Did God really say . . .?

July 30, 2011

General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission of the Presbyterian Church (U. S. A.)

Appeal Hearing in the Matter of

Parnell et al v. Presbytery of San Francisco

July 29, 2011

Opening Presentation by Counsel for the Complainants/Appellants, the Rev. Mary Holder Naegeli

Moderator and Commissioners, thank you for hearing our appeal.

As I was preparing to come to Louisville this week, I was harvesting the last of our peaches and apricots in my back yard garden. Reflecting in that setting on what I might say to you today, I realized that the concerns being address here all started in another garden, the Garden of Eden.

This case is about whether the Scriptures carry sufficient clarity, authority, and relevance as to bind the church to an ordination standard now. The question is not whether a higher governing body may second-guess a lower governing body’s examination for ordination. The question is whether any governing body may second-guess God’s Word.

Much has been said in the briefs and presentations of this case about being faithful to the Reformed principle of mutual forbearance as our way of resolving disagreements. But this is to divert our attention from a more basic starting point for the Reformed Tradition. From Calvin forward, reflected in our Book of Confession and Book of Order, the Reformed Tradition always begins with God. God’s identity, God’s sovereignty, God’s Word, is the starting point for everything Presbyterian.

We pick up the story of God with the biblical account of Creation, where it all started in the Garden. God created the Garden of Eden, placed Adam and Eve within it, and gave them every fruit tree—good for food and delightful to the eyes—from which to eat. That is, except the one Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.  “You are not to eat of this one tree,” God said, “Or you will die.” God did not give any rationale or explanation of the command, he just put it out there. So one day, Eve and Adam are strolling in the Garden and come upon the snake, who asks a question, “Did God really say you can’t eat off that tree?” I picture Eve, wide-eyed and horrified, responding, “No, we mustn’t eat from that tree, or even touch it, lest we die!” To this, the snake said, “Oh, surely God didn’t mean that! He only meant that if you eat of it, you will become like him, knowing both good and evil!” At this moment, Eve set aside God’s Word, and took up this new word. With her God-given intellect and appreciation for beauty, she considered this forbidden fruit: “Gee, it’s good for food, and it’s delightful to look at, and it will make me wise?  What’s not to like?!” And so she took some, ate it, and passed it on to Adam who was with her.

So what happened here?  Was Eve following her conscience? Why didn’t Adam intervene and warn her of impending disaster? Adam was paralyzed in silence; did he too fail to remember what God had said? Was he deferring to her conscience? Or maybe he was just hungry. All he had to do was say, “Wait, wait, Eve, before you eat that, why don’t you go back and ask God what he said!”

This story identifies the issue for the Presbyterian Church today.  Eve represents every Presbyterian, every disciple and candidate for ministry at a choice-point in life.  She knew God’s Word, and yet sets it aside in favor of another voice that plays on her vulnerabilities. Adam represents the church, in a position to warn and correct against waywardness.  In the Presbyterian Church, we have the obligation to help our people see when they are forgetting God’s Word and going in another direction.

This takes us to the present case. The Synod’s review of the Presbytery’s ordination decision was incomplete.  Yes, this is a process question within the purview of this commission’s charter. The process question comes to you as a result of the PUP AI, Recommendation 5 enacted by the General Assembly, stating “Whether the examination and ordination and installation decision comply with the Constitution of the PC(USA) . . . is subject to review by higher governing bodies.” In evaluating the constitutionality of something, we have to remember that this entails consideration of both the Book of Order as to procedures and principles and of the Book of Confessions teaching the Scripture that informs our faith and doctrine.

The Synod PJC abdicated its responsibility in the process by its failure to call out the Presbytery’s error in doctrine that resulted in an irregular ordination decision. As a matter of good process, it is a judicial commission’s responsibility to affirm and apply the biblically consistent and historically grounded plain meaning of Scripture. On this topic, we demonstrated through trial testimony that the Scriptures and Confessions are univocal and unambiguous  (see Appeal Brief, 11-12):

a. Male/female prerequisite for marriage that is evident throughout Scripture;

b. The consistent rejection of homosexual practice in all contexts, in at least six Scripture passage that appear in both Old and New Testaments; and

c. The complete absence of any scriptural support for homosexual practice in any context.

There is no need to rehash what has been covered thoroughly in our briefs and in the trial record. Rather, I would like to address the question of how we are to go about deciding this controversy?

Several procedural options are available to this Commission. But only one is consistent with Reformed faith and polity: Anything short of affirming the plain meaning of Scripture and its application in this situation will be interpreted by the church as backing off our seventh Historic Principle of Church Order (G-1.0307), “Scripture, the only rule of faith and practice,” and declare instead that “anything goes.”  There is no compromise position: either we go back to what God says in Scripture, or we create something new here.

This Commission is not in a position to fashion a new standard for the church. The good news is that there is no need to do so! All we have to do is affirm the standard we already have in Scripture.

But the question on everybody’s minds is, “Did God really say . . .?” How can we know what God’s word on this matter is?  I remember attending a General Assembly committee meeting a few years ago, in which the matter at hand was the same as what we are discussing today. The commissioners in an informal discussion were asked to share what they were feeling at that point. An elder stood up and said, “God is so big, and we are so small; God is so inscrutable that we cannot know what God thinks on this matter.” But nothing could be further from the truth!  We know what God’s thoughts are on homosexual practice, because he has told us—straight up, without equivocation. Some say these Scriptures are subject to interpretation. But interpretation is necessary only when the biblical data are inconsistent or ambiguous. As demonstrated in our briefs and trial testimony, on this issue the biblical witness is entirely consistent. If we cannot be sure about what God says in regard to homosexual practice, we cannot be sure about anything else God has said.

The Presbytery claims that if this Commission rules in favor of the Complainant/Appellants, that it would be imposing our narrow and unchanging biblical interpretation on the whole church. Aside from the fact that our view is completely consistent with biblical faith and historic principles of church order, all I can say is this: This Commission will be “imposing” something on the church because that is the nature of judicial rulings. You can put forward the Complainants’ view, which reflects biblical teaching and the Reformed Tradition; or you can take just one candidate’s view of the Scripture, representing a new doctrine, and impose it on the church. Your choice necessarily imposes someone’s view; shouldn’t it be God’s? God who is the same yesterday, today, and forever.  Hear John Calvin on this point, about the unchangeableness of God’s Word and the Spirit’s role in helping us know what God is saying:

“Therefore the Spirit, promised to us, has not the task of inventing new and unheard-of-revelations, or of forging a new kind of doctrine, to lead us away from the received doctrine of the gospel, but of sealing our minds with that very doctrine which is commended by the gospel.” (I, 9, ii; p. 94)

Some say that we must be an inclusive church. The call for inclusion is the heart tug upon us these days, as some claim that adhering to the fidelity/chastity ethic for church officers excludes our homosexual brothers and sisters from church altogether!  This is not the issue here, by the way; we are not talking about church membership but rather the willingness of church officers to repent of sin as a condition of their ordination. But having said that, Jesus in fact excludes those who refuse him by unrepentance and disobedience. Our Lord assures us there will be a division: it will be a division of the sheep and the goats, between those who obey his Word and those who do not (Matt. 28).

It is far better for the church to take the grounded route, and go with what God has said, through which, we are promised, God will bless the church (as the eighth Historic Principle of Church Order reminds us [G-1.0308]).  Here is the sure path:

Do what Eve should have done:  Go back to God’s Word and do what he says.

Do not make the same mistake Adam did. This is the church’s opportunity to rouse out of paralysis and to speak up. Do not be afraid to apply God’s Word to our 21st century temptations. Warn the church of its error, and remind the church of what God has said.

Some day the Church must answer to God for its response to the revealed Word of God. The ruling of this Commission now will indicate what that response is from the PCUSA. What will this Commission answer to the faith question, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’ and do not do what I say?” (Luke 6:46).  “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matt 7:21). We should tremble at the throne of grace and truth rather than second-guess God’s clear Word in Scripture. From any angle you might look at this—legal, linguistic, historical, cultural, scriptural, theological—“fidelity and chastity” is a clear mandate for church leaders. What makes it “unclear”?  It is only the heart tug of the contemporary moment that makes us, like Eve, willing to second-guess God’s Word, vulnerable to the Deceiver’s promise of wisdom, and enticed to go beyond God’s boundary.

Some day the Church must answer to God for how we have taught the revealed Word of God to our people. The eternal disposition of souls is at stake, which makes this a discipleship issue. This is a teachable moment for the Church, and this Commission is the teacher! Do we yield to the contemporary moment (and risk participating in the condemnation of our brethren by leading them astray with false doctrine)?  Or do we submit to the Eternal in hope that the disobedient will repent and be saved?

The Confession of 1967 (BOC 9.47) addresses our responsibility in this area:

“The relationship between man and woman exemplifies in a basic way God’s ordering of the interpersonal life for which he created mankind. Anarchy in sexual relationships is a symptom of man’s alienation from God, his neighbor, and himself. Man’s perennial confusion about the meaning of sex has been aggravated in our day . . . The church comes under the judgment of God and invites rejection by man when it fails to lead men and women into the full meaning of life together, or withholds the compassion of Christ from those caught in the moral confusion of our time.”

Shall we, like Eve who was caught in the moral confusion of her time, be enticed by what seems pleasing and good to us?  Or shall we go back to what God says is good and proclaim that in doctrine and deed?

Representing the complainants in this case, I urge the commission to reverse the Synod PJC’s decision, to nullify the approval of the candidate’s ordination, and to put the Knox AI in its proper place. Thank you very much.

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11 Responses to “Did God really say . . .?”

  1. Viola Larson Says:

    Thank you Mary,
    Utterly complete! What more can be said.
    May God give you a very long and joyous rest. And may He move the hearts of the GAPJC.

  2. Renee Guth Says:

    I agree with Viola. Well said!

  3. Dave Moody Says:

    Great job! Amen to Vi’s prayer. Thanks Mary.


  4. Preach it, sister! Have posted on my fb account. Lord bless you and keep you and make his face to shine upon you and give you his peace tonight. We pray for Christ’s church tonight…

  5. Truth Tolife Says:

    And so the issue before the PCUSA–does Scripture still have the clarity and the authority to bind us– comes down to thus: Sola Scriptura or Nolo Scriptura? Scripture alone? or I do not want Scripture. There is only one way to say ” Yes” to Scripture; there are a thousand ways to say “No”. So if the commission says ANYTHING other than Scripture remains the only true guide to faith and manner, it is saying “No” to Scripture. Sola Scriptura? Or Nolo Scriptura? May the answer please the Lord.

  6. Sarah Hill Says:

    Beautiful, Mary! Prayers continue.


  7. May we breathe in unity, “Sola Scriptura!”

  8. Jake Horner Says:

    Wonderful! Well done! Thank you for your faithfulness to God, His Word, and His Church.

  9. Kari McClellan Says:

    Thank you for so clearly declaring the true role of God’s word. Your testimony may not win human approval, but I hear angels cheering.


  10. Excelllent article. Thanks for expressing the issue so clearly.

  11. Doug Ranson Says:

    Well said and good advice .. Hopefully God’s word will fall on fertile soil and bear much fruit ..

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