"Amendment B: a Critical Analysis"

by Frank B. Baldwin, III

Elder, The Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church

[Moderator's Note: Mr. Baldwin's comments below have appeared, to large extent, in many of his other contributions. It may be helpful, however, to have them organized in the following manner.]


Amendment B has been passed by more than a majority of the presbyteries of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and unless its effectiveness is halted by judicial action, it will become binding law after the Syracuse General Assembly. This is the full text of Amendment B:

Those called to office in the church are to lead a life in obedience to Scripture and in conformity to the historical 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.

The defenders of Amendment B say that it is not a radical departure from the teachings of Scripture or the Book of order of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). The following analysis of its text suggests an opposite conclusion:

Those called to office in the church

Who calls men and women to office? The Old Testament prophets and St. Paul affirm that God calls people to office. Look, for instance, at the calls of Abraham, Moses, Samuel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, the Disciples, and St. Paul himself. As one example, Isaiah reports:

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" And I said, "here am I: send me!" And he said, "Go . . . . ." (Isaiah 6: 8-9a)

St. Paul believes that call comes from God:

I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:14)

Please note that Isaiah was immediately commissioned to important work. There was no committee to ask him about his sexual practices or other sins. Amendment B comes into play only after a nominating committee has made an initial determination that a person is called by God to be a minister, deacon, or elder. If, as I believe, God calls us to service the way God called Isaiah and Paul, we should be very hesitant to second-guess that call. I find it difficult to believe that God does not call persons who are in violation of Amendment B.

 

are to lead a life

Who makes this requirement? Who is in a position to condemn? Only Jesus Christ, the righteous, and he died for us, he rose again from the grave for us, he rules in majesty and power for us. Or again to quote St. Paul: "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death." (Romans 8:1-2.)

 

in obedience to Scripture

In my ordination vows as a Presbyterian elder, I answered affirmatively to this question: "Will you fulfill your office in obedience to Jesus Christ, under the authority of Scripture, and be continually guided by our confessions?" The requirement of "obedience" to Scripture is new, and not authentic. We do gladly affirm that the Scriptures are "by the Holy Spirit, the unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ and the Church universal, and God's Word to [us]."

It is Jesus Christ to whom I am to be obedient. I must certainly have Scriptural authority for what I do, and candidly it is much easier to find Scriptural authority against Amendment B than in favor of it.

 

and in conformity to the historical confessional standards of the church

Likewise in our ordination vows, we pledge to be "instructed and led" by the confessions. We have never heretofore agreed to conform to each word of the confessions, nor would any thinking Christian wish to do so. There is much that we cannot now understand, and there are rules of conduct that we do not follow because we do not believe them to be requisite to our salvation, but we certainly are instructed and led by our confessions, and find much of value in them.

 

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.

Faithfulness, commitment, chastity . . . these are admirable traits and ones we look for in our ministers, elders, and deacons. But we have come to understand that these traits can be exhibited in many situations, not only in a heterosexual marriage. There are many examples of faithful, committed persons, of the same sex or of opposite sexes, who are living lives in obedience to Jesus Christ. Marriage is not the litmus test of these qualities. At the present time, our church denies marriage to same sex partners, and this Amendment consigns them to a life without sexual expression. This is a very unjust rule, and one which has no credible Scriptural basis.

 

Persons refusing to repent

A sinner must repent in order to be ordained or installed, says Amendment B. How is the quality and sincerity of this repentance to be tested? Can one sincerely repent, for example, of sexual expression that arises out of love and is in accord with one's nature? Can a cat repent of being a cat? Perhaps we need to institute a regimen of acts which outwardly signify repentance, and put a Jesuit in charge of this function in each presbytery. Of course, some of us might think that the quality of and necessity for repentance is judged by God, rather than the presbytery.

 

of any self-acknowledged practice

The sin of a candidate for ordination or installation be "self-acknowledged." It is fairly preposterous to disqualify only those who are honest and not in denial, but this seems to me to be the plain meaning of the Amendment. Of course, our traditional process of nominating and ordaining candidates for ministry or other office has been trusted to weed out those whose lives do not qualify them for ordination. We hardly need to add the "self-acknowledged" requirement to make that process more difficult.

 

which the confessions call sin

Amendment B mandates in inquiry into "sin" as practiced bycandidates for ordination or installation. The proponents of Amendment B probably did not mean to initiate an inquiry into non-sexual sins. While the proponents were focused on, or obsessed by, sexual sin, their Amendment must be interpreted on the basis of its plain meaning under proper standards of statutory interpretation. The general rule is that a statute must be interpreted in accordance with the plain meaning of its words, and evidence outside the statute (such as the drafters' intent) may only be adduced if there is ambiguity on the face of the statute. As statutes go, Amendment B is quite clear.

No one explained to the presbyters who supported this legislation that they were adopting an omnibus sin amendment. Depending on punctuation, and how many practices are lumped together, the Book of Confessions calls 225 to 300 or more practices (many multiple and some duplicative) "sin." These range across an entire spectrum from truly serious conduct, like murder, to acts which are now in general practice among Christians ("needless works, words, and thoughts about our worldly employments and recreations" on the Lord's Day), to conduct the exact nature of which is not clear ("bold and curious searchings into God's secrets").

Most of the hundreds of practices which are called "sins" in our Book of Confessions are actually discussed in the various catechisms. It is not clear whether or not the drafters of the Amendment intended to incorporate all of these sins into the ordination process as well, but it is likely that the reference is meant to be to the entire Book of Confessions, and not only to the texts therein which are specifically called "confessions."

 

shall not be ordained and/or installed as deacons, elders, or ministers of the Word and Sacrament.

The chief fault of Amendment B is that it leaves no room for God's grace in the process of installation and ordination. "Jesus is Lord" is our earliest confession. The clear message of Jesus' teachings is that we are saved by our faith, not by conformity to law, and that God is graciously pleased to save all who will confess their faith that Jesus is Lord, the Son of God. The Gospels have a message of acceptance that should have given our neo-pharisees pause: "Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him." (John 3:17) Amendment B is contrary to the teachings of the New Testament in that it does not confess God's grace as the sole means of justification and in that it does not allow the conviction that a candidate for ordination is called by God to the work for which he or she seeks ordination to outweigh its focus on sin as defined in the "confessions of our church."


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