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SOCIETY: Person of Interest
Carmen Fowler LaBerge was ordained in the Presbyterian Church USA in 1993 and for eighteen years served as a pastor in Texas, Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina. Following actions by the church's General Assembly in 2010, she asked to be removed from the ministry. She now serves as President of the Presbyterian Lay Committee, and chairs the ecumenical leadership network Common Ground Christian Network. LaBerge spoke with Salvo about her reasons for leaving the ordained ministry, her thoughts on how Christians must seize the opportunity to influence the culture, and on engaging the next generation of Christians.
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Let's talk about your personal story. Why did you set aside your ordination in 2011?
The General Assembly determined in 2010 to revise the standards of ordination to allow the ordination of people who did not restrict their sexual expression to either marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness. The stripping away of that ordination standard from the constitution sent shockwaves through the denomination. I didn't feel called to leave the denomination per se, but it did feel like the time had come for me to no longer be credentialed as an ordained pastor. I could not in good conscience have participated in the ordination process, certainly not in the act of the whole church ordaining a person who was making those kinds of lifestyle choices. So I asked my presbytery to remove me from the ordered ministry, as the language reads, and they agreed to do that.
Now, that doesn't mean that in the future, should PCUSA repent of its actions and restore that standard of ordination—fidelity in marriage between a man and a woman and chastity in singleness—that I couldn't return to the ordained ranks. However, I don't anticipate the denomination returning to a faithful standard, nor do I anticipate the Lord calling me to do ordained ministry.
What do you see as your role as President of the Presbyterian Lay Committee, and what are your goals?
I have the opportunity to analyze and aggregate a lot of information and hopefully to deliver it back to lay people and to the next generation of Christians, who need to be equipped to engage winsomely with the news of the day with their peers and colleagues. Traditionally, that calling has been specifically to Presbyterians, but it has widened and shifted, with a new sense of strategic calling to a much wider audience.
When we talk about goals, there are many at this point. We want to be a reliable source for Christians who want to be more fully equipped to enter into everyday apologetics conversations. Most of us feel ill-equipped, unprepared, and fearful about jumping into those subjects that lead the news. We're not quite sure of the connection between religion and politics. We're not quite sure of the connection between faith and science. So, often, we don't want to engage in the conversation at all. And when Christians fail to engage in those conversations, then the secular mind and the naturalistic worldview are the only ones being heard.
I recognize that we're not the only voice in this conversation and that we have many partners. Part of our calling is to amplify and echo when that's appropriate, so that people begin to see that the mind of Christ is not divided on these issues.
You have talked about the clergy leading the way in terms of veering from traditional Christian doctrine. You've talked about their participating in what you call the advocacy of darkness. But you go on to say that you pity them and that you see them as POWs. But this isn't something that's been forced on them against their will. Why do you feel pity for them instead of anger?
I think I started at a place of anger until I realized that God has all the power that is necessary to defend the Church and that the gates of hell are not going to prevail against it. At some point, people who become righteously angry—because I think that is an appropriate response—at some point, that righteous anger is softened by the spiritual awareness that there is an enemy of the Church at work. And he has been scheming across not just years, and not just decades, and not just in this nation, but across the world and across millennia. This is a spiritual battle.
Many clergy today have lived under the teaching of false teachers for so long that they genuinely believe in their heart of hearts that what they are teaching and advocating is Christianity. They grew up in churches that taught what they are now teaching. They went to seminaries that taught what they are now teaching. We're not dealing with the people who made the first step into darkness. For them, it was a choice. But that's not the generation we're dealing with now. We're dealing with a generation of people who were born in the camp.
This applies when seeking to understand in particular the LGBTQ advocates who are seminary graduates now, who are half my age, who look at me and have no idea what I'm talking about when I'm discussing the essential tenets of the reformed faith. Or when I talk about what the Scriptures say about x, y, or z. They look at me as if I'm speaking a foreign language, because those are not texts of Scripture that they know. Everybody along their religious path has said to them that they don't have to change. That whoever they are and whatever it is that they love and whatever sort of proclivities they have—all those are okay. They've been sitting in darkness their whole lives. So I shifted from anger to pity when I recognized that these are people who were born into this as Episcopalians, or Presbyterians, or Lutherans, or members of the United Church of Christ. Pick your camp.
You've said that one of the challenges for orthodox Christians today is that we can't say the same things we've said historically in the same way. Can you elaborate, especially on issues like same-sex marriage, homosexuality, and chastity?
One of the foundational things that we, as more mature Christians, have got to learn is how to articulate and talk about more openly the whole issue of identity. There is an advocacy out there that says your identity is in your gender expression. The language of identity has been co-opted, and we've got to reclaim it.
My identity is in Christ. It doesn't matter what gender I am, what color my skin is, where I was born, how I was raised, where I was educated. We have lost the understanding of being brothers and sisters in Christ. We've lost the idea that our identity is first and foremost in him. We have to reclaim identity language. We need to ask really good questions and then learn to listen non-defensively. Our generation is not very good at that.
So how do I have a conversation with someone who's leading with his or her sexual identity, or gender identity—someone who's self-described as gay and Christian? Because from my worldview, my understanding of Scripture, and my understanding of God's design and will for human life, those two words don't go together. So I need to find out how this person is synthesizing those two things. I need to ask him (or her) to explain how he's submitting to the lordship of Jesus Christ in every area of his life, when this is something he's preserving as immutable. Is God immutable or is your sexual identity immutable? Help me understand that, because those are two things I cannot reconcile.
It gets away from proof-texting, which is not very effective in terms of leading people winsomely into the light. So it's about having conversations with people who are struggling with sexual confusion, with sexual brokenness. Having conversations with them about how to read and apply the Bible. Now, I am not in every case going to lead that person from darkness to light. But I guarantee you that I'm going to learn something that will more fully equip me for another conversation.
What do you see as the issues the Church will be contending with in the future?
I think the Church must learn how to speak the mind of Christ on the subject of identity, on the subject of marriage and its nobility, on the restoration of marriage in our culture, and on the sacredness of living chastely as single people in a culture saturated with sexuality. I also think the Church has a unique opportunity right now to lead on the subject of racial reconciliation.
What about religious liberty?
That's a huge issue. I absolutely believe one of the primary conversations we're going to have going forward is about religious liberty. The distinction is often made between worship and religion, as if what the Constitution provides is a protection of one hour of private time, where private things happen behind closed doors that inform nothing else. We are not guaranteed freedom of worship. We are constitutionally guaranteed freedom of religion. And the religion that I practice influences every moment of my life. It's not confined in any way to one sacred space, one sacred hour, or one sacred patch of ground.
People must be equipped to live the moment-by-moment reality of their Christian lives in every sphere, and that means in the political arena as well. I am profoundly concerned that we have lost a distinctly Christian moral voice in the political arena today. I hope we're raising up a new generation of Christians who recognize that being Christian is not necessarily the culturally popular thing to do. I hope that convictional Christians have the opportunity to influence the culture in which they live through the expression of their Christian identity in every area of their lives. •
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