Strategies are being considered for future support for or against the standard. More presbyteries endorsed the latest challenge to fidelity in marriage between a man and a woman and chastity in single life. Voting margins tightened. If voting history is a guide, future removal of G-6.0106b seems inevitable. Since I first attended General Assembly as a youth advisory delegate in 1976, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender proponents have gained ground in persuading the Church to envision a broader definition of marriage and human relationships than that of heterosexual monogamy. Their theme of injustice is ringing true to more church ears.
I have heard various arguments regarding this topic in Pittsburgh Presbytery for 28 years. New positions have not been advanced, despite some scholars’ efforts to change the Biblical hermeneutic.
Might we consider a few random questions for consideration as we prepare for another round of challenges to G-6.0106b?
• Is this debate solely about injustice for a Church minority group?
• Is the struggle within the rubric of Biblical authority?
• Is it possible that our season of discontent represents something greater than injustice towards same-sex practices or Biblical authority?
Where’s the consistency?
GLBT advocates have offered the argument that G-6.0106b represents a super standard that discriminates solely against their ordination. The GLBT community’s determination to limit the debate to their sexual identity has been matched by a heterosexual community determination to identify GLBT life as the exclusive focus of the standard. All parties stand silent about the standard’s application to heterosexual life. When will this silence be broken?
Recent demographic studies of American life indicate an increasing number of women bearing children out of wedlock. What does this say about chastity in single life for heterosexuals? The silence regarding heterosexual promiscuity is deafening.
If pastors shared their knowledge about young heterosexual couples seeking to be married, they would discuss the high percentage of men and women who are co-habiting prior to marriage. That speaks volumes regarding the disavowal of chastity as a standard for Christian heterosexual conduct. How honest is it for us to continue enforcing a standard of discipline upon ordained officers that is regarded as an anachronism for everyday Christians’ conduct?
What does silence about heterosexual promiscuity say about those in ordained office today, who are part of a generation that is re-defining Church standards? We who have been ordained since Hugh Heffner’s moral liberation movement have wrestled with our own atonement. We know our grandparents and parents taught us the Church’s position on chastity during our own struggle for independence from Victorianism during the 1960s. They stood on principle in defense of the Church while many of us pursued sexual liberty following our confirmation. The Lilly Foundation’s study of confirmation’s effectiveness in Vanishing Boundaries has exposed our generation’s commitment to the Church’s standards we were taught. Our grandparents and parents believed they were teaching a Biblical faith. Many of us looked elsewhere for inspiration. Watching the majority of our peers leave the Church since the 1960s has affected our sensitivities towards the unchurched — many of whom are former Presbyterians.
Then we crystallized our tradition’s teaching by adopting the fidelity in marriage between a man and a woman provision in G-6.0106b. We were pulling against the proliferation of divorces within Christian families, which multiplied at a rate comparable to that of the unchurched. The multiplication of marital infidelity continued. Yet, presbyteries have avoided this topic, thereby exposing elders’ unwillingness to raise topics uncomfortable to their heterosexual peers. And lacking the elders’ support, the clergy have found it difficult to address the topic.
If G-6.0106b raises a standard for ordination, it stands also as a de facto standard for church-member conduct regardless of whether or not a person is ordained. The possibility that removing G-6.0106b would lead to open scrupling on the floor of presbyteries regarding same-sex relations pales in comparison to the quiet scrupling that is already occurring in sessions around the Church regarding chastity in single life and fidelity in marriage between a man and a woman.
Where are the disciplinary cases being filed against the sins of church members? Do the standards mean anything at all?
What about scrupling?
The Peace, Unity, and Purity Report (2006) revived scrupling as American Presbyterianism’s form of dissent, expressing the Church’s historic position on freedom of conscience. The Adopting Act of 1729 established its constitutional precedent. In that instance scrupling was applied as a result of the Adopting Act to dissent against civil authority defining the Church’s faith and practice. Nevertheless, there are at least three significant instances since 1729 when freedom of conscience was limited in favor of preserving covenant unity. In each of these occasions, the G.A. or its Permanent Judicial Commission asserted the preservation of the Church’s confessional covenant exceeded the individual right to freedom of conscience. The historic precedent of the Presbyterian Church in preserving covenant community seems strikingly absent from discussing the merits of scrupling regarding G-6.0106b.
The strategy to remove G-6.0106b in order to permit scrupling on same-sex relations ought to be addressed publicly. Is it pertinent that scrupling in 1729 was applied as a church/state separation statement regarding the Westminster Confession? If the topic of scrupling were to be debated within the context of church/state separation, what might its framework be? The vague argument is heard that removing G-6.0106b is conceding to the culture. However, the claim is disassociated from the original terms of scrupling that addressed church/state separation. Is it possible that what is claimed to be conceding to the culture is in fact conceding to the state’s imposition of a world view upon the Church that is alien to Biblical theology?
Three instances of the Church establishing the priority of covenant theology over freedom of conscience present interesting lines of discussion regarding the constitutional status of G-6.0106b. Each occasion occurred amid the backdrop of state influence upon the Church’s scriptural interpretation.
The first instance was the 1865 G.A. mandate of an ecclesiastical oath rejecting slavery.1 The Northern Church’s endorsement of federalism during the Civil War, and the subsequent abolition of slavery by presidential proclamation in 1863, was rejected by Southern Presbyterians as a Church concession to state tyranny. When the Northern G.A. required an oath renouncing slavery by any Southern Presbyterian pastor seeking re-admittance to the Northern Church following the war, the Walnut Street Church in Louisville, Ky., split with both sides claiming title to the sanctuary. Clergy scrupling was not permitted on slavery.2
The second instance was the controversy over Presbyterian Board of Foreign Mission worker Pearl Buck. The Board of Foreign Mission’s tacit endorsement of Buck’s 1933 claim that Christian mission did not require establishing congregations, and her disavowal of the doctrine of original sin led Dr. J. Gresham Machen to lobby for the Board to remove the missionary from service. When it refused, Machen created an Independent Board of Foreign Missions that lay beyond the G.A.’s purview to raise funds in support of missionaries who planted congregations and preached repentance in Christ’s name. In 1936, the G.A.’s Permanent Judicial Commission suspended him and other members of the Independent Board of Foreign Missions from Church service.3
Machen’s action, that was in effect a scruple against the G.A.’s support for what appeared to be a Unitarian/Universalist mission, was rejected. His effort was not cast as a church/state separation issue. Nevertheless, America’s civil educators had removed Jesus’ name and Bible texts from public school curriculum while allowing a devotional view of God that resonated with former Calvinist Horace Mann’s Unitarian/Universalist faith, affecting church member attitudes about mission. The 1933 debate’s social context was the state’s stripping of “sectarian” literature from public education in which the Church’s confessions had been earlier taught with their Trinitarian theology.4
The third instance was in 1975. Maxwell v. Presbytery of Pittsburgh argued Pittsburgh Presbytery acted irregularly in ordaining Walter Wynn Kenyon, a candidate for ministry, who claimed scruples against ordaining women as elders. Kenyon maintained the Church was wrong in ordaining women, yet was approved by Pittsburgh Presbytery for ordination.5 The G.A.’s PJC overturned Pittsburgh Presbytery’s decision despite presbyteries’ constitutional authority to determine whether a candidate for ministry has departed from the essentials of Reformed faith and practice. The PJC ruling had the effect of preventing scrupling on women’s ordination.6
Within the social context of the Civil Rights and Feminist Movements, and the Confession of 1967 that was adopted in their wake, the G.A. extended Church ordination beyond what many Presbyterians believed were Biblical limits. Ordination depended upon subscription to women’s ordination. The PJC ruling established G.A., not presbyteries, holds responsibility for determining candidates’ suitability for ordination. Presbytery validation for ordination is restricted to the G.A.’s constitutional standards that define the Presbyterian covenant.
In each instance where scrupling was disallowed, civil courts were already determining a different direction of social practice from what the Church had historically believed to be Biblically sanctioned. While Presbyterianism acknowledges that Church courts err, it is ironic that changing social norms that originated within the Church to some degree became codified into civil law, providing the context for the G.A. to disavow freedom of conscience for ordained office. Civil law’s acceptance of a norm for social behavior has resulted in the loss of religious freedom of conscience in the Church.
What about Jesus?
There is a final dimension of the debate that seems to be missing — Christ’s role in defining marriage. In response to a question about divorce, Christ quotes Gen. 2:42 in Matthew and Mark — A man shall leave his father and his mother and cleave unto his wife and the two shall become one and shall no longer be two but one. What therefore God has joined together, let no person put asunder. While proponents of marriage’s broader definition argue that Christ is silent about same-sex relations, Christ contends the union of man and woman in marriage is a social institution of creation, established by God. As the Head of the Church, Christ’s claim about male/female union in marriage makes him the originator of the Church’s ordination “super standard.” The argument for same-sex marriage appears to charge Christ as the author of injustice.
In order to avoid this charge, proponents of marriage’s broader definition suggest that although Christ is divine, He was the product of an ancient patriarchal Jewish society. Does not this deny Christ’s existence at creation and His co-eternity with the Father — claims made in the Gospel of John and adopted by the Church in its doctrine of the Incarnation? If Christ is essentially the living God who is not limited by His human nature, claiming His statement about marriage is a time-bound cultural accommodation denies Christ’s divinity. Does not Christ’s pre-existence at creation form the basis from which He defines marriage’s establishment between a man and woman as a created order? His statement presumes creation’s continuing application into the future as an expression of His co-eternity with the Father. If there were an alternative to Gen. 2:42, would He not have stated such? The claim that heterosexual marriage is the product of a patriarchal society seems to revive the first century’s Ebionite belief that Christ was merely a human being. Is not the current debate regarding G-6.0106b about Christology — an essential ordination standard?
Marriage’s definition has been argued earlier in America’s cultural wilderness. On Pennsylvania’s frontier, the colonial legislature debated marriage’s limits for decades in the absence of a strong civil government. Presbyterian sessions and presbyteries supervised marriage’s limits through Church discipline. Today, Church/state roles appear reversed. Whether or not G-6.0106b is considered necessary for the Church’s constitution, there are unconsidered dimensions of Presbyterianism’s covenant that deserve further scrutiny before this debate concludes.
John Lolla is pastor of Plum Creek Church in Pittsburgh, Pa.
1 The General Assembly instructed those from the South who sought admission as members or ministers of the Church should be questioned “as to their sentiments in regard to loyalty to the Government and on the subject of slavery.” Persons found “guilty of voluntarily aiding the war of the rebellion, or [who] held the doctrine announced by the large body of churches in the insurrectionary states, which had organized a new General Assembly that ‘the system of Negro slavery in the South is a Divine institution, and that it is the peculiar mission of the Southern Church to conserve that institution’,” were required to repent and forsake these sins before they could be received. “The Walnut Street Church Case,” in The Historical Sections of the Digest – United Presbyterian Church … 1958, 1714.
2 The Church’s decision was not limited to the practice of slavery. It was a prohibition of the endorsement of slavery as a matter of conscience. Following the Church’s decision, the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution removed states rights in the abolition of slavery, legally prohibiting freedom of conscience in the practice of slavery.
3 The Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., General Assembly Minutes, (1936), 83-91, 95-101. “ … if a minister or member of the church is dissatisfied with an authorized agency of the church, has he a right to organize an agency according to his own views, in competition with the church’s agency, and meanwhile to claim his rights under the church’s constitution?” Ibid. 101.
4 In 1930, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. financially supported a book titled, Re-Thinking Missions: A Layman’s Inquiry after One Hundred Years. It stated that Christianity’s uniqueness did not lie in its historical or doctrinal claims about Jesus Christ, but in its selection of universal truths that were available to all religions, and the simplicity of its central teaching. The report called for Christianity to seek a unified religious truth that is shared among all religions. In November of 1932, Pearl Buck wrote in an article in Christian Century “I think this is the only book [Re-Thinking Missions: A Layman’s Inquiry after One Hundred Years] I have ever read which seems to me literally true in its every observation and right in its every conclusion.” In January of 1933, she spoke to Presbyterian women and members of the Board of Foreign Missions at the Astor Hotel, in New York City, repudiating the doctrine of original sin, the finality of Christianity, and the need for missionaries to establish churches. The speech was published in Harper’s Magazine gaining the attention of Presbyterian conservatives.
5 Kenyon cited I Cor. 14 and I Tim. 2:12 as his biblical basis for claiming scruples regarding women’s ordination.
6 The General Assembly PJC opinion stated, “We recognize the heavy burden born by Synod in overruling the majority vote of a presbytery on a question of ordination. (Minutes 1935, 81; Digest A332) However, presbytery’s power is not absolute. It must be exercised in conformity with the Constitution. In other words, our polity is a government of law, rather than of men. In considering the gravity of the question, we are mindful that conscience can be in conflict with polity. But it is important to recall that the decision to present oneself as a candidate for ordination is voluntary. A candidate who chooses not to subscribe to the polity of this church may be a more useful servant of our Lord in some other fellowship whose polity is in harmony with the candidate’s conscience.” The PJC then cited, the fourth Historical Principle of Presbyterianism to defend the Synod and General Assembly’s right to overturn the presbytery as the authority for determining ordination. UPC, (1975), 254. Maxwell v. Presbytery of Pittsburgh, (Rem. Case 1).