Adult Education Council

The Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church

Discussion Materials for September 3, 1996

Frank B. Baldwin, III - Discussion Leader


Introduction

The General Assembly ("GA") of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) meets each year. Among the matters to come before it are "Overtures" from various presbyteries. These are proposals to make some change in the doctrine or government ("polity") of the denomination or to codify in writing some principle that has previously been unwritten. Overtures typically deal with a wide range of subjects, and may only be proposed by one or more presbyteries (rather than, for example, by a particular church).

Overtures coming from the presbyteries are referred to committees of the GA for review and recommendation, and then are voted on at a plenary session of the GA. All of this occurs within a single, relatively brief, GA meeting, so the pressure to "do something" is intense. If approved by the GA, an Overture which makes an amendment to the Constitution is referred to the presbyteries, and becomes binding if approved by a majority of the presbyteries, except in the case of amendments to the confessional documents of the denomination, which require a vote of two-thirds of the presbyteries and further GA approval. Because presbyteries range widely in size (that is, in the number of church members and the number of particular churches represented), this system places disproportionate power in the hands of the smaller presbyteries, both to propose and to approve Overtures.

At the most recent GA meeting, numerous Overtures dealt with the subject matter of sexual qualifications for ordination, and the GA has approved an Overture on this subject.1 Our study, however, will focus on another Overture, proposed by the presbytery which includes Orange County and part of Los Angeles County in California 2, to require that all ordained persons and all non-ordained staff persons serving in positions of leadership must "affirm" what are described as "five essentials of the Christian faith."

The following materials are intended to assist your study of this Overture and our discussion of it at the upcoming Adult Education Council Meeting. They consist of:

1. Text of Overture 96-42

2. What the Constitution 3 of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) currently says about the beliefs required of Presbyterians.

3. Some materials relating to the first "essential" described in the Overture, relating to the nature and authority of Scripture, a "hot topic" that is really at the heart of the ordination debate.


1 This Overture, as adopted, requires that persons seeking ordination as ministers, elders, or deacons must practice fidelity within a heterosexual marriage or celibacy [Moderator's note: properly speaking, "chastity in singleness"], and must repent any prior inconsistent conduct.

2 Los Ranchos Presbytery includes 65 churches with an aggregate of 25,000 members. The Presbytery of Philadelphia, in contrast, includes 153 churches with 53,000 members.

3 The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) consists of two parts: a Book of Order which deals with church government, discipline, and worship and a Book of Confessions which contains certain historic confessions of the Church, not all of which are entirely consistent with one another, particularly on confusing issues such as "election" (also known as predestination).


 

AN OVERTURE TO THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY

 

[Editor's Note: The following is Overture 96-42, one of 125 new Overtures submitted to the 208th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), meeting in Albuquerque, New Mexico, June 29 though July 6, 1996. It was referred to the GA's Committee on Church Orders and Ministry. The Committee recommended against adoption, and the GA concurred in that recommendation. A lengthy set of introductory paragraphs, asserting the Scriptural basis of the Overture, is omitted.]

 

Resolved, That the Presbytery of Los Ranchos respectfully overture the 208th General Assembly (1996) to send the following proposed amendment to the Form of Government to the presbyteries for their affirmative or negative votes:

Shall G-2.0200 be amended by adding:

As our confessional standards are not to be ignored or dismissed, but rather upheld, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) requires that all ordained persons, Ministers of the Word and Sacrament, Elders, Deacons, and all non-ordained staff persons serving in positions of leadership in all levels of governing bodies must affirm five essentials of the Christian faith as a condition of their service:

1. Affirm the Holy Scriptures as defined in the Book of Confessions, 6.0024, as the inspired, authoritative, and infallible 5 rule of our faith and practice.

2. Affirm the historic actuality of the virgin birth of our Lord Jesus Christ and his divine/human nature.

3. Affirm the historic actuality of the miracles of our Lord Jesus Christ as conveyed to us in the pages of Holy Scripture.

4. Affirm the efficacy of the substitutionary atonement of our Lord Jesus Christ for our sins.

5. Affirm the historic actuality of the bodily Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.

 


4 Editor's Note: The reference is to a portion of the Westminster Confession of Faith which describes Holy Scripture as "the Word of God written," contains a list of the books of the Old and New Testaments, and declares of those books, "All of which are given by inspiration of God, to be the rule of faith and life."

5 Editor's Note: In a portion of the Westminster Confession of Faith not specifically cited in the Overture, it is said that the Holy Scripture "doth abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God; yet, notwithstanding, our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit, bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts." BOOK OF CONFESSIONS, 6.005. When there is doubt about the meaning of any passage, the Confession goes on, "it may be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly." BOOK OF CONFESSIONS, 6.009.


And shall G-6.0108 be amended by adding a new paragraph c. (with existing c. becoming d.) reading:

As our confessional standards are not to be ignored or dismissed, but rather upheld, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) requires that all ordained persons, Ministers of the Word and Sacrament, Elders, Deacons, and all non-ordained persons serving in positions of leadership in all levels of governing bodies must affirm five essentials of the Christian faith as a condition of their service:

1. Affirm the Holy Scriptures as defined in the Book of Confessions, 6.002, as the inspired, authoritative, and infallible rule of our faith and practice.

2. Affirm the historic actuality of the virgin birth of our Lord Jesus Christ and his divine/human nature.

3. Affirm the historic actuality of the miracles of our Lord Jesus Christ as conveyed to us in the pages of Holy Scripture.

4. Affirm the efficacy of the substitutionary atonement of our Lord Jesus Christ for our sins.

5. Affirm the historic actuality of the bodily Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.

 

And shall G-11.0303 be amended by adding:

As a condition of their service, all presbytery staff serving in positions of leadership must affirm the five essentials of the Christian faith as defined in G-2.0200 and G-6.0108c.

And shall G-12.0302 be amended by adding:

As a condition of their service, all synod staff serving in positions of leadership must affirm the five essentials of the Christian faith as defined in G-2.0200 and G-6.0108c.


Study Questions

1. If your ordination or service as a church worker depended on affirming the five essentials stated in the Overture, could you? If not, which ones would give you difficulty?

2. Is it appropriate for the PC(USA) to establish specific doctrinal standards of ordination in light of the historic provisions of the Constitution relating to belief?

3. Why do you think the GA voted against submitting this Overture to the presbyteries for approval? At whom do you think it was aimed?


 

THE HISTORIC PRINCIPLES OF CHURCH ORDER

 

[Editor's Note: Please forgive the old-fashioned, non-inclusive language. The words are from the Eighteenth Century and should be understood as applying to all persons.]

 

BOOK OF ORDER, FORM OF GOVERNMENT, G-1.0300 et seq.

In setting forth the following form of government, worship, and discipline, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) reaffirms the historic principles of Church order which have been a part of our common heritage in this nation and which are basic to our Presbyterian concept and system of church government, namely:

(1) (a) That "God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in anything contrary to his Word, or beside it, in matters of faith or worship." (b) Therefore we consider the rights of private judgment, in all respect religion, as universal and unalienable . .

(2) That, in perfect consistency with the above principle of common right, every Christian Church . . . is entitled to declare the terms of admission into its communion, and the qualifications of its ministers and members, as well as the whole system of its internal government .

. . . .

(4) That truth is in order to goodness; and the great touchstone of truth, its tendency to promote holiness, according to our Savior's rule, "By their fruits ye shall know them." And that no opinion can be either more pernicious or more absurd than that which brings truth and falsehood upon a level, and represents it as of no consequence what a man's opinions are. On the contrary, we`are persuaded that there is an inseparable connection between faith and practice, truth and duty. Otherwise, it would be of no consequence either to discover truth or to embrace it.

(5) That, while under the conviction of the above principle we think it necessary to make effectual provision that all who are admitted as teachers be sound in the faith, we also believe that there are truths and forms with respect to which men of good characters and principles may differ. And in all these we think it the duty of private Christians and societies to exercise mutual forbearance toward each other.


 

STUDY MATERIALS ON THE AUTHORITY OF SCRIPTURE

 

What do we say the Bible is?

 

In their ordination vows, Presbyterian ministers, elders, and deacons must affirmatively answer the following question about the Bible:

 

Do you accept the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be, by the Holy Spirit, the unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ in the church universal, and God's Word to you?

 

Note three aspects of this statement:

A. The Scriptures are a unique and authoritative witness.

B. The Scriptures are God's Word.

C. The effect of the Scriptures in our lives is accomplished through the Holy Spirit.

 

The article on the following pages is reprinted with permission of the Editor, The Presbyterian Outlook, April 10, 1995, pages 7, 10-11.


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