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Presbyterian Church (USA) has voted to accept gay clergy

Discussion in 'Confessional, Covenantal, Creedal - Presbyterian' started by Basil the Great, May 11, 2011.

  1. Basil the Great

    Basil the Great Guest

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    Per CNN, the Presbyterian Church (USA) has voted to accept gay and lesbian clergy. The New American website reports that they have also voted to remove the requirement that unmarried clergy be celibate. However, they go on to say that most regional bodies in the U.S. will probably refuse to accept such candidates for ordination. This now makes four mainline Protestant groups who have voted to accept non-celibate gay clergy: the United Church of Christ, the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Presbyterian Church (USA). Who will be next to become #5? If I had to guess, I would predict the United Methodist Church.

    What do you Presbyterians here think of this change in policy?
     
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  2. kenrapoza

    kenrapoza I Like Ice Cream

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    Well...I'm not a PC(USA) guy, so it doesn't directly effect me or my church body. But it's not a surprise that a liberal denomination made a liberal move. For me the biggest difficulty is that many contemporary Christians don't think very carefully and don't understand the difference between the liberal denominations and their confessional counterparts and just paint with a broad brush. The confusion will probably continue.
     
  3. hedrick

    hedrick Senior Veteran Supporter

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    Remember, the rules of CF are going to make this a one-sided discussion, since anyone who favors the decision doesn't seem to be allowed to argue for it. I strongly recommend limiting this discussion to questions about how the decision happened, its history, and its likely effects, and not talk about your views on homosexuality.

    The story is slightly misleading, I think. It's true that many groups won't take advantage of the permission, but "most" is a mistake. The vote required a majority of presbyteries. It's hard to believe that a presbytery would have voted for the change if they were opposed to using it.

    It's also worth noting that it has been possible to ordain gays since 2008. The big change, aside from the possibility that the Permanent Judicial Commission might have reversed the 2008 decision and that can no longer happen, is that before this vote in principle gays would have to disclose that they're gay and ask the ordaining body to permit them to "scruple" the requirement. Now that is no longer necessary.

    However it's still the case that the immediate effect is minimal. No one is going to be forced to call someone they don't want. Furthermore, most people don't practice their sex in public, and it was already forbidden for a body to ask unless they had good reason to think that the candidate might be gay. And interpretations said (1) orientation didn't count, (2) announced intention to have gay sex didn't count, (3) statements to third parties didn't count. They would have to self-disclose that they were actually engaged in sex directly to the ordaining body. (Looking at the PJC interpretations, I've often said in jest that about the only way to be disqualified is to commit the act itself in front of the Presbytery.) That's going to be pretty rate, I think, since there will no longer be a reason for people who are trying to obey the rules in good faith to bring the issue up, whereas before there would have been.

    However there are issues in the long run: It's not clear just how a presbytery would go about not ordaining gays. They won't ask (arguably aren't allowed to ask), unless the person brings it up. All they can do is state their policy, and depend upon people to honor it -- which I think generally they will do. However the judicial commissions have made it clear that no group can add requirements for ordination to those in the constitution. So a conservative presbytery can state their position as their interpretation of Scripture, but it's going to be difficult to impose it. This change removes the only practical way to do so, which was that candidates had a moral obligation to indicate if they weren't able to fulfill the constitutional requirements. Of course those are no longer requirements. I think generally gay candidates will stay away from conservative presbyteries, but there could be situations involving a liberal church in a conservative presbytery where it might happen. The question is whether conservative presbyteries will be willing to make allowances for liberal churches, as liberal presbyteries (at least that 2 I've worked with) have done for conservative churches for years.

    Aside from the lunatic fringe (i.e. the Layman and a few flaming gays), conservatives and liberals mostly want to live together in peace. Remember that even our conservatives are liberal by the standards of the PCA. They ordain women, and the ones I know of all want to keep doing that. They typically have similar approaches to Scripture to the rest of the denomination. Their kids (if the church survives that long) will almost certainly accept gays.

    There will be congregations that feel they need to withdraw. But most of the conservative groups are recommending against hasty actions. There's a lot of talk about coming up with structures to support them, e.g. non-geographical presbyteries or synods, or more likely national structures that cut across presbytery lines. The most difficult problem will be a liberal church in a conservative presbytery. Will the presbytery be willing to admit a minister that the church might want to call? The reverse is not as much of a problem. We have a number of conservative churches in our presbytery, and the presbytery has done its best to treat them well. One of them, however, does seem to want to withdraw. I hope we allow it. The idea of a presbytery suing one of its churches is a far more serious violation of the Gospel than who has sex with whom.

    If anyone is interested in the history, just ask. I just finished reading a 300-page Ph.D. thesis that goes through it in minute detail.
     
    Last edited: May 11, 2011
  4. AMR

    AMR Presbyterian (PCA) - Bona Fide Reformed

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    Indeed. For most folks the word "Presbyterian" means all Presbyterian denominations, so we all have to deal with these sort of questions even when some of us are not members of the PC(USA) denomination. It is unfortunate that we have only one icon here for Presbyterian, as it sends a confusing message to the uninformed, too.
     
  5. HereIStand

    HereIStand Regular Member Supporter

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    This is a sad day for the PCUSA. The congregation that I belong to is an aging one and will be challenged to survive, especially now. I posted the following on the PCUSA website earlier tonight:

    I joined the PCUSA last year and am deeply saddened by this decision. The PCUSA will now only continue to decline in membership. More important is the sad message this decision sends the non-Christian world -- that Christians can legitimately have a diversity of beliefs about something so clearly condemned in Scripture. I would urge those who believe as I do to "hold fast" to their faith; God does not lay "any other burden" on us. (Revelation 2:24-25)
     
  6. hedrick

    hedrick Senior Veteran Supporter

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    I don't think so. I'm concerned about membership trends, but I doubt this decision will change that. The main effect of G-6.0101b was a kind of guerilla war, where a few elders went around the country challenging ordination of officers. It's hard to see how stopping that is going to hurt church growth. I suppose if you could force the whole PCUSA to be evangelical, it might have an effect, but that's not something you can do by tweaking the Book of Order. Other than if there's a major change of heart throughout the Church, many of our churches are moderately liberal. Their best hope is to carry out their ministry as competently as possible. Allowing churches that accept gays to do so openly can only help.

    Our congregation is strongly supportive. I'm pleased to say we're not in your situation. We have a complete range of ages, and an active program. (We're also very slowly shrinking, but that doesn't really affect our program.) For our Session, it's a family-valuss issue. Many of our families have a gay family member. They want the Church to support them. I realize this isn't an argument for it. I'm not making an argument for it, because CF isn't a place I can do that. I'm simply telling you why I think our congregation (and I suspect many others) will think it's a good thing.

    Anyone who thinks that correct doctrine leads to church growth is committed to a rather strange (and unscriptural) view of Church history. This idea has suddenly become attractive to evangelicals, but I think it's going to turn out to be a fairly temporary attractiveness.

    (Incidentally, there are characteristics of evangelical churches in the PCUSA that tends to lead them to do better in membership than others. But rejection of gays seems pretty low on the list. The causes of growth and decline seem to be a topic for another thread.)
     
    Last edited: May 12, 2011
  7. HereIStand

    HereIStand Regular Member Supporter

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    As I indicated, the message sent to the non-Christian world is more important than how this decision will adversely impact PCUSA membership numbers.

    Having gay family members is all the more reason to oppose this amendment. You want your family members to hear the truth and not have the church simply blend in with secular morality.

    A church with bad doctrine may well experience growth. Just as a church with correct doctrine may decline in numbers. The witness of a church's faithfulness to Scripture is what matters.
     
  8. kenrapoza

    kenrapoza I Like Ice Cream

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    As far as Presbyterian church bodies go, it sounds like the PC(USA) may not be the best fit for you.
     
  9. hedrick

    hedrick Senior Veteran Supporter

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    I understand that this is your view, but the point I was trying to make is that there is a limit to what one can do with the Book of Order. Doctrinal standards make a lot of sense to preserve the character of an organization, or to help manage a change on which there is a consensus. E.g. it is perfectly right for the PCA to maintain the Westminster standards. It's essential to maintaining the nature of their church. Similarly, I think the EPC is making a mistake in admitting a number of PCUSA churches. Few PCUSA churches are theologically conservative. Some are currently reacting against gays, but if the EPC admits many more PCUSA churches, I think in 20 years, the EPC is going to find itself a clone of the PCUSA, something which they probably don't want to happen.

    However I don't think it's useful for 56% of the church to impose standards. That's what the vote was for the constitutional provision that was just removed. With such a division, there is no consensus to preserve. The PCUSA was never capable of providing a unified witness for evangelical standards. This vote didn't make that happen, and in fact buried whatever influence evangelicals might have been able to accomplish in a continuing conflict. This is the kind of reason many organizations require a 2/3 vote to change the constitution.

    I feel the same way now. If we follow the same approach as the conservatives, we will now attempt to impose homosexual officers on all churches. I hope, and believe, that we'll be smart enough not to do that. We are divided on this issue, but we need to find a way for all of our churches to maintain a positive witness for Christ. If we feel that no one who disagrees with us can possibly provide a witness for Christ, then we should separate. That may well be how you feel. But most of our conservatives are not taking that approach, as most liberals did not since 1989 (when the first "definitive guidance" was given).

    One issue facing us now is avoiding another Kenyon case. During the period when ordination of women was controversial, a candidate for minister was asked (this is a paraphrase from memory) "If your church elected a women as officer, would you participate in the ordination?" He answered no. The Presbytery accepted this as a permissible variance, but they were overruled by the synod and later GA judicial commissions, on the grounds that he was refusing to carry out an essential part of the office of minister of word and sacraments. Unfortunately the exact same issue could quite reasonably come up now. I'd like to avoid that, and I think most others would as well. I believe anyone asking the question should be treated as a disturber of the peace and ejected. (I think the right answer would be "I would do everything I could to influence the congregation, but of course I have to respect the right of the people to elect their officers." But some might not be willing to give this answer.)
     
  10. HereIStand

    HereIStand Regular Member Supporter

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    It isn't the best fit. For family reasons though, I belong because it's one of the few nearby churches offering a non-contemporary, liturgical style worship service. Also, our pastor is on the evangelical end of the PCUSA spectrum and this comes through in his sermons, and in his encouragement of personal evangelism and Bible study. He also opposed the vote permitting gay ordination. If he retires though...I would have to evaluate his replacement, assuming though the church is financially viable enough to support a full-time pastor at that point.
     
  11. hedrick

    hedrick Senior Veteran Supporter

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    Do you know what presbytery you're in? I can tell from your city. There are a number of presbyteries that are evangelical as a whole. That would increase the chance that any replacement would be similar. Also, individual churches that are evangelical tend to maintain that character.
     
  12. HereIStand

    HereIStand Regular Member Supporter

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    Our church is in the North Alabama Presbytery. The church is probably moderate overall. Along with the pastor, there are some evangelicals but at least a liberal or two, as in denying the virgin birth.

    You raise some good points there and you seem reasonable in your approach in not wanting to pressure others and in wanting to avoid conflict.

    My sense is that a church wanting to join the EPC would be theologically conservative overall on essentials -- bodily resurrection of Christ, deity of Christ, virgin birth, and the Trinity -- even if they might be less conservative on social justice or environmental issues.

    Can a PCUSA church that's theologically liberal provide a positive witness for Christ? More of a muddled witness in my estimation. It's potentially positive in an area such as aiding the poor. But negative in sermons such as this one in which gay ordination is endorsed along with reducing the resurrection of Christ to the spiritual experience of the disciples. However, as in the Church of England, there is a sense in which the Gospel is proclaimed in even the most liberal PCUSA church through the Apostle's Creed, the Scripture readings, and hymns, even if most of the members or even the pastor no longer really believe them.
     
  13. Jim the Puritan

    Jim the Puritan Newbie

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    I think the liberals and moderates in PCUSA are seriously underestimating the impact of and reaction to this decision.

    From the evangelical / conservative perspective, this goes far beyond just the gay issue. The new standard completely removes the requirement for ministers, elders and deacons to be either faithful in marriage or chaste in singleness. This means that such things as adultery, engaging in fornication, or having multiple concurrent sexual relationships is not a disqualifier to ministry. A lot of people have a very big problem with that.

    Second, the new standard removes the requirement for ministers, elders and deacons to live a life in obedience to Scripture. Another huge problem theologically.
     
  14. HereIStand

    HereIStand Regular Member Supporter

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    Those are some good points. As I understand things, the language that was recently removed was put in 14 years ago largely to address the gay ordination issue. As has been pointed out, people were taking advantage of the lack of an explicit prohibition 14 years ago, however, such a prohibition had always been assumed. Hopefully, acting immorally as you've spelled out can still be assumed to be prohibited, even though its not spelled out as such.
     
  15. hedrick

    hedrick Senior Veteran Supporter

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    There was not a sudden concern to be more careful about the quality of life of church officers. This was simply an attempt to impose the views of a slight majority on the whole church on the ordination of gays. There has been no sign that it was intended to nor did in fact affect how any ordaining body evaluated candidates. It was used in a few cases to allow people to attack the ordination of gays. That's it.

    Remember that our primary standards on the qualify of life of a candidate are Scripture and the confessions. There are certainly varying opinions on how to apply them, but that paragraph didn't change any of those opinions, nor will removing it. The new wording still requires bodies to examine candidates in light of Scripture and the confessions.

    I understand that some people will represent it as a major change in sexual standards. It isn't. That is not to say that the PCUSA has the same standards that our Puritan forbearers did. We do not. But in general I don't think those standards are getting weaker. I've been active in local churches my whole life. I teach junior high Sunday School, and as such have contact with a variety of parents and kids. I think opinions on sex outside of marriage have remained pretty constant, although more permissive than our more conservative brethren would like.

    It's clear that in a year or two we're going to need a change to permit gays to marry. If we're going to accept gay officers, both they and the rest of us would generally like to see them married. Probably this can be done by the General Assembly removing an Authoritative Interpretation that prohibited gay marriage. There is also a sentence in the worship book, but the GA Judicial Commission has held that that section is descriptive and not prescriptive (as part of a truly bizarre decision that we can talk about if anyone is interested), so it may not be necessary to change it. I believe to avoid causing further upset, we'll avoid unnecessary changes.
     
    Last edited: May 13, 2011
  16. Jim the Puritan

    Jim the Puritan Newbie

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    Well, this also means if the same standards are in place although not explicit, and we're just going back to what was understood previously, formal complaints can continue to be filed against candidates for ministry that are engaged in homosexual activity, just like other immoral sexual behavior. It will be interesting to see whether complaints in fact continue to be filed, despite the new language.

    I still don't see how homosexual candidates will get around the explicit Biblical condemnation of homosexuality as incompatible with Christian life. What will happen though is that there will be "blacklists" published of ministers in certain presbyteries who will be deemed to be unfit and not lawfully ministers because they are living a sexually immoral lifestyle and will then be banned from other presbyteries. Don't see how this will be improving the problem.
     
    Last edited: May 13, 2011
  17. Jim the Puritan

    Jim the Puritan Newbie

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    Wow, if this doesn't demonstrate this is in fact a very big deal. On the one hand you say this is just to balance the church back to where it was and nothing in the standards have really changed, and then literally in the next paragraph you say, well of course this also means PCUSA must accept same-sex marriage.

    Sexually immoral behavior cannot be made moral by then calling it marriage. That's a non-starter for Christians.

    And I don't see how anyone can get around the fact the plain wording of 10-A removes all sexual morality requirements for ordained officers, plus the requirement to be obedient to Scripture.
     
  18. hedrick

    hedrick Senior Veteran Supporter

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    I'm trying to avoid discussion of the acceptability of homosexuality, which is not permissible in CF. Hence I am telling you how the PCUSA is going to interpret things and what likely results are going to be. I am going to treat your views of the merits of the case as your opinion, because it would be a violation of the controversial topics rule for me to discuss the question of whether your opinion is valid or not. By using the term "opinion" I don't intend to sound dismissive.


    I am not being inconsistent. There are two separate issues, homosexuality and other types of extra-martial intercourse:

    1. Homosexuality

    You have not shown any evidence that the situation we're in is any different from before G-6.0106b was added. (I refer to G-6.0106b for simplicity, although in fact there's a preceding AI that is also part of the picture.)

    Before G-6.0106b was added we had gays elected as pastors. My church had one. Now that it is gone, quite likely they will be elected again.

    My comment about needing to deal with gay marriage is not a reflection that anything is different from before G-6.0106b was added. In both cases we have gay pastors and church officers. My comment was that if this is going to be the case, I believe most people will prefer them to be married. I understand that you think it's a bad idea to allow gay officers in the first place, and that you think gay marriage is impermissible. But this isn't about your opinion, and I'm not going to be drawn into a discussion that is not permitted here. It is about events in the PCUSA. If the majority of the PCUSA is at least wiling to consider accepting gays as officers, and they clearly are, I think most likely they will prefer them to be married. As far as I can tell, the opinion that gay marriage is wrong is based on the opinion that gay sex is wrong. Maybe I'm wrong, but I think it's a reasonable conjecture that a church that is willing to have gay officers will mostly prefer them to live a life that is otherwise in accordance with Christian ideals.

    2. Other extra-marital intercourse.

    Nothing has changed. The primary standard on sexual behavior has always been, and is still, Scripture and the confessions. People differ in their interpretation of these things. Again, you may think such differences are unacceptable, but we are not talking about your opinion.

    G-6.0106b created no new standards. It simply reiterated specific standards taken from the confessions. That was clear from its wording. What its authors intended it to do was not to create new standards but to remove the discretion from ordaining bodies in how they interpreted and enforced the standards in the case of homosexuality. In G-6.0108, ordaining bodies are given the responsibility to decide how to apply those standards in specific case. In most cases, bodies are expected to evaluate the character of candidates as a whole. They may choose not view a particular problem as fatal in light of the person's life as a whole. G-6.0106b was intended to remove that discretion in the case of homosexuality. However whatever the authors might have intended to do, in 2006 and 2008, the GA issued authoritative interpretations that G-6.0106b did not remove the responsibility for bodies to use their judgement in applying standards. Since that's all that it intended to do, it ended up having no legal effect. It turned out to be simply a matter of increased emphasis.

    It is absolutely still possible to challenge the propriety of ordination based on extra-marital sex, and it is also still possible to pursue disciplinary charges against persons engaged in it, officers or not. Those charges will be evaluated by the body of which the person is a member. Those bodies have differing views on the matter, just as they had differing views while G-6.0106b was in effect.

    Note that G-6.0106b, whether it actually did anything or not, applies only to ordination. It did not apply to disciplinary cases.

    At any rate, whether it had an effect or not, it was never used in cases other than homosexuality. It was clearly intended to deal with the gay issue. I'm fairly sure I would know if it had been used in any other cases, and I would also have known if there was any sign that thinking about gays had led the Church to a decision to clean up its act on sex more generally. For better of worse, there is simply no reason to think that the people involved in ratifying it intended it to apply to other extra-marital intercourse, nor that it was ever used in that way. (It is quite possible however that the people who proposed the wording would have liked to see that happen.) As it created no new standards, and didn't even intend to create new standards (it intended to, but apparently did not, remove discretion in applying the standards in the case of homosexuality for ordination), I believe my statement that removing it has no effect outside homosexuality is correct.

    [In case you want to argue that we need to look at the literal wording and not the effect, note that the literal wording is breathtakingly broad. Taken literally it would prevent us from ordaining everyone from divorcees to workaholics.]

    There is no reason to think that the people who approved the recent change had any intention to loosen any standard other than homosexuality, nor that it will have the effect of doing so. For those that are willing to enforce them, the standards are still in place to do so.
     
    Last edited: May 13, 2011
  19. HereIStand

    HereIStand Regular Member Supporter

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    Sadly, Scripture can no longer be assumed to be authoritative in the area of sexuality in the PCUSA. So, without an explicit denominational prohibition against a sexual activity, the door is open to its practice. It doesn't mean there's going to be a huge increase in gay ordination, since many people not guided by Scripture will likely be guided by conventional morality.

    There's nothing in Scripture, as you've indicated, that would permit homosexuality (or acting on any impulse in that direction). Yet, lacking any official denominational acknowledgement of that, gay candidates for ordination will not be blacklisted and could instead be celebrated in some presbyteries. Further, those who oppose gay ordination could be blacklisted. If the Belhar Confession is added to the Book of Confessions, some of its language could be used against those who oppose gay ordination.
     
  20. hedrick

    hedrick Senior Veteran Supporter

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    I'm not responding to the first question because of the controversial topics rule. I will simply assure you that plenty of congregations and presbyteries will not be willing to sustain a disciplinary charge against a homosexual pastor or officer. If you want to understand why, I guess you can contact me via PM and I'll point you to someplace outside CF. [Hint: the PCUSA hasn't believed in inerrancy since at least 1925.]

    It's hard to know what to do when there's a disagreement this serious. I've often thought it would be best just to split the denomination. But there are practical difficulties with that, and many congregations have mixed feelings themselves. Our congregation would surely go with the liberal half, but two of our current Session members are youth-earth creationists, who would not be happy in that situation.

    I'm hoping we can manage to live together. Moving between presbyteries on the opposite ends of the spectrum probably isn't that common, and there aren't that many people who would be considered unacceptable. It may not be perfect, but I think it will work.

    The most difficult situation will be congregations that are out of keeping with their presbyteries, but this decision doesn't change that. The problem already exists. Our presbytery seems to be supportive of its conservative churches, but apparently not all are.

    It will be harder for a conservative presbytery if they get asked to accept a gay pastor because one of their liberal congregations want to call him. There will be a few bad moments. It's probably still better than the alternatives.

    My reading of the situation is that the problem is now so obvious that we're going to have to develop a non-geographical way to support conservative congregations. So in some ways this decision may actually encourage us to face a problem that's been present anyway for quite a while. A lot of people regret Kenyon and would like to see us avoid a reoccurrence.

    But it's too early to understand how things will end up. Both sides are saying that it will be up to congregations and presbyteries, and no one will have to accept an officer than they consider unacceptable. I believe that's true. But in fact no one, liberal or conservative, wants an inquisition in the sex lives of candidates (and in fact I don't think the Church would allow it). We haven't actually used black lists, nor have we peeked in people's windows. We've depended upon candidates to honor the position of the church and not to accept a position for which they are unqualified. All of the test cases have been candidates who were clear about the issue with them.

    But we no longer have that policy. Some churches and presbyteries indicate that they will have position papers at the local level, and I see no problem with that. But there's a limit to how far those can go, because no church or presbytery is permitted to add to the constitutional requirements for office. They can say "here's what we believe, please honor it" I think, but that's probably the farthest they can go. In most cases it will be enough. We honestly don't have many ideologues. Most members of the PCUSA care about Christ's mission in the world, and want to be helpful to other churches, even those with which they disagree. But if we have people who simplify reject each other as apostate, there's probably no alternative to separation.

    If we can treat each other as Christians, I have faith that we can live through this, and that facing the issues will make us stronger. If we can't, it will get ugly.
     
    Last edited: May 13, 2011
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