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.


Blogger Mark Smith said...

You're right.

However, it goes both ways. IF the church were to stop the Synod actions against presbyteries who allow congregations to leave, would the right wing also accept ordination decisions that they disagree with?

6:01 AM, May 30, 2008  
Blogger Jim said...


What's good for the goose ought to be good for the gander. So what you suggest may look at first glance to be fair.

But that's only at first glance.

You suggest that we equate allowing or prosecuting something both immoral and unconstitutional with similarly allowing or prosecuting something that is biblically faithful AND constitutional. You suggest that to be consistent, both must be allowed (or, logically, both must be prosecuted).

Not so!

Homosexual practice is sin. Adultery or fornication is sin. Those to be ordained must meet the standard of fidelity in marriage of a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness.

Dismissing a congregation to another demonination, on the other hand, is constitutionally allowed, and presbyteries get to make the decision. There IS a constitutional provision to do that in an appropriate manner.

Forcing the payment by sessions of per capita is not constitutional, and presbyteries are expected to make up unpaid per capita only "if funds are available." There is precedent and case law about per capita that wouldn't REQUIRE legal action.

So it is perfectly consistent to fulfill constitutional responsibilities in all cases--by appropriately enforcing "fidelity and chastity" on the one hand and by according to sessions and presbyteries the constitutional responsibility to make decisions about denominational membership and per capita matters.

I'm calling for a consistent attitude of constitutionality. Kirkpatrick and his office shouldn't swing one way when there is money and property to be grabbed, and another way when a pesky moral standard needs to be upheld.

Right now, the Stated Clerk's record and office are consistently inconsistent.

Jim Berkley
Bellevue, WA

9:48 AM, May 30, 2008  
Blogger Presbyman said...


You hit it out of the park with your posting and your response to Mark Smith. I am so fed up with the nonsense from Kirkpatrick's office and those in the hierarchy who act similarly.

Way to go!


John Erthein
Erie, PA

10:21 AM, May 30, 2008  
Blogger Mark Smith said...

Schism is also a sin.

Many of the congregations that have left (not all, mind you, but many) have been led out by their pastors.

Besides, I don't accept your premise that homosexuality is a sin.

If we are going to allow tolerance of congregations that leave, we should also allow tolerance of ordination decisions for sinful people (which ALL ordinations are) that are made by other governing bodies.

1:49 PM, May 30, 2008  
Blogger Rob said...

Mark: only if the constitution changes. Until that point, consistency consists of consistently applying the constitution of this denomination as written, rather than winking at violations, on the one hand, and trying to prosecute acts which aren't violations, on the other. To argue that it's in any way consistent to allow abrogation of the rules and procedures which are supposed to bind us all is simply ludicrous.

Also, Mark: from a Reformed perspective, church discipline is one of the three marks of a true church. Absent that, what you have is not a true church, and therefore separating from it is not schism. Therefore, while I disagree with those who would split this denomination, and have argued against those who have decided to leave, I cannot and do not accuse them of schism.

Jim: I agree; I think this issue is exactly why the RCA has avoided the huge fights that have wracked this denomination. I'm reasonably certain that Wes Granberg-Michaelson is no more conservative than Cliff Kirkpatrick--but he's committed to the consistent and fair application of the RCA's constitution as it stands, with no monkey business winked at by anybody. (Unfortunately, the constitution itself allows monkey business on the ordination of women, so he can't stop that.) That's why I'll be just about as pleased if Ed Koster is elected stated clerk as if Casey Jones is (which seems to me far less likely).

Rob Harrison
Warsaw/Winona Lake, IN

2:51 PM, May 30, 2008  
Blogger Jim said...


What a dilemma you put me in! Let's see, on the one hand I have Mark Smith declaring that he doesn't think that homosexuality is a sin.

On the other hand I have the unison witness of Scripture (in several places), our confessions, our Book of Order, authoritative interpretations, two thousand years of Christian belief and practice, and a couple more millennia of consensus morality from the vast, vast majority of cultures that have ever existed. All these sources say that homosexual practice is wrong.

Oh, whatever am I to do?

You know what? I don't think that decision is so difficult after all. Mark and a licentious culture versus Scripture and Christian morality. I'll take the latter, thank you!

And while we're at it:
1) Are there other Christian churches in your community? Do you consider every one of them in sin, as schizmatic organizations that have broken off of the true church, the PCUSA? I doubt it. Certainly you are not Roman Catholic, so you, too, are participating in a denomination that you might consider schizmatic.

You need to tone down the schism talk. If the PCUSA were truly "the" Church, and everything else was outside the Kingdom, then maybe. But it's not the case.

And to blame pastors doing their best to faithfully lead their sheep is really cheap. Ah, so those poor sheep were perfectly happy as Presbyterians, yet some angry, schismatic pastor has led them astray? What patronizing nonsense! I wish no church would leave, but to blame supposedly thieving pastors is a cheap shot.

2) It would be good for you to honor the distinction between (a) homosexuality and (b) homosexual practice. Homosexuality is not sin. Neither is my sexual orientation, which is probably heterosexual philanderer. But were I to act out philandering or were a homosexual person to act out homosexual practice, then that is where the practice of sin would begin.

If I were to be a philanerer and were to demand ordination anyway, that is where my claims would approach the absurdity of the claims of practicing homosexual persons who demand ordination anyway.

2) No one ever ordained is without sin. Of course. We all share that fatal flaw. This is why REPENTANCE and REDEMPTION are necessary, and the lack of repentance and thus the forfeiture of redemption become barriers to ordination.

There is no integrity in steadfastly insisting on one's right to go right on proudly sinning and yet expect to be ordained in a church that has always deemed and continues to deem that behavior sin, a practice that needs to be forsaken out of obedience to our Lord and Savior.

Who would expect a temperance society to accept leadership from a proudly habitual drunk, or a pacifist organization to be led by a practicing hit man? One may choose to be a drunk or a hit man, but one should never presume to lead a temperance or pacifist organization while thus practicing!

4) We don't have to "tolerate" congregations that leave; we can love them and dismiss them. Why should it be considered an evil to be either tolerated or punished, as the case may be? Why not just consider it inevitable, and wish them well as they transfer from one part of the Body of Christ to another part of the Body of Christ, yet remain IN the Body of Christ?

Do you "tolerate" a parishioner moving to Paris and, say, joining the American Church there, or do you bless and send off that person for the next chapter in his or her life of faith? Why does distance make what the parishioner does commendable, and lack of distance make what a congregation may choose to do something to be only "tolerated" at best?

What's more, we make a big deal about being ecumenical. So why is it great to be ecumenical in theory, but so absolutely parochial in practice? Cannot we rejoice that another denomination now would have a vital, thriving congregation that is a good fit?

Or must we hoard and grasp what we consider ours--you know, the church version of Gollum wanting to grasp "his" precious ring no matter what?

I'm sorry, Mark. There are just so very many ways you are off base in the brief claims you made!

Jim Berkley
Bellevue, WA

6:09 PM, May 30, 2008  
Blogger Pastor Al said...

>Schism is also a sin.

I have to admit, I'm always a bit amused when a Protestant says this. Our church heritage exists because of schism.

I've never hear a Presbyterian say this, then go out and act on their belief by moving to a Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox church.

Mark, let me say this kindly because over the years I have come to have a great deal of respect for you even if we disagree on the the Biblical issues of sexuality.

It seems very thin to me to have some group stir up a great deal of trouble for people in the church, push the church towards what some believe is heresy, then tell them that God forbids them to leave.

It's a little like an abusive husband who makes life miserable for his wife and then when she seeks divorce, tells her divorce is a sin.

Frankly, there is really only one way for this conflict to end: One side moves on and we stop beating each other up. Why is that such a bad option?

Al Sandalow

12:15 PM, May 31, 2008  
Blogger Dennis said...


A point that I would like to make is that nonpayment of per capita is intolerable. A congregation is either in or it is not. If it is in, pay the per capita or get out. That is my feeling. I do not see any justification for the nonpayment of per capita.

Dennis Veith
Ferndale, WA

7:45 PM, June 02, 2008  
Blogger Jim said...

So, Dennis, you wouldn't be in favor of "endeavoring to outdo one another in honoring one another’s decisions, according the presumption of wisdom" to sessions "to determine the distribution of the church's benevolences" (which is a session responsibility in G-10.0102i)?

I'm having a hard time feeling your love and your according of the presumption of wisdom to those who differ from you on this matter.

Consider this: A presbytery has decided to hold all of its worship services using Wiccan liturgy. It is ordaining Ku Klux Klan leaders as pastors and promoting racial hatred. It is using large sums of its income to produce child pornography, which it hopes to sell to buy the executive presbyter a Rolls Royce.

Now, would YOU want to give congregational benevolence money to that presbytery? I would guess not.

So is your only other choice to leave, as you decreed? But wait, you can't leave, because that corrupt presbytery would strip you of all your assets with which to continue ministry, liquidate those assets, and use the accumulated gifts of the saints to buy a second or third Rolls Royce for the head honcho. So now what do you do?

Okay, this is ridiculous. No presbytery is that corrupt; no church that hard-pressed and without options--you think.

But if there exists in your mind the situation in which you WOULD withhold income to a corrupt presbytery or synod, then in essence you have approved the withholding of per capita in SOME instances.

Now we only differ on what those instances would be, and apparently you don't think any instances have risen yet to the level worth withholding over. So it's now your level of outrage versus someone else's level of outrage; your choice of behavior to be outraged about versus some other group's choice.

It is no longer a case of your absolute decree versus someone else's never-appropriate resistance.

By the way, I have not counseled sessions to withhold per capita. That seems to me like shooting a shotgun into a crowd to assassinate an individual.

However, I still consider it inconsistent of the Stated Clerk to hyperactively press hard-nosed cases on property and per capita, while claiming he cannot get involved in ordination cases because he must remain neutral as an officer of the court. He can't have it both ways, and thus he has been consistently inconsistent.

Jim Berkley
Bellevue, WA
(Otherwise known as
Baha Ferndale)

11:57 PM, June 02, 2008  
Blogger Presbyman said...

I am amazed that anyone could get passionate about ... per capita (which the Constitution, by the way, allows to be withheld). Passionate about fuzzy and undefined theology? No. Passionate about irregular ordinations? No. Passionate about same-sex unions/weddings being performed? No.

But passionate about per capita? Oh yes. Man the battle stations! Defend the payments to the death. Cast out the vile heretics who would dare withhold their ransom to the King!

The institutionalist mindset never ceases to amaze me, in its insistence upon downgrading the essentials and elevating the non-essentials.

BTW, our congregation does not remit GA per capita. Dennis and others of his mentality can like it or lump it.

John Erthein
Erie, PA

7:25 AM, June 03, 2008  
Blogger Dennis said...

John and Jim,

I think I have been double-teamed!

Jim, your ridiculous example is well put. However, I continue to believe that per capita is ecclesiastical (spelling?) support, not benevolence money. It is the membership fee for a church to call itself Presbyterian. Without per capita, we do not have a connectional church.

John, you say your congregation is not paying per capita. Does it still call itself Presbyterian? Then it is simply dishonest in the most fundamental sense of the word. Presbyterians are not congregationalists. Congregationalists do not need per capita; Presbyterians do. Since per capita pays for the meetings in which we talk to each other, your congregation is essentially saying that Presbyterians should no longer talk with each other.

In spite of Jim's well-reasoned argument, I still think congregations need to pay the per capita or find a non-meeting denomination with which to affiliate.

Dennis Veith
Ferndale, WA
Somewhere north of Bellevue

8:33 PM, June 04, 2008  
Blogger Presbyman said...


Well, what I said was that the congregation does not remit "GA" per capita, meaning per capita at the General Assembly level only. Nowadays, GA per capita pays for much more than simply setting up the meetings. Monies also flow to the NCC and WCC, which seems a strange way of using "meeting" funds.

I still think that, oh, holding fast to orthodox doctrine and Reformed distinctives is more important than paying per capita (and again, payment of per capita is NOT REQUIRED under the Constitution). IMO, there are hundreds of congregations in the denom that should not call themselves "Presbyterian" because they have compromised on human sexuality, deny that Jesus Christ is the only way to the Father, and that the Bible is the infallible Word of God.

If paying per capita is what it means to be "Presbyterian," then that is a very weak reed upon which to support a church. But again, that represents the institutionalist mind-set.

John Erthein
Erie, PA

7:38 AM, June 05, 2008  
Blogger Dave Moody said...

Am I hearing you right? Per-cap is the determining factor of being connectional? Money? Wow... I guess we really can toss the first four chapters of our book of order away- not to mention Corinthians, Ephesians, etc.. Paul was just joshin' when he gave us all that church-as-body-of-Christ stuff. I guess, since we don't pay first methodist down the street, or calvary baptist, or Bethel PCA or Our Lady of Lourdes, the congregation I serve isn't connected to them through our mutual head, Jesus Christ- the Lord of the Church.

If I'm hearing you right, our head is Louisville, and everything connectional flows from there. Guess thats what I missed out on by not attending a presbyterian seminary. I never knew. I always suspected my education was deficient. Thanks for lesson in reformed idola, er, theology.

with much sadness,
Dave Moody
S. Illinois

7:49 AM, June 05, 2008  
Blogger Dennis said...

John and Dave,

Thank you for your responses.

John, I think that a General Assembly will not happen without per capita money. Is that not right? Is your congregation saying that there should be no more General Assemblies?

You talked about congregations that should not call themselves Presbyterian. I am convinced that the church is perfect. Of course, that is the invisible church that we don't see. The visible church is imperfect because you and I are in it.

Dave, you signed off on your sarcastic letter with sadness. I would ask you the same thing. Should we never have another General Assembly?

I like to think I am an orthodox Christian and Presbyterian. I wonder why self-styled conservatives tend to be so pugnacious. I see that in Jim also. We should always be able to talk with each other with civility. I confess I have read Mouw's book on civility; I don't remember how I talked before I read the book.

Dennis Veith
Ferndale, WA

8:52 PM, June 05, 2008  
Blogger Presbyman said...

Dennis vs.Dennis:

I wonder why self-styled conservatives tend to be so pugnacious. I see that in Jim also. We should always be able to talk with each other with civility. I confess I have read Mouw's book on civility; I don't remember how I talked before I read the book.

A point that I would like to make is that nonpayment of per capita is intolerable. A congregation is either in or it is not. If it is in, pay the per capita or get out.

John, you say your congregation is not paying per capita. Does it still call itself Presbyterian? Then it is simply dishonest in the most fundamental sense of the word.

Maybe Dennis needs to re-read Mouw, because it hasn't taken yet.

John Erthein
Erie, PA

12:48 PM, June 06, 2008  

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