From churches in California and Alabama to the largest Presbyterian denomination in America, gay marriage continues to prompt concern in the larger evangelical community.
City Church in San Francisco has drawn criticism from evangelicals for lifting its requirement that members with same-sex attraction not engage in homosexual behavior. The church has about 1,000 attendees at two locations and is part of the Reformed Church in America. Meanwhile, Weatherly Heights Baptist Church in Huntsville, Ala., has been disfellowshipped from its local Baptist association after its pastor and an unpaid minister to the community expressed their support for same-sex marriage and the volunteer minister performed at least one same-sex wedding.
Both developments occurred amid a growing push for gay marriage among Christian churches and denominations, with the Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) approving an amendment to its constitution the same week that affirmed same-sex marriage. The amendment changed the PCUSA’s definition of marriage from “a man and a woman” to “two people, traditionally a man and a woman.”
The PCUSA General Assembly approved the amendment in June but approval by a majority of regional presbyteries was required for the change to take effect. The Presbytery of the Palisades in New Jersey cast the decisive vote of approval March 17.
A spokesman for the Institute on Religion & Democracy (IRD), an organization that that seeks to foster renewal in mainline denominations, told Baptist Press the PCUSA’s action will exacerbate tensions among Presbyterians.
“The decision of the PCUSA to redefine marriage as between any two persons will not ease conflict or put this matter to rest for the denomination,” IRD communications director Jeff Walton said in written comments. “Departures from the PCUSA – well underway for over two years – will only increase. The fight over same-sex marriage is symptomatic of deeper issues dividing Presbyterians, chiefly centered upon the authority of holy scripture.”
In San Francisco, City Church announced that nine months of discussion among the congregation’s elders preceded the change in policy regarding homosexual behavior.
Jeff Iorg, president of the Bay Area’s Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary, said City Church has “invented a new hermeneutic to support their experience-driven conclusions that several thousand years of biblical interpretation has been wrong.”
“The decision by City Church is not really about sexuality; it’s about biblical authority,” Iorg wrote. “The crux of the matter is this: Does the Bible define morality or does our experience define morality? The answer to that question has far more significant implications than affirming any form of sexual behavior. The gospel itself is at stake. If the Bible is wrong on defining sinful behavior, then why should we assume it’s correct when it also prescribes the solution?”
City Church pastor Fred Harrell Sr. wrote in a March 17 letter posted on the church’s website, “We will no longer discriminate based on sexual orientation and demand lifelong celibacy as a precondition for joining. For all members, regardless of sexual orientation, we will continue to expect chastity in singleness until marriage.”
Harrell noted that two members of the elder board had resigned, but he did not specify a reason for the resignations.
City Church’s former practice of “demanding life-long ‘celibacy’“ of members with same-sex attraction “was causing obvious harm and has not led to human flourishing,” Harrell wrote. Recent disagreements among scholars over whether scripture permits same-sex behavior should “counsel humility with how we each hold our views.” Harrell recommended that church members read former Vineyard pastor Ken Wilson’s book on homosexuality A Letter to My Congregation.
But Robert Gagnon, a New Testament professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, said Wilson’s book presents an unbiblical view of same-sex sexual behavior. Gagnon noted that the apostle Paul included homosexual behavior among “behaviors that Christians must now either give up or face the loss of eternal life.”
“Wilson contends wrongly that the biblical indictment of homosexual practice is limited to exploitative relationships with adolescents, slaves, and temple prostitutes, as though these were the only forms of homosexual practice known to persons of the ancient Near East and the Greco-Roman world,” Gagnon wrote in the journal First Things. “In fact, adult-committed relationships in the ancient world were widely known, with early Christians and rabbis forbidding even adult-consensual marriages between persons of the same sex as abhorrent acts.”
In Alabama, the Madison Baptist Association’s executive board voted 74-5 on March 16 to withdraw fellowship from Weatherly Heights, The Huntsville Times reported.
Associational leaders met with representatives of the congregation Feb. 17 to discuss Weatherly Heights’ position on same-sex marriage after news broke of the pastor and volunteer minister’s activities and opinions. Director of missions Charlie Howell said at the time it was “evident that there would be no agreement on this issue concerning same-sex marriage, and that the association’s constitution and bylaws, with relation to this issue, would not be adhered to.”
Weatherly Heights’ exclusion from the association marked “a sad evening for Southern Baptists and the Madison Association Baptists,” Howell said in a statement obtained by The Times. “Our association has lost one of its sister churches. But our executive board … has deemed it necessary that we remain true to the biblical definition of marriage in belief and practice. The culture in which we live may change, but we must stand firm upon the Word of God.”
Weatherly Heights pastor David Freeman said the association’s action “will not further the cause of Baptists.”
“Weatherly is a Baptist church,” Freeman told the executive board, according to copy of his remarks released to The Times. “We always will be. Removing us from the Madison Baptist Association will not further the cause of Baptists nor the cause of Christ. My fear is that it will make us look petty and unloving. Our tent is large enough to include you. Our hope is that you will decide that your tent is large enough to include us.”
Weatherly remains a cooperating church with the Alabama Baptist Convention and the Southern Baptist Convention. The SBC could take action related to Weatherly at its June 16-17 annual meeting in Columbus, Ohio. Alternately, the SBC’s Executive Committee could act on behalf of the convention at its next meeting June 14.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.)