October 28, 2020

Don’t Overlook One Small Victory for the PCUSA

pcusa-logo-4.jpgI know a few of my readers will decry this decision, but I hope you will understand that if we differ, it is not because of a lack of charity or appreciation for the complications of the situation the PCUSA and other mainlines find themselves in. My own values regarding ministry lead me to rejoice, not to taunt, regarding this decision.

If I ever leave the ranks of the SBC, I’ll probably seek ordination in the PCUSA. Those people have been very gracious to me. Twelve years as a stated supply. A wonderful sabbatical grant. Many good memories of days at Manchester Presbyterian Church leading worship and preaching. I appreciate the evangelical conservatives in the PCUSA and the kind of broadly positive Protestantism they present at their best.

One of the painful things of being an evangelical friend of the PCUSA is the denomination’s long-standing internal battle over sexuality and ordination standards. Advocates of gay ordination and gay marriage have waged a long parliamentary battle against the constitution of the PCUSA on this issue. Many presbyteries have been torn asunder by this battle. In the few presbytery meetings I attended I heard things unlike anything I ever heard in the worst days of the SBC’s political fights.

The PCUSA Constitution/Book of Order is clear: Since 1978, the PCUSA has said that no one can be a minister of Word and Sacrament and not adhere to vows of fidelity to marriage and chastity outside of marriage. The language was simple and the lines were drawn. You can read the entire history of the matter in this White Paper. The language is this:

G-6.0106b. “Those who are called to office in the church are to lead a life in obedience to Scripture and in conformity to the historic confessional standards of the church. Among these standards is the requirement to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman (W-4.9001), or chastity in singleness. Persons refusing to repent of any self-acknowledged practice which the confessions call sin shall not be ordained and/or installed as deacons, elders, or ministers of the Word and Sacrament.”

Again and again, advocates of removing that requirement came to General Assembly with their supporters and challenged the PCUSA constitution. It was a deeply emotional, divisive and hurtful struggle on both sides among people who shared a denomination but differed so much they could hardly communicate with one another. Some of the votes were ridiculously close (understandable in that PCUSA General Assemblies are organized in ways that put an inordinate amount of opponents of the Fidelity and Chastity language in a position to make decisions.) Commissions and Commitees and Conferences came and went, but the issue remained.

At one point it appeared that the PCUSA would have to take the unprecedented step of allowing presbyteries to make independent decisions on these matters, the “local option” as it was called. Some gay clergy in the PCUSA were ordained outside of the church’s rules in sympathetic presbyteries to push the issue. Discipline followed, but everyone knew the entire process would have to unfold before a final decision was made.

It seemed like that day would never come, and that the pain of the controversy would go on and on. But the matter finally came into the hands of the PCUSA’s highest Judicial Commission.

This past February, the highest judicial commission of the PCUSA made its final ruling, uphold the Fidelity and Chastity ruling, rejecting any compromise and affirming the clarity of the constitution and the Book of Order.

Small thing, I know. Hardly anyone in the blogosphere noticed. But I did. I remember how every year after the General Assembly, my congregation’s heads would be down, dreading the news buzz that always surrounded the assembly; always portraying the PCUSA as a denomination doing its best to compromise on standards of Biblical sexual behavior and marriage in ministry.

They knew that the people in the pews wanted the language and rules upheld, but the news media always spun the story for sensationalism, and the community would associate our church- and thousands of other PCUSA churches with the rejection of those standards. They just wanted it to be over.

But in this instance, the prayers and steadfastness of Presbyterian people held the line. In the midst of close votes, intense argument, political maneuvering and the unpredictable behavior of committees, they stayed with what they believed was right, prayed, participated in efforts towards unity, but refused to give way on the bottom line of the meaning of fidelity to marriage and chastity outside of marriage.

This time, the decision was final. (From the Presbyterians for Renewal GA ’08 Web Page)

However, in three decisions just issued, the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission (GAPJC) has ruled that no ordaining body (session or presbytery) has the right to ordain a candidate who is in violation of constitutional standards, including the “Fidelity and Chastity” standard expressed in the Book of Order (G-6.0106b). With these new GAPJC rulings, we can now rest assured that our standards for ordination in the PC(USA) continue to reflect the clear teaching of Scripture and the plain meaning of our constitution.

The authoritative interpretation passed by the General Assembly in 2006 had been recommended by the Peace, Unity and Purity Task Force, and it interpreted section G-6.0108 of the Book of Order, which concerns the “freedom of conscience” of church officers. Many believed that this new AI (Authoritative Interpretation) was intended to extend the “freedom” of officers to the point of being “free” to set aside the clear standards established by the whole church and expressed in the Book of Order. Special interest organizations in the PC(USA) whose mission is to move the PC(USA) toward embracing the ordination of self-affirming, practicing homosexual persons “celebrated” the proposal. PFR (Presbyterians For Renewal) and many others in the denomination expressed deep concern over the ambiguous proposal and the impact it might have on the church — certainly bringing confusion and potentially changing the binding character of the denomination’s ordination standards. Since an amended version of the AI was passed by a narrow margin at the G.A. in 2006, the church has been embroiled in debate over what, if anything, had changed.

These recent GAPJC rulings clarify that nothing has changed. According to the GAPJC: “The freedom of conscience granted in G-6.0108 allows candidates to express disagreement with the wording or meaning of provisions of the constitution, but does not permit disobedience to those behavioral standards.” And it continues by stating that the “fidelity and chastity provision may only be changed by a constitutional amendment. Until that occurs, individual candidates, officers, examining and governing bodies must adhere to it.”

May this be the first of many pieces of good news for that battered denomination and the faithful people in it. Peace and unity in the PCUSA is still a matter of great concern, and of course, a constitutional amendment will be attempted, though quite unlikely to come even close to having sufficient presbyteries for the change. Disposing of the standards of fidelity and chastity would have been moves in the wrong direction, resulting in fracture and more losses. Whatever form healing and progress may take, this small victory will be significant milestone.

Comments

  1. Keep an eye out for the United Methodist General Conference the last week of April. You’ll be seeing more of the same – and by same I mean a lot of politicking and emotionalism that will certainly wind up on the news.

    It must be nice for a denomination to make a decision and stick to it rather than raising everyone’s hackles every four years.

  2. Dear I.M.,

    Congratulations to you, and to the PCUSA for a decision well made.

    I am a member of the ELCA, and we are headed in the wrong direction on the same issue.

    God’s law must be upheld in the Church, if not anywhere else.

    Celebrate the victory and realize that those that would compromise the law of God on this issue (and others) are never really finished. Vigilance should always be the rule of the day.

    – Steve

  3. I’m not a member of the PCUSA.

  4. I understand your position and I disagree. How you reject biblical standards when it comes to the ordination of women and I’m assuming slavery and yet keep them for discrimination of homosexuals? Have you ever been around any homosexual Christians? A few of them go to my church and I can tell that they are very devout people. Homosexuality is not a choice, science continues to show that. I believe that the main message of the bible when it comes to sexuality is we should be monogamous. Should we not honor any type of monogamous commitment? Not that we should advocate sexual sin, but we have to realize that it is not our place to cut people off. God is a big God, we are not to put limits on his grace. I think it is just like evolution proved that the world was not literally created in 6 days, and that we realized that women are equal to men and that slavery is bad thing. We need to let go of false doctrines and instead follow Christ who at times goes against religious doctrine for humanity. He plucks grain and heals on the Sabbath. He eats with defiled hands. In the Sermon on the Mount saying “you heard it was said (quotes old testament) but I say to you”. Notice also that Jesus said nothing about homosexuality. He talked about commitment for and in marriage. But its important that we realize the constant theme throughout the gospels, how we treat the oppressed is how we treat Christ.

    P.S. If you are leaving Southern Baptist I heard that there is a website that you can sign up for ordination and then instantly you are ordained. Then again that probably doesn’t sound like your church.

  5. Michael,

    I guess my wording was wrong. I should’ve said “I’m glad for you, and for me, and all that agree…”, that the PCUSA made the right decision.

    Joe,

    My church (congregation actually) is full of sinners, too. But the difference is that we don’t take kindly to those who glorify in it, who flaunt it, who advocate it, no matter what the sin.

    We might disagree on this point also; I believe Jesus spoke through St. Paul, as He did through the other writers of the Bible. But more than that, Christ picked him (Paul) after all the others. I don’t believe that was happenstance. Personally, I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss what Paul said and did.

    One last thing Joe, then I’ll let you go.
    Jesus said, “go and sin no more”. He wasn’t just sayin it to the woman; he was saying it to you and me as well. The law is still in effect.

    Thanks.

    – Steve

  6. Steve Rowe says

    My Church (The Anglican Church in Canada) is being ripped apart by this issue and frankly I don’t know what to think. On one hand although I am broadly sympathetic to the Evangelical dissenters (I once was one of them and may be again) but I question the judgment (and frankly the integrity) of someone who would submit to the ecclesiastical authority of a straight Bishop who denies the trinity and the resurrection but not to an out gay man who is other wise orthodox (at least by Anglican standards). The Left wing Episcopal establishment on the other hand seems willing to rip apart not just local dieses but the world Anglican Communion in order to promote a small but vocal and influential minority into leadership positions that (at least as for now) they seem unsuited to.
    I know a number of Anglican Priests that are in the closet and although I don’t question the authenticity of there faith. I am convinced their ministry suffers due to the inevitable stress inherent in present “don’t ask, don’t tell” situation. Even the when the priest in question are open about there sexuality their ministry seems fatally compromised. Bishop Gene Robinson is currently being treated for alcoholism and if the sample of out gay priests he has ordained is any guide they seem unusually prone to scandal. I am prepared to admit that God has blessed the ministry of some Gay Priests (and even Bishops) Paul Moore and Jeffrey John come to mind but on balance the experiment for now seems overwhelmingly a failure.
    I realize that I am making a very pragmatic argument but I don’t think is wrong to suggest that conservatives look at the fruits of the that 30 years that woman have served in leadership in mainline denominations and admit God is clearly blessing them and that they should go back and reevaluate the half dozen or so proof texts that are used disqualify women from leadership in there own churches. Liberals on the other hand should look honestly at their project and admit that it is not going well and back down if they want there Churches to be anything more than ministries to a small number highly educated, socially liberal urban parishes. All Christian should get down on there knees and pray for opportunities to be hospitable and loving to Gays (both Christain and otherwise) with out compromising there own integrity. This should not be hard. Just study the life and ministry of Christ on earth and then open your eyes, look around and act.

  7. Jonathan Conrad says

    As a pastor in the ELCA, I have become spiritually tired of this issue. For too many years, homosexuality has been the one issue that has defined my denomination.

    I believe the issue has been made into an idol by both sides. No matter what mission or outreach the ELCA is involved in, the discussion always seem to come back to homosexuality. “Are you for or against it?” It just sounds like our focus has been diverted.

    People have said they will leave the church based on the upcoming decision, and to me that feels wrong.

    I wish we could use the same energy and passion found in this one issue in the battle against poverty, genocide, and other issues that face not only the whole church but the world.

    Now I know Jesus spoke through Paul and the other NT writers, but to me (and Michael please correct me if I am wrong) it would have helped if Jesus had said something himself on this particular subject. I am not talking about implications or hints, I mean where he flat out says “homosexuality is bad/good.”

    Thanks for your post, Michael. Keep up the wonderful (and hard) work.

  8. DunkerEric says

    Thanks for this. I think the mainline churches get an unfair shake, that somehow they are not really Christians.

    As you point out, even if you disagree with certain trends, the pews are full of good, Bible-believing Christians.

    It’s relatively easy to start a new church and fill it with like-minded, correct-thinking people, who surely are on the narrow path unlike those heathens down the street.

    But I think there is a certain maturity in a church and its members who stick it out through these huge divisions.

    Give it a generation or two and the new churches are going to be dealing with the same kinds of divisions and problems.

  9. Joe,

    Since you mention slaves, women, and homosexuality, may I suggest you read a book by William Webb entitled “Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals”. Essentially the argument is that there are seeds in scripture that lead us to the conclusions that slavery is wrong, and women can be ordained. However, scriptures attitude about homosexuality is consistent throughout. The difference is that we are no longer to stone the homosexual, but to love him like we love any of the rest of us sinners. This however, does not change the basic nature of homosexuality. It is still sinful

    I am not Presbyterian, but have close ministerial colleagues who are. I can say that from my conversations with them that they are very concerned about this issue. I doubt that many of the folks on the conservative side of the struggle want to see the PCUSA blown apart like the Episcopal Church seems to be doing.

  10. Thank you so much for this article. As a pastor and member of the PC(USA) I am glad that somebody took notice at this. “Everybody” seems to notice when we do something that is perceived as “heretical” but not a lot of people notice when we do something “orthodox”. I use the quote marks because not everybody agrees on which act is heretical or orthodox. Blessings on you Michael.

  11. Bror Erickson says

    Michael,
    In an odd way I think I will have to agree with Joe on this one. You can’t have it both ways, if you ignore what the Bible says in regards to the ordination of Women, then you will end up ignoring what the Bible says. No longer can your stand be, against the ordination of homosexuals, thus says the Lord. Now it comes down to but I like Pastor Angie,but homosexuals give me the creeps.
    That said I hope this decision calls for a reformation of sorts within the PCUSA, a return to biblical principles.

  12. Michael,

    Nice work. I’ve come to be friends with a number of people in Presbyterian Global Fellowship in the past two years, and I think they would share your perspective on this. They are working hard for the renewal of their congregations, seeking to become missional, and they’re loving this new adventure.

  13. I am in favour of gay Christians behaving in a monogamous manner and I don’t think that all gay people were created for celibacy.

    I am also a strong supporter of the attempt of my own denomination (The British Methodist Church) to keep people of all opinions in our denomination.

    Those of us who believe in monogamy for gay Christians don’t hold these beliefs for the purpose of hurting people who disagree with us. As I’m sure your views are genuine, so are mine.

    I hope I’d never say ‘Hurrah!’ to you being excluded from my denomination. I’m not sure of the purpose of this post, but it does hurt. Presumably if I ever have to leave my own denomination, you’ll be saying ‘Hurrah!’ as well?

  14. PA Merritt says

    Joe, you’re not alone. As we work out as Christians how the writings of a pharisee at the time of the Roman Empire relate to our own lives and our own churches, I think we need to remember love instead of law, compassion instead of close-mindedness and patience instead of overwrought passion.
    We have a great gift in the United States where we are all able to work things out in different denominations and congregations at our own pace and for our own needs as growing Christians. I think it is important to note that 50-75 years from now, when denominations as we know them will probably no longer exist, that we have patterns of humility and love for fellow Christians for the sake of unity of purpose and ministry such as that provided by PCUSA or UCC, to take joy and comfort in as we work through other issues in future decades.

  15. Chad Winters says

    Joe,

    Respectfully, you are mixing up Old and New Covenants, as well as Law and Gospel. We are no longer under the Old (Jewish) Covenenant and many OT restrictions upon the Jews are no longer binding on us, as the NT makes clear, but where the NT clearly says something is a sin and should be treated as a sin, then it is not our place to say that it is not.

    —-chad

  16. I do believe Jesus Spoke through Paul. The bible is inspired by God. I think we can see God in St. Paul and all the other books in the bible. I think we also see the cultural values of the day that are not universal. I just don’t think anyone thinks it is infallible, even if they won’t admit it. Does your church stone people who collect sticks on the Sabbath day? If not your church is going against a part in the bible (Num 15 32-36). Now if we understand that with the whole story with Jesus plucking grain on the Sabbath and saying The Sabbath was made for “Mankind and not Mankind for the Sabbath” we can understand that God is telling us to honor him, not to stone people collecting sticks on the Sabbath.

    I’m not God and I don’t have all the answers. I don’t think we are going to agree on this one. And I believe that’s okay. I think we can both be authentic Christians and disagree on this one. I just think it’s about our own relationship with God. God does call us to a greater standard of living and we should encourage one another to that greater standard. But I don’t believe sexual orientation is a limit to salvation. I believe that its promiscuity that is the true evil. And I think we are all guility under the law, thefore its by grace and God’s forgiveness that we live.

    Thank you for your comments Steve.

    p.s Wasn’t it Peter who Christ said was the rock that he would build the church on?

  17. I always love the comment that Jesus never condemned homosexuality. I think this is one of Tony Campolo’s favorite lines. He and other “Red Letter Christians” as they call themselves.

    Well, let us look at another issue. Spousal abuse. As near as I can tell, Jesus never says anything about this issue. Now Paul tells husbands to love their wives, but that’s not in the Red Letter section. So, since Jesus didn’t think it was important enough to talk about, why should we? Maybe we should be less judgmental of wife beaters and more understanding and tolerant of them. Somehow I don’t think the RLCs are going to go for that.

    To be fair, I actually enjoy listening to Campolo. I think he has a lot of good stuff to say that needs to be heard. But, I don’t think he has thought through the Red Letter deal to its logical conclusion.

  18. “My church (congregation actually) is full of sinners, too. But the difference is that we don’t take kindly to those who glorify in it, who flaunt it, who advocate it, no matter what the sin.”

    In our rush to decry people who we perceive as sinners, all too often I’ve seen that in Christian communities it’s easy for us to become that which we profess to despise the most.

  19. Slavery, women’s ordination and homosexuality each deserves a separate take. The cultural elements of the first two are not present in the last. Scripture is clear on what is marriage, etc in Heb 13:4. I have no questions about what scripture teaches on this subject or its application to the ordination standards of any church.

    I will not be allowing posts that want to debate the subject of homosexuality. If you want to discuss the PCUSA’s decision or similar issues in other denominations, good. But a wide open debate on whether homosexual behavior is allowed or prohibited isn’t on the menu. Nor will I allow disparaging remarks about any person of any sexual preference.

    I’ve written a lot on the basis of acceptance of those struggling, like all of us, with sexual sin. You can use the search function.

  20. Michael,

    Thanks for this post. You’ve reminded me that I need to ensure my name’s been taken off the SBC’s role! After we left our church in Pensacola to move to San Diego, the Spirit led us to a BGC church; interestingly, we never became members despite our active involvment in the life of the church. (We were too busy to think about it! I was even asked to think about becoming a deacon. Imagine the shock when they discovered I wasn’t even on the membership role!) Unfortunately, we ended up leaving that church due to the political infighting and increasing spiritual malaise.

    Then we ended up attending a PCUSA church which, despite my personal opposition to female ordination and infant baptism, felt much more at home there doctrinally (e.g., open to theistic evolution, preterist to a degree, etc.) … and the Spirit thrived there! The church was so much more intimately involved in the life of the community, so much more than I had experienced at either SBC or BGC church. Is this typical of PCUSA churches? I’d love to know!

  21. I think the PCUSA and most other mainlines suffer from way too much emphasis on “news from the denomination” and way too little focus on the quality of local churches. Many evangelicals have stayed with the PCUSA and there are many outstanding churches out there that the denomination ignores because they are on the wrong side of the gay ordination question.

  22. Joe,

    You made some excellent arguments as to why we shouldn’t consider some behavior “sin” anymore.

    And I do think that we still disagree. I, in no way would ever tell someone (or believe) that because they don’t believe what I believe they are not Christian. As you said, in not so many words, we are not saved by our doctrine or our ability to keep the law….but by the grace of God.

    My only concern is that we not undermine the law as to negate the work of the law in creating repentant hearts.

    When it comes to sinning, I take a back seat to no one. But I think I do need to be called on it (in the hard preaching of God’s law), so the law can do it’s number on me (then the gospel can do it’s work).

    Reasonable people will disagree on what Christ meant when He said to Peter, “…upon this rock I will build my Church.”
    I believe He meant that Peter’s confession of faith was the rock upon which He will build His Church.
    “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” I believe that is the rock (Christ Himself).

    Thanks Joe!

    – Steve

  23. As a member of the Anglican Communion, centered in England of course, my church is being torn in two by the American wing (in favor of gay ordination and marriage) and the African wing, which is statistically larger and strongly opposes gay ordination and marriage.

    Many American Episcopalians in the pews (in contrast to the leadership) are also against gay ordination and unions, and have left Episcopal churches in which they were brought up, to join some of the “continuing” Anglican churches which side with the African wing.

    The Anglican Church in England has pretty much drawn a line in the sand, siding with the anti-gay proponents and challenging the American Church to repent of having ordained and married gay people, and to promise not to do it any more. Either that, or the American church will have to “walk apart” — a condition which, in good Anglican fashion, is left quite vague for now.

    I don’t have the theology to argue this stuff, and I don’t have a stake in the outcome, but I do feel sad to see the split. On a personal level, it is painful. There are two gay men in our small rural congregation, and a gay man is the organist at another church in our cluster. I don’t think I or most others in our little church would say “Oh, good news!” to a decision that hurt these men, our fellow-worshippers whatever else they may be.

    Michael, it’s like your friend’s blog, the Gospel-Driven Church, put it in the entry called “The Hard Stuff of Real Lives.” While doctrinally correct, perhaps, this sort of decision is hard on real people.

  24. Behind the issues of sexual orientation in the church is what Gerhard Forde called, “decadent pietism” – in which the church “shifts attention to the sins of those other entities (more or less anonymous) which inhibit the realization of our affirmed and affirming human potential.”

    Reference: http://www.lutheranquarterly.com/Articles/2006/Special-Issue-20-Years/02-lq_forde.pdf

    The church is expected to enable every personal desire – regardless of where that may ultimately lead. Decadent pietism has infected conservative and liberal churches alike in different ways. Perhaps it hasn’t touched as many sensitive nerves in conservative churches as it has in more liberal ones…yet. No one denomination is in a position to throw stones.

    In the preface to his book “On being a Theologian of the Cross”, Forde records the following haunting, prophetic quote from Alan Jones: “We live in an age in which everything is permitted and nothing is forgiven”. The Gospel is not necessarily about what we personally want but what we desperately need.

    Mega kudos to the PCUSA. Christ is still building his church. May we be his willing instruments.

    May we also pray for each other.

  25. Bror Erickson says

    Joe,
    There is a lot of the Old Testament that was done away with in the New Testament. Israel’s Case law is one of those things. So we don’t have to stone people for picking up sticks on a Saturday afternoon.

    To Michael,
    I will agree with you that the issues of Slavery, women’s ordination, and homosexual ordination need to be taken seperately at certain levels. But I do believe that the issue of women’s ordination, and homosexual ordination are to a greater degree entwined than the issue of slaver is with either of them.
    Paul did not ban women’s ordination for cultural reasons. And he was no longer a Pharisee when he did so. He was an apostle to the gentiles, who tried to become all things to all people in order to save some. He contested heatedly with the circumcision party, so he was not afraid of offending the Jews, who were the only ones at the time who would have had a problem with women’s ordination. In fact the culture of that day in many ways mirrored the culture of our day. Free women had as many rights if not more than women do today. The pagan religions, to whom Paul evangelized, had no problem, indeed in some cases insisted, on having women priests. It was expected and normal, which is why it developed in the Corinthian church. But Paul spoke out against that practice as an apostle, meaning the Holy Spirit spoke out against that practice.
    You have to adopt a hermeneutic that ignores this to allow for women’s ordination, that same hermeneutic opens the door for homosexual ordination. If it was just a cultural opinion that banned women from the office of ministry, than why not homosexual ordination today. In fact homosexual activity is just as much accepted as normal behavior today as it was when Paul visited Corinth, which is to say it was accepted by the culture at large then, and is accepted in the culture at large today also. It is for the most part only us Christians that see that behavior as sinful behavior that should be restrained.

  26. Why not the PCA instead of PCUSA? Or do they have different standards for ordination?

    Just curious, no problem if you don’t know answer. Thanks.

  27. Gil: Good question. In order.

    1. PCA churches don’t use lectionary or Christian year. They have a Puritan attitude toward worship. PCUSA has one of the most broadly inclusive approaches to Christian worship I’ve experienced.

    2. PCUSA could put me to work. Severe shortage of pastors for smaller churches. PCA has very few churches in Ky at all.

    3. PCA is going to be fighting about small stuff for years and years to come. PCUSA has fought over big stuff and seems to have bottomed out.

    4. PCUSA pastors like Todd Bolsinger and Mark Roberts really impress me as seriously approaching the work of the pastor in a way that I can affirm. The PCA is dealing with the whole “pastor as Calvinistic theologian” thing. Nada.

    5. The PCUSA will hire an old fat guy. PCA churches overwhelmingly want young men and they have plenty.

    6. PCUSA is confessional in a much broader way. (See their book of Confessions) rather than in the narrow er Westminister only approach of the PCA.

    7. PCA really is serious about Calvinism. PCUSA is much more tolerant of theological differences.

    8. I’m supportive of women as pastors.

  28. Thank you for taking the time to answer.