Dr. Mark Achtemeier
I believe the presbyteries should approve Amendment 10-A, the proposed replacement for Book of Order section G-6.0106b, which since 1996 has been used to discourage gay and lesbian believers from being considered for ordination.
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). 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. 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). Governing bodies shall be guided by Scripture and the confessions in applying standards to individual candidates.
This Amendment is worth supporting no matter which side of the ordination debate we are on. This doesn’t have to be a liberal/conservative issue. It doesn’t have to be a debate about our sexuality policy. Amendment 10-A simply makes good sense, and it will be beneficial for the whole church.
Let me highlight three reasons why this is the case. First, 10-A will bring peace to our presbyteries by halting the endless succession of battles over proposed amendments to the Constitution. Second, the Amendment will remove divisive ambiguity from the Book of Order, sparing our church huge amounts of costly litigation in the church courts. And third, Amendment A will help us become the kind of faithful church where divisive issues can be handled more graciously and productively than we have seen in the recent past. Let me speak to each of these points in turn.
Amendment A will bring peace to the presbyteries
This year marks the fifth time since 1996 that the Assembly has asked the presbyteries to vote on the sexuality policy contained in section G-6.0106b of our Book of Order. The 2008 General Assembly sent a similar amendment around to the presbyteries, where it was defeated by narrow margins. And now we are considering Amendment 10-A, which was sent out by the 219th General Assembly this past June.
The sentiment I encounter most often in response to these events is a weary frustration. “Why do we have to keep voting on this issue year after year?” people ask. “Why don’t our votes decide anything?” “Why can’t we just settle the issue and move on?” This continuing stream of proposed amendments coming down from the Assembly is not just a matter of repetition and inconvenience. These votes cost the church a huge price in time and energy, money and good will.
Why the presbytery votes keep coming
We wonder why the votes keeping coming around time and again, but the reason is not all that hard to figure out when we think about it carefully:
We live in a 51-49 church. The count of actual vote counts cast by elders and ministers in the presbyteries during the 2008 amendment debate comes out pretty close to that. The leaders of our congregations are just about as divided over this issue as it is possible to be, with responsible, godly, biblically serious Presbyterians on both sides of the aisle.
And the problem with divisions this deep is that practically speaking, a two or three percent majority vote is never going to be enough to put the issue to rest. So long as we have a partisan position of either side enshrined in the Book of Order as official church teaching, there are going to be very large numbers of conscientious Presbyterians on the opposing side who feel duty-bound to press for change. And General Assemblies being what they are, when the divisions are so close, a passionate minority is always going to be able to sway enough people in the middle to send the issue down to the presbyteries for another vote.
Becoming an honest church
The solution to this situation is for us to be more honest as a church in our public witness. There are times and seasons when the most faithful and truthful course for the church is to refrain from speaking publicly on a particular controversy. And when it comes to the sexuality debate, the plain truth is that we are a house divided, and as a body we are incapable of speaking on it with one voice. We put up a false front to the world when we adopt a partisan position as our official policy, one that ignores the conscientious convictions of a very substantial portion of our own membership. And the bitter fruit of this dishonest witness is an endless stream of turmoil in our denomination.
The great gift that Amendment 10-A brings to our church is that it is not a partisan statement from either side. It lifts up mainstream Presbyterian values that all of us can affirm. It does not take a position pro or con on the sexuality debate, but affirms the Lordship of Christ and directs us to a serious appropriation of our ordination vows. These vows affirm that we will carry out our ministries in obedience to Jesus Christ, under the authority of Scripture, and continually guided by our confessions.
An end to the voting
With Amendment A incorporated into the Constitution, we will no longer be in a situation where a large portion of the church experiences a serious violation of conscience through the church’s public witness on the sexuality issue. And that means the reason to keep re-fighting the issue every time we have an Assembly will go away. Amendment A lifts up what Presbyterians are able to affirm together with integrity—that we are all trying conscientiously to follow Jesus as we know him in the Scriptures and affirm him in our ordination vows. No longer will the church be offending a huge segment of its own membership by proclaiming a hotly contested conclusion as the official position of the whole church.
Once we get an honest, non-partisan statement in the Book of Order, all the people who are tired of fighting will rally around it, and there will no longer be a majority of Assembly commissioners wanting to dislodge it from the book. Amendment 10-A will give us the break we have all been longing for, eliminating the need for the poor, long-suffering presbyteries to re-fight our denominational policy every time we have a General Assembly.
Amendment A will remove divisive ambiguity from our Constitution
Many people assume that the fidelity-chastity provision in G-6.0106b provides a secure safeguard against the ordination of practicing gay and lesbian Christians:
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.
Even if you are one who believes a safeguard against such ordinations is necessary, it is not at all clear that the current language will be able to provide it over the long term.
Ambiguity around obedience
Court cases around matters of sexuality policy have started pointing out serious ambiguities in the text of G-6.106b. Let me highlight a few of them. First, “Those who are called to office in the church are to lead a life in obedience to Scripture…”
Obviously obedience to Scripture is a good and desirable thing. Those of us who are sincere Christians are all striving to follow the teachings of Jesus faithfully, and to conform our lives to scriptural teaching. But those of us who are striving to be disciples also know the truth in what Scripture tells us about our efforts: that we all sin and fall short of the glory of God (Rom 3:23). In citing obedience to Scripture as an ordination requirement without nuance or qualification, G-6.0106b collides with our Confessions. Question 149 of the Westminster Larger Catechism affirms what we all know to be the case:
Q 149. Is any man able perfectly to keep the Commandment of God?
A. No man is able, either of himself, or by any grace received in this life, perfectly to keep the Commandments of God; but doth daily break them in thought, word and deed.
Contrary to what G-6.0106b would appear to require, no one is able perfectly to keep the Commandments of God.
The result of this collision between the language of our constitution and the reality of the Christian life as described in Scripture and our Confessions is that G-6.0106b becomes an inadequate vehicle for imposing simple, straightforward requirements on the church. By framing its discussion of standards in terms of an unqualified and impossible obedience to Scripture, G-6.0106b inevitably involves the church in matters of interpretation and judgment about what kind and how much obedience the church is going to require. Since none of us lives perfectly in accordance with scriptural teaching, it’s not clear how requiring such perfection can disqualify only one single group in the church.
Ambiguity around chastity
G-6.0106b also speaks about a requirement of “chastity in singleness.” Arguments are starting to appear in current court cases pointing out the ambiguities of this phrase, and raising doubts about whether this requirement actually excludes partnered gay and lesbian Christians from ordained office. Many people assume that “chastity in singleness” is a synonym for “celibacy,” that it means refraining from sexual activity. But it’s not at all clear that this definition can be sustained.
Question 108 of the Heidelberg Catechism, for example, conveys a very different understanding:
Q 108. What does the seventh commandment teach us?
A. That all unchastity is condemned by God, and that we should therefore… live chaste and disciplined lives whether in holy wedlock or in single life.
If chastity is a virtue of married as well as single life, it obviously cannot mean refraining from all sexual activity. And if chastity can be practiced in the context of a heterosexual marriage, why not in a faithful, covenanted same-gender partnership?
In short, if our confessions understand chastity as meaning something other than refraining from sexual activity, the notion that a “chastity in singleness” requirement is going to effectively exclude partnered gay and lesbian people from ordination seems very doubtful.
Ambiguity around repentance
The last sentence of G-6.0106b reads, “Persons refusing to repent of any self-acknowledged practice which the confessions call sin shall not be ordained…” The problem here is figuring out what a refusal to repent might mean. Repentance is repeatedly defined in our confessions as process in which a person comes to recognize his or her sin, and in horror turns away from it to seek salvation in God’s mercy. Question 87 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism presents an apt example:
Q 87. What is repentance unto life?
A. Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin…doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God…
Knowledge of one’s own sin and a feeling of true remorse for it are essential components of repentance as our tradition understands it.
By this definition, a refusal to repent would presumably mean having knowledge of one’s sin, but stubbornly refusing to turn away from it. It is not at all clear this applies, however, to persons who in all good conscience do not believe their covenanted relationship with a beloved partner is inherently sinful.
The debate in our church is not about whether it’s important to live an upright or moral life—everyone agrees that faithfulness is important. The debate is about what true faithfulness actually looks like in particular situations. We might say that people who disagree with us over sexuality are mistaken in how they interpret and follow Scripture. But being mistaken in one’s beliefs is very different from refusing to repent. Neither repentance nor its refusal is possible apart from a sincere belief that the activity in question is actually sinful. Refusing to repent is not a relevant charge to bring against people who don’t believe what they are doing is a sin.
A costly problem
These ambiguities in the language of G-6.0106b are more than just academic issues. Whether we personally find these ambiguities compelling or not, they open the door to a long series of legal challenges and complaints, asking our church courts and General Assembly to clarify and interpret the ambiguous terms. Such legal actions tend to be slow and drawn out and incredibly expensive. The resolution of a single case can cost well in excess of $100,000! And it will take a great many cases to sort out all the issues left hanging by the flawed language of G-6.0106b.
A burden on the church
In sum, when we have in our church’s constitution a partisan statement on an issue that deeply divides the church, the result is going to be a never-ending series of fights in the presbyteries around votes to change it. In addition to those battles, the ambiguities in the actual language of G-6.0106b also promise a long and costly series of fights in the church courts. And after all that effort, the end result is likely to be a safeguard that is too full of holes to be effective anyway! In the meantime the amount of time and energy and money and emotion being devoted to these struggles is completely scandalous.
Over and over again I hear people saying we need to stop, that our church needs to find a way to move beyond this damaging debate and get on with the business of spreading the Gospel. Amendment 10-A is a way to do just that by lifting up the Lordship of Jesus!
Amendment A will help us faithfully handle disagreement
What would happen in the church if we replaced the current language of G-6.0106b with Amendment A? Would we be doing away with sexual morality, depriving the defenders of the traditional status quo of any grounds for defending their position? To the contrary! The foundations of faithful biblical morality would remain strongly present in our ordination standards.
No lowering of standards
G-6.0106a in our Book of Order would continue with a strong statement about qualifications for ministry: “[T]hose who undertake particular ministries should be persons of strong faith, dedicated discipleship, and love of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. Their manner of life should be a demonstration of the Christian gospel..”
Amendment A itself would lift up the church’s desire “to submit joyfully to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all aspects of life.” It also requires examining bodies to determine a candidate’s ability and commitment to fulfill the requirements expressed in the ordination vows. This is an exacting standard, for included in the ordination vows are requirements to acknowledge Christ as Lord of all and head of the Church, accept Scripture to be the unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ and God’s Word to each of us, receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed Faith, obey Christ under the authority of Scripture, guided by the confessions, and many others.
Under Amendment A, there will be no backing away in our ordination process from a full affirmation of the Lordship of Christ and the authority of Scripture. And those who want to argue that these commitments mean excluding practicing gay and lesbian believers will have every right and ground to make their case.
A more productive debate
Several things will change under Amendment A. First, we will see a change in the nature and location of the sexuality debate. Right now we have a national fight about constitutional technicalities, which pits large groups of relative strangers against one another in the General Assembly. Amendment A will recast the debate as a conversation about individual candidates coming before our presbyteries and sessions. This means that our church’s practice will be worked out among people who live and work and minister together, and who consequently have the opportunity to engage this issue as a conversation among friends. The Peace, Unity and Purity Task Force recognized how much more productive and Christian the conversation becomes when it takes place among people who know, care about and respect one another.
The debate will also become a conversation about Scripture, replacing the current focus on arcane details of constitutional language and constitutional case law. This focus on the main issues will be all to the good, helping our church to keep in mind the real issues.
The third change we will see is that our denomination will become more flexible in its approach to the ordination issue, allowing more room for differences of opinion. Individual candidates would be examined on a case-by-case basis, and it is probable that some presbyteries and some regions of the country will prove to be more open than others to the ordination of gay and lesbian believers.
Now some people have stuck a “local option” label on this kind of arrangement, as if that in itself were sufficient to condemn it. But local option has a long and distinguished history in our Presbyterian system, especially in times of controversy. It makes good sense: Candidates whose views are wonderfully suited for ministry in rural Iowa may not be the best fit for churches in uptown Manhattan, and vice versa. These regional variations are precisely the reason why we have local governing bodies examining candidates for ministry, rather than running everyone through a uniform national process. Such regional variations are also the reason why, when a minister moves from one presbytery to another, we re-examine that person for ministry in the new context, rather than allowing the first examination to confer across-the-board approval.
There are good, biblical reasons for confidence that God’s grace will continue to guide the church in and through such variations in its practice. It is helpful to recall the advice of wise old rabbi Gamaliel in Acts 5. When confronted with the possibility of some radical and unprecedented changes within his religious community, he advised his colleagues to show some flexibility and toleration: “…[I]f this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail, but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them–in that case you may even be found fighting against God!” (Acts 5:38-39).
There are also helpful discussions in the theological tradition, associated with the name of St. Alphonsus de Liguori, which suggest that allowing flexibility in the church’s practice may in fact be the path of higher righteousness. These discussions consider what the church should do in a situation where its best teachers disagree over the validity of a church law. The practical conclusion of these discussions is that the church is justified in making room for the less restrictive practice if the law is opposed by five or six faithful and dedicated church teachers who have proper training in such matters.
Now in point of fact, the PC(USA) currently has many more than five or six distinguished teachers who question the faithfulness of excluding gay and lesbian Christians from ordination. In 2001, thirty-three bible scholars—half the biblical faculties of our Presbyterian seminaries–sent out a letter titled “The Whole Bible for the Whole Human Family.” This letter opposed the continued exclusion of gay and lesbian persons from ordination. In addition to the Bible scholars, there are also a great many theologians and ethicists and pastoral counselors in our seminaries who hold similar views.
A more faithful course
When a church law is in significant doubt like this, many theologians have argued that the church is justified in taking a more lenient position in its application. The reason for this becomes clear when we consider the stakes involved in being wrong on either side of the issue.
If the teachers advocating the exclusion are wrong and the church follows them, it runs the risk of creating false barriers and impediments to the Gospel, driving people away from Jesus! But if those teachers who advocate inclusion are in error, and people listen to their advice, the worst that will happen is that people will believe them and commit sins of ignorance, which are easily covered by grace. In a situation where there is serious doubt about the faithfulness of excluding gays and lesbians from the ministry, the safest path spiritually is to err on the side of grace. Passing Amendment A would open up this safer path of gracious flexibility to the Presbyterian Church.
Finally, it is worth noting one additional effect that the passage of Amendment A will have for the church. Because passage would move the debate to the presbyteries, it would significantly empower individual Presbyterians to have a meaningful impact on their church’s practice. Under the current status quo, the debate over sexuality is focused at the national level on technical issues of constitutional law. This focus tends to lodge major power and influence with single-issue national advocacy groups. Consequently, it leaves ordinary Presbyterians feeling helpless and disempowered, unable to make a meaningful contribution to the church’s conversation.
With the passage of Amendment A, the church’s position will be a function of what actually takes place in sessions and presbyteries as they consider the calls of individual candidates. That means the way for me to make a difference is simple and clear: I talk to my friends! I engage my neighbors and colleagues at presbytery and on the session. I sit down with my fellow presbyters for a serious conversation. I can do more than just send money to some far-off advocacy group, my own voice is important. My ability to persuade other people makes a difference. That’s the kind of church I want to be a part of. That’s the way followers of Christ who care about the church and one another engage difficult issues.
A clear-cut case
Summing up, the church should pass Amendment A because it will (1) put an end to the never-ending cycle of General Assembly battles and presbytery votes that drain so much time, money and energy away from the church’s mission; (2) remove ambiguity from our Constitution and spare us a long, frustrating and extremely costly round of technical litigation in our church courts; and (3) move the sexuality debate down to the local level where a faithful flexibility can help ease tensions in the church, and ordinary people will empowered to make a difference.
Dr. Mark Achtemeier has served the Presbyterian Church since 1984 as a pastor, theologian, and seminary professor.
© 2010 by P. Mark Achtemeier. All rights reserved.