It does this by allowing governing bodies the option to make a gracious space in their life for freedom of conscience with respect to contested issues that do not touch on essentials of the faith. In February 2008, the GA Permanent Judicial Commission overturned the stated intention of the Task Force by taking this freedom away from governing bodies in one of the most controversial areas of the church’s life: the “fidelity-chastity” provision of the Book of Order. This is the section that bans self-affirming, practicing gay and lesbian persons from serving as ministers, elders, or deacons within the church.
Shortly after this PJC ruling was handed down, the Presbytery of John Knox approved an overture asking the GA to reverse this ruling and restore the full scope of the recommendation, as stated by the Task Force and passed by the 2006 Assembly (Overture 64, Item 05-12).
The issue at stake is how the Presbyterian Church can deal faithfully with significant disagreement within its fellowship. Can we give witness in our life together to the power of Jesus Christ to reconcile and bind us together as members of his Body, even in situations of serious differences over important issues?
This aspect of our witness has faltered under the shadow of a 30-year experiment in church government that has not worked very well. This failed experiment, which weighs so heavily upon our denominational life, has been the attempt to deal with Biblical and theological disagreement over sexuality issues by means of legislation and church discipline.
This is an odd approach where divisions run so deep as to consistently produce more than 40% opposition in the presbyteries to current sexuality policy.1 Scripture contains numerous passages urging Christians to show the love of Jesus in dealing with the disagreements that inevitably arise in the church’s life. The Bible instructs Jesus’ followers to teach and encourage one another in a spirit of gentleness and humility that reflects Christ’s own grace-filled generosity in dealing with wayward humanity.2 Indeed, treating our fellow Christian with love and respect is a way of showing the world that while our disagreements are important, the redemption and oneness we share in Christ is more important still.
Instead of employing this Biblical path of teaching and gentle persuasion to deal with our differences over sexuality, however, the PC(USA) has attempted to secure church unity by passing laws. One effect of this legislative program has been to disallow, silence, or otherwise marginalize the deeply-held convictions of a substantial minority within the church. Practically, the effect of this attempt to achieve unity by legislation has been to transform theological disagreement into a simple struggle for votes. The result has been a deeply politicized church culture that specializes in demonizing opponents and reducing serious discussions to simplistic bumper-sticker slogans.
Our attempts to legislate the unity of the church also have proved utterly ineffective in resolving our disagreements! Whenever one viewpoint wins a vote, the other parties are left unpersuaded and duty-bound, as a matter of Christian faithfulness, to continue fighting for what they see as the truth. In a situation where opposition to current policy is widespread, it has proved unrealistic to expect disagreements to disappear apart from the long and arduous process of changing hearts and minds by opening ourselves anew to God’s Word and to one another.
Legislating unity has proved theologically questionable, too. God endows human beings with extraordinary gifts of intellect and conscience, and blesses each of us with a vocation to earnestly seek God’s truth. It was precisely in recognition of these divine gifts of intellect and conscience that the Protestant Reformers vehemently rejected a medieval papal authority that was coercing assent to teachings that conscientious Christians viewed as deeply incompatible with Scripture.
How ironic it is, then, that we Presbyterian heirs of the Reformation should be seeking to deal with our deepest disagreements, not through reasoned theological engagement and Biblical persuasion, but by legislation and judicial enforcement that tramples over the Biblically-formed consciences of a substantial minority within our fellowship!
The recommendations of the Peace, Unity, and Purity Task Force, passed by the 2006 General Assembly, invited Presbyterians of all persuasions to build together a culture of discernment and respectful engagement as a more faithful alternative to the prevailing culture of divisive legislation and political polarization.
Toward that end, the Task Force challenged Presbyterians to renew their witness to the oneness that is ours in Jesus Christ; to rebuild community across the boundaries of our divisions and polarizations; to reclaim together the magnificent heritage of common faith that we hold in common as Presbyterian Christians; and to explore new methods of discernment and collaborative decision-making that seek to undo the damage of the polarizing political conflicts of the past.
The Task Force’s Recommendation #5 was a key part of this program. This measure sought to reclaim a piece of our heritage that has served historically to help Presbyterians stay together in times of deep disagreement. The goal of Recommendation 5 was to help minimize and soften those situations that the Protestant Reformers so abhorred, where the Biblically-formed consciences of believing Christians were being overruled by the external imposition of ecclesiastical authority.
Recommendation 5 forced nothing on anyone; its effect was strictly voluntary. But in situations where consciences are bruised, it said that candidates could declare dissent (scruples) from particular articles of church teaching. Such dissent would give rise to a conversation within the ordaining body, which could consider whether it was possible to allow room for this expression of dissenting conscience without doing violence to essentials of the faith.
Such allowance was never a requirement. Ordaining bodies were free to decide that any particular dissent was too serious to permit an individual’s ordination. But in line with Biblical injunctions to exercise forbearance toward brothers and sisters in Christ, the recommendation allowed the opportunity for ordaining bodies to soften their divisions by considering the possibility of gracious forbearance toward conscientious, Biblically-informed dissent from majority church teaching — whatever party’s viewpoint happened to be in the majority at the time!
This past February the GA Permanent Judicial Commission prohibited such graciousness in precisely that divisive area of sexuality policy where it is most needed.
John Knox Presbytery, in which I serve, felt the damaging effects of this decision acutely because we had worked very hard to embrace the Task Force recommendations as a way to a less bitter, less polarized and more faithful way of being the church together. And it was working! The very day our overture came up for a vote, we heard five of our members give thoughtful, honest, and moving testimonies about how each of them would think through scruples over sexuality. It was the most respectful, the most honest, and the most constructive discussion of sexuality I have ever witnessed on the floor of a presbytery.
I believe it is for this reason that both liberal and conservative members of John Knox Presbytery raised their voices together and voted overwhelmingly for this overture asking the Assembly to reinstate the Task Force Recommendation 5.
The John Knox Overture restores a critically important tool for moving our church from a polarizing culture of political coercion to a far more faithful culture of discernment and Biblical forbearance. I strongly urge the commissioners to the 2008 Assembly to approve the John Knox Overture, and restore Task Force Recommendation 5 to its original shape and intention.
Mark Achtemeier teaches theology and ethics at University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, Dubuque, Iowa. He was a member of the Theological Task Force on the Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church.
1 This figure is arrived at by looking at the aggregate numbers of votes cast in the Presbyteries in connection with proposals to adopt or alter the sexuality policy specified in G-6.0106b.
2 E.g. Gal 2:22-23; 6:1, Eph 4:1-3; Col 3:16; 2 Tim 2:24-25; 1 Pet 5:3-5; James 3:13