The 2006 Authoritative Interpretation. The 217th General Assembly (2006) approved an authoritative interpretation of G-6.0108 (Minutes, 2006, Part I, pp. 514-15) reminding the church of several important principles. First, ordination standards are set by the whole church, and must be applied in all cases by sessions and presbyteries. Second, in applying our ordination standards, sessions and presbyteries must make case-by-case assessments whether the particular candidate before them departs from any standard in a way that constitutes a failure to adhere to “essentials” of Reformed faith and polity (thus barring the candidate from ordained service).
Conscience and Ordination Standards. Section G-6.0108, the 217th General Assembly (2006)’s authoritative interpretation of it, our Historic Principles of Church Order (G-1.0300), and centuries of Presbyterian history all require that ordination standards be applied with respect for the candidate’s freedom of conscience in interpreting Scripture. The Apostle Paul urged the early church to respect the individual conscience (Rom. 14:1-13, Gal. 5:1-6, Col. 2:16-23). John Calvin declared that “The whole case rests on this: if God is the sole lawgiver, men are not permitted to usurp the honor” (Institutes, Bk. IV, Ch. 10 § 8). The Westminster Confession of Faith warns that “making men the lords of our faith and conscience” is idolatrous, and prohibited by the First Commandment (The Book of Confessions,§ 7.215). Respecting conscience in the application of standards is not mere compromise or pragmatism-rather, it reflects our deep theological conviction that biblically formed conscience is the sacred court in which each individual stands accountable before God.
The Duty of Mutual Forbearance. The Historic Principles of Church Order (G-1.0305) recognize that “there are truths and forms with respect to which men of good characters and principles may differ,” and “in all these we think it the duty both of private Christians and societies to exercise mutual forbearance toward each other.” In fulfillment of this duty, G-6.0108 as authoritatively interpreted by the 217th General Assembly (2006) requires ordaining bodies to consider whether any candidate’s departures from scriptural or constitutional standards “constitute a failure to adhere to the essentials of Reformed faith and polity.” Departures that do not touch on essentials may be the sort over which Christians “of good character and principles” can disagree, making the practice of forbearance possible. This duty, of consistently evaluating all departures from the standards and considering in each case whether there is a possibility of forbearance, is not simply a practical expedient for making the church’s life run more smoothly. It is a faithful attempt to live out the Gospel command to imitate God’s own patience toward sinners by practicing forbearance toward our fellow Christians (Eph. 4:1-3, Phil. 2:3-11, Col. 3:12-13, 2 Tim. 2:24-25).
Examinations for Ordained Service. Section G-6.0108, as authoritatively interpreted by the 217th General Assembly (2006), makes clear that individuals may declare principled objections (what we historically have called “scruples”) to our ordination standards, with respect to both belief and behavior. In all cases, sessions and presbyteries must give prayerful and careful consideration to such declarations, with due respect for freedom of conscience. However, sessions and presbyteries exercise collective discernment during examination, and are not required to accept a person’s departure from standards; a scruple may be rejected if the body believes that the matter at issue is so important-that is, “essential”-it renders the candidate incapable of communion with the church (Adopting Act of 1729). Moreover, an examining body cannot find a person fit for office unless that person is willing to perform all of the constitutional functions unique to his or her office (e.g. a person aspiring to serve the church as a minister of Word and Sacrament must be willing and able to administer the sacraments).
Identifying “Essentials.” The Presbyterian church has always resisted efforts to define “essentials” in the abstract. When a person has been elected to serve, that person’s fitness must be assessed in light of his or her statement of faith, answers to questions posed during examination, demonstrated manner of life, interaction with the session or presbytery over the course of care, fit for the particular position to which he or she has been elected, and reasons (scriptural, theological, and intentional) for declaring a departure from our standards. Where the examining body determines that a departure must be considered “essential” with regard to a particular candidate, that person may not be ordained or installed. In all cases, however, we require that assessments of fitness be made pursuant to a conversation, not a checklist. For any governing body to declare a standard “essential” in the abstract, for all time and persons, is wholly at odds with the historic practice and theological commitments of the Presbyterian church.
A Single Exception. In Bush v. Presbytery of Pittsburgh (Remedial Case 218-10, decided February 11, 2008), the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission held that one standard— “the requirement to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman ... or chastity in singleness” (G-6.0106b)—should be elevated above all other standards, so as to permit no consideration of departures. That holding was contrary to our Constitution, history, and theology as Presbyterians.
The Effect of This Overture. Freedom of conscience and the practice of forbearance mean nothing unless they are respected on issues over which faithful Presbyterians disagree. In Bush, the GAPJC rendered conscience irrelevant and prohibited consideration of forbearance precisely where they matter most—where there is genuine disagreement that threatens the unity of the church. This overture would not repeal the standard set forth in the second sentence of G-6.0106b, but would restore it to its proper status as one among many standards—to be faithfully applied in case-by-case assessments of fitness. In doing so, it would restore theological integrity to the way our standards are applied; return us to the sound Presbyterian tradition that has prevented and healed schisms over past centuries; respect the efforts of the 217th General Assembly (2006) to end thirty years of polarized debate on intractable differences; and enable the church to refocus its energies on outreach and mission, to the glory of God and the service of Jesus Christ in the world.