This article highlights how the proposed amendments present multiple issues relative to their interpretation, implementation, application, and enforcement. Originally published as a Letter to the Editor in the Cumberland Presbyterian magazine, it has been reprinted here with some edits. The author, Edward H. Adair, holds a law degree from the University of Kentucky College of Law, class of 1985, and has served in roles such as Federal Law Clerk and Special Assistant United States Attorney for the Department of the Interior. Currently, he is a Licentiate under the care of the Presbytery of East Tennessee and fulfills the role of Privacy and Regulatory Specialist at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
To Whom It May Concern,
I am writing to share my reflections and deliberations concerning the proposed amendments to the Cumberland Presbyterian Church’s (CPC) Constitution.
I respectfully submit that I do not favor the proposed amendments. In my view, excluding individuals from serving as Elders, Ministers, or in other positions of leadership within the CPC based on their identification as members of the LGBTQIA+ community is not aligned with the teachings of the Holy Scriptures when we consider the historical, cultural, and linguistic contexts in which the scriptures were written. Furthermore, such exclusion is inconsistent with the love, compassion, and inclusive nature of the Kingdom of God as proclaimed, preached, and embodied by Christ.
Notwithstanding this conviction, I have approached my reading, interpretation, analysis, and commentary on the proposed amendments as objectively as possible. I understand that not everyone shares the same viewpoint on this issue, and I acknowledge that convictions and emotions run deep.
This document aims to promote dialogue and discernment, driven by the conviction that a variety of perspectives enriches the depth and breadth of our process. At our core, we are members of the same family of God, and I deeply value the connections and relationships we have forged, as well as those yet to be formed, within our Christian family. I appreciate the diversity we all bring to the mission of the Church as we collaborate to become better disciples, witnesses, and servants of the God we all worship—the God who calls us to a ministry of love, liberation, renewal, and rejoicing in God’s grace through Christ Jesus. Our diversity better equips us to share the Gospel with a world in need.
I want to underline that voting “no” to these proposed amendments is not synonymous with affirming or negating any particular stance on LGBTQIA+ inclusion or the qualifications for leadership positions within the Church. A ” no ” vote is appropriate, if for no other reason, to prevent adding vague or ambiguous language to our Constitution.
Thank you for considering the points and concerns raised in the accompanying response to the proposed amendments. I hope we can engage in respectful and open dialogue as we navigate these important matters within our faith community.
Edward H. Adair
The proposed amendments seek to modify four sections of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church Constitution in such a way as to target, among others, individuals in a same-sex relationship, thereby preventing them from answering a call to serve as an Elder, Elder on a Session, or in any of the relationships stated in 7.01 of the Confession of Faith (COF) (hereinafter referred to as “Minister or Ministers” for brevity).
The proposed amendments should be rejected. A non-exhaustive list (1) of reasons for rejection includes the following:
Ambiguity: A lack of clarity in the proposed constitutional amendments opens the door to multiple interpretations. This significant ambiguity will lead to confusion and disputes regarding the amendments’ intent, scope, and application.
Legal Scrutiny: Each of the amendments relies upon the interpretation of language within Section 6.17 of the COF, which includes the provision that “marriage is subject to the appropriate civil law.” Whereas the United States Supreme Court recognizes same-sex marriage as a legal and valid relationship, it is doubtful that the strict text of the amendments would stand up to legal challenge or scrutiny.
Unintended Consequences: Again, because of the lack of clarity in the language used, when the proposed amendments are read in conjunction with Section 6.17 of the COF, the door is open to multiple presumably unintended consequences and the possibility of additional requirements not previously maintained or considered for future or present Elders and Ministers.
Lack of Definitions: The proposed amendments use terms not defined within the constitution or the COF, opening the door to uncertainty and multiple inconsistent interpretations.
Enforcement Issues: The proposed amendments present multiple issues relative to enforcement. The pervasive ambiguity presents decision-makers with a lack of definitive direction, which is needed to apply requirements consistently. The proposed amendments will also require intrusive investigation into the private lives of future and current Elders and Ministers, including an inquiry into the details of one’s sexual relationship(s).
Disregard for Diverse Experiences and Identities of Individuals: The proposed amendments present significant issues relative to individuals who possess biological characteristics that do not fit typical definitions of male or female. (Intersex) When interpreting and applying the constitution and the COF, we should argue for a reading of both that is not restrictive, as our Confession calls us to embrace each person and all groups in the life of the covenant community.
Inconsistent with Other Provisions of COF: The proposed amendments are inconsistent with the spirit and the letter of other provisions within our Confession of Faith. As such, they are also inconsistent with how we, as a Church, hold ourselves out to the world as a people embracing all those within the family life of the covenant community, who oppose, resist, and seek to change all circumstances of oppression.
Limits Discretion of Local Presbyteries and Sessions: The proposed amendments will limit, if not remove, the local Presbyteries and Sessions from exercising their present authority and discretion in the ordination of ministers and the selection of Elders under certain circumstances.
The proposed amendments seek to modify four sections of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church Constitution; however, these changes are substantially similar. In short, the amendments would provide “[w]hen a person is in a sexual relationship that is outside the boundaries of marriage as described in the Confession of Faith 6.17, then such a situation makes that person ineligible to be ordained to the office of [ .]” The four sections being amended fill in the blank with “Elder,” “Elder on the session of a church,” “Licentiate,” and “any of the relationships stated in 7.01”, respectively. (7.01 of the COF specifically calls out “pastor, associate/assistant pastor, stated supply, or interim pastor.”)
The proposed amendments should not be passed for the reasons set forth below:
A lack of clarity in the proposed constitutional amendments opens the door to multiple interpretations. This ambiguity can lead to confusion and disputes regarding the intent and scope of the amendments. This lack of clarity will undoubtedly result in differing interpretations among the various Presbyteries and the numerous Committees within those Presbyteries that may be called upon to make decisions based on directives within our Constitution.
Each of the amendments relies upon the interpretation of language within Section 6.17 of the COF, which reads as follows:
6.17 Marriage is between a man and a woman for the mutual benefit of each, their children, and society. While marriage is subject to the appropriate civil law, it is primarily a covenant relationship under God. As such, it symbolizes the relationship of Jesus Christ and the church, and is that human relationship in which love and trust are best known.” [Citations omitted]
6.17 begins with the statement, “Marriage is between a man and a woman” In the following sentence, the provision states, “While marriage is subject to the appropriate civil law, it is primarily a covenant relationship under God.” The language within the COF’s provision conflicts with the assumed primary intent of the proposed amendments, which is to disqualify those in same-sex relationships as the COF recognizes that marriage “is subject to the appropriate civil law.”
Since the United States Supreme Court recognizes same-sex marriage as a legal and valid relationship, it is vital to consider the implications of the changes proposed. For clarity, it is essential to note that the court has recognized the right to same-sex marriage as a “fundamental right” under the law. This fact, when taken in conjunction with a reading of the language within 6.17 indicating that marriage is subject to the law, makes it doubtful that the strict text of the amendments would stand up to legal challenge or scrutiny. The COF’s acknowledgment of multiple understandings of marriage in 6.17 by its inclusion of civil marriage nullifies the intent of the proposed amendments, rendering them moot and without effect.
Given their lack of clarity, implementing, and enforcing the proposed amendments would be troublesome. They would lack the predictability needed to adequately put an individual on notice as to what status or behavior was or was not permitted by one or more individuals seeking to answer a call to serve as Elder or Minister, or other such position within a church of the Cumberland Presbyterian denomination.
“The phrase “for the mutual benefit of . . .” may present multiple issues if, following the proposed amendment, the conditions it implies are required. This phrase functions as a prepositional phrase expressing the purpose of the simple noun phrase “Marriage.” However, it does not specify a direct relationship between the noun phrase and the implied conditions. I interpret the proposed amendments as theoretically creating new required conditions through the phrase “outside the boundaries of marriage as described in the Confession of Faith 6.17.”
If all conditions inferred in COF 6.17 are to be associated with the new amendments and considered mandatory, then what about individuals wishing to serve as Pastor or Elder who are (1) single, (2) without children, or (3) in a same-sex relationship (marriage or otherwise) that is non-sexual? (These are just a few of the potential areas of contention should the proposed amendments pass.)
Although one could argue that common sense should prevail and that this was not the intended interpretation by the amendments’ supporter(s), it is crucial that amendments to our Constitution do not result in greater ambiguity or vagueness.”
Furthermore, although likely not intended, if the phrase “for the mutual benefit of . . .” does create new required conditions as the language appears to do, then the consequence of this language opens the door for potential investigation or discipline relative to whether an Elder’s or Minister’s marriage is actually “mutually beneficial.” Taken to its “logical conclusion” as a “condition,” this phrase could authorize reviews of the marriages of Elders and Ministers to ascertain whether they were still mutually beneficial and could raise troubling questions if one marriage partner became disabled and relied totally upon the other.
Again, we don’t know if the proponents of the proposed amendments intended these consequences. I would also hope those in authority would not choose to interpret the subject clause in such a manner. However, regardless of how bizarre some of these scenarios sound, they point out the inadequacies in the language used in the proposed amendments.
Another source of ambiguity (not to mention inconsistency) is present in the phrase “in a sexual relationship.” This phrase appears to be the trigger upon which all proposed amendments rely. The term or phrase “sexual relationship” is not defined within the Constitution and is arguably open to more than one interpretation. Without getting too graphic or disrespectful, to use the phrase “sexual relationship” presumes the possibility of sex absent an actual relationship. In such a circumstance, the individual would not violate the proposed amendment.
The phrase “in a sexual relationship” carries inherent ambiguity due to its broad and unspecific nature. It may be interpreted differently based on cultural, social, and individual contexts and perspectives. Some might interpret this phrase as a committed monogamous relationship where sexual activity is involved, while others might see it as any relationship where sexual activity occurs, regardless of the level of emotional attachment or commitment.
There is also the question of whether the amendments could operate retroactively. For example, assume we have a person who was previously in a sexual relationship outside the boundaries of marriage as described in the confession of faith at the time of their ordination. Suppose we also assume this person is no longer in such a relationship. Is this person in a position where the earlier ordination could be revisited or even deemed void ab initio or from the beginning?
Since this person would have been ineligible for ordination when such ordination was performed, what would be the legal status of the marriages performed by this individual between the ordination and the determination that said ordination is void ab initio?
Additionally, the language of the proposed amendments has the potential of being overly broad, which may affect the application or execution of the prohibitions intended. Those in heterosexual relationships who are divorced or unmarried could fall under the vague definition, thereby potentially restricting them from serving. Again, to be fair, the church must investigate whether those in heterosexual relationships are engaged in sexual activities. Raising questions about the sexual activities of individuals who wish to serve may be considered legalistic and overly invasive of one’s personal privacy and could deter potential participants from serving within the denomination.
When the language of our constitution is unclear, as it would become with the passage of the proposed amendments, there is a potential for abuse of power and an issue determining proper implementation and enforcement of the vague provision(s). Vague constitutional amendments allow those in decision-making positions to exploit the lack of clarity to reach a decision. Not to imply that any of our decision-makers would purposefully act in such a manner; however, given the importance of our constitution, there should be no intentional amendment of it that opens the door for any future misuse or misunderstanding based on what was known at the time of amendment to be vague or unclear language.
In addition to the ambiguity or vagueness of language within the proposed amendments, said amendments do not consider those individuals who would be classified as “intersex.” Intersex individuals possess biological characteristics that do not fit typical definitions of male or female. It is important to note that intersex is a natural and relatively common biological variation comparable to the number of people born with red hair. Read strictly; the amendments may be interpreted to exclude from leadership persons in relationships who do not fit typical definitions of male and female. The proposed amendments would most assuredly have a chilling effect on persons in this category, as enforcement may require disclosing profoundly personal, protected, and private information, which raises significant ethical and legal concerns.
It is essential to consider individuals’ diverse experiences and identities when interpreting and applying the Constitution and Confession of Faith. We should argue for a reading of both that is not restrictive, as our Confession calls us to “embrace each person and all groups in the life of the covenant community.”
Our constitution serves as an essential artifact of the identity of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church that drives the overall polity and governance of Presbyteries, Sessions, etc. Our constitution should be unequivocal, capable of providing readily ascertainable guidance, and serve as a safeguard against potential abuses of power.
As others, such as the Honorable Dr. Thomas Campbell, have observed, enforcing the amended provision(s) of the constitution would be overly intrusive to anyone seeking any of the offices affected and anyone currently holding such office. This new approach is no small change from current practice. Passage of the proposed amendments is likely to be associated with enforcement protocols that far exceed current practice and require a personal and ongoing inquiry into the private lives of current and future holders of the office of Elder or Minister, etc.
The proposed Amendments are inconsistent with the following provisions of the COF that speak directly to the character and nature of Christ as he opposed, resisted, and sought to address oppression, thereby reinstating the dignity God intends for those created in the image of the Divine. These declarations reflect Cumberland Presbyterians’ interest in including individuals, families, people, and groups of people living in various family patterns. They also represent that we, as a Church, stand against oppression and advocate for the victims of injustice. Adopting the proposed amendments will send a different message – most likely, different from the one most Cumberland Presbyterians intend to send.
“The church recognizes and ministers to people living in a variety of family patterns, including those persons who by choice or circumstances are single. It seeks to embrace each person and all groups of persons within the family life of the covenant community.” (COF 6.16)
“The covenant community, governed by the Lord Christ, opposes, resists, and seeks to change all circumstances of oppression–political, economic, cultural, racial–by which persons are denied the essential dignity God intends for them in the work of creation.” (COF 6.30)
“[T]he church is an advocate for all victims of violence and all those whom the law or society treats as less than persons for whom Christ died. Such advocacy involves not only opposition to all unjust laws and forms of injustice but even more support for those attitudes and actions which embody the way of Christ, which is to overcome evil with good.” (COF 6.31)
Lastly, there is the issue of the autonomy of the local governing bodies. The Cumberland Presbyterian Church (CPC) is comprised of diverse congregations, each with varying beliefs and practices. Congregations, specifically their Sessions, enjoy relative autonomy, particularly concerning matters of ordination and local practice. This autonomy allows individual Sessions and Presbyteries to establish their guidelines pertaining to a host of issues such as ordination and leadership roles within the church.
This existing autonomy is a cornerstone of our denomination, fostering a rich tapestry of perspectives and approaches. It aligns with our current polity and practice, emphasizing local decision-making.
The proposed amendments, however, represent a significant departure from this status quo. Sections 5.32-5.35 of the Confession of Faith (COF) address Church Government and affirm that the governance of the church is entrusted to officers who make decisions guiding the life and ministry of the community of faith. Our COF also acknowledges the CPC’s various representative bodies, including the local Session, and underscores their interdependence (COF Section 5.34).
The responsibilities of these representative bodies, which include local Sessions, encompass decisions related to matters of faith, practice, and governance, all within the bounds of the Constitution. The proposed amendments, by seeking to limit the autonomy and role of the local Session and Presbytery, challenge this interdependence enshrined in the COF.
The spirit and letter of the COF’s provisions on Church Government affirm interdependence, wherein each representative body relies on the other. Therefore, to significantly curtail the Session’s role in church governance, as proposed, would not only contravene the COF but also undermine the principles of interdependence it upholds.
This fundamental shift in the balance of authority and autonomy should be carefully considered in light of its implications for our denomination’s governance and practice.
Notwithstanding other reasons for or against the proposed amendment(s), it is my personal and reasoned opinion that the above factors are sufficient to support a vote of “No” regarding the current proposal to amend the Cumberland Presbyterian Church Constitution when the issue is presented to individual Presbyteries in the coming months.
Thank you for your time and consideration.
1 This Recommendation to Reject the Proposed Amendments to the Cumberland Presbyterian Church Constitution highlights how the language of the proposals presents multiple issues relative to interpretation, implementation, application, and enforcement of the provisions if amended. The limited scope of this Recommendation is intentional and in no way reflects or supports a position that the reasons herein identified are the only reasons supporting rejection.
- An Open Letter from 13 Former Moderators
- Japan Presbytery’s Response to the Proposed Amendments to the Constitution
- “Concerns with the Exclusionary Memorials” from Welcoming Cumberland Presbyterians
- Proposed Constitutional Amendments (2023)