"Covenants of Dissent - A Reach Too Far?"

by Julius B. Poppinga

Elder, Grace Presbyterian Church, Montclair, NJ

[Moderator's Note: This piece responds to Frank B. Baldwin's "Dissent, Disobedience, Discipline, and Defense;" a reply from Mr. Baldwin is forthcoming, and other Hesed readers and participants are invited to respond as well. The issue of whether or not dissent is a "valid strategy" looms large in these days prior to GA and is being widely discussed on PresbyNet. It seems to me that what is clearly and unequivocably a "valid strategy" is discipleship to Jesus Christ. On that point, Mr. Poppinga's submission remains silent. Yet that is the ground on which we all must stand and resolve our apparent conflict. "Jesus is Lord."]

Frank B. Baldwin, III, and I have already exchanged views on this medium about Amendment B. We bring to the discussion our conditioning as attorneys, including the freedom to disagree.

On May 2, 1997, Mr. Baldwin posted his paper "Dissent, Disobedience, Discipline and Defense". I respond because his piece, helpful up to a point, does not alert one to the latent integrity issue in the form of Covenant of Dissent that appears to be most widely circulated. I refer to the one being disseminated by "Stonecatchers", a group of elders and ministers from the National Capital region. (See http://www.radix.net/~execware/stonecatchers/dissent.html).

The problematic words appear in the very last paragraph, indeed in the last five words of that paragraph. Here is the wording:

"We covenant together to elect, ordain, and install as officers those members with suitable gifts who are called to ministry, who are persons of strong faith, dedicated discipleship, and love of Jesus Christ, and whose manner of life is a demonstration of the Christian gospel in the church and the world, without additional requirements or restrictions." (Emphasis mine.)

The sponsoring elders and ministers of Stonecatchers "urge you to organize support for this among the church bodies and organizations of which you are a part."

Notwithstanding the benign opening paragraphs of the proposed Covenant, the intent behind it, revealed in the last five words, is consistent with another version of a covenant of dissent attributed to the session of Old First Presbyterian Church of San Francisco (see http://www.radix.net/~execware/stonecatchers/sanfran.html). That version bears a sub-caption directly quoting a third alternative dictionary definition of "dissent" in the strongest terms:

"dissent (di.sent'), n. refusal to conform to the rules and beliefs of an established church."

Mr. Baldwin's Internet posting does offer two suggestions: "not to invite trouble" and to "quietly resist." These seem to be a pull-back from his earlier comment 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." But the problem with the Stonecatchers' form of Covenant of Dissent, or any other form like it, which he does not mention, is that it goes well beyond dissent (defined as disagreement) to defiance if not outright defection.

Here, quickly, is why the proposed Covenant puts the signer at odds with his or her official commitments and obligations.

1. It repudiates key ordination vows (for elders and ministers)

...to be governed by our church's polity
...to abide by its discipline
...to further the peace, unity and purity of the church

(for elders)

...to share in government and discipline [of the church]

(for ministers)

...to be instructed and led by the confessions of our church as you lead the people of God
...to be active in the government and discipline [of the church]

2. It flies in the face of the somber warning in the Book of Order that the confessional statements (a term used in G-2.0100 to refer to both the creeds and the confessions in The Book of Confessions) "are not lightly drawn up or subscribed to, nor may they be ignored or dismissed" (G-2.0200). (Emphasis mine.)

3. It violates the clause of the Book of Order that requires freedom of conscience to be maintained "without obstructing the constitutional governance of the church" (G-6.0108a.).

4. It declares inoperative the choice made at ordination "to exercise freedom of conscience within certain bounds" and purports to self-release the signers from the restraints on conscience applicable to a church officer "so long as he or she continues to seek or hold office" (G-6.0108b.).

5. It undermines a unique element of church polity -- by which the signers as church officers have solemnly vowed to be governed -- namely, the basic connectionalism of the PC (U.S.A.). That connectionalism, vividly expressed in the church-wide recognition of ordination, precludes localization of ordination standards in direct violation of constitutional requirements.

6. It repudiates the affirmation in the Book of Order "that our blessed Savior, for the edification of the visible Church, which is his body, hath appointed officers...to exercise discipline, for the preservation of both truth and duty...(G-1.0303). Officers of the church cannot blithely abdicate this solemn investiture of disciplinary authority and compound that abdication by covenanting with others not only to reject that discipline but affirmatively to breach it.


When so much of what lies at the constitutional core of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is side-stepped, ignored or challenged by contrary practice in a matter as basic as ordination, the issue ceases to be Amendment B. The issue for Covenant signers who are or would become deacons, elders and ministers of the Word and Sacrament is one of professional integrity.

When one can no longer abide by the vows and constitutional commitments and obligations of ordination, regardless of how sincere and well-intentioned one's motives may be, is not the only real choice, morally and professionally, to resign the office?

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