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The Wisdom of Autonomy

Friday, November 17th, 2006

The Presbyterian Church borrows its name from the Greek word presbuteros, a New Testament word meaning “elder.” So far as their organization goes, their name is about the only thing they derive from the Bible.

The New Testament calls for local, autonomous congregations, governed by elders (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5). The Presbyterian Church, however, is governed by elders on the local level, who are in turn overseen by Presbyteries, which have regional responsibilities, then synods, and then the General Assembly, which is the final authority for the whole denomination. This arrangement is conspicuously absent from the New Testament.

Because the Bible is not considered to be the final authority in religious matters, at least not in practice, the Presbyterian General Assembly has struggled with the problem of homosexuality. In 1978 it declared that gay men and lesbians “must be treated with the profound respect and pastoral tenderness due all people of God.” Then in 1991 the same body ruled that same-sex marriage ceremonies are “not sanctioned” and “not proper.”

Neither these policies nor biblical mandates seemed to matter to Janet Edwards. She is the Presbyterian minister who was accused of performing a wedding ceremony for two women in June 2005.

Edwards’s position on gay marriage sounds nothing like the traditional Christian position. She says,

Scripture teaches me that the heart of marriage is the love and commitment between the partners. Life has taught me that gay and lesbian partners can show as much love and commitment as anyone else. I was really eager to make that case.

I don’t know what “life” has taught Ms. Edwards, but I know what science says. In a recent ruling by the Washington State Supreme Court which repudiated same-sex marriage, Justice James Johnson stated, “Direct comparisons between opposite-sex homes and same-sex homes further support the former as a better environment for children. For example, studies show an average shorter term commitment and more sexual partners for same-sex couples” (emphasis mine).

And where are the Scriptures that condone homosexual marriages? All I find are clear statements of condemnation against same-sex relationships of any kind (Lev. 18:22; Rom. 1:24-28; 1 Cor. 6:9-11).

What is the Presbyterian Church doing to deal with this problem? In a word, nothing. Their hands are tied because of a self-imposed statute of limitations on sin. The Washington Post reports,

Citing a procedural error, a tribunal of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) dismissed all charges yesterday against a Pittsburgh minister who was accused of violating the church’s rules by conducting a marriage ceremony for two women.

…But as her trial was to begin, the eight-member tribunal, the Permanent Judicial Commission of the Pittsburgh Presbytery, ruled that an investigating committee had not brought the charges in time. The committee was appointed on Sept. 8, 2005, and filed the accusations on Sept. 12, 2006 — after the one-year deadline set by church law, the panel said.

If the Presbyterian Church was organized along Scriptural lines, it would not have had any trouble dealing with the problem. Ms. Edwards (who would not have been in an authoritative position in the first place, 1 Tim. 2:11-12) would have been dealt with quietly, at home, without disturbing her church on a national level.

The Lord’s plan for church autonomy preserves His church from being overcome by sin. But denominations that are centralized like the Presbyterians invariably fall because of the weakness and corruption of their leadership. Students of Church History know that the first steps of deviation away from the Scriptures came in the form of organizational errors. Those who brought about this apostasy should have known better. With the Lord, there is no room for improvement.