Commissioners and conscience
December 1, 1997
How is it that the same presbyteries that approved Amendment B elected as their commissioners to the Syracuse Assembly individuals who proposed Amendment A?
One obvious answer is that presbyteries are far more discerning and disciplined when voting on Constitutional amendments than when electing General Assembly commissioners. While procedures vary, some presbyteries elect as their minister commissioners those with the most years of service, as if longevity conferred a “right” to the office. Others routinely rubber stamp a slate selected by their nominating committees.
It is a truism (more nearly a cliché) that electing bodies cannot instruct their commissioners on how to vote. The election day litany is punctuated with the cry, “Commissioners must be free to vote their conscience.” But such solemn affirmations flatly contradict our denomination’s historic ordination standards, which declare that the conscience of every minister and elder “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” (G-6.0108b).
The aberrance of the Syracuse Assembly highlights the need for every presbytery (and session) to docket time to question its prospective commissioners. The queries need not focus on any single constitutional provision, but could address such general topics as biblical interpretation and Presbyterian polity.
For example, commissioner candidates could be asked about their understanding of Leviticus 19, which includes the command to love one’s neighbor as oneself, and Romans 1, which calls God’s people “to the obedience that comes from faith.” Similarly, they might be requested to explain what response they would like to see from governing bodies when ministers and elders announce their intention to defy their ordination vows.
What emerges from next June’s General Assembly in Charlotte will be decided by its commissioners. Presbyteries (which ultimately means sessions) bear the responsibility for electing commissioners who will resist the temptations of idolatrous autonomy and will support biblical, confessional, and constitutional authority. Otherwise, a year from now, presbyteries and sessions are likely once again to find themselves debating issues they thought they had settled.