Order and Freedom

By Buchanan, John M. | The Christian Century, June 18, 1997 | Go to article overview

Order and Freedom


Buchanan, John M., The Christian Century


THE PRESBYTERIAN Church (U.S.A.), in which I have served as a minister of word and sacrament for 34 years and which I am currently serving as moderator, has historically affirmed two ideas that live in permanent tension and occasional conflict: church order and individual freedom. It is an interesting dialectic that on the one hand calls ministers at ordination to promise that they will "abide by our church's discipline" and that they be "governed by our church's polity," but also declares that "there are truths and forms with respect to which faithful Christians may differ," and that "the decisions of church bodies may be in error," and that "God alone is Lord of the conscience."

In a sense our history as a denomination is the story of the effort to live with and celebrate that tension. And, with some consistency, the story is one of conflict and division. There were the Old Side-New Side divisions of 1741 over new revival methods. These divisions were later the basis for the Old School-New School divisions of 1837-38.

In the 1920s the fundamentalist-modernist split resulted in several years of internal strife; the organization of a new denomination, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church; the fragmenting of Princeton Theological Seminary and the creation of Westminster Theological Seminary. It also led to a middle-of-the-road compromise.

Several years ago, the historic tension emerged again as the church dealt with accusations that the ReImagining conference, which had received financial support from the PCUSA, had violated the boundaries of Reformed theology. The report which the General Assembly adopted, almost unanimously, expressed and honored the historic tension by affirming that there are theological boundaries around the Reformed tradition but that faithful Presbyterians have the right to challenge and press those boundaries and not be maligned in the process. Order and freedom.

At this summer's General Assembly the church must decide again how to live out this historic tension. We have just amended our Book of Order to require of all candidates for ordination as minister, elder or deacon "fidelity in the marriage of a man and a woman or chastity in singleness." The amendment also requires repentance of any behavior the Book of Confessions calls sin.

Some Presbyterians are expressing their opinion of this new provision by compiling lists of sins from the pages of the Book of Confessions, including the charging of interest on loans, working on the Sabbath and unduly delaying marriage. Others are responding, defensively, that the amendment does not intend to function in this trivial manner. But everyone understands that the constitution now excludes from ordination persons who are sexually active outside heterosexual marriage--i.e., sexually active gays, lesbians and single heterosexuals.

We are a divided church. A significant majority of our presbyteries have ratified this amendment (95 to 73), but the popular vote is much closer, perhaps just a few percentage points apart. Many faithful Presbyterians worked hard for the approval of the amendment and rejoice in its adoption. Many faithful Presbyterians worked hard for its defeat, are deeply disappointed and are now struggling with how to live with a constitutional provision they not only disagree with but cannot, in conscience and by their interpretation of scripture, obey. Order and freedom.

Some Presbyterians are urging us to create a strategy to begin implementation and enforcement of the amendment. Others are signing covenants of dissent, declaring their intent to disregard the new provision. And many, perhaps most, Presbyterians are somewhere in the middle, wondering what a faithful and honest response, one that honors order and freedom, might be.

We could, of course, split the church. Sadly, some Presbyterians have already withdrawn from our church. Others are threatening to do so. …

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