Amendment 10-A offers the beginning of the end of our denominational polarization over ordination standards through a rigorous constitutional adherence to the principles of the Adopting Act of 1729. Whenever the church has faced conflicts over ordination in the past, it has found peace by returning to the Adopting Act compromise.
From its inception as “Amendment B” in 1996, G-6.0106b has promoted bad theology and bad polity. The current language:
- establishes a criterion for examination of candidates that no one can honestly meet (“persons refusing to repent of any self-acknowledged practice that the confessions call sin…”), creating an understanding of ordained service contrary to Reformed faith
- imposes a way of reading the Book of Confessions that is foreign to its own self-understanding (Book of Confessions 9.03)
- has been arbitrarily and hypocritically applied so as to exclude one class of people – gay and lesbian Presbyterians – from ordained office even when they are in legal, monogamous, and faithful marriages.
- places the standards for ordination in their proper theological context
- reclaims the principles of the Adopting Act by embracing both examination of candidates based on Constitutional and Scriptural authorities and consideration of the individual candidate’s call, gifts, preparation, and suitability for the responsibilities of ordained office
- would allow for the expression of legitimate differences in application of standards according to the judgment of the examining and ordaining body, which knows the candidate best
“Standards for ordained service reflect the church’s desire to submit joyfully to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all aspects of life (G-1.0000).”
Standards are not designed to be arbitrary or punitive – they are undertaken voluntarily and joyfully in submission to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. The standards do not simply relate to one area of life, such as sexuality, but “in all aspects of life.” The model for these standards is Jesus Christ, who alone is Head of the Church.
“The governing body responsible for ordination and/or installation (G.14.0240; G-14.0450) shall examine each candidate’s calling, gifts, preparation, and suitability for the responsibilities of office.”
This sentence reflects the “New Side/New School” traditions of ordination standards inherited from the English Puritan stream of American Presbyterianism. It focuses on call (both the candidate’s sense of call and the church’s affirmation of that call), gifts, preparation, and “suitability for the responsibilities of office.” The criteria for determination of “suitability” will undoubtedly reflect the local judgment of particular governing bodies. However, the question of “suitability” is related to “the responsibilities of office.” Matters such as gender or race would be excluded from consideration as these have been specifically addressed in confessional documents of the church. A candidate’s sexual behavior (but not orientation) could be a factor considered in determining a particular candidate’s “suitability.” Since the examining body would be required to examine “each candidate’s” suitability, it would not be permissible for a governing body to bar a class of people. But the candidate’s behavior would need to be examined in the larger context of the person’s gifts, calling, and preparation. Matters related to the conscience of a candidate would be considered as they are now, since these relate to G-6.0108, not G-6.0106.
“The examination shall include, but not be limited to, a determination of the candidate’s ability and commitment to fulfill all requirements as expressed in the constitutional questions for ordination and installation (W-4.4003).”
This sentence incorporates the historic “Old Side/Old School” concerns regarding ordination standards inherited from the Scots-Irish stream of American Presbyterianism. The examination is not merely a subjective evaluation of the candidate’s call, or merely the candidate’s verbal assent to standards. The examining body must be satisfied of the candidate’s “ability and commitment” to fulfill the requirements expressed in all the constitutional questions for office. The questions cover a wide range of concerns: theological orthodoxy; authority of Scripture and the confessions; acceptance of our polity; commitment to collegiality; furtherance of the peace, unity, and purity of the church; and demonstration of the love and justice of Christ.
By taking a both/and approach to the two main historic streams of American Presbyterianism, Amendment 10-A reflects the position articulated in the Adopting Act of 1729 and reaffirmed whenever the church has encountered division on ordination standards (1758, 1870, 1927). For this reason, persons whose theology of ordination is exclusively in one tradition or the other may find the amendment not fully satisfactory. A view to history and our past attempts to resolve the polarity in our tradition shows the wisdom of the middle-way approach taken by the Adopting Act and its subsequent affirmations.
“Governing bodies shall be guided by Scripture and the confessions in applying standards to individual candidates.”
This sentence makes explicit the reliance on Scripture and the confessions mentioned in G-1.0000c, while also indicating that standards shall be applied individually in the consideration of candidates. This is a précis of the Adopting Act – objective criteria established by Scripture and the confessions, applied pastorally and in the full context of a candidate’s calling, gifts, preparation, and suitability for office. It strikes the time-tested balance between universal standards and individual call and character that has been the touchstone of American Presbyterianism.
For a longer historical overview, see the article by Margaret J. Thomas here.