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March 23, 2002

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Discernment, discord and G-6.0106b
by Craig E. Tenke

I'd like to thank Dr. Rosik for his thoughtful evaluation of my response to the questions he posed regarding ordination standards and human sexuality. I believe that efforts at dialog between the various subgroups comprising our denomination are particularly critical at this time. The fact that Dr. Rosik and I are both theological laymen may actually be an advantage - albeit a particularly Presbyterian one.

As he reads scripture, Dr. Rosik does not find it to be sufficient to focus attention on spiritual and interpersonal fidelity without also focusing on the sexual behavior of married heterosexual couples. He indicates that he has "significant concern that by relegating sexual behavior to a secondary consideration we run the risk of enabling significant eisegesis given current cultural trends." Dr. Rosik indicates that he emphasizes the authority of scripture when he reads the Bible. However, he infers that when I read scripture, I may rely more strongly on "loyal attachments" than does he. In this he is incorrect. I emphasize scriptural authority just as he does, even though in this case my discernment of God's will from it differs from his. It is only AFTER this discernment that I recognize (usually with a bit of self-righteous indignation, I must confess) that this persistent error (as I perceive it) in understanding God's will has blocked the access of individuals and families to Christ (i.e., my "loyalty attachments" are invoked after the fact, and address those who have been cast out by us through our own misunderstanding).

Regarding the other moral positions that Dr. Rosik enumerated, I suspect that he and I differ in the credibility that we give to Tradition ("relying on the expert opinion of others") in our understanding of these specific issues. However, I must confess that my own personal preferences support Tradition whenever possible. There may be a difference in the importance we give to specific external sources when reading the Bible. Such external knowledge doesn't replace scripture, but rather helps us to discern God's will from irrelevant background noise. In this regard, it is critical for us to understand that Traditional societies were notoriously homophobic (as is our own), so that the use of a euphemism for "homosexual sex" was (and is) the most degrading thing that could be said about a (heterosexual) man. Sexuality to the contrary, I know of no scriptural evidence that Christ commands us to degrade anyone, no matter which slurs were, are, or will be popular. Would anyone argue that Christ would not equally condemn these power-driven acts of domination and disrespect if they were practiced by a married heterosexual couple?

Christ's mandate regarding interpersonal relationships is both "culture free" and more stringent than a few sex and divorce standards. The Word of God is reliable for all times. However, a superficial reading of the words of scripture will distort its meaning if we fail to appreciate the cultural and informational context in which they were written. It's not always compliance with a cultural trend that leads us to challenge Traditional interpretations. Sometimes the challenge arises from an appreciation of Traditional errors that are not "in scripture," but rather in our humanness and our limitations. Our current appreciation of the spiritual equality of women and men is an example of a Traditional error that required correction. Regarding human sexuality, it is clear to me that Christ HAS clearly pointed the way, but we've completely missed the intention. Instead, we've been staring at His finger for millennia.

My original position on the ordination issue followed the old conservative truism, "If it's not broke, don't fix it." Before G-6.0106b was put on the books, the policy on homosexuality was a tenuous balance, with considerable room for improvement from either perspective. As I indicated in my first presbyweb letter (June 26, 2001), G-6.0106b changed all that. Many progressives felt abandoned and betrayed by it. Since then, some conservatives have become so enthralled by that one new clause that they have elevated it to a status equal to our Book of Confessions!

In my field, we use statistics to help us detect differences between groups of individuals. These measures are themselves subject to two distinct types of errors: 1) detecting a difference where there is none; and 2) failing to detect a difference where one exists. In science, the "conservative" approach is generally biased toward the latter, so that only the most reliable differences are reported. These standards may save a healthy child from the lethal side effects of a gratuitous food additive, as well as let a sick child die by denying him an effective new treatment.

The same dichotomy holds for theological decisions. The application of a set of standards may or may not be appropriate. If they are wrong, they may fail by being either too discriminating OR not sufficiently discriminating. Either way, a failure could lead to unwanted results.

Let us accept, just for a moment, that ANY of us may be wrong, even in something that seems obvious, good, and possibly even Traditional. To the best of our abilities, let us try to objectively accept the possibility that EITHER position may be a TRUE discernment of God's will, and that either position may be in error. What is the cost of INCORRECTLY keeping or removing G-6.0106b?

If G-6.0106b is wrong and it is kept:
1) Faithful Presbyterians who are called to ordained service will be denied.
2) Other good, faithful people will feel that we have pushed them away from Christ.
3) Our "message" to the world will be viewed as being judgment from us, rather than an invitation to God.
4) In effect, we will have modelled ourselves after the Pharisees in scripture: self-righteous, judging others more than ourselves, holding Traditional views above Christ.
5) Children of many nontraditional families will believe that we think that they are not as good as we are, and they will find themselves pressured (by us) into ANTI-Christian beliefs and lifestyles.
6) By giving only conditional support to an already oppressed and victimized minority, we will "allow" more hate crimes by our inaction.
7) In doing all of this, we will prove ourselves as harsh and inhospitable as the Sodomites before us.

These charges make us combatants against Christ in the world.

What is the cost of REMOVING G-6.0106b if it is right? I'm interested in Dr. Rosik's impressions, since he appears to be interested in maintaining a dialog. I've read many OTHER opinions about this on these pages, some of which are quite venomous. Yet most of what I read is fear. "Too much fear for people of faith," as a friend of mine (LM) observed.

Can Dr. Rosik conclude that he is genuinely discerning God's will, rather than a dark distortion of it viewed through the glass of a harsh culture. Likewise, can I conclude that I am, indeed, discerning God's will, rather than misinterpreting it through the force of today's culture? The "correct" answer can only come from faith, diligence, and continuous, prayerful questioning of OURSELVES, yet even this isn't enough. As right as I am and wrong as he is (or vice versa), the "correct" answer will come when it's time, not when we want it. The answer may not quite be what either of us envisions. We're just people.

Over the last few years, I've come to realize that I had failed to adequately understand the "other side." Some of the supporters of G-6.0106b confuse homosexuality with pedophila or other behaviors that victimize innocent people, but others do not. Some are ignorant of the biological and psychiatric literature on the subject, while others are quite well versed. Some have a degree of inflexibility that is counter to the discernment of God's will, yet others do not. Some are fearful and uncompassionate regarding those who differ from themselves, yet others are quite compassionate. Some make decisions based only on the comfort of Traditions in their own lives, while others do not. In short, some of my "opponents" are at least as well informed as I, have spent as much time in study, prayer and reflection as I have, are as compassionate as I am, and share the same values as I do.

I know of no reason to abandon my faith, my morals, or my discernment of God's will. However, I am now tempted to attribute SOME of our differences TO our common faith, working through our different lives, abilities and life experiences. I'm NOT proposing that the alternatives are equivalent. Yet God's truth may rely on BOTH perspectives at this time, in ways that we're too small (and focused) to grasp. I'd like to suggest this as a particularly Presbyterian understanding of the path that we must follow, as well as the unity that we must affirm.

Craig E. Tenke, Ph. D., is an elder of Moriches Presbyterian Church, Center Moriches, NY, and a neuroscientist at NYS Psychiatric Institute, Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center, in New York City.
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