Response to General Assembly
By now most of you have learned about the 2006 General Assembly's action in Birmingham. While I chose to make a brief comment during our Services of Worship on June 25, the action of the General Assembly deserves more than a few minutes of comment. The decision of the General Assembly was to make a new Authoritative Interpretation of the following passage in the Book of Order, one part of the PCUSA Constitution.
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, 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. (G6- 0106b)
In an age of sexual confusion, this uniform standard has helped to keep the mainline Presbyterian Church from becoming a mirror image of our culture. It has been this passage, and the former Authoritative Interpretation of it, that has been the touch stone for our church"s judicial system as it determined challenges to this part of our Constitution.
Four years ago, a Peace, Unity, and Purity Task Force was created. Practically its focus was on how to keep the PCUSA from splitting. (It was called the PUP Task Force, because all officers take a vow to uphold the peace, unity, and the purity of the church, even when they seem in tension.) When the Taskforce made their final report they announced that they still disagreed on gay ordination, but they were unanimous in making seven recommendations. The PUP report's opening theological statements about Jesus as only Lord and Savior were very strong and very reassuring.
However, from the releasing of the report last August, Recommendation 5 was controversial. It called for a new Authoritative Interpretation from General Assembly which would establish a more thorough process of examination, while at the same time giving ordaining bodies more leeway, in making exemptions to established standards. In theory, every Session and presbytery is still bound by the Book of Order standard G6- 0106b.
However it is very possible (and some say likely) that a PCUSA Session will utilize this new Authoritative Interpretation to make exemptions in who it ordains to be elders or deacons, or that a presbytery could make exemptions, in who it ordains to the office of pastor or elder. And, since this new Authoritative Interpretation represents the will of the General Assembly, it is unclear how a Judicial Commission may determine any challenge to an exemption made by a presbytery or Session.
Some have heard the comments of former Moderator and champion of Presbyterian mission Marge Carpenter made during the floor debate on the PUP report: I am against the ordination of homosexuals, though I love 'em. But we've been fighting in this ditch for 28 years and the ditch is getting deeper. It's starting to affect our mission work, our youth ministry and our evangelism and I'm ready to try something else. Please, let's get on with being the church, taking the gospel into the world and offering them something else other than arguments.
I completely identify with Marge Carpenter's sentiments. My entire professional life in the Presbyterian Church has been marked by this on-going controversy. Like many of my colleagues I am wearied by years of debate over the issue of ordination qualifications. However, despite being weary, I don't agree that "we should try something else. Something else seems to me to abandon the clear teaching of the Bible, compromise the authority of the Bible and abandon the consistent, historical position of the Church. However, many of my colleagues in the PCUSA disagree with me. After long debate the 2006 Birmingham Assembly gave approval by 57% to 43%. So we're not in Kansas anymore. Some say the sky is falling, and others say little will change.
Here's how Good Shepherd's leaders have and are responding.
First, we are monitoring the situation. In May the Session sent a unanimously signed letter to all our brothers and sisters in Eastern Oklahoma voicing our dissent with the General Assembly, indicating a reduction in our giving to the PCUSA, and inviting Sessions into dialogue with us. Following the action of General Assembly our General Presbyter, Greg Coulter has assured the Presbytery that the standards of G6.0106b will be upheld here in Eastern Oklahoma Presbytery.
Second, we are continuing to network with other Presbyterians who favor strong biblical standards. We are networking with other Congregations through the New Wineskins Movement. We will seek God's will as to how we can best be faithful and effective as the church of Jesus Christ, and move in a calm and spiritually-centered manner, seeking to honor Christ in all of our conversations.
Third, I think we should each renew our commitment to Good Shepherd during this season of discernment. Kim and I, are committed to Good Shepherd, and we ask the same from you. Let's not let frustration distract us from the crucial work we're doing.
Some of us are life-long, loyal Presbyterians. There is a temptation to lower the standards for the sake of making peace or somehow keeping unity. Please support your pastor and elders as we seek ways to maintain peace, unity, and purity and trust us as we explore ways to be biblically-based and faithfully Presbyterian.
Some of us are relatively new, coming to Good Shepherd from more conservative congregations, yet longing for a more gracious and loving church that embraced biblical standards. Please know that you were correct; Good Shepherd is gracious, loving and does believe in biblical standards. Our recently published brochure, Basic Beliefs, detailed those beliefs. I ask you to give us time to discern our faithful response if those standards aren't honored elsewhere.
There is much that is uncertain but this much is certain, this congregation belongs to Jesus Christ. Every Congregation where Jesus Christ is named as Lord together comprise the bride of Christ. Even when that bride is ugly or unfaithful, he will not abandon her. Our hope is not in our peace, unity, or purity, but in his righteousness, his faithfulness, and his life-giving power. In that we can be certain.