Mark D. Roberts

Part 3 of series: The End of the Presbyterian Church USA? Revisited
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In order to understand the significance of the actions of the recent PCUSA General Assembly with respect to homosexuality, a bit of history is necessary. This issue has been roiling in my denomination for over 30 years, as you’ll see. In this history I will include only the main points having to do with General Assembly actions. In fact, there have been dozens of other incidents involving church courts cases and other ecclesiastical matters. If these were included in the history, you’d see an even more confused and uneven process than what I’ll outline below.
1978: General Assembly Offers Definitive Guidance
In response to requests for “definitive guidance” with regard to the ordination of practicing homosexuals, the General Assembly approves a policy statement that offers “authoritative interpretation” of the church’s stance. This includes the line: “That unrepentant homosexual practice does not accord with the requirements for ordinationset forth in Form of Government, Chapter VII, Section 3 (37.03).” Beyond the issue of ordination, the General Assembly calls for the end of “homophobia” and advocates legal changes to give homosexuals more civil rights.
A personal aside:
In 1977-78, while I was in college, a friend and relative of mine, Don Williams, who was at that time a Presbyterian pastor, served on the task force that brought recommendations to the 1978 General Assembly. That task force was “stacked” from the beginning to ensure a pro-gay conclusion. The majority report, predictably enough, recommended the ordination of sexually-active homosexuals. But the Assembly took the recommendations of the minority report, establishing the “definitive guidance” that homosexual activity was sinful, and therefore active gays and lesbians should not be ordained. The Assembly called for an end to “homophobia” and defended civil rights for gay and lesbian people.
williams bond that breaks homosexualityAs a result of his work on the task force, Don Williams wrote a book about homosexuality: The Bond that Breaks: Will Homosexuality Split the Church? An ironic title, don’t you think, given subsequent history? I edited the book for Don. In the process, I studied in depth the biblical passages concerning homosexual behavior. This was in 1978, when I was quite liberal politically and therefore greatly inclined to favor gay liberation. But I also wanted to discover what the Bible actually said about sexuality and homosexuality. My study led me to the conclusion that there is no credible biblical argument supportive of homosexual activity. In the end, I contributed several paragraphs to The Bond that Breaks, my first published writing. Since that time, I’ve spent several hundred hours studying these same passages in a wide range of contexts: as a Ph.D. student in New Testament at Harvard, as a pastor, as a seminary professor, etc. I could certainly be wrong in my understanding of God’s will for our sexual behavior, but it isn’t for a lack of serious effort in trying to understand the biblical text.
1993: General Assembly Reaffirms the Authoritative Interpretation
The General Assembly reaffirmed the Authoritative Interpretation of 1978, concluding that “current constitutional law in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is that self-affirming, practicing homosexual persons may not be ordained as ministers of the Word and Sacrament, elders, or deacons.”
1996: General Assembly Approves Amendment B, “The Fidelity and Chastity Amendment”
The Assembly, acting on a report from the church’s Human Sexuality and Ordination Committee, approved the following addition to the Book of Order:

Those who are called to office in the church are to lead a life in obedience to Scripture and in conformity to the historic confessional standards of the church. Among these standards is the requirement to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness. Persons refusing to repent of any self-acknowledged practice which the confessions call sin shall not be ordained and/or installed as deacons, elders, or ministers of the Word and Sacrament. (G-6.0106.b).

Even though the Assembly voted for Amendment B by a vote of 57% to 42%, according to Presbyterian polity, it would not be added to the Book of Order unless a majority of presbyteries voted to approve it. Thus began a titanic battle in the whole church over whether or not to approve Amendment B. In the end, the majority of presbyteries (55%) voted to add Amendment B to the Book of Order, thus making fidelity in marriage and chastity in singleness official church policy.
If you’re an outsider to this process, you might think that the addition of the “fidelity and chastity” clause to the Book of Order settled the matter once and for all. But what happened in 1996 was just the beginning of more strife and confusion, as I’ll explain in my next post.

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