This amendment, originating in Boston Presbytery and approved by the 2008 General Assembly, obviously has the purpose of removing G – 6.0106b from the Book of Order. I want to discuss significant problems with this amendment.
First, there is a lack of clarity in the wording of the amendment and the rationale given expresses a significant theological position contrary to our Reformed faith. Behind this amendment is the fact that there are a number of people who find the fidelity-and-chastity statement to be too specific, too straightforward, too restrictive, not permitting persons the flexibility they seek in taking ordination vows. The rationale given with the amendment asserts that our Form of Government makes the affirmation that Jesus Christ is Head of the Church and Chapter I of the Form of Government calls Christians “to attend to the Scriptures, insofar as they set forth Christ’s will for the Church,” and Chapter II identifies the church’s confessions “as its guides, subordinate to the authority of Jesus Christ and to the witness of Scripture. Our church thus has bound itself to a hierarchy of authority in which we are to obey Jesus Christ its Head, and, additionally, to heed first the Scriptures and then the confessions, to the extent that they accurately bear witness to Christ’s will.” The rationale then states that “this fundamental hierarchy of authority is accurately and eloquently reflected in the first three constitutional questions the assent to which is required of each candidate for ordination and/or installation.” Then the rationale declares boldly that “Although the hierarchy of the church’s authority is clear, it is subverted by the current language of G – 6.0106b, which substitutes for our obedience to Christ two concepts that are foreign to Reformed understanding: ‘obedience’ to Scripture and ‘conformity’ to the confessions. The proposed Amendment 08-B would remove this paragraph (G- 6.0106b) and substitute new language, which(1) reflects the church’s understanding of where its authority is to be found … . “
The major theological problem here is the confusing language about a hierarchy of authority and the separation of knowing Christ from obeying the Scriptures. The assumption is made that Christ and his will can be known without obeying the witness of the Scriptures. The Scriptures are to be heeded only “to the extent that they accurately bear witness to Christ’s will” (emphasis mine). But in the Reformed faith Christ’s will is known with assurance only through knowing and obeying the Scriptures. It may sound pious to say, as the amendment does, that candidates “pledge themselves to live lives obedient to Jesus Christ the Head of the Church, striving to follow where he leads through the witness of the Scriptures … .” However, we cannot know what obedience to Jesus Christ means without careful and prayerful study of the Scriptures; thus language about a hierarchy of authority is confusing and does not make sense. The definite implication of the rationale is that Christ can be known by other means. Do the composers of the amendment mean Christ can be known through private revelation from God, or from one’s feelings and experience, or from the contemporary advanced scientific understanding of our culture? Can these ways of knowing Christ’s will take precedence over the Scriptures?
The rationale describes “obedience” to the Scriptures and “conformity” to the confessions as concepts foreign to Reformed theology. How can it be asserted that we pledge obedience to Christ, but obedience to the Scriptures is not required? None of our church’s confessions makes a distinction or separation between obedience to Christ and obedience to the Scriptures. The Declaration of Barmen (1934) that is recognized to be largely written by the famous theologian Karl Barth, declares, “Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the One Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death.” (8:11). Our Confession of 1967 (9:27) affirms, “The one sufficient revelation of God is Jesus Christ, the Word of God incarnate, to whom the Holy Spirit bears unique and authoritative witness through the Holy Scriptures, which are received and obeyed (emphasis mine) as the word of God written.” There are additional statements in other confessions.
To speak of obeying Jesus Christ apart from knowing and obeying the Scriptures, as this amendment does, is contrary to our Reformed faith. The Reformers emphasized “sola scriptura” (“by Scripture alone”) Christ’s will is known. The framers of the amendment evidently want to separate obedience to Christ from obedience to Scripture because the controversial fidelity-and-chastity statement is based on Scripture and in this contested area of sexual behavior the Scriptures are clear and definite. Sexual relations are affirmed in the Scriptures only within the context of a marriage of a man and a woman. There is not even a hint of approving any other sexual relationship. The amendment removes the current specific standards and establishes no specific standards to adhere to.
Most of the discussion over the fidelity-and-chastity statement has centered on homosexual behavior. However, heterosexual sex relations should be a major concern. Church people today are more and more capitulating to the dominant beliefs and practices of our sex-saturated culture. In recent years we have seen two presidents of Presbyterian seminaries, some seminary professors, and what seems to be an increasing number of Presbyterian pastors found guilty of sexual misconduct. The behavior of such leaders is a scandal in the church and damaging to our witness for Christ. We need, therefore, the specific biblical standards for our ordained church leaders, not loose, flexible standards. Jesus charged his followers to be lights in a spiritually dark world that people might be drawn to him and his Gospel (Matt. 5:14-16). Jesus affirmed the moral law of the Hebrew Scriptures (Matt. 5:17-48 along with other texts) and God’s design in creation for the union of husband and wife. Matt. 19:4-6 states that Jesus answered the Pharisees, “Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh?’”
Another significant problem with the proposed amendment is that it will lead to even greater disunity in, and splintering of, our church. Presbyteries and sessions will have no specific direction concerning this highly controversial area of behavior. Each presbytery and session will decide for itself with the result that “local option” will prevail. Each ordaining body can “do what is right in its own eyes,” as it says in the book of Judges. The Task Force for Peace, Unity, and Purity in the church surely did not intend in its Recommendation No. 5 to bring about more divisiveness and disunity in the church. Representatives of the task force, Drs. Barbara Wheeler and Gary Demarest, who spoke in our Presbytery of Western New York in the spring of 2006, emphasized that the recommendation about expressing scruples on some matters would not bring about “local option.” Amendment 08-B certainly would result in local option and thus in more disunity.
RICHARD S. McCONNELL is honorably retired, residing in Clarence, N.Y.