Response to Ed Koster’s Recent Article
June 13, 2013
I’m not sure why Ed Koster is still responding to PCUSA remedial cases that were completed over a year ago, but since he mentions one case I spent about three years on, I will comment on the points he makes in his recent Outlook article.
The PCUSA faces a problem of discontinuity that is messy in its consequences: Any particular presbytery ordains for the whole church, based solely on the local governing body’s discretion.
This scenario works if the presbytery reflects the doctrine represented in our Confessions, which have been agreed to by the body as our means of interpreting what the Scriptures teach.
This doesn’t work if the presbytery interprets Scripture and the Confessions out of their plain meaning and historic understanding or does what it wants despite what the Bible says. Recent cases cited by Mr. Koster confirm that presbyteries are not held accountable by higher governing bodies for their doctrinal determinations.
Another problem is created by the ordination of teaching elders for the whole church. Those “who held beliefs that many considered heresy,” once ordained are unleashed upon the church, expect acceptance (of themselves and their beliefs) and calls and offices within the church where they influence others toward that heresy. This is why we no longer have a theological consensus in the PCUSA.
Judicial strategy cannot overcome a rigged system. I agree, given Swearingen, that the PJC could decide the way it did (i.e. we don’t enforce a doctrinal standard); but I disagree that it was required to. I believe that a GAPJC must act in consideration not only of legal precedent but also on Scriptural teaching. We are now trapped in a downward spiral of error that cannot be corrected officially, since judicial precedent trumps all. This is why many are leaving over doctrinal issues; all avenues of recourse toward correction have been removed. One might counter that “A GA can change anything,” but GA is the bastion of “diversity” and doctrinal cowardice. I don’t see a mid-course correction coming any time soon.
Koster recommends that judicial cases be developed around conduct rather than doctrine. It is true that doctrinal arguments have gotten nowhere in our system, but it is not in keeping with the Rule of Discipline, which specifically makes the link between that conduct and the content of Presbyterian belief. [D-12.0100, “you have acted contrary to the Scriptures and/or the Constitution of the PCUSA.”] For instance, [hypothetical here] if a teaching elder were to erect an idol in the church sanctuary and direct the congregation to worship it, the action would signal the elder’s heresy about God, as one, spirit, living, etc. The only way to prosecute the bad action (which is not explicitly prohibited in the PCUSA Book of Order) is to go after the false belief behind the action, namely that God is of human making and resides in a thing.
In the Parnell (note the proper spelling) and Caledonia cases, the conduct of the candidate was not being tried (that would be a disciplinary case). Parnell and Caledonia were remedial cases, challenging the presbyteries’ wisdom and doctrinal teaching as demonstrated by their affirmations of candidates who believe “what many consider heresy.”
I beg to differ with Ed Koster regarding the arguments presented as being focused only on doctrine and not conduct. Janie Spahr’s repeated violations (her conducting same-sex weddings) have been subject of disciplinary action for years. In addition, the Parnell case did focus on doctrine in order to give the GAPJC the opportunity to correct the error first introduced into the PCUSA mix with Swearingen almost a century ago. The commission declined to make that correction and proved the system is rigged. As a result it is much clearer to contemporary Presbyterians what the issues are and they will act accordingly.
In the Naegeli and Parnell cases (especially the former), the Synod PJC was presented with ample evidence of the candidate’s beliefs, life choices (conduct), public commitments (conduct and beliefs), and Presbytery’s failure to respond appropriately (institutional conduct). With that considerable body of evidence, the PJCs were still unwilling to question the Presbytery’s action to affirm an unsuitable candidate. Our efforts failed in their objective, but succeeded in clarifying the take-home lesson for ordinary Presbyterians: Believe and preach and promote what you will; nobody will stop you.
What I think Mr. Koster is saying is that we were wrong to approach these cases the way we did. What is more accurate to say is that our efforts were unsuccessful in achieving the goal we had in mind, namely an ownership of our authorities. We complainants followed our conscience and pleaded the cases based on the authority of Scripture and the reliability of the Confessions to interpret it. We were following a Reformed pattern of argument but were disappointed that Swearingen and the downward spiral it started was considered more Reformed than our approach. This engendered the greatest sadness for me and is a deep hurt for evangelicals in the PCUSA.