Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Presbyterian Church Votes to Tolerate Gay Ordination

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has just changed ordination standards to, in effect, allow practicing homosexuals to be ordained.   The exact language of the church's constitution that was dropped and replaced is written below.

Some have read this as a move by the church toward liberalism.  I do not think that is quite right.  Rather, I believe the loyalist middle of the church changed what it thinks can be tolerated.  It did not change its traditional view that the Bible calls homosexual practice a sin.  Instead, the loyalist center changed its traditional view that the sin of homosexual practice cannot be tolerated.

In other words, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) used to say that homosexual practice was a sin like child sacrifice - absolutely forbidden.  Now the church says homosexual practice is a sin like divorce - bad, but tolerable.

STRIKING: “Those who are called to office in the church are to lead a life in 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.

AND INSERTING: Standards for ordained service reflect the church’s desire to submit joyfully to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all aspects of life (G-1.0000). The governing body responsible for ordination and/or installation (G.14.0240; G-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.”

16 comments:

Anonymous said...

You've been in PCUSA longer than I have and are more involved in the church than I am, so I'll take your word for it. This is a more nuanced view than either the right or the left has of this vote. Both see it as victory for liberalism.

The problem with your view is, even though it's plausible, no one actually seems to be stating the case for the vote in this way. The left clearly sees the vote as a good first step on the way to making homosexual activity morally innocuous, as does the left. As far as I can see, no one is saying "I still think homosexual activity is sinful, but I'm willing to put up with it."

Whit said...

Perhaps the most pernicious piece of the amendment is not the deletion of the “fidelity and chastity” language, but the change from “obedience to Scripture” to “guided by Scripture” - as if the commands of Scripture are optional or that we might find other authority superior to that of God’s Word.

halifax said...

I disagree with your interpretation of the change because I don't know of any sect/denomination who accepts as priests/preachers those who publicly proclaim that they are actively engaged in sinful activity and that they plan to continue to do so in the future. So, for example, Jimmy Swaggert asked to be forgiven for sleeping with prostitutes because he accepted that what he did was wrong. The equivalent then in the Swaggert case would be that a church publicly stated that sleeping with hookers is no longer a big deal, and that Swaggert need not ask for forgiveness and could continue to engage in such activity with a free conscience.

The divorce comparison is inapposite because individuals (for the most part) do not engage in regular divorcing, as they engage in regular homosexual (or extra-marital heterosexual) activity. I'm sure that serial divorcers (someone who gets a divorce and remarries once every month or two) would not generally be accepted as good candidates for the ministry.

Bo in OH said...

The crux of the conflict is that the liberals consider the issue one of justice; the conservatives, one of moral behavoir. Amndement 10A is incoherent either way - if a justice issue, than the Bk of Order should not permit discrimination by those churches who refuse to ordain gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered persons on the basis of their lifestyle. If a moral issue, it is absurd to condemn as sin in Birmingham what is embraced as a gift of God in San Francisco. Perhaps we will find we have sold our heritage of connectionalism for a thin pottage of political expediency.

The Amnendment (now the new language in our Constitution)seems to treat sexual behavior as adiophora, while holding up "submission to Christ". But can submission to such leadership exclude sexual behavior? When specificity is removed, we are back to the question of who decides these boundaries: PJC church courts? scientists? Scripture? tradition? opinion polls? It may have been better to go the Lutheran route and uphold 'covenanted monogamy' as a standard, rather than throwing out the moral values baby with the tepid bathwater of legalism.

Victoria Wheeler said...

Your interpretation is one I had thought of myself when thinking of the motivations. It is a very real problem in defining what is expected of individuals in leadership positions in the church. As Bo said, they are in leadership positions and while all Christians sin all the time, presumably one would not allow people who flagrantly sin without attempts to remedy their actions into leadership positions. To use a different example than divorce, while one might allow an ex-alcoholic to be a minister, presumably a practicing alcoholic would not be acceptable for a great number of reasons.

But I say presumably for a reason. For instance, my father-in-law is fairly obese and a minister. Is overindulgence in food not a sin, and should consistently overweight ministers who make no progress in losing weight be removed from their positions? I highly doubt anyone in most churches would suggest this.

It's a very tricky issue, but I agree that what we are seeing is a fundamental shift in how homosexuality is seen, from a very important sin to one like any other. This discussion should prove interesting! Thanks for writing about it.

Gruntled said...

Halifax: I don't think your interpretation holds. Divorce is an ongoing state. Divorce and remarriage is even more clearly condemned in the Bible than homosexual practice is. The PC(USA), like nearly all denominations, decided that divorce, despite strong and specific condemnations from Jesus, is not a bar to church office.

Gruntled said...

Bo: The decision is a pastoral one, to be made on a case-by-case basis. That is what the constitutional changes in the PC(USA) have now said about homosexual practice. The local adjudicating body decides on a case-by-case basis whether the particular person's account of their sexual orientation and status violates an essential and necessary tenet of the Reformed faith, or not. Different judicatories may reach different decisions on the same facts. The Presbyterian Church, a federal body at the national level, accepts that variety of judgment.

Billie said...

Toleration always leads to acceptance when sin is concerned. No wonder people are leaving mainline denominations in droves. Sooner or later centrist will be accused of intolerance for not accepting the unacceptable.

Anonymous said...

Billy, It's happening right now.

Peter B. said...

We have become wiser than our God...

pastormattferg said...

To say the passage of 10A is not a move toward liberalism is simply bizarre. As a denomination we have been moving toward liberalism for some time---I don't know of anyone sane person who would deny that---and this is another step in that direction. How big a step may be debated but even that would be a debate between a good sized step and a leap---and not a small step.

Neither side sees this as you are trying to promote it. My only guess as to your attempt to reframe what has taken place is that you are trying to convince folks "this isn't a big deal" as the temperature for the pot is turned up a few more degrees in an attempt to boil that frog without alarming it.

Divorce is a sin---there are situations in scripture where it is allowed (not required) and I doubt anyone would think we should ordain a "seriel divorcer". I think most would agree one who is divorced should repent of their part that led to the divorce---however great or small. And we most certainly don't want to start calling divorce a good that should be celebrated and blessed.

Trying to equate divorce and the regular, repeated practice of sexual sin is, again, bizarre.

John Shuck said...

In other words, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) used to say that homosexual practice was a sin like child sacrifice - absolutely forbidden. Now the church says homosexual practice is a sin like divorce - bad, but tolerable.

Where does it say that? The change in G-6.0106b and the removal of the AI leaves the church with no opinion on homosexual practice. Not good, not bad. No opinion.

Bo in OH said...

Are those who celebrate this change seeking tolerance, or sanction? I think in the long run it is clear that those who would refuse, as a matter of conscience, to ordain a person based upon their sexual behavior will be disciplined or censored and ultimately asked to leave the church. How long can the church live with the tension of ethical chaos?


Be careful, Gruntled, with reducing Biblical ethics to what is specifically condemned and/or counting the times an issue mentioned. It is of course much more complex a matter, with some very careful Biblical scholarship (e.g. Robert Gagnon) being done on the passages that do reference homosexualty, and the fact that there are no "alternative" viewpoints of sexuality throughout the whole Bible to hold these passages in tension, as is the case with many other issues (divorce, women's rights, etc). There is a Biblical ethic which applies to sexual behavior, beyond specific passages. Be careful of the rhetoric...The Bible (and Jesus in particular) says nothing about racism, nothing about pedophilia, nothing about gun violence...yet there is clearly a Biblical ethic that applies to these issues. What makes homosexual acts the exception?

Gale Watkins said...

In your book, Leading from the Center, you had a discussion of the "Kenyon case" in the UPC in 1975 in relation to your desire for local option within the constitution. I would like to hear more from you on the relevance of this case to our situation now that 10-A has been approved. That is, will those who have an objection to participating in an ordination that they don't think should take place be mandated to do so?

gruntled said...

Gale:

Thank you for bringing up the Kenyon case. I think it is very apt. In that case, Kenyon was at the last stage of ordination when he was asked whether he would ordain a woman. He said he would work with ordained women, but as a scruple of conscience could not participate in their ordination service. The presbytery and synod ruled that this was close enough; the GA Permanent Judicial Commission said it was not and prohibited his ordination.

I think the GA PJC erred. I think that kind of judgment - whether a specific scruple violated an essential and necessary tenet of the Reformed faith - should be left to the ordaining body.

I believe the Peace, Unity, and Purity report led the church to return to the pre-Kenyon standard of local application of church-wide standards. The church has always had a variety of interpretations of what is essential, and always will. We prosper when we let presbyteries differ somewhat in judging scruples, and divide when we do not.

Whit said...

Gruntled,
With regard to the Kenyon case, the supporters of gay ordination are now citing that case in their legal briefs before the Church courts. True, it is currently being used as a shield, but its logic makes it also a sword. It's only a matter of (not much) time. There is really no middle ground here.

I once proposed a compromise myself, which got absolutely no traction, to amend the Confession of 1967 and make it clear that God's design for humanity was sex only within a marriage of a man and a woman, to require presbyteries to take into account the manner of life of candidates for ordination, but to make no particular sin grounds for a categorical denial of ordination.