Thursday, July 03, 2008

PCUSA opts for human authority instead of Biblical authority

My own denomination, the PCUSA, which I have blogged about many times before, recently held its 218th General Assembly. Think of it like a legislature that meets every two years. In theory, that legislature is supposed to follow two things: (1) the Bible, and (2) the PCUSA Constitution. The Constitution is actually comprised of two parts, a Book of Order (which is like a set of statutes dictating how the church operates) and the Book of Confessions (a collection of historic Christian confessions including the Westminster Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism, among others).

The PCUSA has been pretty unstable lately, in large part over the issue of the ordination of homosexuals, but even more fundamentally on the authority to be accorded to scripture. At the latest General Assembly that was just completed, there were a few things approved that have gotten the attention of many.

The first is a proposal to amend the translation of the Heidleberg Catechism in the Book of Confessions. Question 87 of the Catechism reads, "Can those who do not turn to God from their ungrateful, impenitent life be saved?" Prior to the amendment, the answer read as follows: "A. Certainly not! Scripture says, 'Surely you know that the unjust will never come into possession of the kingdom of God. Make no mistake: no fornicator or idolater, none who are guilty either of adultery or of homosexual perversion, no thieves or grabbers or drunkards or slanderers or swindlers, will possess the kingdom of God.'"
Pursuant to the proposed amendment, it would read, "Certainly not; for as Scripture says no unchaste person, idolater, adulterer, thief, greedy person, drunkard, slanderer, robber or anyone like that shall inherit the kingdom of god."

Proponents of the amendment argue that the original version is simply a poor translation. And by the way, the correct translation just happens to exclude "homosexual perversion" from the list. Allegedly, though, this is simply a translation issue, not something motivated by the current political climate. They contend that the "homosexual perversion" language was inserted to discourage youth from the sexual revolution at the time the Catechism was written and really had nothing to do with divine mandate.

Opponents point out that the original answer is taken directly from 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 which reads, "9 Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, 10 nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God." According to this camp, the Biblical basis for this part of the catechism explictly includes a reference to homosexuality, therefore the translation should not be changed. This still requires further action at the next General Assembly in two years.

A bigger issue, though, comes from the amendment of the ordination standards. Currently, the Book of Order requires that any candidate for ordination live in "fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness." Under the proposed amendment (which still needs to be approved by a majority of presbyteries over the next year), this language would be deleted and a new subsection would be substituted. The new section would read as follows:

"Those who are called to ordained service in the church, by their assent to the constitutional questions for ordination and installation, pledge themselves to live lives obedient to Jesus Christ the Head of the Church, striving to follow where he leads through the witness of the Scriptures, and to understand the Scriptures through the instruction of the Confessions. In so doing, they declare their fidelity to the standards of the Church. Each governing body charged with examination for ordination and/or installation establishes the candidate's sincere efforts to adhere to these standards."

The General Assembly also enacted new "authoritative interpretations" (bascially, rulings providing clarification of constitutional provisions) explicitly overturning several prior authoritative interpretations that came down against homosexual ordination and also explicitly providing that if a candidate for ordination raises a conscientious objection to something in the ordination standards, the ordaining body may decide to go ahead and ordain him or her anyway.

For those of you who think I am now going to rant and rave against homosexual ordination, I'm sorry to disappoint. I've said my peace on this issue, over and over again, and I really do not see the point to rehashing the same ground again. If you want to hear what I have to say about it, there are plenty of prior blog entries on the PCUSA you can find in the history as well as an article on the website on homosexual marriage.

The one point I am going to raise here, though, is the incredibly dangerous standard set by the new ordination language. Can someone please tell me, after reading the new language, what exactly the PCUSA believes? What is our ordination standard? Because it seems to me like "anything goes." A candidate promises that they really are trying to be faithful to the scriptures, regardless of what they actually believe, and as long as the ordaining body agrees with him or her, that's okay. So if someone believes that all the doctrines of Mormonism are taught by the Bible, that person can be ordained in the PCUSA. If someone believes that the Bible actually teaches Hinduism or Jainism, or any other "-ism" you can think of, that's okay! Everyone gets to define for themselves what the PCUSA stands for. If this new language passes, all I can say is that telling someone that you belong to the Prebyterian Church (USA) is now a completely empty and meaningless statement.

Even social clubs have some common ground to define who they are. But it now seems that the PCUSA, in its effort not to offend anyone and to include everyone, has thrown that bit of (what should be) common sense out the window. We are in for a log jam of conflict and contradiction down the road.

God bless.



DagoodS said...

Ten Minas Ministries: If this new language passes, all I can say is that telling someone that you belong to the Prebyterian Church (USA) is now a completely empty and meaningless statement.

Yeah, I already knew your views on homosexuals, as well as your frustration with the PC-USA. My question is this—how long do you stay with your denomination? What would be the point that you say, “I will no longer identify myself with the PC-USA”?

(I come from a Baptist background. We left churches for as insignificant thing as the committee rejecting our choice of hymnals. [Not that I actually know of that happening—but you get the idea.] So leaving a denomination for a change was no big deal to us. We would either a) find another Baptist church, or b) form another Baptist church or c) find another denomination to attend.)

Ten Minas Ministries said...

Well, I would never leave over hymnals. :)

I'm not comfortable going into too much detail on my decision to stay or leave at this point in time. After all, I am currently serving on the session at my church and have made a commitment for at least one more year to serve in that capacity. I am a firm believer in sticking to your commitments.

I will also tell you that I belong to a more conservative church that does not agree with the PCUSA on these issues (not to say 100% of the congregation feels that way, but I would estimate at least 85-90%). So these problems are not present in my particular church.

However, you are correct that eventually you have to draw a line, in whatever context, when you are a "card-carrying" member of any organization that you no longer feel accurately represents your views. I have given it some serious thought, and if I do "jump ship", you can bet that I will tell people about it on this blog.

At this point in time, though, it is premature. These latest actions taken by the General Assembly are not final. They still have to be approved by the presbyteries over the next year (conveniently, also the amount of time I have left on my term on session).

The most I am comfortable saying at this moment is that a lot will depend on what happens in the presbyteries over the next year and how my particular church reacts.

My issues really are foundational. Any group, religious or otherwise, has to have some common ground that defines who they are. The NRA has their "mission statement", so to speak, as does the ACLU. Some common set of beliefs and/or goals define who they are. The PCUSA seems to be getting away from that. I fail to see how anything productive can be accomplished if we cannot even agree on who we are.