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 14, 2009

Class notes from Week 1 (Sept. 13)

To give an example of the type of dialogue we’ve looking for in our eight-week course on “Human Sexuality and the Faith of Presbyterian Christians,” I read a short Minnesota Public Radio column by Dawn Mikkelson, a documentary-maker from the Twin Cities who made a film eight years ago about the story of a lesbian Lutheran pastor and the congregation who decided to call her despite a denominational ban. Mikkelson describes her own complicated emotions upon the ELCA’s recent decision to allow individual congregations to decide whether to call open-gay pastors or bless marriages for same-sex couples.

“Will it change the world?” Mikkelson asks. “Maybe not exponentially. But it will mean that untold numbers of adolescent kids who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or questioning will see that there is a place for them in this world and with God. That the foundation of their life and world view has not rejected them. That the church, sometimes the biggest weapon used against them and their view of themselves, says, ‘We love you and accept you.’”

I then drew attention to one of the online comments posted to the MPR site:

"At the same time, we should remember that God showed us what love is when He offered His Son Jesus to die — to forgive our sin. Does this not mean that He loves us for who we are, but doesn't accept us as we are? He judges sin and forgives it. And, as with the woman caught in adultery, He says, ‘Go and sin no more.’ How can a church take seriously God's anger toward what the Bible calls sin while at the same time letting sinners know that they are sinners? The article and the comments seem to indicate that God's love is only real if He doesn't decide something about us is sinful and His Church doesn't call us to change."

Both comments — while disagreeing theologically and practically — fit within the “Guidelines for People of Faith during Times of Disagreement” that Pastor Bob David suggested we share with the class before the discussion began. The roughly 25 people attending the class seemed to take the examples to heart, because after being divided into small groups, they came up with their own list of questions they’d like discussed over the course the class.

We’ll do our best to accommodate.

Biblical interpretation:

  • What does the Bible say about homosexuality?
  • Is it a sin to be homosexual?
  • Is it a sin to perform homosexual acts?
  • If it isn’t a sin, then where is the line when it comes to sexual behavior?
  • If it is a sin, how is the sin of homosexuality different (worse) than the sins of slander, gossip, adultery, etc?
  • Where do hermaphrodites fit into a biblical worldview?
  • How do we show acceptance and love for people if when we think they are sinning but they don’t think they are?

Psychological and other scientific studies:

  • Do we choose our sexuality?
  • When is a person’s sexuality set?
  • If homosexuality is set at birth, should that make it acceptable from a biblical perspective? From a societal perspective?

Denominational questions:

  • What is the difference between the marriage ceremony and a “sacrament” in the Presbyterian tradition?
  • Our denomination allows pastors to bless same-sex unions, but it doesn’t allow the word marriage to be used. How does that complicate the situation in states like Iowa where marriages between same-sex couples are recognized?
  • St. Andrew’s church board (Session) recently told a same-sex couple — who were both long-term members of the church — that they couldn’t use the church’s sanctuary for their wedding. Yet First Presbyterian then grants the couple’s request. How do two PCUSA churches in the same city come to such different interpretations of the denomination’s rulings and restrictions?
  • How is the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America faring as a denomination after voting to allow individual congregations to decide whether allow for same-sex marriages or to call a minister who is in a committed, same-sex relationship?

Congregational questions:

  • Who is allowed to use the sanctuary? Do we screen or condone the faith or purpose of all the groups who use our space?
  • How do the decisions on same-sex marriage at St. Andrew affect our ministry in the broader community? How much should we care if it does?
  • The Session was asked to decide whether to make the sanctuary available for the wedding of a same-sex couple. A majority said no, and others said they need time to explore the topic more. So, why aren’t more current session members sitting in on this class?

Cultural questions:

  • Why do same-sex couples want to marry in the first place? What’s the benefit to them?

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