The debate over the Task Force on Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Presbyterian Church is heating up, as we get closer to the General Assembly a few weeks from now.
The Task Force proposes two crucial ideas:
1) that the church leave in place its existing ordination standards; and
2) that the ordaining body decide if any particular candidate's scruples about those standards touch on essential tenets of the Reformed faith.
Some conservative groups in the church say the Task Force's two recommendations contradict one another. Either a standard is a standard, or it isn't. In their reading, a standard is an absolute requirement, set from the center, that every individual must meet.
In the Presbyterian Church, the central body is not where candidates are examined and, if they pass, ordained. There is no bishop, and certainly no Vatican, in the Presbyterian Church. The body that examines and ordains ministers is the regional presbytery. The presbytery, not surprisingly, is the central unit of the Presbyterian Church, the level where church leaders live with one another the most, and the unit that any unspecified powers are reserved for in the church. The General Assembly, with the agreement of most presbyteries, can set the standards for the church, but the presbyteries are where they are applied. In nearly all cases, that is where it ends: the church as a whole accepts the presbytery's judgment.
Still, since the first two presbyteries were brought together in this country, the church has faced the problem of presbyteries interpreting and applying the standards differently. In those cases, the church has had two mechanisms to smooth out the conflict or, if smoothing out is not possible, for deciding the contested issue. The main mechanism is to trust each presbytery to ordain well. That ordination is for the whole church. However, if a minister wants to "labor within the bounds" of another presbytery, he or she must be examined and approved by that new presbytery. The second presbytery can't change an ordination granted by the first one, but it can say, "you may be ordained for the whole church, but you can't work in this corner of the church." This is a long-established tradition of the Presbyterian Church in this country, going back to the first synod in 1729.
The second way the church deals with a conflict of standards between two ordaining bodies is to hold a trial in the higher governing bodies (the synod, and then the General Assembly). This trial is not about the particular minister's beliefs, but rather is about whether the presbytery applied the church's standards correctly. The presbyteries are given a great deal of leeway in applying the standards, but ultimately there are limits.
Existing church standards would, among many other things, forbid the ordination of practicing, unrepentant homosexuals. Some presbyteries think this prohibition is clearly required by the Bible, and therefore is essential. Other presbyteries have made it clear that they do not think such a prohibition is essential, or even just, regardless of what the Bible appears to say.
The Task Force says this standard is still the standard for the church. They also call on the whole church to trust the local presbytery to apply that standard properly. However, if the presbytery does not apply that standard (or any other standard) correctly – or worse, denies the standard altogether – then the presbytery can be tried by a higher governing body. If necessary, the presbytery's ordination decision can be overturned. That is the way things are now. That is what the Task Force is proposing to keep and strengthen.
A standard is a standard, but every organization needs some way to judge whether a particular case comes under the standard or not.