05-12 On Adopting an Authoritative Interpretation of G-6.0108 to Ensure Proper Application of Ordination Standards.
Source: Presbytery Event:218th General Assembly (2008)
Committee:
[05-12] Church Orders and Ministry
Sponsor:
John Knox Presbytery
Topic:Unassigned Type:General Assembly Full Consideration
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Assembly Action
On this Item, the General Assembly, acted as follows:
Approve as Amended
Electronic Vote - Plenary
Affirmative: 375
Negative: 325
Abstaining: 4
Final Text:

That the 218th General Assembly (2008) to approve the following authoritative interpretation of G-6.0108 of the Book of Order:

[The 218th General Assembly (2008) affirms the authoritative interpretation of G-6.0108 approved by the 217th General Assembly (2006). Further, the 218th General Assembly (2008), pursuant to G-13.0112, interprets]the requirements of G-6.0108 [to] apply equally to all ordination standards of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Section G-6.0108 requires examining bodies to give prayerful and careful consideration, on an individual, case-by-case basis, to any departure from an ordination standard in matters of belief or practice that a candidate may declare during examination. However, the examining body is not required to accept a departure from standards, and cannot excuse a candidate’s inability to perform the constitutional functions unique to his or her office (such as administration of the sacraments).”

Committee Recommendation
On this Item, the Church Orders and Ministry Committee, acted as follows:
Approve as Amended
[Counted Vote - Committee]
Affirmative:43
Negative:15
Abstaining:0
Final Text:
Amend the second paragraph as follows: [Text to be inserted is shown with an underline and with brackets.]
 
“[The 218th General Assembly (2008) affirms the authoritative interpretation of G-6.0108 approved by the 217th General Assembly (2006). Further, the 218th General Assembly (2008), pursuant to G-13.0112, interprets] the requirements of G-6.0108 [to] apply equally to all ordination standards of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Section G-6.0108 requires examining bodies to give prayerful and careful consideration, on an individual, case-by-case basis, to any departure from an ordination standard in matters of belief or practice that a candidate may declare during examination. However, the examining body is not required to accept a departure from standards, and cannot excuse a candidate’s inability to perform the constitutional functions unique to his or her office (such as administration of the sacraments).”

 

Recommendation

The Presbytery of John Knox overtures the 218th General Assembly (2008) to approve the following authoritative interpretation of G-6.0108 of the Book of Order:

“The requirements of G-6.0108 apply equally to all ordination standards of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Section G-6.0108 requires examining bodies to give prayerful and careful consideration, on an individual, case-by-case basis, to any departure from an ordination standard in matters of belief or practice that a candidate may declare during examination. However, the examining body is not required to accept a departure from standards, and cannot excuse a candidate’s inability to perform the constitutional functions unique to his or her office (such as administration of the sacraments).”

Rationale

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 mostwhere 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 standardsto 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.

Comment
Advice from the ACC
Advice on Item 05-12—From the Advisory Committee on the Constitution.

The Advisory Committee on the Constitution advises the 218th General Assembly (2008) regarding Item 05-12 with the following comment:

The Advisory Committee on the Constitution refers the 218th General Assembly (2008) to its advice concerning Item 05-01, which sets forth the background that the Advisory Committee on the Constitution believes the assembly should consider in addressing each of the items related to ordination and installation of church officers. In particular, the Advisory Committee on the Constitution draws the assembly’s attention to the discussion of the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission’s decision in Bush v. Presbytery of Pittsburgh (Remedial Case 218-10) set forth in that advice.

This overture requests that the General Assembly approve an additional authoritative interpretation of G-6.0108 that would replace the conclusion in Bush that the authoritative interpretation of G-6.0108 approved by the 217th General Assembly (2006) does not apply to the second sentence of G-6.0106b. The Advisory Committee on the Constitution believes that such an authoritative interpretation is within the power of the 218th General Assembly (2008) to approve. The effect of such an action would be to allow governing bodies to examine a candidate regarding his or her understanding of the terms “fidelity in marriage” and “chastity in singleness,” and if the candidates understanding of those confessional standards differed from the understanding of the governing body, to determine whether the departure was from an essential of Reformed faith and polity.

In its advice to the 217th General Assembly (2006), the Advisory Committee on the Constitution explained its views as to how belief and practice are related in the specific language of G-6.0106b:

By using the phrase “practice which the confessions call sin” rather than delineating practices that bar ordination, G-6.0106b creates an intersection between belief and practice. A person can only repent of conduct he or she genuinely believes to be sinful. If a person does not believe conduct to be sinful, he or she may abstain from that conduct out of concern for the well-being of the community (e.g., 1 Corinthians 8), but he or she cannot be said to repent of that conduct. The authoritative interpretation allows an ordaining or installing governing body, when faced with a particular practice that is described as sinful at some place in the confessions, that the candidate does not believe to be sinful, to ordain or install the candidate on the basis that the candidate’s belief that the practice was not sinful does not depart from the essentials of the Reformed faith or polity. (Minutes, 2006, Part I, p. 529)

This intersection, and the proposed authoritative interpretation, only applies in the examination process for ordination or installation in the context of the specific language of G-6.0106b. It does not, for example, apply to a disciplinary allegation that an officer has acted “contrary to the Scriptures or the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).”

The Advisory Committee on the Constitution believes that the language proposed is clear in accomplishing the stated intent set forth in the rationale to this overture. However, for the sake of clarity, if the 218th General Assembly (2008) wishes to approve the proposal, the Advisory Committee on the Constitution advises that it make clear that this paragraph is supplementary to, rather than a replacement of, the authoritative interpretation of G-6.0108 approved by the 217th General Assembly (2006), as follows:

“The 218th General Assembly (2008) affirms the authoritative interpretation of G-6.0108approved by the 217th General Assembly (2006). Further, the 218th General Assembly (2008), pursuant to G-13.0112, interprets the requirements of G-6.0108 to apply equally to all ordination standards of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Section G-6.0108 requires examining bodies to give prayerful and careful consideration, on an individual, case-by-case basis, to any departure from an ordination standard in matters of belief or practice that a candidate may declare during examination. However, the examining body is not required to accept a departure from standards, and cannot excuse a candidate’s inability to perform the constitutional functions unique to his or her office (such as administration of the sacraments).”

Other Comments
Advice and Counsel on Item 05-12—From the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP).

Item 05-12 from the Presbytery of John Knox overtures the 218th General Assembly (2008) to approve an authoritative interpretation of G-6.0108.

The Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP) advises that Item 05-12 be approved, and consequently that Items 05-01, 05-02, 05-04, 05-05, 05-07, 05-10, and 05-11 be disapproved.

Rationale

Since 1978, the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP) and its predecessors have recognized that ordination issues are justice issues, linked to a range of cultural changes that have left few families untouched. At the same time, ACSWP has also been concerned that the church has sometimes been disproportionately preoccupied with these matters, weakening its witness to justice and peace in other areas of life. The 217th General Assembly (2006) action approving Paragraph 5 of the Theological Task Force on the Peace Unity, and Purity of the Church report was intended to help us live together with mutual forbearance and respect in our continuing differences on the subject of ordination. The General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission (PJC) decision of February 11, 2008 (Bush v. Presbytery of Pittsburgh, Remedial Case 218-10), has in effect returned us to a debilitating struggle with one another: a devastating outcome that has dispirited many on both sides who wanted to get on with our ministry to the world while continuing to learn from one another. We believe, with many commentators, that the PJC decision was faulty in that it singled out a single provision of the Book of Order as “essential,” despite the fact that our history has consistently given responsibility for determining what is “essential” exclusively to ordaining bodies acting in particular cases. To repair this damage, we agree with the general intent of Items 05-06, 05-08, and 05-09.

We support in particular, however, an assembly action giving a new authoritative interpretation to G-6.0108, as illustrated by Item 05-12, and we endorse its lucid rationale
.

With regard to Items 05-01, 05-02, 05-04, 05-05, 05-07, 05-10, and 05-11, these overtures would appear to continue the inordinate and even idolatrous fixation on G-6.0106b, and to represent a step backward toward further legalism in the church. We affirm the need for ethical standards regarding the whole of life, and for reasonable regulation applied fairly by councils of the church. We acknowledge the ambiguities of relying on authoritative interpretation rather than amendment to the Constitution, but affirm the wisdom of the Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church in recommending another approach to this particular subject, one that re-centered the debate on the overall “content of the character” of candidates.

With regard to Items 05-06, 05-08, and 05-09, which would remove and/or replace G-6.0106b from the Book of Order, we believe the approach of the Theological Task Force, remedied by means such as Item 05-12’s recommendation, has yet to be fully tested. We are aware that “justice delayed is justice denied.” Commissioners may logically affirm any of Items 05-6, 05-8, and 05-9, as well as 05-12, since 05-12 speaks to the overall balance that spiritual discernment seeks and not to particular matters of belief and practice. Yet by keeping belief and practice together, as “truth is in order to goodness” (G-3.0104), Item 12 would restore wholeness to the exercise of freedom of conscience. It may well be that freedom of conscience under the guidance of Scripture and the confessions is one of the Reformed “essentials of faith” beyond the primary affirmations of the Christian faith and the practices of love and justice.

An historical analogy: The action of the General Assembly of 1818 is an ironic counterpoint to the
General Assembly PJC’s February 2008 decision about scrupling. After a long and difficult debate, this General Assembly declared for the first time that slavery was an unmitigated moral evil that should be abolished as quickly as possible. Given, however, the divisive nature of the issue, the General Assembly of 1818 gave no instructions for enforcing this finding. It was left to the individual presbyteries to decide how to enforce the rule according to their own wisdom.

It should be remembered that this decision was not simply a change in church policy. For most of the 18th century, the Westminster Confession, the single confession used by the emerging Presbyterian church to judge the fitness of candidates for ordination, had served as a key prop in the argument against abolition. That assembly’s decision changed fundamentally the way this confession was understood in the church. It is particularly relevant to note that after 1818 the content or faith component was not the focus of the continuing controversy about slavery in the church. The focus was in fact the behavior of pastors, elders, deacons, and church members who continued to own slaves. To state that the church does not recognizes scruples in matters of behavior is to trivialize the long and bitter struggle to abolish slavery.