Sunday, April 29, 2007

You Want the Book of Order to Be Your Essential Tenets? Be Careful What You Wish For.

Several presbyteries are considering overtures based on the idea that the standards in the Presbyterian Church (USA) Book of Order are "essential tenets of the Reformed faith," and therefore are binding on all candidates for ordination in the church. Such a declaration would help solve the problem of what, exactly, church officers are bound to when they pledge to be bound to the essential Reformed tenets. However, this solution would create an even bigger problem: it would also drag in the entire Book of Confessions as necessary standards for all church officers.

At the heart of this debate is the "fidelity and chastity" amendment to the Book of Order, G -6.0106b. It says:

Those who are called to this 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 of 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.

I believe that what most proponents of a rule that "the Book of Order standards are essential tenets" want is contained in the first, "fidelity and chastity" sentence. However, what they have not fully reckoned with is that such a rule would also make the second sentence equally binding and universal.

Is any presbytery seriously ready to examine every potential officer of the church on "any practice the Confessions call sin?" Is any presbytery even ready to examine every potential officer on whether they have read and understood every practice the Confessions call sin? Is there any examination committee that is willing to have that same standard applied to itself?

Now, I have long argued that the Book of Confessions was a mistake. Adopting it meant that we have no confession, because we take none of them as a constitutional rule of the church. That is why we only fight over the Book of Order – it is the only really constitutional part of the constitution. The overture under discussion is part of that same shift to treating the BOO as the only really binding part of the constitution. The proposers of the overture, though, have not looked carefully enough at what is in the Book of Order. Declaring the BOO standards "essential tenets" will open more than a can of worms – more like a barrel.


just axing said...

Wow! After reading that, I am glad I am a Roman Catholic. Though we have been known to split a hair or two.
just axing

Anonymous said...

I think that discussion would be healthy but terribly messy. In my short tenure in the PCUSA, I've noticed that sin is not a favorite topic. When the subject is broached, as with the "Fidelity and chastity" promotion, the motivation for doing so seems reactionary rather than reflective. There seems to be little or no discussion regarding standards of holiness outside of sexuality. I wonder if this is because it is so much more juicy and satisfying to talk about other people's sins, especially those of homosexuals, than it is to discuss financial dishonesty, addiction, or gossip, which might hit a little too close to home.

(In fairness, while no one is lobbying for the inclusion of gossips in the ministry, I think it is more damaging to a congregation and certainly more common than homosexuality.)


Anonymous said...

I'm surprised you're bringing this up, Gruntled. I know you grew up Quaker, but I thought you had grasped the ethos of Presbyterianism.

I'm used to seeing this worry from people among my teachers and colleagues, and even within my own family, who grew up fundamentalist. They have left their fundamentalist upbringing, and have at least partly left behind the legalism of that past. But the literalism with which it imbued them is still there. Among other things, this means they never have fully assimilated the twin realities that sin touches every dimension of life, and that the forgiveness of sins is real, and not wishful thinking.

When you get your head around these two facts, it's intuitively pretty clear that everything can be essential, and that the church can assume that everything except self-righteousness can be forgiven. (Even this God can forgive, but we cannot make prudential decisions in the life of the church that ignore self-righteousness as an issue.)

The genius of that second sentence is that it makes it clear that the one thing that unavoidably excludes a person from church office is claiming that in some aspect life he or she is not a sinner, saved by grace alone through faith.

Repentence is the key to the whole thing. Once one escapes the easy conscience of American civil religion, it's not that hard.

Gruntled said...

I think the ethos of Presbyterianism is exactly why we do not define the essential tenets of the Reformed faith. This is the genius of the Adopting Act of 1729, as I have often argued, in these pages and elsewhere. The error of New Wineskins is to attempt to make an essential tenets list, short-circuiting the tried-and-true mechanisms of our polity.

Anonymous said...

My problem with declaring the currently-expressed standards to be "essential tenets of the Reformed faith" is the anachronism of it. Did Calvin write the standards? Did Knox? If not, were they remiss in fully expressing the Reformed faith? And further, what of other Reformed bodies? Does their failure to exactly reproduce our Book of Order standards declare them not fully Reformed? And what of the old PCUS Book of Church Order? Do these standards now declare, in retrospect, that the old book was not fully Reformed?

There must be a better way to do this than to declare a temporary, geographically-specific set of standards "essential tenets of the Reformed faith."

Stushie said...

anonymous said: In my short tenure in the PCUSA, I've noticed that sin is not a favorite topic.

Sin may not be a favorite topic for discussion in the PCUSA, but it sure is a favorite pastime.