Persons seeking to bar from ministry: 1) individuals in relationships who choose not to marry, 2) engaged individuals who have relations before marriage, or 3) persons in same-sex relationships, often claim the Confession of Faith as their authority in the matter, despite the fact it never rejects same-sex relationships nor addresses the topic of sex outside of marriage.

It is also important to note that the founders of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church elevated the importance of the divine call, recognizing that “The compilers of the Confession of Faith and Discipline of our church never intended it to be considered an infallible standard by which the Holy [Spirit] must be limited, when [God] calls [persons] to the sacred office.”

While upholding our Confession of Faith, we recognize it as a living document, not an infallible one. Therefore, it should be held with humility and not interpreted in a restrictive or exclusionary fashion. Rather, we should allow room for diverse interpretations and for human understanding to evolve, and for God’s Spirit to manifest within our denomination through divine calling.

For our founders, determining who was called was not about strict doctrinal conformity! In fact, our founders were willing to “scruple” with certain doctrines, and that is why the current vow taken by ministers and elders explicitly states that we believe the Confession “contains” the essential doctrines, which allows room for interpretation and for the Holy Spirit to work.

The fact that the Confession of Faith may be amended is both a demonstration of humility and an acknowledgment that not everything within the Confession may be deemed essential. This reforming principle remains pertinent today, particularly in the face of attempts to force “strict subscription” to the Confession or to weaponize it in a exclusionary way to disqualify a minority within the church whose callings have already been recognized, and who are already faithfully serving the denomination.

Rev. Chris Warren of First Cumberland Presbyterian Church Murfreesboro writes: “Humans are not very much like God. We are not like God at all in our understanding, power, or abilities. Yet, we strive to become like God. That desire is at the heart of the story of the first sin. The tempter told the humans that if they ate of a particular fruit, they would be like God. So of course they tried it. Being like God would be a pretty difficult temptation for most of us to resist.”

“Yet, we are still nothing like God and have nothing like God’s understanding. We can’t even understand our neighbors across the street who are like us in so many ways. Efforts to determine who God can and can’t call to ministry are the result of people succumbing to the temptation to eat of the fruit like the first humans. It is a case of mortals wanting to put themselves in the place of God and say, “this one is worthy, and this one is not.” It is an attempt to limit a God who cannot and will not be limited.”

“Scripture is filled with examples of surprising people who were called by God. That is to say, the surprises are for us, not for God. Throughout scripture, God saw qualities in people that we would never see; and indeed, that many of them didn’t see in themselves. But, God called them, and they served. Thankfully, a human-conceived institution didn’t stop people like Moses, David, Abraham, Jacob, Mary the mother of Jesus, and many others from serving. They heard God’s call, and they responded.”

“It is only natural for us to continue to disagree on many things; however, the folly of trying to limit God is surely something on which we can all agree. God cannot be limited. Our language, our culture, and many other things limit our ability to understand God and other people. Let’s not make the mistake of believing that God intends for us to limit God’s work in the world. If we can just learn to accept people who have been called by God to serve, step back, and get out of their way, then we will see some awesome work that God can do through loving people (regardless of how they differ from us). It may be surprising to some people, but it isn’t a surprise to God.”

Our founders recognized that God is still actively at work in the world, calling individuals to share the Gospel. They emphasized the importance of attentively listening and responding to (without unnecessarily limiting) the Holy Spirit when it came to who was called to ministry. The church eventually listened when African Americans were called to ministry, and when Louisa Woosley and other women were called. The question now is whether we are still open and receptive to the Spirit, and if so, are we willing to embrace whosoever God calls today?

The 189th General Assembly, in its amendment to the Preamble to our Constitution acknowledged in essence that in an increasingly diverse body such as ours, it is the “spirit of the law, rather than the letter, which must prevail.” In light of these insights, let us remember that our faith is built on the foundation of God’s unconditional love and grace. It is a faith that calls us to embrace the diversity of humanity made in God’s image, to recognize God’s surprising choices, and to avoid the folly of trying to limit God’s boundless work in the world to those with whom we share 100% doctrinal agreement.

As we continue our journey as Cumberland Presbyterians, it is our hope that we honor this wisdom from our founders and forebears. As we strive to live out the love and acceptance that God so graciously extends to us, it is our prayer that we may listen to the Spirit and wholeheartedly support and encourage ALL those whom God calls to serve in His name.

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