"A Positive View of Amendment B"

by Julius B. Poppinga

Elder, Grace Presbyterian Church, Montclair, New Jersey

 

[Moderator's Note: Mr. Poppinga was, in 1996, a Corresponding Member of General Assembly and chaired the Quadrennial Review Committee. He also served as a Commissioner to the 1995 General Assembly. The following is a response to Frank B. Baldwin's contributions, "A Few More Questions" and "Practices Called Sin by Our Confessions." While it speaks to the "other side" of the Amendment B question, the Hesed Forum wishes ­ along with its strong opposition to Amendment B and its strong stand for inclusiveness ­ to be open to mutually critical dialogue concerning the range of issues the amendment addresses. Two responses to Mr. Poppinga's contribution follow: "The Issue is Inclusiveness," by Virginia L. Lewis and "A Gentle Response to Mr. Julius Poppinga," by Frank B. Baldwin, III.


Those who are against and those who are for Amendment B have been done a great service by Frank B. Baldwin, III, an attorney in Wayne, PA. He meticulously combed the Book of Confessions and has compiled a list of the practices explicitly called sin. His list, with a short preface, is available on the Internet at http://www.southwestern.edu/lewisv/Hesed/sins.html.

My own instincts as an attorney led me to make a like list, last summer, following General Assembly which I attended as a corresponding, non-voting, member. I had not participated in the Committee Hearings or in the floor debate. My first reading of the proposed Amendment was at my assigned seat on the floor of General Assembly. The last sentence aroused my curiosity and led to two days of reading the Book of Confessions at the seashore last July, and making my list.

I commend Mr. Baldwin for his work. I accept his list as fair and accurate. His count is close enough for this discussion, "at least 225 specifications of sinful practices (many multiple and some duplicative)" he writes.

But my study last summer led me to a conclusion quite the opposite from that of Mr. Baldwin. I read his list wondering, "Did I miss something?" Are the Confessions, after all, laden with items that in our time and culture are not honestly repentable?

But Mr. Baldwin's list actually confirmed the conclusion I reached last summer. I found in its first five pages only three (out of some 70 or more, depending on how one counts) practices called sin that gave me some pause. I will come back to them. Unfortunately, Mr. Baldwin did not identify the ones that troubled him. But I think he would agree that both of us would be better persons (and elders and lawyers) if we from time to time repeated David's prayer, "Search me, O God and know my heart: try me and know my thoughts. See if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting." (Psalm 139:23, 24) Aided by the Confessions' lists, this might very well reveal to us things like "stubbornness", "envy in adversity", "pride in prosperity", "bearing hatred", "failure to give Christian service to those in need", "desire for revenge", "greed", "failure to do our work well", "twisting anyone's words", "condemning anyone lightly without a hearing".

I know Mr. Baldwin would be quick to repent with me should it be discovered that we are "murderers", "drunkards", "thieves", or if we should acknowledge that we "abuse, hate, injure or kill a neighbor by thought, word or gesture" or that we have done any one of a host of other egregious acts identified in the Confessions' lists.

But how about the nine remaining pages of Mr. Baldwin's list, including the mother lode of sins iterated in the larger catechism? Out of some 155 found there, only one struck me as problematic. This makes a grand total of four out of the full list of 225 that might present a problem to anyone who takes repentance seriously. I will come back to each of these four, but first let me suggest why I believe Mr. Baldwin and I come out on opposite sides as to the appropriateness of the last sentence of Amendment B.

Take a look at Psalm 19. Note especially verses 7-14. Then read Ephesians 2:8-9 and the statement in the Second Helvetic Confession on Justification by Faith Alone at C-5.109. If we view, as does Mr. Baldwin, Amendment B as "legislation" (which of course it is not) or as "law" in the sense that term is used in the book of Romans in contrast to grace as the means of our acceptance by God (which of course Amendment B does not remotely do) then some of Mr. Baldwin's concerns might come into play. See his further writing (hereafter "Questions") at http://www.southwestern.edu/lewisv/Hesed/questions.html . But if we view Amendment B's invocation of the Confessions in light of Psalm 19:7-14 we see the "law" as an expression of God's loving concern for our good. We see the commandments of the Lord as "perfect", "reviving the soul", "making wise the simple", "rejoicing the heart", "enlightening the eyes", "more to be desired than gold", in keeping them "finding great reward". Judaism has for a long time recognized wholeness of life as a theme of the Torah. Jesus' saying that He came to fulfill the law parallels the promise that in Him we find life more abundant.

That a handful of the practices called sin puzzle us should not keep us from enjoying the rich benefits of discovering how to bring wholeness into our lives, how to nurture consistency in who we as Presbyterians "are, what we believe and what we resolve to do". (paraphrasing G-2.0100).

But let's talk about the puzzlers. As noted above, I have found only four that might be problematical out of 225 or so listed by Mr. Baldwin. They are these:

(1) to disobey or resist any whom God has placed in authority, so long as they do not exceed the bounds of their office.

We live in a century that has seen the dangers of passive conformity to civil authority. We admire and applaud Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Dr. Martin Luther King. Note the second half of the enjoinder. When authority exceeds its bounds, it forfeits its claim on our obedience. The Reformers (and the writers of the larger catechism) had a clear understanding of the right of revolt carefully worked out by the great thinkers of their time. If we understood the philosophical foundation of that right and the limitations upon asserting that right with only a fraction of the understanding of the Reformers, this enjoinder would present no problem at all. In fact it would encourage us to be alert to the abuse of power by those in whom it is vested.

(2) making any image or picture of God.

Some have cited pictures of Jesus in Sunday School literature as an example of the practical uselessness of the Confession's examples of sinful practice. Please. In textual context, the concern is idolatry. Indeed, one item in Mr. Baldwin's list expressly links the "making" with "worshipping". That is the point.

(3) needless works, words, and thoughts about our worldly employments and recreations on the Lord's Day.

The response to this one needs a bit more space. Mr. Baldwin has quite fairly included the qualifier "needless". Some critics have failed to do that in disregard of the fact that Amendment B speaks of what the Confessions, plural, call sin. They must be read in pari materia. Mr. Baldwin, as a careful lawyer, has done that. Other critics have jumped to the conclusion that even thinking about baseball on Sunday, and in all honesty finding themselves unable to repent of that infraction, could bar ordination. This one disturbed me until I saw a commercial picturing a football stadium and cynically proclaiming it as a place where Americans worship on Sundays. This helped me remember the context of the enjoinder--observance of the Lord's Day.

In our church we have coffee hour after the Sunday morning service. It is a time to make acquaintances, to seal friendships, to welcome strangers. To talk about that day's football or baseball games serves as a bridge to build relationships, to break the ice in conversation. I have no problem in finding that useful and appropriate, indeed necessary. If during the sermon, however, in anticipation of that day's game, my mind is full of football, that is a different story. Who is to judge? Read David's prayer at Psalm 139:23, 24 again.

That passage bears upon the many sins that the Confessions describe in subjective terms such as "filthy", "lustful", "proud", "gossip", "carnal", "inordinate", "excessive", "immoderate", "imprudent", "undue". The frequent use of such words throughout the Confessions' lists make it clear that while many items in the lists are precise in meaning and indeed have found their way into the criminal and civil law, from rape and murder to disclosure requirements in the issuance of corporate securities, many others are designed for self-examination in the spirit of Psalm 139:23, 24. They help us know ourselves as God knows our innermost beings and to sensitize us to the Holy Spirit's work of convicting of sin (John 16:8). The catechists knew this. Look at question and answer 114-115 of the Heidelberg catechism, which recognize (1) that the holiest among believers make only a "small beginning" in obedience, and (2) that the purpose of the standards is to bring the individual to seek "the grace of the Holy Spirit, so that more and more we may be renewed in the image of God"; in other words, that we may continue to become what God created us to be. Consider this excellent summary from the Second Helvetic Confession:

 

HOW FAR THE LAW IS ABROGATED. The law of God is therefore abrogated to the extent that it no longer condemns us, nor works wrath in us. For we are under grace and not under the law. Moreover, Christ has fulfilled all the figures of the law. Hence, with the coming of the body, the shadows ceased, so that in Christ we now have the truth and all fulness. But yet we do not on that account contemptuously reject the law. For we remember the words of the Lord when he said: "I have not come to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfill them" (Matt. 5:17). We know that in the law is delivered to us the patterns of virtues and vices. We know that the written law when explained by the Gospel is useful to the Church, and that therefore its reading is not to be banished from the Church..." (C.-5.085).

This is why the use of the term "self-acknowledged" in Amendment B is so appropriate. Indeed, the Confessions inveigh against "covering up sins" and "unnecessary discovery of infirmities (sins?)". The first of these admonitions is a pertinent reminder to candidates. The second should restrain nominating committees from making inappropriate inquiries in the ordination process.

Now back to the last of the four puzzlers.

(4) exposing self to danger.

I suspect that the writers of the Heidelberg Catechism had something very specific in mind, but I don't know what it was. There is danger in walking alone at night in any American city, town or village, in driving a car, in travel by air or through space, in bio-medical research, and in many commendable lines of work such as that of fire fighters and police. Actually the text reads "willfully exposing myself to danger" suggesting seeking danger for danger's sake.

I suppose nominating committees would have no problem, for many reasons, in turning down any candidate who admits an addiction to crack, cocaine, heroin or the like, and is unwilling to seek help for it, or who habitually and persistently plays Russian roulette or who unabashedly adheres to a cult given to fondling deadly reptiles. But where on the spectrum of danger to draw the line? I don't know.

Yet this one (or even a handful of problematic practices called sin in the Confessions) does not justify declaring the lists unworkable and of no use or writing them off as ancient relics from which we may pick and choose at our option the ones to take seriously.

One more subject remains. Mr. Baldwin has difficulty with how "repentance" will be assessed. He thinks the "quality of and necessity for repentance is judged by God, rather than the presbytery" (Questions, p. 3). Of course, repentance is a transaction between the individual and God.

This is why Amendment B wisely speaks of "self-acknowledged" practice.

But the ordaining body, be it the local church or the Presbytery, has always had an obligation to assess a candidate's "manner of life" (G-6.0106). Repentance has always been a relevant concern in the appropriate situation. I would suggest that the nominating committee or other body, when the candidate professes repentance to overcome what otherwise would bar ordination, ask two questions, and perhaps only two: (1) Do you have a present plan intentionally to resume or to continue this practice? (2) Will you advocate this practice, whether engaged in by yourself or others, as acceptable in the sight of God and others? If in either case the answer is "yes" I do not see how the nominating process can go forward.

Certainly speculation about how Amendment B will be implemented or misgivings about a handful of the listed sins does not warrant a campaign intended to paralyze the church courts. I am disappointed by Mr. Baldwin's assertion that "the best way to sink this Amendment is to insist that it be enforced to its fullest extent, which will bring the process of ordination and installation of ministers and elders to a standstill." (Questions, p. 1) Such a scorched earth strategy sounds to me like the first reaction of a sore loser, and I don't think of Mr. Baldwin as the kind of person who would be a sore loser. I can see the print media headline:

"LOSERS IN PRESBYTERIAN VOTE ON ORDINATION VOW TO JAM CHURCH COURTS"

I much prefer to see headlines such as:

"LOCAL AND NATIONAL LAY LEADERS IN PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH (U.S.A.) RENEW COMMITMENT TO FAIRNESS IN BUSINESS DEALINGS AND TO RECIPROCAL RESPECT IN EMPLOYMENT RELATIONSHIPS"

* * * * *

"PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH (U.S.A.) LAY LEADERS, INCLUDING HUNDREDS OF LAWYERS, FORSWEAR UNNECESSARY AND 'VEXATIOUS' LAWSUITS"

* * * * *

"LAY LEADERS AND MINISTERS OF THE PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH (U.S.A.) PLEDGE TO UPHOLD FIDELITY IN MARRIAGE"

I can think of a score of similar, positive messages that the Louisville news services could have ready, with background and statistics, for release to the secular press following the next General Assembly when Amendment B takes effect. How refreshing that would be.

 

Yours for the peace, unity and purity of a re-vitalized PC (U.S.A.),

Julius B. Poppinga


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