Mark D. Roberts

Part 4 of series: The End of the Presbyterian Church USA? Revisited
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In my last post I began to chronicle the history of the PCUSA and homsexuality. In a nutshell:

1978: The General Assembly votes to provide Definitive Guidance, making it clear that homosexual activity is sinful, and therefore active homosexual people should not be ordained.
1993: The General Assembly reaffirmed this Definitive Guidance, offering an Authoritative Interpretation to back it up.
1996: The General Assembly passes the “fidelity and chastity” clause, which is added to the Book of Order when passed by the presbyteries in 1997. It specifies that all church officers are required “to live either in fidelity within the covernant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singlenss.”

But even before the dust settled after the 1996 General Assembly vote, members of the PCUSA were hard at work to get the fidelity and chastity clause removed from the Book of Order.
1997: General Assembly Approves Amendment A, “The Fidelity and Integrity” Amendment
The 1997 General Assembly reversed ground, approving a replacement amendment to Amendment B of 1996. The new amendment, which, in a most unhelpful manner was called Amendment A, read as follows:

Those who are called to office in the church are to lead a life in obedience to Jesus Christ, under the authority of Scripture and instructed by the historic confessional standards of the church. Among these standards is the requirement to demonstrate fidelity and integrity in marriage or singleness, and in all relationships of life. Candidates for ordained office shall acknowledge their own sinfulness, their need for repentance, and their reliance on the grace and mercy of God to fulfill the duties of their office.

This amendment, especially as a replacement to Amendment B of 1996, was seen as opening the door to the ordination of actively homosexual people (as well as people engaging in heterosexual activity outside of marriage). It passed in the General Assembly by a 60% to 40% margin, and was then referred to the presbyteries. It wouldn’t become part of the Book of Order unless a majority of presbyteries approved. After a monumental battle in the whole denomination, Amendment A was voted down by the presbyteries, with 66% rejecting the amendment. This was an increase of about 10% over the last vote of presbyteries supporting fidelity and chastity. Though the pro-homosexual side won in the General Assembly, it lost more soundly in the presbyteries.
A personal aside:
Around this time, I had two experiences that shaped my understanding of what was going on in the PCUSA when it came to homosexuality. The first happened when I was asked to speak at a Presbyterian church where the leadership favored homosexual ordination. I was invited to represent “the other side” in the debate. I didn’t exactly relish this assignment, but the pastor was a friend and I appreciated his effort to be fair. I spent about an hour explaining in depth why I believed that the Bible does not endorse homosexual behavior, even though it calls us to love homosexual people. At the end of my presentation, I fielded questions and comments. Almost nobody wanted to talk about the Bible. Virtually every comment said something like this: “I understand what you’re saying about the Bible, and that’s probably true. But I have a friend whose son is gay, and I just can’t imagine causing more pain for my friend and her son. So we need to approve of him and affirm him. I just can’t go with what the Bible says.” I realized for the first time that the question of what the Bible actually teaches about homosexuality was becoming moot for many Presbyterians. Out of their feelings of compassion they were not going to follow biblical teaching.
My second experience happend in the context of a presbytery meeting in which we were voting on Amendment A. The debate was fairly predictable, as was the vote. My presbytery leaned in a conservative direction by about two-thirds to one-third. After the meeting, I was walking out behind a man who had spoken strongly in favor of a biblical understanding of homosexuality. A man I did not know came up to him and said, loudly, “You’re a bigot,” and then stormed off. Apparently one could not be a person of conscience and deny ordination to gays and lesbians. Since that time, I’ve heard this sort of thing again and again and again from the pro-gay side. It has eroded our fellowship in Christ, even as has the unloving treatment of homosexuals by persons on the conservative side. (Photo: The patio entrance of Irvine Presbyterian Church, where I was serving in the 1990s.)
1999 General Assembly Rejects Committee Recommendation to Delete “Fidelity and Chastity”
A General Assembly committee voted thumbs up for a revision of the Book of Order that removed the “fidelity and chastity” clause, replacing it with” “the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) commits itself not to exclude anyone categorically in considering those called to ordained service in the church, but to consider the lives and behaviors of candidates as individuals.” The General Assembly rejected the committee recommendation.
2001 General Assembly Votes to Delete the “Fidelity and Chastity” Clause
By a vote of 60% to 40%, the General Assembly voted to delete the “fidelity and chastity” clause, replacing it with a statement that church officers’ “suitability to hold office is determined by the governing body where the examination for ordination or installation takes place, guided by scriptural and constitutional standards, under the authority and Lordship of Jesus Christ.” In other words, every individual governing body (church session, presbytery) is free to determine for itself whether people must live in fidelity and chastity or not. Once again, however, this proposed change to the Book of Order required approval of the presbyteries. And, once again, a major battle was waged throughout the denomination. And, once again, the “fidelity and chastity” clause was upheld, this time by 57% of the presbyteries.
Summing Up
The recent history of the PCUSA shows a deeply divided denomination when it comes to the issue of homosexuality. It also demonstrates that the General Assembly is often more pro-gay in its votes than the presbyteries. To review:

1997-1998: “Fidelity and Chastity” added to Book of Order; GA vote = 57% to 42%; presbyteries vote 55% to 45%
1998=1999: GA votes to remove “Fidelity and Chastity” 60% to 40%; presbyteries reject GA vote, maintaining “Fidelity and Chastity” by 66% to 33%
2001-2002: GA votes to remove “Fidelity and Chastity” 60% to 40%; presbyteries reject GA vote, maintaining “Fidelity and Chastity” by 57% to 43%

One cannot read this history without noting that the PCUSA has spent an inordinate amount of time, energy, and money debating homosexuality. And I haven’t even begun to include the many church court cases, plus the running dispute over same-sex marriage. There is no consensus in the PCUSA, nor does one seem likely, even if one side is able to prevail in the Book of Order. As long as the PCUSA maintains its current structure and population, increasingly strident debates about homosexuality will continue indefinitely, unless Christ returns to free us from our confusion.
No doubt some of my readers are wondering why this fight has to keep on going and going. “Can’t you folks declare a truce?” you might wonder. Or if you’re in the PCUSA, you might want to ask, “Can we all get along?” I’ll address this question in my next post.

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