Friday, July 11, 2008

Reading the AI with Comprehension

When dealing with a complicated statement, I often find it useful to construct a visual representation somewhat like sentence diagramming from school days. I think that would help us better understand the new Authoritative Interpretation (AI), which is admittedly a complex statement. I think it will also point out at least one ambiguous part.

So here’s my try for the sentence: “Interpretive statements concerning ordained service of homosexual church members by the 190th General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America and the 119th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States and all subsequent affirmations thereof, have no further force or effect”:

1) Interpretive statements
a. concerning ordained service of homosexual church members
b. by the 190th General Assembly of the United Presbyterian

Church in the United States of America and
c. [by] the 119th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in
the United States

2) affirmations
a. all
b. subsequent
c. thereof,
3) have no further force or effect.

Okay. So what do we have? Numbers 1 and 2 are the subjects; number 3 is the verb phrase. “Interpretive statements and affirmations have no further force or effect.” That’s the bare-bones skeleton.

But obviously not all interpretive statements, as 1.a-c tell us. The interpretative statements being considered are strictly limited by:

(a) Only those that concern ordained service of homosexual church members. (Notice how this is written as if homosexual orientation and not homosexual practice were the main thing. The 1978/1993 Authoritative Interpretation was very careful and specific in dealing with homosexual practice. This new statement is actually more careless and less clear. In a way, there is no historical statement about the ordination of homosexual persons per se to be rendered of no force or effect, because the previous statements are about homosexual behavior, not about someone's abstract state of being homosexual.)

(b) Only the statement by the UPCUSA 190th General Assembly (1978) and
(c) Only the statement by the PCUS 119th General Assembly (1979)

Okay, so now we know that the statements that have no further force or effect are just two very specific statements, and they were mischaracterized in this new resolution as being about homosexual persons, when they were in truth about homosexual practice.

We also know that we’re talking about “interpretative statements” in their totality that were issued by these two denominations in 1978 and 1979, not the very narrow part of each statement that for some reason the Stated Clerk’s office zeroed in on in its Advisory Opinion #22.

What else do we know from the sentence diagram? We know that there is something else that has no further force or effect: “affirmations.” What kind of affirmations in particular?

a and b) “all subsequent” affirmations. That means that after 1978-79, every single such affirmation is also of no further force or effect. But still, what kind?

c) Affirmations “thereof.” The “thereof” tells us something specific. It’s not just any affirmation that may have come out of our mouths after 1979, such as “I like chocolate!” It is only affirmations that pertain to the two very specific statements delineated in the first part. So if a General Assembly affirmed something else or reaffirmed some other statement of principle, such affirmations that aren’t “thereof” are not being included here and would remain in force and effect. Only in cases where the General Assembly has affirmed the 1978 UPCUSA statement or the 1979 PCUS statement about homosexual (practice as it relates to) ordination is such a subsequent affirmation of no further force or effect.

But here’s the ambiguity: “affirmations” by whom? By any Presbyterian anywhere? One would think not! By sessions or presbyteries? I seriously doubt it. They haven’t been mentioned at all in this section of the resolution, so there is no reason to slip them in as the party making the affirmations.

No, it appears that the elliptical party doing the affirmations or reaffirmations would have to be a subsequent General Assembly, such as the 217th General Assembly as recently as 2006 that commended the statement to the study of the whole church. If we are going to supply an assumed party to be doing such affirmations, it would most likely be the only party that can with authority affirm a statement by the General Assembly: another General Assembly.

Thus, in this reading, if any subsequent General Assembly has affirmed the 1978/1979 statements, that affirmation is now left without further force or effect, because this particular, most-recent General Assembly has said so.

What about the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission (GAPJC) and its ability to also produce Authoritative Interpretations? The Stated Clerk’s office in its new Advisory Opinion seems to think that any time a GAPJC cited the 1978/1979 statements, this new Authoritative Interpretation then basically invalidates that decision, as if the GAPJC opinion were not also rooted in the Bible, our confessions, legislative intent, and the standard practice of Christians for two millennia.

The Stated Clerk’s office, if it is being careful with the exact language of this new Authoritative Interpretation, must be interpreting “all subsequent affirmations thereof” to include GAPJC decisions as well as General Assembly resolutions. But is a GAPJC decision truly an “affirmation” of an “interpretive statement” by a General Assembly?

I would say no. The GAPJC may use the interpretative statement or rely on it or partially base its decision on the interpretative statement, but that is something different than it being an “affirmation” of the statement. The entity that can affirm or reaffirm such statements is the General Assembly.

Thus, if we read the new Authoritative Interpretation for what it says and not for what we only assume it is saying or what we want it to say, it is basically saying this: Those 1978 and 1979 interpretative statements about homosexual practice have, in their entirety, no further force or effect. In addition, all affirmations of these particular interpretative statements (and only these) by subsequent General Assemblies also have no further force or effect.

I wish the 218th General Assembly had never made such a statement, but I do believe that this is the meaning of their statement.

This reading would also mean that other General Assembly policy statements about homosexual practice or Christian sexual morality in general are not affected by this new Authoritative Interpretation, nor would Permanent Judicial Commission decisions—with the force of being Authoritative Interpretations in their own right—be affected by this new Authoritative Interpretation.

With that in mind, the Stated Clerk’s Advisory Opinion #22 seems to require either more thought and revision, or far better clarity and explanation. This is no time for muddy, ambiguous, confusing counsel. We need to know what is the case and why.


Blogger Dave Moody said...

'Careful' and 'serious' are two adjectives one would not associate with the actions of this GA. And one needn't even be a champion sentence diagrammer to come to that conclusion!

The human predilection to see what one wishes and not necessarily what is, seems to be at work in Louisville.

In Memphis on the window of the Peabody Hotel is this quote from John Lennon, "Before Elvis, there was nothing." No Mozart, no Bach, no Beethoven, Chopin, no gospel Music, no Mississippi Slim or Hank Snow, BB King or Rufus Thomas. Elvis just sprang from Col. Tom Parker's head, fully formed.

The other side's apologetic and strategy regarding appropriate sexual expression seems to be of a kindred sort to Lennon's (obviously) hyperbolic statement regarding Elvis. Before GA's/Book of Order, there was nothing.

Dave Moody,

8:33 PM, July 11, 2008  
Blogger DSW2187 said...


I think the ambiguity is elsewhere in the sentence.

Clearly,the GAPJC has the power to interpret the Constitution, and has done so through the years,using the 1978 DG/AI to do so.

But,what precisely does "no **further** force or effect" mean? It seems from AO22 that the OGA thinks this means the GA action invalidates all previous usages of the AI. But does not 'further' mean from this point forward?

It seems to me that the Stated Clerk's office has erred in being overly zealous in its interpretation of the impact of the Assembly's action.

Your thoughts?

Dan Williams
(Minister Commissioner,Shenandoah Presbytery,and vice moderator, FOG Revision Committee)

3:07 PM, July 12, 2008  
Blogger Pastor Bob said...

What fascinates me in this AI is that it is so broad. If the GA says the whole of the 78 and 79 statements are no longer in effect then a self affirming practicing homosexual ordained before 1974 may now be disciplined. Further we are no longer instructed to show compassion to homosexuals.

I think the people who wrote this didn't think.

Further, they failed to cover GAPJC decisions that were not based on the 78 and 79 AIs. And as you said, what about GAPJC decisions that are based partly on the AIs from the 70's and also on other bases?

Clearly someone didn't think this through.

Good sentence diagramming Jim!

5:29 PM, July 12, 2008  
Blogger Jim said...


Thanks. Interesting point that makes sense to me.

"No further force or effect" must naturally mean that the statements and affirmations of them have PREVIOUS force and effect, but from this time forward, the statements can't be used this way anymore for new rulings and practices.

And if a GAPJC decision is not an affirmation of the statements, then the GAPJC decision is not affected by this new authoritative interpretation.

It looks to me like our stated clerk and his office need to go back to the drawing board to give us a more thorough and well-reasoned advisory opinion--one that goes beyond immediate, first-blush generalities and possibly flimsy assumptions.

Jim Berkley
Bellevue, WA

10:43 PM, July 12, 2008  
Blogger Jim said...


Good points. I made a similar point in a letter to The Layman Online about the end of the grandfather clause for persons ordained contrary to our standards prior to 1978. They lose their cover!

The condemnation of homophobia also lost its explanation and support in removing the 1978/93 AI, too. Apparently now, we no longer believe that homophobia is wrong.

Ignorance, bias, and hearsay teamed up with sentimentalism, lack of biblical authority, and a misplaced sense of kindness to kill the 1978/93 AI. It was a sad day on June 27. The PCUSA cut itself free from its biblical and historic moorings, and it is now cascading dangerously down the wild currents of popular opinion.

Jim Berkley
Bellevue, WA

10:51 PM, July 12, 2008  
Blogger Pastor Walt said...

I was wondering if the John Knox AI was passed prior to this AI then does it become null and void because of succession?

6:07 PM, July 14, 2008  
Blogger Jim said...


Good question. It would be something if the subsequent AI invalidated the just-passed John Knox AI! But I don't think it does.

Certainly in relation to the 1978/93 AI, the John Knox interpretive statement is subsequent, so it fits on that score. But the John Knox AI is not an "affirmation" of the 1978/79 statements. Thus it would not be of no further force or effect.

Jim Berkley
Bellevue, WA

6:36 PM, July 14, 2008  
Blogger Pastor Walt said...

Well, one can always dream. I was a commissioner this year and am still dealing with what happened. That the minority report to allow time for study that I presented was not welcomed by a majority of the GA shows that they did not have any other goal than to change the status of our denomination into a More Light denomination. I pray that God is not bringing his wrath upon us for years of neglect and idolatry.

6:43 PM, July 14, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

We have become a Romans 1 denomination. God has given us over to our passions in judgment for our failures to honor Him.

Grace is for individual Christians and for the Body of Christ, not for humanly-devised denominations. I think denominations get judgment. We're seeing that today.

(Soon not to be from Cuero, TX)

6:34 AM, July 15, 2008  
Blogger Rob said...

The difference between AO #22 and Ed Koster's careful analysis of the John Knox AI in the Outlook is amazing; how anyone in good conscience could suggest that what this denomination really needed was continuity in the OGA, rather than a new and more capable hand at the helm, is utterly beyond me.

In any case, this just convinces me further that what we're heading to is our denomination's Marbury v. Madison moment: GAPJC will see the opportunity, and the need, to establish themselves as the sole final interpretive authority in this denomination, making it clear that neither GA nor OGA has the power to amend or replace their decisions. The upshot will then be, I expect, that nominations to GAPJC will become as politicized and high-profile as the contests for moderator and GA Stated Clerk--or, for that matter, the US Supreme Court.

Rob Harrison
First Presbyterian Church
Winona Lake, IN

1:01 PM, August 02, 2008  
Blogger Pastor Lance said...

Thanks for all you do. I need your help and the help of your readers. Many years ago the PCUSA proposed a sexuality curriculum that spoke of "justice love." Do you know where I can get a copy of the proposed study.

Lance Williamson
Evergreen Presbyterian Church
Graham, WA

9:07 AM, August 14, 2008  
Blogger Jim said...


Search for "Marvin Ellison justice love" and you get a lot of his writings about the most distorted ethics you'll ever see.

Ellison was the main author of a policy paper on sexuality that never got approved by General Assembly. It wasn't a curriculum. However, the troubled old denominational sexuality curriculum, which was finally tossed out a couple of years ago after languishing nastily in disrepute on a shelf at the distribution center for years, recommended his disapproved study. The disapproved study was available in Presbyterian Distribution Service until recently. I can't find it there anymore, thankfully. It was really bad.

However, if you want a taste of the kind of unbiblical antinomianism that the disapproved policy statement had in it, read Ellison's work on justice love. That was the main theme of the now-tossed materials.

Jim Berkley
Bellevue, WA

3:48 PM, August 14, 2008  
Blogger ZZMike said...

I saw your letter in The Layman ("... non-negotiables ...").

The article by Williamson ("New Sexuality Curriculum") quotes Drake: "“Churches will be able to choose from the curriculum the parts that are compatible with where they are,” she said."

That sounds a lot like the "have it your way" motto.

Some delegates obviously haven't heard of 12-11. From the same article:

"... a student at Union Theological Seminary and Presbyterian School of Christian Education, responded to the amendment that called for heterosexual monogamy. “This amendment suffocates us,” she said."

1:03 PM, August 18, 2008  

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