One of the marvelous things about a General Assembly is the rich variety of things that happen around the edges of the legislative work. Presbyterian organizations of all stripes sponsor meetings, often over a hurried meal, that provide education and encouragement.
I’ve been thinking a lot about a couple of talks I’ve heard, by two men who have been on the faculty of the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, where I used to serve as Assistant Dean and Director of Admissions. Neither was at the seminary during my time on the staff, but I’ve been pleased to get to know them both, mainly through their scholarship.
Both find themselves on opposite sides of the difficult debate we Presbyterians are having on the subject of same-sex marriage.
Mark Achtemeier, a former professor at Dubuque, spoke to the luncheon of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, an organization that has long worked for full inclusion of gay and lesbian Presbyterians in the life and leadership of the church. Mark used to be an opponent of the ordination of gays and lesbians, but has changed his mind on that subject, and on the subject of same-sex marriage. He’s written a book, The Bible’s yes to Same-Sex Marriage, just published by Westminster John Knox Press.
As hundreds of listeners noshed on chicken salad, Mark told us a very personal story of how his mind has changed on this issue, because of both his biblical scholarship and his experience counseling people – including some ministers and seminarians – who were struggling with their sexuality. He became convinced that homosexuality is not a choice, but is simply the way God has created some people. This insight drove him back to the scriptures, where he discovered indications he’d never noticed before of a broader, more affirming view of the full variety of intimate relationships.
I’ve picked up his book, and am reading it, in the few odd moments I can catch between meetings. It’s a deeply honest and humble exploration of the biblical references he’s found so influential in his own unfolding theology.
The very next day, I attended the Presbyterian Historical Society luncheon, where the current Dean of Dubuque Seminary, Bradley Longfield, was the speaker. He offered a Power Point presentation profiling leading figures in Presbyterian history, a method of approaching history at which he has proven adept over the years.
In viewing Brad’s bullet lists, highlighting the contributions of each of these historical figures, I began to discern a common theme. Brad is vigilant about ways the larger culture influences the church. As he sketched each historical personage in turn, he was clearly raising concerns about those who advocated not only to listening to the culture, but allowing their views to be formed by it.
To him, this is not a good thing. The task of the church, in his view, is to declare – based on biblical principles – what the culture ought to be and do. When the culture evolves in ways that vary from historic church teachings, the church must work to call the culture back to a Godly way. Should some of these evangelical invitations prove unsuccessful, the church can only look on with disapproval.
For this General Assembly, of course, the most striking example of church-and-culture interchange is the debate about same-sex marriage.
Reflecting on this fraught debate, I’ve been wondering to what extent we in the church truly realize we are no longer in the position of controlling the culture’s values through our preaching and teaching. The days of “Christendom” – the establishment, official or unofficial, of Christianity (and particularly mainline Protestantism) as the lighthouse of American democracy – are over. While it was certainly true in past generations that mainline Protestantism formed the culture, we all know this is no longer the case.
Yet, even though the hordes of Eisenhower-era nuclear families no longer fill our pews, Christian values are still reflected in the predominant values of the culture, for the most part. A great many of those who have distanced themselves from the church honor at least the cultural memory of Christian faith. (How those values will continue to be transmitted to future generations is a whole other question.)
When ethical shifts occur in the culture, we can choose to view the church’s historic witness as something like a parent teaching a child to walk. It may be difficult for us to step back and let our child stumble, even fall, but that freedom is something both of us need to foster in order to fulfill our roles.
We look on that child of ours and see the family resemblance, even as he or she grows and ventures into places we never dreamed of exploring. Our task as parent is to continue to stand back, to offer the occasional word of sage advice, and to marvel at the person our child is becoming.
In this new stage of our relationship, we may even realize – to our surprise – that we are actually learning something from our offspring.
Mark Achtemeier has come to understand, through a long process of immersion in Bible study and evolution of his opinions, that this can be a good thing. Brad Longfield disagrees.
In my own convictions, I stand with Mark, for similar reasons. This is a new role for the church, with respect to the culture. It’s one of the hardest things in the world for a parent to stand back and let a child take those first, hesitant steps – and it is certainly no shame for a parent to do so. On the contrary, it is a mark of good parenting to step back in this way. It is by no means an abandonment of our responsibilities to nurture and guide; rather, it marks a new stage in the mutual relationship.
Could it be that God sometimes uses the culture to send a message to the church, just as Cyrus of Persia was the agent of God’s will in setting the captive Israelites on a new course?