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To Speak or Not to Speak, Part 2

By Rev. Aaron Messner - Window on the World - April 10, 2016

We continue this week on our theme: To Speak or Not to Speak, in dealing with the whole matter of how the church should, or perhaps should not, speak into present political, social and cultural issues. The principle that we established is that there is a profound difference between what individual Christians are free to say- that this is our Father’s world and therefore Christians ought to feel free to think, speak and comment about anything in it. But there is a particular discipline that is put on the church to speak the whole counsel of God, to speak what the Bible says about things and when the Bible is silent to remain silent. Last week, having introduce that principle, I wanted to give you an example of what I think is a pretty good effort by the church on this matter.

The matter comes from our own church, The Presbyterian Church in America, which gathered in June, 2004 for the 32nd General Assembly in Pittsburgh. Now, to know a little bit about how the General Assembly works, the presbyteries, throughout the course of the year, can pass various overtures, things they would like the General Assembly to do or speak on. And in this particular year, a hot button issue was that we should pass a federal marriage amendment, a formal amendment to the Constitution in which we would outline that marriage is between one man and one woman. About one month before the PCA met, the Southern Baptist Convention met and they came out on the record that they were in favor of the federal marriage amendment. We had three or four presbyteries who had brought overtures asking that the PCA General Assembly would take a formal stance in favor of the Federal Marriage Amendment.

I was a young pastor who had been appointed to serve on the bills and overtures committee, the very body that was to deliberate and make the formal statements and send them on to the General Assembly for their approval. I showed up thinking that this would be simple; who could possibly be against the Federal Marriage Amendment? It’s a wonderful idea. As soon as I sat down, an interesting debate broke out right away in which some of the august members of our denomination spoke out against the PCA speaking for the Federal Marriage Amendment. The rationale was that the Bible does not give us any clear injunction to speak with authority on which particular legislative strategies are best to accomplish securing a Biblical understanding of marriage. They went on to cite a number of scholarly articles that said that the Federal Marriage Amendment is actually a bad idea because it is an overreach by the federal government and this is something that should be left to the states to decide. After all, when a minister pronounces a couple man and wife, he does not do so based on the power invested in him by the United States of America, but rather by the particular state in which he resides. So they said we should just not speak to this issue at all.

On the other hand, there was a group that was saying that this issue is very, very important and all of these overtures have come from the Presbytery and if we decide to say nothing, it may seem that we are against the Federal Marriage Amendment and/ or that we are against the very concept of marriage being between one man and one woman. As a young minister, I think I might have spoken one sentence over the two days as I watched the various folks deliberating with one another. But I also got to be a part of a fascinating discussion which in the end basically said: we do need to speak. This is an important cultural issue that we are facing, but we need to speak and say what the Bible says on the issue and we need to not overstep our bounds by wading into which legislative strategy is the best one, as if, as the church, we have special insight.

Following is the statement that ultimately came out of that committee, went to the General Assembly and was passed. This is a good example of the church being bold and clear and also judicious in not overstepping their bounds in which they do not have a direct Biblical authority. This is the ultimate statement that came out of the General Assembly on June 17, 2004 and I was honored to sign my signature to it.

“Therefore be it resolved that the 32nd General Assembly: a) Humbly call on the civil governments of Canada and the United States and all nations of the earth to act within their lawful powers and use whatever legislative and judicial instruments they deem most useful to ensure that marriage is legally defined and interpreted throughout their jurisdictions as existing exclusively between one man and woman. In support of this call the Presbyterian Church in America declares to the Church, the Nation, and the World that: God is truth. His truth is firmly rooted and grounded in His immutable Nature and Being; it is not a construction of men; it is not variable, nor relative, nor dependent upon social or cultural context. He has made His truth known to human beings most necessarily in the Holy Scriptures.

Among the truths that God has declared to human beings is the truth that the institution of marriage has been created by Him, from the time of the creation of human beings, and that it is ordained and defined by Him to be the lifelong union of one man and one woman (Genesis 1-3; Matthew 19:5-6). God’s ordinance concerning marriage is binding upon all human beings in all places and at all times; it cannot be altered by legislative, judicial or cultural action. It is possible to deviate from God’s ordinance, but it is not possible to change it. God has ordained civil authorities “under Him, and over the people, for His own glory and the public good” (WCF XXIII.1), to the end that good (as defined by Him) may be encouraged and defended and evil (as defined by Him) may be suppressed and punished. God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap (Galatians 6:7); God will hold those whom He has placed in authority accountable for their actions, and He has declared: Woe to those who call evil good And good evil, Who put darkness for light And light for darkness, Who put bitter for sweet And sweet for bitter! Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, And shrewd in their own sight! Isaiah 5:20 b) Call upon the Presbyteries and Sessions of the PCA to strengthen the marriages in its own churches and exhort its elders to be bolder and more caring shepherds of Christ’s flock that we might help stem the scandalous rising tide of divorce in the church. c) Call upon the Presbyteries and Sessions of the PCA to encourage all men and women, boys and girls within the PCA to live chastely for the sake of the Savior who bought them, whether in marriage or in singleness, whether they must do battle against heterosexual or homosexual temptation in seeking to be faithful to their Lord who loves them. d) Call upon its members to be "the salt and light of the earth" in this context by exercising their full responsibilities as citizens including: (1) The communication of the biblical faith of the PCA on this matter; (2) To protect and defend the Biblical teaching of marriage, according to their own best judgment as citizens, in all spheres of public and private discourse. e) And that these “calls” be communicated by the Stated Clerk to all who have inquired and may inquire concerning these matters.”

I found it was a great honor to be on this committee and to be a part of these discussions as a wise example of the church speaking with boldness, and also with judicious discipline so that it speaks the whole counsel of God, nothing more and nothing less.

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