July 10, 2012

Turns out 70% of PCUSA General Assembly Commissioners Aren’t Actually Presbyterian

John Knox reproving Mary, Queen of Scots. (Photo Credit: mylearning.org)

Here I offer what I hope will be the last depressing analytical post from the Presbyterian Church U.S.A.’s 220th General Assembly. On Friday, one of the core problems plaguing the PCUSA reared its ugly head. The plenary assembly began a discussion regarding the constitution. Part I of the PCUSA’s constitution is the Book of Confessions while Part II is the Book of Order. The controversy pivoted on Part I’s relation to the constitution and its authority, especially with regard to redefining marriage.

[UPDATE: recordings of the event can be found here and here]

One gutsy commissioner (I will keep commissioner names anonymous) petitioned GA Moderator Rev. Neal D. Presa: “Recommendation 13-04 [which redefined marriage away from one man and one woman] would amend the Book of Order…but conflicts with the Book of Confessions, which is part one of the Constitution, in at least three places—the Helvetic Confession, the Westminster Confession of Faith, and the Confession of 1967, all of which say that marriage is between a man and a woman. Therefore, Mr. Moderator, I would like to ask you to rule Recommendation 13-04 out of order.” As shocked whispers rumbled through the auditorium, Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons called on Paul Hooker of the Advisory Committee on the Constitution. Mr. Hooker noted the two different sections of the constitution. When discussing Part I, he added, “This collection of statements spans a vast selection of theological perspectives, and there is no small amount of difference and conflict, within the Constitution itself.” He then asserted, “But more specifically, it is important to understand that because it is a large sweep of history, and a fairly broad representation of theology, it ought not to be treated as though it were a rule book. It is, in fact, a document from which we draw our basic theological views.”

Mr. Hooker described Part II as follows: “It contains the standards by which we operate. We have been asked occasionally if it is necessary to amend the Book of Confessions in order to amend a similar provision in the Book of Order. The answer is no.” Finally, he asserted, “The Confessions are deliberately broad, and allow us to draw different ecclesiological conclusions on the basis of our theology. It would be the Advisory Committee on the Constitution’s opinion that a statement in the Book of Confessions might not pose a conflict with a proposal to amend the Constitution.”

Rev. Parsons recommended that the moderator accept the ACC’s recommendation and rule Recommendation 13-04 in order with the constitution. Dauntless, another commissioner appealed the rule of the moderator. And thus began a legislative battle to either accept or overturn the chair’s decision by simple majority vote.

Opposing sides approached the microphones. Declared the appealing commissioner, “Today, the motion is related to the Book of Confessions. I, as a Christian, for whom Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior, has been instructed to guided by the Confessions and to be obedient to the polity of the Church. Surely what is said repeatedly in the Book of Confessions is of more weight to our charter from Jesus Christ (to use Roberts’ language) than in the trust clause which is in the form of government.” Another contended, “While there are minor variations in the Book of Confessions, there are no variations on this subject. It speaks uniformly on its understanding of marriage. And secondly, while Mr. Hooker has made a distinction between part one and part two of the constitution, Robert’s Rules of Order, make no such distinction. It is one constitution.”

These statements were not left off without debate. One young lady festooned in a rainbow stole quipped, “If our concern is that our Book of Order never conflict with our Book of Confessions, I should not be standing here as a teaching elder.” Here she received vigorous applause from her revisionist allies. She then offered grounds for her right to her position and status: “Our Book of Confessions has been said to represent the faith of God’s people throughout the course of our human history, and it carries great wisdom in speaking to that. But it is a guide for faith, it is not a rulebook, and I hope we remember that.” The commissioner following her feared that “anything that anyone could possibly construe has any kind of connection whatsoever to the things in the Book of Confessions” would be proved and tried by a confessional filter. Then another commissioner approached the microphone to favor the chair. I had seen this gentleman at the PARO luncheon, where it was revealed that he was on the board of the pro-abortion organization. He now pontificated to his peers, “Many years ago, in the 1920s, there was a famous sermon preached, called ‘Shall the Fundamentalists Win.’ To me, a fundamentalist reading of the Book of Confessions wants to make it a totally unified set of rules, but as it was interpreted for us, it is a multi-century application and exposition of what Scripture teaches us to believe in…If the objection were to stand, as it was pointed out, we could never amend our Form of Government.”

Finally, it came down to a vote. Those supporting the chair’s decision to allow for contradiction with the Book of Confessions? 70%. That’s right: almost three quarters of PCUSA commissioners are willing to ignore the confessions for the sake of novelties. This merits a question from anyone familiar with church history, regardless of denominational affiliations: “How are you Presbyterian again?”

Let’s back up and look at what the confessions were all about. Calvinism—like Lutheranism—is an incredibly confessional faith tradition. It had to find a way to protest the Roman Catholic Church’s claims and teachings while not descending into chaos, anarchy, and heresy. As the reformers began to interpret the Scriptures differently than the Roman hierarchy, they also realized they needed to somehow keep within the historic Christian faith and its teachings (perhaps narrowly or locally defined). The Presbyterians and their Continental Calvinist cousins (all of whose confessions are included in Part I of the PCUSA constitution) had to prove they could reject a pope and bishops—all without damning one’s soul or bringing the church to naught. Thus, the Reformed elders reasoned out their faith in the confessions, by which they would keep themselves accountable. Now, there are different scholars that fight over what this all means, especially with regard to Scripture. The overwhelming consensus of old Reformed thinkers was that the confessions derive any teaching authority from the Bible: they are merely Scripture applied to specific beliefs as contrasted with other differing theologies. Reformed thinkers are all about sola Scriptura…or at least they used to in a clearer day.

The histories are filled with stories of bold Calvinists who would not renounce the confession in the face of threats, tortures, and even death. The Presbyterians were especially notable for their fierce theological convictions and fiery opposition to anything that smacked of “popery.” This, of course, included even the Anglican Church and thus presents an entertaining portion of British religious history. More importantly, it points to a very key concept: if you aren’t confessional, you aren’t Presbyterian. And it wasn’t because they thought “it was a good idea at the time.” They held their Biblical beliefs to be eternal truths.

So why the ho-hum attitude of the revisionist delegates? I’m sure no one reason will suffice. They don’t agree with the faith of their fathers—that much is clear. They obviously don’t like rules being enforced when they are breaking said rules. Most if not all are universalists: what Chesterton described as reverse or “soft” Calvinist, where no one has free will and everyone is predestined for heaven. Therefore, church discipline as well as the soteriological emphases in the confessions upsets their progressive sensibilities. Likewise, those icky absolutist creeds and confessions are merely historical niceties in an antiquarian performance that gives depth to the social club and morally-superior political advocacy group called “church.”

There could and should be several thorough responses to such heterodoxy and heteropraxy. Due to lack of space, I will conclude that this is the fulcrum point from which spring rampant pansexuality, progressive partisan politics, and radical feminism. Dealing with those theological particulars, I imagine, would soon separate the sheep from the goats.


27 Responses to Turns out 70% of PCUSA General Assembly Commissioners Aren’t Actually Presbyterian

  1. I don’t think there’s any question that the vast majority of clergy and laity in the PCUSA are not Reformed in any meaningful sense. The real question is, what percentage are Christian? We are blessed to not have to answer that question but to leave it to the Lord. The denomination as an institution, that’s another story.

    • So, at what point in our history, if one is to consider themselves reformed, must one have stopped reforming?

    • lectorconstans says:

      I think it is rather that they have reformed to such ans extent that their heads have fallen off. It reminds me of the old Woody Allen joke (back in the old days when he was actually funny) about his Rabbi being reformed – so reformed that he was a Nazi.

  2. stushie says:

    Excellent post.

  3. TPS says:

    Maybe that’s why nFOG changed it’s membership language from “consistent with the Reformed tradition” to “regardless of theological conviction.”

  4. […] Turns out 70% of PCUSA General Assembly Commissioners Aren’t Actually Presbyterian Bart Gingerich, Juicy Ecumenism Here I offer what I hope will be the last depressing analytical post from the Presbyterian Church U.S.A.’s 220th General Assembly. On Friday, one of the core problems plaguing the PCUSA reared its ugly head. Leave a Reply Click here to cancel reply. Name Required: […]

  5. Chas Jay says:

    I am always amused by those who claim to have a “right” to be an elder, deacon or minister. We worship Jesus Christ, who is our King and we are his servants. Servants do not have rights but obediently serve their Good Master. Because they claim to have a “right” I question if they have even met Jesus Christ.

  6. Jeff says:

    Chas Jay…we are not on solid ground when we start questioning if someone has a relationship with Jesus Christ. However, when we see such a strong majority of Presbyterians not affirming the Confessions as foundational one needs to question at least their discipleship as leaders within the PCUSA I have been to 15 GAs. I always run into commissioners who are rather clueless and are muddied in their thinking about what it means to be Presbyterian and Reformed. The scary thing is….these people are leaders in their local church and presbyteries.

  7. Charles Hedrick says:

    There are two versions of what it means to be confessional, depending upon your balance between Reformed and Always Reforming.

    The version you are using says that what it means to have confessions is that we stick with the same traditions forever. The approach many of us use is that what it means to be a confessional church is that we do theology as a community, within a certain tradition, but not that the tradition is necessarily unchanging. That’s why we continue to make confessional statements.

    • Paul Ogne says:

      Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda secundum verbum Dei
      “The church reformed, always to be reformed according to the Word of God” in the power of the Spirit.” (F-2.02)

      What a shame that “according to the Word of God” in the power of the Spirit” is so often omitted. Without the Word of God in the power of the Spirit the church is not much more than a civic service club with rituals.

      While there are some who promote an “Open Source Theology,” Presbyterian theology does not rightly draw upon every source of theology, nor every individual or every community’s opinions, except in how they draw us into greater conformity with the Word of God.

      Our quest is not to find the appropriate balance between reformed and always reforming – what was and what is to be – but the One who was, who is, and who is to be.

      While many might wish that the Book of Confessions were a smorgasbord of theology, from which one could pick and choose, every teaching and ruling elder takes a vow that they receive the confessions of our church as “reliable expositions of what Scripture leads us to believe and do” and that they will be “instructed and led by those confessions as they [you] lead the people of God” and that we will be “continually guided by our confessions.”

      Those of us in ordained office in the PC(USA) have voluntarily vowed to live, teach, and lead within and upon these confessions. No one forced me to take those vows and I am sure that no one forced anyone else either.

      Yes, it is in community and standing upon and within our tradition that we seek the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all of our lives, but we are not freed from the voice of our confessions, nor the authority of our confession in our lives together. There certainly are areas in which the various Confessions may highlight different perspectives or even disagree with each other (over what Scripture leads us to believe and do), but those are the exception rather than the rule. It is very possible to “do theology as a community” and to step outside of our vows. And if some experience God is leading them beyond our denomination’s confessional foundation, God bless them as they seek to be faithful to their understanding. But may they also have the integrity to either work for change while “exercising their freedom of conscience within certain bounds” (G-2.0105) or peaceably withdraw.

      Ultimately reformation, whether it be tradition or that which the power of Spirit is working within us, must be towards “Jesus Christ, the Word of God as the Scriptures bear witness to him” (F-2.02). And while our current communities of faith are essential to this process, community is not the source or purpose of theology. Reformed Theology, despite its many distortions, is the quest towards faithfully knowing, obeying and serving Christ through what we can comprehend through our understanding (in the power of the Spirit) of the Scripture we have been given, not Scripture as we believe it should have been given.

      I made my ordination vows based upon the Confessions that we have adopted. Unfortunately, it appears that we have ordained and installed many for whom the Confessions are historical artifacts of interest rather than our current common theological foundation and declaration to our members and to the world of who and what we are, what we believe, and what we resolve to do (from F-2.01). If someone believes that a Confession, or part of one, was not a “reliable exposition of what the Scriptures lead us to believe and to do,” our constitution provides a means for editing or even removing it. Until they are changed, however, “they are, nevertheless, standards. They are not lightly drawn up or subscribed to, nor may they be ignored or dismissed.”

      We do not, as you describe, “stick with the same traditions forever.” But until they are changed or removed we are “stuck” with them whether people like it or not. Discord, conflict, and strife are what occur when some are guided by different standards. I always find it ironic when those who uphold the very things each of us made vows to obey and be guided by are the ones called schismatic.

      I believe that if we fully live into Jesus Christ, as the Scripture bears witness to him, and towards whom our Confessions guide us, we will make a more radical impact upon the injustices and oppression present in our world than the most liberal progressive could ever dream and more powerfully proclaim the gospel for the salvation of humankind than the staunchest conservative could dare hope.

      I believe, help my unbelief!

      Paul Ogne

  8. “Always reforming” means “always returning to sources.” What the PCUSA is doing is not returning to Scripture to correct flawed understanding, but turning to the culture to correct Scripture. That’s not reforming, it’s apostasizing.

  9. caleb says:

    Wow, what a post. Shows a complete lack of understanding of most of the terms you throw out. But you pontificate well to your own allies, as you accuse others of doing in your post with such snarky biased self-righteous language. But you know your audience.

    • Meaningless, ad hominem gibberish. Why don’t you say something substantive to dispute what Bart actually says?

      • DrBud says:

        David,
        As someone who would think it okay to say something like this: “I don’t think there’s any question that the vast majority of clergy and laity in the PCUSA are not Reformed in any meaningful sense. The real question is, what percentage are Christian?”, I really think you should reconsider making the kind of remark you made here. Unless, of course, you don’t mind taking the risk of looking like a hypocrite.

  10. Reggie Weaver says:

    Let me just say from the outset that I respectfully disagree with your position on this. With that said, while I disagree with your assessment, I believe your argument to be thoughtful, and rooted in a genuine desire to be faithful to, both, our scriptures and our confessions. Yet, you seem to miss some key points about this debate.

    First, the motion was based on Robert’s Rules, not our Confessions. While some noted that changing the motion to change the language was a contradiction to our Confessional witness, they did so in the midst of an argument ABOUT our parliamentary process. Your rationale would place Robert’s Rules on equal footing with Scripture and our Constitution.

    Secondly, I assume you’d agree that there are times when we should amend our constitution. This was, of course, a discussion about amending our constitution. Doing so always runs the risk of being “contradictory” to our constitution as it currently is. The fact that 70% of commissioners voted to sustain the moderator’s ruling is not indicative of failure to be guided by the Confessions, but of a desire to actually have a conversation about whether or not we should amend our constitution.

    Third, did you miss the fact that, ultimately, the recommendation to amend was voted down? Given that, while I would disagree with your assessment, a more accurate title for this post would be “Turns out 48% of PCUSA General Assembly Commissioners Aren’t Actually Presbyterian.” While that title is not as evocative as yours, I would imagine it still disheartens you. But, if your intent is to express dismay over adherence to the Confessions, then base your argument on the final result, not the preliminary debate over parliamentary procedure. There’s no need for hyperbole.

  11. arnez5 says:

    Let me just say from the outset that I respectfully disagree with your position on this. With that said, while I disagree with your assessment, I believe your argument to be thoughtful, and rooted in a genuine desire to be faithful to, both, our scriptures and our confessions. Yet, you seem to miss some key points about this debate.

    First, the motion was based on Robert’s Rules, not our Confessions. While some noted that changing the motion to change the language was a contradiction to our Confessional witness, they did so in the midst of an argument ABOUT our parliamentary process. Your rationale would place Robert’s Rules on equal footing with Scripture and our Constitution.

    Secondly, I assume you’d agree that there are times when we should amend our constitution. This was, of course, a discussion about amending our constitution. Doing so always runs the risk of being ”contradictory” to our constitution as it currently is. The fact that 70% of commissioners voted to sustain the moderator’s ruling is not indicative of failure to be guided by the Confessions, but of a desire to actually have a conversation about whether or not we should amend our constitution.

    Third, did you miss the fact that, ultimately, the recommendation to amend was voted down? Given that, while I would disagree with your assessment, a more accurate title for this post would be ”Turns out 48% of PCUSA General Assembly Commissioners Aren’t Actually Presbyterian.” While that title is not as evocative as yours, I would imagine it still disheartens you. But, if your intent is to express dismay over adherence to the Confessions, then base your argument on the final result, not the preliminary debate over parliamentary procedure. There’s no need for hyperbole.

  12. OK .. which is the original poster here, or is it the same poster .. ???

    • arnez5 says:

      Same poster. I was told that the I needed to login under my blog account (which I don’t really use) in order to post. Sorry for the duplication. I am, both, Reggie Weaver and arnez5.

  13. Bruce Becker says:

    Caleb, the use of words such as “snarky,” “pontificate,” and “self-righteous” without justifying their usage is simply cat-calling and bullying. Name calling is not an argument.

    Mr. Weaver, thank you for your reasoned tone and your deferential attitude. Your respectfulness and your reasonableness speak well both of yourself and the Lord. However, it is yourself, not Mr. Gingerich, who missed key points in the debate.

    Regarding your first point, namely the distinction between Robert’s Rules and the Constitution of the PC(USA), the current BO (BO 5.0105) mandates the use of Robert’s Rules in the application of and the procedure surrounding the Constitution. Since the Constitution itself mandates use of Robert’s Rules, those rules have the force of the Constitution in the conduct of business.

    This exact same ruling on constitutional contradictions was manifest to the General Assembly on the previous day, Thursday, when Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons invoked this exact paragraph in Robert’s Rules to rule out of order an overture to remove the property “trust” clause from the Constitution. The paragraph in Robert’s Rules was pertinent and applicable to the whole Assembly’s business as demonstrated by the stated clerk’s Thursday ruling.

    That this Thursday precedent was not made very clear to the assembly was a confusing oversight at best.

    Second, the advice given by Paul Hooker from the Advisory Committee on the Constitution was utterly misleading to the point of prevarication. Mr. Hooker divided the Constitution, essentially claiming that we have “two constitutions.” This contradicts F. 3.04. The PC(USA) has one constitution, which is required to be reasonably consistent, as required by both Robert’s Rules and F. 3.03.

    Furthermore, the necessity of this consistency between the Book of Order and Book of Confessions was pointed out by other representatives of the Advisory Committee on the Constitution who appeared before Commitee 13, the commitee that recommended the same-sex matters to the floor of the GA. In testimony before the committee that contradicted Paul Hooker’s recommendadtion, two members of the ACC told Committee 13 that the Book of Worship “redefinition of marriage” could be judicially challenged later due to its contradiction of the Book of Confessions. They said essentially that the Book of Order cannot contradict the Book of Confessions.

    Third, Paul Hooker called upon discrepancies and minor contradictions about theological niceties to justify flat and bald-faced contradictions regarding the definition of marriage. There is a giant difference in the level of discrepancy between toning one’s understanding of election and the redefinition of gender. It is refined sophistry to suggest that differences in one’s understanding of decreetal theology can justify the colossal homogenization of women and men and the appropriateness of authorizing same-sex marriage. It is tantamount to claiming that automobile drivers can run all Pittsburgh stop signs just because Allegheny County has three well-known, misplaced and contradictory traffic signs posted somewhere.

    Mr. Weaver, you are perfectly correct in stating that there is no need for hyperbole. The facts are sufficient.

    • Reggie Weaver says:

      Thanks, Mr. Becker (call me Reggie). The fact still remains that what we were arguing at that point in the debate was a procedural matter. Robert’s sets forth a process for appealing the moderator’s ruling. That process was followed. To say that the 70% who voted to sustain that ruling “aren’t actually Presbyterian,” is both, unfair, and hyperbolic, especially given that the task before us was to debate the merits of a change to the Constitution. What’s more, a significant percentage of that 70% ultimately voted against the amendment. The original post makes no reference to what finally happened. If one were not in the know, he or she might be led to believe that the GA voted overwhelmingly to CHANGE our language around marriage.

      To be clear, I voted in favor of the language change. And, I believe that I did so guided by our confessions, according to the Word in the power of the Holy Spirit. Whether you believe that to be true, or not, 52% of commissioners voted against the amendment. At the very least, we do them a disservice by implying that declining to overrule the moderator, and allowing the debate to continue equates to a failure to take our Confessions seriously.

  14. Bruce Becker says:

    Reggie, your primary assertions are absolutely correct. And your claim that the title of the post is hyperbolic and misleading is also true.

    What I object to is duplicity on the part of the clerk and the head of the ACC. They disingenuously contradicted themselves by revoking a ruling on Friday that they had cheerfully used on Thursday.

    The moderator could have discerned that the body wanted to discuss the substance of the matter and ruled to set aside the “out of order” motion to be discussed later after the plenary arguments on the substance. That would have been an outrageous use of moderatorial power. But far better to do that than to do what they did–mislead the general assembly about the seriousness of the internal contradictions an amendment to only W 4.9000 would create.

    Changing the definition of marriage is a theological essential which I have wrtten about elsewhere. The evangelicals are agreed on this. The progressives, it seems to me, want to call it a procedural change due to their more permissive sexually. I could be wrong on that. However, nobody fights for 40 years for a non-essential. Nobody calls “the most critical human rights issue in America today” (same-sex marriage) a non-essential. If it is a theological essential, then change the Book of Confessions as well. That takes a 2/3 majority of the presbyteries and the approval of consecutive GA’s. I would argue against the change, but at least that approach has intellectual and relational integrity.

    To call this amendment a non-essential and then subject this change to a simple majority vote, just because denominational leaders are sympathetic to the cause and can facilitate the simple-majority process of amendment, is facile and disingenuous. It is weaselly. It is sneaky. It is a pragmatic, thoughtless change whose end justifies the means. It dishonors Jesus Christ who commanded us to “Let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes’ and your ‘No’ be ‘No’.” It is not apostolic in the manner of Paul who wrote, “We do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God.”

    Oh, and please call me, Bruce. To do other lets others know that you don’t know me.

    • arnez5 says:

      Thanks for the clarification. I’ll continue to call you Mr. Becker because I detect sarcasm in your offer to call you Bruce (perhaps I’m wrong).

      It sounds like your concern is with the genuineness and consistency of the advice given by certain leaders. That advice, of course, led to the moderator’s decision to rule the committee recommendation to be in order. Once the motion was made on whether or not to appeal his ruling, the Assembly, by implication, was then given the opportunity to determine whether or not we thought the advice he received was sound enough to proceed with the debate on the recommendation. Seventy percent of us (a number that includes many who voted against the amendment), thought it was. I agree that there should be consistency amongst our elected and paid leaders. Rev. Parsons ran unchallenged this year. Perhaps you’ll consider running against him when the post is up for re-election, or put forth a candidate.

      I’m slipping into a biting tone here, which I do not mean to do. I agree with you, again, that a change to our constitution is not a mere ”procedural” matter. I should clarify that the ”procedural” matter I have consistently referred to is whether or not to overrule the moderator, since that is the presenting concern of the original post. Because I do not take constitutional matters lightly, I, for one, would rather the Assembly have the opportunity to debate the merits of the amendment, than to have a sole moderator rule the recommendation out of order.

      With all that said, as you’ve hinted, Mr. Becker, I do not, in fact, know you. Because of that, I can only hope you are receiving this with the sincere respect with which it is intended. This is the last thing I’m going to say on this blog. But, if you’d like to hear more about why I stand where I stand, and why I feel that my position is, in fact, faithful to our Confessions, Scripture, and the work of the Spirit, I would be happy to continue this conversation elsewhere. As a commissioner, what I lamented most was that it seemed to me that conservatives/liberals, progressives/evangelicals were talking past each other. I’d welcome the opportunity to dialogue.

      • Bruce Becker says:

        Reggie, once again you are correct. The progressives and the evangelicals are talking past one another.

        I served on the Select Committee for the Study of Homosexual Ordination, Presbytery of Philadelphia, 1993-1994. Nine months. Approximately 18 meetings. Eleven members: six progressives, three evangelicals, two moderates. We grew to like each other. But on the assigned subject for nine months we talked past each other.

        Generally, three commonalities deeply affect all parties in the PC(USA) squabbles:
        (1) We are all deeply wed to the materialistic and acquisitive culture of the US. (2) We are very reluctant to invest time in getting to know people on the other side of the fence. Progressives and evangelicals do not want to be friends, let alone Christian sisters and brothers. (3) Neither side practices a Christian faith drenched in Holy Spirit power. It was the Holy Spirit and sixty years of suffering which made obvious the truth tp which Athanasius testified. Origen once said that you can tell the truth because that is where the resurrections are happening.

        Reggie, you may contact me at Birchwood Presbyterian Church, Bellingham,WA.

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