In the second part of this series, we take a look at how the Presbyterian Assembly's recent decision to recognize marriage equality is entirely in keeping with its history on other progressive issues.
And whether it was slavery, segregation or mixed marriage, the opposition was always ready to use Scripture to justify their prejudices.
In the earlier post on this subject, we looked at the recent break between National Black Church Initiative (NBCI) and the Presbyterian Church over the subject of same-sex marriage. The decision to allow ceremonies to be conducted- as per the conscience of each church- created a backlash, involving approximately 15.7 million African Americans belonging to 34,000 churches.
Rev. Anthony Evans. President of NBCI claimed that the Presbyterian Assembly had strayed from the Word of God, that is, the Holy book which defines marriage as between a man and a woman.
The History of Going Beyond Scripture
The history of the denomination reveals a centuries old pattern of free thinking. Presbyterianism was especially influenced by the French theologian John Calvin,
Two quotes by Calvin seem especially relevant.
Two quotes by Calvin seem especially relevant.
Is it faith to understand nothing, and merely submit your convictions implicitly to the Church?
Another influence on Presbyterian doctrine was a Scottish reformer, John Knox. He too objected to the absolute submission to Scripture and he had his reasons.
The testimony of scripture is so plain that to add anything were superfluous, were it not that the world is almost now come to that blindness, that whatsoever pleases not the princes and the multitude, the same is rejected as doctrine newly forged, and is condemned for heresy.
A man with God, said Knox, is always the majority, regardless of the size of the opposition. Those are world-changing ideas when you think about it.
Rev. Evans (and those who have approved of his decision) is therefore on particularly shaky ground when it comes to condemning the Presbyterians. Reformism and standing up to the orthodoxy of the age is part of its DNA.
As most people realize by now, being discriminated against doesn't make people less prone toward discriminating against others. Still, Reverend Evan's rejection of the Presbyterian Church is especially disappointing. African Americans owe a lot to the church that followed its conscience and the Holy Spirit rather than blindly (but obediently) following what was written in the Book.
After all, the Presbyterian Church has played a key role when it came to the black American's battle for equality and against discrimination based on skin color.
In theological terms, the Presbyterian Church has a wide divergence within the sect. While some churches maintain that the Bible in divinely inspired and therefore infallible. However, one source on the Presbyterian Church notes:
As with any other church, a person would be well advised to carefully examine not only the formal statements of doctrine, but also the practical implementation of those doctrines to determine whether a church is conforming to Scripture (1 Thessalonians 5:21).
Today the Presbyterian Church leans much more to the liberal side. The conservative side is represented by the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA), with about 335,000 members in 1,700 congregations. On the other hand, the more liberal Presbyterian Church, USA (PCUSA), which issued this controversial decision, has some 2.3 million members in 10,000 congregations.
Slavery and the Presbyterians
In the first part of this series we examined how at one time many ministers in both the North and South used Holy Scripture to justify the institution of slavery. It's important to recognize the history of the Presbyterian Church in combating slavery - and in more recent times, racial discrimination. This goes back to the first African Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia in 1807, a little more than twenty years after the US became a nation.
The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in 1818 unanimously adopted a clear denunciation of American slavery and called for its abolition. Despite the fact that many leaders in the same faith were using the Bible to advocate in favor of slavery, the General Assembly decreed:
We consider the voluntary enslaving of one part of the human race by another, as a gross violation of the most precious and sacred rights of human nature; as utterly inconsistent with the law of God.
The question then became not whether slavery was a moral evil but whether it should be, at least, tolerated as the law of the land. As one source notes, during this time, the traditional interpretations of biblical passages with the denomination favored a common sense approach rather than the older literal one.
When, in 1835, the Presbyterian Synod of Virginia debated the issue of slavery, theologian and educator George Baxter wrote in his essay on the subject :
“Slavery is recognized by Scripture in precisely the same way as the other domestic relations of life. . . expressly affirming that slavery has the same scriptural authority as the marriage relation.”
However, after much debate between elders, the final verdict was clear. Slavery was..
directly and palpably contrary to the plainest principles of common sense, and common humanity, and to the clearest authority of the word of God.”
Biblical text alone was not -and could not be cited for support- for this view. Therefore, in its defense of slavery, the Southern branch of the faith could have legitimately made precisely the same objection that Evans has made against same-sex marriage.
* * *
The anti-slavery view of the Presbyterian Church based on the individual conscience of the pastors and the congregation, moved by the Holy Spirit. This allowed them to decide for themselves was what was moral and immoral.
One source chronicles the abolitionist's advance:
Many Presbyterians were active in the anti-slavery movement. Theodore Sedgwick Wright (1797-1847), the first black to graduate from an American theological seminary (Princeton, in 1828), worked tirelessly for the abolitionist cause. He pastored Shiloh Presbyterian Church in New York, for 20 years, and was active in the temperance movement and African mission endeavors. At the 1837 Convention of the Anti-Slavery Society, he stated, “The principle of recognizing all men as brethren, is the point which touches the community. It is an easy thing to ask about the vileness of slavery, but to treat the man of color in all circumstances as a man and brother — that is the test.”
This revolutionary idea - steeped in the concept of equal rights for all- was hard to argue with. Equality for all minorities however goes beyond discrimination based on race.
Since the days of slavery and its dissolution, the Presbyterians have not been afraid to step away from the dogmatic views of the past. When we look at the Civil Rights Era of the 1960s, the Presbyterian Church- though just divided as the rest of the country on the issue- adopted a generally progressive stand. An essay by Frederick J. Heuser explains:
As early as 1946, the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (PCUSA) adopted the concept of a “nonsegregated church in a non-segregated society.” During the 1950s, both the PCUSA and the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. (PCUS) did away with segregation in their synods. Many Presbyterians also supported the peaceful civil rights protests eventually led by Dr. King and his followers.
On March 9, 1964 in Mississippi nine Presbyterian ministers stood trial on charges growing out of a civil rights demonstration in Hattiesburg. Those nine were from a larger groups of religious and civil rights leaders that had been advocating for voter-registration rights for Forrest County’s 7,000 voting-age African Americans. They were found guilty, fined $200 dollars and spent 4 months in jail.
A month later, a white Presbyterian minister paid the ultimate price for his views.
On April 7, 1964, the Reverend Bruce Klunder, a twenty-seven year old PCUSA minister, was crushed beneath a bulldozer on a school construction site—not in Birmingham, or Hattiesburg—but in Cleveland, Ohio. His death, officially ruled an accident, occurred as he joined a nonviolent protest against de facto school segregation.
Not all pastors in the PCUSA thought the church should be involved in the struggle for civil rights. Nina Mjagkij, in the book Organizing Black America, relates that the national Presbyterian General Assembly challenged the Church to adopt anti-discrimination efforts, not everybody was happy with the idea.
When Presbyterian Survey, the church's monthly publication devoted it June 1968 issue to racism, stereotyping and intermarriage, it generated considerable controversy. Subscriptions declined and angry readers, offended by the magazine's endorsement of racial intermarriage and tolerance wrote numerous letters.
At the same time, other subscribers, relying on their own conscience, firmly believed that racism and discrimination contradicted Christian teaching supported the magazine's plea for racial tolerance.
Satanic Agitation of Race Mixing
Today the issue might seem moot, but at one time, racial intermarriage was as hot a topic as same-sex marriage is today. On the subject, Malcolm X in his autobiography declared:
“I believe in recognizing every human being as a human being--neither white, black, brown, or red; and when you are dealing with humanity as a family there's no question of integration or intermarriage. It's just one human being marrying another human being or one human being living around and with another human being.”
Reading that last line, one cannot find a mention of race or gender. Just human beings.
Not every religious leader was an enlightened. One hundred years earlier, some Church leader were using Scripture to justify keeping slaves. A century later, they were citing holy passages to justify laws against racial segregation and to support laws against marriage between blacks and whites.
On Easter Sunday, April 17, 1960, American evangelist and radio preacher, Robert Reynolds Jones, Sr. of Greenville, South Carolina declared:
All orthodox, Bible-believing Christians agree on one thing; and that is, that whatever the Bible says is so.Echoing Rev Evans, Rev. Bob Jones said:
You will find that practically all the troubles we are having today have come out of the fact that men in many instances have ceased to believe in an authoritative Bible.
Jones called the de-segregation movement "a Satanic agitation striking back at God’s established order." Race-mixing, whether in public education or in interracial marriage, was clearly prohibited by the Bible. He quotes passages of from the Acts of the Apostles to make his case.
God never meant for America to be a melting pot to rub out the line between the nations. That was not God’s purpose for this nation. When someone goes to overthrowing His established order and goes around preaching pious sermons about it, that makes me sick–for a man to stand up and preach pious sermons in this country and talk about rubbing out the line between the races–I say it makes me sick.
The sickened Jones wasn't alone in condemning the sin of race-mixing. In 1967, only 4% of Americans approved of interracial marriage. Now, compare that to today when 59% of Americans favor same-sex marriage.
Even with such a high level of opposition to race-mixing, the Supreme Court bravely dismissed the desire of 96% of Americans who did not support it. And they did it because it was the right thing to do.
In what would turn out to be a landmark case, one lower court judge in Virginia had earlier declared:
Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the inference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.”
In 1967, the high court ruled in the aptly-named case of Loving v. Virginia that laws prohibiting interracial marriage were unconstitutional. That historic ruling was unanimous. Chief Justice Earl Warren's opinion states the importance of marriage equality:
Marriage is one of the "basic civil rights of man," fundamental to our very existence and survival....
It could not therefore be regulated by the discriminatory whims of states. (Certainly not based on Biblical passages.) There was, the high court found, "patently no legitimate overriding purpose" for states to discriminate who could and who could not marry.
In 2008, Bob Jones University issued this apology, for what it was worth.
BJU’s history has been chiefly characterized by striving to achieve those goals; but like any human institution, we have failures as well. For almost two centuries American Christianity, including BJU in its early stages, was characterized by the segregationist ethos of American culture. Consequently, for far too long, we allowed institutional policies regarding race to be shaped more directly by that ethos than by the principles and precepts of the Scriptures. We conformed to the culture rather than providing a clear Christian counterpoint to it.
It's an interesting defense since its so-called "segregationist ethos" was not shaped by only cultural influences but by the authoritative citations of the Bible.
* * *
Despite this impressive Church history, Rev. Anthony Evans as president of the National Black Church Initiative seems entirely ignorant of the connections between the civil rights, the plea for equality for black Americans and the demand for justice and equality from gay Americans. Today, African Americans owe much to clergy and faiths that stepped away from the literalism of the Bible and followed their consciences.
Ultimately, equality is not something reserved only for one minority.