GSML Archived Information
On Gender, Sexuality, Marriage, and Leadership: A Letter from the Session of First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley
I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. – Ephesians 4:1-6
It is with humility and love that we write to you, the congregation of First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley, on the subject of gender, sexuality, marriage, and leadership. With hope, we call one another to cling to our identity as the particular gathering of the Body of Christ to which we belong. As a congregation, we remain unified in our commitment to Christ as the center of our life together even while there are significant differences among us concerning how to interpret and understand the Bible, follow Jesus, and love our neighbor in these matters. This letter presents the thoughts and decisions of Session culminating from the conversation in which our church has been engaged over the past few years.
These have been times of change. Our nation has changed its definition of marriage and so has our denomination. In 2010, the PC(USA) adopted a policy that allows people who identify as LGBT to be ordained. In 2014, The Book of Order’s definition of marriage was changed from “a covenant through which a man and a woman are called to live out together before God their lives of discipleship” to “a unique commitment between two people, traditionally a man and a woman, to love and support each other for the rest of their lives.” While freedom of conscience was preserved on this matter, it marked a fundamental shift in the meaning of marriage away from what has been our understanding and practice at First Pres. As we have remained—and intend to remain—within the PC(USA), we need to address the questions that arise around leadership and same-sex marriage.
The “Meeting at the Intersections” gatherings this past year encouraged listening, empathy, reflection, theological and biblical study, and broader consideration of the issues at hand. Thank you for your prayerful, patient, and honest engagement throughout this process. We appreciate your willingness to take part in the ongoing work of God among us through these efforts. We, the Pastors and Elders of the Session, have also devoted significant amounts of time to these issues at each of our regularly scheduled meetings over the last two years. In addition, since June, we have gathered for three day-long retreats to focus our attention on how best to proceed.
Session, like the congregation as a whole, does not agree on how the Gospel of Jesus Christ informs our understanding of committed, loving, monogamous, same-sex relationships. Some of us believe Scripture presents marriage as a covenant commitment established by God only between one man and one woman. Others of us believe there are reasonable interpretations of Scripture that allow for marriage to be a covenant commitment between two people of the same sex.
We write to you now with the fruit of our prayerful deliberations. With humility and hope, in diversity and unity, we affirm the following:
- Christ, Our Center: We reaffirm our center and unity in Christ, seeking honesty and humility in our life together.
- Our Confession: We acknowledge, with sorrow, the ways the Christian Church has caused genuine pain and harm to people who identify as LGBT. We acknowledge how we at First Pres have contributed to the hurt and isolation felt by many who are touched by these concerns because of our insensitivity, avoidance, and marginalization. For this, we confess our sins and ask for forgiveness.
- Our Commitment: We are eager to be a community where no one wrestles with these issues alone or in silence. We will work against the stigma directed towards people in our community who experience same-sex attraction, as well as those who identify as LGBT. We aim to see one another through the lens of Christ as we declare God’s love for every human being. All are welcome in the name of Christ. Pastoral care, ready support, and loving service are offered to anyone without distinction. Through our care and witness we hope that all might encounter God’s sustaining and transforming grace.
- On Membership, Baptism, and Communion: We welcome as members all people who proclaim Christ as Savior and Lord, regardless of sexual orientation—whether single or married. The sacraments of baptism and communion, as signs of grace and marks of belonging, are similarly open to all professing believers, and in the case of infant baptism to their children.
- On Lay (Unordained) Leadership: We welcome all members, regardless of sexual orientation, to share their gifts in service, teaching, and lay leadership as called and gifted by God.
- On Ordained Leadership: With God’s guidance and in accordance with our polity, ordained leaders—Deacons, Elders, and Pastors—are nominated by committees of the church and elected by the congregation. We affirm that ordained leadership is the result of a mutually discerned calling and that ordained leaders commit to submit to the Lordship of Christ in all of life. We affirm that the stewardship of one’s sexuality is one of many factors in the call process, and that one’s sexual orientation and faithful living out of that orientation—whether in singleness or marriage—does not preclude consideration for ordination.
- On Marriage: We affirm that Christian marriage is the mysterious work of God in creating faithful, monogamous, lifelong, covenant relationships. Given our diverse views about marriage, we will maintain our historic practice of Christian marriage as God’s joining together of one man and one woman in covenant relationship. We recognize that this commitment places a burden on those of us who affirm, desire, or participate in same-sex marriages. We hope our present position provides a foundation for continuing dialogue and meaningful engagement about these matters going forward. We hope these discussions might renew our labors to be conformed more fully in our teaching and practice to the whole of God’s revealed will and vision for human sexuality, whether in the call to singleness or marriage.
While our perspectives remain diverse, we have been grateful for the way this dialogue has drawn us closer to God and one another. For even at our most passionate points of departure, we have enjoyed a tremendous spirit of mutual respect and love, and been encouraged again and again by the richness of all we share in common. We gladly reaffirm our church’s Vision:
In response to God’s great love and for God’s glory, our vision isto sow the gospel of Jesus Christ through word, prayer, deed, and community, cultivating personal transformation, social healing, and cultural renewal through a movement of churches and ministries that reconciles us, Berkeley, the University, the Bay Area, and the world cultivating personal transformation, social healing, and cultural renewal through a movement of churches and ministries that reconciles us, Berkeley, the University, the Bay Area, and the world to God in Jesus Christ.
Further Context for Session’s Letter
On Gender, Sexuality, Marriage, and Leadership
Session’s letter is a response to our earlier commitment to address issues related to gender, sexuality, marriage, and leadership raised by our denomination’s shift in position. While significant Bible study, theological reflection, prayer, discernment, and frank self-examination undergird the letter, the fruit of our labors is not a consensus theological vision on these matters. Rather, it is a letter to a beloved congregation from their Elders and Pastors that expresses our best understandings and decisions about how we as a church will seek to follow Jesus and love our neighbors with respect to these questions.
The letter recognizes the present diversity within our congregation and offers a frame and guide for our engagement and life together as a church going forward. So while the letter does not aim to reconcile our theological differences, it does specify certain commitments and practices that we believe are important as we…
- claim and honor our foundational unity in Christ
- clarify our position on marriage with respect to that taken by the PC(USA)
- situate concerns about ordained leadership within appropriate decision making bodies accountable to the congregation
- further enable honest dialogue as our genuine differences can now be discussed apart from attempts to secure particular outcomes
- encourage humility as we contend together for a faith that seeks understanding through Christ and his Word
We are aware that for some, our statements “On Marriage” and “On Ordained Leadership” appear to be in conflict. In our view, these two affirmations need not be seen as contradictory, but are offered in creative and corrective tension. Each informs the other, and taken together they provide the requisite tone, occasion, and context for particular and pastoral conversations to take place. Our position embodies our identity as a community “reformed and always reforming,” committed to the ongoing work of God’s Spirit to guide us in obedience to truth. In this, we affirm the role and authority of our teaching elders and others who seek to rightly interpret the scriptures. We acknowledge Christ as Lord of the conscience and trust God’s sovereignty over the church.
Our position also reflects our common cause in Christ, and conscious choice to remain together amid our diversity rather than to break fellowship over this issue. We entrust ourselves to God’s ongoing efforts to mold and shape us in his likeness as we live, work, and pray for the fullness of his kingdom. The New Testament ends with the words, “Even so, come Lord Jesus! The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen” (Rev. 22:20-21). May we hold to that desire and hope as we love God and one another in this time of challenge.
As a follow-up to the 2016 “On Gender, Sexuality, Marriage, and Leadership: A Letter from the Session of First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley,” the Session approved the clarifications below in their August 21, 2018 Session meeting. Phrases within quotations are excerpts from the 2016 Session letter (Click here to read the letter).
- Can First Pres pastors officiate same-sex weddings?
- Can the First Pres Berkeley campus be used for same-sex weddings?
- If “…one’s sexual orientation and faithful living out of that orientation—whether in singleness or marriage—does not preclude consideration for ordination,” does that also extend to the action of ordination?
- What is the context and usage of: “…people in our community who experience same-sex attraction, as well as those who identify as LGBT.”?
Answer: These phrases were meant to be expansive (not restrictive) and were not intended to distinguish between categories of people with different sexual orientations, attributes, or perspectives, but rather to describe a very broad range of persons who have traditionally been stigmatized for those orientations, attributes, or perspectives.
- “We welcome as members all people who proclaim Christ as Savior and Lord, regardless of sexual orientation—whether single or married. The sacraments of baptism and communion, as signs of grace and marks of belonging, are similarly open to all professing believers…” Does this mean same-sex married couples are recognized and eligible to become members, be baptized, and take communion?