April 11, 2013
Friends of “Bringing the Word to Life,” I submitted the following letter to Presbyweb in response to a letter to the editor by Mike Garrett. I believe the fray is going to start up again, and commend to you as a catalyst a very thoughtful and well-written “prophetic word” by Jim Goodloe, found here.
In response to Mike Garrett’s letter which observed the “deafening silence of disengagement,” I want to agree and to explain further.
As one who has contributed to the debates in the last several years and lately by blog, I can acknowledge the truth of his observation in my own experience. There are a few factors contributing to, for instance, my rather sporadic blog coverage of PCUSA matters lately:
1. The Presbyterian decision-making process is rigged, and thoughtful discourse has nowhere to go to make a difference. I have read the most reasoned and helpfully clarifying pieces by colleagues, directed both to GAPJC and the General Assembly, but they get nowhere because decision-makers choose to remain so open-minded that their brains fall out. What we have going now is not debate based on Scripture and reason but on emotion, experience, and a worldly view of unlimited personal rights. Interjecting a voice of common sense and Scriptural sanity, for the moment, is an exercise in repetitive head-banging with no appreciable result.
2. I struggle with soul-care in the midst of the fray. Topics and discussions that have the ongoing effect of raised blood-pressure, sleep deprivation, and a constantly critical attitude are not good for my spirit. I am still learning how to stay in the discussion with eyes on Jesus without sinking into Galilee’s waters.
3. Who is the audience? Those a theological conservative like myself might encourage to action are opting for alternative ways of being Presbyterian, either by sheltering in place or dismissing to other denominations. Those to whom truth must be spoken are not listening, or if they are, they are patronizing and even, at times, abusive in response. The role of the prophet within and to the PCUSA is not acknowledged or respected because the church has lost sight of what constitutes the Word of God. So what else is new?
4. So the question of engagement, for me, boils down to call and empowerment by God. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” It is a costly business to put oneself out there with a counter-cultural view, and there have been times and seasons when I have given this service willingly and even joyfully. But now more than ever there is little personal support holding up the arms of a prophet. To answer this challenge, I have tried to balance draining “engagement” work with projects that are spiritually uplifting. In the last few months, I have collaborated on a curriculum for study of the Essential Tenets, reviewed the five-part The Bible series, and now am preparing to speak at a congregation’s all-church retreat. Three books await the daily discipline of personal engagement. This all takes time, which I have in only finite quantity, and the choice about how to spend it is sometimes torture. If, in those daily dilemmas, comments 1, 2, and 3 above seem particularly strong, then “Presbyterian stuff” goes to the bottom of my things-to-do list.
But don’t worry; I’ll be back soon enough. And others will be right there alongside me to try again to help our denomination listen to Scripture and reason. Until then, I remain
Christ’s servant and your friend,
(The Rev. Dr.) Mary Holder Naegeli
Walnut Creek, California
October 31, 2012
Overnight I have had a chance to read not only the Final Decision and Order of the GAPJC in Larson v. Los Ranchos, but also the briefs submitted by the Complainants/Appellants and the Respondents/Appellees (the Presbytery). My initial summary of this case appeared in yesterday’s blog; today I’d like to share my impressions of what this decision means. Folks who believe a manner of life suitable for ordination in the PCUSA includes fidelity in heterosexual marriage and chastity in singleness are going to find it difficult to apply their reasonable biblical standard in ordination/installation decisions. Here’s what I observe to be the effect and fall-out from the GAPJC decision:
1. Presbyteries as a whole are not afforded the right to hold a corporate conscience, which is reserved only for individuals and must be “respected” by the ordaining body. The potential here is that one dissenter of a presbytery’s corporate conscience can tyrannize the rest, giving to one individual the power to override the conscience of the whole. Presbyteries do not have the right to state or enforce any requirement upon all candidates, but only to examine and make a determination of suitability for ordination on a case-by-case basis. The only basis now is “case-by-case,” not Scripture or the Confessions, because, after all, the PCUSA cannot agree on what the Scriptures and Confessions teach (Parnell). Situational ethics in full bloom.
2. The appeal to conscience has now flipped sides, but the door is shut behind those who were granted freedom for their consciences earlier this year. In previous cases, including the ones I argued before the GAPJC (Naegeli v San Francisco; Parnell v San Francisco), liberal progressives were demanding freedom to exercise their conscience and redefine marriage to include same-sex relationships. They were granted that freedom by Parnell. Now that it is evangelical conservatives asking for and acting on the same principle—Los Ranchos Presbytery declaring its conscience to apply the fidelity/chastity standard as a matter of biblical obedience—the door to freedom of conscience is slammed shut and its logical implication must not be allowed. Because— don’t we all know now— the Church has adopted a new and better standard of inclusion, and it is just plain wrong to think or do differently.
3. The removal of “fidelity and chastity” from the Form of Government disallows presbyteries the option of applying it in their ordination decisions, but instead requires an ordaining body not to use it as an ordination standard. This despite the fact that the language that replaced “fidelity and chastity” in the Book of Order offered no replacement standard at all but simply removed the explicit provision. [This argument was used to gather support in presbyteries during the ratification process.] The illogical leap that has been made with Larson is to equate an omission with a prohibition: fidelity/chastity is now omitted and therefore its application is prohibited in all cases as a standard for ordination. The ‘new normal’ is that fidelity and chastity cannot be applied to candidates ever anywhere.
4. Despite its emphasis on case-by-case basis determinations, the GAPJC has twisted itself in a knot of presbydoublespeak. In a former case, in which a specific ordination decision was challenged by members of San Francisco, the GAPJC basically said, Who are we do circumvent an ordination decision rendered by a council that knew the candidate and determined that her interpretation of Scripture and manner of life were acceptable? In other words, we are not in a position to overrule a specific case regarding a specific candidate, despite ample evidence of her violation of Scripture and Confessions. But in the Larson case, the GAPJC did not hesitate to void the action of a presbytery that took its ordination responsibility seriously and was transparent about its obedience to Scripture and Confessions. So on the one hand, a presbytery ordaining on a case-by-case basis can make decisions that are not—for all practical purposes— reviewable by a higher governing body even if they depart from scriptural standards; but a presbytery concluding and recording its understanding of biblical and confession requirements as a Resolution, and acting consistently in light of that belief, is ruled out of order. So much for a presbytery’s right and obligation to “bear testimony against error in doctrine and immorality in life, resolve questions of doctrine and discipline, give counsel in matters of conscience…” (G-3.0102) and “to nurture the covenant community of disciples of Christ . . . includ[ing] ordaining, receiving, dismissing, installing, removing, and disciplining its members . . .” (G-3.0301c). Keeping the door open on a case-by-case basis doesn’t resolve anything or counsel anybody in matters of conscience.
My friends, if you are in a presbytery where the question of sexual ethics is not disputed, count your blessings. For those of you who are in contested presbyteries, life is going to get harder and peaceful sleep will be elusive. Do not in any way diminish or mute your witness against error in doctrine and immorality in life and ministry. Take seriously your calling to teach and to admonish, according to the Scriptures. Your position may in fact lose support or even be ridiculed, but is it not better to suffer for having done the right thing than to suffer the consequences of going along with the wrong thing? (1 Peter 4:12-17). Courage for the journey . . .
October 30, 2012
The General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission (GAPJC) has issued three Decisions after hearing oral arguments last Friday in Louisville. Each is disappointing to evangelical conservatives in the PCUSA, but taken together they create an odorous outcome for any presbytery trying to uphold a biblical understanding of marriage or congregations desiring a peaceable withdrawal from the denomination. A quick rundown of the case Decisions, which can be read in their entirety on the GAPJC website (scroll down to 221-02, 221-03, and 221-04):
221-02, Newark Presbytery v McNeill: In 2009, Presbyterian teaching elder Laurie McNeill was married, according to Massachusetts law, to another woman. The ceremony was conducted by two Episcopalian priests in an Episcopal church, and publicly announced at the next meeting of Newark Presbytery. Disciplinary charges were filed against Ms. McNeill, and the Presbytery’s PJC acquitted her of all charges. An appeal was filed with the Synod of the Northeast, which affirmed the Presbytery’s decision. An appeal was received by the GAPJC based on constitutional interpretation issues. The GAPJC was unconvinced, however, and upheld the lower PJC rulings on the following basis:
• Ms. McNeill was not married in a PCUSA church or by a PCUSA teaching elder;
• Ms. McNeill made clear publicly that the PCUSA did not recognize her relationship as a marriage;
• No evidence was previously provided to claim that Ms. McNeill’s “marriage” violated Scripture or the Confessions, and it is too late to introduce that argument now;
• Since Ms. McNeill was not required to testify, nor to incriminate herself, it must be proven by another means that her “marriage” was in fact sexually expressed. To quote a concurring opinion, “While it is tempting to assume that ‘happily married’ persons are engaging in sexual activity, it would be inappropriate to reach a guilty verdict exclusively on a presumption.” They want pictures, folks, taken last night.
Bottom line: It is okay for a PCUSA teaching elder to marry someone of the same sex, just so long as the PCUSA had nothing to do with the ceremony itself.
221-03, Tom et al v San Francisco Presbytery: In 2009, San Francisco Presbytery unanimously adopted a Gracious Dismissal Policy, requiring departing churches to pay Presbytery annually for five years: (1) funds to offset declining per capita and (2) funds to offset a declining contribution to the mission budget. Community Presbyterian Church of Danville was dismissed by the Presbytery pursuant to this policy the following year, agreeing to pay a lump sum of $108,640 and another $210,000 total over five years. The three complainants filed a remedial case against the Presbytery, but the Presbytery’s process was sustained. They appealed to the GAPJC, but before that appeal was heard, the Danville church was dismissed with its property to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church.
The GAPJC, recognizing that an irrevocable action had taken place, nevertheless chose to “exercise its declaratory authority to provide guidance to lower councils and to prevent future violations.” To this end, the GAPJC ruled that a presbytery must “exercise due diligence regarding the value of the [church’s] property. . . Due diligence, of necessity, includes not only an evaluation of the spiritual needs of the congregation and its circumstances but also financial analysis of the value of the property at stake.”
Bottom line: To cut a fine point here, the ruling does not require presbyteries to exact a payment for property held in trust by a congregation when it departs. It only requires an evaluation, a taking into account the value of property, and “fiduciary responsibility” to act in the best interest of the presbytery (and PCUSA). However, the interpretation of this somewhat vague language, particularly in those presbyteries that do not have dismissal policies at all, is likely to embolden presbyteries to become more aggressive about extracting money or property from departing congregations.
221-04, Larson et al v. Presbytery of Los Ranchos. In September 2011, Los Ranchos Presbytery passed a resolution advancing its belief that the manner of life required of teaching elders within its bounds included fidelity in heterosexual marriage or chastity in singleness, and indicated that all candidates for ordination or membership in the presbytery would be notified of this policy as they came under care or initiated a transfer. Twenty-one members in opposition to the Presbytery filed a remedial case, which was heard by the Synod of Southern California and Hawaii. After a May 2012 trial, the SPJC upheld the Presbytery’s resolution, but this decision was appealed to the GAPJC.
The basis for the appeal was the claim that the Presbytery improperly restated the Constitution, overreached its authority, and violated the conscience of members of the Presbytery. The GAPJC ruled that a presbytery policy taking the place of a case-by-case evaluation of each candidate is out of order. It made the distinction between declaring to the whole church what it believed was an acceptable manner of life (allowed) and notifying potential candidates of the policy (not allowed, because it “would have the practical effect of discouraging [candidates] prior to the required case-by-case evaluation or examination”).
Bottom line: Presbyteries are barred from determining, apart from the formal examination process, what constitutes a manner of life appropriate for ordained office. A presbytery membership in full agreement about such a standard is not affected by this ruling; but a contentious presbytery will conduct the debate again and again. The evangelical and pragmatic see this as a colossal waste of time; liberals see it as an opportunity to make debates unpleasant enough to wear down opposition to a progressive trend. And then, a “new normal” is adopted and the conscience violated is the conservative one.
All in all, not a good day for evangelical and orthodox Presbyterians, particularly those in divided presbyteries. More on this in my next post.
August 9, 2012
The issues have been confused for years and I’m ready to stop out for a couple of days from the marriage curriculum and address a question that keeps coming up. The second form of the question popped out in the one-minute speech of a GA commissioner, who said, basically, that if it were up to the Book of Confessions, she would never have been ordained. The first form of the question, around for years, asks: “The Bible requires silence of women in the church, yet we ordain women. Why can we not ordain committed homosexuals despite the prohibition of homosexual practice in the Bible?”
So today let’s start with the one-minute speech (fast forward to 39:40). The commissioner claims that a strict application of the Confessions would mean that women could not be ordained. But I challenge this claim on two counts:
First of all, when the decision to ordain women as teaching elders was made in the predecessor bodies (UPCUSA in 1955 and PCUS in the 1960s), there was no “Book of” Confessions; both bodies embraced the Westminster Standards alone. Westminster makes no statement whatsoever that prohibits or limit the ecclesiastical role of women; it is silent on the subject.
Secondly, when the Book of Confessions was adopted in 1967 by the UPCUSA, it compiled two ancient creeds (Nicene and Apostles’), four reformation confessions (including two that the English church replaced with Westminster), and one contemporary declaration (Barmen) into our confessional collection. A search of those seven creeds, catechisms, and confessions yield two passages of prohibition of women’s ministry. From The Scots Confession (BOC 3.22):
The Right Administration of the Sacraments
. . . we abandon the teaching of the Roman Church and withdraw from its sacraments; firstly, because their ministers are not true ministers of Christ Jesus (indeed they even allow women, whom the Holy Ghost will not permit to preach in the congregation, to baptize) and, secondly, because they have so adulterated both the sacraments with their own additions that no part of Christ’s original act remains in its original simplicity.
And from The Second Helvetic Confession (BOC 5.191):
THE MINISTER OF BAPTISM. We teach that baptism should not be administered in the Church by women or midwives. For Paul deprived women of ecclesiastical duties, and baptism has to do with these.
But there’s more. At the time of the adoption of the Book of Confessions, the Confession of 1967 was also drafted and included. One of its particular objectives was to affirm the equality of all people (regardless of social-economic status, race, or sex [NB: not sexual practice], based on Galatians 3:28). It was this declaration that compelled the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission in 1975 to declare affirmation of women’s ordination a requirement. In fact, that decision (Maxwell et al. v. the Presbytery of Pittsburgh, in the matter of Walter Kenyon) stated explicitly that our form of government derives from our confessional faith:
“Our form of government must be inseparably connected to the faith we profess. The question of the importance of our belief in the equality of people before God is thus essential.” (Minutes of the General Assembly, UPCUSA, 1975; 257)
The significance of this piece of history is that the church made a confessional affirmation intentionally to reverse statements within previous Reformation confessions. They chose to keep the text of the Second Helvetic and the Scots confessions intact, but to speak to the concern of the 1960s about social equality in C67 and later to the controversy regarding women’s ordination in A Brief Statement of Faith (10.4, 64) adopted upon reunion of the UPCUSA and the PCUS:
The same Spirit . . . calls women and men to all ministries of the Church.
So the GA commissioner spoke in error, that the Confessions alone would have prevented her ordination. The opposite is true, and not just conceptually but in historical experience. Our confessions formed the defining piece of the puzzle, “compelling” the GAPJC to make affirmation of women’s ordination a requirement for service in the church.
In summary, this is one of those cases of “evolving theology” reflected in the Book of Confessions. The church chose to include “women and men” in the Brief Statement of Faith (10:4), for instance, and not change the reference to women clergy in 5.191 (2nd Helvetic, Ch. XX). This was done as a result of intentional action at the GA level to include women in the manifold ministries of Christ. It was a conscious choice to revise the confessional witness to be consistent with Scripture’s witness about women. With this revision, the church could continue to practice the discipline of faith shaping a way of life.
Tomorrow, applying the same rationale and method, can we affirm the ordination and/or marriage of committed homosexuals on the basis of an inconsistency within the Book of Confessions?
August 6, 2012
The charge given to the PCUSA by the General Assembly is to “enter into a season of serious study and discernment concerning its meaning of Christian marriage.” Implicit in this assignment is the exploration of Christian marriage, which gets its definition from Scripture and the history of Scripture’s application within the church. Discernment is necessary when a particular teaching requires a particular doing. Since as Presbyterians we hold fast to the principle that learning is pursued so that we can behave rightly (“truth unto goodness”), the process must aid us in making decisions about what we do regarding marriage. So far, so good. Everything I have contributed to the discussion so far has moved in this direction.
Today I would like to take a step back and regard this task from another vantage point. My reason for doing so is perhaps a fatigue about the many complications brought up when we begin talking about marriage. In my weeks of silence (due to vacation as well as reading and consultation with others), I have come to believe that the various approaches to a curriculum on marriage fall somewhere between overly simplistic and very complicated. In Q & A before the GAPJC, the team arguing for Parnell was told that our understanding of Scripture prohibiting all homosexual practice was “too simple,” that life is more complicated than that. I do not concede the point, but note that on the other hand, justifications for gay marriage are based on overwrought biblical exegesis, arguments from silence, and a perceived superiority of personal experience over God’s Word.
And so, as I have been traveling through the gospel of Matthew this month (in my ‘other life’ as a teaching pastor), Jesus’ comments in the first few verses of chapter 18 jumped out at me. These suggest that a curriculum for adults should be judged on the impact its teaching would have on children’s faith.
At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.
“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of stumbling blocks! Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling block comes!”
I rely heavily on Dale Bruner for insight into these verses. I trust Bruner, a Presbyterian layman and retired Whitworth professor, because he gathers input from early church fathers and contemporary theologians, works well with the Greek, and considers all the angles. He is no simpleton when it comes to biblical exegesis. And yet, when the meaning becomes clear, his commitment to God’s Word is refreshing and challenging. He is a good tutor.
Bruner puts these two paragraphs into a larger section on the nature of Christ-like love. Matt 17:24-27 declares that “Love Limits Its Freedom (Flexibility).” Matt 18:1-5 demonstrates that “Love Redirects Its Ambition (Humility).” And Matt 18:6-9 observes that “Love Doesn’t Want to Hurt Anyone’s Faith (Sensitivity).” In all three segments, Jesus addresses the loving nurture of others’ faith, and the avoidance of making faith difficult for others. In particular, he repeatedly mentions the spiritual welfare of children.
Without going through the entire exegetical chain here, one conclusion I draw from Christ’s teaching is that we must test the purity and propriety of our teaching based on how it will lead children in the faith. Jesus refers to children, and Bruner expands this to mean “little people” or those who are dependent or of low status.
From an educational standpoint, there is a developmental aspect to this, of course. When we teach children about marriage and sexuality at an early age, the terms and scope of our discussion are limited to the concrete (because that is how small children process things—they are not conceptual thinkers yet) and on the need to know. They also need to know what is appropriate behavior and what is not, even before they know the reasons why. (This despite the frequency of the question, “But why, Mommy?”). Have you ever noticed that the person who is more acquainted with the complexities of a subject is in a better position to summarize and “simplify” it so that a child can understand the basics? Children make us check our work; if our rendition doesn’t make sense to them, it may not make sense.
But Jesus seems particularly concerned that nothing would deter or scandalize the faith of children, so it is incumbent upon us adults to point them (and ourselves!) in the right direction. The worldview basic to all teaching, and particularly in the area of sexuality, focuses on the object of our faith: the existence of God, God’s role and sovereignty as Creator; God’s goodness, love, and benevolent nature; and God’s order in creation. This is the basis for Paul’s description of faith’s foundation in Romans 1: showing gratitude to God and giving God the glory. Even adults must cultivate the discipline of remembering the Creator and not worshiping God’s creation, and hold the attitude and position in Christ as grateful recipient and responder.
Tomorrow, with “children” in mind, I will demonstrate the necessity of teaching what God has said in his Word (“Teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” in the Great Commission, Matt 28:19-21), rather than starting with what we wish to be true on the basis of our experience.
 Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary, vol. 2, The Churchbook Matthew 13-28, rev. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 207-216.
July 8, 2012
Hundreds of decisions were made in the course of this week’s General Assembly. Tracking the business is a little like maintaining a baseball scorecard. Some runners may get on base but never make it to home plate. The weather may delay the game. An error may be offset by a brilliant field catch. The final score is only one indication of what happened during the game; but the routine plays, the hand signals, and the errors throughout the game reveal the true condition of the team. To carry this analogy into the PCUSA, the Big Decision not to change the definition of marriage is an indicator of something, but throughout the week, there were other less-publicized decisions that demonstrated where we really are as a church. What I would like to do today is list the actions and moments that may not have made the news but which indicate, to me at least, that our denomination is in a serious slump and suffering from injuries.
1. The false start by the Moderator, Neal Presa, who originally supported the candidacy of his Vice-Moderator Tara McCabe, despite her conducting a same-sex wedding on April 28 in Washington, D.C. She resigned on Wednesday in anger but not repentance, and was replaced by Tom Trinidad of Colorado Springs. The Moderator of the Assembly apparently did not believe that violation of one’s ordination vows disqualifies one from high denominational office.
2. In our polity, proposals were made that would have strengthened top-down governance and control of the church through the
• elimination of elected synods and appointment of regional administrative commissions to replace them. This part of the Mid-Councils Commission (MCC) report (05-12) did not pass.
• requirement that presbyteries pay all per capita due to synods and GA even if their congregation do not. This measure (03-02) passed.
• severe limitation of business coming to the assembly from presbyteries and commissioners, but not from GA entities. 03-01, Rec. 3, did not pass.
Except for the per capita decision, which was expected, the proposals to reorganize and redirect business upward did not prevail. Presbyterians value their representative form of governance and desire the initiative for business to come from below, not from above. By turning back the MCC Recommendation 6 to form new (provisional) non-geographic presbyteries, however, the Assembly demonstrated not a unified vision of bottom-up innovation but an allegiance to the status quo.
3. On the sexuality issue, we averted immediate disaster as reported on Friday, but this vote to retain the traditional definition of marriage did not represent a resounding affirmation of Scripture’s witness nor the authority of our Confessions, but the political reality that a constitutional amendment could not muster presbytery ratification. As one retired PCUSA official said privately, “When it comes to the moment of truth—pressing the button on the keypad—commissioners vote on the side of unity in the church.” But with this action comes more Presbyterian double-speak:
• Postponement of “The Decision” for two years of study, as if the denomination has not been hashing over this topic for decades. This “solution” creates a limbo period for those on both sides of the aisle, for those who desire an immediate affirmation of gay marriage and for those who consider a change in the marriage definition to be the deal-breaker. Without a definitive decision on this matter this year, churches are prone to ambivalence about their relationship with the PCUSA.
• The implication (or desire) that non-compliance will be permitted in the meantime. A few commissioners admitted that they have not waited for the church to complete its discernment on gay marriage to start conducting same-sex weddings. Their admission is either a dare or an implicit dogma: the left can defy the constitution, but the right can’t prosecute while the subject is under scrutiny. For scofflaws, it does not matter what the constitution says. “People are going to do what they’re going to do” (Naegeli Law No. 137). But historically, in a time of discernment, churches have been courteous and patient with the process and declined to defy the standing rule until the Body has decided the matter. No more, it seems.
4. Cutting loose the Confessions from ecclesiastical decision-making. The Stated Clerk advised, and the Moderator ruled, that the proposed constitutional amendment to change W-4.9000, the definition of marriage, did not contradict the Confessions because “the confessions themselves do not agree with each other, but are rather a progressive representation of what the church has believed through history.” This ruling is based on false information (i.e. that the confessions disagree on the matter of marriage between and man and a woman, which they most certainly do not). But by saying what he did, the Clerk perpetuated the myth that our conduct is not based on what we believe (i.e. the confessional part of our Constitution) but on the rules we set (i.e. the Book of Order). This official ruling (of the Moderator, concurring with the Clerk’s opinion) was a second “official” statement rendering the Confessions irrelevant to everyday Presbyterian life (the first being the GAPJC’s decision in Parnell v. San Francisco). To me, this was the low point of the Assembly and a cowardly failure on the part of the Clerk to fulfill his office at a moment when it really counted.
Having said this, isn’t it ironic that liberals before the 2010 Committee on Confessions demanded a retranslation of the Heidelberg Catechism in order to remove the reference to “homosexual perversion” in Q. 87? Why would they feel this was important, if the Confessions really do not order our life together doctrinally? The church is not of one mind about where our authorities lie, and frankly, these erroneous rulings are causing ecclesiastical osteoporosis. Ultimately, and perhaps very soon, we will not be able to stand without breaking weakened bones.
5. Withholding all means of ‘relief of conscience’. I outlined this outcome in a previous post but it is worth saying again that if the church is going to depart from its historic faith and Presbyterian ethos to allow same-sex marriage and the ordination of GLBT persons, in all fairness it must provide relief of conscience for those they insist must stay in the denomination. To differentiate from the denomination at large a congregation and/or presbytery needs to be able to cease participation in the Board of Pension benefits plan, have freedom to form new presbyteries or to adopt presbytery-wide ordination standards, withhold of per capita, or ultimately leave the denomination with property. All of these avenues were closed off at this Assembly, leaving evangelicals with huge dilemmas on how to differentiate from a wayward denomination.
6. The Q factor, raised when a commissioner asked what the Q in LGBTQ meant, and the moderator of Committee 13 said, “queer.” The commissioner thought it meant “questioning,” which she as a youth appreciated, because she wasn’t sure about the orientation of her sexuality just yet. Later the Moderator talked about the queue for the microphone, which he had to spell in order to differentiate from the Q everybody else had in mind. But going back to the youth commissioner’s comment, it seemed to me that YAADs were getting a pretty heavy dose of the gay agenda, based on the number of rainbow stoles they were wearing and their microphone comments. What I find sad and appalling is that youth, who are still learning and easily confused about sexuality anyway, now are confronted by a political advocacy group inviting them to explore the possibility they might be gay, or worse, urging them to experiment with homosexual practice as part of their “sex education.” [I’m not saying that is what is happening with the YAADs at GA, but homosexual education is required at junior high schools and, in some states, grades schools, according to Linda Harvey, who addressed the OneByOne lunch on Tuesday.]
So the GA game was not the PCUSA’s finest hour, and the team is dealing with injuries that may not heal. Not to say spiritual disciplines and training in godliness wouldn’t help avert the looming crisis. But now that the GA All-Star break is over, it is time for coaches across the country to go back to teaching the fundamentals of discipleship, promoting obedience to Jesus Christ and God’s way revealed in the Scriptures, and retraining theologically. The Coalition will do its part to provide materials for study, bibliographies for referral, and other helps for Presbyterian decision-makers learning to choose the Way of Life.
This was my last post for presbycoalition.wordpress.com, uploaded here also to make the transition to my personal blog. I am not dropping the subject of GA—believe me, I’m just getting started!—but exercising my freedom to delve into topics of my choosing as time goes on and things happen. Thank you for your interest and encouragement through the week; and again, I apologize for promising to write everyday and then not carrying through as consistently as I had hoped.
July 4, 2012
On this Fourth of July, while Americans consider the implications of Liberty, Presbyterians were in their plenary session of the General Assembly in Pittsburgh, PA. The Assembly was surprised by the announcement of the Vice-Moderator Tara McCabe, that she was resigning that office immediately. After a tearful statement infused with anger and defensiveness, she was released from duty and replaced by Tom Trinidad of Faith Presbyterian Church in Colorado Springs.
What Tara learned was that with church office comes a limit to one’s freedom. As office holders in the PCUSA, elders agree to bind their consciences captive to the Word of God and to abide by the polity of the church. This is expected of all people who answer the constitutional questions for ordination and installation, regardless of what position they hold.
When one takes a public elected office in the PCUSA, a standard exists—it’s not even a higher standard—and it is willingly adopted, for the good of the office. We could add that it is good for the peace, unity, and purity of the church for PCUSA leaders to thrive within the limits given us by the Scriptures and our polity.
This is not a heroic obedience required of Moderator and Vice-Moderator. The standard required of Tara McCabe is the same for everybody: teaching and ruling elders are not at liberty to marry same sex couples. This is based on our understanding of marriage defined as between a man and a woman, given forth in Scripture and confirmed in the Confessions, and church law recently upheld by the Spahr v. Redwoods Presbytery remedial decision of the GAPJC.
Tara is mistaken to believe that as a “private citizen” she could marry a same-sex couple or that it was permissible for anyone to do it. Tara’s action did not become a mistake after she was elected. It was a mistake to do it in the first place. That act alone has generated the circumstances that unfolded today, culminating in her resignation. It is unfortunate that her personal error was compounded by its incompatibility with holding the office of Vice-Moderator. But the error was not that she was found out, nor that she had to resign from office; the error was the act itself. We are not at liberty to marry same sex couples.
It was the right thing to do, to resign from office. She should have offered to withdraw from the election weeks ago. Unfortunately, her step-down was not accompanied by regret, confession, repentance, or sorrow for her act of ecclesiastical disobedience. There were no signs of apology for embarrassing the office of Vice-Moderator, defrauding the Moderator, or diminishing the integrity of the Assembly. Instead, her reaction was anger, defensive accusations of bullying and “pernicious poison,” in other words, a victim mentality. She is being set up as the 220th GA Martyr, but she is no martyr. No one here at the Assembly hates her; this fall is of her own doing, and it happened when she took a liberty that had not been granted her. As a consequence of a series of missteps—her lapse of good judgment, her implicit deception, her assumption that she as a candidate for Vice-Moderator was above this law, and her disrespect for the Assembly—all of these things revealed a person who is not ready for a national role in PCUSA leadership. It was the right thing to do, to resign from office. We should all embrace her with gratitude for taking the right step, even now and even if for the wrong reasons. And then we should move on. She needs to heal, and so do we.
June 28, 2012
On my flight to Pittsburgh today, I was recalling memorable moments from previous PCUSA General Assemblies. High points and low points abound, of course, depending on one’s point of view. But one particular moment stands out as a commentary on our modus operandi.
I was meeting in a hospitality suite with fellow evangelical/conservatives on Monday of the Assembly, probably at lunchtime. On the schedule, this would be in the middle of committee deliberations, so the commissioners are getting to know their fellow committee members, learning how to conduct business, and otherwise sinking in to the deep pile of work before them. A YAD stopped in and wanted to talk. Out of his school backpack he pulled his Bible. He opened it and sighed and looked at me with tears welling up in his eyes. He said, “I was so excited to come to General Assembly, because I thought we would gather around the Word of God and make decisions based on what we read there. Why is it that when we get down to business, the Bible is never mentioned or referred to in our deliberation? I am so bitterly disillusioned about what this meeting is.”
For an advisor to commissioners and a long-time participant of these meetings, I was heartbroken for this young man. It was like the Assembly was robbing him of his innocence. Ever since that day, I have been observing how the Assembly processes the Scriptures in its decision-making. The news on this front is not good; the Bible does not seem to figure significantly in the outcome of many issues before the commissioners. Why would this be so? I believe there are two main reasons and perhaps a third that is a guess, based on my work as an educator and discipling pastor.
Reason 1: Busy with Business—The docket of General Assembly is packed with reports, celebrations, ecumenical greetings, overtures and resolutions, meals, and morning worship gatherings. The schedule of events for an eight-day meeting, including all the various options for attending programs, is 27 pages long. The pressure to move on through the docket of 120+ overtures is enormous. And much of the business before the body is bureaucratic, financial, and political. There may not be, for many commissioners, a clear connection between God’s Story in Scripture and the Presbyterian story here. The Bible most certainly could instruct us on organization, money, and politics; but those disciplines are not represented in Scripture in chewable bites. I’m afraid, for all practical purposes, that the Scriptures are perceived to be irrelevant to the questions and dilemmas the Presbyterian church faces as an organization.
Reason 2: “Diverse Interpretations”—Carrying forward from the Parnell v. San Francisco Presbytery GAPJC case, where the judicial commission had a golden opportunity to make a ruling based on what Scripture says about sexual practice, the newest cop-out is the statement, “but there are so many ways to interpret the Word; we can’t pick just one on any given matter.” I say “cop-out” because it is simply a resignation to say, “This is too hard.” [One of the things that makes biblical study difficult these days is the 3-Gs pull toward unbiblical practices that tugs at the heart and pulls a person away from obedience to God’s will.] I’ve said it here before, and I will say it again: Presbyterians have already thought of that. And to counteract that helpless feeling, the PCUSA has adopted a set of Confessions that arbitrate biblical interpretation. “There’s an app for that” has been true for Presbyterians since their inception.
Reason 3: Biblical Illiteracy—It is my guess that most Presbyterians, and certainly they are represented by the commissioners to this Assembly, could not piece together a Bible study on a topic under consideration. The lack of knowledge of the Bible’s contents has appalled me for years, and it is my prime motivator for teaching the Bible on a regular basis. The church has failed to disciple its members over the long haul, and that lack of scriptural depth shows every two years when we get together to make decisions. When commissioners do take the risk to quote Scripture or to use its reasoning in debate, others roll their eyes or turn away (this goes ideologically both ways, by the way).
What I would really like to see happen at this Assembly, let’s say on the topic of marriage, is for leisurely time to be taken to make the case for a male-female prerequisite for marriage from the Bible, and likewise for those who think the definition only goes to “between any two people” (male/male, female/female, or male/female) to prove their assertion from Scripture. Different approaches? You bet! Mutually exclusive in some ways, such that the two cannot peacefully coexist. Show me from the Bible how you make your case, because I still believe “the Scriptures are the only rule of faith and practice.” Would this not make for an edifying and inspiring Assembly, if we were to start from the beginning of our biblical underpinnings, and work from there?
June 20, 2012
[It shouldn’t be fascinating at all that I have not been blogging. Still burning the candle at both ends. Just two more days of grading papers and finalizing the academic quarter, and I’m back with you on a daily basis, for the duration!]
It is so fascinating to observe how quiet some people are in the face of recent events in the PCUSA. A few cases on point:
The silence in response to rogue Redwoods Presbytery has been deafening. Whom might we expect to react to its refusal to censure one of its minister members, the Rev. Janie Spahr (honorably retired), who conducted several same-sex weddings? The Synod of the Pacific overseers? The Stated Clerk of the denomination? Does this silence mean that Redwoods’ inaction and attitude have no consequences? Does this silence mean nobody knows what to do, because this sort of defiance has never occurred before?
Is anybody going to “have a problem” with the Rev. Neal Presa’s vice-moderator candidate the Rev. Tara Spuhler McCabe conducting a same-sex marriage in the District of Columbia? Neal publically does not have a problem, though he says he disagrees with her action. Is he trying to be some sort of hero by saying, “I’m going to model unity in diversity here”? Whom might we expect to react to McCabe’s violation of her ordination vows? Any presbyter can file a disciplinary case, so what is the delay? The commissioners to General Assembly can log in by refusing to vote for the Presa/McCabe team as Moderator of the Assembly. Surely the highest elected officials of the church would be expected “to be governed by our church’s polity, and to abide by its discipline.”
The subliminal message whispered through the halls of the church is “let’s wait and see what happens at General Assembly.” In other words, orderly discipline is suspended until the church enters into its formal process of discernment? Like a direct GAPJC decision prohibiting same-sex marriages does not count as part of that discernment? Like the many previous decisions of the Assembly to ban the practice do not represent the Holy Spirit’s will? The undercurrent beneath the silence suggests falsely that the Holy Spirit hasn’t really completed the job until the rule is changed.
Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit. So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest-time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith. (Galatians 6:7-10).
Who among us has the voice to break the silence and call the PCUSA to radical obedience, mutual accountability, and church discipline? If the officials won’t do it, then presbyters must. Do what you can do where you are, and do not be intimidated by trends, declared victories, or other political posturing. Do not grow weary in well-doing. This is our family whose benefit we are seeking.
Let’s wait and see, indeed. When the Assembly defeats all attempts to change the definition of marriage, disciplinary charges should be filed immediately with National Capital’s PJC to correct one particular error we know about. A good portion of the church will not “wait and see” for two more years and will simply demand that we get this train-wreck of a disciplinary system back on track doing what it is supposed to do. If the current trend is allowed to continue, the resultant breakdown of the administration of discipline so embedded in our Presbyterian DNA will flatten the denomination. At that point, we will have lost—at the very least—an important historic distinction and connection with our foundational identity.
It is worth saying again: blessing comes to the church when all its members submit to its discipline according to the Word of God. We are reminded that this concept is an historic principle of church order:
“If [our] scriptural and rational principles be steadfastly adhered to, the vigor and strictness of its discipline will contribute to the glory and happiness of any church.” (F-3.0108).