As an African and an ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church of Ghana teaching at a seminary of the Presbyterian Church (USA), I have keenly followed the fractious debate on the subject of same-sex relations within the Presbyterian family of churches. It is hard to generalize about African and American societies and cultures in all their respective complexities and contradictions. But one distinction can be sharply maintained: The mainstream acceptance and promotion of same-sex relations in the West and America is solidly opposed in African societies.
My first “welcome to America” moment occurred when I invited an imam to my Introduction to Islam class at Columbia Theological Seminary.The imam talked about the basic tenets of Islam for an hour and asserted, among other things, that Jesus is not the Son of God, denied that he was crucified, and maintained that the Bible has been falsified. My students listened respectfully throughout the lecture. When he paused and invited discussion, the students replied with rather timid and politically correct queries, at which point the imam said: “Why are you not asking me about jihad, about terrorism, women? I know you have all these questions. Why are you not asking me the hard questions?” So one student queried him about Islamic teaching on homosexuality. The imam answered by defining the practice as un-Islamic, not of God, unnatural. Suddenly, the faces of a good number of the students went red with shock and rage. I stepped in and gently steered the discussion away from the topic.
After the class ended, the few conservative students in the class approached and slyly suggested that I invite the imam again. Other students urged me to cancel a scheduled visit to the mosque the following Friday. I resisted those efforts and we all visited the mosque, after which the imam and his elders unexpectedly hosted the class for an Ethiopian feast. A lesbian student who had been most upset after the class confessed that she was glad she came, because she saw a hospitable and warm side of the imam.
As I look back upon the whole episode, I think I ended up more unsettled than my students. They were agitated by what the imam said about homosexuality, but seemed wholly at ease with his negation of fundamental Christian beliefs. If this were a seminary in Ghana, my home country, the reverse would have been the case.
A second incident followed shortly afterward. It concerned the student family housing policy at the seminary that defined marriage as between a man and a woman. Many on campus denounced it, insisting that the policy discriminated against same-sex couples and should therefore be changed. I asked the Dean of Students whether any same-sex couple had been denied accommodation, and was told that there has never been a same-sex couple that requested family housing. I was perplexed. It seemed to me that tensions were raised among students and faculty needlessly, perhaps merely because some people felt entitled to an ideological victory lap.
I wrote an email to colleagues in which I said that, given the present climate of divisive debate on the issue within the church, we should be circumspect, avoiding situations when we take controversial public stances about homosexuality for purely symbolic reasons. I pointed out how such positions could affect our enrollments, especially from the Global South.
The responses I got from faculty and staff ranged from condescension to outright commands to “suck it up.” If Christians in Africa didn’t like it, well, that just showed that they stood in desperate need of education from the West on issues of women and homosexuality. Only a few faculty colleagues would converse with me on the issue, while a few staff expressed full-hearted support.
The amount of controversy surrounding homosexuality at the seminary has not taken me by surprise. In 2010, the 219th General Assembly of the PC(USA) passed what became known as Amendment 10-A to its Ordination Standards (ratified in 2011). The original ordination standards read as follows:
Those who are called to office in the church are to lead a life in obedience to Scripture and in conformity to the historic confessional standards of the church. Among these standards is the requirement to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman . . . or chastity in singleness. Persons refusing to repent of any self-acknowledged practice which the confessions call sin shall not be ordained and/or installed as deacons, elders or ministers of the Word and Sacrament.
The language of the new ordination standards reads:
Standards for ordained service reflect the church’s desire to submit joyfully to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all aspects of life. The governing body responsible for ordination and/or installation shall examine each candidate’s calling, gifts, preparation and suitability for the responsibilities of office. The examination shall include, but not be limited to, a determination of the candidate’s ability and commitment to fulfill all the requirements as expressed in the constitutional questions for ordination and installation. Governing bodies shall be guided by Scripture and the confessions in applying standards to individual candidates.
By removing “the requirement to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness,” the new standards open up the possibility that practicing homosexuals can be considered for ordination. For that matter, cohabiting heterosexuals can be ordained. Given the sexual mores of contemporary American society, by dropping the requirement of faithful marriage for couples and chastity for singles, the PC(USA)’s new standards clearly show that these are no longer biblical values that must be observed. The old formulation about living “in obedience to Scripture and in conformity to the historic confessional standards of the church,”has also been removed, a further suggestion that the PC(USA) is distancing itself from the authority of scriptural norms.
Four years later, the 221st General Assembly (2014) of the PC(USA) approved Amendment 14-F of its Book of Order to redefine marriage, which has since been ratified:
Marriage is a gift God has given to all humankind for the wellbeing of the entire human family. Marriage involves a unique commitment between two people, traditionally a man and a woman, to love and support each other for the rest of their lives. The sacrificial love that unites the couple sustains them as faithful and responsible members of the church and the wider community.
The union between a man and a woman is traditional, but no longer necessary. This opens the way for PC(USA) ministers to perform same-sex weddings.
These changes strike me as drastic. Downplaying obedience to Scripture, significantly dismantling the sexual discipline expected of church leaders, redefining marriage—I longed for a genuine discussion of what it all means for the church. But I have found little interest among my colleagues in America. Many regard further discussion as backward-looking and counterproductive. We seem to have a new orthodoxy in the church, and the task is to carry it forward. I find that some of my fellow Presbyterians have misgivings, but regard the subject as too hot, something to be avoided or whispered between confidants. The church has not been immune to the denunciatory spirit of secular activists working for gay rights.
What my American colleagues affirm as necessary or accept as inevitable strikes the vast majority of Africans as highly controversial, even bizarre. In order to confront this divergence of views, I helped organize a Global North-South Consultation on Human Sexuality, which took place in July 2013 outside Accra, Ghana. People on all sides of the sexuality debate presented papers and responses, which were subsequently published in a special issue of the Journal of African Christian Thought. While neither the Global North nor South was univocal on the issue (we deliberately invited people from both sides of the debate from both hemispheres), there were clear and sharp disagreements about Scripture, biblical interpretation, and cultural factors as they bear on the church’s teaching about sex, marriage, and family.
The African view enunciated at the consultation was that both Testaments clearly proscribe homosexual acts. African participants expressed the concern that since homosexual practice in the Bible is almost always named with other acts and behaviors also described as sinful, normalizing one would mean normalizing the others, such as stealing, moral corruption, violence, idolatry, and so forth. This stance reflects a general tendency among African Christians to accord great authority to the Bible. African participants saw a muddying of biblical teaching on sex as undermining the Bible’s authority overall. This muddying, moreover, only seems explicable to Africans as the result of a tacit capitulation to changing cultural norms in the Global North.
To affirm that the Bible condemns homosexual practice as sinful is neither a uniquely African literalist reading of Scripture nor the view of right-wing Evangelical homophobes. It is a view shared by some liberal, pro-gay, Western biblical scholars. Dan O. Via, a pro-gay New Testament scholar, in Homosexuality and the Bible: Two Views, allows that “the biblical texts that deal specifically with homosexual practice condemn it unconditionally.” Walter Wink, a well-known liberal New Testament professor, is equally clear in his review of Robert Gagnon’s important work The Bible and Homosexual Practice: “Efforts to twist the text to mean what it clearly does not say are deplorable. Simply put, the Bible is negative toward same-sex behavior, and there is no getting around it.”
Africans are also not alone in their concern that the culture of the Global North, not theological reflection or disciplined scriptural interpretation, is driving changes. In their presentations on the changing attitudes of Western churches on same-sex relations, North American and European participants at the Accra consultation talked about how pro-gay legislation and court rulings are affecting church policies and teaching. American presenters underscored the power of media celebrities such as Anderson Cooper of CNN, Oprah Winfrey, and Ellen Degeneres.
African churches operate in a different cultural climate. A number of the African presenters highlighted the cultural factors that sustain the traditional view, including the centrality of the family unit and the roles of men and women in the stability of the family, the view of marriage as primarily procreative, and the role of traditions that glue together present, past, and future generations.
As I have reflected on the consultation, I have come to the conclusion that the doctrinal differences between American liberals and African traditionalists originate in deeper conflicts. We may argue about what the Bible says about sexuality, but there is a broader, unstated disagreement over the Bible itself. For mainstream Western society, the Bible is an ancient text that might arouse intellectual curiosity or become the subject of historical analysis, but it is hardly a sacred book. It has no more authority in American culture than the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, Gettysburg Address, Martin Luther King’s speeches, and other notable historic statements. Dropping the language of “obedience to Scripture” and “conformity to the historic confessional standards” from the PC(USA) Ordination Standards underscores this point.
The Bible has a very different status in African societies. Where Christianity has become dominant in the last century, the Bible remains a sacred text, relevant and living. The Bible is more than a compilation of historical documents. It is, in very significant ways, an African Testament. For large segments of African Christian societies, the world of the Bible is contemporary. Old and New Testament narratives of sacrifice, polygamy, plague, agriculture, dancing, shepherds, tensions between nomadic pastoralism and peasant dwellers, epidemics, and war have immediate relevance. Andrew Walls remarks, “You do not have to interpret Old Testament Christianity to Africans; they live in an Old Testament world.” The word of God is literally “living and active” in the African context. A leading African theologian, Kwame Bediako, has said:
In becoming Christian I discovered I was becoming African again. I was recovering my sense of the spirituality of life. I was recovering my sense of the nearness of the living God. I was recovering my African sense of the wholeness of life. I find in becoming Christian, I am being more African than I think I was. I am being more who I am.
African societies have undergone great changes, beginning with colonization, through independence, and now under the influence of powerful forces of globalization. But we have not experienced the cultural and intellectual convulsions Western societies have experienced in the modern era. The West lived the Enlightenment with its emphasis on empiricism and individualism. The sexual revolution of the 1960s happened in the West. Africans are of course influenced by all this and more. We have absorbed Western science and adopted Western politics, for example.
One important difference, however, has been the enduring importance of traditional conceptions of family and morality. This largely shields Africans from the cultural upheavals that America has suffered, including redefinitions of male-female roles, chastity, holiness, and, of course, the normalization of homosexual sex. Liberal American Christians judge the African position on homosexuality as cruel to one set of human beings. But Africans have no problem in naming homosexuality a sin and praying for the redemption of all sinners. We heed the parable of the wheat and the weeds in Matthew 13. We remember that the harvest and separation of the wheat from the weeds is none of our business and belongs to the not yet, the final consummation of the Kingdom of God. There should be no place for homophobia in the African church. But there is also no place for redefining the Word of God.
As a result, Africans still believe in marriage as the union of man and woman and view homosexuality as contrary to God’s design and will, a reflection of the broken sinfulness of humanity. To hear mainstream Western media and Western liberals dismiss African disapproval of same-sex relations as the work of right-wing American Evangelical groups brings to mind a long history of patronizing attitudes and contempt. The fact that the views of the vast majority of African society on issues of sex and marriage align with those of American Evangelicals does not mean Africans are mimicking or acting as proxies of American anti-gay groups. African views, which are shared by the overwhelming majority of non-Western societies, are based on sound biblical interpretation that reinforces and is reinforced by the traditional African view of life, family, community, and sexual ethics.
African societies also have a strong communal dimension. Sin is not an individual, private, or merely interior reality. Life is communal and holistic, natural and supernatural, and so sin has social, political, environmental, and even cosmic consequences. This sense of the wholeness and interconnectedness of life means individuals are accountable to one another, for, as St. Paul writes, “if one member suffers, all suffer together, and if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” Liberal American theologians may regard the redefinition of marriage as a limited, contained adjustment of doctrine. For Africans, to revise a part is to disrupt the whole.
This integral, communal view is not superstition. In 2014, the Most Reverend Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, was asked whether the Church of England would accept gay marriage after it was allowed in law in Britain. He responded: “The impact of that on Christians in countries far from here, like South Sudan, like Pakistan, Nigeria and other places would be absolutely catastrophic.” He went on to say that he recently visited the grave of 369 people in Africa where it was believed “if we leave a Christian community here we will all be made to become homosexual and so we will kill all the Christians.” The Archbishop added, “I’ve stood by a graveside in Africa of a group of Christians who’d been attacked because of something that had happened far, far away in America.” Of course, the comments were roundly attacked and ridiculed by the media and gay rights groups, arguing that the killers and not gay people are responsible for the deaths. But to African ears, the backlash to Archbishop Welby’s concern came across as the West saying their right to have sex the way they wanted to and with whom they chose to is more important to them than African lives.
The African understanding of biblical authority, sex, marriage, and sin may strike my American liberal colleagues as backward and superstitious. Reflecting on the fact that the PC(USA)’s approval of homosexual practice puts her at odds with her African brothers and sisters in Christ, Susan R. Andrews, moderator of the 215th General Assembly of the PC(USA), observed, “They [African Christians] are kind of in their adolescence/young-adult stage of moving out into their own independence, yet still figuring out how to be in relationship with us as their parent church.” This paternalism is sadly typical. The “inclusive” West operates with an invincible belief in its superiority. Africa is “behind.” It’s not coincidental that “Westernize” is often used as a synonym for “modernize.”
We are accustomed to such condescension. We have a great deal of experience with the white man’s burden of telling the whole world what counts as “progressive,” “advanced,” and “modern.” But we have our own judgments of the West and liberal American Christians. Most African Christians acknowledge the church in the West as their “parent church.” But we also see it as a dying church.
Lamin Sanneh has observed, “The tradition of exegesis that has been practiced in the West seems to have run its course.” In the minds of the overwhelming majority of ordinary African Christians, the decline of Christianity in the West demonstrates, among other things, that the scientific, historical-critical method of biblical exegesis is a poisoned chalice. A Ghanaian proverb says, “If a tortoise promises you a coat, look at its back.”
When the PC(USA) revised its policies in favor of same-sex relations, perhaps the leadership expected that the revision would help keep the Presbyterian Church relevant and strong in American society. But in fact, the opposite happened. The PC(USA) lost 102,791 members in 2012, the largest annual loss in percentage terms (5 percent) in almost fifty years. In 2013, membership dipped by 89,296. There were 224 fewer churches in the denomination in 2013 than in 2012, and half of those churches still left in the denomination have less than eighty-nine members and no installed pastor. Deaths of members in 2013 outnumbered baptisms by 6,222. A total of 148 churches and 165 ministers were dismissed in 2013 to join other Presbyterian denominations or form new ones. That is thirty-eight more churches and thirty-nine more ministers dismissed in 2013 than in 2012. In fact, there are several more congregations that left the PC(USA) in 2013 that are not accounted for in the official statistics. While it’s true that these losses are more of a spike than a trend, and that the rate of decline is more likely to slow than to increase, the revisions are certainly factors in the loss of membership and the fracturing of the denomination.
In a 2011 open letter signed by dozens of ministers who have since formed The Fellowship Community within the PC(USA), the signatories admit that the denomination is no longer held together by a shared theology or set of beliefs and biblical values.
Outside of presbytery meetings, we mostly exist in separate worlds, with opposing sides reading different books and journals, attending different conferences, and supporting different causes. There is no longer common understanding of what is meant by being “Reformed.”
Reaction from the Global South to Amendments 10-A and 14-F that changed ordination standards and redefined marriage has been swift and negative. The National Presbyterian Church of Mexico (INPM) voted in 2011 to end its 139-year partnership with the PC(USA). My own denomination, the Presbyterian Church of Ghana (PCG), decided in 2011 to sever all ties with churches that approve the ordination of practicing homosexuals. The Conference of Ghanaian Presbyterian Churches in North America (CGPCNA) also opposed the new PC(USA) provisions on ordination and marriage, stating they would neither recognize nor allow same-sex marriages to be performed in their congregations.
The Synod of the Nile Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Egypt put out an official statement on the subject that is worth citing in detail. The Synod “recognizes and respects the authority and autonomy” of the PC(USA) and expresses its determination “to preserve the historical ties” between the two churches. The statement goes on to express gratitude “for the long and glorious heritage of ministry of faithful missionaries” and “the many just and honorable positions the PCUSA has displayed regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict.” Nevertheless, the Synod of the Nile “declares itself to stand by the stable interpretation regarding Scripture passages associated with Christian marriage, which was passed down from the Church Fathers and from the Reformers, that considers marriage to be an institution established by God from the time of creation, in which one man is bound to one woman in a sacred covenant before God and people, where the two become one body.”
I watch American movies and hear American music and conclude that sex in contemporary American society has turned into a national fixation and a profitable industry. A female African scholar sharply reminded her colleagues at the July 2013 consultation that “Africans don’t talk about sex, they just do sex!” Americans talk about it, commercialize it, cheapen and distort sex. The normalization of homosexual practice and the redefinition of marriage strike me as part of a determined process of over-sexualizing human affairs. Given the content of America’s entertainment exports, Africans can be excused for developing the wrong impression that a high percentage of people in America are homosexual!
While teaching in the United States, I have become concerned about the ideological character of America’s fixation on sex. Gay ideology has become very powerful in many Western countries, and is now backed by governments, big corporations, the judiciary, and the entertainment and sports industries. Ironically, as gays and lesbians “come out” daily in the West, those who adhere to biblical teaching are retreating into the closets. Choice is deified, yet a kind of totalitarianism seems to be emerging in Western societies in the name of gay rights. I do not want it exported to Africa.
That sex and sexuality are a gift of God is not in question. But every good gift can be misused and abused. The tendency to abuse and misuse the gift of sex is certainly heightened in a highly sexualized society. America is such a place. As an African, I’m aware that we too must address many of the issues raised by the sexual revolution, including homosexuality. We cannot pray or preach it away, and it is not just a “Western problem,” as some in Africa would like to think. But my years here have convinced me that Americans are uniquely ill-equipped to help us find our way. American culture is distorted by a fixation on sex, and conversations about sex are dominated by ideologies that shut down discussion. To use the words of Desmond Tutu: “For goodness’ sake, leave us alone to do our own thing, even if it means making mistakes. At least they will be our mistakes.”
John Azumah is professor of World Christianity and Islam at Columbia Theological Seminary.