Today, with the passage of Overture 10-A, the Presbyterian Church (USA)has come full circle.
Amnesia is not a fitting state of mind for the Church of Jesus Christ whose central act is in response to the instruction “do this in memory of me.” All of us – those of us who mourn the return of the power to examine candidates for ordination to sessions and presbyteries, and those of us who regard it as an end to discrimination – do well to remember the fickle and tortured history of this debate.
The argument for local decision-making power is one once made by those who now regard it 10-A as a sinful abandonment of biblical standards and the call to holiness.
When I was ordained in 1967 it was the Presbyterian Lay Committee that advocated for the authority of session and presbyteries against the encroachment of the General Assembly. It argued then that genuine Presbyterian polity locates primary authority in the presbytery. Decision-making powers that had rested appropriately in the hands of session and presbyteries were being usurped by a shift to a top down polity.
It was the view of the Presbyterian Lay Committee that the social action left had captured the flag and had run its flag up the denomination flagpole. The job of Presbyterians was to take down the flag in order to return the church to its historic roots of local authority.
Over time, however, the Presbyterian Lay Committee joined those they had criticized by playing capture the flag centering on human sexuality. The General Assembly authoritative interpretation of the Constitution marked the reversal of positions by the respective players. Those who once argued for local decision-making now celebrated the General Assembly proscription against the ordination of “unrepentant, self-affirming, practicing homosexuals” while those who had previously saluted General Assembly positions in favor of mandatory women’s ordination and social issues dear to their hearts as matters of biblical faith switched to adopt the philosophy of more local authority.
The passage of 10-A brings us home to the historic principles and philosophy of Presbyterian church government. It does not represent a departure from scriptural authority. It removes one matter of deep disagreement from center stage as the one litmus test for ordination, and calls the church to examine candidates for fitness and readiness for the ordained offices of the church according to the biblical standards describing the Christian life and qualifications for leadership.
Those of us who mourn the passage of 10-A and those of us who celebrate it are called to take more seriously, not less seriously, the scriptural standards for ordained office. The responsibility rests again with sessions and presbyteries to discern whether a particular candidate demonstrates the gifts and the call to ordained ministry.
If we remember that we’ve all been on both sides of the polity issue, but flipping from one side to the other depending on whether upholding traditional Presbyterian polity suited the victory of our agendas, perhaps we will find ourselves more deeply anchored in the humility and kindness of Jesus Christ, our crucified and risen Lord who calls all of us would-be righteous ones to lay down our stones to become his Body in the world. By God’s grace we will return to the centrality of the Table to hear the words that constitute us as the Church: “Do this to remember Me.”
Gordon C. Stewart is honorably retired minister of Word and Sacrament serving as Stated Supply of Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska, MN.