'Semper Reformanda' and the PCUSA | Sojourners

'Semper Reformanda' and the PCUSA

Progress concept, Annette Shaff / Shutterstock.com
Progress concept, Annette Shaff / Shutterstock.com

The news of the PCUSA adopting the Marriage Amendment came to me over Twitter. Flowing down my feed were tweet after tweet of individuals applauding the latest Christian move toward inclusion (disclaimer: my feed is an echo chamber). Proud Presbyterians puffed up their chests and, hilariously, celebrated the christening of the new “Presbyqueerians” and “Lesbyterians,” and I was overwhelmed. Our church is in perpetual rehab, always growing into the person she is supposed to be — and I am so proud of her latest progress.

The Marriage Amendment, which affirmed the marriage of Christian same-sex couples, was not much of a surprise, given the progressive spirit of the PCUSA — but even still. It was only a week ago that the largest evangelical church in San Francisco also reformed its teaching on marriage. Three other evangelical megachurches preceded them in the last six months. And if rumors are true, more megas are coming out soon. Change is coursing through the air and knocking me over happy.

Immediately following the vote, some Southern Baptist conservatives also took to Twitter to express their harsh disapproval. Besides declaring that the PCUSA is now officially, by their definition, NOT Christian, they spoiled the often misidentified PCA (Presbyterian Church of America) with lots of love and praise for sticking to their arithmetic of “1 Man + 1 Woman = Marriage.”

I read an article by one of those enraged. He highlighted the key differences between the PCA and the PCUSA. The media had been mixing up the two, so he wrote it mostly to distinguish which one was still Christian, taking some extra digs at trending membership numbers and highlighting all the hot-button disagreements between the two. As I read it, I had to sigh a little, as I couldn’t help but hear the echoes of history reverberating beneath that piece, especially given the Presbyterian past.

A century and a half ago, in 1861, the Presbyterian Church experienced a similar deep shift in policy. A schism happened over the institution of slavery. Southern Presbyterians were generally against abolition and Northern Presbyterians were adamantly for abolition. The Southerners claimed the Bible backed them up. They could pile up proof texts, citing several samples of scriptural evidence indicating God’s allowance of slavery, and they even crafted elaborate exegetical arguments that not only painted slavery as permissible, but divinely encouraged. This reinforced a racist “Christian” worldview that gave many conflicted slave owners the ability to sleep soundly at night.

In contrast with the stacks of scriptural support the conservative Presbyterians presented, the progressive was almost biblically bankrupt. The Bible, taken literally, is not so friendly toward abolition. So instead of relying on the letter of the law, they had to uncover a broad ethos of justice and equality in the grand narrative of the Bible. They found that in Jesus, the bull in the fundamentalist’s china shop. Many pointed to the gospel of Matthew where a Pharisee attempts to trap Jesus with a question. The man had been had carefully selected by the Pharisees to fool Jesus, as he was their greatest “expert” on the law. If there was anyone that could go toe to toe with this charismatic rabbi, it was him.

So the Pharisee says to him: Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the law?

Jesus replies:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind. Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.

And in the end, with Jesus, with the Presbyterians, Love indeed won.

Just like it did later with women’s rights. And civil rights for people of color. And interracial couples wanting to marry. Just like it did on the cross. Just like it always, always does.

I’m not one for the phrase “right side of history,” but I do think history is important for us to study and learn so that we might remember our own failures and right the ship. We are like Hansel and Gretel picking up these gumdrops placed by our past selves. These moments remind us that we were here before. We can find our way back home again.

It’s the nature of church. It’s about that old Karl Barth call to “semper reformanda,” to always reform. The church’s track record, while often slow-moving, is also one that has allowed for these moments of self-critical consideration when things feel wrong. When our gut tells us that things aren’t the way they ought to be. Then we pray. Then we fast. Then we hope for God to grace us with just one more gumdrop.

Reformation has never happened without an opposition that claimed the end was nigh and that God was storming up against us. (Never forget John Piper claiming a tornado in the Twin Cities was a result of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s acceptance of LGBTQ people.) People hold convictions out of sincere belief, and I respect people that have cultivated bold convictions out of prayer and belief they are right. The glass is dim. People have their parts to play. The waters will one day still.

Mark Twain once said, “History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” And the meters seem to be matching once again. The church, the whole church, is on the cusp of change. You can see it happening. Once again, she is unbinding herself from the rule of exclusion. Once again, she is sanding out a few more chairs for the table. Once again, she is growing into the bride she was always meant to be. Once again, she is breathing air into the dream of shalom, of paradise, hope.

Ben Moberg is a brother to four siblings, the youngest son, the very best uncle, a world traveler, and a painfully slow writer. He writes at Registered Runaway — his personal blog, and at Deeper Story — an online collaborative of storytellers. You can keep up with his work by following him on Facebook and Twitter.

Image: Progress concept,  / Shutterstock.com