"Ungored Oxen:

The Greatest Danger of Amendment B"

by Barbara G. Wheeler

President, Auburn Theological Seminary, New York City

[Moderator's Note: Dr. Wheeler's article was written just prior to the passage of Amendment B. It reminds of Stanley Hauerwas' "On Learning to be a Sinner" (referenced in the Hesed study materials on "The Dilemma of Defining Sin"): "Our lesson is most disconcerting when the narrative asks us to understand ourselves not only as friends of the crucified, but as the crucifiers. We must be trained to see ourselves as sinners, for it is not self-evident. . . .We are not sinful because of some general human condition, but because we deceive ourselves about the nature of reality and so would crucify the very one who calls us to God's kingdom." Hauerwas, Stanley, The Peaceable Kingdom, Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1983, pp. 30-31.]


One question widely debated as presbyteries decide whether to ratify Amendment B is whom it will affect if it is adopted. The amendment itself is not explicit on this point, and the Assembly committee proposing it was not either.

Proponents and opponents alike agree that the amendment will create a constitutional barrier to the ordination of persons who engage in any kind of homosexual activity. Most also agree that it will exclude from ordained service married persons who are involved in adulterous relationships. Most ordaining bodies will probably interpret the amendment to make unmarried heterosexual persons who are sexually active ineligible for ordained office, though ordaining groups will have to decide for themselves what constitutes chaste and unchaste heterosexual behavior for single persons, because the amendment offers no guidance on this matter. (If Amendment B is adopted, the fine distinctions among sexual practices that some of us were taught as Roman Catholic children, distinctions that helped us decide "how far one could go" without crossing the line between venial and mortal sin, may come in handy as nominating and ministry committees do their work!)

Least clear is whether the amendment applies to persons who have been divorced. The moderator of the Assembly committee that proposed the amendment said, in response to a commissioner's question, that the committee did not intend it to bar divorced persons from ordination. The committee's proposed definition of marriage as a covenant between "one man and one women" was changed, with the committee concurrence, to "a man and a women" to reinforce this view. The rationale seems to be that divorce, though strongly discouraged in scripture, is an act that, once complete, is likely to have been repented by those involved. (This argument is rarely examined, but perhaps it should be. Given the amount and duration of suffering created by even the most amicable divorces, it seems likely many divorced persons would be judged - by themselves even more than by others - to be committing the sins entailed in divorce long after the final civil judgment is obtained.)

While the effects of Amendment B on these groups is debated, however, one category has consistently escaped mention: monogamous married heterosexuals. This is the only class of persons whose eligibility for ordination on grounds of sexual behavior is not likely to be scrutinized under Amendment B. [1] Yet this group, precisely because Amendment B exempts it from the kinds of pressures that other groups would be subjected to, would in the long run be more deeply and seriously affected by the amendment than any other. Amendment B endangers married heterosexuals who are sexually faithful because it tempts them to regard themselves as less sinful than other persons. Amendment B would create this effect in two ways. First, its addition to G- 6.0106 as the sole specification of the general character standard for ordination ("their manner of life should be a demonstration of the Christian gospel in the church and the world") would make it appear that sexual behavior should be given more importance than other moral practices in assessment of fitness for ordination. The negative implication is that sexual sins must be more serious than others such as greed, non-sexual abuse of other persons, and intense selfishness that are not specifically mentioned. Those who meet the stated standard - faithfulness in marriage - could easily be led by the text of the amendment to believe that, having made it through the primary moral screen, they are less seriously sinful than those who have not made it through. If Amendment B passes, examinations of candidates, ministers, and officers that are guided by the Book of Order will probably reinforce this impression, because the constitutional text will require specific attention to marital and sexual matters but no others.

Second, even if means are devised for keeping Amendment B from weighting sexual practices too heavily in the examination of those seeking ordination or installation, it will still pose a danger to the monogamously married by tempting them to think that their sexual sins may not be as serious as those committed by others. The amendment portrays faithful heterosexual marriage as a kind of safe haven, identifying it as the only arrangement obedient to Scripture and conformed to the confessions in which sexual activity does not constitute a sin so serious that it is a barrier to ordination. If, however, fidelity (which, like chastity, is undefined in the amendment) is understood in its common sense of not committing adultery, married persons (and those examining them for ordination and installation) may fail to recognize that very serious sexual sins besides adultery can be committed within marriage. The cynical exchange between spouses of sexual "favors" for economic benefits and the use of physical force or psychological pressure in marital sex - these offenses are just as grave as adultery. Short of these serious sins and crimes, most of us who are married would have to admit that we sometimes use our sexuality to hurt our marriage partner, withholding conjugal love as a punishment or using it to manipulate. But because Amendment B privileges heterosexual marriage without adding the usual reformed warning that any good gift of God can be - indeed, is likely to be - misused by human beings, "faithful" married people may well assume that they are exempted by their state in life from sexual sinning.

How easy it is to assume this exemption was illustrated in a striking way during the Assembly debate on the proposal that has become Amendment B. A commissioner asked whether the standard of chastity rules out the practice of masturbation. (The question was certainly relevant in this debate, because masturbation has most of the features that people cite when they argue that homosexual acts are invariably sinful: it usually does not involve "a man and a woman" acting sexually in concert; it is not potentially procreative; and there is a long-standing tradition of interpreting scripture as saying that it is wrong.) The moderator of the Assembly asked the moderator of the committee presenting the proposal whether she wanted to comment. She replied, "Are you crazy?" - and the room erupted in laughter. It was a telling moment: a huge roomful Presbyterian leaders - the majority of us, no doubt, faithfully married or single and abstinent - reflexively judging a questionable sexual practice in which most of us engage to be a trivial, laughing matter - just as we were about to condemn the questionable sexual practices of the minority as so seriously wrong that they constitute an absolute barrier to formal leadership roles in the church. Even before the Assembly voted to approve it, Amendment B had begun to exercise its insidiously dangerous effect on those whose behavior it ratifies: it was already working to reinforce their - our - tendency to self-righteousness.

Why is self-righteousness so dangerous? As William Placher reminds us in his new book, The Domestication of Transcendence, self-righteousness hurts us by impeding the work of grace. "Nothing can prepare us or move us toward grace," he writes as he reviews how much Luther had to teach us about these matters, "but moral or spiritual pride can get in its way, and those whom society judges successful, morally good, or holy are particularly susceptible to such pride." [2] Luke T. Johnson tells us that "moral self-perception" is one of those possessions that undercuts our ability to respond to God's call. [3] The novelist Sherwood Anderson also drew this connection, warning of the "headlong rush...toward the acquiring of possessions," one of which - the conviction of our own worthiness - is ushering in an age in which we will "forget God and only pay attention to moral standards." [4] God's abundant love for sinners does not, of course, make sin a more desirable state than virtue. But because we are all sinners, anything that - like Amendment B - may delude us into thinking that we belong to a special, less sinful class threatens to separate us from God's gracious and forgiving love.

I oppose Amendment B on several grounds. I fear it will create an inquisitorial spirit in church life. Further, though I believe that human beings often use all kinds of sexuality in sinful ways, I do not think that extramarital sexual acts are necessarily and automatically wrong. From this perspective, the amendment seems unjustly to deprive some persons of eligibility for ordination.

Even if you do not agree with these views, however, you should turn back this amendment because of the great harm it may do to those whose oxen it does not gore, to the monogamously married heterosexuals that it appears to favor. By singling out those of us who are faithful in marriage (along with the "chaste" single persons, once the church decides what chaste means) as meeting the scriptural and confessional standard, it will feed our pride, shore up our complacency, and encourage our inclination to judge ourselves generously and others harshly. It will harden our hearts and paralyze our will to respond to a God of mercy and grace. We who will be temporarily advantaged by Amendment B, and all those who want to support us in a Godly way of life, should strenuously oppose the amendment for our own good.

Footnotes

1 "Chaste" single persons are also eligible, but, absent a definition of chastity, the eligibility of any single person is likely to be scrutinized if Amendment B is adopted and taken seriously in nominating and candidacy processes.

2 William C. Placher, The Domestication of Transcendence: How Modern Thinking About God Went Wrong (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), 45.

3 Luke T. Johnson, Sharing Possessions: Mandate and Symbol of Faith (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981), 68.

4 Sherwood Anderson, Winesburg, Ohio (New York: Penguin Books, 1919, 1960), 81.


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