The mainstream Irish Presbyterian Church has taken a ‘lead from the front’ policy over same-sex marriage, which effectively throws down the ‘where do you stand’ gauntlet to other Protestant denominations, fellowships and even some other political parties.
Liberals and theological wets within Irish Presbyterianism are sabre rattling over the threat of a mass exodus from Northern Ireland’s largest Protestant denomination after the General Assembly emphasised its policy that people in same-sex relationships cannot be full members, and also that baptism will be denied to the children of same-sex parents or couples.
It’s all very well indulging in a Church of Scotland-style ‘walk out’ publicity stunt as witnessed at the General Assembly, but where will these liberals go? If they want to remain loosely as Presbyterians, there’s only one home – the fringe Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church, commonly known as the Unitarians. It is the most liberal of the Presbyterian denominations in Ireland to the point where it recognises same-sex ‘marriages’.
Numbers and theologically influence-wise, the Unitarian church has the power of a dead fly and cannot be compared to the numerical clout of Protestantism’s ‘Big Three’ in Northern Ireland – mainstream Presbyterianism, the Church of Ireland, and even mainstream Irish Methodism.
Individual families drifting into the Non Subscribing Presbyterian Church does not constitute a mass exodus. It would need several thousand communicant members of mainstream Irish Presbyterianism to defect to have such an impact.
The other strands of Presbyterianism in Northern Ireland, namely the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, Reformed Presbyterian Church (also known as the Covenanters) and the Free Presbyterian Church (the latter founded by the late Rev Ian Paisley in 1951) are theologically firmly behind the Biblical definition of marriage that it is between a man and woman.
Elements within the Anglican Communion – namely the Church of Ireland – want to see that Church redefine its current definition on same-sex marriage, but so far the evangelicals within the Church of Ireland hold the balance of power. The same is true for mainstream Methodism in Northern Ireland. Fundamentalist off-shoots of Methodism in Northern Ireland, namely the Independent Methodist Church and Free Methodist Church, would also hold to the Biblical traditional view of heterosexual marriage.
The Pan Secularist Front (PSF) of liberals, ‘Christian’ wets, ecumenists, atheists, agnostics, communists, humanists and anyone else who feels like putting the boot into Biblical teaching are clearly marshalling their public relations campaigns for a massive onslaught to get more liberal abortion laws and same-sex marriage introduced into Northern Ireland.
Other Protestant denominations cannot sit on the theological sidelines and leave the Irish Presbyterian Church to fight this battle on its own. We need clear Biblically-based guidance from the other denominations, such as the Baptists, Elim Pentecostalists, Brethren (both Plymouth and Exclusive), Church of God, Church of the Nazarene, Congregationists, Vineyard Church as well as the dozens of smaller independent churches, meeting houses and fellowships dotted across Northern Ireland.
We also need some of the larger independent churches, such as Whitewell Taberbacle in north Belfast and Green Pastures in Ballymena to show their theological card publicly on abortion and same-sex marriage.
Similarly, traditional organisations, such as the Faith Mission and the Christian Workers’ Union, which hold many Sunday evening events, will have to step up to the mark and declare their hand.
Dismissing the debate as simply ‘one for the politicians’ is not an option. It’s ‘put up where you stand’ time! Or is it really a case that on the issues of more liberal abortion laws and same-sex marriage, the pro-choice and LGBT lobbies are so vocal and well organised, traditional Bible-believing Christians are too scared to speak out for fear of receiving a barrage of abuse from social media trolls?
Increasingly, many ‘born again’ Christians will privately express their total opposition to more liberal abortion laws and same-sex marriage within the safety of church walls or prayer meetings, but will never dare to speak out for the Faith in public.
Should we evangelical ‘born again’ Christians be more like Daniel when confronted with the lions’ den, or have we become a church of Peters who denied Christ three times? Mainstream Irish Presbyterianism cannot be allowed to face the increasing wrath of the Pan Secularist Front on its own.
If the PSF has its way, the wearing of Christian badges will soon be branded as an offensive act and Christians will be banned from wearing symbols of their faith, such as crosses, fish badges, and badges which carry traditional messages like ‘Jesus Saves’ or ‘Jesus Lives’.
Will we see eventually the creation in Northern Ireland of the sermon police, who tour places of worship listening to the sermons of preachers and anyone who says anything deemed offensive is prosecuted?
The same ‘time to stand up and be counted’ attitude will also eventually affect those political parties which operate a conscience vote on issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage.
The Ulster Unionist Party is one such example. Unlike, the DUP which has a clear political stance on such matters, where does the UUP stand on abortion and same-sex marriage? There are politicians within the UUP who support different views, so will the real UUP please stand up?
With the abortion and same-sex marriage debates about to shift into top gear in the coming days, will we witness not just a realignment amongst Christians, but also in political Unionism with the Alliance and UUP wets in one corner, and evangelical Christians in the UUP and DUP in the other?
The majority within Irish Presbyterianism have firmly nailed their colours to the theological mast over same-sex marriage. The real dilemma for ‘born again’, fundamentalist, evangelical, and conservative Christians will come at next year’s local government elections in Northern Ireland – should they vote for candidates or parties which are pro-choice and pro-same-sex marriage?
One thing is certain – there will be a chain reaction as a result of the Presbyterian General Assembly’s votes – other denominations, churches and political parties will have to come off the fence and declare their hands.
Dr John Coulter has been a journalist working in Northern Ireland since 1978. As well as being a former weekly newspaper editor, he has served as Religious Affairs Correspondent of the News Letter and is a past Director of Operations for Christian Communication Network television. He currently also writes political analysis articles for national newspaper titles. He is author of the ebook, An Saise Glas’: The Road to National Republicanism, available on Amazon Kindle.
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