Presbyterians and Ordination

Reader be warned – the road ahead contains lots of Presby-speak (lingo only a Presbyterian could love). Proceed at your own risk…of utter boredom.

The Presbyterians are in the national and local headlines this morning. I want to share this space to say why I am happy about the recent decisions of the church and believe it heralds a new day of peace, unity, and purity.

Presbyterians, from the beginning, have been and are a contentious lot. Much of the contention swirls around the issue of ordination.

For those who may not know, Presbyterians ordain three different officers as leaders in the denomination – Ministers of Word and Sacrament, Elders, and Deacons. Congregations call, train, and ordain elders and deacons to be spiritual leaders, and presbyteries (regional governing bodies) ordain Ministers of Word and Sacrament.

In the earliest days of Presbyterianism, both in its Continental (England, Scotland, and Geneva) and American versions, huge fights broke out about who may or may not be ordained. At various points in our history you would not be allowed to be ordained if you were a woman, a freed slave, divorced, a dancer, or a drinker of spirits (Holy or otherwise). Churches split, new denominations formed, and families divided over these questions. At times, it seemed the Presbyterian Church would not survive its increasing diversity in this diverse land.

Beginning in the late 1970’s, the fight moved to the question of homosexuality; namely, should homosexual persons who were in committed, monogamous relationships be ordained if a local congregation or presbytery chose to do so. The fighting over the question was intense. The church remained divided right down the middle. Affinity groups were formed on both sides of the issue, and they lobbied the General Assembly (the national governing body) and the presbyteries relentlessly.

In 1996, the General Assembly voted to add a provision to the Book of Order, called “Amendment B”, which reads:

“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 (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.”

The effect of this amendment was to lift one element of a person’s life above all others in considering whether to ordain him or her. It in essence told all presbyteries and congregations that if they had a candidate for ordination who was a deeply committed follower of Jesus Christ, a strong member of the church, and faithful in his or her relationship with a partner, they could not ordain such a person simply because of her or his sexuality.

The Presbyterian Church (USA) has lived with this amendment for the last fifteen years, and the results have been dismal. Because the amendment was placed upon a church that was split down the middle on the question, the church has fought bitterly about the question every time it gathered. At times it has felt like Presbyterians could talk about nothing else. The amendment has damaged the life of the church, and it has not brought about peace, unity, or purity.

At the General Assembly meeting in 2010, a new amendment was approved and sent out to the 173 presbyteries for ratification. It is called “Amendment 10-A” and it reads:

“Standards for ordained service reflect the church’s desire to submit joyfully to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all aspects of life (G-1.0000). The governing body responsible for ordination and/or installation (G.14.0240; G-14.0450) shall examine each candidate’s calling, gifts, preparation, and suitability for the responsibilities of office. The examination shall include, but not be limited to, a determination of the candidate’s ability and commitment to fulfill all requirements as expressed in the constitutional questions for ordination and installation (W-4.4003). Governing bodies shall be guided by Scripture and the confessions in applying standards to individual candidates.”

What this new amendment does is reassert the old Presbyterian tradition of honoring the conscience, making room for the Spirit, and allowing local governing bodies the leeway to examine candidates for ordination on a case by case basis. It does not say that sessions and presbyteries MUST ordain gay ministers, elders, and deacons; it says they MAY ordain gay ministers, elders, and deacons.

In other words, if a session is examining a candidate for elder, they may consider all aspects of her or his life and faith, including his or her sexual life, and after taking all things into consideration make a judgment about whether or not that person is “submitting joyfully to Jesus Christ in all aspects of life.” It is not a lessening of standards, but a toughening and broadening of them.

Most importantly, it recognizes that the group most in a position to examine a person’s life and faith and judge his or her suitability for ordination is the body that is examining him or her, the body that knows him or her.

It seems that this amendment has captured the imagination of the entire church and is being widely embraced as a way forward. To date, nineteen presbyteries that previously voted no on this question have changed their votes to yes, among them South Alabama, North Alabama, Arkansas, and Middle Tennessee. As of last night, 88 of the 173 presbyteries have voted yes, which is enough to ratify the amendment. That’s why you are seeing the newspaper headlines today. The voting will conclude on July 10, at which time the new amendment will take effect.

One of the reasons I am a Presbyterian, and one of the main reasons I pastor the particular church I do, is because I think the mark of a healthy church is the willingness to talk about important issues in a spirit of unity. Anyone who knows me or First Presbyterian, Franklin, will know that whenever we get ten people in a room, there are at least twelve different opinions. But these opinions are always thoughtful, engaging, and, best of all, shared in a spirit of love and unity. The give and take we share, for example, at Wednesday Night Live, is evidence of what the church can look like when it is debating tough questions in a healthy way.

I know that there will be many in this congregation who will disagree with me about the value of this amendment. I will look forward to the conversations I will have with them (as well as with those who agree) in days to come. But I have no doubt that our congregation will continue to embody the best of the Reformed Tradition – honest engagement, thoughtful reflection, and a commitment to unity in the bond of faith.

I am also filled with joy that there will never again be a person, here or elsewhere in the Presbyterian Church (USA) who will automatically have the door to leadership closed because of their sexuality. Instead they will be given the chance to share their faith in Jesus Christ and the fullness of their lives, and be judged on the whole, and not the part.

The distinctive Presbyterian dance throughout our history has been the dance of trying to preserve peace, unity, and purity in the way we follow Jesus Christ. It is a tricky dance, and it is never perfect. However, this morning I am filled with joy and hope that we have taken an important step.

O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable are God’s judgments
and how inscrutable God’s ways!
For from God
and through God
and to God are all things.
To God be glory in the church
and in Christ Jesus
to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

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15 thoughts on “Presbyterians and Ordination

  1. Thank you for sharing and clarifying this important topic with us all. Certainly I am not in a position to throw stones – anyone? Thank God for peace, unity and purity!

  2. I believe the Biblical standard is more important than our current modern society's standard. There are a number of churches within the PCUSA that are preparing a new way now to leave. Some of these churches are very large and the denomination will be diminished again. It has already lost a lot of people over the years; they have lost them to churches where the Biblical standard and truth are preached.

  3. Thanks for the continuing comments. The hardest part of this process (no matter which way decisions go), is the very real grief people feel, including people I love and respect. I have provided care for many years to persons who were grieved by the church's previous position, and I hope to be able to love and care for those who are now grieving.I hate to see any congregation (large or small) leave the denomination, since we are brothers and sisters in the faith together. It is also sad that people and churches might leave in order to "hear preaching that holds to the biblical standard." I can only speak to the ones I know, but the pcusa is filled with preachers who uphold biblical standards, including this one.

  4. Great post, Chris. I hope that the Presbyterians deal with this issue better than we Episcopalians have. I heard Gene Robinson speak a couple of years ago and I found him to be smug and condescending–and I'm on his side.

  5. Pastor Chris,How do you reconcile this physical behavior with the teaching of the new testament and the actions of our God in the old testament. I understand that we all receive our salvation through grace, and I certainly would never have gotten here based on my behavior. However, we are not talking about repentence and forgiveness. We are talking about condoning the behavior in our leadership and role models. I think homosexual is a homogenized term used to describe this behavior, and it is ridiculous to use the term gay. I agree that an end to the debate is welcome. It has upset me off and on for these 30 plus years. This and the sideshow we had about reimaging God. I'm one of your fans, and I love our church but I don't know where to go from here. Sincerely, John Sakich

  6. I have been so happy at this move toward inclusiveness. And I've appreciated your comments, especially in sermon today, Chris – reminding of the bedrock basics that unite us all.

  7. Thanks John and Cindy. Cindy, I really do believe that the things uniting us are far stronger than what might divide us. I am grateful for the witness of FIrst, Franklin in this regard.John, you've hit on the major issue for a lot of folks, and it is one I completely understand. For many, it comes down to the act of intimacy itself, and whether two people of the same gender sharing that act is inherently sinful. A related issue is, of course, how we interpret Scripture, and particularly those passages that do not shed a favorable light on homosexuality. I am heading out for staff retreat now, but I promise to write another comment later tomorrow that will try and address my perspective on these questions. Thanks for being willing to share your thoughts. I respect your point of view and look forward to more conversation.Chris

  8. You located this vote within its historical context and its theological tradition, pointing out that the discussion around ordination standards should be larger than personal opinion. Thank you! I am joyful that the standards of leadership have become fully in line with the mission of the church- participation in the ministry of Jesus Christ, and I am thankful for all church leaders, present and future! I am really looking forward to being back in the First Presbyterian community this summer. Thanks again.Sarah Cairatti

  9. I promised a further response, and I'm sorry it is a bit late. I think the way we interpret Scripture is an important, if not THE most important aspect of the thirty year debate the Presbyterians have had about homosexuality. Anyone who worships in our church knows that we take the Bible seriously. It is the witness to Jesus Christ, and we believe Christ ministers to the church through the words of Holy Scripture. So it is important to listen to the witness of Scripture on this as well as many other issues.However, once you actually look in the Bible for what it has to say regarding same gender sexual relations, you find very few passages that deal with the topic. They are Genesis 19, Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, Romans 1:26-27, and 1 Corinthians 6:9. These are the only five explicit passages, but they do paint same sex relations in a negative light. It would be hard in this space to write a full-blown synopsis of the various interpretations of these five passages, so I will simply say here that there is a great deal of dispute regarding the proper way to read these texts. For example, Leviticus condemns "a man lying with a man as with a woman," as an "abomination." However, it also condemns the eating of pork as an "abomination," along with a number of other acts that we routinely engage in without a second thought. The Levitical law forbids wearing clothing that mixes different types of material, clipping one's beard at the edges, cross-breeding animals, eating meat with blood in it, eating lobster, ordaining anyone who can't walk or has poor eyesight. Leviticus imposes the death penalty on children who dishonor their parents (20:9). Later, in leviticus 20:13, it imposes the death penalty on homosexuals. So the question has to be asked regarding Leviticus – on what basis do we obey only one verse in the Law and not another? At the very least, a close examination should cause us to recognize that the Bible says a great many things about many things – and sexuality is only a small fraction of the overall witness. It will be important for us to compare Scripture with Scripture, place Scripture in historical context, and, most of all, read all Scripture in the light of Christ, the lens through which we should interpret all biblical texts.Faithful people in the Presbyterian Church have read the Scriptures in this way and have come to radically different conclusions. I continue to believe the recent actions of the church have made room at the table for people of faith to draw differing conclusions. It is only as we continue to wrestle with these and other passages of Scripture that we might be able to find common ground. I think it might be fruitful for our congregation to host a few evenings of presentations and discussions on this topic, so that we could get together face to face in a spirit of love and faith and talk with one another. I will look at possibilities for that shortly. In the meantime, I would welcome a one-on-one conversation at any time.Peace,Chris

  10. It takes a courageous person to say, especially from the pulpit, "I don't know". Thank you for your message today. The more I learn about God, the more questions I have. Many times the answer is "I don't know". What I do know is that God reveals love in its purest form. My prayer is that I can share a little bit of that love every day.

  11. I am always amazed at the profound simplicity of the Lord’s Prayer. Read it carefully – it is not about ME, it is about US. Whether or not we like it, we are inextricably bound together as a people. We are comfortable gathering with people of like-minds, but inevitably find that most of our daily living involves interaction with those who are not only different from us, but frequently radically different. To survive we must learn to tolerate, accept, understand, include and sometimes invite into our lives those we perceive as different. Perhaps a better word is love in its most inclusive context. Our alternative is to hate, fear, shun, criticize and in the most extreme, annihilate them. No discerning reader would justify the latter on Biblical terms. Neither the ancient church nor the modern church is about ME. It is about US. No congregation can exist for long simply because it is committed to dogma, creeds, ritual, tradition, and my favorite, “Biblical truth.” I welcome those with differing views than myself, but my interpretation of the teaching of Jesus can be boiled down to “stop nitpicking and look at the big picture!” As a Jew he often declined to abide by the letter of the law in favor of inclusiveness. I end by calling attention to the words of Jesus in Matthew, not as proof of my ideas (which can’t be expressed in one verse), but simply because it succinctly shouts his many expressions of inclusiveness – “Come unto me all ye…and I will give you rest.” I am confident that Jesus would not only have voted for the resolution to include homosexuals, he would have led the way. Read carefully – I think he already did.J.D. Taylor

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