There is much discussion in the Church about whether GA authoritative interpretations can ever be, or appear to be, de facto amendments. It is of great importance to the Church that the line between an authoritative interpretation of the Constitution, and an amendment to it, be preserved. Otherwise it would be very tempting (to fallen people like us) for General Assemblies (that over time could not secure presbytery approval for amendments they had proposed) to inch closer and closer to trying to accomplish via authoritative interpretation what they could not accomplish via amendment.
Accept for a moment the theoretical possibility that at some time in some place a General Assembly might be tempted out of zeal for a cause it believed in to accomplish via authoritative interpretation what a majority of presbyteries had not approved via amendment. This hypothetical situation would be a serious crisis for our polity and for the covenant that unites us as Presbyterians. In such a situation, are there structures that could check or restrain such a chaotic, albeit zealous and well intentioned, crossing of the line between authoritative interpretation and Constitutional amendment? The PC(USA), in comparison to the American federal government with its three branches, has a relatively weak system of checks and balances. This lack of real checks on GA actions has been exacerbated in modern times because in past generations, presbyteries were stronger and the General Assembly was smaller and weaker than is now the case. But back to our question: What structure(s) might ever check a zealous General Assembly to prevent such a hypothetical crossing of the line between authoritative interpretation and Constitutional amendment? In my judgment, the only entity that could effectively check this would be the GA Permanent Judicial Commission, notwithstanding the fact that the membership of the GAPJC is elected by a succession of Assemblies and over time the GAPJC members could be tempted not to feel as independent as they should.
How might a GAPJC preserve the bright line between authoritative interpretation and Constitutional amendment? The answer is that a GAPJC must always adopt the following interpretative rule: Any reading of a GA authoritative interpretation which makes it look like a de facto Constitutional amendment must always be the incorrect reading of the GA action! Any GA authoritative interpretation must always be interpreted in the most charitable and favorable light — that it is not an attempt to amend the Constitution (which would undermine our system) but that it is an attempt to constitutionally interpret the Constitution.
Conflicts between G-6.0108 a and b
Some observers would assert that these interpretive issues arise currently with regard to GA authoritative interpretations of possible constitutional conflicts between G-6.0108 a and b (concerning essentials of Reformed polity and faith) and G-6.0106b (concerning constitutional requirements for officers). A way of thinking about these issues and of reading GA authoritative interpretations that is consistent with the Constitution is outlined below.
I. Officers and essentials
“Essentials” are mentioned in two places in Part II of the PC(USA) Constitution, and both have to do exclusively with officers.
A. The third ordination/installation/commissioning vow is asked only of PC(USA) officers — elders/deacons/Ministers of Word and sacrament, and Commissioned Lay Pastors (CLPs must be elders). This third vow asks (italics added): “Do you sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the confessions of our church as authentic and reliable expositions of what Scripture leads us to believe and do, and will you be instructed and led by those confessions as you lead the people of God?” Note that no member of the PC(USA) has any obligation with respect to being guided by the confessions in general or with respect to receiving and adopting their essential tenets in particular — except those members who are also officers.
B. Chapter 6 of the Form of Government, “The Church and its Officers,” talks about the requirements for officers. G-6.0108 a and b mention “essentials.” G-6.0108a says, “ It is necessary to the integrity and health of the church that the persons who serve in it as officers shall adhere to the essentials of the Reformed faith and polity as expressed in The Book of Confessions and the Form of Government.” (Italics added.)
G-6.0108b continues: “It is to be recognized, however, that in becoming a candidate or officer of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) one chooses to exercise freedom of conscience within certain bounds. His or her conscience is captive to the Word of God as interpreted in the standards of the church so long as he or she continues to seek or hold office in that body. (Italics added) The decision as to whether a person has departed from essentials of Reformed faith and polity is made initially by the individual concerned but ultimately becomes the responsibility of the governing body in which he or she serves” (G-1.0301; G-1.0302).
Interestingly, while the PC(USA) ordination/installation/commissioning vows speak of the essential tenets contained in the confessions, these same vows do not anywhere refer to “essentials of polity.” The fifth ordination/installation/commissioning vow, which does deal with polity, simply asks: “Will you be governed by our church’s polity, and will you abide by its discipline … ?” Therefore the constitutional support and explanation for the concept of essentials of Reformed faith is deeper and clearer than the support and explanation of the concept of essentials of Reformed polity, which occurs in G-6.010-8 a and b but does not appear in the vows for officers.
II. Members and essentials
It is often said that to be a member of a congregation in the PC(USA), one must only profess one’s faith in Jesus Christ as Savior, but this is not quite right. For instruction we look to Chapter 5 of the Form of Government, entitled, “The Church and its Members.”
G-5.0100a emphasizes Jesus Christ not only as Savior, but also as Lord (italics added): “One becomes an active member of the church through faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and acceptance of his Lordship in all of life.”
Similarly G-5.0103 (Inclusiveness) mentions the need for responding in both “trust and obedience to God’s grace in Jesus Christ.” G-5.0103 says (italics added): “The congregation shall welcome all persons who respond in trust and obedience to God’s grace in Jesus Christ and desire to become part of the membership and ministry of his Church.”
Still it must be said that outside of profession of faith and obedience to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, the Form of Government does not require that members in any way adhere to the essentials/essential tenets of Reformed faith or to the essentials of Reformed polity. This requirement is exclusively for officers.
III. Departure from the essentials
If it is true that only officers, not members, have a requirement to adhere to essentials of Reformed faith and polity, then it clear that G-6.0108 b, regarding departures from the essentials, is not talking about the examination of officers by a governing body as a part of ordination. If G-6.0108 b were not talking about the departure from the essentials of persons already ordained, it would not speak of (Italics added), “the responsibility of the governing body in which he or she serves” to determine if there has been a departure.” To put it another way, since no (un-ordained) church member who is not an officer has any polity obligation whatsoever to adhere to the essentials of Reformed polity and belief, it would not be possible for them to depart from an “essential” to which they were not yet obligated to adhere. Hence some interpreters of the Constitution and of General Assembly actions have misused G-6.0108 b because G-6.0108 b was written to address the situation where an already ordained officer finds he or she can no longer adhere to an essential belief or polity provision. It is up to the officer to tell the appropriate governing body that he or she has departed, but when that does not happen, then the governing body has a responsibility to determine if there has been a departure by the person who is already ordained and serving in it.
Some may argue that the first two sentences of G-6.0108b indicate that the third sentence that follows them (about “departures”) does apply to candidates. Let us look carefully at all three sentences: The first two sentences say: “It is to be recognized, however, that in becoming a candidate or officer of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) one chooses to exercise freedom of conscience within certain bounds. His or her conscience is captive to the Word of God as interpreted in the standards of the church so long as he or she continues to seek or hold office in that body.” Clearly these sentences indicate that a person who chooses to be a candidate or officer exercises freedom of conscience within certain bounds and that their consciences are captive to the Word of God. This is not in dispute.
The question is whether this language also indicates that the last sentence in G-6.0108b is intended to mean that the un-ordained (including candidates) can be said to have “departed” from “essential tenets” or from “essentials of Reformed faith and polity” to which they had no obligation to adhere. Note that the preceding section “a” of G-6.0108 refers only to the “necessity” that “persons who serve in it (the church) adhere to the essentials of Reformed faith and polity…” Nothing is said about candidates needing to adhere to these essentials, because it is understood that candidates are still being shaped and formed in their doctrinal faith and in their knowledge of polity. Similarly, the third and last sentence of section b of G-6.0108, (the only sentence that mentions “departures” from the “essentials of Reformed faith and polity”) speaks only of departures by “persons who serve” in governing bodies, indicating clearly that the reference is only to ordained officers, and not to candidates. In summary, G-6.0108 b was written solely to address already ordained officers whose convictions about polity and faith had changed since their ordination. It was never intended to cover “scrupling” by candidates for ordination. The truth is our Form of Government is silent about such scrupling.
What about “scrupling?”
So where did this idea of scrupling come from?
Some have noted that that the Adopting Act of 1729 did allow scruples of the Westminster Confession. However the following should be noted: 1. The Adopting Act does not have constitutional status as part of the Constitution of the PC(USA). It was not a part of the Plan of Reunion under which UPCUSA and PCUS came together in 1983. While we respect it as part of our history, it is not a part of our Constitution. 2. But even if the Adopting Act of 1729 were a part of our Constitution, it referred to scruples about the confessions. Therefore the Adopting Act provides historical and intellectual (but not legal) precedent for understanding governing body decisions about essential tenets contained in the confessions but no precedent of any kind about decisions regarding “essentials of polity” contained in our Book of Order.
3. Any “shall” in the Book of Order is, by definition, an “essential of Reformed polity.” That is the meaning of the word shall. Shalls are not optional. Let me give two examples. Part II of our Constitution says that ministers shall not knowingly re-baptize persons and that baptisms shall be in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. A person may disagree with one or both of these shalls, and he or she may attempt to remove them from the Constitution, but they cannot be departed from in practice. They are essential. But the Directory of Worship in the Book of Order says other things that are not shalls. For example it says that “tongues” is a permissible form of private prayer and that imposition of ashes or anointing with oil may be used during times of worship — even though some Presbyterians would disagree with all of these statements. Because these practices are neither absolutely required nor absolutely prohibited, an ordained minister may come to believe in the impermissibility or inappropriateness of speaking in tongues in private prayer or in the impermissibility or inappropriateness of imposition of ashes, or anointing with oil in a worship service, and a presbytery may easily decide that this “departure” is not a departure from an essential of polity.
The unhelpful notion that some polity requirements expressed by the word shall are not essential — and that persons can go into ministry determined not to abide by them — hangs by one (and only one) extremely thin and un-tenable thread — a misreading of G-6.0108b. Clearly G-6.0108 applies only to those who are already ordained and who have changed their minds on some issue to which they originally committed. A presbytery in that case must decide if the departure from what the person originally affirmed when they were ordained is essential or is not essential. While a presbytery may permit a minister member to continue to serve when he or she disagrees with a shall in the Book of Order, it may not allow a minister serving in it to knowingly disobey, or to express the intention of disobeying, a shall in the Book of Order, because a shall is always an essential of polity.
If we do not follow this rule, we are likely to have chaos and a church no longer governed by its own Constitution.
WINFIELD CASEY JONES is pastor of First Church of Pearland, Texas, and was a candidate for GA stated clerk in 2008.