Considerin the Case for a Theological Commission

Two overtures before this year's General Assembly callfor the appointment of a theological commission assigned with charting a new path beyond the present impasse regarding homosexuality. The intense feelings and widely divergent perspectives on this issue demonstrate both the need for such a new path and the challenges standing in its way.

Believing that the dispute is simply beyond resolution, some are asking, “Why not table the matter, quit talking about it and move on?” It is true the church’s preoccupation with this issue is draining vital energy from other important concerns. Also true is that the sending of another amendment to the presbyteries for yet another round of voting would be very divisive politically.

Yet the strategy of avoiding the issue presents its own set of serious problems. If the church gives up now on trying to develop a constructive way of framing the matter theologically, then the same old patterns of division will prevail. Simply shelving the issue, in short, is not likely to make it go away. Therefore, whether the church chooses to work formally by means of a commission, or informally through some other means, there is still much constructive theological discussion that needs to take place.

There has been much energy going into this General Assembly, on both sides of the aisle, fueled by the defeat of Amendment O. While some believe the defeat was a mistake, others believe it was a necessary step for appropriate theological conversation to go forward. Still others have interpreted it as a green light to send yet another amendment to the presbyteries.

It is clear that the passage of O, designed to prohibit categorically any public recognition of people committed to exclusive, monogamous same-sex relationships, would have registered a resounding “no” to a small group of people in the church who are seeking, as best they can, to live a life of faithfulness and integrity. By validating individual discretionary acts of welcome to homosexual persons exclusively committed to a life partner, the decisive defeat of Amendment O by the presbyteries carved out a necessary pastoral space for graciousness.

Yet what are we to do with the further concern, articulated by those advocating the repeal of G-6.0106b, that the ordination issue itself needs to be revisited? The best argument for revisiting “Amendment B” is that the categorical prohibition against ordaining or installing people whose homosexuality is “self-avowed” or “self-acknowledged” has had the unfortunate effect of excluding some from church office who never sought in any way to make an issue of their sexuality. It has also worked unfairly and summarily to invalidate the ministries of others who have long been ordained and have served the church for years. I must say there are a number of such persons whom I happen to know personally, including one of the best seminary students I ever taught, who is now ordained in another denomination.

Whether this across- the-board effect was intended in the minds of all who voted for G-6.0106b, depends on how they interpreted the rather clumsy language of “self-acknowledgement” in which the provision is cast. These troublesome cases — these instances in which persons who never sought to politicize their situation have nonetheless found their ministries invalidated — have yet to appear on the radar screen of most conservatives and moderates. Yet they are one of the reasons some are appealing for outright elimination of the categorical prohibition at this Assembly. At the same time, many others believe that the simple repeal of the prohibition, without having something viable to put in its place, would lead to so-called “local option,” a kind of de facto congregationalism in which no uniform theological consensus prevails.

Given all these complexities, there is little question that a comprehensive commission is a better way forward than what we have seen for the last several years: incessant debating and voting on piecemeal amendments to the Book of Order. Any change in polity on a matter this divisive needs to be accompanied by a carefully worked out theological consensus — one that can give us a polity arrangement uniform enough to uphold agreed-upon standards on a churchwide basis, while also being flexible enough to accommodate the diversity that exists within the life of individual congregations.

Still, the way forward contains potential pitfalls. Outlook Editor Robert Bullock Jr. has raised some good questions in recent issues over whether the church at this time has the theological and political wherewithal to make such a commission work. That is a question the GA commissioners will have to decide.

What is clear is this: There is at present a wound in our ecclesial body, which this issue has inflicted and which our long-standing divisiveness over it has allowed to fester. It is imperative that the wound be healed — and healed, if at all possible, by a strategy that refrains from any further wounding.


William Stacy Johnson is the Arthur M. Adams Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Princeton Seminary. He is working on a book this summer and his “Table Talk” column will reappear next fall.