Whose Job Is It?

August 10, 2011

I have been bothered by a comment made more than once during the July 29 appeal hearing. I think it was two elders who said, “We’re not theologians here; it isn’t our job to adjudicate differences of biblical interpretation.” By way of background, permanent judicial commissioners are either ministers or elders (now known as teaching elders and ruling elders) who have been elected by the General Assembly to six-year terms on the church’s highest court. Their comment begs the question, “So whose job is it?”

Turning the case back to the Synod for a revision of its ruling, the GAPJC said:

The record does not reflect that the SPJC ruled on the Appellants’ contention that Scripture and the Confessions prohibit certain sexual behavior. While the Appellants’ complaint was based primarily on G-6.0106b, the Appellants clearly and consistently presented arguments at trial on the basis of scriptural and confessional standards without objection by the Presbytery. Since the doctrinal issue is central to the Appellants’ case, it was error for the SPJC not to expressly rule upon the issue.

So the GAPJC thinks it is the Synod PJC’s job to rule on whether the Scripture and Confessions prohibit certain sexual behavior. The ball is in Synod’s court now.

But the Synod originally said, “The decision whether a person has departed from essentials of Reformed faith and polity ‘ultimately becomes the responsibility of the governing body in which he or she serves’ (G-1.0301; G-1.0302).” The Synod believes that it isn’t its job either; presbytery is responsible for evaluating biblical interpretations of candidates.

As this can is kicked down the alley, it is apparent that there is no one and no governing body to whom we are all accountable. You can interpret by your own rules, preach what you feel like, and behave contrary to Scripture, and nobody is necessarily going to call you on it. Most certainly, we are all to be “joyfully submitted to the Lordship of Christ,” but what does that mean when three governing bodies are willing to disregard the clear instruction of Scripture in sexual matters? [“Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’ and do not do what I say?” (Lk 6:46).]

During the trial, “over half our Presbyterian seminary professors” were cited in favor of the ordination of sexually active homosexuals. Are they our biblical authorities? Were they elected to be our authoritative interpreters of what the Scriptures teach? No! The Confessions have that place, but the church remains recalcitrant and blind to these historic statements that support heterosexual marriage and chastity in singleness.

Who is going to hold decision-makers accountable, if not the judicial commissions at each level? When a lower commission fails to act, it is the job of the higher commission to take responsibility on behalf of the whole church. But they will not. They prefer that “everybody do what is right in their own eyes” (Judges 17:6).

It is time for the prophets in the church to start speaking up. There is no guarantee that the church will listen to them either, but who else is there, short of Jesus Christ himself returning in the flesh to give us one upside the head. In the meantime, we all stand rebuked for having failed in our duty to disciple and equip elders for their spiritual leadership in the church. We have underutilized the gift of teaching, from the ground up, and are now reaping the harvest of our inattention. Whose job, indeed.

Tomorrow: Theological drifts slowly deconstructing the Presbyterian church.

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9 Responses to “Whose Job Is It?”

  1. Jim Berkley Says:

    Mary, good questions indeed! Two things:

    First, I am SO with you on this! Why would the GAPJC members expect the SPJC members to be MORE equipped at a lower court to ascertain what they, themselves, the highest court in our denomination, did not feel able to discern? Don’t they realize how absurd they are being? “We’re not smart enough to deal with this, but lesser authorities ought to be!” Not impressive.

    Second, you wrote that “we are all to be ‘joyfully submitted to the Lordship of Christ.'” Indeed, we ought to be. But our Form of Government nowhere requires it. Amendment 10-A mentions joyful submission in such a way that if we DID have standards–and apparently we don’t–the standards would reflect our joyful submission. But nowhere does Amendment 10-A make any such joyful submission a requirement. We need to stop assuming and saying that it does.

    Bless you, Mary! You make so very much sense, and yet you’ve had to endure the Mad Hatter’s tea party.

    • revmary Says:

      Ha-ha, right you are, Jim, that the language of Amendment 10A offers no “standard,” including being submitted to the Lordship of Christ. It is only an illusion waved in front of an enthralled crowd to give credence to the non-standard of 10A. Nevertheless, if submitting to the Lordship of Jesus Christ were a requirement for governing bodies, as ill-defined as it can be made out to be, our councils have demonstrated their failure to live up to it.

  2. Mark S Says:

    Perhaps you could point the PJC(s) to D-2.0203b, which, in a disciplinary context, empowers a PJC decide whether a particular act or ommission is contrary to the Scriptures (and thus an offense). Certainly, it can be argued that a PJC’s duty to adjudicate differences of biblical interpretation in one context (disciplinary) does not end when similar questions are being asked in another context (remedial).

    • revmary Says:

      Thank you for this, Mark. In the D-book, I’ve been in the remedial case section too long, and forgot about this provision in the discipline case section. Well done! Appreciate your contribution.

      • Mark S Says:

        You are welcome. You might also try looking into pre-1980 PJC cases (from the prior denomination(s)). The GAPJC still relies on such cases from time to time, so it would seem perfectly valid for you to do so as well. If you go back far enough I have no doubt you will find plenty of cases in which PJCs had no problem interpreting scripture. You might even find a few heresy cases. It seems to me that all PJC members need to be reminded of the wide sweep of D-1.0101. PJCs exist in part to …” correct or restrain wrongdoing in order to bring members to repentance and restoration…” It seems to me that this means that PJCs exist not just to decide “easy” policy/adminsitrative cases based on BoO violations. They also exists to discipline (i.e., guide and educate) in matters of Scripture. Here’s an extreme example. Suppose a presbytery adopted a resolution that Jesus was not our Lord and Savior. In such a case, would an SPJC (in a remedial action) really decline to strike down the resolution as contrary to the constitution (by way of being a violation of scripture)? Not likely. (See, e.g., the reaction in the Robert Jensen matter). A cross reference to the function of the ancient church courts in Calvin’s Geneva may also prove useful.

        Additionally, looking at the bigger picture, if the PJC(s) ultimately decline your invitation to intrepret scripture in a remedial setting, I think a consequence would be the same questions inevitably appearing in a disciplinary case – since their will be no other place for one side or the other to go.

    • Truth Tolife Says:

      Judicial commissions want to limit their focus only to process and polity, and avoid doctrine altogether (“We don’t sit as a panel of Bishops”). What they ignore is that doctrine is part of polity and process–in both disciplinary and remedial cases. The Constitution has several parts, including not only the Book of Order (which was revised), but the Book of Confessions (which was not). When reviewing the constitutionality of an ordination decision, which the General Assembly directs judicial commissions to do, commissions ignore half the Constitution–the Book of Confessions–when they refuse to consider doctrine. This is at best, an abdication of duty and at worst, blatant disobedience. Either way, it means there is no discipline, no order, and “each person can do what is right in their own eyes.”

  3. Ginny Good Says:

    It is fascinating to continue to hear of our ministers “interpreting” the Scriptures. The Lord’s Word is pretty straightforward and easily understood. There really is no reason for “interpretation” ……. just obedience to the Lord’s commands. This modern day “interpretation” seems to me to be a way of excusing one’s disobedience to the Lord’s commands. Somehow along the way we have lost our fear of the Lord, and transferred it to fear of man. Blessings to you for a great blog!

    A Presbyterian Elder, too…..

    • revmary Says:

      Ginny, it is great to hear from you and I’m thrilled that an elder is finding my blog helpful! I am reminded by your post and by Dr. Goff above that sometimes the best interpretive skills are the simplest. We don’t need to make the prospect of Bible reading harder than it is. This is not to say there aren’t some difficult subjects to sort out, but the one particular issue of homosexual practice that has been in the background of my blog so far is not one of them.
      I’m passionate about equipping elders, so I hope you keep reading, Ginny!

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