The God of the Covenant and Amendment 08-B

Excerpted and edited
from Address to the 2008 Covenant Conference

William Stacy Johnson
Princeton Theological Seminary

“And I will walk among you and will be your God, and you shall be my people” (Leviticus 26:12).

We Presbyterians are a covenant people who serve and worship a covenant-making God. That phrase from Leviticus, “And I will walk among you,” gives us an astonishing glimpse into God’s fundamental engagement to be our God.  What we discover in this phrase flies in the face of all the stereotypes about the Presbyterian vision of God as aloof, distant, disconnected or dispassionate.  Rather than being distant, God identifies with us in our weakness.  Through the powerful drama of God for us; Christ with us; and the Spirit among us, God chooses to walk among us.  Each movement in this threefold drama merits a special word. 

First, when we say God is “for” us, we mean that God thought of us before we were and brought us into being.  God has set God’s heart upon us, loving us with a love that surpasses even the way we love our own children or other family members. God loves us because God can’t help but love us.  No matter what we do, God is determined to be our God.

Second, when we say God is “with” us, we are intensifying the stakes.  If I happen to be for someone in distress, I might fax them or email them and say, “I’m for you.”  That gesture might give a certain kind of comfort.  Yet by itself it is inadequate.  What people in distress really need is someone who is not only for them, but someone who is with them.  They need not just sentiment; but solidarity. The Christian claim is that God is in solidarity with us.  God is not content to remain aloof from humanity, but in Jesus Christ, God determined to become one with human beings.  The Word became flesh in Jesus Christ, Immanuel, God with us.  This solidarity is at the heart of the Christian understanding of covenant.  And the compelling nature of this solidarity invites us to give ourselves in solidarity with and for one another.

This leads us to the third point.  The God who is for us and with us in Jesus Christ is also at work “among” us by the Spirit’s power.  When we say God is “among” us, we signal that God’s very own life is being shared with us as we respond to God’s grace in faith.  In other words, the covenant must come full circle: “I will be your God, and you will be my people.”  As we are told in 1 Peter 2:5, God dwells among us in order to build us up into a spiritual house, in which each  of us is valued as a living stone.  God has a stake in what happens to each one of us.  Each one of us is special to God’s covenant, and particularly those who have been shoved to the margins of the community.  There is a special place in God’s heart for the outcast, the sojourner, the widow, the orphan, the neighbor in need. 

Though God is faithful, we are sinners.  We have not followed through on our covenant obligations.  There is a problem in the spiritual house of the PCUSA.  Our house is broken–so broken, in fact, that only through the grace of God can it be fixed.  The amazing thing, however, is that through the workings of the Spirit of God among us, God wants to fix our house.  The incredible thing is that God chooses to do this gracious work through us.  God’s faithfulness is at work through our faithfulness.  God enlists our faithfulness–the faithfulness of all of us–to accomplish God’s purposes.
So how will God’s work among us play out as the church seeks to discern God’s will regarding Amendment 08-B?  Only time will tell.  But one of the great questions facing the PCUSA is how to move forward despite deep differences. How are we to build a spiritual house for all God’s people?  To put it concretely, how will our church avoid an unfortunate splintering, or even an ugly split?  My belief is that we need to move beyond the conservative-liberal culture wars that have run through our church’s life for so long.  We need to move beyond solutions in which one side wins and the other loses.  In such a cut-throat game, we are all the losers. 

So then, what should be our stance on the proposed amendment 08-B?  Does it offer healing to our broken house or more strife?  In order to assess this question, it helps if we stand back and consider how our differences over human sexuality have played out over the last 30 years.  My views on this are influenced by the British theologian, Rowan Williams, who is now Archbishop of Canterbury.

One group has sought to deal with human sexuality by asking, “Am I obeying the rules?”  This is the group that championed the current version of G-6.0106b. Sexual conduct is permissible if it conforms to certain standards intended for heterosexual couples. The problem for gay and lesbian couples is that even when they comply with these rules in substance, they still fail to comply with them in form.  Their faithfulness goes unrecognized; their longing for inclusion in the church’s family goes unfulfilled. 

According to Rowan Williams, another group seeks to approach sexual ethics by asking the question, “Am I being sincere?”  Sexual conduct is right if it is an authentic expression of concern for the other.  An objective standard based on rules is replaced by a subjective one based on feelings or experience.  This second approach may be more accommodating to gays and lesbians, but it also leaves things exceedingly vague.  How elastic is the rubric of “sincerity”?

Neither of these two approaches is adequate.  Instead, argues Williams, we need to ask a different sort of question, namely, “What does my life show forth?”  To what extent is the love life of a candidate for ordained church leadership a demonstration of the gospel?  In the case of exclusively-committed gay or lesbian candidates for church leadership, to what reality is their relationship bearing witness? 

With this as a guiding question, does Amendment 08-B have theological integrity?  This is the question we should be asking–not merely will it pass or will it not.  Does this amendment help us seek a greater point of theological faithfulness? 

One of the interesting things about 08-B is that it combines the subjective attention to sincerity with the objective insistence upon standards and rules.  Listen to its last sentence, which will replace the last sentence of current G-6.0106b. 

“Every governing body charged with examination for ordination and/or installation, establishes the candidate’s sincere efforts to adhere to these standards.” 

One advantage of this language is that it now makes explicit in the Book of Order a longstanding principle of Presbyterian polity: that we have church-wide standards, together with local discretion in applying those standards.  By now this framework should be familiar to everyone who has read the report of the Task Force on the Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church.  The Task Force insisted that the church’s standards apply to everyone, even while reminding us that these standards must be applied with practical wisdom on a case-by-case basis.

The language of 08-B does a similar thing.  It improves on the current G-6.0106b by making clear that these standards flow from the church’s relationship to Jesus Christ himself, as witnessed to in Scripture, and as interpreted through the lens of the Book of Confessions.  Here is what it says: “Those who are called to ordained service in the church, by their assent to the constitutional questions for ordination and installation (W-4.4003) 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.”

The controversial question is whether the new amendment changes the current standards.  By removing the “fidelity and chastity” language from the Book of Order, does it undermine high standards of sexual ethics?  Not if we take seriously the language about Christ himself as the standard.  Not if we all turn to Scripture and the Book of Confessions as our guides.  This new language invites all ordained officers to an even more rigorous self-examination as we aspire to an even more demanding life of faithfulness.  Taking Jesus Christ as our standard invites us to ask of every ordained leader whether his or her life bears witness to Christ. 

When read in this way, 08-B follows both the letter and the spirit of the Task Force’s work.  It invites Presbyterians of diverse perspectives to come together around our common allegiance to the person and work of Jesus Christ.  It calls for us to transcend the impasse between objective rules versus subjective sincerity by underscoring that both are important.  We need moral standards, but each of us also needs the grace of God and the support of the body of Christ in the living out of those standards. 

So where do we go from here?  I think it’s time for us to quit fighting over gay sexuality and get on with the business of building up the church and seeking to embody God’s purposes.  God’s covenant faithfulness is clear: “I will be your God!”  We need an approach that will allow all of us to join together in a single chorus: “We will be your people!”   We can join this chorus in confidence, trusting in the God who would rather die than break covenant with us.

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