PJC Ruling Strikes Down... (Revised)
- CALLED OUT INFORMATION SERVICE
From the PCUSA News Service
March 6, 2002
Confessional test stricken down
PJC: Church can't require leaders to endorse theological statement
by Alexa Smith
(Note: In an earlier version of this story, the Presbyterian News
Service cited language from the complainant's brief as though it were
part of the PJC decision. The PJC did not write its own decision, but
affirmed the complainant's brief.)
LOUISVILLE - The Permanent Judicial Commission (PJC) of a Florida
presbytery ruled last week that a church session may not require its
ordained leaders to subscribe to the specific theological tenets of a
confession drafted by the session.
Central Florida Presbytery's PJC ruled unanimously that the session
of First Presbyterian Church of Sebastian does not have the authority
to amend confessional statements or to bind church officers to
theological standards apart from the ordination vows in the
denomination's Book of Order as a prerequisite for ordination or
The commission unanimously sustained all but one of the complaints of
Norman Blessing, an elder on the session of 240-member First
Presbyterian Church of Sebastian, FL, whose session approved a
confessional statement last May 22 urging sessions and presbyteries
to refuse to ordain, install or employ anyone who would not affirm
four theological tenets.
The PJC issued no written decision, but in a letter dated Feb. 20
said it had unanimously sustained all but one of Blessing's
complaints. On that issue - his objection to being excluded from a
session meeting - the Rev. Dale Heaton, of Titusville, FL, moderator
of the PJC, said no ruling was necessary because it has long been
"taken for granted" that a session member may not be excluded from a
"The brief is a part of the decision," said Heaton. "All the things
in the brief were sustained except what was noted."
The decision probably will be appealed to the PJC of the Synod of the
South- Atlantic. A protest was filed yesterday by some members of the
J. Christy Wilson III of Orlando, the attorney representing the
Sebastian church, is recommending that it seek a review of Heaton's
participation on the PJC.
The PJC's decision is eliciting outrage from some in the Confessing
Church Movement (CCM), a loose coalition of conservative churches
whose sessions have adopted confessional statements typically
affirming three beliefs: that Jesus Christ is solely Lord and the
only agent of salvation; that the Bible is infallible; and that
sexual activity is appropriate only within heterosexual marriage.
The Sebastian church added a fourth: that church leaders "are called
to uphold these confessions and to be people who are chaste in
singleness and faithful within the covenant of marriage."
The commission ordered the church to rescind the confessional
statement, citing two sections of the constitution (G-18.0201 and
G-14.0207b). The first lays out a national process for amending
confessional documents; the other lists questions that must be asked
It said a session may not require affirmation of the statement as a
prerequisite for ordination or for installation of members, nor may
it make the demand of ministers seeking employment. "This
requirement could result in discrimination against non-ordained
employees in ministry positions," the PJC's statement reads.
It also ordered that the decision be printed in the Sebastian
church's newsletter in an article enumerating the ordination
questions specified in G-14.0207b.
In an interview with the Presbyterian News Service, Blessing said the
session's confession was less a theological statement than a
political gesture directed at the 2001 General Assembly, which was to
take up the question of the ordination of homosexuals. He did not
attend the meeting at which the confession was adopted. He was
excluded from a subsequent meeting after he refused to affirm the
"If you want to make a statement of faith, no problem," Blessing said
shortly after the Feb. 20 decision was handed down," but if you want
to make a confession, this is not the way to go about it."
His lawyers argued - and the PJC agreed - that confessions must
approved by two General Assemblies and by a two-thirds vote of
Blessing told PNS that the document adopted by the Sebastian church
was a paraphrase of a few historic statements in the PC(USA)'s Book
of Confessions, which comprises half of the constitution. "Why
couldn't the session have used what the church has already included
in its authentic teachings?" he asked.
David Coventry Smith, John Coventry Smith and Alan Pickering,
Blessing's attorneys, specifically objected to the second item in the
Sebastian document, which describes Holy Scripture as "the revealed
Word of the triune God, and the church's only infallible rule of
faith and life."
They argued that the 1969 General Assembly of the United Presbyterian
Church in the United States of America replaced the phrase, "only
infallible rule of faith and practice," with this language: "unique
and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ in the Church Universal,
and God's Word to you." The revised language was retained in the
ordination vows when the United Presbyterian Church and the
Presbyterian Church in the United States reunited in 1983.
They said the constitution ascribes "infallibility" only to Jesus
Christ, and that the witness of Scripture is always to Christ, the
Blessing maintained that Presbyterians have a right to freedom of
religious belief within the bounds of the Reformed faith, and that
his religious beliefs are consistent with the vows he "undertook on
becoming a church officer."
Wilson - who represented the Sebastian church and has recommended
that it appeal this decision - argued that the PJC overlooked two
things: that "Confessing" churches like Sebastian are not trying to
adopt new confessions or amend existing ones, but to witness to the
essential truths of the church's historic confessions; and that the
constitution contains criteria for ordained leadership other than
those addressed by the ordination questions. He specifically cited
G-0106.b, the clause requiring fidelity in marriage or chastity in
"The church is called upon to confess in conformity with our
confessions," he said, referring to the Confessing Church Movement.
"And this issue is very important to a large percentage of our
churches, who are attempting to call the church back to its
historical roots, the tenets of the Reformed tradition, which they
believe have been obscured as of late.
"The General Assembly has refused to define the essential tenets,
which is why it is up to individual churches - or groups of churches
- to say what is important for them. That is what the Confessing
Church Movement has done."
Wilson noted that bodies making ordination decisions traditionally
are treated with "great deference" in church cases.
David C. Smith, one of Blessings' attorneys, said the crux of the
case is the intent of those who draft statements independent of the
wider church and ask members who do not agree to withdraw from the
"In this particular case, the confession was used as a means of
exclusion, to exclude people not only from the session, but from the
membership of the church," he said, noting that Blessing and another
church member were told to endorse the statement's four tenets or
"peaceably withdraw," which is language that is drawn from a footnote
attached to G-6.0108b which addresses the freedom of conscience of
church officers. The provision applies specifically to matters
judged "indispensable in doctrine or Presbyterian government."
On March 5, some members of Central Florida Presbytery signed a
formal objection to the PJC's decision. It charges that the Sebastian
church's statement is not in conflict with the constitution, because
it makes no attempt to amend the confessional documents of the
church; that in G-9.0102b, the constitution grants governing bodies,
including sessions, the right to "frame symbols of faith, bear
testimony against error in doctrine and immorality in life (and)
resolve questions of doctrine and discipline"; and that
qualifications for ordination or installation go beyond affirmative
answers to the nine questions set forth in G-14.0207.
The protesters also argued that the Sebastian resolution contains no
doctrinal errors and does reflect the session's dedication to its
A protest requires no response from the PJC.
The Rev. Howard Edington, the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of
Orlando, FL, the largest church in Central Florida Presbytery and one
of the nation's first to adopt a "confessing" statement, said the
First Church session intends to stand in solidarity with its
counterpart in Sebastian. He said First Church may redirect its
financial resources from the presbytery to the Sebastian church's
legal defense - although the synod PJC could enjoin such action.
The Rev. Eleanor Lea, the pastor of the Sebastian church, said its
session probably will file an appeal of the PJC decision, but the
session has not yet voted.
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