Remarks to Essex-Kent Presbytery on the Remits

Moderator, in my brief time before the court, I will provide several reasons to vote against these remits. I will demonstrate that they will not bring peace to our divided denomination. They will not advance the Kingdom. And they are not in God’s will.

I will approach this from three points of view: theological, practical, and legal.

Theology: When we consider a proposal to change the doctrine and practice of the church, we need to consider the motivation. Every decision we make in life needs to be filtered through the Holy Spirit. We are invited to ask, “Are we acting in God’s will? Is this decision or proposal mostly about God, or is it mostly about us?” I am going to suggest that Remits “B” and “C” are more concerned about people.

It’s been stated in this court and in other places that this is a fight for justice, that it’s about people and their struggles. I don’t disagree that there is injustice in this world. Those who are same-sex attracted or who wrestle with gender identity have experienced hate and discrimination in the church. We, as a denomination and many of us as individuals, have apologized and repented.

But what is being presented here is not about justice on a human level. This is an attempt to rewrite or change God’s will to accommodate ourselves.

Let’s consider the nature of God. He is revealed to us as divine, holy, and pure. His perfection is in contrast to the human condition. We exist on a planet that has been given over to the enemy. But we have a choice. We can choose to submit to Christ – the one whose death and resurrection paves the way to reconciliation – or we can choose to live according to the ways of the world. When we choose Christ, we agree to follow His commands to love God and one another, pick up our own crosses, deny ourselves and follow Him. These remits might pass the love test – although I’d argue that we are confusing love with sex – but they fail against the command to deny ourselves and follow Christ. These remits are not consistent with what the Scripture teaches us. All of Scripture points to Christ and His commands to submit to a holy and perfect God.

So against that truth, we can conclude the following:

  • The remits are unbiblical. The words “covenant relationship between two adult persons” cannot be supported with biblical evidence.
  • Any theological justification of same-gender sex is nonexistent or weak at best.
  • The remits would set a dangerous precedent. There would be little reason to stop the same revisionist theology from changing other essential doctrine.
  • The statement in Remit “B” that “faithful, Holy Spirit filled, Christ centred, God honouring people can understand marriage as” two different things suggests that the Spirit of Christ is divided. Scripture clearly teaches that Christ is not divided.

Despite all that, I still love my gay sisters and brothers, as well as those who don’t agree with my theological outlook. All are welcome in my congregation. But I am compelled by the Holy Spirit to speak the truth in love.

Someone might say to me, “it’s easy for you to say all this – you’re not attracted to your own gender.” Or they may also point out that “you don’t know what it’s like to have a close family member who is same-sex attracted, otherwise you’d be singing a different tune.”

That may be true. But it’s helpful to know that I used to have no issue with the LGB lifestyle. I used to think, “What’s the harm if they’re adults and no one’s getting hurt?” But the Holy Spirit spoke to me very clearly and opened my eyes to the fact that the world and many parts of the church are not focused on our holy God. We make compromises in order to have peace with one another. That’s not what Jesus brought to the world. He called us to be counter-cultural. Christ denied Himself and He calls us to do the same.

Despite all that, there is a part of me that still wants to march in the pride parade, hang the rainbow flag, and join two people of the same gender in marriage, just so we can all get along. But the holy hand of God shakes His head and tells me “No.”

Practicality: Let’s pretend for a moment that I am in favour of same-sex marriage and that I want to create room for diversity and show the world that we can be as one. It’s been suggested by some that our disagreement can be compared to a marriage, in which two different people united in love still need to carve out room for each other. Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as that.

To begin with, two parallel definitions of marriage is faulty logic. Parallel definitions may be acceptable when you’re dealing with two different uses of the same word. For example, a “date” is a word for an activity as well as an item of food. These are parallel definitions and both are true because “date” has two completely different uses and the meanings match the use. But marriage has a singular use – it’s about two people united before God as the foundation of the family unit – so it cannot have two meanings.

In itself, the use of the word “parallel” doesn’t make sense. It’s a mockery of an otherwise useful literary technique. It’s fine to state that “my sister likes to hunt and work with tools. She also likes to read.” Both are true and are not mutually exclusive. But it makes no sense to say “Marriage is between a man and a woman. Marriage is also between two adult persons.” Which is it?

Many on the progressive side say these remits will demonstrate to the world that we truly love one another. While there may be some who see this as accommodating and open minded – which are cornerstones in our diverse and pluralistic world – we forget that the world looks to the church for answers. All I hear these days is that millennials, who were raised and bathed in a sea of relativism, are looking for truth. They turn to the church, and rather than a solid answer, they get multiple choice.

The remits are a textbook public relations non-answer: they’re neither black nor white, just an evasive, catch-all that reminds me of the answer that the chief priests and the scribes gave when Jesus asked them if John’s baptism was from heaven or from man: “ ‘If we say it was from heaven, he will ask why we didn’t believe John. But if we say it was merely human, the people will stone us because they are convinced John was a prophet.’ So they finally replied that they didn’t know.” (Luke 20:5-7 NLT) And Jesus walked away from them.

I would prefer that the church took a stand either way. Do we remain in orthodoxy, or do we move formally into liberalism? One or the other.

Legality: Last week, The Presbyterian Church in Canada received a gift in the form of two opinions from two top firms, Kuhn Legal Counsel and Miller Thomson. Both have expertise representing faith and human rights organizations, are widely published, and between them have made more than two dozen appeals before the Supreme Court of Canada. They were retained by David Jennings – himself a lawyer who happens to be a representative elder in the Presbytery of Westminster and a member of the national church’s Assembly Council. He asked these firms to determine the legal implications if the remits are adopted.

Both opinions find numerous legal problems. They concluded that the remits may expose the PCC to liability for discrimination, and they found that the intended protection for ministers and congregations who are opposed to same-sex marriage is weak. Should the remits pass, they would expose the PCC to legal risks.

Specifically, the conclusion by Kuhn states:

2. … As interpreted by the Clerks of Assembly, the Remits would not permit ministers to believe in the sinfulness of same-sex marriage in all circumstances. The adoption of the Remits will make it more difficult for PCC ministers to establish a sincerely held religious belief opposing the morality of same-sex marriages, particularly if they are compelled by the PCC to accept ordination of ministers and ruling elders who are in such relationships.

3. The adoption of Remit B may expose the PCC to liability for discrimination, even if individual ministers are permitted to refuse to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies. Further, individual ministers could themselves be potentially liable if they fail to take adequate steps to accommodate such a ceremony request, even if they are not personally required to perform such a ceremony.

4. The adoption of Remit B would also undermine the ability of individual congregations to refuse to allow church property to be used for same-sex wedding ceremonies and celebrations.

5. Additionally, the adoption of Remit B would undermine the ability of congregations and Presbyteries to refuse to employ ministers who are in same-sex marriages or who wish to perform same-sex wedding ceremonies.

6. It will be difficult for the PCC to change its current uniform theological teaching on same-sex marriage, as expressed in Living Faith, and at the same time grant “liberty of conscience and action” for ministers and congregations.

Miller Thomson agrees with Kuhn’s opinion: “Recent decisions of courts in Canada expose the PCC to legal risks should the Remits be passed.”

Clearly, these remits will not put this issue to rest and in fact may create more problems.

Moderator, if the remits fail when put to theological, practical, and legal tests, how can they be good for the church? They would perpetuate a debate that has raged for far too long, caused far too much damage to the church and its congregations. They will take our attention away from what’s most important – which is to go into the world, to baptize and teach about a holy and righteous God – whose Kingdom is much different from this world. They will impede the ability of the Holy Spirit to work through us to make disciples of all nations.

For these reasons, moderator, I am voting no to both remits “B” and “C” and would urge this court to do the same.

Final remarks

Moderator, it’s been pointed out that the redefinition of sexuality and marriage is an attempt to get it right – that we’ve been misinterpreting Scripture and misunderstanding our holy God for thousands of years. But same-sex marriage is not the essential issue. Rather, it’s the attempt to change the nature of God to suit our natural desires. And let’s be clear, we all live in sin every waking moment. As painful as it might be, we can’t turn from God’s holy will.

We can still love one another, we can tolerate one another even if we don’t agree. But we cannot be divided in our theology.

These remits would do nothing to help the church take the Gospel into the world in an effective way and in fact would do more harm than good. In a peer-reviewed paper, a secular university recently found in a study of Ontario mainline denominations that congregations whose people and ministers hold onto traditional, orthodox Christian theology and practice are growing – the numbers back it up – and that liberal interpretation of Scripture and practice of ministry are a driver of decline. [See Theology Matters, Haskell et al. I can provide a copy.]

These remits would formally adopt liberal theology and practice, and freedom of conscience for those who adhere to orthodoxy would be weak at best. The road to decline would grow steeper.

The Anglican Church of Canada did some number crunching, and in a report released earlier this month, predicted that if the decline for them continues, the denomination will be extinct by 2040. Same with the United Church. Both are predominantly liberal. Both formally recognize same-sex marriage and clergy. Is this what we want?

But there is hope. Buried in that Anglican report was the fact that the only places experiencing growth are in the Arctic, whose congregations and ministers are predominantly evangelical. They are the ones who voted “no” to same-sex marriage earlier this year. Similarly, in the United Church, there are healthy and growing congregations. But rather than toe the liberal line, they are evangelical and conservative. They proclaim a holy God who is calling to live holy lives. It’s not the story that the United Church leadership wants told.

The only hope for the church, whoever the denomination, is to adhere to orthodoxy.

Although statistics can be powerful, I’m going to end with words. I’m going to quote a recently-retired minister, who summed up the state of the Presbyterian Church in a way I can’t.

He writes: “I have been retired for five years now, and it seems that the human sexuality and related issues have been on the front burner of the Assembly as well as the denomination for well over half my ordained ministry. I was talking to a minister in his mid-50s, and he was lamenting it had been the major controversial issue for pretty much all the Assemblies and for the denomination for most of his ordained ministry. He was saying that he was just sick and tired of it all. This is very sad. In reflection on the underlying major issue, of which the remits are just a symptom, it would not be an overstatement to say that for all my 37 years of ministry in the church, the authority of Scripture has been the dividing and defining line in the PCC. … How long can a person go on trying to do the Word of God when the church can’t even agree on what the Word of God is let alone what it’s for? It seems to me that as leaders in the church we stand to do tremendous damage to individual Christian’s lives and ministries as we battle it out in the church courts for the sake of so called ‘unity’ when we can’t even agree if the rule of faith is the Word of God or the traditions of the church.”

Moderator, as the writer states, we have spent an entire generation debating an issue that will never be resolved. For reasons that I have already stated clearly, the Remits will not put this matter to rest. In fact, every sign points to greater division, more confusion, and a legal challenge that no one needs.

So for the good of the church – and by that I mean the Body of the Christ who lives in the hearts of believers everywhere – and the advance of the Kingdom, these Remits must be defeated and replaced with something better. If it means that we go our separate ways, at least it will allow us the freedom from conflict, which always gets into the way of ministry.

Note: The Presbytery of Essex-Kent will vote on the remits at its Feb. 18, 2020, meeting.