With the vote last Tuesday by Twin Cities Presbytery in favor (205-56) of Amendment 10-A, the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. now has sufficient approval from a majority of presbyteries to remove provisions in its constitution that prohibited the ordination of sexually active homosexuals.
Gone is the language of “fidelity and chastity” and in its place comes the human relations discourse of competency—“calling, gifts, preparation, and suitability” as well as “ability and commitment.” For both sides of the debate, this is a momentous decision. But for others who have watched the deterioration of mainline Protestantism since at least the 1920s, this decision hardly comes as a surprise.
For almost 150 years, the PCUSA has endeavored to be an inclusive church. Definitions of such inclusivity have not been so easy to find. In 1869 when the northern Old School and New School Presbyterians—divided since 1837—reunited, they did so at least in part to achieve in the ecclesiastical realm what Appomattox had accomplished recently for the United States. If Presbyterians were going to serve a diverse and geographically extended nation, according to the rationale for reunion, they could not harbor the theological divisions that had caused the split three decades earlier.
A little more than fifty years later, during the disputes between conservatives and liberals, the church again affirmed inclusivity and tolerance—except for the nay-sayers of unity who contended as much for the purity as the peace of the church. The PCUSA showed no disapproval of the liberals from New York who had written the Auburn Affirmation, a document that pleaded for room for diverse interpretations of the Bible and the Westminster Confession within the constitutional provisions of the church. The motto of both liberal and evangelistically minded Presbyterians was, “doctrine divides, ministry unites.”
Then in 1967 the PCUSA solidified these consolidating impulses by ratifying a new confession, the Confession of 1967, and by including several other catechisms and creeds within its Book of Confessions. By adding new confessional documents and by embracing a Barthian doctrine of Scripture that for critics too readily distinguished the Word of God from the words of scripture, the new constitution provided ample wiggle room to continue to affirm and empower a diversity of doctrinal convictions and practices within the PCUSA.
From the perspective of these trends, which ran away from doctrinal definition based on a firm commitment to the infallibility of Scripture, the passage of Amendment A is hardly surprising. In fact, the reactions from proponents of gay ordination very much reflect that for them the question was not whether the church would adhere to God’s word but whether the denomination would find a place for victims of discrimination.
According to Trice Gibbons, Co-Moderator of More Light Presbyterians, “My heart is full as I think of all of those children of God who were hurt, who persevered, who left, who stayed and who worked so hard to make the Presbyterian Church (USA) truly reflect the wildly inclusive love of Jesus Christ—too many to name.”
Michael J. Adee, also of More Light, stated, “It is necessary and absolutely OK to celebrate this moment in the life and witness of our Church, the end of categorical discrimination against God's LGBT children which was wrong in the first place.” He added, “what a journey this work for justice and equality has been.”
For those who trust Scripture as the font of eternal life and regard the Reformed tradition as a worthy expression of biblical truth, this development in the PCUSA is a sad day. It is also an eye-opening one for those evangelicals who have remained in the mainline denomination. The argument for the better part of a century has been that the Presbyterian Church could maintain a faithful biblical witness without being overly scrupulous about the details of its theology—from the doctrine of Scripture to the five points of Calvinism.
On the surface, it is not obvious how affirming and defending the imputation of Christ’s righteousness adds weight to ordaining only candidates who affirm and try to live by biblical standards of morality. But just as New York City experimented with the policy described as "broken windows" and discovered that cracking down on petty public nuisances could also reduce harder crimes, so the PCUSA may be discovering that once you lighten your grip on seemingly arcane doctrines you also lose the ability to enforce any sort of doctrinal or moral standard.
The era of neo-orthodoxy and the heady tomes of Karl Barth and Reinhold Niebuhr appeared to steer the mainline Protestant churches from the excesses of liberal Protestantism. However, that theological era came to an end during the 1960s when the theologies of liberation and identity politics pushed aside the theological and ethical reflection of dead white men of European descent.
But what is now obvious is that the right-turn of neo-orthodoxy did little to correct a much deeper problem, one stemming from the contradictions of ecclesiastical inclusion. The United States is, of course, a free country, and communions like the PCUSA are free to be as inclusive as the nation whose name they bear. But other Americans are also free to wonder if such a church can still credibly claim to speak for God.
Darryl Hart, a member of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, is a visiting professor of history at Hillsdale College and the author of From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin: Evangelicals and the Betrayal of American Conservatism (Eerdmans, forthcoming).
The Auburn Affirmation