Preached on: June 28, 2015
Preached by: The Rev. Dr. Augustus E. Succop, III
Scripture lesson: Mark 5: 21-43
Dear Friends and Members,
Earlier in 2015, your Session drafted and sent to you a letter about the vote to change the wording in the Book of Order regarding the definition of marriage. Instead of defining marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman, the new wording will now define marriage as a relationship between “two people.” That new wording will permit pastors to officiate at same-sex marriages, but only if theSession grants approval of the use of church property for that purpose. Accordingly per the Book of Order, the Session has the authority to decide how and when church property may be used.
At the level of the Presbyteries of our PC (USA) denomination, the new definition appears to be headed for passage at the 2016 General Assembly. The Charlotte Presbytery gave its approval by a vote of 146 to 103. In light of that vote and in light of the continued conversation of same-sex relationships within the culture and the church, the Session believes it is in order to communicate with you how we regard the authority of Scripture. At the heart of the change to the definition of marriage is an understanding of how one interprets Scripture. Certain questions beg to be asked and addressed, namely: What does it mean to regard Scripture as the unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ? What does it mean to receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the confessions of the church as authentic and reliable expositions of what Scripture leads us to believe and do? And, what does it mean to engage one’s ministry, both individually and collectively, in obedience to Jesus Christ, under the authority of Scripture?
For Christians, especially for Reformed Presbyterians, Scripture plays a significant role in how we come to hold obedience to God’s will and how we come to know God’s will for our lives and the mission and witness of the church. Although in certain years voices within the prevailing culture have advocated delegating Scripture as one of many sources of instruction and inspiration for the church, voices within the church have countered such advocacy by referencing how the church has for centuries regarded Scripture as unique and authoritative, that it speaks with an unparalleled voice, and that Scripture is found not surprisingly to be in contradistinction to the preferences and choices of the prevailing culture.
We believe Scripture is unique and authoritative for those who confess Christ as Lord. Jesus is the Son of God, having been crucified for the sin of humanity and then declared risen by the power and grace of God. When one wants to know Who God is and Who Christ is and Who Holy Spirit is, there is no other source to consult than Holy Scripture. Scripture is the church’s living witness to God’s covenant relationship with humanity.
None of us claim expertise in biblical interpretation, but we do claim a willingness to be led by Holy Spirit in our reading of Scripture. We believe as well that reliance upon proven scholarship can be a helpful guide in one’s own interpretation of Scripture. One thing we do know, Scripture never contradicts itself and Scripture is its best interpreter. Certainly, there are topics within Scripture that contain less clarity than out-right certainty, such as how Scripture depicts the topics of slavery and the leadership of women. Interpretation of slavery and the leadership of women could be construed contrary to the way the church has agreed they should be interpreted. However, it is clear that Scripture provides clarity when it speaks about marriage. Such clarity leads us to believe that for the church marriage is defined explicitly as a relationship between a man and a woman and that same-sex marriage is not an expression of human relationship that is pleasing to God. And here we want to emphasize for the church. For the church is an acknowledgment that the culture and the church have existed always in a tensive relationship. The ways of the church guided by Scripture and the ways of the culture guided by particular values, norms and experience have been distinctive since the birth of the church, and such distinctiveness is to be expected. Both the prevailing culture and the church have unique goals and declarations. Both use different means to achieve their respective goals. And, both do not necessarily seek to serve the goals, purposes or approval of the other.
Through the debate the church has engaged to find clarity for direction and teaching when it comes to marriage, one dynamic appears to be clear to us: there is emphasis on Scriptural reference for those who oppose same-sex marriage and there is more anecdotal reference for those who advocate for same-sex marriage. That observation does not surprise. Instead, it reminds us that differences within the culture inevitably spill into the life of the church. Unfortunately, such differences have not been resolved through Scriptural interpretation; instead, not a few of the faithful hold to their same-sex preference regardless of Scripture’s teaching, but they do so, we believe, in the belief that the unity of the church remains nonnegotiable. In other words, followers of Christ choose to be the church not in light of their differences but because of the greater confession that unity in Jesus Christ is paramount. What we confess together, what we share in Him, and whom we are as the body of Christ through our mission and witness is far more determinative than our differences, even when it comes to the unique authority of Scripture.
We want to emphasize what we said in a previous communication. The Session is in agreement as to the importance of unity within the church, the risen body of Christ. Jesus prays for that unity (John 17). The Session is in agreement that our unity allows for members and leaders to agree to disagree while maintaining our unity. We seek to make it known that we will always welcome all believers in our worship, mission and witness. However, obedience to Scripture does lead us to define marriage as a relationship between a man and woman. That belief of Scripture (II Timothy 3:16) means that we cannot allow church property to be used for the purpose of joining same sex couples in marriage.
As the Spirit continues to move among us, we will continue to communicate with the congregation through letters and “Community Conversations.” We want to provide leadership that draws upon the strength of our unity in Christ and obedience to Scripture. Furthermore, we are discerning the Lord’s call to lead so we may express enthusiastically the Lord’s invitation to those who have yet to make the good confession that Jesus Christ is Lord and Saviour.