The 217th General Assembly, meeting in Birmingham, has approved an authoritative interpretation of Book of Order paragraph G-6.0108. Predictably — and unfortunately — the authoritative interpretation’s implications for the issue of ordaining “self-affirming, practicing homosexual persons” has been the sole focus of attention by its supporters and opponents alike. Lost in the narrow debate is recognition that the process for examining candidates for ordination to ministry of the Word and sacrament is woefully inadequate in many, if not most, of the church’s presbyteries. Beyond the question of examining gay and lesbian persons for ordination is the pervasive problem of the way we examine any candidate.
Previously neglected G-6.0108 states clearly that “It is necessary to the integrity and health of the church that persons who serve as its officers shall adhere to the essentials of the Reformed faith and polity” and that candidates “exercise freedom of conscience within certain bounds.” What are these “essentials” and “bounds”? Within constitutional limits, it is the responsibility of the presbytery to determine whether or not a candidate’s theological and ecclesial views and practices adhere to Reformed essentials, and whether or not a candidate’s theological and ecclesial freedom is exercised within intelligible bounds.
The Book of Order seems to assume that presbyteries have a shared sense of what is at the heart of the church’s faith and order, and that they are capable of nurturing candidates in a common vocational life. The constitution’s faith in us is touching, but the experience of many presbyteries is that the evident lack of shared belief and common practice restricts presbyteries’ capacity to exercise their constitutional responsibility.
Presbyteries are to approve ordination of candidates for ministry of the Word and sacrament only if fully satisfied of their qualifications. Integral to this satisfaction is “examination of his or her Christian faith and views in theology, the Bible, the Sacraments, and the government of this church” (G-14.0402a) as well as “manner of life” (G-6.0106a). Yet presbytery examinations are too often cursory at best and nonexistent at worst. Presbyteries pass on the responsibility to their committees on preparation for ministry; CPM’s defer theological judgment to the standard ordination exams; and “trials for ordination” become banal exercises in ministerial banter. Some presbyteries may object that they do “turn down” candidates, but this is almost always on grounds of psychological or personal unsuitability for ministry, determined long before they come to the floor of presbytery.
G-6.0108 seems to worry that presbytery examinations may threaten candidates’ consciences by imposing the requirements of an oppressive orthodoxy. Book of Order provisions give more space to “freedom of conscience” than to “Reformed faith and polity.” Undoubtedly, there have been times in our church’s history when candidates were confronted with hostile interrogations by presbyteries with narrow, rigid theological disposition. Ours is not one of those times. More often than not, presbyteries are now content to ask two or three vague questions before moving to a vote.
It may be instructive to look briefly at a time in our church’s history when examinations were both rigorous and fair, both responsible and respectful. In his monumental history, Presbyterians in the South, Ernest Trice Thompson relates the experience of Hanover Presbytery and candidate John Martin in 1756. The presbytery minutes record that …
Mr. John Martin offered himself upon Tryals for the gospel Ministry, and delivered a Discourse upon Eph. 2.1 which was sustain’d as a Part of Tryal; & he was also examined as to his religious Experiences, & the reasons of his designing the ministry; which was also sustain’d. He was likewise examined in the Latin and Greek Languages, and briefly in Logick, ontology, Ethics, natural Philosophy, Rhetoric, geography and Astronomy; in all which his Answers in general were very satisfactory. And the Presbytery appoint him to prepare a Sermon on I Cor. 1.22-23, & an Exegesis [in Latin] on this question, Num Revelatio Supernaturalis sit Necessarias? to be delivered at our next Committee.
At the following meeting of the presbytery, Mr. Martin preached his sermon and presented his exegesis. But there was more to come. “The Committee proceeded to examine him upon ye Hebrew, and in sundry extempore Questions upon ye Doctrines of religion, and some Cases of Conscience.” He was then assigned to preach a sermon on Galatians 2:20 and to give lecture on Isaiah 61:1-3 at the next meeting of the presbytery. These parts of trial were duly sustained, and Mr. Martin was asked to compose a sermon on I John 5:10 for yet another meeting of the presbytery. At this time…
The Presbytery farther examin’d Mr. Martin in sundry extempore Questions upon various Branches of Learning, and Divinity, and reheard his religious Experiences; and upon a review of ye sundry Trials he has passed thro’; they judge him qualified to preach ye Gospel; and he having declar’d his Assent to, and Approbation of ye Westminster Confession of faith, Catechisms, and Directory . . . ye Presbytery do license and authorize him to preach as a candidate for ye ministry of ye Gospel . . . and appoint ye moderator to give him some Solemn Instructions and Admonitions, with regard to ye Discharge of his office.
The following year Mr. Martin again opened presbytery with a sermon and prepared a Latin thesis on “An Mundis fuit creatus.” Since several calls had now come in for his pastoral services, the presbytery set the day for his ordination. (see E.T. Thompson, Presbyterians in the South, vol. I, p. 69.)
Times have changed, of course. Theological education now takes place in colleges and seminaries rather than in apprenticeship to a wise minister. We have standard ordination exams to assess pastoral theological competence. Committees on Preparation for Ministry follow elaborate rules for consultation and mutual discernment.
All of these changes mask the most dramatic change, however. Presbyteries are no longer capable of examining candidates in a manner remotely like Hanover Presbytery in the 18th century. We have neither the theological capacity nor the shared faith to engage in serious, respectful examinations. Perhaps most sadly, we do not have the will.
The authoritative interpretation of G-6.0108 makes it clear that presbyteries have the responsibility to apply constitutional standards by determining whether a candidate “has departed from scriptural and constitutional standards” and whether any departure “constitutes a failure to adhere to the essentials of Reformed faith and polity.” The most significant question raised by the authoritative interpretation is whether presbyteries possess a shared sense of Reformed faith and polity that will render them capable of determining the core of faith and practice, and determining candidates’ adherence or departure from those essentials.
Mere lists of “essential tenets” are not the answer. Instead, presbyteries must now reclaim their historic privilege and responsibility to be theological bodies before they are “governing bodies.” Only then will they honor candidates, be faithful to the whole church, and fulfill the provisions of G-6.0108.
Joseph D. Small is coordinator of the Office of Theology and Worship, and a core member of the Re-Forming Ministry initiative.