It’s the Theology, Not the Polity: Response to ‘Reconsidering Definitive Guidance’

These remarks are inspired by A. J. McKelway's thoughtful reconsideration of "Definitive Guidance," the grandmother of our present impasse. Our church now has before it Amendment O on homosexuality and marriage. I hope it will be defeated. Concerning the ordination of gays and lesbians, we have not yet convened a real theological debate on the issues/dilemmas raised by that issue.

Instead on both issues we prefer a polity battle that suppresses all voices not useful to amending the Book of Order. We seem to lack the courage and perseverance required to achieve anything. Theological debate stirs the blood and excites the mind. When it proceeds in mutual trust it may deepen faith, enoble piety and turn the heart Godward. Unenforceable amendments to the Book of Order discourage faith and trivialize Christian practice.

Why do we avoid discussing the peculiar theology undergirding Book of Order G-6.0106 b? If it is anathema for practicing homosexuals to hold office in the PC(USA), why do we welcome them to the Lord’s Table? Do those who condemn homosexual practice as sinful assume that it is all right to invite unrepentant sinners to receive the bread and wine? For us Holy Communion is a means of grace, a sign that by faith seals the Word in our hearts and lives, and builds up the church. Do some of us declare in broad daylight and before the holy, catholic church in all the Earth (and even before God), that mere members of the Presbyterian Church are not required to lead a life in obedience to Scripture? Are only officers required to lead such a life? That theology (implicit, mind you, but very much present in G-6.0106.b) is more worthy of John Cleese (Monty Python) than John Calvin (The Institutes of the Christian Religion)?

Why can we not admit that the debate over ordination for gays and lesbians is a theological conflict over the issue of ordination: What is it? Who is it for? Why not everyone? Why not me? When members of churches push themselves into the offices of elder and deacon, rather than waiting in humility to be asked; when people raucously demand ordination as a right, we have a major theological problem on our hands.

The refusal to think theologically about the meaning of ordination is the elephant in the entrance hall that everyone sidesteps on the way to win or to defeat the next overture. And the difficulty of our controversy is deepened by those who insist that we confront a “justice problem.” How can we have a justice problem when ordination has never, in any branch of the Christian church, been described as someone’s right?

No one has a right to be ordained. Everyone ordained is initiated into a community of servants — servants of the Word, of the Table and Font, of the people and of the church. Servants have no rights. The requisite qualities of ordinands are patience, responsibility, usefulness and devotion to Jesus Christ, to the Word and to governance. Ordination is a recognition by the church of grace and gift.

Above are two examples of the theological reflection that needs to begin if our church wants to confront with reality and compassion these matters before us. I’ve never understood why we need to keep updating the Book of Order, unless it is to enact prohibitions that allow us to “zing” each other and to play “Gotcha.”

That, let it be understood, reflects a piety of desperation which is sick unto death. Indeed, the theme song of the purveyors of Amendments O and B is precisely “that we have been forced into taking these actions by (you name it: the Permanent Judicial Commission, the actions of gays and lesbians, etc.).” Why are they are forced? Why can they not already bring charges against those whose behavior and public statements fly in the face of all our confessions and the Book of Order?

McKelway threw open a door that has been closed too long. It’s time the church took a deep breath and walked into a room, furnished for centuries with the tools to confront these matters responsibly. There are now small beginnings among “select” people. Spread it out for everyone. It really is the theology. And Presbyterians are not stupid.


O BENJAMIN SPARKS is pastor, Second church, Richmond, Va.



Responses to ‘Reconsidering Definitive Guidance’