Rev. Stephen H. Phelps
Pastor, St. Peter's Presbyterian Church, Spencertown, NY
Moderator, Presbytery of Albany (NY), 1997
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah not like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them... out of the land of Egypt, a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, "Know the Lord," for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. Jeremiah 31: 31-34
American Presbyterians should not suppose schism strange to their internal relations. In 1973, Presbyterians opposed to the ordination of women withdrew from the PCUS and formed the Presbyterian Church in America. In 1936, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church broke from the PCUSA over doctrinal purity. And the Orthodox Presbyterian Church was in turn broken in two two years later. In 1927, Presbyterians bearing labels "Modernist" and "Fundamentalist" waged a bitter battle. The former called for freedom in theological interpretation, the latter for clergy to subscribe publicly to the "essential and necessary" articles of faith. 1861 saw New School Presbyterians divide north from south, just as the Old School had split in two three years earlier, all lining up in defense of national interests in the American civil war - so that now four denominations comprised the presbyteries that had been one united church only three decades earlier. For behold! In the 1830's, the Old School and the New School of the PCUSA disagreed fiercely over ecumenism and subscription to the Westminster Confession and the legitimacy of "fresh ways of expressing... Reformed theology." In 1837, the Old School, calling themselves the Reforming Party, abrogated the Plan of Union with the Congregational Church - the COCU of that day - and they threw out of the denomination the Synods of Utica, Geneva, and Genesee, which had been formed under the liberal principles of the plan. Thus that schism was fixed. In 1810, the Disciples of Christ and the Cumberland Presbyterians had formed when members walked out of the PCUSA because they deemed it ineffective in evangelical mission and too restrictive in ordination requirements to make a witness on the new frontier. In 1741, New Side Presbyterians called Old Side Presbyterians "graceless" - incapable of receiving God's grace because their piety was not open to the movement of the Holy Spirit. For their part, the Old Side feared that New Side spiritual awakenings resembled hot souffle more than Holy Spirit.
It was back in 1727 that Presbyterians got into their first big fight in America. On one side, a Rev. Jonathan Dickson believed that the Irish Presbyterian Church across the waters was wrong to require clergy to subscribe to the Westminster Confession. He argued that "all authority for Christian faith and life is derived from Jesus Christ as revealed in the Bible," and he was troubled that his presbytery would consider setting the words of the Westminster Assembly on the same level as the Bible. On the other side, a Rev. John Thomson argued that "a denomination without a confessional standard was like a city without walls.'" He and his presbytery overtured the Synod (there was as yet no General Assembly) to require that all clergy publicly vow to teach and preach the Westminster doctrines. The Synod debated long. In their "Adopting Act" of 1729, the factions found some room for mutual accommodation. With that resolution they affirmed that Christ and Bible are the source and rule of Christian faith and life. They also endorsed the Westminster Confession as "good forms and sound words and systems." And they made room for "scrupling." The Synod recognized that in freedom of conscience, people of faith have a right to dissent - and often a need to do so openly. Remember, the whole blood-besmirched history of ecclesiastical abuses set in canon law lay heavy in their minds like an ax at the root of a tree. Why? Luther and Calvin rested nearer to them in time and memory than they do to us. Therefore, that Synod declared that only the ordaining body, only the local presbytery, had the wisdom and the means to decide whether one who dissented from the doctrines of the church had placed himself outside the bounds of the "necessary and essential" articles of the confessions. In that way, for a time, they put out the fires of anger, dissension, and party spirit.
But now here's something. All these battles were for the same prize. One conflict motivated them all. And that one conflict underlay the protests of Luther and Calvin. It was the casus belli of the Crusades. It drove the entire historical drama of the New Testament accounts, be it the reproof and correction of the letter to the Hebrews - or Peter's contention with the elders at the Jerusalem council (Acts 15) - or Paul's zeal to prevent the gospel from destruction at the hands of law-loving religionists - or Jesus' striving with the Pharisees, which must be strife to death. As if pressed at one cosmic printery, all these conflicts bear one mark: God's Word, who hears it, who does it? And how can we know? That is the heart of the matter.
In the present contention over Amendment B, the issue is not different. Again, the question is about God's Word. Again, the question is about valid ways of laying claim to that sole authority by which a human heart dare act in matters of conscience. It is again the question of reformation or counter-reformation, again the question of the body of Christ: discerning it, forming it, becoming it, or killing it. On Tuesday next, some presbytery out there will cast the eighty-sixth and deciding vote to make Amendment B church law. In this pause, walk back with me to stand at that fork in the road where our reading of God's word goes apart. From there, let us see the road behind - which we do share - and look a courageous look ahead, as well. For surely it is ourselves, and not the truth absolute, which are revealed by our hearing of the Word. And we should rejoice when history affords an opportunity by means of which our faith in God's Word may be tested. No suffering born in Christ shall weigh eternally heavy on a soul.
How can we know what is God's Word in this matter of homosexual practice and vocation to ordained ministries? Proponents of Amendment B argue that no part of human desire and thought is free of sin, and therefore authority for understanding God's will must be sought from a source above human thought, namely the inspired words of the Bible. No matter how hard the teaching, the faithful must humbly submit to the word of God in the Bible. Where there is confusion in reading, let a clearer part interpret a clouded part. Traditional confessions and creeds may also help. As for Biblical references to homosexual behavior, they are unambiguously condemnatory, goes the argument; therefore, it would be mere confusion to consult other texts toward a different interpretation. Prominent proponents of the amendment have been arguing that opponents simply set the Bible aside as words without authority - or that they have placed science above the Bible in a vain desire to mediate between religion and culture - or that they so love the praise of homosexuals and/or so love sexual license that they no longer dare to call sin sin.
Now there is no doubt that in our society and in our churches many have indeed set the Bible aside. And many have sold their minds into bondage to the god of scientism. And many avoid judging others, not out of love, but rather out of fear to be thought intolerant or out-of-date. And many, both heterosexual and homosexual, are engaged in sexual relations that are sinful, yet refuse in their despair to let a call to repentance penetrate their consciousness. But such facts do not touch the scandal of theological opposition to Amendment B. The scandal is this: opponents claim that since Christ is come as Word of God, words in the Bible may not be used to define God's will for humankind. Only the Spirit of Christ has authority to speak God's Word, and only the Spirit of Christ can hear God's word. So, in his Spirit, opponents argue that words of the Bible provide no direct access to truth. Opponents argue that demanding adherence to particular laws of the Bible may be a sinful act, just as it was for Pharisees an act clouded by enmity, strife, jealousy, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, and the like. With respect to sexual relations, homo- or hetero-, opponents of Amendment B argue that where love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control grow as the fruit of the Spirit, "against these there is no law."
Opponents argue that "if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law." They argue that heterosexual marriage is become for today's moral lawyers a new circumcision, and with Paul they say that "neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any avail, but only faith working through love." Opponents argue that the whole gospel is at stake in the question surrounding Amendment B, for "a little leaven leavens the whole loaf." The famous little phrase means "a little legalism ruins the whole love" of the gospel. They argue that the whole law is fulfilled in one word, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." Opponents argue that for freedom Christ has set us free, which means above all this: In Christ, the Word of God confronts you: you right now, you in your personality, in your freedom and your consciousness. And the Word says, "it is time to put the book down, friend. You must use your freedom now, or lose it." You are no longer a child, but heir to the promise. Do not be faithless and untrusting, ever submitting yourselves to the yoke of slavery to the law. You can make this decision in freedom, for I am with you, says the Lord. Now put the book down. Take up your pallet and walk into the heart of your neighbor who is gay, who is lesbian, who is called both to ministry and to love of one other. You cannot do this by the book, but only in that freedom for which Christ has set you free can you see that sinless love, without despair or condemnation, that moves with Christ in him, in her. "The faith that you have, have as your own conviction before God. And blessed be those who have no reason to condemn themselves because of what they approve." (Rom. 14:22)
So, we are met in a conflict ironic, historic, and tragic. The irony: that yea and nay alike study, claim, and love the Christian Bible, and both believe that the wrong action on the present issue will seriously distort our church's witness to the Biblical faith. The opponents wonder how proponents come to texts so sure that their own sinful desires have not distorted their reading. The proponents wonder how opponents dare say that Holy Spirit is their guide in matters moral and dare cease from wondering whether this doctrine is not but license for any feeling, or any deed?
The history: that every generation of Christians must have this fight fought: to hear God's word, and to do it. Our generation is met in the ancient conflict on this field, in this way. So understood, no, there are not more important things to be doing. On this point especially we may learn to offer a solemn thanks to God. For the history proves we need each other. This conflict belongs to this side of the Parousia. Law and gospel, Bible and Spirit, tradition and Logos. Wherever mortals reach for God, this polarity must exist. Spiritual interpretation uncorrected by tradition evaporates like mere spirits. Law undisturbed by the freedom of God to demand the death of the law and its institutions simply dies. We need one another. Be careful how deeply you cut when you cut the opposing wing. Cut it off, and that church will never fly again. If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.
The tragedy: how certain it is that not every generation arrives at a peace which issues in spiritual life and regeneration; how certain it is that particular ministries will be snuffed out, even within weeks from this Tuesday; how certain it is that the strife is not o'er, the battle not done. Can one who has taken her ordination vows and takes them still seriously, yet who fundamentally believes the new rule in the Book of Order is against God's Word, can such a one continue to serve this church? We have promised to be governed by our church's polity. Yes, but we have also promised to further the peace, unity, and purity of the church. For opponents of the new rule, these two promises conflict. And where two laws from one book cannot hang together in conscience before one God, you must choose which is higher, which sounds God's Word. It is always thus with texts: the people choose their texts, the texts do not choose the people. That is what it means "For freedom Christ has set us free." I choose to further the peace, unity, and purity of the church, therefore I will hear the new rule as a guide which bears the counsel of my denomination's majority. But I will not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
So we come to crucifixion time. And we remember that the body of Christ lives by its deaths. In the beginning and in the end, that Word is our story. And that is our history. I believe the Presbyterian Church will die the strife-torn death of despair if it does not repent of the law and choose life. Yet we see that to repent of the law would need death upon death, sacrifices born by hundreds of thousands instead of the mere thousands who will be cut off by the new rule. Yet we know that Christ lives by obedient deaths. It is a great gift then to live now - and to study how to die now, both as a church and as a man or woman.
Crucifixion is near the end of the book. But it is not the end of the book. Life is the end of the book. If we live by the Spirit, then let us also walk by the Spirit.
- Why, all the souls that were were forfeit once;
- And He that might the vantage best have took
- Found out the remedy. How would you be
- If He, which is the top of judgment, should
- But judge you as you are? O, think on that;
- And mercy then will breathe within your lips,
- Like man new made.
William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure
NOTE: The historical details from the above were drawn in summary from James Smylie's recent book, A Brief History of the Presbyterians.
Moderator's Note: We have always struggled in the Reformed Tradition to find the appropriate balance between justification and sanctification in our living out of our faith. Rev. Phelps' remarks should be thought-provoking in that regard. His statement that we need each other ("conservative" and "liberal") should not be forgotten. For a sensitive and more extensive treatment of this and other themes see Doug Ottati's (Professor of Christian Ethics at Union Theological Seminary in Virginia) Reforming Protestantism: Christian Commitment in Today's World (Westminster: John Knox), 1995. This book should be required reading for those on both sides of the Amendment B debate.
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