Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Q & A from our First Reading

We thought it would be helpful to the discussion to share with you some of the questions and concerns we received last evening to summarize the discussion from the meeting. Happy reading!

Why is this not in the form of an overture?
We grant that the normal form of communication between Governing Bodies is an overture. However, the 218th General Assembly pushed our entire communion into uncharted constitutional territory. How does a Presbytery call a General Assembly to account? What mechanism is there in our polity that would allow us to declare a council’s errors? The answer is that there are none. Apparently the framers of our Constitution did not envision a day where a General Assembly might eviscerate our covenant and the Presbyteries would be forced to tell her so through not complying with an Assembly’s rulings. The constitutional means do not exist.

Another reason for not putting this in the form of an overture is because the errors were committed by a previous Assembly. Everything that is said in that last sentence is in the past tense. It is already done. To ask for it to be undone would require the reconvening of the Assembly which we have already seen to be a fruitless waste of time when asked of other, even recent, Assemblies. What reasonably can be done now is to declare the Assembly out of bounds and carve out a place for us to stand that is constitutionally, confessionally, and biblically sound.

Are you saying that Christians, Jews and Muslims do not worship the same God?
Yes. Ask a Muslim or a Jew if they will worship Jesus as Divine and they will tell you that they cannot. Ask a Christian if they can worship as long as they are not willing to worship Jesus as Divine and they will tell you that they cannot. The same holds true for the Divinity of the Holy Spirit. Both Judaism and Islam may refer to God on occasion as the God of Abraham, but our understandings are fundamentally different and irreconcilable apart from the grace of God through His Son Jesus Christ.

Are you saying that the worship of Jews and Muslims is somehow incomplete?
Yes. They deny the full Divinity of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. We affirm with Jesus that a day is coming and is already here when those who worship the Father will do so in Spirit and in Truth. Anything less than worship of the triune God is incomplete.

You are concerned about us distancing ourselves from the Church Universal. Do you understand that there are several issues that divide the body of Christ such as communion, baptism, polity, etc.?
Of course we do. We would be fools to not recognize that there are hundreds of denominations of Christianity throughout the world, each with their own distinctives. However, what unite us all are some core beliefs which are never in question. Key among these doctrines is the Trinity, the person and work of Jesus Christ, and the authority of the Scriptures. This Assembly’s errors are not errors of tangential doctrines upon which we can agree to disagree. These errors are errors in core doctrines, basic beliefs for all Christians, those which our Book of Order calls the faith catholic. It is for this reason that we have declared Status Confessiones. These rulings are breaches of covenant standing in the Church Universal. Thus these errors do place our standing in the Church Universal at risk, something which at least one PC USA mission partner with Park United Presbyterian Church in Zelienople has already indicated to us in person.

I am afraid that you are asking us to not recognize the work of other Presbyteries in their ordinations. Can you comment on that?
Yes we are. There is a reason for that. Prior to this Assembly, there was a means for correction if another Presbytery chose to ordain someone outside the bounds of the Book of Order. Remedial cases could be and were filed by Presbyteries and Presbyters against the body in question. The actions of the 218th Assembly have effectively removed these options. According to this Assembly and our Stated Clerk’s office, Presbyteries may ordain whomever they wish, regardless of belief or practice, without any correction, so long as our process is followed. According to these bodies, scruples of behavior and core beliefs of Christianity are now permitted and all court cases that supported these former means of redress have now been overturned. While minister members of other Presbyteries like Baltimore, Hudson River, and Redwoods were ordained in defiance of the Book of Order, according to this new environment, they now serve in compliance with the Book of Order. Since the Assembly undertook to create this new environment on its own, without ratification by the Presbyteries and without following our process for constitutional revision, we cannot agree in word or practice with their decisions.

I am in favor of this. However, I am not sure what this will accomplish. You have a great big gun here. I am just not sure where the target is…
Part of this concern is related to the previous answer about the form of the declaration. It is not an overture. Our means of redress are our resolutions. These resolutions, while addressed to the General Assembly, have more to do with how we intend to conduct ourselves as a Presbytery in light of these errors and serve as information to the General Assembly. The options for how we live faithfully as Presbyteries in this new era of constitutional anarchy are few. We believe this declaration provides a place for Presbyteries to faithfully stand regardless of the errors of our most recent General Assembly.

I am concerned that this is the work of just two presbyters. How do we make this the Presbytery’s work?
This is largely the work of two Presbyters. However, these two Presbyters have sought broad input from others in the Presbytery and outside the Presbytery. This document has undergone a number of revisions. Several have contributed to this and the Presbytery now has the opportunity to make it its own through first and second readings. This process is appropriate, decent and in order.

What is the goal?
The goal is for our Presbytery and any who will join us to stand for the faith once and for all delivered to the saints. That might not sound like much to some but given the current environment in our denomination it is critically important to us.

What is advisory opinion 22 and why is it opposed in here?
Advisory Opinion 22 was released by the new Stated Clerk, Grayde Parsons, and his office within a week following the Assembly. The Advisory Opinion, distributed to the whole denomination through each Presbytery’s Stated Clerk, tells us that indeed local option is our present reality. It tells us that the General Assembly’s Authoritative Interpretations did indeed change the plain meaning of G-6.0106b and did indeed eliminate any precedent which supported it. With this we cannot agree.

This document is full of hyperbole. I hope that you will remove some of the passion from it so that your points can be clearly made.
We do not consider this document to be hyperbolic. We admit that we are saddened, hurt, and even upset at the actions of this recent assembly. However, we believe their actions are accurately described and opposed. Further, while many Presbyterians tend to devalue passion, we would ask, “How is one to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength without passion?” If our passion for orthodoxy, orthopraxy, and the One Lord Jesus Christ is evident here, we celebrate that and urge others to join us in it.

Why the term “tactical” errors?
One will note that this declaration is progressive. The first category of error is diplomatic. The second is tactical. The third is constitutional, then judicial, then confessional, then Biblical. This progression is intentional. The categories of error become more and more severe as the document progresses. Hence, tactical errors are significantly more benign than Biblical errors. Originally we labeled these errors “procedural”. The problem with the term “procedural” is that “procedural” implies something actionable; which would have raised these errors to the level of constitutional errors. The term “procedural” implies an error in either the Book of Order or Robert’s Rules. The simple truth of these first two categories is that these were permissible acts. The General Assembly was well within its power to establish a legal defense fund for property cases, to leave the overture in question together rather than separate it, and to revise an authoritative interpretation that it had just ruled as having no further force or effect. All of those actions were permissible but they were far from helpful. We might equate them with punting on a first down or going for it on fourth down with twenty yards to go in the first quarter when the scoreboard reads 0-0. These plays are permissible but tactically silly and would be called “errors in judgment” by any knowledgeable commentator or even armchair quarterback. That is what we mean by tactical errors.


Anonymous said...


Thank you for your clear and candid responses to questions regarding the declaration. I am a member of a neighboring Presbytery and have deep concerns about the results/reactions/fallout. Mostly though I wanted to ask a question that your post did not address.

If I have read the resolutions of the declaration correctly--upon adoption, the Presbytery refuses to act in accordance with Authoritative Interpretations of the 218th GA. Other parts of the resolutions section seem to similarly reject or ignore the authority of the General Assembly.

My question is this--Doesn't explicit and unrepentant refusal to act in accordance with the mandates/actions of a higher governing body violate the promise we all make as Presbyters to "Be governed by our church's polity and abide by its discipline"?

Wouldn't it demonstrate more faithfulness and more integrity simply to reject the authority of the PC(USA) entirely and seek out opportunities to follow God's call within another, more biblically grounded, denomination?

Thanks for your thoughts.

Reyes-Chow said...

Not being present, thanks for for what seems to be a thorough and honest telling and response to questions raised on the floor. I am sure many others will have similar questions.

Pat McElroy said...

That is a concern that we have addressed with others though it did not come up at our meeting. Our intent is not nor has it ever been to leave. We are carving out a faithful place to stand in a denomination that has abandoned its own constitution. When a governing body violates its mutually agreed upon covenant, even if it is the General Assembly, it must be called to account. All we are doing here is saying that we will abide by our covenant in spite of the fact that the General Assembly has chosen not to. This document does advocate defiance of their decisions and more importantly the process by which those decisions were made, but it does so on constitutional, confessional, and biblical grounds. Constitutionally speaking, we believe we hold the high ground because we are specifically advocating and demonstrating compliance where they have already demonstrated defiance. Our confessions, specifically the Second Helvetic as cited in our declaration, make it clear that councils may err and we should not follow in their steps when they do. The prophets did not leave Israel to make this point but stood their ground, proclaimed the truth, suffered for it, and were rewarded by God for it even as our confessions remind us:

"Certainly Jeremiah and other prophets vehemently condemned the assemblies of priests which were set up against the law of God; and diligently admonished us that we should not listen to the fathers, or tread in their path who, walking in their own inventions, swerved from the law of God."
Second Helvetic 5.013

In light of these events some suggest that evangelicals are left with an interesting choice. We can violate our ordination vows by failing to fulfill our office in obedience to Jesus Christ under the authority of the Scripture while being continually guided by its confessions. On the other hand, we can violate our ordination vows by refusing to be governed by the church's polity and leaving.

We have the temerity to believe this to be a false choice. We believe we can still submit to our polity (our constitution and covenant), be continually guided by our confessions by not adhering to this errant council, and continue to serve in obedience to Christ and His Word by taking this stand. We know that some will disagree with us and that ultimately someone or some entity may challenge us on this point but we are prepared to stand true to the end.

In Christ


Anonymous said...

The second option in your presentation of the "interesting choice" is different from the way I see it.
"We can violate our ordination vows by refusing to be governed by the church's polity and leaving."

It is not by leaving, but by staying that signatories of this declaration violate their ordinations.
Refusal to be governed by the church's polity is exactly what the declaration calls for. If lower governing bodies are able to ignore or reject AIs or other mandates from higher governing bodies the result is more local license and local license (I suspect you and I agree) is one of the profound ways that this and other recent GAs have erred.

If the GA has made egregious errors (and it has) then our call is to work within the polity to which we are committed to correct those errors. We don't get to change the rules of the game because we find ourselves on the losing end. We can quit playing if we wish (and find another denomination). But signing this declaration, is like saying, "I still want to play with you all, but I think that the rule that says we can only forward pass once per play is in violation of the fundamental spirit of the game and so I'm going to ignore that rule."

The declaration not only makes it sound like we're not on the same team--I wonder if we're even playing the same game.


PrRustyStuart said...

This is Rusty. And I've got to say, "No. I fundamentally and categorically disagree."

When this past GA -- the first one to do so, incidentally -- decided that it would legislate via by Authoritative Interpretation and spurious "Judicial Review", IT fundamentally violated the covenant by which we go, with malice-0vern ourselves. AIs are meant to clarify unclear areas of polity in which little has been said, either because the issue is a new one or because sucessive GAs have made policy statements of conflicted overtures that require interpretation.
That said, what could be clearer than three successive amendment votes that passed and then affirmed G-6.0106b by successively larger margins each time it was passed. Clearly, this GA did not wish to have its attempt thwarted (and knew that it would be by correspondingly large margins). Therefore, it, with "malice aforethought" summarily took the cards away and declared that ALL prior AIs and Judicial Review were corrupt.
I'm sorry, but that is a serious violation of the Constitutional process. Were the US House, Senate, Presidency and Supreme Court to do so, I would have to stand up and declare that the emperor has no knickers. When a solemn assembly of the Lord does so, and declares that it has greater authority than either Scripture, the guiding canons that empower it or both, then I must stand up as a legitimate presbyter in "good standing" and "solemnly declare" otherwise.

This we have done. This is where we stand. This is the solemn action of a legitimately constituted Presbytery unless and until otherwise voted down or overturned. Unless proved wrong by Scripture and, then subsidiarily by confessions rightly and contextually interpreted, I will not recant.

Grace & Peace,

Toby Brown said...


Pat and Rusty answered you well, so I won't add to the substance of their own responses except to agree.

I personally think it quite likely that the progressives and institutionalists who now control our denomination will use your line of argument to try to eject every last non-compromised evangelical from our denomination.

In coming years we will be accused of just exactly what you argue and THEN we will see the true extent of the damage done to our denomination by these recent decisions.

Remember what happened to Machen anyone??

Again, my personal opinion.

Anonymous said...

Rusty and Pat,
Thanks for your responses. Perhaps I am not being particluarly clear about either my position or my tone. I am not asking you to recant. I am not disagreeing with your assessment of the 218th GA or the consistently affirmed support from the Presbyteries of G6.0106b.

Also have very little doubt that the declaration will be approved (perhaps with minor modifications) by the very conservative Beaver-Butler Presbytery. I guess I just wonder what comes next.

My heart sank when I learned of the GA actions surrounding amendment b and the related AIs, not because I feared that the Presbyteries would vote to change the constitution (do we all agree that there is virtually no chance of that?) but because it meant that we would have to spend two more years keenly focused on the things that most sharply divide us. Surely the GA violated the best spirit of the PUP report (which I, and I imagine you, strongly opposed) which called for a time of discernment, worship, community building, study, and collabortive work.

After the GAs actions it was clear that 1) no change in the constitution was likely and 2) conservatives would be rightly angered and would react (overreact?) in a way that made clear their (our) disapproval of these actions.

I just don't know what comes next. What would your Presbytery do if a congregation/session sent you a declaration that they catagorically rejected the authority of the Presbytery on one or more matters? Open disobedience is sometimes a right and appropriate way to address injustice or unrighteousness, but such disobedience almost always involves a power struggle and then consequences for the loser of the struggle. I know from your writings your enthusiasm for using high and holy language to declare your contempt for consequences--and your committment and courage may be commendable.
Still, because we do not know what the consequences (or even what the results of the power struggle) will be--it seems at least risky and perhaps irresponsible to take on the higher body in this way. Not just for the well being of a few Presbyters, but for the witness and ministry of the Presbytery and her congregations. I do not suggest doing nothing, but the proposed declaration sets us a very clear us-against-you situation in which at least one party (and perhaps both) must lose.

I imagine that there have been many smaller and more private conversations about subsequent moves and counter-moves in response to potential action from those inside the GA office. I guess more than anything else, I just find myself profoundly saddened that all these years after the insertion of G6.0106b, and after all of AIs and Presbytery votes, I see less peace in our denomination rather than more. Events and proposals like your declaration point (for me) toward a growing conviction that we cannot continue as a single body--indeed that even now it is the Board of Pensions, more than the Book of Confessions or the Book of Order that holds us together.

Thank you for being partners in what is for me a very difficult conversation. I pray peace to you, to your Presbytery, and to our denomination.


Pat McElroy said...


There are many places where we obviously agree. Tell me if I am hearing you correctly, but it seems that you are concerned about strategy...

Perhaps the questions can best be put this way, and if I am not hearing you correctly, please help me out here:

1. This is an awfully risky tactic. Is it too risky and bordering on irresponsible?
2. Is the timing right for this kind of extreme tactic?
3. Are the Presbyters aware of the potential consequences?
4. Do we even know what the consequences are?
5. Are the potential gains worth the consequences?

All of these are legitimate questions and deserve a reasoned response.

We too mourn the loss of peace in our denomination. We too see that increasingly it is the Board of Pensions and the property clause that hold us together rather than shared theology and mission.

However, we keep hearing calls of "Peace, peace!" but there is no peace for any of us on all sides of this debate and the most recent General Assembly assured this by it actions and tactics. Further, seeking peace is only one portion of a three-part vow to work for the peace, purity and unity of the Church. We have none of the three right now and have not for years. Our hope is to contribute to all three through clearly standing for the Gospel in the hope that the Church will recognize her faith again and repent from the madness that currently holds her captive. In fact, we believe that at this point the only way to achieve peace is through clearly making this stand.

In the meantime, be assured of the following. This stand has been prayed over and studied at length. Many private and public conversations have taken place over this. This is not undertaken lightly. Rusty and I have counted the cost and continue to count it today.

In Christ