DALLAS — The Theological Task Force on the Peace, Unity and Purity of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) apparently will not take a position on one of the church’s most divisive issues: whether gays or lesbians who aren’t celibate should be ordained.
While the group’s final recommendations won’t be released until August, the task force says in a draft report released July 19 that it “was not asked to take a position on human sexuality or ordination and we have not attempted to do so. We did invest considerable time and energy in conversation, seeking to understand each other’s points of view. We did not try to convince fellow Task Force members of our own perspectives or to decide whether the church’s current position should be changed.”
The task force also suggests that perhaps the church should not be subjected now to another painful round of yes-or-no voting on ordination standards. Instead, the report states that many on the task force believe “it would be more profitable to frame the question differently” — with this question being considered: “How are baptized gay and lesbian persons in exclusive, covenanted relationships called to participate in the church in God’s gracious drama of creation, reconciliation and redemption?”
The draft report states the task force members did “readily reach agreement” on certain points involving sexuality and ordination.
Virtually all of the conversation in which task force members may have shared their views on ordination standards has taken place behind closed doors, not in public. It’s not known what was said or how agreement was reached, but the draft report states that they hold a range of views — that “some strongly support the church’s current position; others strongly question it or want to change it; others are still forming their thinking about sexuality and ordination.”
The points on which the task force said it had reached agreement are that:
“It is a grave error to deny baptism or church membership to gay and lesbian persons or to withhold pastoral care to them and their families.”
“Those who aspire to ordination must lead faithful lives. Those who demonstrate licentious behavior should not be ordained.” (The draft report doesn’t define either “faithful” or “licentious.”)
“It is damaging and dangerous to teach that sexual behavior is a purely personal matter that is not relevant for Christian discipleship, leadership and community life.”
“Sexual orientation is, in itself, no barrier to ordination.”
That last point accords with current PC(USA) policy, which does not ban gays and lesbians from ordination, but requires that those being ordained practice chastity if they are single or fidelity if they are married.
In considering sexuality and ordination, the task force in earlier meetings read articles by a variety of authors reaching a range of theological conclusions. A bibliography of that material is posted on the group’s website http://www.pcusa.org/peaceunitypurity/resources/biblio.htm.
The draft report said the material available couldn’t be easily divided into two categories — “either approval or disapproval of same-gender relationships and practices” — and that “scholars and writers who reached different conclusions often based their work on similar theological premises.”
And individual writers sometimes proved surprising too, the report states — with some conservative writers who contend that same-sex relationships are wrong advocating pastoral acceptance of gay and lesbian couples, and some liberal writers acknowledging that when the Bible speaks explicitly of same-gender acts “it disapproves of them.”
BIBLICAL AUTHORITY AND INTERPRETATION
The draft report also contains a section on biblical authority and interpretation, “which many Presbyterians believe are a root cause of other disagreements,” the draft report states.
The draft states that the Reformed tradition “continues to embrace a variety of models of biblical authority and interpretation” — in other words, allowing freedom within limits, using such time-honored tools as relying on the plain sense of the text, the centrality of Jesus Christ, and the “rule of faith,” or interpreting the Bible in light of the doctrinal consensus of the church.
At each of its meetings, the task force has studied passages of Scripture together. At the suggestion of Jack Haberer, a pastor from Houston, the group agreed to add language to say that studying the Bible in diverse groups “enriches our understandings and corrects our misunderstandings and helps us wrestle with God’s word more deeply and honestly.”
And William Stacy Johnson, a professor of systematic theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, proposed adding this language, which seemed to meet approval: “We agree that because God alone is Lord of the conscience and because conscience is bound by the witness of Scripture, it is important within these boundaries to respect one another’s deep convictions of conscience and to exercise mutual forbearance, one to the other.”
And Mark Achtemeier, who teaches systematic theology at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, won support for adding, immediately after mutual forbearance, “and that together we seek to discern God’s will for the church.”
Much of the discussion of the draft reports involved detailed editing changes — trying to find the right wording, rather than debating more broadly what the report should say. A section of the report giving the task force’s recommendations will not be released until the group meets August 24-25 in Chicago — the last meeting before its September 15 deadline for presenting its final report to the church.