Can Unity Survive the Battle between Peace and Purity?

Ordination as a Test Case for Denominational Identity

 by J. Fred Holper
Professor of Preaching and Worship
McCormick Theological Seminary

Paper Presented to the 1998 Covenant Conference
November 6, 1998

The topic before us is a difficult one, in part because ordination is where the rubber of all the important theological struggles that others have been speaking to meets the road of common life together. Finding our way forward when so much is at stake for scores of congregations and hundreds of individuals who seek only to follow God’s prompting in their life will not be easy. In the end, I will argue, the only way forward will require that people on every side of the issues involved be willing to abandon the “All-Or-Nothing” strategies that have dominated the debate over ordination practice for at least the last 40 years.

Our Book of Order assumes that our common life together will be shaped by, and find expression, in shared commitments to further the peace, unity and purity of Christ’s church. In the wake of the debates on Amendments A and B, however, many wonder whether the unity of the church can survive the seemingly endless battle that seems to rage those committed to preserving the peace of the church and those committed to ensuring its purity.

So long as the issue is seen in those terms, progress on matters of church practice ­ such as ordination ­ is impossible. Thus, before we can move forward on the ordination issue, we must ask whether we rightly understand the implications of committing ourselves to the peace, purity and unity of the church.

I. The significance of a “theological ‘et'”

To that end, I want to begin by introducing you to term that I was first introduced to some 20 years ago. I first heard it during the opening lecture of my first Ph.D. course at Notre Dame, a liturgical theology seminar on “Word and Sacrament.” The professor, a crusty Jesuit with a Maine accent so thick I swore I could smell the sea salt on his breath, was going on and on about the importance of something, a theological “something,” for our semester’s work together. My problem was that I could not figure out what that second word was. Either I wasn’t hearing him correctly, or I didn’t have the foggiest notion what he was talking about. Realizing I had to do something, I screwed up my courage and blurted out: “Excuse me, Professor, but what are you talking about? What’s a “theological ‘et'”? I

“It’s an ‘et,'” he said, “but, in this case, a ‘theological et.'”

It wasn’t a terrible helpful response. But just at that moment I remembered two helpful things: first, that I was attending a Roman Catholic University; and second, that I had once studied Latin. So, I tried again, “Are you using the Latin word for the conjunction “and”?

“Yes!” he cried. “That’s it! You’ve got it!”

“Thank you,” I answered. “I now know what you mean by “et,” but what’s a “theological ‘et'”?

A “theological ‘et,'” he patiently explained, is simply a shorthand way of saying that the terms joined together by the conjunction “and” can only fully be understood in terms of their relationship to one another.

Most of the time, the conjunction “and” is simply a convenience, allowing us to employ an economy of words in describing things that have little more than a formal connection to one another. In such cases, we can and often do treat them apart from one another. In a few cases, the words or phrases joined by “and” is conditioned by their continuing relationship to one another. As a result, they can never be rightly understood in isolation from one another. In such cases, my professor would say, we have a “theological ‘et.'” A couple of examples may help to make the point.

Example #1: You see your neighbor carrying a plastic bag home from the local grocery store, and you ask her what she has bought. She tells you, “Well, I picked up a dozen oranges and a box of Brillo pads and a copy of the Sunday paper.” The relationship among these three items is purely formal: their only connection to one another arises from the contingent fact that she happened to purchase them during the same trip to the market. One would not need to know what a Brillo pad was in order to make sense of the purchase of the oranges or the newspaper. She could have picked up some other combination of items, or she could have used separate sentences to describe their purchase. In either case their relationship to one another would have remained purely formal.

Example #2: On your flight here to Denver, you found yourself seated next to a compulsive talker. He noticed that you were reading the Book of Confessions. Unable to contain his curiosity, he asked you what you were reading and why? You told him you were on the way to this conference and that you were reviewing some of the material to be covered. He then asked, “Why do Christians see Jesus differently than they do other great historical figures?” You answer, “we Christians believe that Jesus Christ is truly God and truly human.” Unlike the items purchased during your neighbor’s shopping trip, the terms connected by “and” in this sentence have more than a merely formal or functional relationship. You could not substitute other terms without materially changing the answer. You could not separate the two into separate sentences and have either stand on its own. By asserting that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine, you were making two significant claims to your curious seatmate:

First, that the question of Jesus’ identity can only be understood with reference to both terms, “human” and “divine”; and

Second, that the very meanings of the terms “human” and “divine” are re-focused as a result of their juxtaposition to the person and work of Jesus.

In the time remaining, I want to address turn more directly to the question of ordination practice. In so doing I will be bringing the question to focus around two sets of commitments that are important to Reformed, and particularly Presbyterian, self-identity:

II. Furthering the Peace, Unity and Purity of the Church

The first of these commitments finds is found in the ordination promise made by church officers to “further the peace, unity and purity of the church.” [G-14.0405b(7). The second involves the way God calls people to ministry and how such calls are to be authenticated. As we look at the implications of these commitments, we discover that our standards ­ by what can only be called “deliberate intention” — make it exceedingly difficult for us to provide easy answers to any problems in our ordination practice.

When values we hold dear are in tension with one another, the temptation is to pick and choose from among those values the ones we believe best define the character of our tradition. But if these commitments are not merely part of a list, but are materially connected to one another by what my professor called a “theological ‘et,'” that strategy is not open to us, because we would distort the very value we embrace by cutting it off from the correlative values in relationship to which it has meaning in the first place.

Many of the bitter debates over ordination practice within our denomination ­ pre-dating even the adoption of specifically American constitutional standards and the formation of the first PCUSA general assembly in 1789 ­ would appear to have arisen solely as a result of concerns to preserve the church’s purity. Purity concerns have sometimes surfaced as theologican concerns, sometimes as polity concerns, and sometimes (as with the ordination issues now before the church) as a combination of the two. But anxiety about the church’s purity does not arise in a vacuum. It arises when the church as a whole becomes complacent about articulating the basis for its unity or when its commitment to preserving the peace of the church leads to a papering over of the fault lines in its common life.

Reading and listening to the debates over Amendments B and A, the battle has too often been portrayed as a struggle between the forces of purity and peace, each willing to sacrifice the unity of the church for the sake of victory. On one level, this picture of the struggle is clearly a caricature. On another level, however, it tells part of the truth. Certain advocates on each side of both debates argued that schism was preferable to continuing to live together with the other side.

Purity in our life together is not possible without a corresponding commitment to re-articulating the basis for our unity in Jesus Christ and testing our common life for evidence of God’s shalom. We cannot experience God’s peace in our common life if we begin by bracketing concerns related to the church’s purity and unity. And we cannot witness to, or embody in, our life together the unity we have in Jesus Christ if we neglect the kind of communal practices that foster both peace and continuing reformation. If our commitments to peace, unity and purity are joined by a “theological ‘et,'” we cannot assert that one of them is more important than the others, any more than our forebears at Chalcedon could have said that one of its affirmations about the two natures of Christ was more important than the other.

III. Assessing God’s Call to Ministry

The second commitment important to our reflection on where we may go in terms of ordination practice revolves around our distinctly Reformed sense of the way God calls people to ministry and the role of the church in assessing and supporting such calls.

From the very beginning of our tradition, we have believed that God’s call to ordained ministry involves three distinct phases, if you will:

First: an inner sense of call, marked by a conviction on the part of the individual person that God is calling him or her to a particular form of service within the community of faith. This sense of call is subject to testing by the wider church, and has ­ from the very beginning ­ involved an examination of the gifts, character, knowledge and fitness of someone for leadership.

Second: election to office by some particular community of God’s people and ratification of both that inner call and election by a representative governing body of the church.

Third: induction into a particular office of ministry during corporate worship by prayer together with the laying on of hands.

Whenever the church has faced a challenge to its understanding and practice of ordination (e.g., during the struggle to open ordination to women) it has had to wrestle with the question through each of those phases. And in every case, the problem has not come so much at the first and third phases as at the second. Some Gay and Lesbian persons (as with women and people of Color before them) have always felt God’s call to ministry and have been willing to have that call, as well as their gifts, character, knowledge and fitness for office, tested by the wider church. And, in the case of women and people of Color, at least, once the way became clear, there was ordinarily no problem with inducting them into office. The problem has always been that second phase: election by some community of God’s people and ratification of that election by a representative governing body. Moreover, even when some particular community was not only willing but eager to elect them to office, the unwillingness of governing bodies to ratify that election proved to be an insurmountable barrier until such time as those governing bodies could be persuaded that their stance was unfaithful to God’s intention.

That’s where the church is today with respect to the ordination of gay and lesbian persons. It is also where the church is likely to remain unless or until three things happen. The first one is beyond my competence, but I will attempt, in the second and third instance, to suggest a way forward:

First, there needs to be a re-thinking of our theological anthropology that takes all manifestations of human sexuality seriously. Our current theological anthropology assumes that heterosexuality is the only possible way to be fully human, but that need not remain the case. In earlier eras, being Caucasian and male were assumed to be the only ways one could be fully human. I’m not a systematic theologian, so I would not presume to articulate a coherent new theological anthropology, but I will say this: until we do, purely tactical approaches to changing the mind of the church will never succeed.

A potential way forward, however, has been articulated by feminist scholars who argue that most of the debate in matters of theological anthropology proceed according to Aristotle’s principle of the excluded middle.

The argument goes something like this. Everything is either A or Not A. A is the norm; Not A is Ab-Normal. Depending upon the time and the circumstances, such characteristics as maleness, whiteness, heterosexuality, Christianity, etc., were defined as A. Everything else was seen as Not A. The problem, feminist scholars point out, is that all people who are not male, white, heterosexual or Christian are not defined by what they are not, but by what they are. They are neither A nor Not A but something different from either of those categories. As the debate on the ordination of Gay and Lesbian persons move forward, we need to insist that the “A-Not A” categories be abandoned in favor of a more pluralistic model of description and argument.

Second, we need to re-think our tradition’s understanding of office and ordination, not as a prelude to rejecting it, but as a means of reclaiming it in its integrity. The 1992 report of the special task force on the theology and practice of ordination was never adequately studied, in part because it was reported out in the year between the report of the committee on human sexuality and the Presbyterian Layman-induced hysteria over the first Re-Imagining Conference. I served on that task force, so I hope you’ll forgive my self-interest in this matter, but the fact is that fewer than 200 out of a total of 11,300 sessions and fewer than 30 presbyteries out of 172 took the time to study and respond to it.

The part of this report that I think will be helpful to those of us here is the part dealing with the dimensions of leadership involved in holding church office. I quote:

Those ordained to office in the church exercise ministries of leadership in three distinct dimensions:

— Communally — by representing the wholeness (catholicity) of Christ’s church and serving its unity;

— Collegially– that is, by exercising the authority of their offices within relationships of mutual support and accountability with others, and by accepting a more demanding standard of accountability to the church’s polity and confessional documents; and

— Personally– that is, by virtue of their personal gifts, character, and authority.

The report goes on to spell out in some detail what those dimensions of leadership entail, and it does so without reference to sexual orientation. The lack of such a reference was deliberate, arising from our conviction that to do otherwise would be to aid and abet those who want to make gay and lesbian persons the issue instead of the fitness of all persons for office.

Time does not permit me to lay out all of these dimensions of leadership, but I would like to highlight two of them.

First, the personal dimension: the report argues that everyone who would bear representative office in the church ­ ministers, elders and deacons ­ should manifest the following gifts and character:


1. Maturity in faith

2. Sound judgment

3. Healthy self-awareness

4. Sensitivity toward the needs of others

5. Ability to work with others

             Character Traits:

1. A manner of life that is a manifest demonstration of Christian Gospel

2. Personal integrity in all aspects of life

3. Lives marked by the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience kindness, gentleness and self-control.

Our task force believed, and I still believe, that those of us who favor the ordination of openly gay and lesbian persons should have no qualms about any of those gifts or character traits. Indeed, paying attention to those matters instead of the stereotypes ­ positive and negative ­ that the straight world attaches to gay and lesbian persons would help move the matter forward substantially.

The report’s discussion of the communal dimension of leadership is also helpful, though it might not appear to be so, at first glance. The report argues that officers of the church represent and bear authority in communal ways.

They represent in two distinctive yet complementary ways:

First, they represent to the church and before the world the ministries to which the whole church is called; that is, telling the good news, making disciples, and caring for those in need or distress.

Second, they represent the manifest diversity and giftedness of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church as it is both gathered in particular communities and dispersed in mission to every corner of the world.

In addition, they exercise communal, and not merely personal or functional authority:

Though elected by a particular community of God’s people, they represent, and are authorized to act on behalf of, the whole people of God and not merely the constituencies that elected them. It is precisely because they are communal representatives, then, that they exercise communally representative authority.

This notion that officers in the church communally represent the whole church and bear communal authority because they do so is, I think, one of the most important bases for the fear and opposition of many to the ordination of Gay and Lesbian persons. Another way of putting it is this: if officers represent not merely those who elected them, but the whole church, then they represent “us.” And if we ­ for whatever reason ­ see them as other than fully-developed human beings (i.e., “not like us”), we will fight like crazy to prevent this from happening.

Clearly, this is the place where the shoe begins to pinch. As a result, it is tempting to abandon the notion of communal representation (for example, by pushing for local presbytery and congregational option in the matter). But the implications of such a move are enormous. Do we really want to gain a short-term tactical advantage, namely the ordination of Gay and Lesbian persons by individual congregations and presbyteries, at the possible cost of a vision of the church’s communal and catholic character that includes them?

My own conviction is that the personal, collegial and communal dimensions of ministry are tied together by another of those theological ‘ets,’ and that we would lose much if we break them apart for tactical advantage.

Third, in the same sense that we are offended by attempts to prevent the ordination of gay and lesbian persons because they belong to a “category,” it is essential that those of us favoring the ordination of gay and lesbian persons not make our argument in categorical terms. We used to say, when we were still operating solely under the “Definitive Guidance” rubric, that the terms of that definitive guidance were in conflict with the description of church membership in our Book of Order. And they were. But not in the way it was often interpreted. Too many times, I heard people say, “The Book of Order” that every member has the right to be ordained.” But it doesn’t say that. What it does say is that that one of the privileges of church membership is the right to vote and hold office. No one ­ old or young, rich or poor, male or female, black or white, gay or straight ­ has the “right” to be ordained. There are some, in each of those categories, whom God calls to ministry as ordained officers ­ not because they belong to a category but because they are fitted with particular gifts, character, knowledge and aptitude to function as leaders for the church at a particular time and place. We hurt our cause when we make arguments in favor of the ordination of gay and lesbian persons that appear to rest on a dubious theological foundation. The sooner we can make the debate turn on God’s call of particular men and women with particular gifts, character traits and knowledge and God’s affirmation of that call through the voice of a particular community of God’s people who have discerned that these particular men and women are fit for leading them in their service of God’s reign in the world, the better off we will be.

We would have been better off had we simply acted in that fashion 25 years ago, instead of asking whether we could. For most of the church’s history in this country, the General Assembly refused to deal with theoretical issues, what they called “in thesi” deliverances. When such a theoretical question came up, the answer of the Assembly was “there is sufficient guidance for you in the Book of Order; go back and figure it out.” If the language of our current Book of Order concerning church office were to be augmented by the kind of specific language urged by the ordination report, it might be possible to reframe the debate around the fitness of particular individuals instead of the hopes and fears people have about particular categories of people.


1)A Proposal for Considering the Theology and Practice of Ordination in the Presbyterian Church(USA) (Louisville, KY: Theology and Worship Unit, 1992), p. 55.

2) Ibid., p. 54.

3) Ibid., p. 54.

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