Analysis and Reflection
This is the first installment in a series on the upcoming 220th General Assembly of the PC(USA). This series will highlight issues judged to be of importance to the faith and witness of our denomination and of greatest contention. We will look at the shape of these issues and offer the perspective and conviction of PFR. Our intent is to help focus our prayers and to offer clarity to commissioners. Future installments will address provisional non-geographic presbyteries, the Board of Pensions coverage for same-sex domestic partners, and overtures related to Israel-Palestine. (Downloadable pdf)
The 220th General Assembly, meeting June 30-July 7 in Pittsburgh, is enormously important. There may not be another that has the same opportunity to make a vital course correction and to stem a swelling tide. We will likely soon learn that the PC(USA) has dropped below two million members since our high of over four and a quarter million in 1967 (combining the numbers of the then PCUS and UPCUSA). We are losing not only members but entire congregations. While there are many reasons for this precipitous decline, the consistent move away from the historic orthodox witness of the Christian faith over the same time period is certainly one of the most central.
Issue 1: Ordination and Marriage
These issues go together. The question is not one of love for all persons nor of civil liberty. We remain consistent in affirming both our love for all people and our commitment to equal civil liberties for all people. The question is whether in the church sexual practices specifically condemned in Scripture will be condoned and, beyond that, affirmed as aspects of life that may be blessed by God.
By now it is well known that in May of 2011 a majority of presbyteries approved a change in the Book of Order opening ordination to the offices of the church to those who unrepentantly live in homosexual relationships or heterosexual relationships that do not conform to God’s revealed plan and purpose. As PFR has repeatedly said, we believe this action crossed a line. Our denomination has compromised scriptural and theological integrity and has departed from the great tradition of the Christian faith.
At the 220th General Assembly, this action is being challenged by some presbyteries while others are seeking to advance this error to the next level.
Advancing the Error
Aggressive efforts are once again being made to redefine both the practice and the definition of marriage in the PC(USA).
- One such effort would allow pastors to officiate at same-sex marriages in states where such marriages are legal. An Authoritative Interpretation (AI) to permit this requires only a majority vote of the General Assembly—no presbytery debate or voting would be allowed. This tactic is being employed even though our church constitution clearly and repeatedly defines marriage as between a man and a woman. As of this writing, there are six overtures with eight concurrences asking for this.
- Another effort would change the definition of marriage in our constitution, saying that it is a relationship between two persons instead of between a man and a woman. This constitutional change would require ratification in a majority of the presbyteries. As of this writing, there are four overtures with six concurrences seeking this change.
Correcting or Containing the Error
Two types of efforts are being made to correct or contain the error.
- One seeks to restore specific ordination standards to the Book of Order, using the same language of fidelity and chastity that was removed or using language from the Heidelberg Catechism ("live a chaste and disciplined life whether in holy marriage between a man and a woman or in single life"). As of this writing, there are three overtures with seven concurrences that seek to do this. These overtures would require both approval of the General Assembly and ratification by a majority of the presbyteries.
- The other effort focuses on upholding the current definition of marriage. These overtures would require only a majority vote of the General Assembly. As of this writing, there are three overtures with two concurrences seeking this.
Some of the overtures in this category speak to both ordination standards and marriage. A total of fourteen presbyteries are represented by these efforts.
Remember that the question is whether in the church homosexual practice and extramarital heterosexual expression may be treated as acceptable and, beyond that, as aspects of life that we say may be blessed by God. And therefore the question is not abrogation of love or discrimination in civil liberty but diminishing the role of the Word of God in the life of the PC(USA).
Scripture speaks with one voice about sexual practices beyond the covenant of marriage in both the Old and New Testaments. Even biblical scholars who favor these changes confess that, in order to affirm these practices, the church must ignore or reinterpret the Word of God. But we have been commissioned by Jesus Christ to “…teach obedience to all that [Christ] has commanded.” (Matthew 28:20) Only in doing this can we truly demonstrate his love.
Scripture also speaks with one voice about marriage in both the Old and New Testaments. We believe Christian marriage is a gift of God not open to human interpretation or redefinition. As civil marriage becomes less and less based on God’s covenant, the role of the Church in revealing a “…still more excellent way” (1 Corinthians 12:31) becomes imperative.
New language about officers in the Book of Order speaks of “the church's desire to submit joyfully to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all aspects of life"(G-2.0104b). What does this mean? We believe it means we are to actually and joyfully surrender our personal desires and wills, shaping our behavior to match the pattern of life clearly revealed in God’s Word. How can we say we know the will and work, teaching and mission of Jesus Christ apart from Scripture?
Our PC(USA) constitution includes this clear word:
Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death.
We reject the false doctrine, as though the church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures and truths, as God's revelation. (The Theological Declaration of Barmen, 8.11-12)
Seventy-eight years after courageous believers hammered out the Barmen Declaration, the 220th General Assembly has an opportunity to courageously affirm that the Word of God is the foundation and source that gives shape and definition to our life. Neither the one Word of God, Jesus Christ, nor the Scriptures that bear witness to him, are a mere launching point for our own self-determined decisions and direction. The importance of this vote for the faithfulness of our witness to the true love and full liberty we can know only from the good news of Jesus Christ cannot be overstated.