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The Limits of Conscience and the Authority of the Word of God

Last week Rev. Jane Adams Spahr was found not-guilty of ministerial misconduct, even after the openly lesbian Presbyterian minister had defied the teachings of her church by performing “marriages” for two lesbian couples. Given the current state of mainline Protestantism, the actions by the trial court were not completely unexpected. Nevertheless, this act of rebellion against the church’s law and the clear teachings of Scripture sets the stage for an even larger conflict when the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) holds its General Assembly in June.

Rev. Jane Adams Spahr is no stranger to controversy. In 1991, the Downtown United Presbyterian Church in Rochester, New York called her as co-pastor. That call was subsequently invalidated by the denomination’s General Assembly and its Permanent Judicial Commission. Nevertheless, the church then called her to serve as a “lesbian evangelist” and she established her ministry as the organization called “That All May Freely Serve.” That ministry was formed in partnership with Westminster Presbyterian Church in Tiburon, California. As the denomination’s news service, PCUSA News explained, “Since then, Spahr has traveled the country mustering support for the ordination of gay and lesbian Presbyterians and building a network of regional groups to help in the effort.”

The current controversy emerged as Spahr was charged with breaking church law by marrying two homosexual men in Canada. Since her ordination was not recognized in that country, and therefore her name did not appear on the marriage certificate, a church court ruled that it could not prove that she had actually officiated at the wedding.

In short order, she eliminated that defense by openly officiating at the “weddings” of two lesbian couples. She officiated at ceremonies for Annie Senechal and Sherrill Figuera in 2005, and the previous year had officiated at a ceremony for Barbara Jean Douglass and Connie Valois.

Her current trial took place before the Permanent Judicial Commission of the Redwoods Presbytery in California. The trial took place at the Church of the Roses in Santa Rosa, located about 65 miles north of San Francisco.

As media reports indicated, the church was often packed with Spahr’s supporters and those who were openly advocating for a rebellion against the church’s rules.

Stephen L. Taber, the attorney prosecuting Spahr on behalf of the Redwoods Presbytery, had argued that the trial was not over gay rights, but the right of the denomination to establish its own rules and structure for church discipline. “The burden on this commission is not to decide whether same-sex marriage is or is not appropriate for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.),” he argued. “The only question here is whether Rev. Spahr committed certain acts, and whether those acts are in violation of the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church.”

Taber was standing on firm constitutional ground as he made his case. After all, the denomination’s Book of Order defines marriage as a covenant between a man and a woman, excluding all alternatives. Furthermore, the Permanent Judicial Commission of the General Assembly ruled in 2000 that ministers may bless same sex “unions,” but may not call such unions marriage.

In presenting her defense, Spahr claimed a right to individual conscience. As PCUSA News reported: “Spahr, as the first witness called before the seven-member commission, was far from repentant for presiding over the nuptials of the lesbian couples. She said she was following her conscience, a call from God and the wishes of the ‘brides’ when she officiated at their weddings.”

In pressing her case, Spahr argued that the church’s rules that disallow same-sex marriage are unfair and unjust. “I can’t begin to tell you what it is to say to [same-sex couples] that they were married by the church, by the authority of someone representing the church of Jesus Christ,” Spahr told the court. “What it means for lesbian and gay people who are told for so long that they’re no good, that our relationships are no good. That has a profound effect on them.” She also claimed that the denomination’s rules limiting marriage to heterosexuals violates the church’s commitment to “love and hospitality.”

Spahr’s attorney, Sara Taylor, argued that the church had no right to judge Spahr’s actions. “The reformers were clear in their assertions that the authority of the church to discipline belongs not to the church but to Christ.”

Of course, this is hardly fair to the reformers and their witness. Nevertheless, the trial ended with the court acquitting Spahr by a six-to-one ruling that determined that Spahr was acting within her ministerial “right of conscience” in performing the same-sex marriages.

Beyond this, the court’s majority went on in a “concluding affirmation” to offer a direct challenge to the denomination’s rules. “We affirm that the fundamental message of the Scriptures and Confessions is the proclamation of the Good News of God’s love for all people. It is a message of inclusiveness, reconciliation, and the breaking down of barriers that separate humans from each other, and that this proclamation has primacy in the conduct of the Church.” In other words, the court turned its back on the Bible’s clear teachings that condemn homosexual activity as sin and on the church’s explicit rules that prohibit ministers from officiating at same-sex marriages–all in the name of “the fundamental message of the Scriptures and Confessions.”

The Spahr trial and the larger controversy point to the most basic issues that have created such an explosive crisis within liberal Protestantism and the denominations commonly known as “mainline” Protestantism. For years, the mainline Presbyterians have been debating issues of scriptural authority.

The foundation for theological revolution was set in 1967, when the denomination replaced the historic Westminster Confession with a book of confessions that replaced one common doctrinal standard with several–insuring a process of theological compromise and accomodationism.

In June, the 217th General Assembly of the denomination is to receive the final report of the “Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church.” This task force was established in 2001 and was charged with developing “a process and instrument by which congregations and governing bodies throughout our church may reflect on and discern the matters that unite and divide us, praying that the Holy Spirit will promote the purity of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).”

The group’s report, entitled Peace Unity Purity [or PUP], is, in effect, nothing more than a call for continuing conversation and the embrace of even greater diversity within the denomination.

Of course, Scripture stands at the very center of this controversy. The PUP report cites The Second Helvetic Confession and asserts: “we believe and confess the canonical Scriptures of the holy prophets and apostles of both Testaments to be the true Word of God, and have sufficient authority of themselves, not of [human beings].” Responding to this confessional statement, the group asserted: “We acknowledge that there is heated debate over biblical interpretation among Presbyterians who honor the authority of Scripture. In the midst of these debates it is important to remember that the consciences of us all are bound by the witness of Scripture to Jesus Christ. Even as it is important to preserve freedom of conscience and the interpretation of Scripture, such freedom is subject to standards . . . and must be exercised within constitutional bounds . . . .”

As should be obvious by now, the acquittal of Rev. Jane Adams Spahr should demonstrate conclusively the failure of this proposal.

In the first place, one must question the group’s decision to suggest that the heated debate over the interpretation of Scripture on issues of sexuality is found “among Presbyterians who honor the authority of Scripture.” Such a statement effectively implies that persons may deny clear teachings of Scripture, while still claiming to honor its authority.

By any measure, the acquittal of Rev. Spahr should demonstrate that a call for all ministers to bind their consciences “by the witness of Scripture,” does not avail. The presbytery of the Redwoods did nothing to require Rev. Spahr to subject her conscience to the constitutional bounds of the church or to the clear teachings of the Bible.

Rev. Spahr’s attorney cited the reformers of the sixteenth century as suggesting that the church must leave matters of ministerial discipline to God. This flies in the face of the actual writings and actions of the reformers. John Calvin, whose legacy stands as the very fountain of the stream that eventually produced the Presbyterian denomination, insisted that “we must be ruled by the Word of God.” Furthermore, “Seeing God will be served with obedience, let us beware and keep ourselves within those bounds which God hath set,” Calvin insisted. Martin Luther, famously standing at his own church trial at the Diet of Worms, famously told his judges that his conscience was “bound by the Word of God.”

The Presbyterian Lay Committee, a group of concerned Presbyterians who have been seeking to pull their church back to biblical and theological accountability, has referred to the PUP document as “a political solution to a theological problem.”

“Some persons who call themselves Christians, including ordained leaders of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), struggle with claims of the authority of Scripture,” the group argued. “They affirm Scripture as a guide and source of wisdom, but regard it as culturally conditioned and of human origin. Thus they place it alongside, and even, at times, under the judgment of other human authorities. They prefer to say, ‘Listen for the Word of God,’ rather than ‘Listen to the Word of God’ when reading the Bible in the context of worship. Persons who hold such beliefs clearly are not talking about the Scriptures that Jesus upheld and fulfilled and that his church has affirmed for more than 2000 years.”

As the Presbyterian Lay Committee’s argument concludes, “Making the denomination’s implicit pluralism explicit, by whatever inclusivist scheme, would admit but not solve our current disorder. Elijah’s counsel to Israel is precisely the word that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) must hear. We must cease limping between two opinions. We must answer Christ’s compelling question: ‘Who do you say that I am?’ We must make a choice.”

The Presbyterian Lay Committee has it right–the denomination must make a clear choice. The acquittal of Rev. Jane Adams Spahr sets the stage for the denomination’s General Assembly to face the question squarely when it meets in June. Nothing less than the denomination’s witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ is at stake. If individual conscience is allowed to invalidate the clear teachings of Scripture, the denomination faces an unavoidable disaster.