The current apparently endless debate in our denomination over ordination standards comes down to basically one question:
"What is essential?" For me, if we are to take the word "essential" seriously, this question means: In what does the Christian
faith consist? What is there that, if we reject it, causes us to cease being fully Christian? And what are these standards
that are particular to Presbyterians?
To call something "essential" is very heavy. On the one hand, it means that persons disagreeing with something essential
are basically not Christian. They are not to be admitted to the Lord’s Table. They are not to be baptized; indeed, they
have in effect renounced their baptism when they abandoned an essential element of the Christian faith. Therefore, when we
decide something is essential it really needs to be essential, not just something we agree with and prefer. If something
is "essential" it needs to have to do with salvation itself. It is something that if you don’t believe it your relationship
with God is jeopardized.
Most would agree, I think, that the formulations put forth by the early ecumenical Councils of the Church, which are received
by all Christians, are the basis of what we consider to be essential. These are the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, along
with such documents as the Formula of Chalcedon. While some may harbor questions about difficult doctrines like the resurrection
of the body, these creeds basically tell us what the essential tenets are for Christians. This is especially true of what
they say concerning Jesus Christ and the Trinity. If we don’t hold in some manner to these basic doctrines we are not
"Christian" in any strict sense.
But beyond those basic affirmations, are there any other "essentials" to which we need to hold? More importantly, what
are the beliefs that follow from our affirmation of the Creeds, and how do these get worked out in terms of different denominations?
Our session recently received a letter from a group of Presbyterians who have boiled the essentials down to three principles:
the Lordship of Christ, the authority of Scripture, and the principle that sex should only take place within the covenant
of marriage between one man and one woman. All Christians agree with the first statement: Jesus is Lord. That is a fundamental
essential confession of Christianity. And all Christians would agree with the second statement, though there is wide disagreement
concerning how Scripture is authoritative, and whether any other influences have authority. For instance, some Christians
lift up tradition as having some authority along with Scripture. Even Presbyterians are not generally "biblicist" in the sense
of recognizing the Bible as our exclusive authority; the Reformers understood that the Spirit working in the Church
is necessary for the right interpretation of Scripture, and that the Bible’s authority is not inherent but derived from
Christ, who is himself the Word of God.
So, the first of these essentials is generally non-negotiable. The second has always been a matter for debate within a
broad affirmation of Scripture’s centrality and authority.
But what of the third of these proposed "essentials?" It has certainly been the general practice in the Church to affirm
that sex should only take place in marriage between one man and one woman. But this can hardly be said to be a major biblical
theme or one the Church has ever placed this close to the heart of its life and identity. Indeed, the Church has managed to
see its understanding of sex and relationships evolve over time. There is no question that the Apostle Paul preferred celibacy;
but the Church realized very early that his preference could not be an essential tenet of the faith. Jesus himself prohibits
divorce, but the Church has been led to qualify this and allow divorce in certain cases. In parts of the Old Testament a polygamous
society is assumed; but by Jesus’ time this was obsolete.
And we can’t simply proof-text something out of the Bible and say that the whole Bible, or the whole New Testament,
is "essential." If that were the case we could be excommunicated for eating a rare steak (Acts 15:20). Furthermore, practically
no one is trying to make every Christian keep Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount. These are arguably the most important
words Jesus ever spoke, and we have decided that not even they are essential. You can still be a Christian if you call
someone a "fool" (Matthew 5:22), look at someone with lust (Matthew 5:28), get divorced (Matthew 5:32), swear an oath (Matthew
5:34), or not love your enemy (Matthew 5:44). God knows we don’t consider Matthew 6:19 essential: "Do not store up treasures
on Earth." In fact we tend to ignore or explain away Jesus’ entire teaching on wealth and economics. We view serving
two masters (Matthew 6:24) as an acceptable and even commendable part of life.
Why are these not essential? Perhaps they should be! I am among those who call for taking Jesus’ words on economic
issues, for example, far more seriously. Economic matters take up far more space and energy in the Scriptures and our Confessions
than issues of sexual morality.
Why have some decided that something is essential that the New Testament addresses only sporadically? How do we decide
what is essential anyway? Essential for what? For whom? For where?
On the other hand, perhaps I am overstating what "essential" means. Maybe we only mean essential for officers (deacons,
elders, and ministers) in the Church. After all, the only official requirement — that is, the only essential thing —
for being a church member is that one confess faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. In this case, then, the criteria
for what is essential would have to do with what is necessary for leadership, and what sets a good example for other
Christians. This is the context in at least some of the passages where marriage is addressed in the New Testament, for instance
the standards for being a deacon or bishop in 1 Timothy 3:2 and 12. These are general standards and we don’t enforce
even them with any kind of strictness. And marriage ("married only once") is only one of the requirements among many.
So even here, why would we lift up above issues and characteristics bearing far more scriptural weight this requirement
about sex only happening within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman? Why would we choose to downplay the other
standards listed — for example, being "temperate, sensible, respectable, hospitable, an apt teacher, not a drunkard,
not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and not a lover of money," and so forth — not to mention the still more rigorous
demands of Jesus, and focus only on what a person is doing sexually? Are these things not at issue in our time?
That was a rhetorical question, of course. These other things do remain pertinent. They are addressed by sessions and presbyteries
all the time when making decisions about ordination. But to lift up this one particular issue and make it more essential than
anything else, equating it with two elements absolutely basic to Christian faith, and trying thereby to show a necessary relationship
between them, seems, well, unwarranted and extreme. In other words, those who propose such a standard have not, in my view,
made an adequate case explaining why this requirement is more essential than any other. Certainly sexual ethics is
important; but why is it more important than economic ethics? Why is it and nothing else equated with faith in Jesus and the
This June our General Assembly is meeting in Birmingham, Alabama. Possibly the biggest issue they will be addressing is
the report of the Task Force on Peace, Unity, and Purity which has been working for several years to give us a way through
the impasse of the ordination standards debate. The Task Force is made up of twenty people representing the wide variation
of theological viewpoints in the church, from very conservative to very liberal. It is a miracle that they not only learned
how to function together but agreed unanimously on an approach to this issue. They recommend that we learn to listen to each
other and the Scriptures, and that we both keep the standards we now have (which annoys many liberals) and that we recognize
the historic role local presbyteries and sessions have always played in our system in making ordination decisions (which infuriates
Basically, the Task Force refuses to call something essential which is not clearly so, and it recognizes the tradition
we have of giving presbyteries and sessions the right to waive non-essential requirements when they have a good reason to
do so. (Which decisions are still subject to dissent and appeal in our system.) In the end, the Presbyterian system has always
wanted to leave decisions about who may be ordained up to the people who best know the individuals involved and their faith.
So, what is essential? St. Irenaeus of Lyons once said that the catholic faith was that which was believed in the Church
by everyone everywhere. What he meant, I think, was that consensus is often a reliable marker of what is essential. Esoteric,
minority, extremist, and innovational ideas were looked upon with suspicion. In the present debate on ordination standards
the Church has yet to reach a consensus. Furthermore, both sides have managed to present ideas that are unacceptable to the
The Task Force at least gives us a way (and a thoroughly Presbyterian way at that) to muddle faithfully through this confusion
and to function together as Christians until a consensus is attained, if ever.