This version differs in significant ways from previous efforts that make it worthy of serious consideration by the church.
More than any previous attempt, the new amendment seeks to return the church to the historic compromise forged in the Adopting Act of 1729, a compromise that served the church effectively for nearly 250 years. Time and again, whenever the Church has faced polarization and division on matters of ordination standards, it has turned to the middle way forged in 1729.
The two streams of English-speaking Presbyterians that settled in the American colonies brought with them different approaches to the examination of candidates. In general terms, the Scots-Irish stream emphasized subscription to the traditions of the church expressed in the Westminster standards. The English Puritan stream however, was more open to the evaluation of a particular candidate’s religious experience, call, and gifts.
The Synod of the Presbyterian Church — the first “national” expression of the church — nearly split in its first decade over the issue of subscriptionism. The Adopting Act of 1729 preserved the unity of the church by emphasizing the need for both national, objective standards and the pastoral application of those standards in the consideration of individual candidates. This “middle way” was affirmed in the Plan of Union in 1758, and was written into the founding principles of the first Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in 1788. It permeates the Historic Principles of Church Order (G-1.0300), and in particular, G-1.0305.
In the 1920s, the Church was similarly split over whether candidates should be required to subscribe to a particular set of “fundamentals” in order to be ordained. The Special Commission of 1925 (the “Swearingen Commission”), which was formed to address the division, returned to the principles of the Adopting Act.
The Adopting Act compromise began to erode in the mid-1970s, first, when the Maxwell decision in the Kenyon controversy imposed a particular theological standard on the examination of candidates. The requests for “definitive guidance” rendered in 1978 and 1979 imposed a second, behavioral, standard on candidates. The adoption of G-6.0106b in 1997 ensconced this behavioral standard into the Constitution.
The Constitutional problems of G-6.0106b
G-6.0106b has been fraught with controversy from its inception. G-6.0106b currently says,
Those who are called to office in the church are to lead a life in obedience to Scripture and in conformity to the historic confessional standards of the church. Among these standards is the requirement to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman
(W-4.9001), or chastity in singleness. Persons refusing to repent of any self-acknowledged practice which the confessions call sin shall not be ordained and/or installed as deacons, elders, or ministers of the Word and Sacrament.
From a constitutional point of view, the provision is poorly worded. In particular, the third sentence creates a standard that is impossible for any candidate or minister to meet. In practice, however, that sentence is usually applied only to sexual behavior. This kind of selective application of a provision raises its own issues for constitutional obedience and authority.
Equally problematic is that the provision requires a particular theory for interpretating the Book of Confessions. The absolute and comprehensive terms of the provision (“any self-acknowledged practice which the confessions call sin”) demand that the confessions be interpreted literally, non-contextually, and non-historically. Not only would this technically require examining bodies to consider over 200 specific sins identified in the confessions (including recreation on the Sabbath and displaying depictions of Jesus), but also require that the confessions be interpreted and applied in a way the confessions themselves explicitly reject (9.03).
Thus, in its short history, G-6.0106b has spawned a virtual cottage industry of “loophole overtures” and authoritative interpretations trying to generate ways to sidestep its draconian terms. These in turn have bred contempt for the constitutional governance of the church.
The New Amendment and the Adopting Act
The new amendment to G-6.0106b stops this abuse of the Constitution by returning to the “middle way” principles affirmed in the Adopting Act of 1729. Amendment 10-A would replace the current G-6.0106b with the following text:
Standards for ordained service reflect the church’s desire to submit joyfully to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all aspects of life (G-1.0000). The governing body responsible for ordination and/or installation (G.14.0240; G-14.0450) shall examine each candidate’s calling, gifts, preparation, and suitability for the responsibilities of office. …
As the advice of the Advisory Committee on the Constitution noted, examining bodies would be required not only to examine “each candidate’s calling, gifts, preparation, and suitability for the responsibilities of office,” but are also to judge the candidate’s “ability and commitment to fulfill all requirements as expressed in the constitutional questions for ordination and installation.” Among other things, these questions require that the candidate affirm the authority of Scripture, adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as contained in our confessions, and submit to the polity and discipline of the church. Moreover, the overture specifically states, consistent with the Adopting Act, that the examining bodies “shall be guided by Scripture and the confessions in applying standards to individual candidates.”
Amendment 10-A is both distinct from and constitutionally superior to the one rejected by presbyteries after the last assembly. Unlike the last proposed amendment, this calls for a rigorous examination and determination by the examining body based on external authorities (Scripture, confessions, constitutional questions of office), while also looking at the personal qualities of the candidate’s calling, gifts, preparation, and suitability for office.
The proposed amendment is not a departure from historic Presbyterian practices, but rather a return to them.
Some have criticized the amendment as a “local option” remedy, which is less than fair. First, if it is a “local option” remedy, it is the same “local option” that served the church well for 250 years. But more to the point, examining bodies would not be free simply to do as they would please regarding candidates. The same examination requirements for admission to office as an elder or membership in a presbytery would apply as they do now. “Scruples” would still need to be declared and defended.
In addition, no session or presbytery would be required to ordain or install — and no presbytery would be required to receive into membership — individuals whom they judged do not meet the standards expressed in the scriptures and the Constitution.
If our denomination is ever to move beyond the divisions and polarities that have paralyzed us for more than 30 years, it will be, as before, by returning to the wisdom and healing found in the balance established in 1729. Amendment 10-A restores that balance.
WILLIAM E. CHAPMAN, HR is a member of Palisades Presbytery, a former stated clerk and instructor in Presbyterian polity at both Princeton and New Brunswick Seminaries, and former member of the Advisory Committee on the Constitution. At the 219th General Assembly.