THE KASEMAN CASE IN REVIEW
At 11:15 AM on Saturday, January 24, 1981, the Permanent Judicial Commission of the United Presbyterian Church of the United States of America concluded its hearing of Remedial Case No. 193-10, “The Rev. Stewart J. Rankin et al, vs. The Presbytery of the National Capital Union.” This hearing opened at 9:30 AM the same day at the Sheraton Airport Hotel in Philadelphia. This case addressed earlier determinations of our church courts which affirmed the action of the National Capital Union Presbytery in receiving into its membership the Rev. Mansfield Kaseman. It also appealed a determination of the Synod of the Piedmont which was believed to have deemphasized the doctrinal position of our church.
On Monday, January 26, 1981, Mr. Robert F. Stevenson, Associate Stated Clerk of the General Assembly, released the following statement regarding the decision:
“The Permanent Judicial Commission affirmed the decision of the Piedmont. The Judicial Commission urges everyone to read the whole decision before discussing the determination of the Permanent Judicial Commission. The heart of the issue is not to be found in the determination. The decision strongly affirms the traditional doctrines of the church and the inherent powers of the presbytery.”
The details of this final decision, which, like a decision of the Supreme Court of the United States, cannot be appealed, are given later in this review.
How It All Started
On March 20, 1979 the Rev. Mansfield Kaseman, an ordained minister of the United Church of Christ, was presented to the National Capital Union Presbytery for examination for acceptance into its membership. Mr. Kaseman was asked the question, “Is Jesus God?” His response was “No, God is God.” Following the examination he was received into membership of the Presbytery. In a letter dated March 29, 1979, Rev. Glen Knecht, pastor of Wallace Memorial Church, filed a Remedial Complaint with the Synod of the Piedmont against the National Capital Union Presbytery. On April 16, 1979 a similar complaint was filed by Mr. Verl A. Currence and Mr. Robert F. Bain, elders of the Wallace Memorial Church. The substance of the complaint was that our Presbytery committed an irregularity in receiving the Rev. Kaseman into membership in the National Capital Union Presbytery after his denial that Christ was God.
The Synod Hears The Complaint
The Synod of the Piedmont, meeting in Baltimore on Saturday, June 16, 1979, after hearing the Complaint, issued the following decision: It is the decision of the Commission not to sustain the request of the complainants because it lies with the Presbytery to “receive, dismiss, ordain, install, remove and judge ministers.” The Constitution of the church is very clear that it is the duty of the Presbytery to establish the legitimacy of the membership of the ministers on all points including doctrine.
The Synod’s Decision Is Appealed
Rev. Knecht, Mr. Bains and Mr. Currence then appealed this decision to the Permanent Judicial Commission of the General Assembly, a commission authorized to act for the General Assembly in matters involving the interpretation of the Constitution. The decision of this body is final and without appeal.
The Permanent Judicial Commission met on Saturday, January 19, 1980 and after hearing the appeal rendered a decision which first reprimanded the Permanent Judicial Commission of the Synod of the Piedmont for improper procedures and remanded the case back to the National Capital Union Presbytery for the purpose of re-examining Mr. Mansfield M. Kaseman in theology and doctrine.
Examination No. 2
The re-examination of Mr. Kaseman took place at the regular meeting of the Presbytery on Tuesday, March 18, 1980 at the Little Falls United Presbyterian Church in Arlington, Virginia.
In the examination Mr. Kaseman was asked questions about the person and work of Jesus Christ. A few of the questions and answers follow:
Mr. Kaseman was asked the question, “Do you believe in the sinlessness of Jesus and if you do, would you please tell us what bearing do you feel that his sinlessness has upon his atoning work?”
Mr. Kaseman responded: “The question is, Do I believe he was sinless? That is an affirmation of faith. What I think we may end up quibbling over perhaps is the definition of sin. As I understand sin it represents separateness, a separation from God, from ourselves in terms of being out of communion with the Spirit within us and there were times in Christ’s life when he gave evidence of feeling alienated, alone, separate; and that gave his life and ministry great meaning to me because I have felt that way and . . . So in that sense I have problems with the idea that he was sinless. But in terms of doing violence to persons, violence to the nature of God; no. He was sinless.”
Mr. Kaseman was asked: “Do you believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ from the grave?”
He responded: “I believe in the resurrection without necessarily believing in the bodily resurrection though in my ministry I would not be talking about that; that is why I am reluctant to give any more exact answer right now. We all have our own way of understanding that and it is most important that we respect and affirm people where they are with that.”
Mr. Kaseman was asked: “What does the substitute sacrifice mean to you?”
He responded: “I think there is a better way, at least for me, to appreciate God’s love in Christ and for me there does not need to be the old, the duplication of the old covenant with the sacrificial blood. What is more significant to me is that Christ would love us enough that he would trust in God who he knew as his Father enough to go as far as the cross. That to me is much more dynamic. I can identify more with that and I believe that something of that is expected of me. In other words, I don’t believe that salvation . . . Well, if you will, I guess I don’t believe in the vicarious atonement in the sense that it was done once and for all. I believe that as disciples of Christ we are called to pick up our cross and to follow and be willing to make some sacrifices ourselves.”
Mr. Kaseman was asked: “I would like to know why you equivocate between saying that Jesus is God and that he is one with God.”
He replied: “I think that saying Jesus is one with God is a better way of saying it. It avoids the implication that God is synonymous with Jesus Christ. It avoids what to me was a ridiculous, notion held by the death of God theologians that God was in Christ of being, you see, totally present and so on the cross died and that was it. It avoids the ridiculous question of where, you know, who was minding the universe while God was Christ. So I prefer to use the language of the Trinity. It is as simple as that.”
This question was then addressed to Mr. Kaseman: “Would it be incorrect to say that Jesus is God?”
He replied: “It is my sense that many of you are used to that language and it is pretty clear to me that what you mean by that is what I mean when I say God is one with Christ. What I would ask for at this point is respect for, you know, if not a pluralistic, you know, theology being acceptable to the Presbytery, at least a difference in language which is saying essentially the same thing.”
Reference may be made to the transcript of the re-examination for further details of the examination.
After the examination was closed, Mr. Kaseman was accepted into membership by a vote of 165 to 58.
Complaint No. 2 To The Synod
On April 16, 1980 Rev. Stewart J. Rankin of the Church of the Atonement, along with Ruling Elders Raymond F. Langille, Alcott J. Larsson, Lee M. Mace, J. William McNamara, Robert R. Stadelhofer, all of Fourth, and James W. Reid, of the Fairlington Presbyterian Church in Alexandria, Virginia, filed a Remedial Complaint against the National Capital Union Presbytery. This complaint was placed with the Synod of the Piedmont. The Presbytery named as its respondents: The Reverends Margaret Adams, Lance Brown, Madeline Foulkes, Arthur McKay and Mr. John C. Smith. The complaint included six charges of error on the part, of the Presbytery in accepting a candidate who
(1) demonstrated an unacceptable knowledge of the Presbyterian Confessional Standards; (2) failed to be instructed by our standards that there would be no further additions to the Holy Scriptures;
(3) failed to demonstrate an understanding of the sinlessness of Jesus
(4) failed to affirm the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ;
(5) rejected the claims that Christ’s atonement was a once-and-for-all event;
(6) failed to rescind his earlier negative answer to the question, “Is Jesus God?”
The Second Hearing of the Synod Of The Piedmont
On June 13 and 14, 1980 the Permanent Judicial Commission of the Synod heard the case, allowing a generous armount of time to both parties to present the case. The decision of the Piedmont stated:
(1) “ . . it is an inherent right of Presbytery . . . to determine whether or not a particular candidate is qualified to be ordained and/or installed into the ministry of the Presbyterian Church . . . Most extraordinary reasons do not exist for review of Presbytery’s actions.”
(2) “We find for the respondents (the Presbytery) on all specifications.” (Therefore allegations regarding Mr. Kaseman’s competence, his failure to be instructed by the Confessional Standards concerning the closed canon, the sinlessness of Christ, the bodily resurrection of Christ, the atonement of Jesus Christ as a once and for all event, and the deity of Jesus Christ were not sustained.)
(3) “In adopting both the Book of Confessions, containing the Confession of 1967, and the revised questions, the church moved from expecting a candidate to vow a subscription to a system of doctrine which was a collection of statements about an indefinite number of theological truths. Now the church expects an obligation personally to accept and obey Jesus Christ, to accept the Scripture as unique and authoritative witness, and to agree to be instructed and guided by the confessions . . . Each person is expected to continue reforming his/her personal faith in obedience to Jesus Christ, just as the church continually reforms itself in life and in doctrine.”
The Second Appeal To The General Assembly’s Commission
Those who originated the complaint, appealed the decision of the Synod to the General Assembly on July 17, 1980. Ten specifications of error were listed, including the six previously stated in the complaint addressed to the Synod. The remaining four errors dealt with the following:
(1) Failure of the Synod to consider certain cases which were applicable to this situation.
(2) Failure of the Synod to recognize that this is “an extraordinary case.”
(3) Erroneous interpretation of the significance of the Book of Confessions and the ordination vows.
(4) Acceptance of a statement that expounds positions which have not been established as doctrine by the General Assembly.
The Decision Of The Permanent Judicial Commission Of The General Assembly
On January 26, 1981 the Permanent Judicial Commission announced its decision. The pertinent parts of that decision are quoted below:
“Authority within the church, ‘derives from Christ through the membership, and then moves upward, according to the constitutional provisions until it reaches the highest tribunal. ..’ ”
It is the “continued commitment of the church to jealously guard the original inherent powers of the Presbytery.”
“The United Presbyterian Church is a Confessional Church that takes its doctrines seriously.”
“Formerly the candidate’s examination sought to determine if the candidate could subscribe to the system of doctrine and the propositional statements that were a part of the Westminster Confession and catechisms, now the focus of the examination is on the candidate’s ability to use a number of confessional formulations to learn from, be guided by, and to lead the People of God.” “The Presbytery is ‘the only body whose members see the candidate and hear him officially. It is the body qualified and constitutionally appointed to judge at first hand concern¬ing his spirit and bearing, and his general attitude toward the service of Christ.’ ”
“It is not the case which must be extraordinary, but rather the concept of ‘extraordinary reasons’ must be viewed in the context of the historical development of the Presbytery’s constitutional power and responsibility to examine candidates . . . the higher judicatories (which derive their specific powers from the Presbyteries) ought not to interfere with Presbytery’s exercise of its discretion unless the most extraordinary circumstances compelling such a review exist.”
“The doctrines of . . . the Trinity, the Person of Jesus Christ as Son of God and second person of the Trinity, the Atonement and Saving Death of Jesus Christ as Son of God and the Bible as the Word of God are not at issue here so far as the church and its confessional stance are concerned. These doctrines are clearly set forth in the Book of Confessions. The Church has included then in its faith and continues to affirm then including the full deity and full humanity of Jesus Christ in a full confessional context.”
“The Presbytery determined that Mr. Kaseman affirms the doctrines about which questions are raised in this case and that differences apparent in his personal wording of his answer were not denials of the doctrines. This is a judgment the Presbytery was best qualified to make. While answers to some questions may appear to be weak or less than wholly adequate, we reaffirm the principle that we are not to substitute our own judgment for that of the lower judicatory which is best able to judge.”
“The Appellants’ ten specifications of error are not sustained. The appeal is denied and the decision of the Synod is affirmed.”