Associate Professor of Church History
Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary
[Originally published in Insights, Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, Austin, Texas, Spring 1991. Posted with permission.]
Author's note: At the time this article was written, I had not come to any decision regarding the notion of what I call the originating authority of the presbytery, otherwise called in colloquial expression, "local option." I am now an advocate of the originating authority of the presbytery as an historically grounded way of being the body of Christ in the United States of America. In particular, I harbor the hope that we Presbyterians need not repeat the history which appears below; but rather, with the power of the Holy Spirit to guide us and renew us, we might forge a new paradigm together. I would welcome your response to the following: email@example.com.
An overture from the Presbytery of Hudson River currently pending before the 203rd General Assembly (1991) raises questions of polity which are complex and deserve careful attention. The parts of the overture in which these questions surface are as follows:
Whereas, the 190th General Assembly (1978) of the United Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) adopted "the following definitive guidance: That unrepentant homosexual practice does not accord with the requirements for ordination..." (Minutes, p. 265); and
Whereas, this position was declared the law of the church by the 197th General Assembly (1985) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) through the ruling of its Permanent judicial Commission in a remedial case (Minutes, pp. 118-23); and ....
Whereas, the 190th General Assembly (1978) of the United Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) recognized, in its policy statement on this matter, that "Some are persuaded that there are forms of homosexual behavior that are not sinful and that persons who practice these forms can legitimately be ordained," (Minutes, p. 264); and
Whereas, the above 1978 policy statement which has resulted in the constitutional prohibition against a session or presbytery ordaining a person of gay or lesbian identity and practice also "calls upon United Presbyterians to work for the passage of laws that prohibit discrimination in the areas of employment, housing, and public accommodations based on the sexual orientation of a person" (Minutes, p. 266) so that the church urges upon other employers a standard forbidden to its sessions and presbyteries; and
Whereas, a constitutional change giving sessions and presbyteries freedom to exercise judgment in this matter would, in the minds of many, help alleviate the above apparent inconsistency; and
Whereas, the historic principle of church order in G-1.0305 which recognizes that there are truths with respect to which persons of good character and principles may differ calls us to mutual forbearance on such issues and, when applied to this current issue of ordination, is consistent with the following proposed pattern of relaxing the current prohibition imposed on sessions and presbyteries; and
Whereas, if a session or presbytery should ordain as officer a person judged not qualified by another session or presbytery, such other session is not required, if it receives such a member by transfer, to approve that person if elected an elder or deacon (G-14.0105), and such presbytery is not required to receive the minister as a continuing member (G-1 1. 0402); and
Whereas, the preceding rationale means that a liberty exercised by some governing bodies in the conviction that their witness to God's love in Christ is thereby strengthened does not impose a requirement on other governing bodies to violate a different theological conviction; therefore, be it
Resolved, That the Presbytery of Hudson River respectfully overture the 201st General Assembly (1989) to send the following proposed amendment to the presbyteries for their affirmative or negative votes:
Shall G-4.0403 be amended by adding, at the end of the paragraph, the sentence, "Governing bodies may ordain church officers without regard to sexual orientation"...(1
The controversy of whether or not gay or lesbian persons ought to be ordained is of secondary interest in this discussion, although it is relevant. What is primary for this study is a question of polity: to what extent does a presbytery possess authority to determine its continuing membership? At issue is the problem of the extent of the authority of the General Assembly to determine the limits within which the presbytery's authority is to be exercised. The question of whether it is possible for different presbyteries to maintain different standards for ordination has surfaced from time to time in the history of the Presbyterian Church with varying results.
In the following discussion I shall examine several cases from Presbyterian history which demonstrate situations which are to some degree analogous to what the Presbytery of Hudson River is proposing. First, I shall review briefly the Adopting Act of 1729 which set the stage for the possibility of encompassing a variety of viewpoints within the Presbyterian Church. Second, I shall discuss two crucial moments in the nineteenth century which resulted in division of the denomination, namely, the exscinding first of Cumberland Presbytery in 1810, and then of the New School Synods and Presbyteries in 1838. Third, I shall discuss the important decision in 1927, where presbyteries were given clear authority for determining the qualifications for ordination, limiting the General Assembly's authority to supersede the presbyteries' decisions. Finally, I shall discuss the famous Kenyon case in which we shall see that similar sentiments were expressed in favor of the authority of the presbytery over against the limits set by the General Assembly.
By the time the Synod gathered in 1729, the subscription controversy had been fully engaged, and the church leadership had divided into two distinct opposing groups. On one side were those who demanded compulsory subscription to the Westminster Confession and Catechism as the requirement for ordination. On the other side were those who rejected compulsory subscription to the Westminster symbols, declaring that all human interpretations are too fallible to be binding statements about what is, and what is not, Biblical truth. These leaders insisted that the Bible alone is the sufficient rule for faith and life; subscription must be to the Word of God, not to a human interpretation of it. The Adopting Act of 1729, to avoid what appeared to be certain schism, effected a compromise between the two groups. The Synod declared the necessity of a standard of doctrine and practice, but distinguished between essential and non-essential articles without defining the nature of essential articles. In addition, the Synod defined its power as only administrative, not legislative, and regarded the Westminster standards as a guide or pattern rather than as basic church law. Furthermore, if any candidate should express reservations or scruples about any articles of the confession, the presbytery to which he presented himself would have the authority to decide whether or not these scruples pertained to essential articles. The net result of these decisions was to give the presbyteries full autonomy of authority regarding the ordering of the ministry under their jurisdiction.(2)
A crucial test of the limit of a presbytery's autonomous authority came at the beginning of the nineteenth century in the dispute between the Synod of Kentucky and Cumberland Presbytery. The dispute originated during the Second Great Awakening in which revivals had become immensely popular in rural Kentucky. The number of ministers available to travel to the different settlements to conduct services was too few to meet the needs for preaching. In 1803 and again in 1804, the newly formed Cumberland Presbytery, despite the objections of a minority opposed to revivals, ordained a number of men for preaching the Gospel under the provision of "extraordinary cases" in the Constitution. These actions were based on the judgment that, although they had not met the educational requirements, the men in question were gifted preachers and zealous for the evangelization of the region. In 1805, when complaint was lodged with the Synod of Kentucky by the anti-revival minority of the Cumberland Presbytery, the Synod formed a commission to investigate the disputes occurring within Cumberland Presbytery. Rather than deal with the procedures of the Presbytery, the commission decided to deal with individual members of the Presbytery regarding two issues: the qualifications of the men who had been ordained, and the fact that the Presbytery had permitted them to accept only those portions of the Westminster standard which was in accordance with their understanding of scripture. The commission demanded that the Presbytery hand over those recently ordained to be re-examined. The Presbytery refused on the grounds that the Presbytery alone had the authority to examine and ordain candidates for ministry, The commission then demanded that the men in question submit themselves for re-examination. The men refused, whereupon the commission declared that those particular men were prohibited from preaching until they submitted to re-examination under the authority of the Synod vested in the commission. In 1806 the Synod of Kentucky dissolved Cumberland Presbytery and annexed it to Transylvania Presbytery, from which it had been originally formed. The revivalist members of the now former Cumberland Presbytery appealed to the General Assembly for relief from Synod's actions. A series of communications between the Cumberland revivalists and the Synod of Kentucky and General Assembly took place during the next few years in the hopes of achieving affirmation of Cumberland Presbytery's procedures to order the ministry within its bounds. All to no avail, however; the judgments of the Synod of Kentucky were sustained by the General Assembly. By 1810, Cumberland Presbytery was independent of the Presbyterian Church in-the United States of America, and on its way toward becoming a separate denomination.(3)
Another crucial test of the presbytery's authority came in the mid-nineteenth century when tensions between the Old School and the New School Presbyterians resulted in the exscinding of New School presbyteries formed under the 1801 Plan of Union. Interpretations of the Old School-New School schism demonstrate two general viewpoints regarding the authority of the presbytery.(4) Depending on the sympathies of the interpreter, the exscinding acts were seen, on one side, as measures necessary for protecting the Presbyterian identity, or, on the other side, they were viewed as a result of an enforced narrow ecclesiasticism which was threatened by presbyteries' authority to order the ministry within their spheres of jurisdiction. The complexities of the schism are enormous, and it is impossible to give an adequate accounting of all the factors which contributed to the division, given the limitations of the length of this study. Doctrinal division, for instance, was deep and wide, but the doctrinal issues cannot receive our attention. As a case of church polity, however, the schism is a crucial element in our discussion.
The Plan of Union of 1801 provided a way for Congregationalists and Presbyterians to cooperate in establishing congregations in the settlements in western New York, northern Ohio, southern Michigan, Indiana, and Illinois. According to the Plan, Congregationalist pastors could serve Presbyterian congregations, and Presbyterian pastors could serve Congregationalist congregations. In the former case, the internal affairs would be conducted according to Presbyterian practice; in the latter case, the congregation would be governed according to Congregational rubrics. In case of internal disagreement between pastor and congregation, the case could be referred to the body to which the pastor belonged (Association or Presbytery), or the dispute could be resolved by an independent council made up of an equal number of persons from each group. The Plan was innovative and imaginative, and numerous congregations were established in the ensuing decades. The Presbyterians, however, were firmly committed to their polity, and the Congregationalists tended to go along with Presbyterian organization as an effective governance. The net result was that the majority of churches were related to the presbyteries, but with significant Congregational influence so that Presbyterian polity was loosely maintained. These "Presbygational" churches often had no ruling elders as part of their governing structure; nevertheless, they sent lay representatives along with the pastors to presbytery meetings. When the time came each year for presbyteries to elect delegates to attend General Assembly, lay persons who had never been ordained as ruling elders were elected as delegates by these presbyteries along with clergy.
The problem of representation at the General Assembly was a significant polity question. These "New School" lay delegates were regarded with suspicion and alarm by their 'Old School" detractors because in their view these lay delegates had never been constitutionally elected as ruling elders by their congregations. The presence of these New School lay representatives was an affront to the order of the Presbyterian Church as these persons sat as members of standing committees and voted on the floor of the Assembly, participating in the deliberations of the highest governing body of the church. The fact that "New School" men were increasingly in the majority was particularly rankling. Concerning the right ordering of the church, the fact that the New School presbyteries sent lay persons who were not ruling elders was a crucial factor in the Old School "Testimony and Memorial" of 1837 which listed, among others, two important grievances:
The disuse of the office of Ruling Elder in portions of the Church and the consequent growth of practices and principles entirely foreign to our system; thus depriving the pastors of needful assistants in discipline, the people of proper guides in Christ, and the Churches of suitable representatives in the ecclesiastical tribunals.
A progressive change in the system of Presbyterian representation in the General Assembly, which has been persisted in by those holding the ordinary majorities and carried out into detail by those disposed to take undue advantage of existing opportunities, until the actual representation seldom exhibits the true state of the Church, and many questions of the deepest interest have been contrary to the fairly ascertained wishes of the majority of the Church and people in our communion; thus virtually subverting the essential principles of freedom, justice, and equality, on which our whole system rests.(5)
This polity issue, together with the other important issues regarding doctrine, control of mission activity, and attitudes toward slavery, culminated in the exscinding acts by which the Presbyterian Church was split in 1838 into two churches.(6) The two denominations, Old School and New School, continued for thirty years until their reunion in 1869.
In 1927, the 130th General Assembly adopted the report of the Special Commission which was established in 1925 to study the "spiritual condition" of the church.(7) Of particular interest to our study is the Commission's deliberations regarding the "relative authority of General Assembly and Presbytery regarding licensure of probationers and ordination to the ministry." The Commission introduced its discussion of the polity question by articulating its view of the principle of unity by which the whole Presbyterian Church is held together: "Authority derives from Christ through the membership, and then moves upward, according to constitutional provisions, until it reaches the highest tribunal. The result is unity, whether the Presbyterian Church be regarded as a body of Christian believers or as an official organization of such believers for purposes of worship, government, and service."(8) This principle of authority rising from "the bottom up" served as the basis for their assertions that "the Presbytery is ... the seat of original authority," and that "the powers of the General Assembly are specific, delegated and limited, having been conferred upon it by the Presbyteries; whereas the powers of Presbyteries are general and inherent."(9)
The presbytery's authority to determine its membership was viewed as absolute, and therefore ministers receive their status in the Presbyterian Church only insofar as they are members of a particular presbytery. "No other Presbytery is obliged to admit [a minister] into its membership by a letter of transfer. It has full authority to examine him as to faith and to inquire into his conduct before receiving him. It has the right to refuse him admittance if it deem him unworthy or unqualified."(10) The Commission went on to note that, while the General Assembly has authority to interpret and apply broad general principles with regard to ordination of candidates, it was still possible for the presbytery to deem a candidate unfit for ordination, even if all requirements had been met. "The Presbytery is the only body whose members see the candidate and hear him, officially. It is the body qualified and constitutionally appointed to judge at first hand, concerning his spirit and bearing, and his general attitude toward the service of Christ."(11) The Commission then argued that if a presbytery constitutionally ordained a candidate who was deemed unqualified by the General Assembly, the argument of the General Assembly is with the presbytery, not with the individual ordained by it.
The Presbytery may be disciplined for erroneous action, and there appears to be no limit to the authority of the General Assembly in dealing with a Presbytery that has proved to be contumacious, but the individual whom the Presbytery has ordained constitutionally can not be reached by this process .... The one proper method of proceeding against the newly ordained minister would be to prefer charges against him personally and the substantive charges should be based upon facts coming to the knowledge of the Presbytery subsequent to his ordination.(12)
By this important statement the Commission left no doubt as to their view of the original jurisdiction and authority of the presbytery regarding ordination. It would appear that even if charges were brought against the individual, such charges would have to be based on facts unknown to the presbytery at the time of ordination; in other words, the charges could not be based on facts which the presbytery had in its possession when it constitutionally ordained the candidate. Therefore, according to the Commission, the General Assembly has no authority to nullify a constitutional ordination.(13) Finally, the Commission declared that the definition of "essential and necessary articles" was the responsibility of the presbytery alone, a decision to be made after the candidate had been presented to the presbytery and had "declared his beliefs and stated his motives personally, and after the examining body ... had full opportunity to judge the man himself, as well as abstract questions of doctrine."(14)
Given the limited scope of this study, no accounting can be made of the shift from the decision of 1927 to the disposition of the case of Walter Wynn Kenyon in 1975; that there was a shift is very clear, however. The Kenyon case was decided by the Permanent judicial Commission as a remedial case, initiated by a complaint filed February 25, 1974, by the Rev. Jack Martin Maxwell against Pittsburgh Presbytery's decision to ordain Mr. Kenyon. A brief review will highlight pertinent points.(15) Mr. Kenyon had appeared before the Committee on Candidates and Credentials of Pittsburgh Presbytery for examination in theology and polity on February 14, 1974. The chairperson of the Committee reported to the Presbytery that the Committee had moved not to sustain the examination and not to recommend Mr. Kenyon for ordination, the primary reason being the candidate's refusal to ordain women, thereby demonstrating his refusal to endorse the Church's government and honor its discipline. The Presbytery adopted a substitute motion to proceed with the trials for ordination. There was a time of questioning, during which the candidate stated his opposition to the ordination of women as a matter of conscience, where he also said, however, that he would not stand in the way of ordaining a woman as elder. Because as a matter of conscience he could not ordain a woman, he would ask Presbytery to have another minister come in to ordain her. A motion was made, the examination was sustained, and the Presbytery voted to proceed to ordination, the motion passing by a vote of 147 in favor and 133 opposed. After the vote, 55 members dissented, and on March 6, a "Stay of Execution" was filed with the Stated Clerk of the Presbytery, the effect of which was to postpone the ordination of Mr. Kenyon. The complaint was heard by the judicial Commission of the Synod of Pennsylvania-West Virginia, which found against the Presbytery, stating that its action should be rescinded. The Presbytery appealed to the General Assembly.
The aspect to be highlighted here is the polity question of the authority of the Presbytery. Pittsburgh Presbytery proceeded constitutionally; it was ruled, however, that despite its constitutional procedure, its decision was not constitutional. The Permanent judicial Commission ruled that the decision was not constitutional because the belief in the equality of all people before God had now become an essential tenet of the United Presbyterian Church of the United States of America.(16) The candidate's rejection of the ordination of women was tantamount to his rejection of the government and discipline of the Church. Therefore, although a presbytery has the authority to ordain candidates, it only possesses the authority to ordain in accordance with the Constitution. As to the candidate's agreement to allow another minister to ordain women as elders, the Commission ruled such an exception would set a precedent for the whole Church:
The precedent, if applied generally, would affect every session, presbytery, synod, and the General Assembly, and more than one-half of our Church's members .... Neither a synod nor the General Assembly has any power to allow a presbytery to grant an exception to an explicit constitutional provision.(17)
While the decision of the Permanent judicial Commission cannot be viewed as a reversal of the 1927 General Assembly, the decision is clearly a departure from the earlier view which held the authority of the presbytery to ordain as absolute. Several overtures were presented to the General Assembly to gain relief or clarification of the Permanent judicial Commission's ruling, two of which bear some similarity to the overture currently awaiting the decision of the 203rd General Assembly (1991):
... the Presbytery of Shenango, meeting at Ebenezer Church, March 18, 1975, respectfully overtures the 187th General Assembly (1975) to reaffirm: (1) the principle of liberty of conscience as set forth in the Constitution, and (2) the constitutional right of presbyteries to examine individual cases of dissent and to permit exception from conformity to particular church laws for ministers and members who are persuaded by conscience that they cannot comply but who give assurance that they will not obstruct the application of those laws by the fellow presbyters or within their congregation.(18)
Whereas, the Adopting Act of 1729 established a precedent within our denomination of allowing presbyteries to exercise discretion in examining candidates for ordination not in entire agreement with our standards, permitting them to make exceptions in certain cases; and whereas, this liberty of judgment has also been exercised with respect to issues of polity;....
Therefore the Presbytery of Boston, meeting at the Needham Presbyterian Church in Needham, May 3, 1975, respectfully overtures the Permanent judicial Commission of the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America to clarify its ruling of November 18, 1974 ... and to reaffirm the authority of presbyteries to proceed according to the spirit as well as the letter of the constitutional provisions in those instances where a rigid application of the law would defeat its intent and destroy the peace of the church.(19)
The recommendations of the Assembly Committee on Bills and Overtures were adopted - no action on Overture 16; not to concur on Overture 57.(20)
This brief study, not much more than a superficial overview, is not an in-depth analysis of the development of the particular polity question of the authority of the presbytery regarding ordination. Such an analysis would be very helpful as a way to discern the deeper issues involved in the evolution of this question in Presbyterian polity.(21) At best I have merely highlighted particular cases from Presbyterian history in order to begin the discussion, and much more work is warranted in this regard.
From this study, however, it is clear that the question of the original jurisdiction and localized authority of the presbytery deserves serious attention. Sentiment for the localized authority of the presbytery for ordination has historical precedent, even if constitutionally it has never been allowed for very long. The clearest parallel to what Hudson River is proposing seems to be the variant practice of the New School presbyteries prior to 1838. Should there be a decision to assert the localized authority of the presbytery to ordain persons without regard for sexual orientation over against the authority of the General Assembly, however, there would be enormous problems which I cannot begin to analyze in detail here. One such problem would be the status of such a person, ordained by one presbytery and refused membership by another. Would such a one be merely "unemployed"? I suspect the problem is more complex than that. Another problem which presents perplexing difficulty is the issue of representation in the higher governing bodies of the church. Would gay and lesbian persons, ordained by their respective presbyteries, be received by synods and the General Assembly as constitutionally elected delegates? We saw the intractable confusion caused by such a question in the tensions between the Old and New Schools. Finally, it seems a bit naive to assume that this is "only" a polity question, when we have affirmed over the past two hundred years that our church order is interwoven with our doctrinal identity. How we might resolve this question is not clear; what is clear, however, is that the question has been engaged.
1. Minutes, 210st General Assembly (1989), pp. 593-94.
2. For a full discussion of the Colonial Presbyterian Church in the United States, see Leonard Trinterud, The Forming of an American Tradition: A Re-examination of Colonial Presbyterianism (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1949).
3. For an excellent review of these events, see Thomas H. Campbell, "Introduction," in R. Douglas Brackenridge, Voice in the Wilderness: A History of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Texas (San Antonio: Trinity University Press, 1968), pp. 1-11. Texts of minutes of these proceedings as well as analysis can also be found in William Warren Sweet, Religion on the American Frontier, vol. 2, The Presbyterians: 1783-1840, A Collection of Source Materials (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1936), pp. 90-94, 282-305.
4. For Old School interpretations, see Lewis Cheeseman, Differences Between Old and New School Presbyterians (Rochester: Erastus Darrow, 1848);and Samuel J. Baird, A History of the New School and of the Questions Involved in the Disruption of the Presbyterian Church in 1838 (Philadelphia: Claxton, Remsen & Haffelfinger, 1868). For New School views, see History of the Division of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, by A Committee of the Synod of New York and New Jersey (New York: M.W. Dodd, 1852). After the 1869 reunion, a volume containing both views was produced: Presbyterian Reunion: A Memorial Volume, 1837-1871 (New York: De Witt C. Lent & Company, 1870). For a perspective sympathetic to the New School side, see Edward D. Morris, The Presbyterian Church, New School, 1837-1869: An Historical Review (Columbus, Ohio: The Champlin Press, 1905).
5. "Testimony and Memorial," in The Presbyterian Enterprise: Sources of American Presbyterian History, eds, M. W. Armstrong, L.A. Loetscher, & C.A. Anderson (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1956), pp. 153-54.
6. For an excellent discussion of the events leading up to the division, see George M. Marsden, The Evangelical Mind and the New School Presbyterian Experience: A Case Study of Thought and Theology in Nineteenth-Century America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970); and Sweet, The Presbyterians, pp. 41-47,100-25.
7. Minutes, 139th General Assembly (1927), pp. 58-86.
8. Minutes, 139th General Assembly (1927), p. 59.
9. Minutes, 139th General Assembly (1927), p. 62.
10. Minutes, 139th General Assembly (1927), p. 64. Since only men could be ordained in 1927, the retention of the masculine pronoun seems appropriate.
11. Minutes, 139th General Assembly (1927), p. 65.
12. Minutes, 139th General Assembly (1927), p. 69.
13. Minutes, 139th General Assembly (1927), p. 70.
14. Minutes, 139th General Assembly 11927), p. 78-79.
15. For the full description of the case, see Minutes, 187th General Assembly (1975), pp. 254-59.
16. Minutes, 187th General Assembly (1975), p. 257
17. Minutes, 187th General Assembly 11975), p.259
18. Minutes, 187th General Assembly (1975), p. 188.
19. Minutes, 187th General Assembly (1975), p.220.
20. Minutes, 187th General Assembly (1975), pp. 52-53.
21. Jack Maddex, "Presbyterians in the South, Centralization, and the Book of Church Order, 1851-1879," American Presbyterians, Journal of Presbyterian History 68 (1990): 24-45, discusses the shift from centralization to decentralization in the PCUS before the Book of Church Order was adopted in 1879.