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.

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13 Responses to “What Can a New “Season of Serious Study” Accomplish?”

  1. Steve Niccolls Says:

    Mary,
    I am very worried about the wording of motion to study the issue. For me the key word that causes me (as a football official) to throw the yellow flag is the term “relevant Scripture.” That is loaded with all sorts of bias. If a passage doesn’t conform to the intended outcome it is dismissed as irrelevant. Much like I could say I know everything that is important. Then when you ask a question I don’t know the answer to, I can still claim my statement is true by dismissing it as unimportant.

  2. carlpelz Says:

    As always, you offer such clear thinking and articulation in the midst of so much confusion. The church has always been made up of believers and those who sincerely believe they are believers (wheat and tares). When the believers are so disrupted and sometimes dominated by those who are not, the application of Scripture alone to what we should believe and how we live together as the church seems most appropriate.

    As much as The Confessions offer wonderful insights into scriptural themes, it seems they also offer more opportunities for obscuration and indirection to further muddle the real conflicts. Why can’t we return to whole counsel of scripture, letting scripture interpret scripture with the guidance of the Holy Spirit to work through the issues of how we live together?

    Signed, Naive and Weary (of so much discussion about documents other than scripture)

  3. charles francis Says:

    “studying the issue “……euphemism for ” we need more time to run the rest of the believers out of the denomination to ram this thing home”.

    • Ron Says:

      My thoughts exactly.

      Here are a few observations:

      Take note that only 5% of the Assembly needed to change their vote on this issue.

      With a vote of 338-308, the Assembly voted against the committee’s recommendation to approve a change in the Book of Order’s definition of marriage from between a woman and a man to between two people.

      220th GA calls for ‘serious study and discernment’ regarding Christian Marriage

      (Two years should be sufficient to moderate this change…particularly if any sizable portion of churches decide to move out of PCUSA.)

      Assembly rejects return to ‘fidelity and chastity’ language
      JULY 7, 2012

      The vote was 405-230-7.

      On the other hand, the Assembly approved inserting the terms “repentance of sin” and “means of grace” into the Book of Order paragraph G-2.0104a concerning “Gifts and Qualifications” for ordained persons.

      (What is embedded in this language….is that it can be used more broadly to leverage those slow to adapt the new trend language….sort of a turn the tables approach.)

      Also..In committee
      The proposal to change the definition of marriage passed 28-24, with commissioners on both sides expressing fear about being unfaithful to God’s call.

      As Mary has noted Belhar and the change to Heidelberg as passed.

      Note this 2009 study…nothing new here.

      JULY 1, 2009
      Special committee on civil union and Christian marriage invites feedback from the church
      SEEKS INPUT ON COVENANTED SAME-GENDER PARTNERSHIPS IN CHRISTIAN COMMUNITY
      From Office of the General Assembly

      What is the place of covenanted same-gender partnerships in the Christian community?

      It is a question the General Assembly Special Committee to Study Issues of Civil Union and Christian Marriage is posing to the church for input.
      It is also one piece of the mandate the 218th General Assembly (2008) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) gave the committee when the assembly called on its Moderator to appoint the group.

      The full mandate calls for the committee to study “the history of the laws governing marriage and civil union, including current policy debates; how the theology and practice of …

  4. John Says:

    Two words; Stockholm syndrome

  5. Scott Schweppe Says:

    Studies in the PCUSA are clearly now a primary tool for prolonging debate, avoiding decisions and mounting repeated overtures until the “study” becomes the rule. Studies should be a helpful process but are instead being misused by the GA to further a cause when approval is not achieved.

  6. charles francis Says:

    any believer that stays and supports this denomination either financially, or quietly allowing per capita payments in their name, or by allowing their disinterest to add a single name to their membership rolls, is no longer serving God, but is serving the kingdom of the enemy.

    • revmary Says:

      Or do we have here a situation of Caesar and the Kingdom of God, in which case would Jesus say, “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s”? By being a part of American culture, Charles, we are tainted by association. It is not possible to escape to any “safe” place. So the question is, what are we going to teach, preach, promote, model, and otherwise “disciple” in order to be salt in our denomination? Having challenged you with these questions, I also acknowledge that some people cannot (and therefore as a matter of conscience) must not retain their membership in the PCUSA. But there are also some very good reasons to work from within the PCUSA, as prophets, teachers, evangelists, witnesses (note the Greek root “martyr”). This should not be characterized as “serving the kingdom of the enemy.”

  7. charles francis Says:

    ” choose this day whom you will serve…..as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord”…no man can serve two masters…the PCUSA is one master, the Lord is another…

  8. Jim Conner Says:

    “It is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. ” Ephesians 5:12

    Before asking ‘how’ a study will be done or ‘what its effects might be’, let us ask whether it should be discussed at all. There are things that are unworthy of discussion further that it is simply wrong to discuss, that is part of the great sadness and deception here. The discussion itself is sinful and we have lost sight of that, just because an assembly says it is worthy of discussion does not make it so. Lost in our culture are things like modesty and shame, it is time we claimed them back.

    “But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people.” Ephesians 5:3

    Thankful for God’s word, I pray for those who do not know it in their hearts but ‘study’ the sentences to twist it to their own purposes, may they be consumed by their own avarice until they repent and are welcomed to Christ and his church.

  9. Truth Tolife Says:

    “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 point of clarification: the GAPJC did not rule the Confessions do not contain a fidelity/chastity provision, because they clearly do. What the commission did rule, however, is more insidious. In the face of the clear prohibitions of homosexuality in the Confessions, the GAPJC ruled in the Parnell remedial case that no one could possible know what the Confessions mean, since there are so many different [individual] interpretations. With such multitudinous voices, who can say for sure that any one of them is right? And without such certainty, how can discipline be administered?

    And so each did what was right in his or her own eyes.

  10. Truth Tolife Says:

    The most insidious part of the motion is that it asks the church to study, not God’s understanding, but the church’s understanding of marriage.  And, it directs the church to consider not the text of our constitution, but the current understanding of the constitution.  

    God’s views are revealed in unchanegable Scripture, and the text of our Constitution is harder to change than our “current understanding” of it.  

    And so, continuing the progressive strategy since the 1920s, the church is encouraged to give little deference to that which is intransigent (i.e. Scripture, the Confessions, the text of the Constitution) and to give priority to that which is temporal and shifting (i.e., our understanding, whether corporate or individual).  

    Such an approach can never lead to peace, unity, and purity because it banishes purity from the discussion, leaving disunity in its wake (since no two “understandings” are ever the same).  Peace hasn’t got a chance.

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