Amendment A and the Reformed Tradition

A Talk by Jane Dempsey Douglass

at the Convening Gathering

of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians

Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago

19 September 1997


Thank you very much. I feel very honored to be invited to join this august community that's
involved in something very important in the Church.

The title I have been assigned, "Amendment A and the Reformed Tradition," is certainly
noncommittal. And no wonder! Anyone reading the amendment would surely agree that it is
an eminently Reformed statement, yet the relation of the issue it is intended to address to the
Reformed tradition is somewhat more complex.

We must be honest. We cannot hope to find in the Reformers of the sixteenth century any
positive statements about homosexuality. So far as I have investigated, the Reformers
followed the tradition preceding them. On the other hand, the Reformers were not obsessed
with homosexuality, either. We have become aware that homosexuality appears in the
Confessions included in our Book of Confessions, only in the Heidelberg catechism, where
the translator has filled out a biblical citation beyond the original. Reformed disciplinary
records in the sixteenth century, such as the consistory records in Geneva and the parish and
presbytery records in Scotland, show little or no interest in homosexuality. The Reformers'
discussions of homosexuality are uncommon and usually connected to a Biblical passage they
understand as condemning it.

Take, for example, Calvin's commentary on Romans 1: 26-27. Calvin speaks of unnatural lust
as a dreadful crime, reversing the whole order of nature. Nonetheless, this crime occupies
only one sentence, and Calvin moves on to focus an extensive discussion on the long catalog
of other vices enumerated by Paul, which seem of much greater concern to Calvin. What is at
stake in Calvin's discussion is very germane to our thinking about the Reformed tradition.
He's concerned about the just relation between sin and punishment, and the profound
awareness that all humanity is guilty of some kind of grievous sin, though the nature of the
sins differ.

Still, having said this at the outset, Amendment A resonates deeply with the Reformed
tradition in very important ways. Amendment A is certainly an improvement over its
predecessor, in calling officers in the Church to lead a life, first of all, in obedience to Jesus
Christ, under the authority of Scripture and instructed by the historic confessional standards of
the Church. Such a formulation reflects the Reformed theology underlying the ordination
questions in the Book of Order. There, you will remember, the Scriptures are described as
"unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ." The Scriptures lead us to Jesus Christ,
whom we trust as Savior, Lord of all, and head of the Church. That allegiance should indeed
be first. The Confessions, subordinate to Scriptures, are to instruct and guide us in our
understanding of faith and life derived from Scripture.

This Lord whom we seek to obey was incarnate as a Jew, Jesus of Nazareth, to reveal God's
saving love to humanity. He lived as a faithful Jew, reaffirming the Hebrew Scriptures. Jesus
proclaimed the reign of God, preaching Good News to the poor and release to the captives,
according to our Brief Statement of Faith.

When Jesus began to preach, some were surprised, because He was the son of Joseph, the
carpenter, perhaps unsuitable for such a role. He was derided as a glutton and a drunkard, a
friend of tax collectors and sinners. He taught the parable of the great feast, where the host,
frustrated that those whom he intended as his guests would not come, sent his servant to call
in those his friends would have thought most unsuitable: the poor, the crippled, the blind, and
the lame. These found themselves at his table at the great feast. Jesus healed on the Sabbath,
not out of disrespect, but out of a different understanding of the purpose of the Sabbath from
that of some of the religious leaders. Jesus healed the woman with the hemorrhage, who was
ritually impure. Jesus said He did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it.

He affirmed the Commandments, but reinterpreted them. "You have heard, but I say unto
you." He was crucified with criminals, having been unjustly condemned for blasphemy and
sedition. Yet we believe Christ's resurrection from the dead was a victory over sin and death,
the beginning of a new creation already visible now in the Church. It is this living Lord whom
we obey.

We read the Scriptures from the perspective of the new creation: the reign of Christ, rather
than the orders of creation. The Church is the model of the new creation, showing the world
how God wills a redeemed people to live together by grace. Here there is neither Jew nor
Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus. All the walls of
separateness have been broken down. Those once considered unsuitable - gentiles, slaves,
women - are now welcome at the table, the table of our Lord, Jesus Christ.

Though this view of Scripture seems normal to us now, our Confessions have not always
presented such a view. For example, the sixteenth century Reformers did not see the same
implications for the issues of slavery and subordination of women that our Church now sees.
Two of the Confessions in our Book of Confessions explicitly forbid women to baptize, that
is, to exercise public office in the Church. We have come to interpret the Scriptures on this
point, and many others, differently from our ancestors in the Reformed tradition. This may
serve as one example of the reason why it is important to be clear in Amendment A that the
Book of Order makes the Confessions subordinate to Scripture and provides for them to serve
as teachers and guides, but not with the same authority as Scripture.

We cannot vow to live in conformity to the Confessions as Amendment B, the original
Amendment B, requires. We take seriously the wisdom of our predecessors in the tradition,
but we know that the Church must continuously confess its faith anew as changing culture and
circumstances require, and as our grasp of Scripture grows.

It is important to remember how radical it once seemed in our churches to stand against the
tradition with regard to slavery and the subordination of women, especially because the
proponents of these traditions leaned heavily on well-known passages of Scripture. We also
remember that with respect to the subordination of women, our Presbyterian position remains
a minority position in relation to the global Church, which of course includes Catholics and
Orthodox, as well as many kinds of Protestants. Most Christians today are in churches which
still support theologically the subordination of women. Reformed people, therefore, are
accustomed to challenging the tradition, even where their voice is a minority voice, where the
Gospel is clearly at stake.

Our Presbyterian Church at large, laypeople as well as clergy, I think, understands today that
to rely on the authority of Scripture is not merely to repeat particular texts, but to interpret the
Scriptures in the light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Reformed people have the courage to
reinterpret Scripture, to challenge the tradition when it seems antithetical to the Gospel,
because they understand that the Holy Spirit is still at work in the world and the Church. We
understand that it is by the work of the Holy Spirit in us that Scripture, read and heard,
becomes God's word to us.

What would otherwise be mere letter of Scripture becomes living word as the Holy Spirit
opens our ears and our eyes and our hearts to receive God's word to us, to enable us to hear
the Gospel. Nonetheless, God's word comes to us within the Church, not as our private
possession. The same Holy Spirit binds us together in one Church, where we must work
together at the interpretation of Scripture, responsible to hear as well as to speak, to learn as
well as to teach.

Those who attempt to lead a life of obedience to Jesus Christ under the authority of Scripture
instructed by the Confessions cannot escape the eternal tension between love of the tradition of
our ancestors in faith with its desire for unity with them and the need to reinterpret that
tradition when it obscures the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But we must struggle with this tension
as those who have been bound together by the Holy Spirit in order to witness to that Gospel.
Our task is not to apologize for our ancestors, who were human and in some ways bound by
their time and culture, but to listen together to the Holy Spirit so that we may fairly and freely
and joyfully announce the Gospel.

There is a second tension we must note here concerning the term "obedience." For Reformed
people, obedience is part of Christian freedom. We have been liberated by the grace of God in
Jesus Christ from the power and bondage of the law to live as free people in the love of God.
We turn to the Ten Commandments as guidance for us in the will of God for human life. For
us, these Ten Commandments have timelessness. We turn to them again and again as
evidences of the way God has revealed God's will for us.

Out of gratitude, we willingly undertake to live according to the law of God, but not as bound
by the law. This is Calvin's famous third use of the law. But alas, it has been difficult for
Calvinists to keep this understanding of obedience alive. All too often, it has become legalism
rather than a part of Christian freedom.

Christian solidarity in the body of Christ, the Church, becomes the theme for my comments on
the remainder of Amendment A: the call for fidelity and integrity in all relationships of life, and
the call to repent and confess our sins, relying on the grace and mercy of God to fulfill our
offices.

These two calls are not special requirements for office-holders in the Church. They are basic
requirements for all Christian life, especially for Christian life seen through the Calvinist
spectacles. We cannot escape a third tension: the tension between our profound awareness of
our sinfulness and utter dependence on the grace and mercy of God on the one hand, and on
the other, the demanding call to live in fidelity and integrity in all relations of life. God's grace
comes to us not simply to humble us, to make us aware of our sinfulness, to console us in our
inability to do the good, necessary as that is, but also to strengthen our backbones, to teach us
to walk with head held high, with hope and courage, as we go about our lives in work and
play, in family life and economic life, in church and in politics.

The brief statement of faith says: "In gratitude to God, empowered by the Spirit, we strive to
serve Christ in our daily tasks and to live holy and joyful lives." Reformed Christians know
that Christ is Lord of all that is, that no aspect of our lives is outside the realm of Christ's
leadership, Lordship. Therefore, we all must undertake with renewed seriousness the call to
live disciplined lives of simplicity, justice, love, trust, transparency, in our financial and
sexual and professional lives, all that is meant by fidelity and integrity, and we must try to find
ways to support our sisters and brothers in this discipline.

Our sisters and brothers in the countries of the South often reveal this call to integrity in very
stark, life-threatening situations. I sat at a dinner in Hungary with a group of women, one of
them rather quiet for a time, but eventually beginning to tell her story. She was from an
African country, had become the first woman in the cabinet of that country at a time when it
looked as though it was going to become a democratic country. She worked with joy and
enthusiasm trying to change the nature of that society, but one day it became apparent that the
new government was not going to be a democracy, but rather a despotism, and one day she
was called in and informed that she was expected to give false testimony against a colleague in
order to remove him from his office. And she said, "But you know, I cannot do that." And the
answer was, "Well, of course, you have a choice. Then you could go to jail." And so she
spent years in jail. This was integrity. We often somehow fudge, not seeing clearly the
consequences of the decisions we make.

One of the remarkable but not often discussed themes of Calvin's institutes is solidarity, the
solidarity of Jesus Christ with humanity through the incarnation. Calvin speaks of Christ as
"flesh of our flesh" and "bone of our bones." He also speaks of the solidarity of Christians
united in the body of Christ, the Church. But also of the solidarity of all human beings,
because they share the image of God and common flesh, one humanity. And this of course is
the grounding of Reformed engagement in the support of human rights.

This understanding of solidarity in its various aspects must underly our discussion of
Amendment A. Calvin, interestingly enough, draws this theme of solidarity into the discussion
of the ministry. He worries that people always want ministers that are holier than they are, not
accepting that ministers are flesh and blood human beings like themselves, preferring to have
an angel to minister to them and to preach to them.

Perhaps this is part of our contemporary problem. We haven't fully understood the solidarity
between office-holders and lay-people so necessary to a Reformed doctrine of the Church. We
risk, once again, creating a two-level ethic that will take us back into pre-Reformation times.

Calvin argues that God has graciously deigned, since God is not present with us, to give us
human ministers to be working in our midst, not that God abdicates God's authority to these
ministers, but rather that they represent God in speaking God's word to the people. But he
says this is one of the ways in which we realize that we must be drawn together into a very
close society bound and lived together, that we must understand the solidarity of us all, that
we are responsible to be taught by one of our very own who is like us, who is not someone
different or an angel, but someone indeed very much like us, and in this solidarity we learn to
respect the different gifts that are given among us by the Holy Spirit and to understand that we
may not despise any to whom these gifts are given. You will find that at the beginning of
Institutes 431.

I recently read a reflection from a pastor who has been ministering in the former Yugoslavia,
pointing a chilling picture of the horrors awaiting us if we perpetuate fear and hate and
exclusion. Never has Reformed teaching on human solidarity been more needed. Integrity in
all relationships of life has to do with the whole world.

Finally, and I shall be very brief, I have been asked to comment on the state of discussion of
homosexuality in Reformed churches overseas. I should say that the World Alliance has not
done a systematic study, and so I can only have impressionistic reactions, but I am aware that
in the countries of the South, for instance, in Latin America and Africa, I am regularly asked
about the discussion in North America. People know about it and are interested. In many cases
they are puzzled and want the information; in some cases, they are hostile to the fact that there
is such a debate. I do know that in, for instance, New Zealand for several years there has been
a study, a serious study, going on. In July a year ago, when I was lecturing in Taiwan, I
learned that there is a lively debate going on there. A group of homosexual Christians had
formed a worshiping community, and a pastor for the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan was
offering some assistance to this group. When it hit the newspapers, it became a very lively
public discussion. But when I was there, pastors were discussing this question with great care
and thoughtfulness.

At the meeting of the World Alliance in August, just last month in Debritson, which was
incidentally on the theme: "Break the Chains of Injustice," from Isaiah 58, the issue emerged
in several sections and committees on the floor of the plenary. All proposals were positive
calls for study by the Alliance or by member churches of sexual orientation. None were calls
for immediate taking of position.

A representative one is one that came from the Public Issues Committee, and it goes like this:
"Violence and discrimination are among the injustices committed in many of our societies
endured by gay and lesbian persons. Because of the deep differences of opinion surrounding
this topic, consensus among member churches will require a period of open dialogue and
careful consideration. The Gospel calls us to keep the doors of communication open, and to
promote continuing dialogue among our member churches and in related church organizations.
It is fervently hoped that we may now begin the difficult task of struggling with the issues of
sexual orientation, and of hearing each other with respect. Therefore, the Public Issues
committee recommends that the Executive Committee of the World Alliance of Reformed
Churches seek ways to promote and encourage dialogue among the member churches on the
subject of sexual orientation."

We ran out of time before we finished the last three or four items in this last report, so no
action was taken, but it will be referred to, it has been referred to the Executive Committee for
action. I think, likely, this sort of dialogue will begin at that level.

So this is simply an indication that the issue is widely discussed. It is a global question. It is
not limited to North America. And to my surprise, there was more openness than I had
anticipated. When the first question, the first proposal, came to the floor of the plenary rather
unexpectedly by amendment, I noticed that it was being supported by Africans and Asians, as
well as North Americans and Europeans, and it was my judgment, as the skirmishing began,
that it was going to pass. But then it was referred for later action, and no action was finally
taken.

Well, Cliff Kirkpatrick and Joanna Adams and Lou Mudge were all there, and they also from
different vantage points have other perspectives to offer.

Thank you very much.


Hesed Home Page

Hesed Index

Covenant Network of Presbyterians Home Page