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Three Clear Indicators in the Book of Order regarding Ordination Essentials:

A Plea for Theological Sanity and Constitutional Honesty


by Robert A. J. Gagnon, Ph.D.

Pittsburgh Theological Seminary,

 Feb. 4, 2008

For a PDF version with proper pagination and format click here 


I am a professor at a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) seminary. Let’s suppose I make the following announcement in a class at the start of the term:  

Class, you are, of course, obliged to follow the requirements for classroom behavior and work outlined in the Seminary’s Student Handbook. I won’t take up class time by enumerating these. You are responsible for reading the Student Handbook so that ignorance is no excuse. However, among all the requirements listed therein I will single out one in particular for special mention: If you are caught cheating on an exam in this course or plagiarizing in your term paper you will not merely receive a failing grade for this course but, in accordance with Student Handbook policy, be subject to “immediate dismissal by action of the faculty.” So don’t do it. Enough said. Let’s move on to more pleasant subjects.

Suppose that, after making such an announcement, a student concluded: “Dr. Gagnon has given us no clear indication that he regards compliance with the code of academic honesty as an absolute essential for the course.” Could this be regarded as a reasonable interpretation of my action in singling out the Seminary’s policy on cheating and plagiarism from amongst all other requirements?  I would suggest that no sane person interpreting my words reasonably could possibly come to such a conclusion.  

Or suppose that I had students take a vow not to cheat on exams or plagiarize papers. Would that send an ambiguous signal? Or suppose that I repeatedly mentioned throughout the term, in diverse contexts, that cheating and plagiarizing are not to be done. Would this send an unclear message? The questions are obviously rhetorical. No person with any modicum of good sense could reasonably protest, after being caught cheating or plagiarizing, that I had given no clear indication in class that such a violation would perforce be prosecuted in accordance with Seminary policy. The complaint, “But I didn’t realize that this was such a serious matter,” would ring hollow indeed. 

Yet this is exactly the pretense going on among much of the leadership of the PCUSA today. The chickens are now coming home to roost. The negative effects of the PUP (“Peace, Unity, and ‘Purity’”) Task Force’s “Authoritative Interpretation” of G-6.0108b (“Freedom of Conscience within Certain Bounds”)[1] are now being felt: 

  • On May 16, 2007 the Permanent Judicial Commission of the Synod of the Trinity ruled in an 8-3 decision that the Pittsburgh Presbytery could not define any essentials prior to specific cases but rather must redefine essentials for each new ordination examination: “Essentials of the faith . . . cannot be predetermined. . . . [D]epartures from essential tenets, must be determined on a case by case basis within the ordination process” (case no. 06-09). This ruling came in response to a resolution passed in Oct. 2006 by the Pittsburgh Presbytery that declared (among other things) that all ordination requirements in the Book of Order shall be treated as essentials for ordination and that no exceptions to the sexuality standard in G-6.0106b would be permitted. The Synod PJC relied almost entirely on the PUP “Authoritative Interpretation” (hereafter: A.I.) for its ruling.

  • On Jan. 15, 2008, the San Francisco Presbytery certified Lisa Larges, a self-avowed practicing lesbian, as ready for examination to become a minister of Word and Sacrament and did so on the basis of the 2006 PUP A.I. Larges had asked the presbytery to permit a departure from the Book of Order’s requirement in G-6.0106b of “fidelity in marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness.” A majority of the presbytery concurred that the departure was not a departure from an “essential of Reformed faith and polity.”

  • On Jan. 26, 2008, the Twin Cities Area Presbytery in Minnesota similarly voted to “restore to exercise of ordained office” Dr. Paul Capetz, another self-avowed, homosexually active person. Capetz was released from the exercise of ordained office in 2000 per his request because he could not comply with the provisions of G-6.0106b. Capetz sought reinstatement after the 2006 General Assembly approval of the PUP A.I. The Twin Cities Area Presbytery determined that his departure from G-6.0106b to be “non-essential.”

If an “essential” can be determined only on a case by case basis, as the court of the Synod of the Trinity ruled in agreement with the PUP Rationale for its “Authoritative Interpretation,” then there can be no churchwide essentials for ordination. None. Zero. A presbytery could not “predetermine” even that believing in Christ as Savior and Lord is an essential ordination standard. The ordaining body would have to revisit the question of whether this is an essential at each and every ordination examination. Presumably, the PJC of the Synod of the Trinity believes, along with the proponents of the PUP A.I. generally, that there may be some positive qualities possessed by a candidate that could offset the failure to affirm Christ as Savior and Lord. Based on the synod ruling, an ordaining body could not “predetermine” even that engaging in active, unrepentant adultery, incest, or polyamory (multiple-partner relations) is a necessary bar to ordination. Determinations would have to be made on a case-by-case basis because, goodness knows, a candidate may have other redeeming qualities that make him or her suitable for ordained office. This is insane. And it is the direct result of the 2006 PUP “Authoritative Interpretation.” 

The idea that there are no clear indicators anywhere in the Book of Order regarding what is essential for ordination is manifestly absurd. It is true that G-6.0108b does say that: “The decision as to whether a person has departed from essentials of Reformed faith and polity . . . ultimately becomes the responsibility of the governing body in which he or she serves.” However, just as clearly, this responsibility does not give the governing body constitutional grounds to define essentials in ways that ignore clear indicators in the Book of Order regarding what is essential.  

What are some of these clear indicators in the Book of Order? Here are three obvious ones. 

  1. When a particular ordination standard is explicitly singled out from amongst other standards, it is an obvious “essential of Reformed faith and polity” for ordained officers. Otherwise, there would be no point to singling out a given standard. Why single out the standard to stress the necessity of compliance if the intent were only to relegate the standard to the level of other potentially nonessential standards? It doesn’t make any sense. One such standard is the sexuality standard in G-6.0106b, for it explicitly singles out from among “the historic confessional standards of the church” the “requirement” that ordained officers confine sexual intercourse to “the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman.”


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 between a man and a woman (W-4.9001), 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. (G-6.0106b; emphases added)


And yet, despite the obvious intent behind this singling out, the PUP Task Force’s rationale for the 2006 A.I. specifically cites G-6.0106b as an ordination standard that an ordaining body can reasonably judge to be nonessential. Non-compliance with the sexuality standard in G-6.0106b, they say, is not necessarily a bar to ordination:


If an ordaining or installing body determines that an officer-elect has departed from G-6.0106b, … [and judges this departure] not to violate the essentials of Reformed faith and polity…. then there is no barrier to ordination. (A Season of Discernment, pp. 40-41, ll. 1222-29)


But why then does the Book of Order single this standard out from amongst all other standards? No proponent of the 2006 PUP A.I. has, to my knowledge, even bothered to answer this question. The reason for failing to do so, apparently, is that the answer is devastating to proponents of the PUP A.I. Clearly, the singling out was done for the obvious purpose of stressing that “at least this requirement is essential for ordination.”[2] 

If an ordaining body can ignore such a clear literary indicator of what is essential, then it can ignore any similar indicator at will, including the two that follow below. This is especially so since the Task Force rationale cites the Adopting Act of 1729 as establishing a virtual absolute right on the part of local and regional ordaining bodies to determine for themselves what standards are essential.[3]


  1. When a particular ordination standard is put in the ordination vow, it is an obvious “essential of Reformed faith and polity” for ordained officers. Otherwise there would be no point to making the candidate swear compliance. One such obvious essential is the first ordination vow requiring faith in Christ as one’s “Savior” and “Lord of all” (W-4.4003). The fact that the Book of Order specifies that candidates for ordination must swear compliance to this belief establishes the essential character of the requirement (not to mention that it is the first vow). To argue that the Book of Order does not, in predetermined fashion, regard such faith as essential for ordained officers, simply because the word “essential” is not explicitly used in the text, is to engage in perverse, hyper-literalistic, and duplicitous reasoning.


  1. When a particular ordination standard is repeated often in diverse contexts, it is an obvious “essential of Reformed faith and polity” for ordained officers. Again, there is no point to repeating over and over a given ordination standard in diverse contexts unless the intent is to establish the requirement as essential. One such requirement is the necessity of accepting women’s ordination. The affirmation of women’s ordination is repeated in diverse contexts throughout the Form of Government of the Book of Order. G-6.0105 makes clear that “both men and women shall be eligible to hold church.” Likewise, G-14.0221 states: “Every congregation shall elect men and women from among its active members . . . to the office of elder and to the office of deacon.” G-9.0105a (“Committee on Representation”) mandates: “Each governing body above the session shall elect a committee on representation, whose membership shall consist of equal numbers of men and women.” A specific duty of this committee is to “advocate for the representation of . . . women” (c). According to G-13.0111a, “Consideration shall be given to the nomination of equal numbers of ministers (both women and men).” G-1.0100b (“Christ calls the church into being”) refers to Christ “exercising his authority by the ministry of women and men.” G-3.0401b (“Called to Openness”) states: “The Church is called  . . . to a new openness” about “becoming in fact as well as in faith a community of women and men.”

It doesn’t matter whether an ordaining body wants to regard affirmation of women’s ordination as essential or not. The Constitution itself plainly indicates that it is essential through these constant repetitions in diverse contexts, even to the point of setting up committees to insure its proper implementation. An ordaining body that rules that such an affirmation is not constitutionally essential is acting in a perverse and unreasonable manner, if not out of great ignorance.


Of course, nothing “Einsteinian” has been said above. That is the point. These are clear and obvious indicators in the Book of Order regarding essentials in the Book of Order. No ordaining body has a right to ignore such indicators of what is essential. While not an exhaustive list, these three indicators—explicitly singling out a standard for compliance from amongst all other standards, enshrining a standard in an ordination vow, and repeatedly citing a standard in diverse contexts—do have great relevance for current debates in the recent history of the PCUSA. 

Inasmuch as the spin given by 2006 A.I. on G-6.0108b runs counter to the purpose for which it was formulated—namely to protect a national standard (i.e. women’s ordination) from candidates who might declare a contrary scruple—it is necessary to reassert the freedom of the collective conscience of the denomination as a whole, especially as enshrined in its constitutional documents.[4] 


Having made the case for at least some clear indicators within the Book of Order as to which ordination standards are essential, there remains only the necessity of answering possible objections to this construal of the Constitution of the PCUSA

(1) Review for compliance is no safeguard for judicial activism. Someone might counter that the 2006 General Assembly added to the Task Force’s A.I. a safeguard; namely, that higher governing bodies may review “whether the examination and ordination and installation decision comply with the constitution of the PCUSA.” Even so, this addition did not offer the courts themselves any guidelines for determining essentials in the Book of Order that would safeguard against excessive judicial activism. This is evident enough from the recent decision of the PJC of the Synod of the Trinity (cited above). 

(2) Going beyond the use of mandatory “shall” language to even more obvious indicators. Someone might contend that not all “requirements” or practices associated with mandatory “shall” language are essential; and, consequently, that failure to comply with the “mandatory” sexual “requirement” in G-6.0106b is not necessarily a bar to ordination. In my view, such contentions regrettably make words mean what they do not normally mean and nullify clear distinctions in the Book of Order’s Preface between mandated practices on the one hand and practices merely recommended or permitted on the other hand. Nevertheless, appeal to high-frequency use of “shall” language in the Book of Order is beside the point here. We can all agree that the implicit literary force and effect of explicitly singling out for compliance a particular requirement from amongst all other standards is to establish the essential status of the requirement. The same holds true for inserting a standard in an ordination vow (so the affirmation of Christ as Savior and Lord) or repeatedly citing a standard in diverse contexts (the affirmation of women in ministry).  

(3) Not presuming universal clarity or instituting a detailed litmus test of orthodoxy but rather restoring sanity to the ordination process. Some may fear that the mention of “clear indicators in the Book of Order regarding what is essential” establishes too much certitude in interpreting texts or creates a detailed litmus text of orthodoxy. Such a fear would be misplaced.  The purpose of citing three clear indicators of essential ordination standards in the Book of Order is not to contend that all texts are equally obvious or to define what all the essentials are as regards ordination standards. Rather the purpose is to prevent arbitrary or ideologically-based circumventions of some obvious essentials.[5] Put differently, the purpose of acknowledging a few clear indicators is to establish that some standards in the Book of Order are clearly presented as essential (i.e. necessary barriers to ordination when not fulfilled by the candidate) even though the precise word “essential” is not used.  

A related purpose is to reassert that, despite some radical postmodernist views to the contrary, the communication symbols that constitute the written text of the Book of Order and the literary conventions that accompany their use must be given their normal agreed-upon sense if church members are to have any confidence in the process of discernment. Certain literary moves such as singling out a given ordination requirement from amongst all others, placing it in the context of an ordination vow, or citing it repeatedly in diverse contexts create an implicit contract of meaning with reasonable readers interpreting texts reasonably and contextually.  

Not to draw the obvious conclusion that such contexts establish certain ordination requirements as essential is to violate that contract of meaning and engender distrust and cynicism regarding process. The unhealthy alternative is a way of reading texts where there are no generally accepted conventions for expected meaning. This would render all texts, including every standard expressed in the Book of Order, as meaningless. Then there would be no point to reading, interpreting, citing, amending, or adjudicating by means of the Book of Order except as an exercise of raw, arbitrary power. And then there would be no point to the existence of the PCUSA as a denominational entity.


     In short, there is nothing radical about what I am proposing here. This construal simply reinstates the practice of reading literary indicators of meaning in the Book of Order reasonably—a practice that had generally operated before the passage of the 2006 PUP “Authoritative Interpretation” of G-6.0108b. To do otherwise, to pretend that the Book of Order gives no clear indication anywhere that any particular standard is essential for ordination, is to engage in nothing less than constitutional duplicity and theological insanity. In the midst of our disagreements we must, at the very least, strive for reasonableness and honesty, even if reasonableness and honesty undermine readings favorable to our predetermined ideological stance.


[1] G-6.0108b reads:  “It is to be recognized, however, that in becoming a candidate or officer of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) one chooses to exercise freedom of conscience within certain bounds. His or her conscience is captive to the Word of God as interpreted in the standards of the church so long as he or she continues to seek or hold office in that body. The decision as to whether a person has departed from essentials of Reformed faith and polity is made initially by the individual concerned but ultimately becomes the responsibility of the governing body in which he or she serves.”

[2] The essential character of the sexuality standard in G-6.0106b is also self-evident from the lengthy process of its inclusion and retention in the Book of Order. What was the point of the majority of the presbyteries in voting to incorporate this sexuality standard in the Book of Order in 1996-97 and then to deny by ever greater margins vigorous attempts to remove it in 1997-98 and 2001-2002 if not to communicate that failure to comply with this singled-out standard would be a necessary barrier to ordination? If the majority of presbyteries had only wanted to have a standard that could be viewed as nonessential, there would have been no reason to single it out for compliance in the Form of Government.

[3] In point of fact, the Adopting Act of 1729 addressed finer points of Calvinist doctrine contained in a voluminous, undifferentiated document like the Westminster Standards. It was certainly never intended to allow local or regional ordaining bodies the autonomy to ordain someone who denied the lordship of Jesus Christ or who engaged in sexual intercourse outside the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman. The PUP Task Force thus misused and abused this precedent in their rationale for the 2006 A.I.

[4] I am grateful to Rev. Dr. Jerry Andrews for this observation.

[5] The Presbyterian Church operates on a principle of connectionalism. This includes the right to establish on a national level some minimal beliefs and practices for officers of the church that, when met with noncompliance, become necessary barriers to ordination. For example, the national governing body today could not, and would not, allow the ordination of avowed racists, participants in loving adult-consensual incest or polyamory, or persons who declared Jesus to be delusional or evil.



  © 2008 Robert A. J. Gagnon