Controversy is Baked Right In: On Marriage, the Middle East, and the Presbyterian Church


Those rainbow colors had us all a-muddled last week…

1. I was not elected vice moderator of the Presbyterian General Assembly.

2. I’m home, and very glad to be so.

3. We made some people mad last week.

…Those are in reverse order of importance.

The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) made decisions about marriage and the Middle East that left some of us celebrating, and others of lamenting or downright furious. You can read my take on the marriage decision at TIME.

Temperamentally speaking, Presbyterians are not firebrand folk. We joke about being the Frozen Chosen and doing things “decently and in order.” (That’s from the Bible, by the way.) So it’s a bit uncomfortable for us to be in the news, even if we agree with the decisions made last week.

But as my friend Jan Edmiston reminds us, Faithfulness is Disruptive.  And last week, after hours of deliberation, conversation, prayer and discernment, a majority of commissioners decided that the faithful thing was to give pastors and churches the discretion to perform same-sex marriages where they are legal, and to divest from three companies who are profiting from non-peaceful pursuits in the Palestinian territories, in keeping with a long-standing policy of socially-responsible investing.

Some people wonder why we wade into controversial issues at all. Churches will leave the denomination, they say. Our long-standing partnerships with Jewish congregations are in serious jeopardy.

Yes, and yes. Here’s the hard thing though, for big-tent, good-natured Presbyterians: that doesn’t make the decisions wrong.

A friend of mine posted this on Facebook yesterday–a snippet from last week’s Feasting on the Word:

If Jesus were really the affirming nice guy we often insist on imagining, should he not have been able to stay out of trouble? What incited people to call him such appalling names? Why would following him wreck families? How did he end up on a cross? The answer is not that his opponents had strange and unsettling ideas, but that he did. Contrary to popular opinion and bestselling books, not everything the follower of Jesus needs to know can be learned in kindergarten. Kingdom work, it turns out, is more controversial and subversive than conventional kindness.

Not every controversial action is of the gospel, of course. We may have gotten it wrong last week. But the potential for controversy is not a reason to do nothing.

When you’re talking about Jesus, subversiveness is baked right in.

That said, conventional kindness is a welcome overlay to all this. So be kind, folks; everyone is fighting a great battle.


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photo credit: incurable_hippie via photopin cc

18 thoughts on “Controversy is Baked Right In: On Marriage, the Middle East, and the Presbyterian Church

  1. Kathy B

    Well said, MaryAnn. We have already lost a few members because of the decisions at this year’s GA, but that doesn’t mean the decisions were wrong. And we must try to be compassionate to those who disagree with us, as you encourage us to do. May we all reach out across the divisions with the radical love of Christ. Bless you for all you do and for speaking to so many of us in your posts.

  2. Bob Braxton

    The snippet asks: why would following Jesus wreck families? To put such a question into context, it might be good for the writer (of that question/comment) to seek out the Sunday sermon by Dr. Roger Gench at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church (the web site, scroll down) where he points out the (admittedly Middle) Eastern origin(s) of Christianity – and uses some example of koan, suggesting in the process that “sword not peace” may fall into such a category. Also, I was at GA220 and saw the enthusiasm / energy displayed on “sleeves” and T-shirts both before and after an even closer vote (Middle East) and the song / words John Denver sang resonate between my ears: Whose to say you have to Lose for someone else to Win?” (the same lectionary passage has words about who finds will lose – or who loses will find – another example of great reversal which is broader Biblically than just New Testament. Just sayin’

  3. Gary Swaim

    Thank you, MaryAnn. From a distance, I learned of the controversial decisions made by the GA. And, while I was so very pleased, personally, for both of the biggies, I couldn’t help but wonder what the discussion was like. I had no success trying to log in to the “feed”; so, I sat and wondered whether there were angry clashes, stirring spirits, inappropriate and unkind lunges. I can only hope that somehow, sometime. . .we will learn not to run at one another, blades drawn, searching for flesh. As I think of it all now, if temperaments were of this brutalizing sort, I’m glad the “feed” didn’t feed me. Yes, we are of this world, but are we not also not of this world? Tempering peace to us all. Gary

    1. Bob Braxton

      The Live Streaming on the whole worked well – of course our residence has FiOS (fiber optic) connection

      1. amy fowler

        Mary Ann: it has been a gift to get to know you! Thanks for this and the op-ed. You are representing us so well!

  4. anne

    as always, i’m glad for the opportunity to see things through your lens. you open up new perspectives on ordinary and extraordinary things.

    i’ve enjoyed chuckling about spending time watching two sessions to the ga via the online stream. some of my friends might tell me to get a life. i think i have one!


  5. C emrich

    It’s interesting how the GA condemns caterpillar, HP and Motorola for profiting from the war between Israel and Palestine so it feels compel to divest its shares. Yet, the GA also distances itself from “Zionism Unsettled” but made a profit from selling the pamphlet on the PCUSA website. Perhaps, in order to remain consistent and not be hypocritical the GA should divest itself From the PCUSA?

  6. Kelley Shin

    Thank you. A good reminder following a rather passionate Sunday back home in a farm community.

  7. Sean Johnston

    Were we convinced that the voting process were truly democratic, thoughts might be different. It is not democratic and the members of the denomination have not been properly represented for some time now. Yes, you made plenty of people mad. You probably were sent by your congregation though it sounds as though your vote may not represent them. I realize that is not the plan but then the plan has been wrong with commissioners not representing the wishes of the congregations that sent them.

    1. MaryAnn McKibben Dana Post author

      I was not sent by my congregation. I was elected, like all minister and elder commissioners, by the presbytery. And we are specifically tasked to discern the will of God, NOT to represent our congregations. That is explicit in our church’s polity.

      You may feel we got it wrong. Plenty of people do. But to say that our failure was in not representing our congregations is incorrect.

  8. Sarah Erickson

    Thoughtful, honest, forthright, gentle, firm and fair. Those words come to mind. Thanks, again, for your distillations and reflections. Prayers continue to ascend.


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