
Grateful as always to be following Jesus Christ alongside you,