The decisions of the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s 221st General Assembly to allow pastors to officiate same-sex marriages and redefine the meaning of marriage prompted a Georgia pastor to leave his church.
The Rev. Dr. Jason Whitener, pastor of St. Luke’s Presbyterian Church in Dunwoody, Ga., a northern suburb of Atlanta, offered his resignation to the session during a meeting Sunday, June 29 and delivered his final message to the 850-member congregation on Sunday, July 20.
Whitener has answered the call to lead the congregation at Walker’s Presbyterian Church near Appomattox, Va., on an interim basis, leaving the outskirts of Atlanta for central Virginia. He delivered his first message to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) congregation on Sunday, Aug. 3.
“We’ll be here until the Lord opens a more permanent door,” said Whitener, noting the warm and inviting reception he and his family have received since arriving in Virginia. “We have started settling in, and everyone here has been so gracious.”
A ‘conflict of conscience’
In an email to the St. Luke’s congregation, Whitener, 41, indicated his decision was not based on any issue with the Georgia church, where he had served since 2010 following calls at Eastminster Presbyterian Church in Columbia, S.C., and Tinkling Spring Presbyterian Church Fishersville, Va. However, the decisions made by the GA in Detroit, Mich., created an “extreme conflict of conscience” to the point he no longer felt he could continue to serve as a PCUSA pastor and “maintain personal integrity.”
“I have a deep and abiding love for this particular congregation,” said Whitener, who has been a PCUSA pastor since his ordination in 1998. “It’s a very loving congregation, and this has been such a loving relationship. It feels like a mixed message I’ve sent, but it has nothing to do with the people at St. Luke’s. The congregation has been unbelievable. They have offered nothing but support, encouragement and understanding in the midst of this. That’s what made it so hard for me because I absolutely adored that church.”
He pointed out that he did not feel called to stay and lead St. Luke’s into a dismissal process because of the potential of a painful split in the congregation, choosing instead to follow a different path God laid out for him.
Whitener pointed out that God had been dealing with him for some time regarding decisions of the PCUSA, and he came to the point in his ministry that he no longer could be associated with a denomination that has chosen to follow the lead of culture instead of that of Scripture.
While the General Assembly’s decision to divest from companies doing business in Israel was a major concern, Whitener’s greater issue came with its decision to support same-sex marriage, a topic he said has “fallen in his lap year after year.”
In a June 19 vote, the assembly passed an Authoritative Interpretation (AI) to allow pastors discretion to conduct same-sex ceremonies in states that allow such unions, voting 371-238 in favor of the motion. The GA also voted to approve an amendment to the denomination’s Book of Order to change the definition of marriage from “a woman and a man” to “two people.” That motion, which would become part of the PCUSA constitution June 21, 2015, if ratified by a majority of the denomination’s 171 presbyteries, passed by a margin of 429-175.
“I’m not a one-issue pastor … but it has come to the point where the boundaries have been so widened that I’m at a place where I can’t, in good conscience, in my heart of hearts be associated with the denomination any longer,” Whitener explained. “It’s all symbolic of a different direction of the PCUSA. It has created an extreme conflict of conscience. I felt like I couldn’t be authentic if I stayed.”
Whitener is a third-generation Presbyterian pastor, following in the footsteps of his father Olin Jr. and grandfather Olin Sr.
“I’m a born and bred Presbyterian; I attended Presbyterian College (in Clinton, S.C.) and two Presbyterian seminaries. It breaks my heart to do this, but it’s what I feel God is calling me to do,” he said.
Whitener was contacted by representatives of Walker’s Presbyterian Church about the possibility of serving on a temporary basis not long after his decision to leave St. Luke’s. He met his wife Kristy at that church, which was founded in the 1700s and dismissed by Peaks Presbytery in February to join the EPC.
“The church reached out to me and let me know they were praying for us,” he said. “They let me know they were willing to have me come on board as a temporary pastor. It was a very gracious act of love on their part. I was humbled.
“It’s been a nice homecoming. I feel very grateful to them for providing this opportunity as we explore more permanent opportunities.”
Looking to the future
Whitener did not renounce jurisdiction of the PCUSA, and, therefore, remains an at-large member of the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta. However, he is discerning God’s call for his next full-time pastorate, whether that will be in the EPC or as part of ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians. He plans to transfer his credentials when God shows him the path he is supposed to follow.
While not sure what route St. Luke’s will take now that he has concluded his service to the congregation, Whitener is certain God will provide for leaders and members of the church as well as for him, his wife and their three children.
“There are very strong, faithful leaders (at St. Luke’s), and they have been a source of stability and strength,” he said. “They will trust in God’s providence to lead them just as we will as we sort out the next place God intends us to be.”