Tuesday, February 26, 2008

More News on the PCUSA

In the never-ending story of the comings and goings within the PCUSA, there is a new development on the whole "scruple" issue. For those of you who have not followed the earlier posts on this topic (or followed the story elsewhere), in 2006 the Theological Task Force on the Peace, Unity and Purity of the Church issued an "authoritative interpretation", adopted by the General Assembly, finding that a candidate for ordination within the PCUSA could declare a "scruple" to matters contained in the PCUSA Constitution. Basically, this means that the candidate can disagree with something in the Constitution.

Once a candidate expresses a "scruple", it is up to the ordaining body to decide whether the provision being "scrupled" is one of the "essential tenets of the reformed faith." If not, the candidate is allowed to be ordained in spite of his or her disagreement with that particular provision of the Constitution.

Some people have used this "authoritative interpretation" to express scruples to one of the ordination requirements. After all, the ordination requirements are part of the Constitution.

The specific requirement at issue is the one that requires an officer within the denomination to live either in fidelity within marriage or in chastity in singleness (i.e., if married, be loyal to your spouse; if single, live in chastity). The specific context in which this arose has been people who are openly practicing homosexuals seeking ordained office. In the eyes of the church they are not married to their partners. But they also do not want to live in chastity. At least two Presbyteries have allowed people to express scruples to this provision and permitted them to be ordained as Ministers of the Word and Sacrament.

On February 11, 2008, the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission (the closest parallel for explanation purposes would be the Supreme Court) decided three cases interpreting the "authoritative interpretation."

In those cases the Commission unanimously stated as follows:

"The constitutional process for amending ordination standards (or any other provision of the Constitution) is defined in Chapter 18 of the Form of Government. While the General Assembly and the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission may interpret these standards, the authoritative interpretation did not (and constitutionally could not) change any ordination standard, including the requirements set forth in G-6.0106b. Similarly, no lower governing body can constitutionally define, diminish, augment or modify standards for ordination and installation of church officers."

"G-6.0108a defines the limits of this freedom of conscience for ordained church officers. It first states the requirement that all church officers adhere to the essentials of Reformed faith and polity as expressed in the Book of Confessions and the Form of Government. It next assures freedom of conscience, but only with respect to the interpretation of Scripture. Even then, freedom of conscience is permitted only to the extent that it (a) is not a serious departure from the essential standards of Reformed faith and polity, (b) does not infringe on the rights and views of others, and (c) does not obstruct the constitutional governance of the church."

"G-6.0108a sets forth standards that apply to the whole church. These standards are binding on and must be followed by all governing bodies, church officers and candidates for church office. Adopting statements about mandatory provisions of the Book of Order for ordination and installation of officers falsely implies that other governing bodies might not be similarly bound; that is, that they might choose to restate or interpret the provisions differently, fail to adopt such statements, or possess some flexibility with respect to such provisions."

My personal take of the "punchline" of these decisions is that while a candidate is free to have a difference of opinion on some theological or Biblical interpretation issue (as long as it is not one of the essential tenets of the reformed faith), that does not mean that he or she can refuse to comply with the ordination standards, in this case requiring a certain kind of behavior. In other words, you are free to say, "I do not believe that the Bible requires me to live in fidelity in marriage or in chastity in singleness," but if you want to serve in ordained office of the PCUSA, you need to actually live that way regardless of what you personally believe.

Evangelicals within the denomination (myself included) were obviously pleased with the decisions. However, there are a few overtures to the General Assembly (meeting later this year) that will seek to overturn these decisions (an "overture" is basically a request from a Presbytery asking the General Assembly to take some type of action).

The first is an overture from the Baltimore Presbytery that seeks a Constitutional amendment to remove the fidelity and chastity requirement from the Constitution altogether. This has been tried in the past and failed.

The other is an overture from John Knox Presbytery asking for a new authoritative interpretation that would in essence state that candidates can scruple anything in the ordination requirements, including issues of both belief and behavior.

It remains to be seen whether these overtures will reach the floor of the General Assembly or whether they will pass. All I can say at this point is to stay tuned and to ask for your prayers that the Holy Spirit will accurately guide the denomination in this time of potential serious division.

God bless.



Anonymous said...

It seems that the issue is not with how "scruples" are dealt with, but how "fidelity" is defined.

I am presuming, since you have not said otherwise, that the exceptions are being made for people who are in monogamous relationships, but who can't get married due to the exclusion of homosexuality from that institution.

Why is the GA being asked to vote on ripping the scruple loophole wide open, instead of voting whether the PCUSA values heterosexuality over fidelity?

Just out of curiosity what are the ordination rules for heterosexual serial fidelity (ie. 4th marriage, no adultery)

Ten Minas Ministries said...

Frankly, I believe your comment about the PCUSA valuing heterosexuality over fidelity is false. The ordination standard itself states that candidates for ordination shall "live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman (W-4.9001), or chastity in singleness" (G-6.0106b).

I assume by your comment you were referring to the question you posed at the end as to what is the PCUSA's position on heterosexual serial fidelity (i.e., fidelity in marriage #1, divorce, fidelity in marriage #2, divorce, etc.).

The answer to your question would depend on the candidate's position on those prior divorces. Bear in mind, nobody is saying that someone who FORMERLY engaged in homosexual behavior should be banned from ordination. It is a question of repentance. If we required a sin-free life for all candidates for ordination, nobody would ever be ordained.

So if someone believes that divorce is an appropriate way to end a marriage relationship simply because he or she has gotten bored, then that person should not be ordained. If someone committed this sin in the past, but has since repented and is committed to living in a lifelong marriage or else in chastity, then that person can still be ordained.

Here are a few provisions from the Book of Order that bear on this issue for your reference:

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.

Marriage is a gift God has given to all humankind for the wellbeing of the entire human family. Marriage is a civil contract between a woman and a man. For Christians marriage is a covenant through which a man and a woman are called to live out together before God their lives of discipleship. In a service of
Christian marriage a lifelong commitment is made by a woman and a man to each other, publicly witnessed and acknowledged by the community of faith.

Christians are forgiven sinners living in a sinful world, involved in brokenness which they suffer, involved in brokenness which they cause. Given this reality, a significant move toward wholeness is the recognition and acknowledgement of one’s own responsibility in the brokenness and failure of a relationship
a. in friendship and in marriage,
b. ...
Beyond this the Christian community must recognize and acknowledge its involvement in sin, in broken structures, and in broken relationships. Opportunity is appropriately given in worship for special services of acknowledgement and recognition of failure in relationships, of grieving together over the loss of relationship, and of mutual forgiveness and reconciliation within the believing community.

The call to healing in pastoral care involves the recognition in each one’s life of the reality of sin, which is the source of all human brokenness. The believing community announces the good news of God whose love gives people grace
a. to confess their sin and complicity in brokenness,
b. to repent, expressing sorrow and intention to change,
c. to accept God’s forgiveness and extend that forgiveness to another,
d. to forgive the other and accept the other’s forgiveness,
e. to work toward reconciliation in brokenness,
f. to trust the power of God to bring healing and peace.

I hope this clarifies the issue for you. The short answer to your question would be, "If that person is engaging in that behavior unrepentantly, then the PCUSA's Constitution would not allow his/her ordination either.