Johnson: The gospel demands the PCUSA open its understanding of marriage to LGBT people

covnetlogoEditor’s note: The Presbyterian Lay Committee (PLC), the publisher of The Layman and The Layman Online, does not support same-sex marriage. Instead, the PLC “believes with Scripture that God ordained the lifelong marriage of a man and a woman in the very order of creation and that Jesus Christ, the Head of the Church, blessed and sanctified this relationship. The article here was posted as a news story about the Covenant Network’s 2013 conference on “Marriage Matters.”


CHICAGO, Ill. — “The gospel is at stake,” declared William Stacy Johnson during his presentation at last week’s Covenant Network of Presbyterians 2013 conference, “Marriage Matters.”

Speaking to the approximately 200 people in Buchanan’s Chapel at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, Johnson volunteered to do anything anyone asked to try to urge the Presbyterian Church (USA) to “open its understanding of marriage to the gay and lesbian people, because, just as I have come to the conclusion that the gospel demanded the ending of slavery, the gospel demands it.”

Johnson said that in looking at the “life of Jesus — not at proof texts or doctrine — Jesus engaged in table fellowship with everyone, the tax collectors, the sinners, the outcasts … Salvation and solidarity have to be linked. You can’t have one without the other. If you think you can have salvation without having solidarity with our brothers and sisters, then you are wrong.”

Greeting the standing room only crowd, Stacy called them a prophetic witness to God in Christ. “You have stayed faithful to this church when this church has not always been faithful to you and that is a testimony to Christ’s faithfulness that humbles me and keeps me in ministry. It keeps me believing in the power of God.”



Audience members listen to William Stacy Johnson speak at last week’s Covenant Network conference in Chicago, Ill.

He was grateful for the conference’s topic since marriage does matter. “It matters that we have this conversation, because marriage for many is either an entry ramp into the church or an exit ramp out of the church.”

Johnson said that one sociological factor that determines if a person joins a church is whether they are married. “When you come to church as a single person it can sometimes be intimidating and overwhelming when you see all couples sitting around.”

Marriage, he said, “is an extremely important entry ramp not only into the church, but to blessings beyond marriage.”

Johnson told a story about when his wife had cancer surgery. Once the surgery was over and “things were looking good,” he left the hospital to take care of a few mundane things at home. He got back to the hospital, only to find the doors locked. Visiting hours were over.

“I was distraught, so I started banging on the door.” he said. Finally a janitor came to the door, but only opened it enough to say, “Visiting hours are over.”

Stacy told the janitor that his wife was in the hospital, that she had cancer, and the janitor let him in the building.

“I was overwhelmed with emotion,” he said, “because it just hit me, if we had been a same-gender couple without the recognition of marriage and all that implies, that door would have remained shut … Marriage matters is an entry ramp into all kinds of things.”


An exit ramp

“It is also an exit ramp,” said Johnson. One reason may be that young people are delaying marriage; therefore, they are also delaying church

Another exit ramp is the fact that even though young people are not in the church in large numbers, Johnson said “they are not stupid. They pay attention, and they know what is going on. They watch our every move, and the church’s refusal to extend marriage to gay and lesbian couples is prompting many young people to quit the church.”

Johnson asked, “What is the church about if the main thing they seem to be concerned about is shutting the door on this one group of people? Whether [young people] know Bible or not, say the creed or not — they know it is wrong. This tells you that they know the gospel deep down inside and as soon as we know it, we can get along with the gospel.”


Change between first and second editions of book

Johnson is the author of A Time to Embrace: Same Gender Relationships in Religion, Law and Politics. A second edition of the book was released recently.

He said that when he wrote the first edition of the book, only one state – Massachusetts – approved gay marriage and only Vermont and Connecticut approved civil unions.

“I predicted this would change, but I had no idea how quickly it would,” he said, adding that he had to write a second edition of the book because of all the change.

When the second edition was published in 2012, seven jurisdictions had same-sex marriage and five states offered civil unions. “In the year that has passed it has changed again,” he said. The numbers have now doubled.

“So when I first started doing this work, the marriage issue was a possibility that we were pushing for. Now it is a firmly rooted reality,” said Johnson, “not in every one of your states, but everyone knows that it is coming. It’s just a question of when and how … the argument has shifted … because family bonding is so important, it is impossible not to support” same-sex marriage.

In Johnson’s opinion, the argument has shifted so much, that now, “there is no such thing as gay marriage. There is simply marriage.”

The burden of proof used to be a terrible oppression on the LGBT people “to prove that they had worth,” said Johnson. “Now things have shifted and the burden of proof is on the church to show why we are so stingy in withholding recognition, grace, acceptance for so long … the burden of proof has shifted so much that we have to prove ‘why does the church matter, why does Christianity matter?’ Young people ask is Christianity really anti-gay? Do I really want to be Christian? That is what is happening.”

“Ironically, marriage matters,” he said, “because how we answer this question and which version of Christianity emerges in the process may determine the future of Christianity in America … the stakes are big, not only for gay and lesbian folk, but for the meaning of Christianity in our context …The burden has shifted and we are the ones on the witness stand.”


The needs of the many …

Johnson then turned his attention to an unlikely subject: Star Trek. Summarizing the second Star Trek movie, “The Wrath of Khan,” he discussed a quote from Spock, one of the movie’s main characters.

In explaining why he sacrificed his life to save the starship and its crew, Spock spoke some of his final words: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few – or the one.”

In the Star Trek series, Spock is a Vulcan, a species know for its use of logic. “Spock’s logic is irrefutable,” said Johnson, and in some ways the PCUSA has been operating under this kind of logic. “We have basically told gay and lesbian folk next year – it’s next year – hold on. The amazing thing to me is how many people have held on.”

In the next Star Trek move – “The Search for Spock” – Johnson said that it turns out that Spock is still alive and his friends risk their lives to save him. When he asks them at the end of the movie why they risked everything, the answer was, “The needs of the few – or the one – outweigh the needs of the many.”

“That is Christian in a way,” he said. “I am at the point that the needs of the few, the one — that’s where the gospel is … That is where we are being tested as to what the gospel is or is not … I believe, and I am a big church unity guy – I believe that unity without justice and without solidarity with the one, does not deserve the name Christian.”

Johnson claimed that “extending the covenant of marriage to exclusively-committed gay and lesbian couples does not represent a departure from longstanding political or religious principles but a deepening of them – the deepening of what we know … I think that the meaning of the gospel is at stake as well.”

“We have to be all about the gospel,” he said, adding that “marriage matters enormously in how we think about the gospel today.”

Johnson said the gospel is a task, a journey, and that “we aren’t there yet.”

“Our very belief in the resurrection is what makes me sure I am right on this,” he said. “The resurrection makes me believe that God is not finished with us. The gospel has not come into complete fruition in our midst.”


Seeing beyond

“This is an issue we have to read with Scripture,” said Johnson, “to see beyond what the Biblical writers envision. They could not envision what we are experiencing today.”

Johnson said that Paul could never envision the end of slavery. The ending of slavery was unthinkable to even the most liberal, progressive intellectual thinks. “Slavery was a tough one. Guess what? This is a tough one too,” he said.

Johnson vowed to do anything he was asked to do to “try to urge the PCUSA to open its understanding of marriage to the gay and lesbian people, because, just as I have come to the conclusion that the Gospel demands the ending of slavery, the gospel demands it.”

“The gospel is at stake. In this I am saying something that was only vaguely clear to me in during the first book … The needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many,” he said, and because Johnson looked at the “life of Jesus, not at proof texts or doctrine, but Jesus engaged in table fellowship with everyone, the tax collectors, the sinners, the outcasts … Salvation and solidarity have to be linked. You can’t have one without the other. If you think you can have salvation without having solidarity with our brothers and sisters, then you are wrong.”

“My message for you and for me,” said Johnson, is that “We are in a time, maybe like no other in American history … our children are prophesying against us. We need the gospel to happen to us – desperately.”

Johnson is Princeton Theological Seminary’s Arthur M. Adams Professor of Systematic Theology.

Paula R. Kincaid