Church constitutions trumping creeds

Church constitutions trumping creeds June 21, 2012

D. E. Hinkle passed along an obituary for Prof. Wynn Kenyon, who sparked a controversy  in the Presbyterian Church back in 1974 for not going along with the ordination of women.  For our purposes here, consider the last paragraph in this excerpt:

Mr. Kenyon, who belonged to a forerunner of what is now the Presbyterian Church (USA), was an honors graduate of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. In his ordination trial he was questioned about women and said that because he believed the Bible forbade women to hold authority in the church he could not participate in an ordination ritual. But he said he would work with ordained women and wouldn’t stop his own congregation from ordaining a female elder.

Pittsburgh Presbytery voted 147-133 to ordain him, but that decision was appealed to the highest court in the denomination. It ruled that “refusal to ordain women on the basis of their sex is contrary to the [church] constitution.”

Coupled with a decision allowing a Maryland presbytery to install a minister who didn’t believe in the divinity of Jesus, at least eight churches and some prominent theologians in Pittsburgh and Beaver-Butler presbyteries left for the new Presbyterian Church in America.

The case still reverberates, said Charles Partee, emeritus professor of church history at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. It marked a shift from creeds to constitution for defining the church’s beliefs, he said.

“You didn’t have to believe everything in the creed. Of course, the constitution cannot be scrupled. It must be obeyed,” he said.

via Obituary: Wynn Kenyon / Became beloved philosophy professor after ordination ordeal – Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

In this mindset, which one sees quite a bit in church politics, the church constitution is not only supremely authoritative, it is clear in what it says and admits no wiggle-room in its interpretation.  Creeds, Confessions, and the Bible itself, though, are flexible, obscure in their meaning, and can be interpreted away.

"I suppose it was Mr. Foster, back from the dead, who smashed HRC's phones and ..."

The Epstein Case Is a Major ..."
"You could educate yourself by turning off Fox Noise and looking at some legit news ..."

The Epstein Case Is a Major ..."
"You’re going to have to educate me here. Either I’ve missed something about Pence - ..."

The Epstein Case Is a Major ..."
"Take it however you like, and you can shove your insincere, fake apologies where the ..."

Being Pro-Life is the Moral Equivalent ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!


TRENDING AT PATHEOS Evangelical
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • larry

    This is true increasingly, though there are isolated exceptions, both in the SBC and PCA. In every church we where in the churches constitution, local in SB structure, more regional in the PCA, trumped the confession of faith. In fact the later was hardly ever referenced. But this parallels the way pastors are ordained in each. In the SB church the ordination is very light and usually a loose swearing in to the local church constitution is made not the SB F&M. In the PCA one can descent from some of its articles, as long as it’s not an essential article, as long as one identifies which ones. Rarely in PCA and pretty much never in the SB are the creeds referenced to settle an issue.

    It does sort of show the problem where, moving left to right, the less firm and sure and more open to interpretation is the bible, then creeds/confessions and that which is inflexible the constitutions. In other words what is inflexible and sure is the increasingly subject words of man and what is increasingly less sure and flexible are the creeds that confess God’s Word and at last God’s Word itself. Ultimately assurance and faith then rests where it places sureness and inflexibility.

  • larry

    This is true increasingly, though there are isolated exceptions, both in the SBC and PCA. In every church we where in the churches constitution, local in SB structure, more regional in the PCA, trumped the confession of faith. In fact the later was hardly ever referenced. But this parallels the way pastors are ordained in each. In the SB church the ordination is very light and usually a loose swearing in to the local church constitution is made not the SB F&M. In the PCA one can descent from some of its articles, as long as it’s not an essential article, as long as one identifies which ones. Rarely in PCA and pretty much never in the SB are the creeds referenced to settle an issue.

    It does sort of show the problem where, moving left to right, the less firm and sure and more open to interpretation is the bible, then creeds/confessions and that which is inflexible the constitutions. In other words what is inflexible and sure is the increasingly subject words of man and what is increasingly less sure and flexible are the creeds that confess God’s Word and at last God’s Word itself. Ultimately assurance and faith then rests where it places sureness and inflexibility.

  • Mary

    So the Creeds, Confessions, and the Bible are living, breathing documents, needing to change as society and culture change. Got it.

  • Mary

    So the Creeds, Confessions, and the Bible are living, breathing documents, needing to change as society and culture change. Got it.

  • sg

    What I find interesting is that Kenyon took the narrowest dissenting position for himself, just that he personally couldn’t participate in a woman’s ordination. He didn’t try to hold others to his view. That was tolerable to his presbytery, yet the fraction who were adamant about women’s ordination insisted that agreement on this point was a non-negotiable and carried it up to their little supreme council to make sure no one dare again defy their novel interpretation. When the large group were asked, they were able to find him acceptable, but when the tiny little handpicked group of little popes at the top got the case, they kicked him out. As the article goes on to say, another guy was ordained despite embracing some version of the Arian heresy. Divinity, shmvinity, there is room for different views on the divinity of Christ? but not on the ordination of women? And they are citing the church constitution that goes back all the way to the… last convention? A convention of sinful folks like the rest of us. And they are more trustworthy than the Bible?

    This is why the seminaries are so important. The seminary (gotta love that word) is where the little seed of false is planted in the forming minister who then goes out and corrupts the children of his congregations with his false teaching. This kind of corruption doesn’t come from the laity. It comes from seminary professors. They are the sorts that comprise these councils of little popes that overturn reasonable larger bodies with their edicts.

    Coming from another direction, what about SBC folks and other more fundamentalist types who would agree with the content of the three ecumenical creeds according to their biblical bases despite not using them in the same direct manner that we do. It seems that fundamentalism and looser associations while adhering to the inerrancy of the Bible is their kind of hedge against these kinds of wrangling with church authorities created by a human document like a church constitution that mandates adherence to unbiblical practice while allowing heresies. Something like this really couldn’t happen in the SBC, is that correct?

  • sg

    What I find interesting is that Kenyon took the narrowest dissenting position for himself, just that he personally couldn’t participate in a woman’s ordination. He didn’t try to hold others to his view. That was tolerable to his presbytery, yet the fraction who were adamant about women’s ordination insisted that agreement on this point was a non-negotiable and carried it up to their little supreme council to make sure no one dare again defy their novel interpretation. When the large group were asked, they were able to find him acceptable, but when the tiny little handpicked group of little popes at the top got the case, they kicked him out. As the article goes on to say, another guy was ordained despite embracing some version of the Arian heresy. Divinity, shmvinity, there is room for different views on the divinity of Christ? but not on the ordination of women? And they are citing the church constitution that goes back all the way to the… last convention? A convention of sinful folks like the rest of us. And they are more trustworthy than the Bible?

    This is why the seminaries are so important. The seminary (gotta love that word) is where the little seed of false is planted in the forming minister who then goes out and corrupts the children of his congregations with his false teaching. This kind of corruption doesn’t come from the laity. It comes from seminary professors. They are the sorts that comprise these councils of little popes that overturn reasonable larger bodies with their edicts.

    Coming from another direction, what about SBC folks and other more fundamentalist types who would agree with the content of the three ecumenical creeds according to their biblical bases despite not using them in the same direct manner that we do. It seems that fundamentalism and looser associations while adhering to the inerrancy of the Bible is their kind of hedge against these kinds of wrangling with church authorities created by a human document like a church constitution that mandates adherence to unbiblical practice while allowing heresies. Something like this really couldn’t happen in the SBC, is that correct?

  • Sad but not surprising that the PCUSA places their own manmade rules over the Word of God. Pharisaism at its finest.

  • Sad but not surprising that the PCUSA places their own manmade rules over the Word of God. Pharisaism at its finest.

  • SKPeterson

    The Church of Sweden has done the same. Excommunication and removal for those who will not condone women’s ordination or homosexual marriage, but if you question the divinity of Christ, or even His existence, it’s okay. As long as you’re a woman or gay. Then you’re part of an oppressed minority and your views must be tolerated, supported even.

  • SKPeterson

    The Church of Sweden has done the same. Excommunication and removal for those who will not condone women’s ordination or homosexual marriage, but if you question the divinity of Christ, or even His existence, it’s okay. As long as you’re a woman or gay. Then you’re part of an oppressed minority and your views must be tolerated, supported even.

  • Stone the Crows

    Tis always the way when men fear other men (er.. women) more than they fear God.

  • Stone the Crows

    Tis always the way when men fear other men (er.. women) more than they fear God.

  • This is de rigeour in places such as the Nordic state/folk churches in Europe, where clergy are disciplined (and ordinations prevented) on such questions of ‘order’, while matters of ‘faith’ (such as adherence to the creeds) are considered open and debatable, and worst offenders are subjected to ‘pastoral guidance’ from the bishop.

  • This is de rigeour in places such as the Nordic state/folk churches in Europe, where clergy are disciplined (and ordinations prevented) on such questions of ‘order’, while matters of ‘faith’ (such as adherence to the creeds) are considered open and debatable, and worst offenders are subjected to ‘pastoral guidance’ from the bishop.

  • Anne

    Does this site ever discuss the different Lutheran denomination? I am interested in comments about the AFLC -Association of Free Lutheran Churches. Thank you.

  • Anne

    Does this site ever discuss the different Lutheran denomination? I am interested in comments about the AFLC -Association of Free Lutheran Churches. Thank you.

  • Truth Unites… and Divides

    “In his ordination trial he was questioned about women and said that because he believed the Bible forbade women to hold authority in the church he could not participate in an ordination ritual. But he said he would work with ordained women and wouldn’t stop his own congregation from ordaining a female elder.

    If I was in that position, I would have at least stopped my congregation from ordaining a female elder.

    BTW, what’s the name of that new Lutheran denomination that had churches break away from ELCA but didn’t want to join LCMS or WELS because they still wanted to ordain women?

  • Truth Unites… and Divides

    “In his ordination trial he was questioned about women and said that because he believed the Bible forbade women to hold authority in the church he could not participate in an ordination ritual. But he said he would work with ordained women and wouldn’t stop his own congregation from ordaining a female elder.

    If I was in that position, I would have at least stopped my congregation from ordaining a female elder.

    BTW, what’s the name of that new Lutheran denomination that had churches break away from ELCA but didn’t want to join LCMS or WELS because they still wanted to ordain women?

  • Hmmm-OK- how about – instead of relegating 1/2 of the creative talent of any congregation( the women)- we instead-
    follow the guidance of scripture and put that talent – the keeper of property- Prov 31- to use- then the Lutheran Church will not die-
    no more properties will be sold because of bad business sense-
    UofM Chapel – which was growing BTW!
    Radio station-
    the UCLA Lutheran Chapel is in danger-
    two church merged- the powers that be sold the more valuable property to muslims at a discount (several women were against the sale- we were Pooh Poohed)- instead of turning into an high end school or renting it to an high end school!-
    Shall I go on!

    Didn’t Christ say that He came to fulfill the LAW-
    Women were stoned- for adultery – that was the LAW- (interesting that men were not stoned for adultery)
    Inside- woman brought before Christ- Christ said- “He who is without sin- cast the first stone”–
    no stoning that day!
    When there is a question of Biblical intent- I always go with the RED LETTERS!

    RE: Anne’s comment- how about the AFLC!!

    Carol-CS (a WOMAN)
    Founder / President of LA Lutherans for LIFE-

  • Hmmm-OK- how about – instead of relegating 1/2 of the creative talent of any congregation( the women)- we instead-
    follow the guidance of scripture and put that talent – the keeper of property- Prov 31- to use- then the Lutheran Church will not die-
    no more properties will be sold because of bad business sense-
    UofM Chapel – which was growing BTW!
    Radio station-
    the UCLA Lutheran Chapel is in danger-
    two church merged- the powers that be sold the more valuable property to muslims at a discount (several women were against the sale- we were Pooh Poohed)- instead of turning into an high end school or renting it to an high end school!-
    Shall I go on!

    Didn’t Christ say that He came to fulfill the LAW-
    Women were stoned- for adultery – that was the LAW- (interesting that men were not stoned for adultery)
    Inside- woman brought before Christ- Christ said- “He who is without sin- cast the first stone”–
    no stoning that day!
    When there is a question of Biblical intent- I always go with the RED LETTERS!

    RE: Anne’s comment- how about the AFLC!!

    Carol-CS (a WOMAN)
    Founder / President of LA Lutherans for LIFE-

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    What we should realize is that while Creeds etc can be sometimes interpreted in more than one way, the real issue here is Power. Too often, the intent of Church Constitutions is to create the framework for a power base for a few.

    Think about it now – in your own experience. How many times do people in a congregation fight about the creeds, and how many times do they fight about procedure / position / finances? And when there is a power struggle, or when one party wishes to make a name for itself, they might grab onto some perceived doctrinal error – but the real issue is power, self-validation and position.

    As to the Nordic Churches – view it as (any) government action, where it is often the case that the way the law is implemented, violates the spirit of the country’s (any country) Constitution…

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    What we should realize is that while Creeds etc can be sometimes interpreted in more than one way, the real issue here is Power. Too often, the intent of Church Constitutions is to create the framework for a power base for a few.

    Think about it now – in your own experience. How many times do people in a congregation fight about the creeds, and how many times do they fight about procedure / position / finances? And when there is a power struggle, or when one party wishes to make a name for itself, they might grab onto some perceived doctrinal error – but the real issue is power, self-validation and position.

    As to the Nordic Churches – view it as (any) government action, where it is often the case that the way the law is implemented, violates the spirit of the country’s (any country) Constitution…

  • fws

    The more I think about this post the more I think that this is just the way things are supposed to work. We want to think of the Church on earth as some sort of spiritual kingdom on earth or as something that has some more spiritual standard than another earthly government.

    Our Confessions say that it is not and does not. The visible government of church is to enforce discipline and unity with common rules and laws and such. Pastors are also rulers of their churches. We make the mistake of turning those earthly rules St Paul gave his congregation into rules that apply to us too. Nope. He was just showing us his example of how a pastor is to set down rules. Laws. for a given situation. One moment he is ordering circumcision and under different circumstances he is screaming out against it. Adiaphora does not mean “no rules.”

    And so rules about doctrine? Doctrine are supposed to be the laws of the church (cf introduction to the Catechisms on this). It is fine and good to enforce those laws too. But often we Lutherans think that this too is some sort of extra spiritual thing. enforcement of doctrines. But pagans too do this (cf supreme court and constitutional law).

    What we need to do is remember to separate the two kingdoms. True unity in the church alone comes from the Holy Spirit who sends us preachers who preach Law to our Old Adam to kill him and at the same time preaches to us that we are to be terrified at even our attempts to preserve pure doctrine and order, and so hide ALL of that in the Works of Another. And this is something no Moses or presbytery or synodical ctcr or magisterium could ever make happen. It is alone God who can do this.

    Why do we miss this? We think that we can do the Law. And we can. But we dont remember that it is not really us doing the Law, not even civil Law. It is the Holy Spirit using the Law on all old adams that makes any Good Work, even carnal Good Work such as maintaining purity of Doctrine happen. So both Law keeping and the Gospel are all God’s work from beginning to end. It dont depend on us!

  • fws

    The more I think about this post the more I think that this is just the way things are supposed to work. We want to think of the Church on earth as some sort of spiritual kingdom on earth or as something that has some more spiritual standard than another earthly government.

    Our Confessions say that it is not and does not. The visible government of church is to enforce discipline and unity with common rules and laws and such. Pastors are also rulers of their churches. We make the mistake of turning those earthly rules St Paul gave his congregation into rules that apply to us too. Nope. He was just showing us his example of how a pastor is to set down rules. Laws. for a given situation. One moment he is ordering circumcision and under different circumstances he is screaming out against it. Adiaphora does not mean “no rules.”

    And so rules about doctrine? Doctrine are supposed to be the laws of the church (cf introduction to the Catechisms on this). It is fine and good to enforce those laws too. But often we Lutherans think that this too is some sort of extra spiritual thing. enforcement of doctrines. But pagans too do this (cf supreme court and constitutional law).

    What we need to do is remember to separate the two kingdoms. True unity in the church alone comes from the Holy Spirit who sends us preachers who preach Law to our Old Adam to kill him and at the same time preaches to us that we are to be terrified at even our attempts to preserve pure doctrine and order, and so hide ALL of that in the Works of Another. And this is something no Moses or presbytery or synodical ctcr or magisterium could ever make happen. It is alone God who can do this.

    Why do we miss this? We think that we can do the Law. And we can. But we dont remember that it is not really us doing the Law, not even civil Law. It is the Holy Spirit using the Law on all old adams that makes any Good Work, even carnal Good Work such as maintaining purity of Doctrine happen. So both Law keeping and the Gospel are all God’s work from beginning to end. It dont depend on us!