Lordship of Jesus, Local License: Responding to the Task Force Report
Written by Michael R. Walker   
Friday, 26 August 2005 00:00
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walker-michael2.gifThe Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church has delivered to the church a report and some recommendations that require a mixed response. On the one hand, there is much to commend in its theological statement. On the other hand, its most significant polity recommendation is a disappointment, as it would give local governing bodies the license to overlook an individual’s clear violations of national ordination standards, thus creating a more rather than less divided church.

The Task Force was created by the 213th General Assembly in 2001 “to lead the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in spiritual discernment of our Christian identity in and for the 21st century.” The Task Force was commissioned to deal with issues of Christology, biblical authority and interpretation, ordination standards, and power, being responsible for developing a process and an instrument by which congregations and governing bodies throughout our church might reflect on and discuss the matters that unite and divide Presbyterians. The Task Force is concluding four years of hard work, work for which the entire Presbyterian Church should be grateful. This diverse group has demonstrated that we may have more in common as Presbyterians than we often think. The Task Force has also modeled a style of conversation that is constructive without avoiding conflict, where speech is frank but not devoid of empathy and compassion.

There are some excellent things in the report. The theological prologue makes strong statements on truths that have often been contested in the 20th and 21st centuries. The prologue affirms God’s eternal triunity, the full humanity and divinity of Jesus Christ, the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, the calling of Christians to live lives of holiness and self-denial, and the singular saving Lordship of Christ. It also makes strong statements about biblical authority and makes clear that all ordained officers have an obligation to obey and uphold the constitution of our church. Contrary to the often repeated mantra, “theology divides, polity unites,” the Task Force seeks to ground its report, and Presbyterian identity in general, in strong theological claims which bear faithful witness to a faith that is catholic, evangelical and Reformed. The key to the peace, unity and purity of the Church as well as its renewal is Jesus Christ. And the theological affirmations of the Task Force report reflect this truth, as they take seriously the Church’s obligation to make an orthodox confession of Christ’s Lordship with our lips and our lives.

While these theological affirmations offer what is for the most part a solid statement of the Christian faith, the most significant polity recommendation of the Task Force – a proposed Authoritative Interpretation of G-6.0108 in our Book of Order – is disappointing and troubling, as it is not consistent with the report’s own theological affirmations, intentions and goals. The proposed Authoritative Interpretation of G-6.0108 is nuanced and complex, and the church must be equally careful in its response to this proposed shift to our ordination policies. [1] In short, this proposed authoritative interpretation would not obviously change our ordination standards, but it would introduce significant changes into the way in which our ordination standards are applied by ordaining bodies. It intends to give local governing bodies much wider latitude in the application of ordination standards by changing the way in which G-6.0108 relates to other ordination standards, including G-6.0106b. This is somewhat technical, but to understand the Task Force’s recommendation it is very important to spell things out carefully.

The Authoritative Interpretation proposed by the Task Force presents itself as an explanation of G-6.0108 in the Book of Order. [2] G-6.0108 gives governing bodies the responsibility for discerning whether or not the candidates for ordination or the ordained officers serving in their bodies “adhere to the essentials of the reformed faith and polity.” The proposed A.I. apparently seeks to make this standard for holding office the standard above all others, the standard into which all others may be collapsed, such that the violation of any other ordination standard is turned into the following question: does this person’s violation(s) of the church’s ordination standards constitute a violation of the “essentials of the reformed faith and polity”? The ordaining body would have the responsibility to answer that question. In other words, “any departure” from an ordination standard, including the requirement to live in fidelity in marriage or chastity in singleness expressed in G-6.0106b, could be deemed an inessential departure from reformed faith and polity, and therefore no bar to ordination, at the discretion of the ordaining governing body. To coin a phrase, this A.I. would result in “local license. [3]

To illustrate the change this authoritative interpretation would effect, we can put it this way: at present, a governing body cannot knowingly ordain a practicing homosexual without violating the constitution, even though some do it anyway. This authoritative interpretation would change that, taking the pressure off of governing bodies, because local governing bodies could deem departures from national standards to be inessential departures from reformed faith and polity, at which point they could without violating the constitution ordain a person in violation of G-6.0106b or another currently essential ordination standard. [4]

In order to make G-6.0108 a sort of “totalizing” ordination standard, this A.I. confuses the right to “declare a scruple” or take an exception on a matter of teaching with the right to disobey an explicit national polity standard. The church has chosen not to spell out a list of “the essentials of the reformed faith," and so implicitly G-6.0108 gives ordaining bodies the responsibility of discerning essentials of the Reformed faith and what constitutes a departure from those essentials of faith. The authoritative interpretation proposed by the Task Force, on the other hand, would allow local governing bodies determine what are and are not essentials of Reformed polity, which is a significant innovation (see the Preface to the Book of Order which indicates what provisions of the Book of Order are mandates, i.e. essentials). It would indeed allow ordaining bodies to effectively set aside that which the national church has spelled out, in the Book of Order, including the fidelity-chastity requirement (G-6.0106b). [5]

Herein lies the real danger. While the larger Church has declared its discernment of the Holy Spirit with an increasing voice, this AI would permit lower governing bodies to act as if they are not part of the body of the Christ but rather separate, disembodied entities. This is a direct violation of the Historic Principles of Church Government, G-1.0400. It is also a mechanism for ultimately making the larger Church nothing more than a dog composed of many wagging tails.

It should be noted that, in the end, it is the wording of an A.I. that has the power of law, not the rationale given for the A.I. by those who have proposed it. The above explanation of the effect of the A.I. is assuming that it would actually have the force to accomplish what the Task Force’s rationale for it assumes it will accomplish. This, however, is not necessarily the case.[7] It would likely take several years of wrangling in the church courts to determine the meaning of even this authoritative interpretation. [8] If the Task Force’s recommendation is passed by the General Assembly, it would have the effect of increasing court battles and adding confusion, just at the time when we need peace and clarity.

It was noted above that this recommendation from the Task Force does not respect the spirit of the constitutional manner in which we as Presbyterians determine the boundaries of our own community, because it could allow local ordaining bodies to effectively set aside national constitutional standards. It also runs contrary to our constitutional process in that it has the potential of introducing significant changes to the way our constitutional standards function without requiring a vote of the presbyteries through the constitutional process. (An AI can be passed simply by the vote of one General Assembly, because it is not technically a part of the constitution.) Passing the A.I. would in effect do an end run around the will of the church thrice determined, by increasing margins, through the constitutional process and votes by the presbyteries (i.e. the establishment and maintenance of G-6.0106b). In short, the intentions of this AI are not in keeping with the spirit of Presbyterian polity, and it is difficult to see how disenfranchising our more local governing bodies from this decision will serve the peace of the church.

It is appropriate to say a word here regarding the Task Force’s recommendation that the whole church engage in a process of discernment similar to the one the Task Force itself utilized. Indeed, the Task Force has done a good job showing the church how to take a step beyond our present polarization by having honest, peaceful conversations, where we can move beyond sound bytes, share our different views, and do so in a spirit of peace rather than rancor. And they have given the larger church some resources to do the same. Yet their polity recommendation does not empower the church to use the resources they have given us. Rather, their proposed Authoritative Interpretation presumes an answer to the very question that the processes they recommend are supposed to help the church answer. Their recommendation could have the effect of depriving the church of a chance to use their material and reach its own conclusion. [9]

Additionally, we must seek the peace, unity, and purity of the church through a common pursuit of the Lord’s will. The Task Force showed us how to have the conversation, which is a crucial first step. But in their own efforts they seem to have gone from having the conversation, sharing their different views, to then making a suggestion that would legitimize a variety of practices. But to pursue the Lord’s will together we need to be able to discern whether or not this diversity is healthy for the church, i.e. we need to move beyond sharing different views into evaluating those views. This is what the Task Force most needed to show us how to do. And this is what they did not do for us. So we are grateful that they showed us the first step; we ought to emulate it, have the conversation, and while we seek the Lord’s will together we ought not presume that the answer to one of our most pressing questions is a different answer than the church has given time and again throughout history and in the present. We ought not presume that homosexual practice is in certain contexts consistent with scriptural teaching and therefore a practice we ought to allow our ordained leaders to engage in. If we are to follow Jesus Christ "as he is attested to us in Holy Scripture" (Barmen Declaration), then we must together engage the Scriptures to discern the will of God revealed there, and have the courage to maintain and apply standards for our common life that reflect the teachings therein.

As we pursue a culture of conversation in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), in keeping with the Task Force’s own recommendation that we peacefully engage those who are different from us, a much better alternative to the proposed A.I. on G-6.0108 would be a ten year moratorium on proposing changes to G-6.0106b and an admonition to ordaining bodies to seek the peace, unity, and purity of the church by abiding by the constitutional standards of the church. This will create the peaceful space to have the conversation, share our different views, and evaluate them in light of the teachings of Holy Scripture and our desire to exalt Jesus Christ as Lord of all.

In summary, taken at face value there are excellent elements in the Task Force’s report: that we have a strong theological foundation to our common life, that we are called to confess Jesus Christ as Lord of all, to abide by the teachings of the Scriptures, and to live in harmony within the boundaries set by our own church community. And there is, on the other hand, a bad aspect to the report, namely that their polity recommendation is inconsistent with those excellent elements, and it would short-circuit the very process of further discernment that they have proposed for the wider church.

As the church responds to the Task Force’s report and recommendations, it is important that we take seriously the best aspects of the report, and that we do not allow their significance to be diminished by the unfortunate polity recommendation. On the contrary, we should respond by living into the best aspects of the report, together confessing Jesus Christ as Lord of all, together seeking and obeying the Lord’s will expressed in Holy Scripture, sharpening one another as iron sharpens iron, and having the courage to pursue the truth in concerted conversation, not compromise.

 


Footnotes:

[2] An Authoritative interpretation (AI) is “an interpretation of The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) that carries the authority of the General Assembly and is binding on the governing bodies of the church” (http://www.pcusa.org/acc/interp.htm.)

[3] It certainly appears as though this Authoritative Interpretation does not faithfully “interpret” or spell out the meaning of G-6.0108 but rather reinvents G-6.0108 and gives it a meaning alien to its original intention. Perhaps ironically, the initial intention of G-6.0108 was to restrict ordination, particularly to prevent the ordination of those who disagreed with the ordination of women, which the church determined to be an essential of reformed polity (see Maxwell/Kenyon decision of the GAPJC). In all likelihood, this Authoritative Interpretation would overturn the famous Kenyon decision regarding women’s ordination, making the ordination of women an inessential aspect of reformed polity. This is an area for further careful consideration, for it would constitute repentance on the part of the whole denomination – repentance for having forced out of our community those called to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament who appealed to freedom of conscience with respect to their objection to the ordination of women. We cannot help but note the irony of this proposal in light of the fact that we are this year celebrating 50 years of the ordination of women in the Presbyterian Church.

[4] It is sort of a “plenary indulgence” covering all polity and theology sins! In fact, we have to ask if there are any standards for ordination of any kind that a presbytery could not set aside. This is not, technically, what some have called “local option,” because local governing bodies are not hereby allowed to set their own standards. Nor is it “local application,” which is a fair term for our current ordination policies, where local governing bodies “apply” the national standards. Rather, it is something akin to “local license,” because it would give local governing bodies the license to overlook violations of the standards, which is hardly “applying” them.

[5] It may be helpful to point out here that “taking the pressure off” of governing bodies who seek to ordain persons in violation of G-6.0106b may be the most significant change introduced by this Authoritative Interpretation. Some governing bodies already ordain such persons in violation of the constitution, so it is not as though this authoritative interpretation would introduce the practice. It would, however, bring that practice into conformity to the constitution, embolden certain ordaining bodies to continue or begin the practice, and as a result it would increase the number of unchaste ordained officers in the church. To put it very plainly, this proposed Authoritative Interpretation will give sessions and presbyteries freedom under our Constitution to ordain self-affirming, practicing homosexual persons. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that this is, in fact, the reason for proposing this A.I.

[6] In 2001, the GAPJC heard a case known as the Londonderry Decision. Here, a session had declared that it did not see how it could implement G-6.0106b since they thought that it contradicted other provisions of the Book of Order and was not essential to the Reformed faith. They then went on to declare that they would not comply with G-6.0106b. Their presbytery refused to take action regarding their declaration. The GAPJC ruled that every provision of the Constitution must be read with force and that the presbytery had to act.

Although the Task Force has declared, in their rationale (lines 1362-1365), that the proposed AI would not alter anything about G-6.0106b, the effect of elevating G-6.0108, does give a governing body the ability to denude a portion of the Constitution from having force by declaring that a departure from it is not an essential of the Reformed faith or polity. In other words, the proposed Authoritative Interpretation could conceivably overturn the crucial Londonberry Decision of the GAPJC.

[7] The key question is the following: Given section 3b of the A.I., would the clearly declared voice of the larger Church regarding manner of life be required or locally optional?

[8] If the AI does not, as the TF rationale claims, trump any AI or GAPJC decision, which has the force of an AI, then the word “any” in 3b of the AI is difficult to understand on its face. The functional result of “any” in 3b of the AI is that all considerations of a candidate are measured against whether or not something is an essential of the Reformed faith or polity. While there are clearly some that will and some that will not hold certain manner of life practices as essential to the Reformed faith, the real question is whether or not the AI will allow a tectonic shift in our polity by allowing someone, along with an approving governing body, to declare a scruple regarding a practice proscribed by the constitution. This is truly a slippery inch along a very dangerous slope. For a lower governing body to be able to ignore the clear will of an increasing majority regarding a particular proscribed manner of life is for that governing body to selectively upend the Historic Principles of Church Government, G-1.0400. Thus, while the TF asserts that the AI is a return to historic Presbyterianism, it actually undercuts the core of what makes us Presbyterian.

[9] Of course, the church has, several times over, reached its conclusion on the most controversial issue of the ordination of practicing homosexuals. But given that there is a very vocal minority in the church who disagrees with the majority, creating a culture of conversation about this issue would be a positive step.

In short, this proposed authoritative interpretation would not obviously change our ordination standards, but it would introduce significant changes into the way in which our ordination standards are by ordaining bodies. It intends to give local governing bodies much wider latitude in the of ordination standards by changing the way in which G-6.0108 relates to other ordination standards, including G-6.0106b. This is somewhat technical, but to understand the Task Force’s recommendation it is very important to spell things out carefully.