Presbyterian Church limits ability of presbyteries to express theological consensus

Last week the highest court of the Presbyterian Church (USA) issued three rulings all of which are generally perceived as being favorable to theological progressives and unfavorable to evangelicals. Here I’ll discuss a decision dealing with the limits of the authority of presbyteries to establish and express a theological consensus within its ministry and bounds.

The other two cases (which I’ll discuss later this week) deal respectively with defining the fiduciary duty of a presbytery when it allows congregations within its bounds be dismissed from the denomination, and the whether a presbyterian teaching elder can be disciplined for violating the definition of marriage found in the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church USA by being married in a same sex civil union in a church outside of the PCUSA and by ministers other than presbyterian ministers. Stay tuned.

The Decision

The first of these cases is Gerald J. Larson, et al. v. Presbytery of Los Ranchos (Remedial Case 221-04, hereafter Larson). This case arose after the Presbytery of Los Ranchos adopted a resolution addressed to those seeking membership in presbytery informing them of the expectation that a minister act in accordance with the witness of Scripture including “fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness…”

Presbytery claimed that it had the authority to enact such a requirement under the presbytery’s authority to issue statements that, “bear testimony against any error in doctrine and immorality in life, resolve questions of doctrine and discipline, give counsel in matters of conscience and decide issues properly brought before them under the provisions of the Book of Order (G-3.0102).

Since the resolution passed by presbytery attached an implied action to it’s statement (i.e., it put candidates and ministers on notice that if they could not abide by the policy they would not be allowed to minister in the bounds of presbytery) the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission (GAPJC) determined that the presbytery had exceeded its authority. Presbyteries are free to stop candidates or ministers joining their presbytery (for theological and/or moral reasons), however the sole basis for such an exclusion is a “case-by-case” examination.

They also found that the policy was essentially an “improper restatement of the church’s constitution. Effectively, the policy is attempting to act as if the language of the church’s constitution has not been changed to omit fidelity and chastity.

Commentary

It seems that the GAPJC is attempting to balance the unity of the denomination (as a single organization with universal standards for officers) with the right of presbyteries to give expression to local theological and ministry values. In general, the Presbyterian Church (USA) has tended to give priority to national standards over local ones. This balancing act is going to become progressively more difficult for the court, something alluded to in several of the decision where the court bemoans the fact that they are being called upon to make adjudicate matters in the absence of clear guidance from the General Assembly itself.

In my opinion, this decision is not disastrous for evangelicals, however it is disheartening in that it restricts the right of a presbytery to have a collective conscience on important matters. This restriction does, to be fair, cut both ways. Theoretically this decision precludes a presbytery from requiring an evangelical minister to affirm the legitimacy of same sex marriage before examination. Of course, it does preserve the right of the presbytery to reject a minister upon examination which could be an alternative way of producing the same result.

The single most difficult by-product of the decision is the way in which it puts increasing weight on the examination of candidates and ministers by councils. In other words, this decision will add to the intensity of presbytery examinations. My fear is that these examinations will become proxy wars (perhaps more than they already are) between parties to a theological dispute within the church. This is, long term, an untenable situation.

Larson does mean push evangelicals one step toward further removing themselves from participation in the processes and structures of the church. After all, even where there is relative uniformity of theological outlook it is now impermissible to guarantee that will continue short of a concerted effort to repeatedly not sustain the examinations of candidates–something many find to be distressing.

A result of this will be increased urgency for affiliating with a group like the Fellowship of Presbyterians as a way of differentiating from the PCUSA and attempting to find the theological consensus and mutual encouragement that’s produced from a shared vision of ministry, something lacking for evangelicals in most presbyteries.

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