PCUSA presbyteries begin voting on constitutional amendments

Book of OrderThe 220th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), which met last summer in Pittsburgh, sent 11 proposed amendments to the presbyteries for their up or down vote.  That process is now under way and will continue for the next several months. Early results indicate that at least three of the proposed amendments are proving controversial.

  • Amendment 12-1 proposes the adoption into the Book of Confessions a retranslation of the Heidelberg Catechism. A side-by-side comparison is worthy of examination prior to voting.
  • Amendment 12-B proposes adding “repentance of sin and diligent use of the means of grace” to the list of qualifications for ordained officers.
  • Amendment 12-F would require that presbyteries receive a least one other presbytery’s concurrence in order to send an overture to GA.


Amendment 12-1: Heidelberg

At the 218th GA in 2008, a process was initiated to review proposed corrections to the sections of the Heidelberg Catechism. That act resulted in a multi-denominational project involving the Reformed Church in America and the Christian Reformed Church of North America.


Question 87 has long been the “issue” and remains the target of retranslation efforts.  In the current Book of Confessions (BOC), Q87 reads:


“Can those who do not turn to God from their ungrateful, impenitent life be saved? A. Certainly not! Scripture says, ‘Surely you know that the unjust will never come into possession of the kingdom of God.  Make no mistake: no fornicator or idolater, none who are guilty either of adultery or of homosexual perversion, no thieves or grabbers or drunkards or slanderers or swindlers, will possess the kingdom of God.’”


The answer to this question is a direct quotation of 1 Corinthians 6:9-10.  Those who seek to normalize lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) sexual relations want to eliminate “homosexual perversion” from the list of sins explicitly condemned in the Biblical text.  They note that the original German text of the catechism omitted that phrase. What they don’t say is why.  In the 16th century it was considered poor pedagogy to have confirmands consider such unmentionable acts as homosexual perversion.  Times have changed. The Word of God has not.  That is important to remember in this particular debate.


The proposed retranslation drops the Scriptural reference to “homosexual perversion” and instead offers a paraphrase. As a way of assuaging criticism, Scriptural references are added in footnotes. The problem is that footnotes are not an official part of the catechism proper.


Questions you might ask during a presbytery debate of the matter:


  • Are retranslations or restorations designed to return all confessions to their original texts also planned? The Westminster Confession of Faith, Larger and Shorter Catechisms have been adapted and revised several times since their original writing. The version of the Westminster Confession in the current BOC differs significantly from the 1647 original.  Changes were made in 1788, 1903 and 1958.  What motivates the desire to retranslate the Heidelberg when other confessions in the BOC are not the original texts?
  • Why the concern over a return to the literal, original language of this particular confession and yet a departure from the original meaning of the texts of the Scriptures?
  • If the intent is to conform to the original German in the most literal form, why has inclusive human language and inclusive God language been introduced to reflect modern preferences where that inclusive language does not appear in the German?


The answer to Q. 108 in the current BOC reads, “That all unchastity is condemned by God, and that we should therefore detest it from the heart and live chaste and disciplined lives either in holy wedlock or in single life.”  The new translation reads, “That God condemns all unchastity, and that therefore we should thoroughly detest it and live decent and chaste lives, within or outside of the holy state of marriage.” The “holy state of marriage” is the issue of current debate within the culture and the church. So, the debate on the floor of your presbytery is about more than the original meaning of a German word.  The problem lies in the reality that today the concepts of “chastity” and “marriage” have been radically defined.


Amending the Book of Confessions requires a 2/3 vote and so 116 of the 173 presbyteries must vote in the affirmative for amendment 12-1 to be ratified.  The Office of the General Assembly is tracking official vote tallies.


Amendment 12-B: Qualifications for ordained officers

There are times when a GA feels the need to throw the evangelicals a bone. This is one of those times. Having “lost” in the prior voting cycle on Amendment 10A (which removed the “fidelity and chastity” requirement from the qualifications for ordained officers) and at an assembly where the clear majority favored LGBT causes, evangelicals pressed for some strengthening of the language in the new G-2.0104a.


The proposed amendment reads: Shall G-2.0104a of the Book of Order be amended as follows: [Text to be added is shown as italic.]

“a. To those called to exercise special functions in the churchdeacons, ruling elders, and teaching eldersGod gives suitable gifts for their various duties. In addition to possessing the necessary gifts and abilities, those who undertake particular ministries should be persons of strong faith, dedicated discipleship, and love of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. Their manner of life should be a demonstration of the Christian gospel in the church and in the world. This includes repentance of sin and diligent use of the means of grace. They must have the approval of God’s people and the concurring judgment of a council of the church.”


What’s to debate? Apparently a great deal. The GA committee that received the original overture sent it to the floor of the assembly by a vote of 28/20/5. When the assembly voted in plenary the margin was again fairly narrow: 329/275/9.


The Advisory Committee on the Constitution weighed in heavily with a damning assessment of the proposal. “The phrase ‘repentance of sin’ is reminiscent of the phrase ‘repent of any self-acknowledged practice the confessions call sin’ that was removed from the Book of Order by action of the assembly and presbyteries in 2010-2011. … The insertion of the phrase ‘repentance of sin’ will not have the effect of restoring the recently removed prohibition.”  So, you can expect to hear arguments against this amendment in your presbytery as “a vestige of the failed legalistic tactics of exclusionists.”


Questions you might ask during a presbytery debate of the matter:

  • The quote “we urge you to use diligently the means of grace to the end that you may be more obedient to our Lord Jesus Christ” comes directly from our Book of Discipline, D-12.0102. Would it not be helpful for all officers being ordained for the first time and those being installed on subsequent occasions to have some bridges like this between the currently bifurcated parts of the Book of Order?  Might that help us all have greater clarity about our mutual expectations of the behavior of all officers?
  • What do we have against repentance of sin? Is that not a core concept to the Christian faith? And what do we have against the diligent use of the means of grace as we seek to serve as officers of Christ’s Church?
  • The Scriptures and the confessions appeal consistently to the need for repentance from sin and our need to make diligent use of the means of grace. It seems to me as if this amendment would simply strengthen our witness to the reality of God’s all sufficient grace which we need every day as we become newly aware of the depth of depravity and sin. Would this amendment not strengthen our corporate witness to the moment by moment refinement in our lives by God’s Spirit at work within us?


Amendment 12-F: Concurrences required for future overtures

There is little doubt that this particular amendment is going to be rightly defeated by an overwhelming majority of presbyteries.  Virtually “everyone” on all sides is against it.  If passed, any and all future business that a presbytery wanted to send to the GA would have to win the concurrence of at least one other presbytery. The original proposal from the Committee to Review Biennial Assemblies was that overtures would have to have the concurrence of 10 percent of the presbyteries before GA consideration! It is not difficult to see how that would stifle the minority voice from ever being heard and how it would limit the potential business discussed at a GA.


The Biennial Review committee substantiated its position by arguing that “Overtures from presbyteries represent a significant source of assembly business. At the 219th General Assembly (2010), 124 overtures were received from presbyteries; only 25 percent of these overtures had concurrences from other presbyteries.” Recognizing that there would be push back, the committee continued, “The intent of this recommendation is not to control the business of the General Assembly; it is to help focus the business coming to any meeting of the General Assembly. Requiring the concurrence of at least 10 percent of presbyteries with any overture—and that commissioners’ resolutions require signatures from at least 10 percent of the presbyteries—will indicate that the significance of, and interest in, a particular issue have been tested across the church.”


That rationale did not find favor with the Advisory Committee on the Constitution, the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy nor the General Assembly Committee on Representation.  Their concerns are outlined in the Amendment booklet produced by the Office of the General Assembly.


Amendments from GA220

Amendment Origin Affects Overview GA Vote
12-1 Heidelberg Catechism Special Comm Book of Confessions New translation of Heidelberg Catechism (joint effort with RCA & CRCNA); includes scripture references from 1563 version as footnotes Committee: 28/1/0Plenary:Voice Vote
12-A. Business Proper to Congregational Meetings Plains & Peaks G-1.0503 Allows for a “joint congregational witness,” reinstating the possibility for union/federated churches Committee: 34/6/2Plenary:Voice Vote
12-B. Gifts & Qualifications San Jose G-2.0104a Adds “This includes repentance of sin and diligent use of the means of grace” to the list of qualifications for ordained church officers Committee: 28/20/5Plenary: 329/275/9
12-C. Presbytery Registers OGA G-3.0104G-3.0305 Changes wording from a specific list of required rolls to “maintain any required registers” Committee: 42/0/0Plenary:Voice Vote
12-D. Shared Synod Permanent Judicial Commission Special Comm G-3.0109aG-3.0109bG-3.0404D-5.0101D-5.0106D-5.0203




Set of nine amendments that seek to provide the opportunity for two or more synods sharing common boundaries to form a shared PJC Committee: 52/0/0Plenary:Voice Vote
12-E. Enrolling Ruling Elders as Members of Presbytery St. Andrew G-3.0301 Allows ruling elders to be enrolled as voting members of presbytery, ensuring that Commissioned Ruling Elders and Certified Christian Educators receive full voice and vote Committee: 38/5/1Plenary:Voice Vote
12-F. Concurrences for Overtures Special Comm G-3.0302d Requires presbyteries to receive at least one concurrence in order to send overtures to GA Committee: 24/2/0Plenary:Voice Vote
12-G. Service of Ordination, Installation, or Commissioning New Castle W-4.4002 Encourages presbyteries to schedule services of ordination/installation/commissioning at times when a greater percentage of presbytery members can attend Committee: 21/6/2Plenary:Voice Vote
12-H. Jurisdiction in Judicial Process COGA D-3.0101b Reinstates the category of TEs “laboring outside the bounds” of their presbytery of membership; clarifies that the presbytery where the work is being done has jurisdiction over these TEs Committee: 43/0/0Plenary:Voice Vote
12-I. Administrative Leave Baltimore D-10.0106 Allows the PJC to recommend administrative leave in any case involving alleged sexual abuse toward any person (not just minors or mentally incapable) Committee: 41/0/3Plenary: Voice Vote
12-J. Investigating Committee Responsibilities Detroit D-10.0202 Allows Investigating Committees to determine whether a statement of alleged offense constitutes an offense as defined by the Book of Discipline; if not, the IC can end its inquiry without further investigation Committee: 42/0/1Plenary: Voice Vote


Carmen Fowler LaBerge