Thursday, May 29, 2008

Consistently Inconsistent

Remember the phrase being tossed around two years ago at the time of the PUP report being considered by the last General Assembly, words about "according the presumption of wisdom"?

The phrase came from PUP recommendation 5.e: "All parties should endeavor to outdo one another in honoring one another’s decisions, according the presumption of wisdom to ordaining/installing bodies in examining candidates and to the General Assembly, with presbyteries’ approval, in setting standards."

In other words, in the sphere in which a governing body operates and for the decisions it is chartered to make, the other governing bodies were counseled to back off and consider that the first body knows what it is doing. It was basically a statement to observe boundaries and not go barging in to supposedly interfere.

Stated Clerk Clifton Kirkpatrick got on this band wagon. He seemed all for such gentlemanly reserve about ordination standards. In his Advisory Opinion #18, Kirkpatrick:
  • Counseled that "ordaining bodies should be given the 'benefit of the doubt' in making individual judgments...."
  • Joined the Assembly in urging the church "to exercise great restraint in utilizing that right [of administrative review], reserving its use to clear cases of abuse of authority...."
  • Reminded the church that "it is the duty of both individual Christians and Christian societies to exercise mutual forbearance toward each another (G-1.0305)."
  • Prayed that "all ordaining bodies will exercise restraint and Christian charity."

One would think that Kirkpatrick was all for being mellow and laissez faire about constitutional matters. You know, just live and let live; govern and let govern; slide and let slide.

But that was then and this is now. That was about Christian morality and ordination standards, something Kirkpatrick apparently has no stomach to uphold. Now the subjects are property and per capita, which, for some strange reason, seem to super-animate Kirkpatrick.

Take, for instance, the Louisville Papers, issued under Kirkpatrick's authority. These legal briefs about taking denominational control of church property have sparked vicious, grasping lawsuits and the most suspicious, ungracious, and selfish behavior by upper governing bodies. Their actions show that they are absolutely unwilling to honor the decisions of or accord the presumption of any wisdom to lower governing bodies.

Or take the issue of churches transferring to another Reformed denomination, which our Constitution allows (unlike the ordination of those refusing to abide by moral standards). Kirkpatrick seems fiercely unwilling to honor decisions to depart. He seems utterly opposed to according the presumption of wisdom to church sessions or even to gracious presbyteries. No, Kirkpatrick instead sends in the property lawyers and accuses the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of stealing whole flocks of sheep.

And there's the issue of per capita payments. Some congregations have determined that their fiduciary and stewardship responsibilities aren't met by paying for beliefs and activities of Kirkpatrick's office that do not accord with their faith. Some presbyteries have chosen neither to force per capita payments nor to curtail other ministries to pay for uncollected per capita funds.

Are such sessions and presbyteries presumed to be wise in their financial decisions? Is Kirkpatrick falling all over himself in his endeavoring to honor such decisions? Hardly! His office instead counsels judicial means to disapprove and punish such supposed wrongdoing by governing bodies such as Seattle Presbytery (see page 3 for the PJC decision).

I long for ideological consistency and just plain fairness, which we'll probably never see in the last days of discontent under Kirkpatrick. It is indefensible to champion tolerance and laxness in one area of moral and constitutional law he must not particularly favor, while severely tightening the screws in another area of constitutional law by which his office stands to gain financially.

Consistency--that's what is needed. All the "accorded the presumption of wisdom" talk becomes mere blather when it is followed by aggressive litigation. Either sessions and presbyteries are inherently wise and should be left to do whatever they decide, or they are not and can be contested appropriately when they stray from approved practice.

Kirkpatrick can't have it both ways. So I won't buy any more high-sounding talk from him about "according the presumption of wisdom." Not if it will be applied only when it is expedient because there is something to gain.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Witherspoon Society Invites IRS Correction

I hope the Witherspoon Society realizes that its latest Network News puts its nonprofit status in jeopardy. It could have the IRS breathing down its neck in short order and for good reason.

While a portion of a not-for-profit's work can be about lobbying for political issues, exactly zero of its efforts can be directed toward lobbying for any political candidates. Here is how an April 17 IRS statement reads: "By law, organizations exempt from tax under Internal Revenue Code section 501(c)(3) may not 'participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.'”

The Douglas Ottati article on pages 30 and 31 crosses the line and puts Witherspoon Society directly in the position of promoting Democratic candidates for president and opposing Republicans. Any pretense of being neutral or not intervening in a political campaign has evaporated.

Ottati asks the readers, "Which Democratic candidate should we support?" He summarizes: "In short, after eight years of W. and his many accomplishments, both foreign and domestic, our chief electoral responsibility seems nicely summarized by a sticker I saw the other day on another friend’s car: 'Enough is enough. Vote Democratic.'"

There you have it--an exempt organization doing exactly what it cannot do: beating the drum for a political party in the election of president. It would be just as guilty if it had hyped the Republican candidate and denigrated the Democratic candidates. I hope the Witherspoon Society is prepared to answer to a no-nonsense Internal Revenue Service, which has pledged to "maintain a meaningful enforcement presence" concerning such violations of law.

But even beyond that legal jeopardy, why would any group whose interests are Christian make its main concern secular partisan politics? Are there too few possible acts of Christian witness or mercy available to maintain its interest? Or is the Witherspoon Society in truth just a Democratic Party action group at heart, with only the vestiges remaining of being a genuine Christian ministry whose work transcends the platform of any particular political party?

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Heads, They Win; Tails, We Lose

"Okay, let's flip on it," someone would say when I was a kid. "Heads, I win; tails, you lose." Obviously, if I get into that kind of an arrangement, I'm going to lose.

That's the way I'm beginning to feel about the system of Presbyterian Permanent Judicial Commissions: When those of us who are conservative or evangelical enter in, it seems that most often we're going to lose. But worse, it seems that when just plain common sense and obvious intent enter in, they come out losers, too.

Take two cases that hit Presbyweb Saturday.

Case #1: Sacramento Presbytery. In this case, the presbytery charitably voted not to appeal a secular court case that had allowed a congregation to retain its property while transferring into a sister denomination. In other words, the presbytery altruistically chose the welfare of the worshipping congregation over pure possessiveness on its part.

However, such good motives cannot go unpunished in an aggressively litigious atmosphere encouraged by our Stated Clerk's office. Three disgruntled pastors from a church on the losing side of the vote filed a "stay of enforcement" with the synod Permanent Judicial Commission. A stay of enforcement usually keeps something from happening--an ordination, a rebuke, a rule change, etc.--until after some dispute has been settled in the church courts.

Not this time.

This time, the "stay" is causing the tiny minority's desires to be carried out, against the will of the large majority. This "stay" plays out in an amazingly convoluted and unusual way in this case, actually causing an action rather than suspending action.

Since the "stay" is actually going to cause the exact action to occur that a strong majority of the presbytery voted not to do, there seems to be a need for the majority now to stay the "stay"!

Quite simply, the presbytery voted not to go to court to appeal, but yet the stay of enforcement forces the presbytery to appeal. In other words, according to the members of the synod PJC, to hold off on not appealing means that the presbytery must appeal. Thus, the presbytery officers were summarily ordered to file the appeal, and they did.

So much for the fundamental of Presbyterian polity that "a majority shall govern" (G-1.0400). Three people in Sacramento made the presbytery do the mean-spirited action it had voted not to do--and this is supposedly through a "stay" of action, which, during a time of legally sorting things out, ought to restrain action rather than force it!

Case #2: Twin Cities Presbytery. Here, a former pastor had surrendered his ordination because he would not support chastity as an unmarried gay man. He has now decided that the time is ripe still to refuse to abide by "chastity in singleness" but take his ordination back after all. His presbytery concurred, and some presbyters filed a remedial complaint.

The complaint seems justified. Our underlying policy on homosexual practice specifically names it as sin. It says that "all homosexual practice is incompatible with Christian faith and life" and that "God's will precludes the ordination of persons who do not repent of homosexual practice." And yet the presbytery has just handed back to this scofflaw his ordination.

Permanent Judicial Commission decisions have set the precedent about "fidelity and chastity" that "the church has decided to single out this particular manner of life standard and require churchwide conformity to it for all ordained church officers" (Bush, 218-10). The General Assembly PJC has decreed that "violations of behavioral standards are to be addressed through repentance and reconciliation, not by exception or exemption." And yet, the presbytery made an exception, because the guy had formerly been ordained and just wanted his papers back.

So, what does the synod PJC rule about the remedial case? It refuses to sustain the complaint. Why? Because, strictly speaking, previous precedential decisions were about getting ordained, not about restoring ordination, so apparently they don't apply. Also, the guy is not ministering within the PCUSA, but at an independent seminary, in a validated ministry.

Thus, in classic casuistic reasoning that can ignore the meat of the matter and forget its original purposes in order to concentrate on extraneous circumstances until a way is found around an obvious restraint, the synod PJC ignored Presbyterian convictions and policy and let the fellow go his merry way with his ordination restored.

Never mind that we officially call homosexual practice sin, that we forbid ordination of those not willing to practice fidelity or chastity, that sinful behavior is not to be winked at but repented of. Never mind that we would not ordain new folks with this guy's attitude and practice, and don't really need any more renegades running around who will not abide by our polity. No, never mind. A way was found to ignore the obvious and to approve the unapprovable.

Jesus said to people like this: "You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel" (Matt. 23:24).

The camel in this case is that homosexual practice is sin. Everything we do about the subject as a church, therefore, ought to flow from that starting point. And the flow ought not take us to the place of giving back an ordination rightfully renounced at an earlier point by a person who will not practice what our standards say he must.

We have a judicial system stuck in gnats and missing obvious camels. And for those of us who just want to uphold biblical morality or further congregational ministry apart from vindictiveness--well, it seems to end up heads, they win; tails, we lose.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Prayer? Yes! But Hold the Propaganda

People are praying for General Assembly. That's absolutely wonderful. It's necessary. It's primary. More power to them. Count me in, too.

Moderator Joan Gray asks us to "pray that we will be open to the fullness of God’s will in our General Assembly." May it be so!

On the other hand, Stated Clerk Clifton Kirkpatrick delivers a rather mixed message about Christian unity:
  • While Kirkpatrick has failed to champion and uphold historic Christian moral teaching, he yet brings attention to "the strong faith we share with Christians throughout the ages." Yes, that historic faith is outstanding, but why hasn't Kirkpatrick honored it with his own example? Why hasn't he vigorously sustained the sexual morality that has been part of that strong faith throughout the ages?
  • While Kirkpatrick writes, correctly, that "The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has long understood that it is only one part of the body of Christ, and that we seek to make visible the unity we share with other Christians," he has concurrently issued harsh and retributive legal briefs (here and here), seeking to label any group of Presbyterians not sufficiently attached to the PCUSA alone as not "the true church." Which is it? Is the PCUSA only one part of the body of Christ, or is it the only part that is "true"?
  • While Kirkpatrick invites us to find out more about an "effort to create closer connections between NCC member churches," he seems to limit the graciousness of ecumenicity only to the dance of the few dying dinosaurs within the National Council of Churches. At the same time, he has seemed to stoke the fires of distrust against our closest denominational siblings, such as the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. Why limit the call "to engage in fellowship, prayer, and study with other Christians" to a small, increasingly irrelevant and secularized sliver of the body of Christ? Why leave out vital fellowship with Southern Baptists, Roman Catholics, Pentecostal, independent, and evangelical brothers and sisters in Christ?

For Pentecost and leading up to General Assembly, Moderator Joan Gray calls us to prayer and to seeking God's will. Stated Clerk Clifton Kirkpatrick, on the other hand, touts the National Council of Churches, which just happens to have its funding slightly imperiled at the coming General Assembly. I'll take the prayer, but for me, hold the not-so-subtle NCC propaganda.

It seems high time for a new Stated Clerk more attuned to the faith and life of the congregations within our denomination--someone to match within the Office of the General Assembly the fresh breezes of ministry blowing within the General Assembly Council. And someone less attuned to promoting and maintaining personally favored failing ecumenical institutions of a previous era.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

High Priests of Secularity in the California Supreme Court

The California Supreme Court has released a decision that in essence requires that same-sex unions be termed marriages, reversing the moral position taken by the people of California. See the whole decision here, and a useful and briefer segment here.

This is an amazing, if not too surprising, case of judicial activism, as a dissenting opinion by Justice Corrigan also holds. The court has decided that it knows better than the people of California what is good and right and desirable, and the court imposes its vision upon the people by fiat.

A couple of portions of the ruling stood out for me as disturbingly audacious:

These core substantive rights include, most fundamentally, the opportunity of an individual to establish--with the person with whom the individual has chosen to share his or her life--an officially recognized and protected family possessing mutual rights and responsibilities and entitled to the same respect and dignity accorded a union traditionally designated as marriage.
The court doesn't really believe that. What if the person has chosen his mother to whom to be married? Or a ten-year-old? Or his daughter or granddaughter? What if the person one chooses is already married to someone else but would willingly add another spouse?

What if many such individuals are chosen, rather than one? For that matter, on what grounds, using this logic, would just one spouse be deemed the proper number, if it is all about the fundamental opportunity and right to establish a family the way one chooses?

Must any and every coupling, no matter how exploitative or ridiculous, be "accorded a union traditionally designated as marriage"? Ridiculous!

Finally, retaining the designation of marriage exclusively for opposite sex couples and providing only a separate and distinct designation for same-sex couples may well have the effect of perpetuating a more general premise--now emphatically rejected by this state--that gay individuals and same-sex couples are in some respects "second-class citizens" who may, under the law, be treated differently from, and less favorably than, heterosexual individuals or opposite-sex couples [emphasis added].
This statement is so full of judicial activism! The state has voted. The people determined quite soundly that marriage is between a man and a woman. Now four of seven justices emphatically reject for the whole state the very beliefs the state has embraced for itself!

This statement within the decision is also a religious statement. The judges have taken their belief, their value judgment--that gay sex is not morally wrong and is to be accorded every respect given to marital heterosexual sex--and imposed it wholesale on the state. The state supreme court justices have made a religious/moral determination on their own, distinctly different from the moral determination the state has made through its proper voting process, and they now impose that morality from on high upon a state that has said it doesn't so believe. That is tyranny!

Fellow Christians: Be prepared to live your lives as social outcasts from a society that calls your moral beliefs heterosexist discrimination and labels your morality the state-disapproved notions of hateful bigots.

For believing God's Word and for standing for the sexual purity that God has taught us, you will be one of those Neanderthals considered to be promoting something "emphatically rejected by the state." Well, not exactly rejected "by the state," but certainly by a majority of activist California Supreme Court justices speaking as if they were the state.