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Why I Voted Against 12-B

by on March 1, 2013

You might be wondering what qualifies me to offer my opinion on proposed amendment 12-B to the constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA). First, I am a member of the only presbytery (Pueblo Presbytery) to concur with the overture from San Jose Presbytery. Second, I was a member of the committee (07) which shepherded this overture to the floor of the 220th General Assembly. Third, I was moderating the 220th GA when this overture was considered.

Here is the proposed change to the Book of Order, G-2, Ordered Ministries of the Church, section 0104, Gifts and Qualifications, sub section a [Text to be added is shown as italic]:

“To those called to exercise special functions in the church—deacons, ruling elders, and teaching elders—God gives suitable gifts for their various duties. In addition to possessing the necessary gifts and abilities, those who undertake particular ministries should be persons of strong faith, dedicated discipleship, and love of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. Their manner of life should be a demonstration of the Christian gospel in the church and in the world. This includes repentance of sin and diligent use of the means of grace. They must have the approval of God’s people and the concurring judgment of a council of the church.”

One of the first arguments for including this sentence is the question, “Why would we NOT want our ministers to do this?” That seems obvious enough, and the answer is, “Of course we we expect ordered ministers (ministers of the Word and Sacrament or teaching elders, ruling elders, and deacons) to repent of sin and make diligent use of the means of grace.” It should be a no brainer, because it is a no brainer.

But if it is a no brainer, we have to ask, “What motivated the overture originally and now those eager to amend the constitution to include it?” The answer, I believe, has several layers.

One layer has to do with our anemic understanding of baptism and church. When we baptize someone we ask and they affirm that they, “renounce evil and affirm their reliance on God’s grace” and “declare their intention to participate actively and responsibly in the worship and mission of the church” (W-3.3603b-c). In other words, every baptized person vows to repent of sin and make use of the means of grace. The exact same questions are asked of those welcomed into a church as full members (W-4.2003-4).

So candidates for ordered ministry, by virtue of their baptism and membership in a congregation, have already, along with every baptized member of our churches, vowed to repent of sin and make use of the means of grace.

Those who wish to add this sentence to the constitution and who ask, “Why would we NOT want our ministers to repent of sin and make diligent use of the means of grace” imply, certainly unintentionally, that the rest of the church is not held to the same standard. This sentence implies, “In these disciplines, ordered ministers are held to a higher standard than others in the church.” But that simply is not true. That’s why they’re called “ordered ministers.” Every baptized person is a minister expected to repent of sin and make use of the means of grace. Some are called to an ordered ministry.

Which brings up another layer. Our theology of ordination (by which a baptized minister becomes an ordered minister) is based not on qualifying behaviors but on divine call. We believe the Spirit calls, equips, and positions men and women to particular ordered ministries in the church. It ordinarily begins with a personal and individual call to serve that is confirmed by an ecclesial and public call to service. Character, more than conformity to behavioral standards, is the primary qualification to serve as an ordered minister.

But what about biblical passages that identify particular behaviors of what we call ordered ministers? First Timothy chapter three lists qualifications of bishops and deacons. Among these qualifications are that bishops be “the husband of only one wife,” with children who are “submissive and respectful in every way.” The same applies to deacons. So women (who can’t be husbands), and remarried divorced men (who have two wives according to the mores of the original audience), and all of us who have children (being realistic), are unqualified to be ordered ministers. If we want to appeal to these passages to argue that behaviors qualify, we have to acknowledge first that “repentance of sin and diligent use of the means of grace” aren’t included, and furthermore, we don’t uphold the behavioral standards that are included. Instead, we identify behaviors that are consistent with the character of spiritual maturity in the paragraph as it exists and in our baptismal vows, definitions of the ordered ministries, and ordination questions.

Next is the difficulty of the words “sin” and “repentance.” How is sin to be defined? Who defines it? It would have to be the ordaining council, since if the candidate doesn’t agree that a particular behavior is sin, repenting of it is impossible. How ought we define repentance? Does it mean we never do it again? Or how many times is one allowed to repent? How long since committing the sin has to pass before repentance is verified? Does remorse count? Does getting counseling count?

Along the same lines, what constitutes “diligent” use of the “means of grace”? On the floor of the General Assembly a commissioner asked what “means of grace” referred to. On the floor of my presbytery a teaching elder confessed his profound need for grace in support of this amendment. We all need grace, but that’s not what this amendment refers to. The means of grace are baptism and the Lord’s Supper. So how often must we reaffirm our baptismal vows for it to be diligent? Is communion once a month diligent use?

So these are the main reasons I voted no on 12-B. The proposed amendment is redundant at least, and therefore unnecessary, or a reduction of baptismal theology while at the same time an exaggerated distortion of the theology of vocation at worst and therefore harmful. What is more, the language is ambiguous and therefore confusing, and will result in either inaction or, if action is taken, conflict.

The above reasons are enough to justify a no vote in my opinion. But there are two more technical problems I have with the amendment.

The proposed sentence begins with the word “this”, which indicates that the sentence modifies the previous immediate thought. So “repentance of sin and diligent use of the means of grace” intends to provide examples of what life lived as a “demonstration of the Christian gospel” looks like. Certainly such a life includes repentance and the means of grace. The word “includes” indicates there are other ways to demonstrate this life, so why focus on these two, especially if “sin,” “repentance,” “diligent,” and “means of grace” are ambiguous and confusing? Why not other demonstrations that are more easily quantified, like pursuing reconciliation, caring for the poor, advocating for the marginalized?

The answer, I fear, lies in the attitude many Christians have towards the words “sin” and “grace.” We know these words are fundamental to our salvation in Christ, and so we naturally gravitate towards them. It’s almost as if it’s taboo to try to exclude “sin” and “grace” from a Christian discussion once they’ve been introduced. “How can anyone want to do away with sin and grace?”

I don’t want to do away with sin and grace. If anything, I want to emphasize them more, just not for ordered ministers only but rather for all the baptized. But I also don’t feel the need to bring sin and grace up every opportunity that presents itself, especially if to do so is redundant and confusing.

What is more, as essential and elementary as they are, sin and grace do not tell the whole story. In our culture we too easily understand sin and grace primarily in personal and individual terms. But the kingdom of God is primarily communal and social—it is a covenant community consisting of the Triune God and the elect in Christ. Until we hear “sin and grace” in these terms, I fear invoking them too often leads to a privatized and spiritualized faith which is less faithful to the gospel.

Second, the provenance of the language in the amendment seems forced to me. As implied in the rational for the original overture, the phrase “repentance of sin” derives from the Westminster Larger Catechism 7.305, which comments on the sixth petition of the Lord’s Prayer (“lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil”). The problem is, “repentance of sin” is nowhere to be found in the comment. The catechism recognizes that the sovereign God allows us to be tempted and even to fall, and so we petition God to sensitize us to temptation, to strengthen us, sustain us, and restore us should we fall to temptation. The demonstration of the Christian life indicated by 7.305 is not “repentance of sin” but dependence on God with regards to temptation.

“Diligent use of the means of grace” has an equally problematic source. This phrase comes from D-12.0102 which gives the text for an official rebuke, the lowest degree of censure for an offense. This rebuke may be issued to anyone under the jurisdiction of a council. That is to say, it is not limited to ordered ministers who are under the presbytery, but includes any member of the church under the session of a particular congregation. Here again, the standard of “diligent use of the means of grace” applies not just to ordered ministers but to all the baptized. And what is more, this is language urging diligence following an offense, whereas the language of the proposed amendment presents it as perhaps something like a prophylactic.

As an advocate for weekly communion, I believe everyone, not just ordered ministers, should make diligent use of the means of grace. And as I’ve stated above I believe everyone, not just ordered ministers, is called to repentance of sin. But with regards to this proposed amendment, the lifting of phrases out of context and putting them to other purposes makes me uncomfortable enough to vote against it.

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3 Comments
  1. Matt Hilgaertner permalink

    Hi Tom — Interesting article, brother. However, this brings up one of the struggles I have with what we Presbyterians refer to as “infant baptism.” Makes me wonder how you might rewrite or even reconsider the things you’ve said were this piece of your argument’s logic to be removed. Much as I love and appreciate our denomination’s “sacramental theology,” articles like yours seem to expose a flaw in the system, so to speak. Many times throughout the article you write with the assumption that the baptized person has made a conscious decision to be baptized and therefore has verbally agreed to the vows that were taken. You see the problem, don’t you? As one who was baptized as an infant, I have no recollection of my own baptism (other than through story and photograph). Nor was I aware of or did I agree to any such baptismal vows you repeatedly speak of in the article. In the past 15+ years of ordained ministry, I’ve had the privilege of baptizing several dozens of people, from infants through the elderly. The one phrase that gets me tripped up in my “liturgy” is the one where I encourage baptized persons witnessing the event to “reaffirm their baptismal vows.” Again, I never made them, so how can I reaffirm them, let alone ask others who were baptized as infants to reaffirm them? Like Wesley told Buttercup in the movie the Princess Bride after her truncated wedding ceremony, where she was never given the opportunity to say, “I do”, Wesley said to her, “You didn’t say it. You didn’t do it.” So how might this change what you’ve written — or does it? Come to think of it, your article has now prompted me to reconsider whether or not I truly believe in the practice of infant baptism as being “one in the same” baptism as “believer’s baptism” (or what Presbyterians call “adult baptism” even though children are not adults — another glitch. Hmm…?)

    • tomtrinidad permalink

      Great question, Matt. I’ll offer a more thorough reply later, but quickly now: the effectiveness of the sacraments as means of grace depend not on our cognitive abilities but upon God’s faithfulness. This is part of the reason they are means of grace. A parallel to baptism is of course the Lord’s Supper, at which none of us were present or “remember” in the sense you identify in your comment. And yet Christ expects us to do so. I am mindful of the old hymn “Were you there when they crucified my Lord” which ends provocatively with “all my sins were there.” The same applies to baptism. The best liturgical teaching on this way of conceiving remembrance is the Great Prayer of thanksgiving as anamnesis–remembering that isn’t just a cognitive recollection but a commemoration that identifies us with the events recounted. This anamnesis overcomes both the cognitive dissonance you identifying but also the ego- and chrono-centric impulse that says, “my time is what matters now.”

  2. Will Berger permalink

    Our Presbytery did defeat the amendment today, but I will confess that it caught me completely by surprise, I just didn’t know this was coming our way. It is my fault for not knowing, but I wish we had led a stronger charge against what was an addition that does not represent the positive spirit and wording of what was passed through the change that entered our Book of Order from the previous assembly.

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