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Stricken standards

National | Conservative exodus? Mainline Presbyterians OK gay pastors and advance "creeping universalism"

Issue: "Trading places," June 30, 2001

Hundreds of Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) pastors across the country are scrambling to hold their congregations together.

At issue: a decision on June 15 by the PCUSA's policymaking body, the 560-member General Assembly, to strip moral requirements from the denomination's ordination standards and make it possible for sexually active homosexuals to be ministers, elders, and deacons.

Before the action can take effect, a majority of the 173 regional PCUSA presbyteries must ratify it over the coming year. The vote could be close, church leaders say. In 1997, a sizable minority of presbyteries, 74, voted not to accept ordination rules that contained the moral standards. And in the last round of presbytery voting, a slim majority voted to block an assembly-approved ban on PCUSA ministers and churches taking part in same-sex unions.

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Lay leaders in some congregations aren't sticking around to see how it all turns out. They say they are tired of having to deal with the stigma attached to belonging to a denomination that has veered so sharply from biblical authority and historic church confessions. To try to keep the troops together, conservative pastors across the country have scheduled weekly forums to reaffirm congregational positions, discuss the PCUSA's "problems," and explore possible work-arounds or counter-measures.

Leaders of the Presbyterian Coalition, an 8-year-old alliance of conservative groups in the PCUSA, have called a meeting at the end of July in Colorado to consider at least five alternatives. One of them is to press for a nongeographic synod for evangelical and confessing churches. This would allow for closer cooperation among like-minded churches and a degree of independence from the national body. And it would also allow congregations to keep their property and enable clergy to retain their retirement and health benefits.

This year's assembly met in Louisville, Ky., the headquarters city for the liberal-led 2.4-million-member PCUSA. Conservatives among the commissioners (delegates) knew they were in trouble from the outset.

Among its first actions, the assembly elected theologian Jack Rogers, 67, as moderator, the PCUSA's top elective post (with a one-year term). He won with 55 percent of the vote on the first ballot from a field of four candidates. Once a Fuller Seminary professor, he is a retired teacher and vice president of a liberal PCUSA seminary in suburban San Francisco. He is an adviser to the Covenant Network, an unofficial PCUSA alliance dedicated to opening ordination to homosexuals. He says he agrees with "the evangelicals" on everything except homosexuality. Yet he attacked the new and rapidly growing Confessing Church Movement in the PCUSA (WORLD, June 16) on the floor of the assembly (though he later apologized for some of his remarks).

Commissioners voted on a host of measures during their week-long meeting. They reserved their most radical action for the sexuality issue. During a little over two hours of vigorous floor debate, opponents in two-minute arguments contended the proposed change was all about sin and authority of Scripture, while proponents seemed to see it as a civil- or human-rights issue. A California youth noted the proposal appeared to make it OK for an adulterer or sexually active unmarried heterosexual to be a pastor, too.

In the end, the assembly voted 317 to 208 to (1) remove a fidelity-in-marriage or chastity-in-singleness requirement from the Book of Order, (2) nullify a 23-year-old official position forbidding ordination of noncelibate homosexuals, along with related church court rulings, and (3) make ordination standards a matter for local governing bodies.

It wasn't the only setback for conservatives. Members of the Confessing Church Movement wanted the assembly to reaffirm Jesus Christ as Lord of all and the only way to salvation. Their concern, expressed in proposed overtures (resolutions) from presbyteries in Pennsylvania and California, was based on what many evangelicals contend is "creeping universalism" in the PCUSA. Keynote speaker Dirk Ficca, a PCUSA minister, argued at a major PCUSA conference last year that there are other ways to God besides Christ.

The assembly committee assigned to deal with these overtures couldn't agree on what to say. Evangelicals insisted on precise language. Liberals didn't want to rule out the possibility that other doors to heaven exist. Traditionalists thought it OK to say something about Christ's uniqueness, but not in a way that might be offensive to members of other faiths.

The final wording, approved 369-163, contained such affirmations as "We confess the unique authority of Jesus Christ as Lord" and "Jesus Christ is also uniquely Savior." It gave a nod to evangelism: "... the transforming power of Christ in our lives compels us to make Christ known to others." Yet it also included a morsel for universalists: "Although we do not know the limits of God's grace and pray for the salvation of those who may never come to know Christ...."

Edward E. Plowman
Edward E. Plowman

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