Sunday, November 13, 2011

Contradictions aplenty: an analysis of the Covenant Network's “Guidelines for Examination of Church Officers”

The day that I wrote The Covenant Network: disqualifying orthodox candidates I also sent an e-mail to one of the co-moderators of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, who is a Teaching Elder in my presbytery, explaining my concerns, directing her to my posting, and asking her a question about ordination procedures in our Sacramento Presbytery. So far I have not received a comment or answer. I believe that a non-answer about published material often implies the importance of a paper to the publisher; it is one way of protecting ideas and plans considered significant to the well being of a group. It is because of concerns both by the Covenant Network, as well as orthodox believers, who come under dire threat in this document, that I find it necessary to further evaluate “Guidelines for Examination of Church Officers.”

The biggest problem with the guidelines is the subject of my earlier paper. It attempts to provide a way to prevent Teaching Elder candidates from being accepted for ordination if they, because of conscience, cannot ordain gays and lesbians. There are several connecting issues I want to look at. The first is the contradictory nature of the Guidelines. The second is the section on “same sex relationships.” Another is historical accuracy when referencing the Reformation and sexual issues. Finally there is a moral issue that needs to be addressed which I wrote about in the earlier posting, that is, the duplicity connected to this paper.

The Contradictory nature: The most troubling part of the Guidelines is their contradictory nature and methodology. Near the beginning of the paper the authors write, “Sessions and presbyteries are always governed by these actions [GA actions confirmed by presbytery vote and GA authoritative interpretations] of the whole church—lower councils can neither ignore, nor add to, these Churchwide standards. Thus, the GAPJC has admonished that ‘no lower governing body can constitutionally define, diminish, augment or modify standards for ordination and installation of church officers.” (Italics authors) (2-3)

Nonetheless, at the end of their paper, the authors, writing about the examination of candidates who for conscience sake cannot ordain unrepentant gays and lesbians, define, augment and modify standards for ordination and installation of church offers. The authors do this by insisting that only two things can prevent a candidate for ordination from bring ordained. One is not adhering to Reformed faith the other is not adhering to Reformed polity. Referring to all cases that followed the Kenyon case, which clarified that no one could be ordained who did not ordain women, the authors insist that in the same way a candidate who will not ordain gays and lesbians cannot be ordained. (11-12)

Yet, neither the Book of Order nor any court case has yet given clear directions in the area of the ordination of gays and lesbians. It is true that Douglas Nave who helped write the Guidelines used the same argument in the case against John Knox Presbytery and the ordination of Scott Anderson, (that is, one could only be denied ordination for not being able to fulfill a ministerial duty and he pointed to not ordaining gays & lesbians as an example.) However; in doing so he did not create official polity. As the document itself states only the GA through either votes by Presbyteries or AI’s can determine official denominational polity.

On the other hand the Book of Order refers all members back to the Bible and the Confessions which the Guidelines have already stated are debatable. The Covenant Network with this paper is defining, augmenting and modifying the work of the GA and Presbyteries. And these kinds of contradictions are everywhere in the guidelines.

Same gender sexual relationships: The section on same gender relationships is also contradictory. The authors write that “there is significant disagreement about what the Bible and confessions teach in this regard.” But then they go on to lay out a defense for a supposed biblical approval of same-sex sexual relationships, never mentioning any counter argument. In fact, they recommend two “overviews” by authors, who have maligned the scholarship of Robert Gagnon the author of academic and orthodox books on the Bible and homosexuality. (7-9)

Daniel A. Helminiak after debating Gagnon at Fremont Presbyterian Church in Sacramento, California, and after admitting Gagnon uses the historical-critical method and uses it formidably, writes “On my reading, however, he is not genuinely historical-critical but has moved only half way from outright literalism to historical-critical method. He represents the dangerous thrust of the Evangelical tradition, which rests on insistence that the Bible has the first and last word on everything and which reaches its blatantly irrational epitome in the magic-like literalism of Fundamentalism.” Lifting up only Jack Rogers, Helminiak and other advocates of gay and lesbian lifestyles in a paper that insists there are two differing views is contradictory.

The truth is that no scholar has been able to prove that gay & lesbian sex is biblical without insisting that human experience should have authority over the text, leaving out some of the text, or disregarding all of the text. An example is note 18 on page 8 of the Guidelines.

The authors suggest that the only words spoken by God in the first two chapters of Genesis about sexual relationships, is “It is not good that the man should be alone.” (Genesis 2:18) And they insist that this could apply to both heterosexual and homosexual relationships. The first answer to that statement is they left out “I will make him a helper suitable for him.” Or it could be “corresponding” to him. The second and much larger part left out is all of the words that are also God’s words, which explains how God created a woman to be a suitable mate for Adam.

And the same is true of the Confessions; the authors of the Guidelines use human experience, leave out part of the text and/or leave out all of the text. Without any proof at all the authors of Guidelines suggest that the Westminster Confession where it condemns sodomy and unnatural lust (7.249) “might well be concerned with violence/rape (as existed in the story of Sodom) or with obsessive sexual interest—not with loving, covenantal partnerships.” (9)

This is a totally bogus argument because the authors of Westminster did not exegete the story of Sodom with post-modern eyes. They would therefore make no difference between same sex consensual sex and same sex rape except to see one as violence and biblical disobedience and the other as biblical disobedience minus the violence. The biblical text informed their experience not their experience the text.

But more importantly the authors of Guidelines left out all of the confessional texts that speak of marriage as between a man and a woman, that is, The Second Helvetic Confession, Chapter XXIX; The Westminster Confession of Faith Chapter XXIV; The Confession of 1967 9.47. They also ignored the Book of Order which sees same gender sex as outside of the biblical order since it always refers to man and women when speaking of marriage.

To add to this problem of only half way addressing texts and contradiction, the Guidelines paper insists that fornication, sex out side of marriage, is acceptable. They base their belief on the constitutional statement that “there is an inseparable connection between faith and practice, truth and duty’ (f-3.0104), and that the decisions of church councils ‘are not to be made the rule of faith or practice, but to be used as a help in both’ (6.175). But what a huge amount of explanatory material they left out:
The truth is in order to goodness; and the great touchstone of truth, its tendency to promote holiness, according to the Savior’s rule, “By their fruits you shall know them.” And that no opinion can either be more pernicious or more absurd than that which brings truth and falsehood upon a level, and represents it as of no consequence what a man’s opinions are. On the contrary, we are persuaded that there is an inseparable connection between faith and practice, truth and duty. Otherwise it would be of no consequence either to discover truth or to embrace it.
And this is addressed to the ordained officer of the church who is to discipline in order to cast out “the erroneous and scandalous” (F-3.0103). Certainly sex outside of marriage is unbiblical and sinful. So writing that fornication is acceptable as a Christian practice is setting truth and falsehood on the same level. Instead biblical truth calls for the Christian to follow Jesus Christ in both purity of mind, heart and body. (1 Thess. 4:2-6; 1Cor. 6:9-11; Romans 12: 1-2; Matt. 5:8; 1 Peter 1:1-15)

Reformation: The authors of the Guidelines, when addressing gay and lesbian sexual relationships and the Reformation seemingly put an emphasis on the insistence of the Roman Catholic Church that priests be celibate. They write “At issue were matters of both belief (like the primacy of Scripture) and personal conduct (like a requirement that all clergy must be celibate).” (4) In another place writing of the various changes in sexual ethics they write, “Leaders of the Reformation rejected the Roman Catholic rule that all clergy must be celibate.”(9)

But this is again an elusive reference to both sexual ethics and the Reformation. It says little. The Reformers were very clear. Marriage between a man and a woman was biblical. Just as it was unbiblical to insist that all pastors stay celibate, it was unbiblical for the clergy to live with a woman outside of marriage. And with great compassion Martin Luther tells those priests who are living with a woman and who have children to pay no attention to the Pope’s rules, but to marry according to Scripture. And certainly it would be unbiblical to allow same sex sexual relationships. All was predicated from the biblical text. For the Reformers the Scripture was primary; all of life including sexual morals must conform to the word of God.

And since the authors writing about the Reformation and sexual issues are also discussing the liberty of the conscience and make reference to two chapters in the Institutes of Calvin it is important to clarify. Calvin insists that the Christian is above the law—has liberty from the law because the believer is justified by Christ, comes before the judgment seat of God clothed only in Christ’s righteousness and yet in the same chapter Calvin writes:
Still, it cannot be rightly inferred from this that believers have no need of the law. It ceases not to teach, exhort, and urge them to the good, although it is not recognized by their consciences before the judgment seat of God. These two things are very different, and should be well and carefully distinguished. The whole lives of Christians ought to be a kind of aspiration after piety, seeing they are called unto holiness (Eph 1.4; 1 Thess. Iv. 50. The office of the law is to excite them to the study of purity and holiness, by reminding them of their duty. (Book III, Chapter XIV. 2.)
And when, in the same chapter Calvin explains that liberty of conscience has to do with things indifferent, he also writes:
Let my readers only bear in mind, first that whatever be the offences by which Satan and the world attempt to lead us away from the law of God, we must nevertheless strenuously proceed, we are not at liberty to deviate one nail’s breadth from the command of God, that on no pretext is it lawful to attempt anything but what he permits. (Book III, Chapter XIV. 13.)
Duplicity. The duplicity of this paper lies in actions and words occurring back several years. I am thinking of words that speak of unity, peace and purity, words that even now plead for unity and peace within the denomination. Recently Mary Lynn Tobin and David A, Van Dyke, Co-Moderators of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, signed a statement about the Fellowship of Presbyterians. The last paragraph in the statement is:
We urge the brothers and sisters of the “Fellowship” who are looking for “a place to stand” to join the rest of the PC(USA) in seeking to stand humbly under the Lordship of Jesus Christ (G-2.0104b). When our differing interpretations of Scripture lead us to divergent understandings of what faithfulness to Christ entails, may we bear with one another in love, firm in the conviction that nothing in all creation can separate any of us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
I can only ask, did they really mean that, because the “Guidelines for Examination of Church Officers” speaks differently. Its speech is hard and its words seem to be saying, “We now have what we want so please go. You are good Christians but we really don’t want you standing beside us anymore.”

[1] If and when I do receive an answer I will add it to this paper.

[2]For this statement the Guidelines references John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (1559) BK. III, Ch. 19 and BK. IV, Ch.10 (John T McNeill, ed.) (Ford Lewis Battles, trans.) (Philadelphia Westminster Press, 1960) and long with a journal article.

[3]See Works of Martin Luther vol. two, (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg 1943)121-22.

[4] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Trans. Henry Beveridge, 1559, reprint (Grand Rapids: W.M. B. Publishing Company 1989).

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