The Presbyterian Church in Ireland – Building Relationships by Destroying Them?

The Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI) made two decisions at its General Assembly last week that have caused some consternation. On Wednesday PCI made a formal break with the Church of Scotland because of its more liberal approach to gay marriage, and then on Friday they decided that those living in same-sex relationships cannot be communicant members because they cannot be regarded as making a “credible profession of faith.” As a result of the rules on baptism in the Presbyterian church, the children of such couples cannot be baptised.

Both decisions are erroneous.

The Church of Scotland

Such a formal break in a deeply ingrained historical relationship is utterly unwarranted and PCI has been incredibly short-sighted in breaking over an issue that is not – according to any historical creed – a Christian fundamental. There are many areas in which Christians disagree – some far more serious than this one – and to grandstand on the back of it in this way is to move in an isolationist and narrow-minded direction. Moreover, it reduces the chance of influencing the Church of Scotland and – dare I say it – actually learning from them. If the Church of Scotland is deemed (quite rightly) to be a Christian denomination, then cutting off such close historic ties is immensely uncharitable and has the potential to lead to further splits within PCI itself. Frankly, it looks petty-minded, smacks of an inability to accept difference, and is all the more baffling in light of the fact that the incoming Presbyterian Moderator has chosen the theme “Building Relationships” for his year in office. The Church of Scotland has remained with an outstretched hand in the hope of resuming the friendship, and surely PCI can learn a lesson here in Christian charity.

Same-Sex Relationships

In dealing with the second decision I won’t debate the ethics of homosexuality, homosexual relationships, or gay sex. Let’s grant PCI’s contentions: that gay sex is sinful, that same-sex relationships are sinful, and that God’s ideal is marriage between a man or a woman. Even by PCI’s own lights it is a huge mistake to disbar those in same-sex relationships from full membership. The decision lacks grace, misunderstands the nature of sin, repentance, and forgiveness, it dehumanises gay people, and smacks of elitist self-righteousness and hypocrisy.


In a cultural context in which members of the LGBT community have been on the receiving end of horrendous homophobic abuse at the hands of the church it is thoroughly opprobrious to single out homosexual relationships for censure. There are many in the church guilty of serious sins who can nonetheless participate as full members because we are willing to overlook them. Bob regularly loses his temper and continues to make excuses for himself. Jane gossips and continually defends herself as passing on prayer requests. Gary the worship leader is arrogant and boastful and engages in false humility to cover it. Tommy is a bigot whose low opinion of Roman Catholics is only marginally higher than his opinion of homosexuals. Pastors readily abuse their own authority and when challenged get defensive. Sometimes only years later they come to see just how bad their behaviour is. We excuse all these faults in ourselves or others, but fail to extend the same courtesy to homosexual Christians. When it comes to those in gay relationships shouldn’t we trust Christ to shape and mould them to his image over time just as he does with us? Instead, PCI has created an arbitrary hierarchy of sin, wherein the sins of LGBT people are viewed as worse than others. That will always sound self-righteous, hypocritical, and homophobic. This was a great opportunity to positively engage LGBT church members and rejoice that Christ is working within them and extending grace to them as they seek to live faithfully for him (even though we might disagree with them on a single moral issue). Instead the church has – on the back of a rather severe Doctrinal Committee report – adopted a position of hypocritical, haughty disdain.


Grace is sadly missing from PCI’s decision. We are all works in progress and, crucially, have many things wrong with us that we aren’t even currently aware of.

In my exchanges with others about PCI’s decision I have been told that “genuine Christians” will “repent,” just like Jesus told the woman caught in adultery to “go and sin no more.” Stafford Carson – the Principle of PCI’s Union Theological College – rather sniffily opined that the life of a Christian should be marked by obedience to Christ. What this response ignores is that repentance and sanctification are processes, not single events. When people convert they don’t suddenly become aware of all their faults and sins at once. No Christian – not even Professor Stafford Carson – is a work of sinless perfection and perfect obedience. Moreover, surely part of obedience to Christ is humility, and whatever humility means it surely includes an awareness that we might well be wrong about a point of theology or biblical interpretation.

Furthermore, many gay couples don’t agree that their relationships are sinful, so it isn’t as if they are “sinning wilfully,” as one person put it to me. Some more conservative Presbyterians have claimed that the issue is about the authority of Scripture. However, many gay couples agree with the authority of scripture, but they interpret certain passages differently. Christians disagree over many issues – and many of these issues are ones which I think are far more scripturally clear than this one. So, if a person confesses Jesus as Lord, if they are growing in Christian maturity, if they are valuable members of the church who care about the welfare of the other members, why are we denying them full membership? Even the inner circle of Jesus Christ himself included those who were to betray or deny they knew him.

There are many occasions when elders are right to be long-suffering about the public faults and sins of others. Many new converts, for example, can’t reasonably be expected to change overnight, and frankly we need to get rid of the notion that a sinner who converts on Saturday will come to church on Sunday looking and living like a brand new creation from the off. One church I know of was attended by a recently converted couple. They were living – and sleeping – together, had kids, but were not married. The church leaders didn’t discipline them. They were patient. They allowed them room to grow in maturity and understanding, to develop Christian friendships in the church, and then approached them with a question “hey, guys, why don’t you two get married! We’ll even help you pay for it!” And that’s what happened. Pastorally, this church got it 100% right, in my view. Sadly, there are some churches that would have sat them down, laid down the law from day 1, and probably would’ve never seen them again.

Some Presbyterians fear that permitting those in same-sex relationships to take full membership would amount to an endorsement of their lifestyle. However, that simply isn’t the case. Firstly, being in a same-sex relationship does not mean being in a sexual relationship. Even if it did, allowing them to be full members is not to publicly endorse a lifestyle PCI disagrees with any more than it agrees with the sins and faults of any other member or group of people who are entitled to full membership. For example, I am a communicant member of my local congregation and yet I publicly disagree with my church on numerous points of theology and practice. Moreover, I can be arrogant and condescending. This doesn’t disbar me from communion, nor does it mean PCI is affirming my views or behaviour. So, we’re not asking PCI to endorse same sex relationships. We’re asking them to be gracious towards people with which they disagree who are clearly brothers and sisters in Christ.


PCI has fallen into a familiar trap that dogs conservative evangelicalism: the inability to view homosexual people as anything other than homosexuals. Bob isn’t primarily viewed as an honest businessman who gives generously to the church and feeds the homeless. He’s viewed primarily as “Bob the homosexual.” No matter how great Bob is he will always be viewed by many Christians as nothing other than “gay;” a second-class Christian, if Christian at all. We have got to get away from this dehumanising practice and begin viewing people holistically. Being gay isn’t the defining characteristic of anyone, and it certainly shouldn’t be seen as a blight that nullifies or casts a shadow over everything else that’s good about a person. This is exactly what PCI is guilty of. They have effectively said “we don’t care what else is good about your life, your confession of Christian faith cannot be credible.”

These decisions demonstrate that PCI has a long way to go to reach out to LGBT people. The decisions were retrograde and unhelpful, and risk alienating not only those outside its walls but the many progressive voices within. Thankfully PCI already has a friend – the Church of Scotland – standing ready and willing to teach what it has learned. Now, how serious are they about “Building Relationships?”

Stephen J. Graham



Filed under Homosexuality, Presbyterianism

14 responses to “The Presbyterian Church in Ireland – Building Relationships by Destroying Them?

  1. John

    Your example of the recently converted couple is a perfect example of what should still happen in any Presbyterian church in regard to a same-sex couple:

    “They were patient. They allowed them room to grow in maturity and understanding, to develop Christian friendships in the church, and then approached them with a question”

    Clearly the church you use as an example believed that the couple should eventually come to understand that their current lifestyle needed to change. Why should a same-sex couple be treated any differently to a heterosexual couple like the one in your example? A heterosexual couple living together but not married would be welcome at any Presbyterian church and able to grow and develop there but to become full members or have leadership roles would have to accept that their lifestyle was incompatible with the church’s understanding of scripture. I think what we see in this decision by PCI is equality, not homophobia.

    • Equality? You must be operating with a different concept of equality to me, because homosexuals are far from being equals in our churches. We continually seek to hold homosexuals to higher standards than everyone else, such that their sins disbar them from full membership but our own sins never do. It’s self-righteous hypocrisy at work here with a lavish sprinkling of homophobia.

  2. I appreciate that, for the sake of argument, you grant the PCI’s apparent ‘homosexuality is sin’ position. But I’d just want to add that an increasing number of Christians do NOT accept that position, and think that its being pastorally unsound is only one of the many problems with it. Unlike the authors of Scripture, we today cannot plead ignorance of the existence of sexual orientation, which alone should cause a major rethink by the church. Bluntly, the church is ignorant on this issue, in not only the biological sense.

    • I agree with you completely. In case there should there be any doubt then let me say it explicitly: I do not agree with PCIs general position on homosexuality. The reason I granted it was simply to side-step arguments about the ethics of homosexuality or biblical interpretation which get played out all the time. There’s an assumption that granted PCIs position on homosexuality then it’s position on church membership logically follows. I wanted to show why that’s not the case – that even on PCIs own grounds it has made a bad decision.

  3. John

    In fairness, homosexuals are being held to the same standards as everyone else. Their ‘sins’ don’t disbar them from membership anymore than mine do, and no one is saying that same sex attraction is a sin.

    The church see’s sex as being exclusively something for a husband and wife. I’m a 40 year old married man who finds some 20 year old girls attractive. This doesn’t disbar me from membership. If I had an affair with a 20 year old girl, that wouldn’t disbar me from membership because forgiveness is available if I seek it and my church would love, help and support me. If however my wife and I decide we think an open marriage is fine and I can continue the affair then I’m not seeking forgiveness and that would be a problem.

    No sin disbars anyone from membership unless they don’t accept it as sin and that is the real issue.

    Jesus’ teaching on marriage is pretty clear in Matthew 19 and I don’t think he can ‘plead ignorance’ on anything! A lot of people I know, both homosexual and heterosexual are seeking and struggling to follow Jesus teaching on this and we should love and support them rather than dismiss their faithfulness as unnecessary and outdated.

    • It seems to me you’re a bit obsessed with sex, but we aren’t talking about sexual relationships. We’re talking about same-sex relationships, which may not include a sexual element. We’re talking about a homosexual couple who confess Jesus as Lord, love the church, and are committed to living the Christian life and growing in maturity. They understand biblical teaching on homosexuality differently than you do. Why should they be made second-class Christians by having membership withdrawn from them when we are happy to retain in membership those routinely or unknowingly guilty of many clear sins? Setting up such a double standard is always going to be interpreted as homophobic despite how you might see it as speaking the truth in love. Most of us live our lives engaged in sins which we don’t even know about yet, that’s part of the process of sanctification. Would you admit to that possibility: that there are things wrong in your life that you aren’t even aware of at present? In other words, that there might be sin in your life that you don’t even currently acknowledge as sin? I suspect there is, and I’m simply saying we should extend the grace we assume for ourselves to those who see things differently on this point. Are you really wanting to say that no-one in a same-sex relationship can be a Christian? Really?

      • John

        Are we not talking about sexual relationships? If two people of the same sex have a relationship without a sexual element then I’m not sure they do have a different understanding of biblical teaching than me!

        Would you allow the church to draw any lines on what it considers a credible profession of faith or can anyone live in anyway they want and claim to understand biblical teaching differently?

        I am happy to admit to the wrongs in my life that I know about and that there could well be ones that I don’t know about. But if they’re pointed out to me I can’t just say “well that’s just how I am”.

        I am not comfortable with many of the bible’s teaching and I wish it was easier than it is. It seems so unfair that the bible would call on someone with same sex attraction to deny themselves or for a single man who hasn’t found a wife to deny himself or for a person who loves gossip or money or whatever to deny themselves but we are all called in various ways to die to self. We don’t get to pick and choose which areas of our lives we give Jesus Lordship over. To paraphrase a well known speaker “if the creator of the world says that all Irish people have to stand on their head…I’m going to try to do it because he’s the creator”.

        Jesus calls everyone as they are but none of us can demand to stay as we are.

  4. Hi John,

    Thanks for responding again.

    No, we aren’t talking about sexual relationships. PCI’s decision didn’t draw any distinction between same-sex relationships with or without a sexual element. Same-sex relationships are not necessarily sexual. However, even if they are my original point still stands. One thing PCI got correct was the question: is it possible to be in a same-sex relationship and have a credible profession of faith. But I can’t see any basis – biblical or rational or moral – for doing what PCI has done and answer “no” for all people in same-sex relationships. Judging a “credible profession of faith” can only be done in the context of relationships by local elders who have put the time and effort in to getting to know a person. It’s neither wise for rational to try to draw up a list of sins which forbid membership because all people are different and have different understandings of scripture. PCI is trying to pontificate from on high, and that’s completely illegitimate in these cases for reasons I’ve already explained. Blanket solutions to complex relational issues are always going to end up causing destruction – to people already struggling to make sense of their faith and to the witness of the church which just ends up looking legalistic, hypocritical, and homophobic.

    I’m glad to see you admit that “there could well be [sins] that I don’t know about.” All I’m asking is you view homosexual people the same way. Let’s assume their relationships are sinful. If so, why can’t you allow them the room to grow in grace, just like you need to do too? On what grounds are they to be denied membership if they are – like you – blind about one element of their life? Why do you get membership when they don’t? You really don’t see a double-standard?


    • John

      Thanks for engaging Stephen, it’s always good to try to understand another view on a difficult topic and you explain your opinion very well. I can’t agree with you but I’m glad of the opportunity to think deeply about these issues.

      I don’t think the word homophobic is at all appropriate because the broader biblical teaching that PCI are holding to applies equally to homosexuals and heterosexuals.

      Of course there will be room to grow in grace for same sex couples. Nobody is saying there isn’t. However the comparison with sins in my life I may be completely unaware of is not valid. A same sex couple who seek full membership will be made aware of the clash between their lifestyle and what the church holds as biblical teaching so it won’t be unknown.

      If my elders draw to my attention an area of my life that is incompatible with the bible’s teaching then I can’t claim it’s unknown….I either recognise the need to address the issue or decide I think it’s fine. But if I tell them I don’t agree with their assessment that I’m intentionally living in a way that is incompatible with biblical teaching then I won’t be accepted as a full member. I’ll be welcome to stay and grow and they will try to help me but they can’t just ignore the issue in case I’m offended. I honestly don’t see a double standard.

  5. John,

    I understand the word homophobic sounds harsh, but I think it is suitable in this case when the sins of gay people are held as worse than those of non-gay people. Non-gay rarely lose their membership for sins they are blind to.

    Now, you lose sight of the fact that this isn’t just about church membership. It’s about the ability of a person to be regarded as making a “credible profession of faith.” You seem to understand PCI as saying something like: “our church forbids same-sex relations amongst members, so those who persist in such relationships are barred from taking membership.” But what PCI has said is much more severe than that. They have said that anyone in a same-sex relationship can’t be regarded as seriously making a “credible confession of faith.” So, not only are they denying membership to people, they are denying their existence as brothers and sisters in Christ. That’s obscene, particularly in light of the fact that PCI has made this decision from on high without having put time and effort into building relationships with the individuals it’s so ready and willing to pontificate about.

    Moving on to your later comment, you write gay people in relationships “will be made aware of the clash between their lifestyle and what the church holds as biblical teaching so it won’t be unknown.” Of course not, but that misses the point I made earlier: that gay people *disagree* that their relationships are forbidden and they interpret the relevant texts differently, so it really isn’t accurate to say that since they’ve been informed by their elders that they cannot be ignorant of their sin. They can- and do – disagree with their elders on this point. You write “if I tell them I don’t agree with their assessment that I’m intentionally living in a way that is incompatible with biblical teaching then I won’t be accepted as a full member.” But gay people aren’t intentionally living in a way incompatible with the Bible. They think it IS compatible. It’s not like they KNOW their relationships are sinful, so their “sin” is not intentional. And this brings me back to my earlier point: the issue isn’t just “you can’t be a member.” The issue is “you can’t be a member because you cannot make a credibly profession of faith because of this one aspect of your life.”

    I end with a question I asked earlier but you haven’t answered yet, but it’s pretty crucial: do you agree with PCI that those in same-sex relationships are not capable of making a “credible profession of faith?”


  6. John

    Homophobic is definitely not a suitable word. Unmarried couples living together that I know have been seen as unable to make a credible profession of faith without submitting this area of their lives to the Lordship of Christ and his teaching. It’s not rare at all but now that same sex marriages are legal in many places it was necessary for PCI to make their position clear.

    I think the way they have handled it was poor and came across as unloving but I agree with them that to follow Jesus means being willing to submit to his teaching. Not to be perfect but to be willing. It’s counter cultural and it’s a position that will see you hated in many circles but that’s part of being a follower.

    How far outside Jesus teaching in Matthew 19 do you think it is possible to go and still make a credible profession of faith? Is anything ok as long as it’s they way I understand the bible? Do you disagree that PCI should draw any line at all or just disagree with where they have drawn a line?

    • Hi John,

      I suppose we’ll have to agree to differ about the suitability of the world homophobia. In any event, you still haven’t answered my question: Do you think people in same-sex relationships are unable to make a credible profession of faith?

      I don’t disagree with your comment that “to follow Jesus means being willing to submit to his teaching. Not to be perfect but to be willing.” Of course, but exactly what Jesus demands is disputed, and disputed by some who are in same-sex relationships and are nonetheless clearly Christians who are willing to follow Christ just as much as you or I. Do you dispute that?

      As for your questions “How far outside Jesus teaching in Matthew 19 do you think it is possible to go and still make a credible profession of faith? Is anything ok as long as it’s they way I understand the bible? Do you disagree that PCI should draw any line at all or just disagree with where they have drawn a line?” My position is that the drawing of boundaries or making lists of sins that forbid church membership is utterly unhelpful because it ignores the relational dimension that makes all the difference in these cases. Decisions about the genuineness of a profession of faith can only be made by those who know a person, who observes their life, who listens to them, and who has built a relationship with them, who has walked with them some of the way. It can’t be pronounced from on high, as PCI has done. There is no formula that can be prescribed in advance. Life is messier than that.

      Stephen G.

      • D. Howard Gilpin

        Can I simply make the point that PCI’s postion is that of the vast majority of Christendom i.e. that all sexual relationships outside the marriage bond of a man and woman are sinful. This is what Jesus clearly stated in Mark 7 vs 20-23 where word for adultery means this as vast majority of biblical scholars concur.
        Regarding COS the crucial loint made in the debate was that the COS have denied the authority of Scripture as is evident from their theological forum’s report on same sex marriage. This is a serious departure for a church which permits one of its clergy to deny the substitionary atonement. The issue here is ultimately not homosexuality but the infallibility, clarity and sufficiency of scripture on all matters of faith and practice. All elders (teaching and ruling in PCI) at their ordination accept in their vows such infallibility of God’s Word. That is what is at stake here.

  7. Heather

    Two things I want to clarify

    The break of relationship was not as simple as solely because of same sex relationships but also for other reasons eg Church of Scotland now not holding to west minster confession of faith. Many brothers and sisters in church of Scotland have welcomed this stand from pci as they feel they have not been listened to as they try to stand for truth and this stand from outside reinforces to church leadership that others also agree with them.

    Secondly It is important to clarify that within the Reformed tradition the notion of a ‘credible profession’ is effectively a shorthand for not only a credible profession of Christ as Saviour but also a credible walk in obedience to him as Lord – PCI Doctrine Committee Appendix 2. I have read your article and you gloss over the wall in obedience. When someone is aware of the way God wants them to live then it is important to make every effort with Gods help and the help of the church to do this. Whatever folks think of same sex relationships or how much they want it, the bible says it is wrong. Once you are aware of truth you have to live in it. The same would apply for anyone who lives in a way that goes against God – that person may initially not be aware of what sin is but when God works in your life he makes you aware and convicts you.

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