Presbyterian Church has no right to deny full membership to same-sex couples

No vaccine can cure the urge to discriminate

I haven’t gone to church since they reopened. It’s not Covid 19 that I fear. I’ve been vaccinated against that. But there’s no vaccine for judgmentalism, double standards and discrimination. Well, not yet.

I’ve been a Presbyterian, attending regularly, for 80 years. For decades I was part of the local governance. More recently I’ve been deeply uncomfortable about the church’s attitude to same-sex unions. I have absolutely no personal vested interests save that of upholding every human’s dignity and seeing justice done.

Our faith and understanding should be grounded in the scriptures but informed by the discoveries of the physical sciences

Presbyterians, by nature, are dissenters: questioning everything and refusing to blindly toe the line. Fundamental to Presbyterianism is the right to private judgment in matters of faith. So, for example, a generation before most Irish people, many Presbyterians made up their own minds about contraception.

Presbyterians acknowledge the scriptures as the fundamental rule and standard of faith. But it’s not enough to know what the scriptures say. We strive to understand what they mean, both when written and in our current context.


I greatly value two Presbyterian fundamentals. First is the acknowledged right, privilege and duty of every person to examine the scriptures and determine, in private judgment, their meaning.

The second is not to refuse light from any quarter, and not to put our own reason above the scriptures. In other words, our faith and understanding should be grounded in the scriptures but informed by the discoveries of the physical sciences, sociology, anthropology, cosmology or any other branch of scientific knowledge.

It makes for a living, vibrant, engaging, informed and relevant faith.

Examining the scriptures, some have come to positions which affirm same-sex relationships while others have reached an opposite position. That’s their right, privilege and duty.

General assembly

In 2018 the Presbyterian church’s governing body, the general assembly, stepped in and, effectively, denied those rights, privileges and duties.

In that year, the doctrine committee reported to the general assembly, “In light of our understanding of scripture and the church’s understanding of a credible profession of faith, same-sex couples are not eligible for communicant membership, nor are they qualified to receive baptism for their children . . . We believe that their outward conduct and lifestyle is at variance with a life of obedience to Christ.”

What about anger, pride, envy, greed, selfishness, arrogance, deceit, gluttony, covetousness, drunkenness, laziness and lust?

Many are deeply disturbed by that decision, which remains “on the books”. Of course, the church has both the right to determine its understanding of all types of relationships and to say what it believes acceptable and unacceptable. But it has no right to right to create double standards, which it does in denying full membership to same-sex couples.

Given that theologians, globally, have not arrived at consensus on matters of sexuality, it’s difficult to see how this church reconciles its stated position with the privilege of individuals to prayerfully determine God’s leading on matters of sexuality and to arrive at a different conclusion.

Hierarchy of sins

The outworking of that decision raises a perceived hierarchy of sins. The church has, and is entitled to, its own definition of marriage. Communicant membership is not denied to couples living in other sexual relationships outside that understanding of marriage.

So why deny membership to same-sex couples who, like countless Christians around the world, have examined the scriptures and arrive at a different understanding? It’s difficult to imagine any reason other than fear, ignorance, judgmentalism or prejudice. None of these is a Christian virtue.

Whenever I raise the issue I’m quoted the Genesis story of Sodom and Gomorrah. It’s pointed out how the ‘Sodomites’ were destroyed in showers of sulphur.

But another Presbyterian practice is to interpret one scripture with other scriptures. Ezekiel, in his writing, includes a broader range of reasons for the judgment of Sodom: arrogance, being overfed and unconcerned, being neglectful of the poor and needy, being haughty and a list of other detestable things.

If the church is to be consistent, full membership should also be denied to those among us guilty of these sins – and a host of other sins. What about anger, pride, envy, greed, selfishness, arrogance, deceit, gluttony, covetousness, drunkenness, laziness and lust? There’d be a rapid decline in membership.

I'm undecided about going back. When I last voiced my view, pre-Covid, I think I might have experienced social distancing before it was a thing in Ireland.