Staying at the table
What happens to global mission relationships when vehement disagreement—particularly over sexuality, marriage, and women’s ordination—threatens to sever ties?
By Dennis A. Smith
It was early July. Jonas Furtado do Nascimento was in Brazil’s drought-stricken Presbytery of the Northeast accompanying a mission group from the Presbytery of St. Andrew in Mississippi. Nascimento is the evangelism secretary for the Independent Presbyterian Church of Brazil (IPIB).
In Brazil’s barren northeast, people thirst both for water and for the hope born of the gospel. On that July day, Nascimento remembered how, over the years, mission groups from Mississippi had walked side by side with this Brazilian presbytery, installing water systems and supporting the efforts of IPIB missionaries.
Now, that partnership was at risk.
In 2011, presbyteries of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) voted to remove a constitutional requirement that all ministers, ruling elders, and deacons live in “fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness.” This decision returned to congregations and presbyteries their historic right to determine who was suitable for office and opened up ordained offices to persons living in same-sex relationships.
Shortly thereafter, in response to this decision, the IPIB General Assembly appointed a task force to review all of the church’s mission partnerships. Some leaders called for an immediate end to IPIB’s 30-year partnership with the PC(USA).
As Nascimento visited northeastern Brazil, he knew that the task force would present its report to a new IPIB General Assembly in just a few days. He recalls that folks from northeastern Brazil and from Mississippi prayed together that the bonds of love and common service that had brought them together would not be broken.
John Azumah, professor of world Christianity at Columbia Theological Seminary, recalls that a similar conflict developed at the same time in Ghana: “In 2011, the Presbyterian Church of Ghana—where I am ordained as a minister—voted to sever relations with all churches, including the PC(USA), that sanction the ordination of gay and lesbian [persons]; they have yet to put the decision into effect.”
That’s one of the reasons he convened the four-day Global North-South Consultation on Sexuality in July 2013. Mission leaders and seminary professors from 12 countries on five continents—mostly from the Presbyterian and Reformed tradition—met in Ghana to talk and listen to one another and pray about homosexuality and the church’s response.
Azumah has focused over the years on Muslim-Christian dialogue. His experience in Ghana had taught him how important it is for people from different traditions to talk, to make room for the other person, and to listen and learn from one another.
As he watched the divide within the global Christian community deepen over issues of sexuality, he noted a substantial difference in how each side framed the debate. Some saw sexuality as the new frontier in the struggle for justice. Others saw sexuality as an issue that defined biblical orthodoxy and morality.
“I was born in a Muslim family in northern Ghana,” Azumah stated in his opening remarks at the consultation. “When you ask if Muslims are going to heaven or hell, you’re asking a theoretical question. The answer costs you nothing. But when you ask me the question, my aunts and uncles and cousins are all Muslims. The answer to the question, for me, has a human face. The issues we are about to discuss also have a human face.”
It was not an easy meeting.
“The conversations were hard,” says Hunter Farrell, director of Presbyterian World Mission. “We came to no agreement; there was no ‘final statement.’ Some participants spoke theologically, while others spoke from lived experiences of brokenness, disappointment, and hope.”
According to Azumah, many of the participants from the global South felt that North American and European churches are trying to impose their understanding of sexuality—a kind of neocolonialism. Participants noted that homosexuality has been part of African culture for millennia, but it has never been framed in the categories or language of the West. Indeed, participants recalled, it was the colonial powers that first criminalized homosexuality in Africa. Now some felt that Western churches were imposing on them a “homosexual agenda.” Not surprisingly, they reacted with anger and suspicion.
Furthermore, some consultation participants remembered that, only 20 or 30 years ago, African church leaders approached their European and US mission partners to discuss a deeply troubling pastoral issue: polygamy. As polygamous families came into the church, Western orthodoxy demanded that the husband divorce all but one wife, leaving other wives and children abandoned and disgraced. Participants recalled that their Western counterparts had expressed little understanding of the pastoral and theological challenges represented by this grave problem.
Participants found it ironic that now the West wanted to talk about sexuality.
Other participants from the global South noted that sexuality is not just a Western issue. Not to talk about homosexuality, observed one participant, is to put lives at risk. A lesbian minister from South Africa told of the terrible violence being suffered by gay and lesbian persons, including “corrective rape”—a particularly horrific “cure” for homosexuality.
And that’s when the consultation experienced its most profound moment of unity—when participants were able to come together around the urgent need to extend pastoral care to the whole community, including gay and lesbian persons.
Farrell—who served for 15 years as a mission worker in Congo and Perú—shared summary remarks at the end of the consultation: “One of our East African colleagues taught us the Zulu word indaba, meaning ‘conversation.’ The concept calls for us to stay at the table. Even when we disagree, we must have the courage to stay at the table and continue the conversation.”
That same month, the IPIB General Assembly met in Brazil to decide whether it would stay at a table that includes the PC(USA).
Just as in the United States, many Brazilian Christians experience homosexuality as a divisive issue. Some see it as a sign of moral decadence; others, as the emerging civil rights frontier. And again just as in the United States, the issue tends to be more troubling for older adults than for youth and young adults. Keeping in step with their brothers and sisters in the Presbyterian Church of Ghana, IPIB leadership has taken a public stand against the ordination of gay and lesbian persons and against same-sex marriage.
The IPIB task force on mission partnerships presented a thoughtful, nuanced 10-page report to the General Assembly. Citing the Old and New Testaments, Calvin and Luther, Barth and Tillich, the authors emphasized that throughout history no church has ever been free of sin. It did not back away from the IPIB’s public positions on homosexuality but firmly recommended continuing all 11 international mission partnerships, including with the PC(USA).
As the floor opened for two hours of debate, IPIB moderator Áureo Rodrigues de Oliveira asked the representative of Presbyterian World Mission to read a letter of greeting from the PC(USA). In addition to thanking God for lives transformed through common service and for lessons learned over three decades of mission partnership, a key paragraph stated, “We have understood that our General Assemblies may take different positions on ordination; we have respected and will continue to respect your criteria on who is qualified to serve in mission service in our joint mission initiatives.”
The debate was sharp.
An opponent of the report asked the IPIB moderator what he would do if a gay or lesbian person was sent to represent the PC(USA) at a public IPIB event. The moderator responded that he does not know the sexual orientation of all people with whom he shares a platform. The questioner followed up by asking what the IPIB would do if that representative had publicly self-identified as homosexual. The moderator replied that the IPIB had already taken a public position on the issue and that he trusted that the PC(USA) would continue to respect that position.
Assir Pereira, a pastor and former IPIB moderator, supported the report, noting that the PC(USA) had demonstrated great respect for the IPIB in an earlier generation, before the IPIB voted to ordain women as ministers. The PC(USA) had never chosen to sever ties despite this significant disagreement over the role of women in leadership. Instead, it had chosen to stay at the table. Pereira encouraged the IPIB to do the same.
Another opponent of the report suggested that for the IPIB to relate with those with whom they disagree would undermine the legitimacy of their public witness in Brazil. In response, task force member and former IPIB moderator Leontino Farias dos Santos suggested that partnerships have little value if they are only among the like-minded. The richness and challenge of partnerships among churches is precisely to experience difference, confident that God’s Spirit leads us—through the other—to a broader understanding of how and where God is at work in the world.
Before the vote, the IPIB moderator gave thanks to God for the missionary legacy of the PC(USA). He called on all delegates to pray for Presbyterian mission efforts around the world, thanking God for the many generations of mission workers who have given their lives in service to the gospel and the Brazilian people.
The assembly approved the task force report and its recommendations by a vote of 125 to 44.
God heard the prayers of Jonas Furtado do Nascimento and his friends from Mississippi. Now the IPIB and the PC(USA) continue to journey together in service to God’s mission—not always in agreement, but continuing to grow and learn from one another.
Dennis A. Smith is the Presbyterian World Mission regional liaison for Brazil and the Southern Cone.
As human beings, we say, this is a complex subject. And as humans, it is. But as a people of the true and living God, we make a mockery of His Word by bringing to the table our own humanity, emotions, and human understanding. There's absolutely NO wisdom whatsoever in human emotions. True wisdom comes from God. And if God has spoken, why do we now speak? Can we by human emotions change what God has said, NO! Then why do we try? We cannot understand God's wisdom through our own. For man's wisdom, while vast among themselves, is laughable before God. Let's stop pouring out emotions on everything and start believing God or let's not but we cannot do both. So, I and my house, we will serve God.