Larson v Los Ranchos: A Case of Presbydoublespeak

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 . . .



16 Responses to “Larson v Los Ranchos: A Case of Presbydoublespeak”

  1. MT Dave Says:

    Odd question–where does this leave such things as presbytery mandatory policies on ethical behavior and such that all presbyteries have as a matter of course?

  2. James Ayers, presbytery of Southern Kansas Says:

    It appears to me that the ruling in the Larson case prohibits a presbytery from having any published standards of its own for assessing the suitability of a candidate.

    In my presbytery we have a requirement for candidates to take and pass one unit of Clinical Pastoral Education. Are we now at risk of a lawsuit for having this standard? Will it be ruled that because we have published this standard in our Presbytery Manual, this will have the effect of discouraging candidates who do not wish to take, or who cannot pass, Clinical Pastoral Education?

    If we have published standards in our presbytery, it seems much more fair and straightforward: one presbytery may have a different way of doing things from another, but around here we do it this way. There’s no surprise: everyone knows what to expect. If now we are simply going to assess a candidate without applying any particular standards, but simply based on how we happen to feel today — how is that not going to mean that we are arbitrarily deciding for or against someone on the basis of whim?

  3. Linda Lee, mukilteo Says:

    The next question is what is required for church membership?
    Is there not over all expectations for joining the PCUSA or is that also open to conscience?
    Yet, here it is up to individual conscience for ordination. How then can we expect members to know right belief if individuals
    are allowed such freedom of conscience. As the movement for ordination essentials is weakened, so will the expectation for new members and current members be weakened.
    The gospel will then be weakened as a requirement for salvation unless the conscience is obedient to God’s word and Spirit.

    Recently I read this example of what this “freedom” might mean for the church:
    ” A train is free only so long as it stays on the tracks; a train that jumps the tracks is ” free” of the rails but no longer free in the most important sense of the word. It’s a freed wreck that can’t go anywhere. “Free, “but no longer truly free.”
    From Christianity Today October , ” The Bounds of Freedom
    By Roger Olsen

  4. Kathy Sizer Says:

    I so appreciate your leadership in so much of this. On this GAPJC decision, your interpretation is not what we in Los Ranchos understand to be the issue.

    As a member of Los Ranchos Council and former Los Ranchos Moderator, let me explain what we have been told and what we are interpreting to our folks about this decision. The GAPJC problem is that Los Ranchos “set a standard.” There cannot be other standards besides what are already in the constitution (however we want to struggle with that). We knew that and wrote our policy VERY carefully, but apparently not carefully enough.
    We are being told we can still ask candidates for ministry and ministers answering a call to Los Ranchos ANY QUESTIONS, but we cannot say ahead of time in an official way who we will or will not allow “in.” Los Ranchos has voted approximately 2/3 against ordination of gays and lesbians for many years. The word is out informally that we will not be ordaining or accepting the transfer of any LGBT candidates or ministers. We just cannot write it down. Our few Covenant Network churches are very aware that the rest of Los Ranchos will not agree to their calling of an LGBT minister or ordaining of an LGBT candidate.

    We are saying that this does not remove any rights we had before this decision.

    Kathy Sizer

  5. Gene Says:

    “Our few Covenant Network churches are very aware tht the rest of Los Ranchos will not agree to their calling of an LGBT minister or ordaining or an LGBT candidate.”

    That sounds pretty much like a pre decided standard, just merely not written down. And, no doubt, as a member of the Los Ranchos Council (and former moderator) said it, that comment, which will most certainly be brought up when the case goes to court when the next qualified LGBT candidate is wrongly denied a transfer/ continuation of candidacy in your presbytery, will be most useful before the GAPJC when the issue of intent, not just of written intent, that wrongly bars those called to ministry comes up, which no doubt, it will.

  6. Rob Harrison Says:

    James: as a matter of reality, presbyteries may have any standards which the GAPJC believes are good, and may not have any standards which conflict with the GAPJC’s agenda. They can’t come right out and *say* that–hence the doublespeak–but that’s how it is. As the opinions of the membership of GAPJC shift, so too will the *de facto* standards of the denomination.

    Kathy: you’re correct that this doesn’t remove any rights you had before this decision–that’s only because you didn’t have any rights then, either. Not to contravene the desires of the GAPJC, anyway.

  7. Emily McColl Says:

    Kathy Sizer
    I respect your office and what you have been told, but as a member of Committee of Counsel and present at each step of this process, including writing of briefs and hearing the testimony, things are not the same.
    We have been held ‘accountable’ by the highest court in the denomination for restatement of the Constitution and, through our statement of conscience, marginalizing folks. The lawyer for the appellant spared no grace in his characterization of LRP.
    The sad part is that the stated goal of the people who started and signed the complaint was peace and unity, as well as welcoming. Sadly, legal cases bring none of this, rather they invite more W/L scenarios and greater division and mistrust. And churches continue to suffer. We all suffer.
    The statement that things are the same and we can continue as we have cannot be both found untrue by GAPJC and still true. SC has stated that, but logic will tell you that their decision declares that invalid. Call me, we can meet and I will show you the actual papers.
    Emily McColl

  8. I have some strategies for you. If your presbytery wants to leave, quickly vote to relinquish all claims to property to the respective churches, then vote to leave the denomination as a Presbytery. When the Synod comes in with an administrative commission to remove the Presbytery leaders, it will be too late.

    For an individual church: give all your endowments away to valid missions and ministries, indebt your buildings, and then see if the presbytery still wants them. Walk away if they do. Start from scratch with an uncompromised people who will follow God no matter what the cost. Then you will have agreement on righteousness and truth, morals and faith, and your prayers will be those of agreement, not of compromise. Your conscience will be clear and you will be able to look to your God with hope and faith.

  9. Jodie Says:

    Such a suggestion is bizarre in its lack of ethical spine. IF the reason a member, church, or presbytery, wants to leave the church is because that church isn’t Christian enough, how can you possibly then propose such anti-Christian strategies? It boggles the mind.

    • Be ye wise as a serpent, innocent as a dove. What is anti-Christian about giving money to missions? What is so Christian about blackmailing Christians to stay in a denomination with the threat of losing their gifts, endowments and properties if they want to leave over matters of conscience?
      Well, if it is money that the GA cares about and not righteousness, make them pay. Same with any divorce. You never make it easy on the guilty party.

      • Jodie Says:

        If you are no better than they are, what real alternative are you offering? But if you love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who mistreat you, then you might have something to say.

      • What are you talking about? It is not love to condone sin. But true love can be confrontational. Pr 27:6 “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy.”
        Holding others accountable for their actions and causing them to understand the consequences is a call to return the offending party to faithfulness. But love is not condoning evil.

        These folks are defiling God’s house and are participating in the spirit of sodom. Helping others to get out from under that defilement and gross corruption is also an act of love. It is called redemption.

  10. Jodie Says:


    The fact that you have to ask what I am talking about is the reason why folks like me cannot buy into the argument that you are simply obeying Scripture rather than merely projecting into Scripture your own prejudice and homophobic bigotry. You are not really acting out of well considered discipleship to Christ.

    That is the true disconnect in our church today.

    We are left with a dispute within the church between sides neither of which can demonstrate to be acting out of obedience to the Holy Spirit.

    But you are breaking the Church while you do it.

    • Of course we do not agree, because you walk in deception and cannot see the truth. You have placed human reason above the Word of God and reinterpreted to justify your wickedness. Because you do not accept what scripture teaches it is prophesied of you and those like you:
      “These are waterless springs and mists driven by a storm; for them the nether gloom of darkness has been reserved. For, uttering loud boasts of folly, they entice with licentious passions of the flesh men who have barely escaped from those who live in error. They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption; for whatever overcomes a man, to that he is enslaved. For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overpowered, the last state has become worse for them than the first. For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them. It has happened to them according to the true proverb, The dog turns back to his own vomit, and the sow is washed only to wallow in the mire.” 2 Peter 2:17-22

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