Response to "A Call to Prompt Action"

by Julius B. Poppinga

Elder, Grace Presbyterian Church, Montclair, NJ

[Moderator's Note: This is the third submission by Mr. Poppinga in response to contributions from Frank B. Baldwin, III. Mr. Baldwin's "Call to Prompt Action" provides a potential complaint in a remedial case against Presbyteries voting for Amendment B by ministers of the Word and Sacrament or commissioners of/to that Presbytery (meeting). Mr. Baldwin has chosen not to respond formally to this submission, as he feels that his stance has been made clear in a number of previous contributions to this forum. Others are welcome to respond. It might behoove all of us to remind ourselves that our human brokenness ("sin") has as a constituent component what James Gustafson, renowned contemporary Christian ethicist, calls "corrupt rationality." In our "finest moments" as finite humans, we are - and will be - unable, with logic or the "purest" of reason, to find the Truth which Jesus Christ wills for us. Truth remains beyond our grasp save in the love which Christ commands us to show for God and for our fellows in Christ. Can we - in that spirit of Christian love - practice the "mutual forebearance" which both Christ and our own constitution command? Can we humbly agree to disagree - and to avoid arrogantly trying to impose our understanding of God's truth upon others? Can we live with one another - and wait for the Holy Spirit to act in our hearts and lives? For the future of the PC(USA), I pray that will be so. For the future of the church of Jesus Christ, it must be so.]

I appreciate the efforts of Frank B. Baldwin, III, to build a lawyerly case against Amendment B. But my own lawyer neurons are sparked when I read arguments that strike me as off the mark.

Mr. Baldwin has marshalled for us under the title "A Call to Prompt Action" the points most often made against Amendment B (herein "B"). This is helpful. But they need to be tested. Mr. Baldwin's brief points are in quotes following.

1. Opponents of B "like the brave German Christians who adopted the Theological Declaration of Barmen...must stand up and say what we believe." Isn't this a touch too much?

2. B "elevates obedience to law over God's grace in the matter of ordination." At least Mr. Baldwin has added the last five words to an oft-repeated assertion. He must have come to recognize that the "law over grace" theme simply can't be found in B. (Yet how many voting against B did so mistakenly believing the strident voices saying that was the issue?)

And what does it mean "law over grace in the matter of ordination"? The added words add no meaning. Besides, qualification for ordination has always had a conduct component. Consider the "manner of life" clause of G-6.0106; the "conscience is captive to the Word of God as interpreted in the standards of the church" clause of G-6.0108 b.; and the life and the service commitments in the ordination/installation-vows. Finally, readiness to repent, not toeing the mark, holds the key to the doors of ordination under B.

3. B "elevates the collected documents in the Book of Confessions to a status they do not claim." What status? Does B say, or exact, anything that adds to or detracts from the teachings of questions 114 and 115 of the Heidelberg Catechism, or for that matter that is not implicit in G-6.0108 b?

4. B "ignores fundamental principles of the Reformed Faith". This is a sweeping averment. The only back-up for it is in items c.iii. and (the first) c.iv. of Mr. Baldwin's form of Complaint, and the criticism made there seems to be that B is not a full exposition of the doctrine of grace or of a biblical theology of "calling, ordination and sin." Let's remember the assignment was to draft a constitutional amendment, not a restatement of Reformed Theology.

5. B "seeks to identify a category of second-class Christians who may not be ordained." This onloading of the baggage that goes with the term "second-class" obscures the simple reality that everyone who qualified for ordination before B can qualify after B. The only bar, as B says, arises if she or he without repentance persists in a self-acknowledged sinful practice. Why do we Presbyterians have such an aversion to self-examination in light of the Scriptures as expounded in the Confessions and to repentance that opens us to the grace of the Holy Spirit renewing us in the image of God (cf. Heidelberg Catechism Q. 115)? "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us." (I John 1:8)

6. B allows requirements to override an individual's sense of call. (I'm paraphrasing c.ii. of Mr. Baldwin's form of Complaint.) But call has always been three-pointed for ministers (candidate, congregation and presbytery). It can never be unilaterally consummated by the candidate. The same is true for deacons and elders except that it is two-pointed (candidate and congregation). No candidate can present a Commission signed by God, and certainly not one bearing a denominational label.

7. Finally, we come to the "God alone is Lord of the conscience" argument. (Second item c.iv. in Mr. Baldwin's form of Complaint.) Cited for support is G-1.0301(1)(a). But conspicuously missing from the cite is the highly relevant statement (because it applies specifically to church officers) of G-6.0108 b. I am sure Mr. Baldwin would never open himself to the pouncing of an adversary that such an omission would invite in a civil court pleading or brief.

I have not touched on every argument made by Mr. Baldwin in his form of Complaint or elsewhere in his writings. There are answers to each of them, of course, but at some point this all gets a bit tedious and maybe he and I are reaching that point.

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