Last year, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA appointed a Special Committee to Study Issues of Civil Union and Christian Marriage. The committee was given two years to study how the theology and practice of marriage have developed in the Reformed tradition and the place of covenanted same-gender partnerships in the Christian community.

This adult education course tries to do something similar over an eight-week period for St. Andrew Presbyterian in Iowa City. Throughout this discussion, we hope to hear from class participants’ personal experiences and questions concerning sexuality and the Presbyterian faith.

For questions or comments, contact Jeff Charis-Carlson at

Monday, September 21, 2009

Class Notes for Week 2

Starting as close to 9:45 a.m. as possible, the class began with a very quick summary of the list of goals we hope to accomplish in the next few weeks and the values we hope to convey as we discuss such a divisive issue.

All attention then turned toward the first third of the documentary, “For the Bible Tells Me So.”

We were introduced to five families — the Robinsons, the Poteats, the Reitans, the Gephardts and the Wallners — who share several commonalities and multiple differences.

All the families are well-rooted in various Christian traditions — though predominately Protestant. And all the parents describe in detail their reaction when one of their teenage or adult children came out as either gay or lesbian — as well as their ongoing experiences coming to terms with what having a gay or lesbian child means to their family and their faith.

Three of the families, in fact, are closely connected with clergy. The Poteats are ministers in a predominately African-American church (their daughter Tonia came out to them while attending college), the Reitans have a number of Lutheran pastors in their extended family (their son Jake, who describes the family as being something out of a Garrison Keillor story, came out while still in high school) and the Robinsons are the parents of Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church, who came out to the Robinsons when he and his wife decided to end their marriage. The back story for the Gephardts and Wallners hasn’t been fully told yet.

Between the details of how parents reacted to the news, the documentary presents the views of a number of theologians and pastors from different Christian and Jewish denominations who discussed the passages about homosexuality in Genesis (the sin of Onan) and Leviticus (the holiness code). Specifically, the discussion focused on the word “abomination,” in the Hebrew, referring to an act that is ritually unclean rather than an act that is inherently immoral. As one of the respondents explains, the holiness code says that it is an abomination to eat shrimp. That doesn’t mean that eating shrimp was inherently immoral, but it does mean it was ritually unclean.

The discussion in the film also turned to “procreation” as the purpose of marriage. As Tonia Poteat’s mother explains, “Adam and Steve and Eve and Jane can’t procreate.” The respondents explained that because the Israelites were building a nation, the act of procreation was of utmost importance to them. And homosexual behavior might have been singled out in the holiness codes in part because it did not help grow the nation.

The first section ended with Gene Robinson explaining the individual and couple therapies that he and his wife underwent until he finally owned up to what he was calling “the gay part of myself.” Robinson and his wife decided to have a ceremony in which they released each other from their vows, both pledging to continue to be good parents for their two daughters.

After the film, we split into groups of four or five people, introduced ourselves, and began sharing reactions to the film and to the other biblical passages assigned for class.

Some participants noted how surprised they were that there were so few passages in the bible that discussed homosexuality explicitly. Others were surprised at how widely the biblical translations ranged as to whether a passage explicitly singled out homosexuality or not.

Others noted how well chosen the families were in the documentary — all grounded in faith traditions, coming different generations, different parts of the country, different races and even different birth orders for the children who came out. (I reminded the class that they should pay attention to the rhetoric in which film’s message is being conveyed as much as to the message itself. Because the film tugs so well at the heart strings, its message needs to be analyzed all the more closely.)

Others challenged the films reading of the Holiness Codes — and especially the clip from the “West Wing” included in which the fictional president takes on a radio commentator by equating the biblical passages against homosexuality with passages allowing for a daughter to be sold into slavery and requiring the death of anyone who works on the Sabbath. The vast majority of the prohibited sexual relations listed in Leviticus — various definitions of incest and bestiality — continue to be prohibited (even abominable in the current sense of the words). While the film noted the elements of holiness code we no longer follow, it didn’t point out the elements that we do continue to follow.

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