Signs of thinning line between church discipline and anarchy in the PCUSA

Commentary by Carmen Fowler LaBerge

taraThe difference between a representative form of governance and anarchy is the mutual submission of a people to a set of rules that will govern their common life. For those who choose to be a part of the Presbyterian Church (USA) those rules originate with God, are revealed in the Bible, are filtered through the Reformed theology as expressed in the confessions in the Book of Confessions, and laid down in a Form of Government, a Directory for Worship and Rules of Discipline in the Book of Order.  Departure from the theology expressed in the confessions or departure from the mutually agreed upon rules in the Book of Order puts an officer of the church out of alignment with the body known as the PCUSA. Realignment is achieved through the processes called discipline.

The rules of discipline are just as “constitutional” and just as binding as every other part of the denomination’s constitution. Officers in the church agree through their ordination vows to submit to the church’s discipline, and when they do not, we find ourselves on the precipice of anarchy.

I have written previously about the hundreds of PCUSA ministers who are intent on defying the denomination’s standards should the opportunity arise. While this commentary is related to those threats, the particular subject of this article is a story of discipline rightly applied and received but where the individual proclivity to redefine discipline is evidenced.

I find no reason to doubt the Rev. Tara Spuhler McCabe’s sincerity when she writes about what she learned from performing a same-sex marriage and the disciplinary process that followed.  I appreciate her candor and reading her personal reflection might help readers of The Layman to understand the depth of the division in the PCUSA in terms of the way the very words we use are being redefined.

McCabe chronicles her journey over the past year from performing a same-sex marriage for two women in D.C., to being elected vice moderator of the 220th General Assembly, to resigning that post within a few short days, then being brought up on charges by fellow Presbyterians which resulted in an ecclesiastical investigation and ultimate censure.

I will seek here to address the ideas espoused and not the person.  As I read the piece, I became aware of the very personal redefinition of “faith” and “discipline,” without a single reference to Scripture, Jesus, or the mutually agreed upon constitutional standards of those terms to which all PCUSA officers vow to submit.

McCabe defines faith as “a cultivated awareness of how the intricacies of creation are connected to one another.” Later she defines the discipline of church as the experience of being hemmed in which produces struggle and tension. She acknowledges that “is not a bad thing” and then says that “Church discipline comes out of a history of people stepping beyond their ordered church.”  One interpretation of that sentence is that Presbyterians have only seen fit to draw lines that hem people in when people in what McCabe sees as “great faithfulness and conviction” step beyond the bounds of decently ordered orthodox community.

Pausing here to read Psalm 119 is instructive.  The Psalmist reminds us of the nature, purpose, power and joy of learning, meditating on and conforming our lives to the governance of God’s laws. Yes, in obedient submission to His authority but also because God knows what is best for us individually and corporately as His people. The government of God is ultimately an expression of God’s love for He knows the pervasive nature of our depravity and the deep need we have to be closely shepherded, moment by moment, day by day.

Without His continual guidance we all, like sheep, wander away. The great hymn articulates thusly: “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love.”  Our naturally wandering selves need to be tethered to the Lord’s leading like a fetter that binds us to Him and disciplines our otherwise unruly selves.  When that intensely personal process of the Lord’s governance of life is applied in the common life of a group of Christians we call it Christian accountability or church discipline.

Church discipline is the church’s exercise of authority given by Christ, both in the direction of guidance, control, and nurture of its members and in the direction of constructive criticism of offenders. The church’s disciplinary process exists not as a substitute for the secular judicial system, but to do what the secular judicial system cannot do.

What is discipline (and what it is not)

The personal redefinition of discipline articulated by McCabe is purely subjective.  Church discipline, instead, sets clear parameters within which all Individual interpretations must fit if they are to be allowed. There is freedom of conscience within set bounds.

According to the PCUSA constitution (D-1.0101) the purpose of discipline is:

  • to honor God by making clear the significance of membership in the body of Christ;
  • to preserve the purity of the church by nourishing the individual within the life of the believing community;
  • to achieve justice and compassion for all participants involved;
  • to correct or restrain wrongdoing in order to bring members to repentance and restoration;
  • to uphold the dignity of those who have been harmed by disciplinary offenses;
  • to restore the unity of the church by removing the causes of discord and division; and
  • to secure the just, speedy and economical determination of proceedings. In all respects, all participants are to be accorded procedural safeguards and due process, and it is the intention of these rules so to provide.

D-1.0102 continues, “The power that Jesus Christ has vested in His Church, a power manifested in the exercise of church discipline, is one for building up the body of Christ, not for destroying it, for redeeming, not for punishing. It should be exercised as a dispensation of mercy and not of wrath so that the great ends of the Church may be achieved, that all children of God may be presented faultless in the day of Christ.”

The goal of church discipline is sanctification, holiness and the presentation of faultless saints in the day of Christ. That is a high ideal! The goal is not to impugn nor malign those who live outside of God’s will as revealed in the Scriptures. The goal is not legalistic perfectionism.  Rather what drives the desire of those who want to see the law of God upheld by the people of God is a strong Biblical idealism for holiness. Again, this is not a Pharisaical keeping of rules for rules’ sake; this is a commitment to keep faith with God for Christ’s sake.

Disciplined faith and faithful discipline

Disciplined faith and faithful discipline require submission to the authority of God in the moment-by-moment exercise of following Christ as a fully devoted disciple and submission to the authority of God as expressed in the ordering of the common life of God’s people in the church.  Those lines of authority are more obvious in hierarchical churches like Roman Catholicism. For non-hierarchical expressions of the church like Presbyterianism, faithful discipline depends on the character and commitment to Godly governance by pastors and elders. When those in so-called leadership fail the test of disciplined faith in their own lives, the body has little hope of maintaining integrity in the exercise of faithful discipline in its common life.




Comments 9

  • The PCUSA long ago departed from the Scripture for it’s faith and practice. All the ‘activity’ is window-dressing of a corpse.

  • @ScotsPuritan, interesting distinction you make. Is it the Church (catholic) the Church (invisible) or the church (PCUSA). You can argue that at a disciplinary trial. If I was on the judicial commission I woud interpret it as the last meaning. So maybe church discipline is not such an easy thing to interpret. That’s why we have courts and trial, legislation and debates. Maybe we need to be humble enough to admit that the way we see the world and interpret scripture and the constitution might not be the only way or the “right” way. Maybe grace needs to abound.

    • Kevin – thank you for your comments. I started my post by acknowledging that I have no reason whatever to doubt Rev. McCabe’s sincerity. I respect the fact that she submitted herself to the discipline of the denomination. My post seeks to raise awareness about the definition of words and if those words are open to as many interpretations as there are Presbyterians then what does it mean to be a connectional body mutually submitting to agreed upon standards?
      As to your point about my asking my presbytery to remove me from the ordered ministry until such a time as the standards of the PCUSA are such that I can, in good conscience, joyfully serve, I was following the pattern of Scott Anderson. He set aside his ordination when G-6.0106b made explicit what many in the denomination thought had always been explicit. But in good conscience, he could not remain ordained in the denomination under the explicit “fidelity and chastity” standard. When amendment 10A passed, he viewed the way to be clear for him to return to ordained service. What moved him in one direction moved me in the other.
      Again, thank you for your comments. – Carmen

  • Kevin: When I vowed to seek the “peace, unity and purity” of the church, it was not a denomination of the church, but the Church aka The Body of Christ. Any semblance to the PCUSA of today is purely coincidental.

    JKNox 2.0 asks: Would the writers of the Scots Confession say that the PC(USA) is a true church? Consider that they have abandoned the true preaching of the Word of God and seem to have also abandoned the ecclesiastical discipline necessary to repress vice and nourish virtue.

  • It’s pretty rich to receive a lecture on church discipline from the leader of an organization actively promoting both schism and the taking of property by disaffected groups. Both these actions are prohibited by the Book of Order and the Book of Confessions. In addition, they are a violation of the ordination vow to seek the peace, unity and purity of the church. Oh, wait, you demitted your ordination, so you can’t face such a charge. Maybe you could be thankful for a church that extends some grace to its members who struggle to be faithful to the gospel in a world where it is not always clear what faithfulness should look like.

    • I find it interesting that you are calling The Layman an organization that promotes schism yet you are fine with the groups like the More Light Presbyterians and the Covenant Network that worked to divide the denomination to get their way in voting for removal of ordination standards and definition of marriage. They are the two organizations responsible for schism, not The Layman.
      One other point. In my lifetime I saw every all-male institution attacked by liberals for being discriminatory because it was all-male. The one institution, marriage, that has always been an institution of a male and female is now being called discriminatory for not having all-male version that are referred to as being “equal” to the male-female version. How can that be? Either all-male institutions are bad or liberals are liars and owe all places they worked to change from being all-male and apology. They should also stop slurring the Republican Party as being “all-male” since all-male marriage is deemed as being liberals or recognize that all-male “marriage” is one that discriminates against the other sex.

  • It appears that a number of folks are entering the pastorate (i.e., being ordained) with their fingers crossed behind their back as they respond to the constitutional questions and then conclude that they can deviate from whatever rules they choose in order to act however they choose. No wonder the PC(USA) is bleeding churches all across the country as congregation after congregation begins to realize what is going on. Many presbyteries are facing real problems and there is no longer a parent church to bail them out. I saw this so clearly at the 2012 GA. The next several years will be a very telling time and PC(USA) decreases and ECO and EPC increase.

  • The Scots Confession, Chapter 18, “The Notes by Which the True Kirk Shall Be Determined From The False, and Who Shall Be Judge of Doctrine” mentions that discipline is one of the marks of the true church.

    Specifically, it states that:

    “The notes of the true Kirk, therefore, we believe, confess, and avow to be: first, the true preaching of the Word of God, in which God has revealed himself to us, as the writings of the prophets and apostles declare; secondly, the right administration of the sacraments of Christ Jesus, with which must be associated the Word and promise of God to seal and confirm them in our hearts; and lastly, ecclesiastical discipline uprightly ministered, as God’s Word prescribes, whereby vice is repressed and virtue nourished. ”

    That Confession, of course, is in the PC(USA) Book of Confessions; however, at the last General Assembly, the stated clerk advised, the moderator ruled, and the Assembly concurred (by vote) that the creeds, confessions, and catechisms have nothing to do with the governing the life of the church. So, even though the Book of Confessions is part of the Constitution, it is not treated as such – and that was a ruling of the Assembly. As a result, this body is neither constitutional nor confessional!

    Something to ponder, then: Would the writers of the Scots Confession say that the PC(USA) is a true church?

  • i struggle to know how to relate to this body, the Body, lines, definitions, isms, and the act of denominating.

    i am thankful that “the Lord knows those who are His” but i am still cautious as I walk for i know my understanding of this ownership is incomplete

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