A current television commercial shows two men fishing on a dock. One asks the other, “What are you going for?” The camera then pans back to show a vast array of fishing poles lining the dock as the other guy answers, “I want it all.”* This thinking may well serve as an apt metaphor for the two sides in the debate over ordination standards within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
Both sides seem dissatisfied because no one “got it all” at the last General Assembly. Even more ironic, by looking at the General Assembly’s actions on most issues, it appears the more conservative side of the church gained considerable ground, yet now acts the most dissatisfied. The General Assembly strengthened its position opposing late-term abortion, back-peddled and apologized on divestment regarding Israel, only “received” the Trinity Report, and reaffirmed the “fidelity and chastity” clause. Yet, when one reads material from some of the more conservative groups within the church, one would think the liberal element really won the day.
The passage of the Peace, Unity, and Purity Report, even with an amended Recommendation Five, appears to be the source of much of this discontent. Yet even this Report is far from being as radical as some are proclaiming it to be. By greatly overstating its impact some are claiming it means that sessions and presbyteries can now ignore, or set aside, the ordination standards of the Book of Order in ways allowing them to proceed with the ordination of candidates whose lifestyles are in violation of those standards. This is far from being the case.
First, no session or presbytery can declare any section of the Book of Order as non-essential and ordain those who are in violation of, or will not abide by, the rules and standards contained therein. Second, no candidate for ordination can declare any section of the Book of Order as invalid, or refuse to abide by its authority, and expect to be ordained. The idea that there is a “local option” for sessions and presbyteries with regard to the standards of the Book of Order is simply not contained in the PUP report. The “local option,” as it has been called, has to do with whether or not individuals need to be in full agreement with all sections of the Book of Order before ordination or installation.
The major distinction being overlooked by a certain element of the church is the difference between being in full agreement in principle and living in compliance in practice. Individuals, sessions, even entire presbyteries, may disagree with various sections of the Book of Order, but no individual or governing body may set aside as non-essential any portion of it, especially not G-6.0106b, the section some seem most threatened by.
The section that follows G-6.0106b, section G-6.0108, states plainly the need to honor and respect differing opinions. There is to be freedom of conscience within certain boundaries, and those boundaries include the essentials of the Reformed faith and polity expressed in the Confessions and the Form of Government. Among those standards is the requirement to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage, or chastity in singleness. Therefore, church officers are entitled to disagree with many different sections of the Book of Order, including G-6.0106b, however they must abide by it in practice. There is nothing in the PUP report contradicting this reality.
If anything, Recommendation 5, strengthens the call for governing bodies to conduct thorough examinations of candidates for church office to be certain that even if one’s personal views vary from the standards, they will abide by and honor the standards while in office. The challenge before every governing body is to determine if any variation in personal belief from the constitutional standards is enough to disqualify a candidate from ordination or installation.
The question becomes: How much variation in personal views is acceptable? Only an ordaining body can determine that. However, it is always subject to review by a higher governing body. One may safely assume that standards of faith essential for ordination would include the proclamation of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, the belief in the Trinity, and the Bible as the unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ and, in fact, is God’s Word. The question becomes at what point is complete agreement still necessary? Can one vary in their understanding of the meaning of baptism? Or the Lord’s Supper? Is belief in the virgin birth of Jesus essential? Finally, is it absolutely essential for ordination in the PC(USA) that a person believe homosexuality is a sin so grievous that it bars one from ordination and maybe even salvation? Within the standards of Scripture, the Confessions, and the Form of Government, only a governing body can make that determination. Again, the issue is personal belief, not a declaration of defiance to the constitutional standards of the PC(USA).
For example, can a person who believes adult baptism by immersion is really the method prescribed by Christ still be ordained an elder or minister? Does it make any difference if the individual says that despite personal beliefs he or she will honor and respect the right of others who believe differently, and will even approve and participate in infant baptisms, as this is the practice and belief of the PC(USA)? This is the kind of issue a governing body would have to determine.
Unless Presbyterians desire to create cookie-cutter deacons, elders, and ministers of the Word and Sacrament, they must allow some room for a variety of views within the realm of the church’s life. It is essential for the church to have standards, yet there must also be room for some variation of views within those standards. If there is no room for variation, then every candidate’s statement of personal faith will be the Apostles’ Creed, with no additions, clarifications, or deviations.
A great deal of concern has been expressed that Recommendation Five will allow for sessions and presbyteries to ordain those not in compliance with G-6.0106b. Yet, the very essence of Recommendation Five states just the opposite. No one can declare as non-essential what the Book of Order says is essential. The only thing non-essential is 100% agreement with all of the essentials.
Yes, this means that those individuals and groups who want to do away with G-6.0106b will continue to be a part of the church and likely will continue to work for that end. It may even mean that some session or presbytery will seek to ordain someone who is in violation as a “test case” to run through the church courts to determine where the boundaries are. Within the Presbyterian system, like the U.S. legal system, the law is determined by what the courts say it means. As long as Presbyterians believe that “God alone is Lord of the conscience” G-1.0301, and “freedom of conscience with respect to scripture is to be maintained” G-6.0108, people will hold differing views. Furthermore, as G-1.0305 makes clear, there are truths and forms of which people of good character and principle may differ.
Some will likely then ask: What is different now? The goal of the PUP Task Force in their report was not to change anything in the Book of Order, rather, it was to enable the church to discover a new way of relating to one another across differing viewpoints. The report was about coming to a new way of relating, of honoring one another across differences. It was not about being right, but about the right kind of being. In listening to Task Force members’ presentations it became obvious that they “got it.” They experienced something far deeper than words can express. They were touched by the Holy Spirit in such a way that they became “one in the Spirit” by moving beyond differences to sense the presence of God’s love. It ended up not to be about seeing something new, but about a new way of seeing.
Unfortunately, there are still many people who prefer darkness, who want to hang on to old animosities and mistrust rather than risk finding a new way of being the church. At a conference some years ago, John Leith, the late seminary professor and a conservative through and through, digressed into what he called, “the rigidity of legalism.” He said, “Legalism results in a rigidity which is nearly always brutal in its treatment of others.” This reality can be seen in the viciousness now being used by some to attack the PUP report for something it doesn’t do. With the PUP report, there was an opportunity to create considerable healing in the PC(USA) but tragically, some are determined to make sure that does not happen.
It is as if they do not want to “get it” until they “have it all.”
*”Long John Silver’s” restaurant commercial.
John Pehrson, pastor of Sunrise Church in Salina, Kansas, has been a pastor for 26 years. He has served as stated clerk of the former Boulder Presbytery and as temporary stated clerk of the Presbytery of Northern Kansas. He attended the 217th General Assembly in Birmingham as stated clerk from Northern Kansas.