What Can a New “Season of Serious Study” Accomplish?
July 10, 2012
In answer to all the Committee 13 items of business regarding civil unions and marriage, the PCUSA General Assembly passed the following resolution:
“In a desire to promote the peace, unity, and purity of the church, we move the whole Presbyterian Church U.S.A. enter into a season of serious study and discernment concerning its meaning of Christian marriage in the two-year period between the 220th General Assembly (2012) and the 221st General Assembly (2014). We would further move the Office of Theology and Worship prepare and distribute educational materials to all presbyteries and congregations. These materials should include the relevant Scriptures, key methods of biblical interpretations, current understandings of our Constitution, and some suggested guidance for prayerful and reconnecting ways of listening to one another.
“We would ask that all presbyteries report to the Office of the General Assembly on how this was conducted in their congregations at least three months prior to the 221st General Assembly (2014).
“This motion is offered in the hope and trust that such discernment will genuinely seek the rule and will of God be done in our Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) as it is in Heaven under the guidance of the Triune of God.”
I’ve highlighted a few words for comment here, and this week would like to sort out the expectations of this proposal further. For a long-time teaching pastor, “a season of serious study and discernment” gets right to the heart of my life mission, which is to help people bring the Word of God to life. What sort of set-up is embedded in this charge to the church?
• Promote PUP: all ordained officers of the church are required to seek the peace, unity, and purity of the church. We are suffering from a fracture of all three: peace is undermined by an undercurrent of hostility and disrespect. Unity is not a practical reality, simply by virtue of the fact there are two sides of the aisles. Purity has been lost and impurity accommodated by a lack of church discipline. Will a period of study be able to bring about peace, unity, and purity? Only if, through the process, Presbyterians are truly open to the transforming power of Christ’s gospel and they desire God’s will on earth as in heaven above all else.
• Its meaning, that is, the church’s meaning, of Christian marriage: What the church understands about Christian marriage is in fact the issue. We can study how Presbyterians view marriage, but to gain true understanding, we are going to have to find out what God intended for marriage. To do that, we will have to undertake a thorough study of God’s Word. “For the LORD gives wisdom, and from his mouth come knowledge and understanding” (Prov. 2:6).
• Relevant Scriptures: the debate of course is on which Scriptures are relevant. Since I believe that “all Scripture is God-breathed and suitable for teaching” (2 Tim. 3:16), this study must consider the full counsel of God in general and be comprehensive in the choice of Scriptures in particular in order for this study to be authentic and helpful.
• Current understandings of our Constitution: the key word “current” here suggests a very limited scope, and I would expand this to “historic and current” in order to catch the drift our denomination has taken in the last hundred years in reference to its Constitution. The fact is, many understand our Constitution now as a divided book, the Book of Confessions neutralized in influence, and the Book of Order without true authority for those willing to engage in “civil disobedience.” The current BofO does not contain the “fidelity/chastity” clause as an ordination standard, and the GAPJC has ruled (erroneously) that the BofC does not either. A study limited to our “current” understanding of the Constitution will assume that fidelity/chastity is not an historic and confessional requirement for disciples of Jesus Christ. Be careful!
• Ways of listening. I can imagine that we will see a full roll-out of sharing and listening techniques, along the lines of the paper distributed to commissioners on “Guidelines for Communal Discernment.“ I am all for good listening and only hope that the use of techniques will not manipulate the process or trade listening to God in favor of listening to each other.
Will the goals and objectives of this resolution get us there? Stay tuned.