Presbyterians Will Revise Ordination Standards: A Brief Response to This Change in the PC(USA)

In a few days, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) will officially revise its ordination standards. Voting in PC(USA) regional bodies (presbyteries) now makes this change inevitable. Newspaper headlines will say things like: “PC(USA) Endorses Gay Ordination.” This is true in a way, but not entirely true either, because no church in the PC(USA) will be compelled to accept actively gay leaders. What is true is that my denomination has voted to change our governing rules in the Book of Order in a way that changes our understanding of sexual faithfulness and biblical authority. Here’s what we have voted to say concerning ordination standards in G-6.0106b:

Standards for ordained service reflect the church’s desire to submit joyfully to the Lordship of Christ in all aspects of life (G-1.0000). The governing body responsible for ordination and/or installation (G-14.0240; 14.0450) shall examine each candidate’s calling, gifts, preparation, and suitability for the responsibilities of office. The examination shall include, but not be limited to, a determination of the candidate’s ability and commitment to fulfill all requirements as expressed in the constitutional questions for ordination and installation (W-4.4003). Governing bodies shall be guided by Scripture and the confessions in applying standards to individual candidates.

Out of context, just about any Christian would say this sounds great. What could be wrong with submitting joyfully to the Lordship of Christ in all aspects of life? What’s the matter with having governing bodies determine fitness for ordination? Who would object to having these governing bodies “guided by Scripture”? What is the big deal here? Is this a tempest in a teapot?

Unfortunately, it is not. You can only understand the new language of G-6.0106b in light of the language that will be removed. Here’s how the section reads right now:

Those who are called to office in the church are to lead a life of obedience to Scripture and in conformity to the historic confessional standards of the church. Among these standards is the requirement to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman (W-4.9001), or chastity in singleness. Persons refusing to repent of any self-acknowledged practice which the confessions call sin shall not be ordained and/or installed as deacons, elders, or ministers of the Word and Sacrament.

Once the Book of Order is changed, the PC(USA) will no longer require ordained church leaders “to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and woman, or chastity in singleness.” In other words, a governing body will have the freedom to ordain into leadership a person who is and who intends to be sexually active outside of marriage, if that governing body believes this to be acceptable. This allows for the ordination, not only of gay and lesbian people, but also of straight people who are sexually involved outside of marriage. For now, no church elder board or presbytery will be compelled to ordain in a manner contrary to conscience. But every governing body will be free to decide for itself what it expects of its leaders in terms of their sexual practice, and this means some Presbyterian churches and presbyteries will choose to ordain people who are sexually active outside of marriage.

This is a matter of serious concern to those of us who believe that the Bible teaches that sex belongs within marriage and that leadership in the church is reserved for those who intend to live according to biblical teachings. But I am actually more distressed by the way our new paragraph speaks of how we are to regard biblical authority over our personal and corporate life. Until now, we have said “Those who are called to office in the church are to lead a life of obedience to Scripture . . . .” Now we will say “Governing bodies shall be guided by Scripture. . . .” Nowhere do we call individual leaders or governing bodies to obey Scripture. Guidance implies far less than obedience. One can be guided by something most of the time, but not all of the time. One can be guided by something except when one believes that it is wrong. The move from “obedience” to “guidance” suggests a major change in our official understanding of biblical authority, one that appears to put Scripture on a par with other sources of guidance.

Presbyterians will differ widely in their responses to the imminent change in the Book of Order. Those who have seen the ordination of gay and lesbian people as an issue of justice will celebrate a victory in a more than thirty-year long battle. Those who have sought to uphold biblical standards for ordination will be grieved. Some of these folks will no doubt leave the PC(USA). Others will stay in the denomination as they continue to serve the Lord and to seek the peace, unity, and purity of the church.

I am in that latter category. Although the official position of my denomination has shifted in a direction I don’t affirm, I am still free to articulate and live by my convictions with respect to sexuality and ordination. As long as this does not change, I will not be compelled to leave the PC(USA) for reasons of conscience.

I know that many people will disagree with my decision and I understand their consternation. I also respect those who believe that faithfulness to God means that they must withdraw from the PC(USA). But I am trying to be faithful to Scripture as I understand it, and such faithfulness includes “making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3). I want to continue to work with my Presbyterian brothers and sisters to learn what it really means “to submit joyfully to the Lordship of Christ in all aspects of life.”

Although I am saddened by the way our Book of Order will soon be changed, there is still much in that book that is wonderfully expressive of biblical truth. In fact, the most basic and crucial statements in the Book of Order remain intact. Let me close by quoting several of these that come from the foundational opening chapter. They are, as much as anything, what keep me in the PC(USA).

All power in heaven and earth is given to Jesus Christ by Almighty God, who raised Christ from the dead and set him above all rule and authority, all power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come. God has put all things under the Lordship of Jesus Christ and has made Christ Head of the Church, which is his body. . . .

It belongs to Christ alone to rule, to teach, to call, and to use the Church as he wills, exercising his authority by the ministry of women and men for the establishment and extension of his Kingdom. . . .

Insofar as Christ’s will for the Church is set forth in Scripture, it is to be obeyed. . . .

In affirming with the earliest Christians that Jesus is Lord, the Church confesses that he is its hope and that the Church, as Christ’s body, is bound to his authority and thus free to live in the lively, joyous reality of the grace of God. (Excerpts from G-1.0100).

_____________________________________

P.S. If you’re looking for a more specific response to the change in the Book of Order, let me refer you to a letter from Presbyterians for Renewal. This biblically-based organization in the PC(USA) expresses well what is in my own mind and heart. I am grateful for the leadership of PFR in this challenging time.

P.P.S. If you’re looking for other things I have written about this PC(USA) crisis, you might check out the following:

The End of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)? (2006)

The End of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)? Revisited (2008)

Why Not Just Leave the PC(USA)? (2008)

  • Anonymous

    Yes. That is the core of the problem, isn’t it?

  • Harold Hein

    “‘Only “the LORD knows those that are His”.  That makes the True Church “invisible” to humans.  We cannot read the hearts of people, but can only judge according to their confession and life.
    “With the HEART man believes, AND WITH THE MOUTH confession is made to salvation”.  The true visible church is NOT the Roman Catholic Church. Within its ranks indeed there are true believers just as there are within the ranks of any church body that uses the Word of God (within which is the Gospel of salvation), and baptism in the name of the Trinity. Within all visible Christian church bodies are both believers and hypocrites.  The former Presbyterian who joined the Rom. Cath. church, it seems to me, has not looked very closely at its stated doctrines regarding faith and works, prayer to the saints, the sacraments,etc. . . .  h.a.h. 

  • MWS

    I understand your response, but the “invisible” church really is the heart of the problem.  It took me a long time to realize that. I defended it forever.  Jesus chose 12 disciples; Paul proceeded by the laying on of hands: deacons, presbyters (priests?), and bishops were appointed and rules laid down for their qualifications.  Paul spoke of “scripture” and, yes, “traditions” that he had passed on. This was not and is not “invisible.” The problem, as I see it, is not only that the “invisible church” is unbiblical, but it’s doctrines, morals, and theology tend to be largely “invisible” too.  God did not become incarnate in the flesh to establish something “invisible.”  Thus, the current controversy over ordination and marriage. I don’t think God intended for the “church” to look like this, and I don’t think Jesus left it this way.  For a long time, I was just like you “right with you up to the Catholic part.” 

    I know this will sound positively crazy, but truth comes from many places. Sometimes it comes from non-Christians.  I remember a quote from — I’m swallowing hard to mention her here — Ayn Rand: “Contradictions do not exist. Whenever you think you are facing a contradiction, check your premises. You will find that one of them is wrong.”  Good logical advice, no matter what your faith persuasion.  I followed it….

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for this input, Harold.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for your comment. Of course there is a danger here, given that we believe Jesus was fully God and fully human, and that God is one through in three persons. I’d be careful about the contradiction point.

  • http://jbsmallcabinetshop.blogspot.com/ jim

    Living stones are ‘invisible’, yet that is the stuff of the church.
     

  • jennie

    What about science? As we read scripture as a historical document breathed by God through men more than 2000 years ago, isn’t it possible that those men simply did not know enough about the science of homosexuality to write anything but what they did? If it is possible, as advanced thought and science seem to suggest, that men and women are born as homosexuals, then the new wording in our Book of Order would make sense, wouldn’t it? 

  • Anonymous

    Jennie: Thanks for your comment. Science can tell us lots about lots of things. But it cannot tell us anything about what’s right and what’s wrong. Ethics goes beyond science. In fact, there are many human tendencies that are natural, but the behavior that flows from them is deemed to be wrong. Many psychologists and anthropologists have said, for example, that it is most natural for men to be involved in serial sexual relationships, rather than to be married to one person for a lifetime. Suppose for a moment that this is, in fact, true of men from a genetic point of view. Would this make it okay for a married man to be unfaithful? I don’t think so, even if such behavior is natural.

  • http://jbsmallcabinetshop.blogspot.com/ jim

    Jennie,
    As markroberts has suggested below, men and women are all born with the bent to sin.  Exactly where will the revision of our Book of Order stop as it accomodates each such bent?
    Did not the God Who breathed the scriptures also create all science?  Was He unable to inspire with all truth?
    Do we really want ‘sense’, or the Truth of the Gospel?

  • http://jbsmallcabinetshop.blogspot.com/ jim

    Evan,
    Can Catholics and evangelicals fill the void?
    They certainly don’t have to.  The gates of hell shall not prevail against the church.
    For some fun, look up the Scum of the Earth Church. 
    The church is healthy…even as it sheds the claptrap of religiosity.

  • http://jbsmallcabinetshop.blogspot.com/ jim

    Harold,
    I agree with you.
    I am certain that all denominations and particular churches are each wrong in their own ways.  This has kept me from going pillar-to-post as I discern these errors.  “Wherever I go…there I am!” 
    I am intrigued by the thought of leaving the pcusa, and all its meetings-about-meetings, but am not sure where to go.  The Spirit will show us. 
    In the meantime, I remain thankful for the Spirit’s Presence in our church since I joined it in 1980. 
    By the way, I have known some Catholic Christians.  And, some Presbyterian ones, too!
    h.a.h. 

  • http://jbsmallcabinetshop.blogspot.com/ jim

    Harold,
    I agree with you.
    I am certain that all denominations and particular churches are each wrong in their own ways.  This has kept me from going pillar-to-post as I discern these errors.  “Wherever I go…there I am!” 
    I am intrigued by the thought of leaving the pcusa, and all its meetings-about-meetings, but am not sure where to go.  The Spirit will show us. 
    In the meantime, I remain thankful for the Spirit’s Presence in our church since I joined it in 1980. 
    By the way, I have known some Catholic Christians.  And, some Presbyterian ones, too!
    h.a.h. 

  • http://jbsmallcabinetshop.blogspot.com/ jim

    And doesn’t the first page say that all to follow is subserviant to the scriptures? 

  • http://jbsmallcabinetshop.blogspot.com/ jim

    And doesn’t the first page say that all to follow is subserviant to the scriptures? 

  • Anonymous

    Jim: Those are important questions. Thanks.

  • Anonymous

    That’s fascinating. I did not know about the Scum of the Earth Church. You can find it here: http://www.scumoftheearth.net/SOTEC/Welcome.html. Reminds me of 1 Corinthians 1.

  • Anonymous

    Actually, we need more meetings about meetings about meetings. The sure path to church renewal.

  • Anonymous

    Yes. Here’s the quotation:

    Christ Calls the Church Into Being

    b. Christ calls the Church into being, giving it all that is necessary for its mission to the world, for its building up, and for its service to God. Christ is present with the Church in both Spirit and Word. It belongs to Christ alone to rule, to teach, to call, and to use the Church as he wills, exercising his authority by the ministry of women and men for the establishment and extension of his Kingdom.

    Christ Gives the Church Its Faith and Life

    c. Christ gives to his Church its faith and life, its unity and mission, its officers and ordinances. Insofar as Christ’s will for the Church is set forth in Scripture, it is to be obeyed. In the worship and service of God and the government of the church, matters are to be ordered according to the Word by reason and sound judgment, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

    Christ Is the Church’s Authority

    d. In affirming with the earliest Christians that Jesus is Lord, the Church confesses that he is its hope and that the Church, as Christ’s body, is bound to his authority and thus free to live in the lively, joyous reality of the grace of God.

  • Ray Ashmore

    I find it difficult to conceive of the unity between flesh and Spirit.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for your comment. I’m not sure what you mean, though.

  • Anonymous

    Mark:  This is a very important point.  In discussions like this, I sometimes say I am a “non-practicing adulterer.”  I know my nature could easily lead me to cheat on my wife; but ultimately it is fear of (and love for) God and His commandments that keeps me from doing that.  And that is solely by the grace of God because I know I could easily fall in this area without His help and protection (plus not putting myself in such situations to begin with and heeding the command to “flee”).

  • http://jbsmallcabinetshop.blogspot.com/ jim

    h.a.h.!

  • Anonymous

    Yes, I’m one of those too, by God’s grace.

  • Warren

    All of the things you listed regarding the hypothetical situation could be done from outside the organization, with the added benefit that your departure would send a strong message about where you stood on the issue.

    I have no doubt you feel called to stay. I respect your decision. However, staying may not mean agreement to you, but it will almost certainly mean agreement to those who are watching. I believe that sometime soon, those that are now being forced to “tolerate” will be forced to “celebrate”.

    If I wanted to be a part of a political organization, dear brother, I would have joined one. We hear much about “diversity”, “social justice” and “tolerance” in the Presbyterian Church USA these days, and not much about the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

  • Anonymous

    I understand. But for me, at this point, the question isn’t whether I’d choose to be in the PCUSA today, but what I do given that I am here and believe that God led me here. Doesn’t mean I’ll stay forever. But it does mean I mustn’t leave prematurely.

  • Becky Jean

    Hello, Dr. Roberts. I am new to the Presbyterian Church, having joined just three years ago. When my husband and I declared our membership, we were excited to be in a thriving place of fellowship.  After one year, I began to have this pressure on my shoulders. I kept hearing from God that I needed to start a Sunday school class. That is humorous, in that I have attended Bible Studies, but certainly could never be called into teaching. Singing maybe, but not teaching.  Finally, I spoke with the minister and advertised the class. The first day, I sat there and no was coming in the room. The minister said maybe in a few weeks when the other Sunday school class finished their slides of the Holy land someone would come. I felt God telling me to remain in my seat.  Finally, a few folks drifted in, perhaps curious. That was two years ago.  I now have a full class- mostly men- who are very hungry for God’s word.  I found out soon after I started my class that there had not been a real Sunday school class for adults in years.  Most folks just gathered to talk about social justice issues.  The Bible was never opened.  The point being, I believe that God wins, even when we are not aware of what the future holds. And he uses follks like me who were not prepared at the time to share His Word with others. I just said “yes.” God Bless.  Jean

  • Anonymous

    What a great story! Thanks for sharing it. Yes, indeed, God will use people like you who are committed to his Word and available for his service. Amen.

  • http://jbsmallcabinetshop.blogspot.com/ jim

    Good for you, Becky Jean, and good for your students! 
    Similarly, I teach (co-learn) a class with the Bible (and a pile of dictionaries) as the only workbook. 
    Disgusted long ago with teachers’ guides which had “…now say something like, “blahblahblah…”, I decided to use the Bible only and see what happened. 
    This was for kids 12-and-up.  I informed them that the class would be taught as an adult class, that as we read, each would be responsible to know the definition of each word, or to stop the reading immediately and ask the reader the meaning of what-he-just-read (and he’d better know!), which made the study a form of meditation wherein deeper meanings always emerged.
    As members of the ‘true church’, we can do this evangelism anywhere, even the PCUSA.
    The question comes down to: what do I want to support with my per capita?  Over-’educated’ whackos in management-positions? Uhhh….no.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for your comment. It’s good to remember that the church is the people of God, who are called into ministry and empowered by the Spirit for this purpose.

  • Kevin

    Mark, do you believe God intended for Martin Luther and John Calvin to stay within the Roman Catholic Church? The PCUSA has flown the coup. It’s no longer a salt of the earth denomination. It’s busy trying to maintain it’s cultural relevance – becoming theologically and spiritually irrelevant in the process.

  • Kevin

    You took on a yoke instead of going to PCA or OPC or even EPC?

  • Anonymous

    Luther once said that he didn’t leave the church, but the church left him. I don’t really have an informed opinion about this, however.

  • Anonymous

    Not sure what you mean. A yoke? I believe God called me to the PCUSA many years ago. I have not felt released from that call, though it certainly is something I continue to seek the Lord about. Is that what you mean by a yoke?


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