In 1973 Presbyterians faced a controversy when the question of women’s ordination surfaced in Pittsburgh Presbytery. Walter Kenyon, a graduate of Pittsburgh Seminary, was asked by the Candidates and Credentials Committee of Pittsburgh Presbytery to explain his stand on the ordination of women. Kenyon said he did not believe the Bible supported the ordination of women. He did not wish to see women barred from ministry, but he could not personally perform such ordinations. He was willing to invite another minister to ordain women elders in his church. And he affirmed that he would be willing to work with women elders.
Based on Kenyon’s answer, the Candidates and Credentials Committee of Pittsburgh Presbytery declined to recommend him for ordination. The Presbytery of Pittsburgh, however, reversed the committee’s recommendation and voted to ordain Kenyon. The presbytery’s action led one of its members, Rev. Jack Maxwell, to file a complaint with the synod’s judicial commission. That court agreed with Maxwell and ruled that the presbytery had acted in error by agreeing to ordain Kenyon.
The case was then appealed to the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission (GAPJC) which also upheld the complaint. The GAPJC ruled:
The question of the importance of our belief in the equality of all people before God is thus essential to the disposition in this case. It is evident from our church’s confessional standards that the church believes the Spirit of God has led us into a new understanding of this equality before God.
The Kenyon case occurred in the northern church–the UPCUSA–that merged with the southern church to form the PC(USA) in 1983. The outcome of the case is reflected in the constitution of the PC(USA).
Debates today on whether to ordain or perform weddings for people engaging in same-sex behavior include the argument by supporters of the behavior that “just as the church changed its position on the women’s ordination issue, it must change its position on same-sex behavior.”
Of course the two issues are not at all the same. One involves gender and the other behavior. One has scriptural texts that clearly support women in leadership; the other is a behavior always and everywhere prohibited by Scripture from Genesis to Revelation. Nevertheless, supporters of same-sex behavior liken it to the women’s ordination issue.
Therefore, what might we expect to happen as a logical outcome of the PC(USA) General Assembly’s recent action? If supporters of same-sex behavior claim that the church’s change on women’s ordination set the precedent, could we expect the denomination’s courts to agree and mandate that every pastor adhere to a “new understanding of this equality before God,” as they did in the Kenyon case so many years ago?
A single individual could file a complaint with the court that a presbytery acted in error when it voted to allow a minister to transfer into it or be ordained who refused to perform ordinations or weddings for those engaged in same-sex behavior. That would begin the judicial process that ultimately would be decided by a simple majority of the General Assembly’s Permanent Judicial Commission (GAPJC). (Note that the GAPJC consists of one member from each synod. The recent GA approved decreasing the number of synods from 16 to 10-12 which would make the GAPJC majority as few as six people).
Interpreting the Constitution
There are two ways an authoritative interpretation (AI) of the constitution can be made in the PC(USA). The General Assembly can approve an authoritative interpretation of the constitution. That just happened at the June General Assembly where commissioners approved an authoritative interpretation allowing ministers to perform same-sex weddings, even though their interpretation is in direct contradiction to the words of the constitution which define marriage as between a man and a woman.
The other way an authoritative interpretation (AI) is made is by the highest church court–the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission (GAPJC). When the court decides a case, it is considered an AI of the constitution.
There are words in the amendment being voted on by the presbyteries over the next year that seem to protect ministers from being required to perform same-sex weddings. Given the court’s action in the Kenyon case and the General Assembly’s most recent action, isn’t it likely that the court or another General Assembly will decide that ministers must be willing to ordain–and perform weddings for–those engaged in same-sex behavior?
What will your pastor and session do if this happens?
To read more about how congregations can respond to cultural pressures that often oppose Christian truth, visit http://www.theologymatters.com/