"Ordination Standards: Comparing the *New* with the *Newer*"

by Frank B. Baldwin, III, Elder, The Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church, Pennsylvania

[Moderator's Note: see also "B+," a sermon delivered on June 29, 1997 from the pulpit of the Calvary Presbyterian Church, San Francisco, California by Dr. Laird J. Stuart, Chair of the Assembly's Committee on the Book of Order, as well as the Report of the Committee itself, dated June 20, 1997.]


The Constitutional amendment known as *Amendment B,* which made significant changes in the ordination standards for Presbyterian ministers, elders, and deacons, became part of our Book of Order following the 209th General Assembly meeting in Syracuse. However, action by the 209th General Assembly again raises the issue of ordination in a significantly different way. The following is a comparison of the newly added Book of Order provision (G-6.0106b) with *Amendment A* which is now making its way to the presbyteries for vote. [Moderator's Note: while the new amendment is being termed "B+" by its supporters and "B Lite" by its detractors, it will go to the Presbyteries as Amendment A.]

The following is the existing language (Amendment B), with the changes made by the newly proposed Amendment A in bold [and replacing the current language in brackets]:

Those called to office in the church are to lead a life in obedience to Jesus Christ under the authority of Scripture and [in conformity to] instructed by 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] demonstrate fidelity and integrity in marriage or singleness, and in all relationships of life. [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] Candidates for ordained office shall acknowledge their own sinfulness, their need for repentance, and their reliance on the grace and mercy of God to fulfill the duties of their office.

 

Comments

The principal changes made by Amendment A are the following:

 

Some who favored the present (Amendment B) language expected that it would *solve* the *problem* of ordination of persons who engage in committed sexual relationships without the benefit of marriage, and it is clear at least that Amendment B had that intention, despite its defective drafting. The wording of Amendment A clearly leaves more leeway for the ordination of gays and lesbians, as well as persons in unmarried heterosexual relationships, who otherwise meet the ordination standards. However, the chair of the Assembly Committee on the Book of Order stated that Amendment A "affirms authoritative interpretation [barring the ordination of sexually-active gay and lesbian Presbyterians]...and affirms the right of the denomination to set ordination standards." This is clearly an issue that will need to be resolved by interpretation is Amendment A is approved by a majority of the presbyteries.

A defect of both Amendment B and Amendment A is their failure to state a theological basis for a finding that a person is *called.* 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)

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. Both the existing language and Amendment A come 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 God calls us to service the way God called Isaiah and Paul, we should be very hesitant to second-guess that call. In general, Presbyterians have been willing to trust presbyteries and sessions to reflect God's will in identifying persons whom God has called to office.

Let us now briefly examine the other issues raised by a comparison of Amendment B with the new Amendment A:

 

The Sources of our Faith

Presbyterians acknowledge various sources of faith, and have traditionally identified Jesus Christ as the primary source of our faith, indeed as the Word of God. In a service of ordination under our Form of Government, candidates for ordination are asked, "Will you fulfill your office in obedience to Jesus Christ, under the authority of Scripture, and be continually guided by our confessions?" The present (Amendment B) requirements of "obedience" to Scripture and *conformity* to the historic confessional standards of the church seem to be a corruption of this hierarchy of sources of faith. In this regard, Amendment A is clearly more faithful to Reformed tradition. It adds to the Amendment B formulation an acknowledgment of our need for *obedience to Jesus Christ.* Since each of our historic confessions, including the first and simplest (*Jesus is Lord*), emphasizes the primary role of Jesus in our faith, it is not easy to understand why Amendment B made no reference to Jesus. The Reformed tradition clearly states that we are justified solely by faith in Jesus Christ. All attempts to *obey* other sources of faith are doomed to failure, because of human weakness. As St. Paul says:

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)

 

An additional objection to the present (Amendment B) language is its seeming elevation of the confessions to a level of authority that they neither claim nor possess. 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.

 

Fidelity/Chastity/Integrity

Most proponents of Amendment B supported it because they believed that it would prevent the ordination of persons engaged in *sinful* sexual practices. Because of its requirement that sin be *self-acknowledged* before it counts against a candidate, it is doubtful that Amendment B is capable of accomplishing this purpose. Whatever its purpose, Amendment B was so inexpertly drafted that, instead of rooting out sexual *sin* as its proponents evidently intended, it brought into play all of the sins defined in all of the confessions. This provides sufficient confusion that any attempt to *enforce* Amendment B is probably doomed to failure, or worse yet will move people to question the ordination of persons who work, shop, or watch football games on Sunday, or who delve too deeply into God's secrets, or do anything else condemned as a sin in one of the confessional documents collected in our Book of Confessions.

Amendment A seeks to move us out of this morass, by requiring *fidelity and integrity in marriage or singleness, and in all relationships of life.* Since both the present (Amendment B) standard and Amendment A require *fidelity,* the apparent difference is in the use of the word *integrity* rather than *chastity.* Obviously integrity differs from chastity, so that a committed sexual relationship between unmarried persons might pass muster under Amendment A, whereas it seems clearly to violate the intention of Amendment B. Note that under both formulations, a continuing and unrepented adulterous relationship (a sexual relationship between persons, at least one of whom is married to another person) is a disqualification. Such a relationship would clearly violate the requirement of fidelity (faithfulness).

Opponents of Amendment A may be expected to object to the imprecision of the word *integrity.* At least, the word seems to mean: is the relationship consistently what it purports to be, and is the relationship one which is consistent with Jesus Christ's teachings with respect to love and responsibility? The exact definition is best left to people who best know the candidate.

 

Repentance

A sinner must repent in order to be ordained or installed, says Amendment B. A difficulty with this requirement is our inability to test the quality and sincerity of this repentance. Amendment A requires that each candidate *acknowledge the need for repentance.* Our universal need for repentance--not of individual *sins* but of separation from God which leads to wrongful conduct-- is an essential tenet of the Reformed faith. (See, for example, Jeremiah 7:1-7; Acts 3:17-21.) However, requiring repentance of particular acts as a proof-test for ordination, as does Amendment B, is a corruption. 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? The quality of and necessity for repentance is best left to God's judgment, rather than the presbytery or the session.

 

Acknowledgement of Sinful Acts

Amendment B requires that the sin of a candidate for ordination or installation be "self-acknowledged." This difficulty of this formulation is widely recognized. It is preposterous to disqualify only those who are honest and not in denial. The Office of the Stated Clerk has opined that this form of words permits inquiry into unacknowledged sinful acts committed by candidates, so long as such acts were observed by a witness who is prepared to provide information to the ordaining body. This interpretation is unsupported by normal rules of statutory interpretation, but if it is correct it raises for some a specter of Star Chamber proceedings. Amendment A omits the requirement of acknowledgment of specific *sins* and requires instead a more conventional acknowledgment of our sinful nature and need for repentance.

 

What is Sin?

For many, a principal defect of Amendment B is its reference to the confessions of our church for a definition of *sin.* Our Book of Confessions defines many practices as sin which are not now considered sinful, and it also contains definitions of sin which are now obscure. Worse yet, the original sin of mankind has led to an expansion of the varieties of sinful conduct well beyond the most prurient Seventeenth Century imagination. Many supporters of Amendment B have acknowledged at least the first of these difficulties, but have openly longed for a return to the Westminster standards. What the Westminster Larger Catechism defines of sin is a matter of importance, and we are to be guided thereby. Nevertheless, an attempt to return to an earlier day will probably be unproductive. We would do well to study and reflect on an appropriate understanding (not, please note, definition) of sin for our time. We might place greater emphasis than did our forebears on acts of personal and corporate greed, damage to the environment, and racism. Given our lack of agreement of what is sinful, the formulation of Amendment A at least stakes out a common ground on which all can agree.

 

Conclusion

Amendment A, in returning the matter of ordination and installation to a more common ground, consistent with our Reformed faith, is a much better statement of ordination standards than its predecessor. It requires no conscientious dissent, and will force no one to leave the PCUSA. It leaves wide latitude for presbyteries and sessions to ordain those who they believe have been called by God for service in the church.


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