Confession yes, subscription no, synod court rules
- CALLED OUT
From the PCUSA News Service.
September 19, 2002
Confession yes, subscription no, synod court rules
No appeals expected in closely-watched Sebastian case
by Alexa Smith
LOUISVILLE � In a case widely considered to be a test of the
Confessing Church Movement within the Presbyterian Church (USA), a
synod court has ruled that local congregations can adopt faith
statements that are "consistent" with the denomination's constitution
but cannot use them as a "litmus test" for ordination or installation
to church office.
The unanimous decision by the Permanent Judicial Commission of the
Synod of South Atlantic on Sept. 13 apparently resolves a dispute in
Central Florida Presbytery that seemed headed for the General
Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission � the church's highest court.
So far, attorneys on neither side are recommending an appeal.
The case began in 2001 when Norman Blessing, an elder at First
Presbyterian Church of Sebastian, FL for more than 20 years, filed
suit charging that the Sebastian session could not require those
seeking office in the church to affirm the "confession" it had
adopted prior to the 213th General Assembly.
The Permanent Judicial Commission of the Presbytery of Central
Florida upheld Blessing's complaint.
The Sebastian confession � modeled on the tenets of a loose coalition
of churches calling themselves the Confessing Church Movement �
affirmed heterosexual marriage as the only acceptable sexual
relationship, the infallibility of the Bible and Jesus Christ as the
only means to salvation. The Confessing Church Movement has rallied
about 1,200 congregations to affirm similar confessions.
The session approved the document at meeting when Blessing had an
excused absence. He claimed that the Sebastian session subsequently
tried to require that he and others either affirm the confession or
leave the church.
Blessing charged that writing such a confession exceeded the
authority of the Sebastian church � an allegation that the presbytery
court upheld. It ordered the church to rescind its confession,
causing a firestorm among Confessing Churches.
However, the synod court ruled that the Sebastian church "had the
right and power to pass such a four-point �confession' � provided
such �confession' is consistent with the constitution of the
But it went on to say that the "so-called �confession' is not binding
upon any officer or member of the PC(USA)" and that the church "may
not use its �confession' as a litmus test for ordination or
While Sessions have the right to examine and instruct those who are
elected to church office, the court said, they may only "decline to
approve a person for ordination and/or installation in the context of
the questions required" by the Book of Order , the polity portion of
the denomination's constitution.
The ordination questions are found in section G-14.0207 and standards
for leadership are defined in G-6.0108a., which states that church
officers must adhere to Reformed faith and polity.
The court stressed that elders are to be people of "faith, dedication
and good judgment,' (G-6.0303) and deacons are to be people of
"spiritual character, honest repute, of exemplary lives, brotherly
and sisterly love, warm sympathies and sound judgment." (G-6.0401).
The court also directed the Sebastian church's attention to an
additional clause in the Book of Order (G-3.0401) which says the
church is called to be open to the presence of God, to its own
membership's diversity and to God's continuing reformation of the
"We got what we wanted," said Sebastian's lawyer J. Christy Wilson
III of Orlando, FL, who argued for a church's right to make a faith
statement. "The court affirmed the right of a church to adopt a
confession for its use and the use of its members, consistent with
the confessions and also with scripture," he said.
In the brief prepared for the court, Wilson and his co-counsel, Rick
Franzen of Minneapolis, MN, likened the adoption of the confession by
the Sebastian church to the renewal of marital vows.
"When a couple renews their vows of marriage, they are not becoming
newly married. Instead, they are reaffirming their commitment to vows
made long ago, whether or not they use the precise words of their
original wedding vows," they wrote.
They insisted that Sebastian's affirmation of a few theological
tenets simply affirmed the church's historic faith and "did not
affect anyone outside of the First Presbyterian Church of Sebastian."
Wilson told the Presbyterian News Service that he wasn't sure "what
to make" of the court's counsel that the church respect diversity.
"The Sebastian church has always tried to be inclusive," he said.
"The issue here is not inclusivity, but the foundational principles
of biblical faith."
Blessing's attorney, David Coventry Smith of Winston-Salem, NC, said
he is also "pleased" with the decision since his primary goal was
ensuring that a local congregation's faith statement does not
restrict its selection of officers.
In his brief, Smith argued that the characterization of a renewal of
vows is "misleading," since spouses voluntarily reaffirm a marital
covenant entered into years before. Sebastian's confession, he wrote,
is "more akin to a spouse who seeks to materially change the terms of
that original vow, mandating adherence to it or dissolution of the
Smith said Blessing's primary objection was subscription to tenets
that elevated a certain view of the Reformed tradition above the
broader questions delineated within the Book of Order .
"As long as an individual's theological beliefs are within what we
consider to be the Reformed tradition, that individual qualifies to
be a church officer," said Smith. "You can't require someone to
subscribe to something in addition to that," he said
One example, Smith continued, is the Sebastian church's use of the
term "infallible" to describe scripture. The current ordination vows
say that scripture is a "unique and authoritative witness to Jesus
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