The Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity and Purity (TTF) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A), which has been inching its way toward a resolution on the ordination of homosexuals, has completed its first draft document on the topic, Wednesday, October 13, 2005. While the draft, which lists ten “qualifying criteria for church officers,” was neither voted upon nor approved by the members, it marked a large step forward for TTF – which has only two more meetings remaining before a final resolution is due.
The paper, drafted by a subcommittee within the TTF, specified ten statements asserting the biblical standards to ordination:
1. Neither breaking the vows of marital fidelity through adultery nor homosexual promiscuity "are in keeping with the imperatives of the gospel. Affirming the church's agreement concerning these two convictions may make it easier to reach consensus on other issues."
2. Heterosexuals and homosexuals both are to maintain chastity outside marriage. Anyone who engages in an unfaithful or promiscuous lifestyle falls short of the "manner of life" standards required for ordination. "On the other hand, since 1978 the church has made it clear that sexual orientation by itself is no bar to ordination."
3. "The real question is the propriety of covenantal same-gender unions. By focusing squarely on this question, the possibility of reaching some consensus or mutual forbearance amid our differences may be enhanced."
4. "Efforts to reduce the range of Presbyterian views to a simple 'either/or,' therefore, are misleading and contribute to the discord that has surrounded the church's debate on this issue."
5. " … the question of church leadership by persons in same-gender relationships must be seen as intimately connected to the question of Christian sexual ethics for such relationships." The General Assembly reached blanket decisions about ordination "before affording any opportunity to deal responsibly with the question of ethical standards for same-gender relationships."
6. There are two main types of Presbyterian views on the issue: those who believe a "committed, same-gender relationship is better than promiscuity" and those who affirm same-sex couples and believe "these relationships can be a positive good." The draft said the two groups "have arrived at a practical consensus that the committed relationship itself is to be accepted within the body of Christ."
7. "It may also be possible to arrive at either consensus or mutual forbearance concerning the case-by-case eligibility for church leadership of a person committed to such a relationship."
8. "Since all persons ordained depart at least to some degrees from the high standards articulated by the Book of Order, it is necessary to determine whether a particular departure is essential or inessential."
9. The governing body that considers a candidate – sessions for deacons and elders and presbyteries for ministers – makes the basic determination of whether ordination standards have been met.
10. "It is an ancient conviction of the church catholic, which has been reaffirmed by the Reformed churches in their confessions, that the peace, unity and purity of the church resides neither in the peace, unity or purity of its members, but in the peace, unity and purity that is graciously given to the church by the Holy Spirit in Jesus Christ."
William Stacy Johnson, a professor of theology at Princeton Theological Seminary and main writer of the statement, introduced the document as mere “proposals for discussion – provisional, hypothetical, ways to get conversation started."
Much of the following discussions involved two internal documents already approved by the PC(U.S.A): the “fidelity and chastity” law and the “essential tenets” of the church.
Joe Coalter, Union Theological Seminary Professor, explained that these “ordination standards are not unified nor clear in our Book of Confessions.”
Rev. Mike Loudon of Lakeland, FL, replied by saying that the newly formed list would help clarify the vague wording on the two statements.
“A lot of people would be surprised to know that, and they are hungering for a concrete list of essential tenets,” said Loudon.
Coalter, while acknowledging that the “church has had the chance to do a list and never has,” said he believes that encoding a list of “essential tenets sounds too much like law.”
The Rev. Mark Achtemeier, a professor at Dubuque Theological Seminary, agreed that Essential Tenets would be near impossible to justify.
“ ‘Essential’ for what? Essential for salvation? Essential for continuity with the Reformed tradition or Christian orthodoxy? What?” he asked.
Johnson answered that the list would not be a complicated explication of biblical mandate. Rather, he explained that “a laundry list will increasingly be viewed simply as a hoop that must be jumped through rather than a dynamic process of examining faith and doctrine.”
“There’s a huge difference between a candidate presenting a statement and the ordaining body deciding if it fits or not, and an ordaining body presenting a candidate with a statement and asking if the candidate agrees or disagrees,” said Johnson.
However, Barbara Wheeler, president of Auburn Theological Seminary in New York, said she sees two issues: What are the standards and where do they come from? and What is the church supposed to do with them? “What I hear,” she said, “is the call, not just for clarity, but for loyalty and adherence to the standards.”
Johnson answered that “the idea that there is a Biblical and a non-Biblical way to look at (the morality of same-gender relationships) is a tautology that gets us nowhere.”
Wheeler, however, rebutted, by saying that any one “biblical” or “non-biblical” cannot be agreed upon.
“This gets us back to our earlier discussion of Biblical interpretation — can people who disagree on what’s Biblical still be grounded in a Biblical faith?”
Louden responded by saying, “Yes,” adding that “By definition, anything outside the bounds of faithful, heterosexual marriage is promiscuity.”
“There’s a constituency in the church who believe that to even talk about this is unfaithful,” he added. "There are only two views: Biblical and non-Biblical."
Johnson then asked, “Isn't that just the difference in interpretation? You're not saying that those on the other side have non-Biblical views, are you?"
While not answering Johnson’s question, Louden commented that he thinks “One of the reasons we're discussing this is because to sidestep the issue would really be a disservice to why we were appointed to the task force. The church is looking at us to see if there is something we can say that is constructive."
Members of the subcommittee to prepare the draft include Johnson; John Wilkinson, pastor of a More Light congregation in Rochester, N.Y.; John "Mike" Loudon, a Confessing Church pastor in Lakeland, Fla.; and Sarah Sanderson-Doughty, a New York pastor.
The task force is due to make its final report to the 2006 General Assembly in Birmingham, AL.