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Covenant of Dissent and Support

Questions and Answers about the Covenant

Prepared by special Session committee July, 1997


Q: What does Amendment B say?

A: "Those who are called to office in the church are to lead a life in obedience to Scripture and in conformity to the historic confessional standards of the church.  Among these standards is the requirement to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage of a man and a woman or chastity in singleness.  Persons refusing to repent of any self-acknowledged practice which the Confessions call sin shall not be ordained and/or installed as deacons, elders or ministers of the Word and Sacrament."

Q: What does Amendment B do?

A: Effective in June, it added a second paragraph to G-6.0106 of the Book of Order, which along with the Book of Confessions, comprises The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA), the denomination to which The Stone Church of Willow Glen belongs.  Because the amendment adds a second paragraph to the sixth section, the paragraphs within the section are renumbered as G-6.0106a, the original paragraph, and G-6.0106b.  Amendment B gets its name as the second in a group of constitutional amendments under consideration by the 1996 General Assembly.

Q: What does Amendment B mean?

A: It means that deacons, elders and ministers who have committed any of the sins contained in the Book of Confessions must acknowledge this conduct and repent, or they may not be ordained or installed.

Q: What are the sins?

A: They are difficult to pinpoint or define precisely.  Frank Baldwin III, an elder at Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church in Pennsylvania and legal counsel for the Presbytery of Philadelphia, reread the Book of Confessions to find them.

There are 11 documents in the Book of Confessions, including the Nicene Creed, the Apostles' Creed, three catechisms, The Theological Declaration of Barmen, A Brief Statement of Faith Presbyterian Church (USA), and four confessions.  The Scots Confession, written in 1560, is the only one of the four confessions to call specific practices "sin." It identifies 16, among them being "stubborn," "disobedient," "all sorts of the unbelieving" and "lustful for pleasant and delightful things."

Baldwin identified an additional 12 acts described in the Scots Confession as contrary to good works commanded by God. They include such things as "not to call upon God alone when we have need,""to bear hatred" and "to do works which have no other warrant than the invention and opinion of man."

However, it seems reasonable to infer that the writers of Amendment B had all of the documents in the Book of Confessions in mind since the amendment refers to "historic confessional standards of the church," specifically mentioning "the requirement to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage of a man and a woman or chastity in singleness," which is not included in the four documents called confessions.

By Baldwin's count there are at least 225 sinful practices mentioned in the Book of Confessions, most in the catechisms.  Among these sins are "enchantments" and "failure to attend church."

Q: Why has this amendment been characterized as a gay and lesbian issue when it never refers to homosexuality?

A: It seems clear that virtually every Presbyterian, whether gay or straight, is guilty of one or more sins contained in the Book of Confessions.  It is also clear that today we don't consider many of these practices sinful or repent of them. 

But the amendment is obviously particularly concerned with sexual behavior because the only confessional standards it describes have to do with marriage and sex.  The amendment states single people should live in "chastity in singleness." This targets gays and lesbians because they are not allowed to marry in the Presbyterian Church.
It would require a gay or lesbian member to promise to lead a chaste life.  That is, according to Merriam-Webster, "refraining from acts or even thoughts or desires that are not virginal or not sanctioned by marriage vows." The dictionary definition of "chaste" is "1: innocent of unlawful sexual intercourse, 2: celibate, 3: pure in thought and act: modest."

The committee that wrote the amendment said in its preamble:"We have concluded that now is the time to allow the church at the grassroots through its presbyteries to study and decide whether it is God's will to ordain self-affirming, practicing homosexual persons to the office of deacon, elder or minister of the Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church (USA). " In nearly all the published arguments of the supporters of Amendment B. it is clear they intend the wording to prohibit ordaining gays and lesbians.

Q: How would Amendment B be enforced?

A: It is not clear.  Members of congregations are entitled to file charges for violations of the Book of Order.  Supporters of the amendment have said there will be no witch hunts as a result of it. If true, the only members who would be affected would be sinners who feel compelled to openly confess their secret transgressions and gays and lesbians attempting to have an open relationship.
Sinners who maintained silence and closeted gays presumably would never be discovered and banned.  However, some opponents of Amendment B have argued that sessions and presbyteries must examine whether all ordination candidates have committed the sins and determine whether the sins have been confessed so as not to be guilty of selectively enforcing the rule.

Q: What about the new Amendment B?

A: This amendment, approved in June by the 1997 General Assembly, would replace the amendment that took effect in June if it is ratified by a majority of presbyteries.  It has been dubbed "Amendment B-plus," and it says: "Those who are called to office in the church are to lead a life in obedience to Jesus Christ, under the authority of Scripture and instructed by the historic confessional standards of the church.  Among these standards is the requirement to demonstrate fidelity and integrity in marriage or singleness, and in all relationships of life.  Candidates for ordained office shall acknowledge their own sinfulness, their need for repentance, and their reliance on the grace and mercy of God to fulfill the duties of their office."

Q: What would Amendment B-plus do?

A: It would replace the current Amendment B.  It would not ban gays, lesbians or any self-confessed or silent sinners from ordained positions, which essentially restores that aspect of ordination to the way it was in the Book of Order prior to the enactment of Amendment B. It does require that all ordained Presbyterians "demonstrate fidelity and integrity" in their relationships, which is a new requirement, and it says candidates for ordination "shall acknowledge" certain things, which could require the future addition of ordination questions to the Book of Order.  The new amendment incorporates a central premise of Amendment B: that sexual conduct is an important criterion for ordination. This issue was not addressed by the Book of Order prior to Amendment B.


Q: Why is the Session considering adopting a Covenantof Dissent and Support?

A: At its April 1997 meeting, the Session appointed a five-member Amendment B committee to recommend what course of action the Session should take, if any, in response to the enactment of the amendment and to keep the congregation informed of the Session's actions with regard to Amendment B.

The committee proposed at the May meeting that the Session reject Amendment B and reaffirm Stone Church's 1989 policy making all members "regardless of race, ethnic background or sexual orientation" eligible for ordination and installation to church offices.  The committee also asked that it be empowered to write a provisional statement of dissent and develop a plan for congregational discussion at the September Session meeting.  The Session approved these proposals unanimously.

Subsequent to the Session's June meeting, the 1997 General Assembly approved a substitute Amendment B, which has come to be known as Amendment B-plus, that removes many of the objectionable elements of Amendment B and which offers a realistic mechanism for removing the Amendment B from the Book of Order.

Q: Does the Covenant mean Stone Church will no longer be part of the Presbyterian Church?

A: No. The document under consideration specifically states Stone Church's intention to remain in the Presbyterian Church (USA).

Q: Won't a Covenant get Stone Church into trouble?

A: According to the best information we have been able to obtain, only an action in violation of the Book of Order (not dissent) is punishable.

If a gay or lesbian member were ordained or installed at Stone Church, another member could file charges with San Jose Presbytery.  The session as a body, or the pastor, could be tried and disciplined.  Similar charges could be filed by a member should a member guilty of any of the other sins described in Amendment B be ordained or installed.

The degrees of church censure are rebuke, temporary exclusion from the exercise of ordained office or membership, and removal from ordained office or membership.  Nonmembers may participate in "the life and worship of the church," and if they are baptized they are entitled to "participation in the Lord's Supper, to pastoral care and instruction of the church" (G-5.0301). They may not present children for baptism, take part in congregational meetings, vote or hold office.

Since no church court has ruled on what constitutes a violation of the provisions of the amendment, and no one has been censured, it's impossible to know exactly what trouble awaits.  One thing we do know is that any disciplinary proceeding under Amendment B would be played out over an extended period of time.

Q: Then why would the Session members put themselves in jeopardy by adopting a Covenant?

A: Elders of Stone Church and every other Presbyterian Church are jeopardized by Amendment B whether or not they adopt a Covenant of Dissent and whether or not they abide by the amendment.

Q: How so?

A: Amendment B does not repeal basic rights guaranteed church members in the Book of Order that are in conflict with the amendment.

For example, if a gay elder, or a deacon who was "admittedly stubborn," was banned from ordination or installation, that person could file charges with the presbytery alleging that his or her rights under Chapter V, entitled "The Church and its Members," had been violated.  G-5.0202 says that an active member is entitled to "all the rights and privileges of the church, including the right ... to vote and hold office."

Likewise, if a member were prevented from voting for the candidate of his or her choice because that candidate was gay or unrepentant of a sin, the member could file charges alleging violation of several rights including G-1.0306, which says the election of church officers is the right of the membership, and G-6.0107, which says "the right of God's people to elect their officers is inalienable." The penalties would be similar to those for violating Amendment B.

Q: Since Amendment B was legally adopted by a majority of presbyteries, shouldn't we abide by the will of the majority?

A: The entire church constitution was adopted by majority vote.  The conundrum for the Session is that it can't obey both Amendment B and the conflicting requirements elsewhere in the Book of Order.

Q: Why shouldn't we require a higher moral standard for those who hold church offices?

A: Many people feel we should, but that is not the position taken by the Book of Order nor is it Presbyterian tradition.  G-6.0102 says "ordained officers differ from other members in function only." Presbyterian tradition holds that members should decide if a candidate for ordination has the gifts to function effectively in office, not whether a candidate is worthy of ordination.

That is not to say that the Book of Order doesn't have standards for ordination.  G-6.0106a, the paragraph to which Amendment B was added, says "To those called to exercise special functions in the church (deacons, elders, and ministers of the Word and Sacrament) God gives suitable gifts for their various duties.  In addition to possessing the necessary gifts and abilities, natural and acquired, 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.  They must have the approval of God's people and the concurring judgment of a governing body of the church."

The proposed Amendment B-plus adds "the requirement to demonstrate fidelity and integrity in marriage or singleness, and in all relationships of life.  Candidates for ordained office shall acknowledge their own sinfulness, their need for repentance, and their reliance on the grace and mercy of God to fulfill the duties of their office."

Ultimately, each member votes according to his or her conscience.
In addition, the church has adopted a code of sexual behavior that addresses issues of sexual abuse and misconduct as protection against civil and criminal liability.  For example, a minister guilty of sexual abuse or misconduct can be removed and is prohibited from ever accepting another call.

Q: Why shouldn't we require gays and lesbians who wish to hold church office to remain chaste?

A: It would violate Reformed Tradition dating back to John Calvin and would violate at least two of the documents of the Book of Confessions.

The Westminster Confession of Faith (C-6.126), writtenin 1647, says "No man may vow to do anything forbidden in the Word of God, or what would hinder any duty therein commanded, or which is not in his own power, and for the performance whereof he hath no promise or ability from God.  In which respects, monastical vows of perpetual single life, professed poverty, and regular obedience, are so far from being degrees of higher perfection, that they are superstitious and sinful snares, in which no Christian may entangle himself." The Larger Catechism (C-7.249) forbids "entangling vows of single life."

Q: Why does the Session feel compelled to take a leadership position on this issue?

A: It has been in a leadership position for several years.  Stone Church enacted a policy in 1989 affirming all members' right to hold office.  The church currently has a lesbian elder.  These facts are known throughout San Jose Presbytery, which makes our church a potential target of someone wishing to test the authority of Amendment B.

The Session believes as a matter of conscience that it is impossible to comply both with Amendment B and obey the scriptural teaching and example of Jesus Christ, which requires us to love one another and makes us one in him.  Obedience to Christ alone is required by the ordination vows for all church officers (G- 14.0207 for deacons and elders, G- 14.0405 for ministers).

If elders find that there is a conflict, both church law and tradition require: obedience to Christ before meeting any requirement made by humans.  The Session believes Amendment B is contrary to the Book of Order and the Book of Confessions.  And it believes Amendment B targets gays and lesbians for exclusion when it knows from its own experience the important gifts of ministry that gays and lesbians have brought to Stone Church.

Q: Why not ask the full congregation to vote on the Covenant of Dissent?

A: The Book of Order reserves such actions for the Session alone.  All members of the Session were elected by the congregation.
The Session's responsibilities, as outlined in G-10.0102 of the Book of Order, include: leading "the congregation in participation in the mission of the whole Church in the world, in accordance with G-3.0000." G-3.0000, entitled "The Church and its Mission," says in G-3.0401: "The Church is called ... to a new openness to its own membership, by affirming itself as a community of diversity, becoming in fact as well as in faith a community of women and men of all ages, races, and conditions, and by providing for inclusiveness as a visible sign of the new humanity."

Additional responsibilities of the Session under G- 10.0102 are to receive new members "provided that membership shall not be denied any person because of race, economic or social circumstances, or any other reason not related to profession of faith," and to "lead the congregation continually to discover what God is doing in the world and to plan for change, renewal, and reformation under the Word of God."

However, the views of all members of the congregation are sought by the Session.  The congregation concurred in the 1989 Session action granting full membership rights to all members.  In a 1995 survey of members conducted to prepare the Church Information Form, which is part of the process of calling a new pastor, 87 percent of Stone Church members said they favored gays and lesbians being allowed to "join and participate fully" in the church.  Individual Presbyterians may write their own dissents or sign those written by others.

Q: Why doesn't the Session sign Covenants of Dissent being circulated by elders and Pastors of National Capital Presbytery or one written by the Rev.  Timothy Hart-Andersen of Old First Presbyterian Church, San Francisco?

A: The Session believes that if it formally dissents, it should do so in its own words for its own reasons.  It believes Stone Church, because of its history and experience of being an inclusive church, can make a unique contribution to the future of our denomination by testifying to that experience.

Q: Wouldn't Amendment B-plus solve the problems of Amendment B?

A: Amendment B-plus goes a long way toward resolving the contradictions of Amendment B and restores the proper Reformed tradition understanding of the relationship of the confessions to Christ and Scripture.  In particular, it does not ban gay and lesbian ordinations.

It also maintains Amendment B's focus on sexual conduct as an important criterion for ordination and could result in the addition to ordination questions to ascertain that candidates for ordination "acknowledge their own sinfulness, their need for repentance, and their reliance on the grace and mercy of God to fulfill the duties of their office." No one knows what such ordination questions might say.

On balance, however, the good points of Amendment B-plus outweigh the reservations, and the new amendment seems to hold the greatest hope of removing Amendment B from the Book of Order.  For that reason, the Covenant of Dissent and Support pledges the Session's support for Amendment B-plus.

Q: Then why proceed with a Covenant of Dissent?

A: Although Amendment B-plus has been approved by the General Assembly, it has not yet been enacted as part of the Book of Order. Just as was the case for Amendment B, the new amendment will now be voted on by the presbyteries and must receive a majority vote before the 1998 General Assembly.
Therefore, the objectionable amendment remains church law and may remain so for an indefinite period of time.  One of the reasons to proceed with the dissent is add Stone Church's voice and experience to the debate supporting Amendment B-plus.

Q: What is the goal of a Covenant of Dissent?

A: The Session is on record as opposing Amendment B, and it hopes to force the Presbyterian Church (USA) to rescind it.
It believes it can do so by joining with other congregations and presbyteries in refusing to obey the amendment but remaining within the denomination.  It believes the church will be overwhelmed by the number of disciplinary procedures, confronted with the legal contradictions and persuaded by the experience of churches open to gays and lesbians and thus be forced to admit that the amendment, though legally adopted, is unenforceable.

This is civil disobedience as practiced by the followers of Mahatma Gandhi, who peacefully refused to obey laws imposed by India's British colonial rule; by Martin Luther King Jr., whose followers peacefully refused to obey laws that denied them the same civil rights as white citizensof the United States; and by Rosa Parks, who refused to sit in the back of the bus even though required to do so by state law.

Q: Wouldn't this set a precedent for anarchy within the church?

A: Lack of consensus always threatens church order. However, maintenance of church order is not the first obligation of church officers.

The Book of Order holds itself subservient to Jesus Christ. The constitutional ordination questions for all church officers require them to be "in obedience only to Jesus Christ" (G14.0207 for deacons and elders, G- 14.0405 for ministers).  If elders find that there is a conflict between a rule and obedience to Christ, they must follow their consciences.  Reformed Tradition, the Book of Order and the Book of Confessions all agree on this point.  The Confession of 1967 says in its Preface: "Obedience to Jesus Christ alone identifies the one universal church and supplies the continuity of its tradition.  This obedience is the ground of the church's duty and freedom to reform itself in life and doctrine as new occasions, in God's providence, may demand."

Q: Isn't dissent and disobedience "un-Presbyterian"?

A: The church has split, subdivided and reunited several times since the first General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in 1788, according to "A Brief History of the Presbyterians," by Lefferts A. Loetscher (Westminster Press, Philadelphia: 1978). who was Professor of American Church History at Princeton Theological Seminary.

The First General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church was formed in 1788.  One national Presbyterian Church lasted 49 years when it split over theological issues into two denominations called "Old School" and "New School." The "New School" divided into northern and southern denominations in 1855; the "Old School" divided along north-south lines in 1861. In both cases, slavery was the issue.  By 1869 the four Presbyterian denominations had begun a reunification.  By that year the two northern churches had merged as well as the two southern churches.  The remaining two churches reunited in 1983 forming the current Presbyterian Church (USA).
There is also a history of dissent within the denomination that did not result in splitting the church, particularly regarding the"essential tenets" of the Reformed faith and how we are to follow them.  

When a deacon, elder, or minister is ordained, he or she answers the following ordination question, among others: "Do you sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the confessions of our church... " The question can be found as G-14.0207c for elders and deacons and G-14.0405b(3) for ministers.  Determining whether someone has departed from these "essential tenets" is "made initially by the individual concerned but ultimately becomes the responsibility of the governing body in which he or she serves" (G-6.0108b).

In 1900 the Presbyterian Church used the Westminster Confession of Faith, written in 1647, as its primary confessional document.  Consequently, there was tremendous pressure to modernize the beliefs of the church by attempting to elaborate the "essential tenets." In a 1909 booklet entitled "The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth," five doctrines were labeled essential tenets: the virgin birth, the physical resurrection, the inerrancy of the Scriptures, the substitutionary atonement and Christ's imminent physical second coming.  The General Assemblies of 1910, 1916, and 1923 established these five as "essential doctrines" of the church required of and binding upon all ministers.

Widespread dissent in the church did not rupture the denomination, but the General Assembly of 1927 threw out the "essential doctrines" because they did not have the support of the presbyteries.  A book of confessions, which includes The Confession of 1967 as well as other confessional documents, was adopted in 1967.  The broad language in the Book of Order, prior to the adoption of Amendment B, was an attemptto provide a framework of agreement within which differing consciences could be reconciled.

Covenant of Dissent and Support

Footnotes to the Covenant


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