Convenient Constitutionalism

October 25, 2011

The mutually exclusive claims we know exist within the PCUSA have necessitated some creative thinking about how we can differentiate where we must, while collaborating where we can.  One of the creative options under consideration is the formation of presbyteries with porous boundaries. Three forms of this idea have surfaced: 1) the formation of new presbyteries from a composite of congregations in close geographic proximity; 2) the transfer of congregations from one presbytery to a neighboring one; or 3) the delineation of a new presbytery within the bounds of an existing presbytery. I realize that for some, even these solutions maintain unacceptable ties with the PCUSA, and for them, dismissal to a new reformed body is really the only answer. But for those who cannot avail themselves of dismissal, some sort of firewall needs to be installed for them to maintain sanity, theological integrity, and mission. Presbyteries with porous boundaries offer one way to accomplish this goal.

The problem is pointed out, however, by those who have some kind of interpretive authority (like our Stated Clerk), that synods may not form porous presbyteries. There is no provision in the constitution for them. Non-geographic presbyteries are limited only to those formed around language and immigrant groups. Any other form exceeds the bounds of constitutional provision, most especially those formed around theological affinity.

So my question is this: Where were these constitutional purists when conservatives were trying to uphold a very clear constitutional provision, G-6.0106b? The “Fidelity and Chastity” standard for ordination was in our book for fourteen years, but this did not prevent More Light congregations and even presbyteries such as San Francisco, Twin Cities Area, and John Knox from pushing the envelope with irregular ordinations. When they did it, they were describing their actions as “progress,” and “something we have to do to be faithful.” In my presbytery, an honorably retired minister urged the body with this comment: “I don’t care what the Constitution says. We should ordain this women!” in reference to the candidate who is the subject of Parnell et al. v. San Francisco Presbytery.

But when conservatives try to think creatively, and move towards an equitable solution to their crisis of conscience, the liberals become constitutional traditionalists. I call this “convenient constitutionalism,” and it simply is not just. If it was alright for presbyteries to press the point on LGBT ordination, as a means of forcing change in the denomination, then why is it not alright for disaffected evangelicals to do the same—and without promoting personal immorality or false doctrine in the process? A double standard is being perpetrated.

If, on the other hand, all Presbyterians want to commit to faithful and consistent constitutionalism, then let us all submit to the entire PCUSA constitution, Book of Confessions included. Let us constrain the free exercise of our conscience to the Word of God as interpreted by the standards of the church (G-2.0105). Let us honor and abide by all eight of our Historic Principles of Church Order (F-3.01). Anything short of this is a selective, convenient constitutionalism.

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3 Responses to “Convenient Constitutionalism”

  1. David Stearns Says:

    Mary – I wonder about your reaction to the recent action by Lebanon Presbyterian Church to leave and join EPC. As portrayed by “The Laymen” some of the arguments by the church leadership were as follows:
    1. Payment of annual per capita dues (which has always been voluntary) could become mandatory.
    2. The mission goals and priorities of the congregation would no longer be determined by the session but could be dictated by the presbytery, synod and General Assembly.
    3. The presbytery is given power to control a congregation’s choice of pastor. When seeking a new pastor, congregations will only be able to consider those who have been pre-approved by the presbytery.”

    While they may be correct that nFOG has shifted more power to presbyteries, I have not yet heard of any presbyteries taking any actions in these directions. So even though there are already ample reasons for a congregation to want to leave, this sounds like scare tactics to me, which will only act to muddy the waters.

  2. Ron Says:

    Progressive is a one way street.

    Required reading:
    Christianity and Liberalism By J. Gresham Machen

    If you have not read this you will not know where this whole process began to heat up.

  3. Whit Says:

    David, this all comes down to a lack of trust.

    From the point of view of the evangelicals/conservatives, if the Left can read the Bible to justify homoerotic practice, it can read it to justify anything.

    As long as an objective reading of Scripture was our authority on faith and practice, the Right could believe that there were limits on how far the Left could/would go. There would certainly be disagreements, but there was a comon frame of reference. But once that frame of reference was abandoned, there were no limits on how far the Left can go – hence the lack of trust.

    So, scare tactics? I believe that some presbyteries are requiring congregations to ordain persons engaged in homoerotic practice as elders and deacons – or at least requiring them to lie about why they are not being ordained.

    And I have personally witnessed evangelical candidates for ordination getting a much harder time at the ordination exam than is given to those denying Scriptural authority or salvation by grace alone through faith.

    And I am also personally aware that those advocating for gay ordination in the Church courts have referred with approval to cases in which those who did not believe in the ordination of women were excluded from ordination themselves.

    So why should I trust that those with power will never exercise it?

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