There is an ongoing controversy in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) about the PC (U.S.A.)’s Book of Confessions. Although it is a serious controversy, which began with the 220th General Assembly, many members may be unaware of it or its consequences. It is, in fact, in my opinion, the most serious controversy in the denomination at the moment since all essential Christian beliefs could potentially fall because of the one ruling that occurred at the General Assembly.
The controversy began when the Stated Clerk make a ruling, using Roberts Rules of Order, that a motion was out of order because it contradicted the Constitution of the denomination. Before the debate over same sex marriage began with recommendation 1304 to amend the Book of Order W-4.9000 to two persons rather than a man and a woman, commissioner, Dr. James Goodloe, using the earlier ruling, asked the Moderator of the GA, if the recommendation should not be ruled out of order since it contradicted the first part of the denominations constitution, the Book of Confessions.
Goodloe stated this because there are at least three places in three different confessions in the Book of Confessions where marriage is defined as between a man and a woman. If the Book of Order was changed to two persons, implying that same gender marriages was acceptable the two different books which make up the PC (U.S.A.)’s constitution would be in contradiction.
The question was tossed to the Stated Clerk who tossed it to Paul Hooker from the Advisory Committee on the Constitution. Hooker advised that it was not a problem because the constitution was filled with confessions which spanned over a thousand years, that they were broad theological perspectives, and that some of them were in disagreement with others. What he failed to acknowledge was that not only is there no disagreement among the confessions on marriage consisting of a man and woman, there is no essential Christian teaching that is contradicted among the confessions in the Book of Confessions. The moderator ruled that the recommendation was in order.
Here is a video of that event:
Recently Goodloe wrote a letter to General Assembly Moderator Neal Presa and Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons advising them of additional statements about the Book of Confessions which he had found in the PC (U.S.A.)’s Book of Order, statements he believes add to his concerns about changing the Book of Order when it contradicts the Book of Confessions. (The full letter can be read at the Layman) The reader should note in Paul Hooker’s advice he seemed to give greater authority to the Book of Order which he states is more recent and “contains the standards by which we operate.”
Moderator Presa now, via video and a written statement, has attempted to answer the letter without stating clearly why he is doing so. Here is the video of his statement:
The written statement can be found here
Moderator Presa in a sense paraphrases what the Book of Order states. Goodloe in his letter pointed to F-2.01:
The creeds and confessions of this church arose in response to particular circumstances within the history of God’s people. They claim the truth of the Gospel at those points where their authors perceived that truth to be at risk. They are the result of prayer, thought, and experience within a living tradition. They appeal to the universal truth of the Gospel while expressing that truth within the social and cultural assumptions of their time. They affirm a common faith tradition, while also from time to time standing in tension with each other.
Reformed Christians from the 16th century to today have sought to respond to God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ for their particular time, location, and context through various confessions, catechisms, declarations and statements. We take seriously the authority of these confessions balanced with the freedom and obligation of communities to discern the will and mind of Christ for their time and their context. We have sought to subscribe not to any one expression of faith, but a multiplicity of expressions: 11 creeds, confessions, catechisms, declarations, and statements. We recognize these confessions to be authoritative, not authoritarian. For at the end of the day, those confessions don’t press the voting keypads in our assemblies and councils.
But please notice the difference. The Book of Order is insisting that our forefathers in the faith, “claimed the truth of the gospel” in the midst of the “assumptions” of their society. Presa on the other hand sees them seeking to respond “to God’s self revelation in Jesus Christ for their particular time, location, and context,” adding that this was via their various confessional documents. The first view holds on to an essential and keeps it in the midst of changing times. The latter seeks for what to say in the midst of changing times. There is a difference. The first as Goodloe points out in his letter affirms a common tradition. The latter possibly changes the faith of the church.
Presa goes on to state, “So as a confessional church with a multiplicity of confessions of faith, we trust in the triune God’s divine sovereignty and human responsibility, the interplay of confessional authority with community responsibility.” But what does that mean that beside God’s divine sovereignty we trust in human (community) responsibility? (There is even a later hint that we must be careful of idolatry when using the confessions to guide.) We must not and cannot trust in human responsibility when it comes to our faith. We can only trust, and must, in the scriptures and use the Confessions as a means of understanding the essentials of the faith.
The question has never been answered-instead both Hooker and Presa have simply ignored the issue. If the Confessions define marriage as between a man and a woman, and they do, then if the Book of Order is changed to say marriage is between two people there will be a contradiction within the constitution of the denomination. And there will be much more; rather than there being idolatry of the constitution there will be the idolatry of embracing decadent western culture and society.
And there is yet more. One by one we will let go of the essentials of the faith as we ignore our confessions. Now everything is technically up for grabs. One can envision in years to come a ruling that suggests it is possible that Jesus was not the unique Incarnation and it will not matter that the Confessions insist that Jesus is unique. It isn't just that Hooker, Parsons and Presa ruled that the recommendation was in order, at the same time, with their comments and advice; they have ruled that the Book of Order holds more authority than the Book of Confessions.
 It should be noted here that Hooker does not answer the main part of Goodloe’s question; he never states whether changing the definition of marriage to two persons would contradict all definitions of marriage in the Book of Confessions, which it would.