John Calvin would spin in his grave

Philip K. Eberly

June 06, 1991|By Philip K. Eberly

THROUGH the years some of the most burning issues on Presbyterian General Assembly agendas have been those involving the church and society. The tempo picked up considerably in the early 1950s with McCarthyism and civil rights, then quickened with the Vietnam War, abortion, birth control, divorce and women's liberation.

To those who have said the church's chief mission is "the saving of souls," the Presbyterian response has been, "Only half right! The church must also be involved in the greater society; true religion must extend beyond the sanctuary doors." Not only does such an enlightened doctrine derive from the Scriptures, say advocates of a "social gospel," but Presbyterianism's founding father, John Calvin, pioneered the movement that shaped democracy's very foundations. Who can argue, they ask, that Calvinism did not leave its imprint on our social and political institutions? Through the influence of Calvin's spiritual descendants -- the Puritans of New England, Congregationalists and Baptists, as well as the Episcopalians and Presbyterians of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Virginia -- the very basis of democracy was laid.

But just imagine if Calvin were present at this week's Baltimore meeting of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A). He would surely be astounded at the denomination's latest plunge into contemporary social issues. Can anyone who has the slightest familiarity with Calvin's austere moral code doubt that the Geneva firebrand would approve of scrapping the traditional Presbyterian stand on homosexuality and sexual relations?

The issue that is one of the hottest items at the 203rd General Assembly of the church is a discussion of the 197-page report titled "Keeping Body and Soul Together: Sexuality, Spirituality and Social Justice." In a nutshell, the document claims that marriage is not necessarily the only setting for sex. It also speaks favorably of teen-age masturbation and petting and advocates ministerial ordination of homosexuals.

"Nonsense!" Calvin would surely say to the report's supporters who champion the liberation of gays, lesbians and women from what is said to be an unjust and oppressive sex code.

Calvin, who at age 27 wrote "The Institutes of the Christian Religion," would be appalled to read in the report that "a reformed Christian ethic of sexuality will not condemn, out of hand, any sexual relations in which there is genuine equality and mutual respect."

But even more disturbing than the flaunting of the deep-rooted and steadfast strictures found in Calvin's preachments is the violation of Presbyterianism's theological cornerstone -- scriptural guidance as the fundamental precept of morality. Eighty-six of the 171 presbyteries have already indicated that the Scriptures do indeed speak with certitude on the morality question, that morals are not a matter of "situational ethics" -- in short, that the report should be rejected.

Before the General Assembly concludes its deliberations at the Convention Center this week, the remaining ruling Presbyterian regional bodies should join the chorus and say "nay" to "Keeping Body and Soul Togeth- er . . ."

As one white-maned Presbyterian patriarch thundered from his pulpit many years ago, "We must stand for something, or we'll fall for anything."

Philip K. Eberly is a Presbyterian communicant of long standing. He writes from Wrightsville, Pa.

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