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The drought continues

National | A former mainliner sees no hope in Presbyterian assembly

Issue: "Vouching for Vouchers," Aug. 17, 1996

I am a mainstream, though not mainline, Presbyterian. In 1973 I left one branch of what is now the Presbyterian Church USA and committed myself to the emerging Presbyterian Church in America. I wanted to perpetuate the historic commitments of mainstream Presbyterianism, but found I could not do so in the mainline denomination that baptized me, received me as a communicant, and ordained me to the ministry. I continue to be an observer of the PCUSA, looking like Elijah's servant for "a cloud as small as a man's hand" signaling the promise of a rain of God's grace upon this denomination. However, I must confess that, unlike some PCUSA evangelicals, I do not see a cloud promising reformation and renewal after that denomination's 208th General Assembly which met in Albuquerque June 29-July 6. Here's why: n The mixed message on homosexuality. The General Assembly adopted, and sent down to the presbyteries for ratification, a proposed amendment to the Book of Order. The amendment requires fidelity in a marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness for ordained persons, and forbids the ordination of those who refuse "to repent of a self-acknowledged practice which the confessions call sin." No practicing homosexual will be eligible for office in the PCUSA if this amendment becomes church law. That message, however, is muddled by four factors: (1) The PCUSA continues to receive self-acknowledged, practicing homosexuals as members in good standing, whose professions of faith are accepted as credible and whose persons are welcome at the Lord's Table. Terry Schlossberg, executive director of Presbyterians Pro-Life, notes that a local Session might institute discipline for homosexual practice, but the decisions would never be upheld on appeal. All this despite the exclusion of homosexuals from the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9-10). (2) The Assembly elected as moderator John M. Buchanan: He favors ordination of homosexuals and, after the vote, allowed a 10-minute demonstration by homosexuals and their supporters who carried a large cross and sang the South African freedom song, "We are Marching in the Light of God." (3) As homosexuals were quick to point out, 43 percent of the commissioners (the vote was 331-236) were not willing to ban homosexual ordination. One commented, "We had more supportive commissioners here than ever....Even amidst the hurt and pain of the defeat we feel very good about what's happened. I heard one commissioner say that the Presbyterian Church is in the process of changing its mind ...look at where we've been in 20 years, and that vote today is remarkable." (In a statement of true but unintended double entendre, the representative of the Presbyterians for Gay and Lesbian Concerns said, "We're not going to roll over and play dead.") (4) The Assembly demonstrated its desire to be "bi" on the homosexual issue by adopting this resolution: "Affirming the Presbyterian church's historic definition of marriage as a civil contract between a man and a woman, yet recognizing that same-sex partners seek equal civil liberties in a contractual relationship with all the civil rights of married couples, we urge the Office of the Stated Clerk to explore the feasibility of entering friend-of-the-court briefs and supporting legislation in favor of giving civil rights to same-sex partners." Such schizophrenia is the fate of those who lack moral certitude and fortitude. n The clear commitment to abortion. An attempt to get the Assembly to condemn partial-birth abortion as sin failed in committee. The watered-down language of a minority report declaring that the practice "falls short of God's plan for humankind" failed on the floor of the Assembly. The PCUSA joins Planned Parenthood in not yet finding an abortion it can't approve. n The development of a "Deborah denomination." Long ago the PCUSA decided that 1 Timothy 2:12 ("I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.") is time and culture bound and proceeded to ordain women ministers and elders. Now some of the strongest defenders of biblical authority regarding homosexuality are women. Roberta Hestenes chaired the committee that presented the amendment disallowing the ordination of practicing homosexuals. Elizabeth Achtemeier has written eloquently and powerfully defending the church's historic view of abortion and homosexuality. For instance, she wrote for Presbyterians Pro-Life: "The question is, should we members of the Reformed faith, who had always exalted the written word of God as our guide, now abandon what we plainly read in the Scriptures ...? Will we just go along with the easy ways of our society's 'present darkness'? Or will we read the plain meaning of the Word of God ...?" We admire, thank God for, and pray for these courageous Deborahs. However, we cannot but wonder if the setting aside of the plain meaning of 1 Timothy 2:12 was not a watershed decision which carried with it the in evitability that the church would begin to lose its hearing on homosexuality and become stone deaf on abortion. Let us hope the PCUSA evangelical optimists are right. But from here we do not hear the "sound of abundance of rain," the "precious reviving again."

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William H. Smith
William H. Smith

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