X% Of PC(USA) Clergy Don’t Believe…

The Presbyterian Church (USA) conducted a survey of currently serving elders, other members, and clergy between 2009-2011.  Survey participants were asked to agree or disagree to the following statement, “Only followers of Jesus Christ can be saved.”

The results showing 45% of pastors and 56% of specialized clergy in the PC(USA) do not believe that “only followers of Jesus Christ can be saved” have been shared as evidence of how far the denomination has drifted from orthodoxy.

The implication, if not outright claim, is PC(USA) pastors and specialized clergy, in large measure, believe Jesus Christ is just one way of salvation among many.  But that is not what the survey asked.

Both the survey and its results are misleading.  To offer them as justification for dismissal from the PC(USA) is reckless.  

This specific survey was addressed in a panel discussion held in early 2013 for members of Los Ranchos Presbytery.  The three panelist were Laird Stuart, retired PC(USA) pastor and interim president of San Francisco Theological Seminary, Jack Haberer, then editor of The Presbyterian Outlook, and Dana Allin, ECO Presbyterian synod executive.  

You can see how they each responded to the survey here

Jack was the first to point out the survey did not ask is “Jesus only one way of salvation,” the survey asked “can people be saved who are not committed believers in Christ.”

Referencing 2 Samuel 12:23 (infants who die) and Hebrews 11:39-40 (speaks of those in the Old Testament who are now credited with their faith) Jack said,

“So I’m one of those who votes that other people can be saved, other than those who believe in Jesus.  I think the bible tells us so.  And so to say we have this broad number of ministers who think Jesus is just one way among others, that’s not what the survey asked them.  That’s what some publications have interpreted that survey to say.  It’s not true.  Many of us believe that some will be saved that do not believe in Jesus because the salvation accomplished by Jesus, God has the right to spread to others.”

Dana Allin, ECO Presbyterian synod executive agreed that the survey could have led to results that were skewed.  Dana said,

I do agree that I think the survey was not maybe not articulated in the way that it should have been and led to results that could be skewed.  For example as Jack said about children dying in infancy.”  

I am deeply concerned misrepresentations like this are leading to dismissals from the PC(USA).

Let’s #StayPCUSA together.


Misused Words and Misleading Thoughts

“How often misused words generate misleading thoughts”
― Herbert Spencer, 19th century British philosopher

One of the justifications being shared by those seeking dismissal from the PC(USA) is a General Assembly action in 2001 when a motion was defeated that would have declared Jesus Christ as the “singular, saving Lord.”

I remember hearing that and thinking to myself, for the first time, maybe the PC(USA) had lost its mooring.

But then in the spring of 2013 Steve Yamaguchi, then the Presbytery Pastor of Los Ranchos Presbytery explained not only what happened at that General Assembly in 2001 when they refused to declare Jesus Christ as the “singular, saving Lord,” but why it happened.  I felt much better about the denomination again after listening to Steve.

So why did it happen?

Below is a 6 minute audio recording of Steve explaining why it happened at a presentation made at Christ Presbyterian Church in Huntington Beach, CA on September 26, 2013.

I encourage you to listen to Steve’s brief, but full, explanation of why it happened, but here is a summary of what he said.

In July 2000 The Reverend Dirk Ficca, a PC(USA) pastor and Executive Director of the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions, made a speech at a Peacemaking conference held at Chapman University where he asked the rhetorical question, “what’s the big deal about Jesus?”  That question was then lifted out of context by publications and became an inflammatory headline causing an outcry in the denomination.

The General Assembly (GA) in 2001 wrestled with this outcry.  Commissioners attending that GA were really upset and wanted to press the PC(USA) to make a declaration that Jesus is the only savior.  So a committee worked on this issue and they brought an action to the GA which the GA adopted.  This action affirmed Jesus Christ is the unique authority as Lord, also that he is uniquely Savior of the world.

In the process of doing this however, one commissioner who was on that committee, brought a statement and wanted to use language that said Jesus is “singular, saving Lord.”  The committee felt like that was not traditional language.  Historically the church has never used this phrase “singular, saving Lord,” so the committee, and then the General Assembly, rejected that language in order to affirm the unique authority of Jesus Christ as Lord and that Jesus Christ is also uniquely Savior of the world.  The headlines read, the PC(USA) refuses to affirm that Jesus Christ is “singular, saving Lord,” which is true, however, we did affirm he is the only Lord and the only Savior.

Advocates for leaving the denomination are still using this very misleading headline to point to the denomination’s theological drift.

Furthermore, in 2001 the GA directed the denomination’s Office of Theology and Worship to create a study for the whole church, so as a whole denomination we have a resource to study what the scriptures say about Jesus as Savior and Lord.  In 2002 this study process brought back a report to the GA titled “Hope in the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Statements in the document “Hope in the Lord Jesus Christ” include this, and others like it,

“Jesus Christ is the only Savior and Lord, and all people everywhere are called to place their faith, hope, and love in him. No one is saved by virtue of inherent goodness or admirable living, for ‘by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” [Ephesians 2.8].  No one is saved apart from God’s gracious redemption in Jesus Christ.'”

The GA overwhelmingly approved “Hope in the Lord Jesus Christ” by a vote of 497 yes, 11 no, 5 abstentions.

In addition to what Steve has said, Los Ranchos Presbytery hosted a panel discussion this spring and addressed the same misleading statement.

If you are interested you can watch the panel discussion regarding the misleading statement below

I am deeply concerned misrepresentations like this are leading congregations to seek dismissal from the PC(USA).

The PC(USA), by an overwhelming majority, affirms the Lordship of Jesus Christ and recognizes him as the only Lord and Savior.

Let’s #StayPCUSA together.

The Way, The Truth, and the Life ~ In the PCUSA

Way Truth Life Image III

Many things are being said about the PC(USA) that are simply not true.

Jack Haberer, past editor of The Presbyterian Outlook, has said, “If the kinds of things that are said about us, with not having the authority of scripture, and said about Jesus Christ not being unique, if those were the case I’d be gone already.”

I would be gone too.

But these things that are being said are not true for me, and they are not true for the PC(USA).  Even those in the denomination who are being pointed to as having “drifted” hold firm to the authority of scripture and Lordship of Jesus Christ.

The Reverend Amy Loving is a PC(USA) pastor in New York who has responded to such accusations made by The Layman and The Presbyterian Lay Committee in a blog post titled, “A Response To Those Who Think They Know Me.”  Contrary to the caricature described in The Layman, Amy writes,

“This is not the first time that lines have been drawn or judgments made about the suspected non-Christianity of those Presbyterians who disagree with the Presbyterian Lay Committee, and I’m sadly convinced that it will not be the last.  But I do not appreciate people accusing me and others of not being faithful Christians simply because we do not talk about God in the same way or take stands on the same theological issues in the same ways.”

Amy then goes on to clearly articulate her firm commitment to the authority of scripture and Lordship of Jesus Christ.

Still, the misunderstanding persists that there are large ranks in the denomination denying the Lordship of Christ, a misunderstanding that is perpetuated by careless and misleading statements.  The fallacy of two such statements is demonstrated below.

Misleading Statement –  The call for the Church to “present the claims of Jesus Christ, leading persons to repentance and acceptance of him as Lord and Savior” was removed from the PC(USA) Book of Order

In a panel discussion held in 2013 for members of Los Ranchos Presbytery, Dana Allin, ECO Presbyterian synod executive, made a comment that two years ago the PC(USA) General Assembly removed the call from the Book of Order for the Church to “present the claims of Jesus Christ, leading persons to repentance and acceptance of him as Lord and Savior.”

Jack Haberer, editor of The Presbyterian Outlook, responded to Dana’s comment saying he could not speak to that specific reference but lots of things were removed when we went to the shorter form of the the Book of Order simply because they are redundancies.

And then Laird Stuart, retired PC(USA) pastor and interim president at San Francisco Theological Seminary, made a very helpful comment saying, “it is so helpful, instead of simply sighting what happened, to be willing to ask, why did it happen?

You can watch this dialogue below

It could be that redundancies were removed from the previous Book of Order as Jack suggests, but our current Book of Order 2013-2015 still clearly states in F-1.0302d,

“The Church seeks to present the claims of Jesus Christ, leading persons to repentance, acceptance of Christ alone as Savior and Lord, and new life as his disciples.”

The exact call to the Church Dana said was removed from the Book of Order a couple of years ago is actually still there.

Misleading Statement –  The PC(USA) Book of Order no longer states Jesus is the only Lord and Savior

Comments have also been made that the PC(USA) Book of Order no longer claims Jesus Christ is the only Savior.  My own quick check of the Book of Order suggests this may be true, but, in the very same reference cited above, the Book of Order does say the Church is called to lead persons to the acceptance of Christ alone as Savior and Lord.

Clearly our Book of Order still affirms Jesus Christ alone (only) as Savior and Lord.

I am deeply concerned misleading statements like these leading congregations to seek dismissal from the PC(USA).  

Let’s #StayPCUSA together.

Upholding the Authority of Scripture


Claims are being made that the PC(USA) does not unequivocally uphold the authority of scripture.  But is this really true?  No.  So before we let this concerning accusation take us to the point of division we should attempt to understand what is actually going on with the PC(USA) related to authority of scripture.

Los Ranchos Presbytery hosted a discernment event in 2013 and invited three panelists, representing progressive, moderate and conservative views, to address concerns being raised in the PC(USA), including the authority and interpretation of scripture.  The panelist were Laird Stuart, retired PC(USA) pastor and interim president of San Francisco Theological Seminary, Jack Haberer, then editor of The Presbyterian Outlook, and Dana Allin, ECO Presbyterian synod executive.  In the video below each panelist unequivocally upholds the authority of scripture.

The entire video is only 18 minutes long.  It is thoughtful, enlightening and well worth watching in its entirety.

One of the statements made by Laird Stuart starts to bring the real issue into focus.  Laird said,

“We have, as Presbyterians, decided, often through long periods of struggle like what we’re going through now, that certain passages are no longer binding and authoritative, but that has never meant that scripture as a whole loses its authority or is cast out.”

We read the scriptures according to faith and grace in Christ.  We read them Christologically, realizing that often passages are historically and culturally conditioned, and cannot so easily apply as law to us.  We read the scripture as instructing us in faith in Christ, and a life of faith, faithfulness, which does not mean legal obedience to all that might have been taken as law.

Paul Rack, Stated Clerk of the Presbytery of Elizabeth, has published a response to the claim being made about the denomination rejecting the authority of scripture,

“. . . everything they complain is a ‘rejection of Biblical authority’ has actually been the church responding self-critically to the broader witness of Scripture.  We feel this holds the Bible in higher regard than to force it into a doctrinal straitjacket based on a few verses, arbitrarily chosen to prop up the values, doctrines, principalities, and powers of another age.”

There are concerns that the denomination allows different interpretations of scripture but the PC(USA) is not dismissing the authority of scripture when it refuses to allow a particular interpretation to be authoritative.  The difference is subtle but significant.

There are also concerns about a perceived tendency in the PC(USA) “to replace the phrase ‘in obedience to’ Scripture with the phrase ‘guided by’ Scripture.”  This is also misleading.

Jack Haberer addresses “guidance” versus “obedience to” in the panel discussion video above.  Jack was working with The Presbyterian Coalition to bring fidelity and chastity language to the Church in 1996 when the “Fidelity and Chastity” amendment was approved by the General Assembly.  But he and others who had worked to bring this language to the Church were surprised that “obedience to” scripture had been included with the amendment when it came out of the subcommittee of the committee at General Assembly who was working on it.

Jack and others knew that language of “obedience to” scripture was going to be a problem because it was not in the Book of Order at the time, or at any other time that he knew of.  Previously the Book of Order had said we were to be “guided” by scripture.  “Obedience to” scripture has also not been our confessional language, either.

One of the reasons Jack believes we have traditionally used language of being “guided” by scripture is because,

“the Bible has too often been used as a hammer, taking one text out of context, to say you have to obey that, and you have to obey that, and most especially by men toward women.”

He goes on to say we have a long history of being a little bit more cautious than this when speaking about the role of scripture. Our obedience is to God, who has inspired the scriptures, and we are to totally obey God, understanding God’s will as the scriptures guide.

Let’s #StayPCUSA together.

Building Walls

Some PC(USA) congregations are rushing to build a moat and walls around their theological belief system as fast as possible.  To hear them talk there is a fast approaching attack from within the denomination, reasons to be afraid, and they must protect themselves, their faith, and the Church.  Dismissal from the PC(USA) will dig the moat and a defined list of Essential Tenets will build the wall.  

Walls are a natural response to fear but what if we don’t really need to be afraid and the walls we build only serve to close us in?

Peter Enns, a faculty member in the Christian Studies department at Eastern University, has written a column titled, “The Bible is the center of the Christian faith (and don’t assume you know what I mean by that)“.  In this column he writes about a lecture given recently at Eastern University by John Franke of Yellowstone Theological Institute.  John summed up his vision for a theological movement that is both evangelical and progressive by voicing a distinction between progressive (think center) and traditionalist evangelicalism (think walls).

Progressive evangelical theology is…

1)  marked by holding to a “center” of theology rather than maintaining firm “boundaries”

2) views the theological task as more of a “dialogue” than arriving at firm conclusions defended at all costs

3) and encourages a deliberate engagement of voices outside of evangelicalism in order to learn from them, not simply to correct them

Peter writes, “Firm boundary marking, once and for all time, in our theological quest tends toward insulation and then isolation from any sort of criticism – which I think is not only self-defeating and intellectually hypocritical, but makes baby Jesus cry.”

Peter continues, “A theology that thinks in terms of holding to a center encourages theological exploration, with regular returns to the center for a gut check…It seems to me that one way (not the only way) of thinking about the Bible is as a ‘center’ of the Christian faith rather than a boundary.  It is that to which followers of Jesus return – sort of like a tether – not the thick and high boarders through which we may not blast, under which we may not tunnel, or over which we may not climb.”

Essential tenets build walls outside of which illumination is never allowed.  Building walls around our theological beliefs should be what scares us.

With whatever problems may exist in the PC(USA) I find it even more unconscionable to move to a denomination where the elders (ruling and teaching) cannot ever honestly pray a prayer for illumination without a wink and nod.  See my blog entry “Essentially an Idol.”

It is up to your own conscience if you can.

Peter is not saying, and neither am I, that the Bible is “THE center” of the Christian faith but, he writes, “it helps provide a spacial metaphor for understanding how the Bible can and should function in the Christian life.  The center of the Christian faith has been and always will be – wait for it – Jesus, not the Bible.”

Let’s #StayPCUSA together.

An Authority of Scripture Higher Than Our Walls

The PC(USA)’s view of the authority of scripture is being called into question by some in our denomination.  Their accusation is the PC(USA) gives higher authority to culture than to the written word of God, and as a result the denomination is moving in a direction against God’s will.  

I understand how it can look like this but it’s not true.  One of the hallmarks of Reformed Theology which is being overlooked is theology as wisdom.  Word and Spirit were the basic and essential factors in John Calvin’s interpretation of Scripture and in his theology.  Today the PC(USA) and Reformed Christians still submit to the authority of the written word of God as illumined by the Holy Spirit of God.  We don’t submit to the written word of God as defined by a set of clearly defined essential tenets. 

The Confession of 1967, in the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s Book of Confessions states,

“The one sufficient revelation of God is Jesus Christ, the Word of God incarnate, to whom the Holy Spirit bears unique and authoritative witness through the Holy Scriptures, which are received and obeyed as the word of God written. The Scriptures are not a witness among others, but the witness without parallel…The Bible is to be interpreted in the light of its witness to God’s work of reconciliation in Christ. The Scriptures, given under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, are nevertheless the words of men, conditioned by the language, thought forms, and literary fashions of the places and times at which they were written. They reflect views of life, history, and the cosmos which were then current. The church, therefore, has an obligation to approach the Scriptures with literary and historical understanding. As God has spoken his word in diverse cultural situations, the church is confident that he will continue to speak through the Scriptures in a changing world and in every form of human culture.  God’s word is spoken to his church today where the Scriptures are faithfully preached and attentively read in dependence on the illumination of the Holy Spirit and with readiness to receive their truth and direction.”

Paul Rack, Stated Clerk of Elizabeth Presbytery, writes a very thoughtful defense of the PC(USA) in a document he wrote titled, “Apologia Progessiva.”  Regarding biblical authority and interpretation he writes, “The case may be made that the PC(USA) is being far more responsive to the movement of the Holy Spirit than churches retreating into doctrinal shelters hermetically sealing them away from the present world.”  I agree.

So why are some members of our denomination working to protect their understanding of biblical authority with a set of defined essential tenets?

Peter Enns has written an article titled, “Tim Keller on Homosexuality and Biblical Authority: Different Crisis, Same Problem.”  It helped me see the road block these members face in a clear light.  I recommend the entire article to you but want to quote one section in particular.

“Keller is right. To change their views on homosexuality will require evangelicals to ‘disassemble the way in which they read the Bible, completely disassemble their whole approach to authority’…Leaving aside the specific issue of homosexuality, Keller’s observation about evangelical notions of biblical authority is correct but also concerning. In my opinion, Keller has, perhaps unwittingly, put his finger on the entire problem evangelicals face when confronted with any issue that runs counter to evangelical theology: ‘You’re asking me to read my Bible differently than my tradition has prescribed, and so I can’t go there. If I do, my faith is kicked out the door.'”  

Walls are essential when your authority of scripture is based on the written word of God as prescribed by your tradition, but not when it is based on the written word of God illumined by the Holy Spirit.

The promise of our baptism is we have been grafted to the body of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit has been poured out on us, that we might have the power to do God’s will, and continue forever in the risen life of Christ.

Let’s #StayPCUSA together.

We’re Free To Dismantle The Walls Anytime We Want

I discovered this sermon by The Reverend Dr. Craig Barnes, President of Princeton Theological Seminary.  Give yourself 17 1/2 minutes to watch the entire sermon.  It’s beautiful, it’s winsome and it will draw you closer to Christ Jesus.

The sermon is most powerful in its whole but here are the closing words…

“All things hold together in the center that is Christ Jesus.  All of it, it all holds.  Our lives hold not by building walls around them that will protect us from evil.  The Church holds not by its exterior walls, because as he (Paul) says in verse 14 (Ephesians, chapter 2) these walls only divide us.  They only create hostility…These walls only divide and they are completely unnecessary to the Church because the Church holds by its center.  If you define the Church at the center you don’t have to worry about the walls any more.  You can give up worrying about who’s in and who’s out of the Church.  We have no business talking about these boundary issues any more of who’s in or who’s out.  Your life will hold together by the center, the God who dwells with us, Jesus Christ.  The Church will hold by its one center, Jesus Christ.  We’re free to dismantle the walls anytime we want.”

Being dismissed from the PC(USA) will not change or narrow the theological positions of most congregations but in all likelihood it will build walls around them.

If we define the Church by the center we don’t have to worry about the walls anymore.  

Let’s #StayPCUSA together.

Essential Tenets: Believing Without Needing To Be-Leaving

People question the PC(USA) for refusing to specifically define its essential tenets beyond their broad expression in our Book of Confessions.  The suspicion, implication and charge is that, without specifically naming our essential tenets, the denomination has lost its ability to unite us in common ministry and mission, and opened the door to heresy.

Some see this as a reason to request dismissal from the PC(USA) and join ECO who has a defined set of essential tenets, many of which are already believed and accepted by a large number in their congregations.  

Given these circumstances it seems logical to split and realign.  But our ways are not God’s ways, and sometimes God’s ways defy our logic.  For example, Jesus told his disciples “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25).  I believe this is one of those times.

It is clear the people who want to leave the denomination believe their congregation would be better off with a defined set of essential tenets.  But it’s not clear is how much consideration these same people ever gave during their discernment process as to why their congregation would actually be better off without a defined set of essential tenets.

There are good reasons for not having a set of defined essential tenets.  I’ve found Jack Haberer’s column, “Essential Tenets and Sweaty Palms”, published in The Presbyterian Outlook to be a very helpful voice for not specifically defining them.

In Jack’s column he writes, “Given our ordinands’ declaration of allegiance to Jesus Christ, to the triune God, and to the Scriptures, what more do we need?…We could have listed a simple set of propositions that would tell people what they need to believe and do. And we could have kept those propositions brief and simple….Why shouldn’t we give in to that desire? Why not publish a clear, authoritative synopsis of what we believe?”

Jack gives us two good reasons to avoid reducing our faith to a concise set of essential tenets.

1. Any condensation of the faith does just that: it condenses the faith

Jack writes, “If our faith were that simple, don’t you think God would have provided us a pocket-sized summary of it? The eternal Word knows a thing or two about communications. The eternal Word chose to provide us not a pamphlet but a person, the living Word. God also chose to inspire dozens of writers to produce scores of manuscripts in order to convey a nuanced, deep faith to the very complicated, diverse peoples of the world. To turn that into a checklist or a collection of propositions siphons off its depth and shortchanges its breadth.”

Joe Small, former Director of the Office of Theology, Worship and Education for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), was one of the three primary writers of The Essential Tenets (ironically Joe has written a book on why we should not define our essential tenets).  Joe shares a similar concern for reducing the faith to a list of essential tenets in this short 2 minute video

2. The other problem with faith summaries is the inevitability of errors

Jack writes, “Councils of the church are inclined to err. But that’s the point. No statement developed by any body of believers can ever quite do justice to the faith revealed in God’s Word.  In fact, most churches of the Reformed Tradition have recognized that the biblical Word is fundamentally different from all of our human words, however godly and well intentioned and useful for instruction they might be. The refusal of our Presbyterian ancestors to compel across-the-board subscription to a single confession or pre-defined list of essential tenets of the faith results from their desire not to place any humanly-contrived words between the church’s members and the living Word of the Bible. That biblical Word is the only sovereign and authoritative foundation of the church’s life and ministry.”

Jerry Andrews, the second of the three primary writers of The Essential Tenets, shared a similar sentiment at a Presbytery of Los Ranchos discernement event when he said the essential tenets are not to be taken as a final word, but as a first word.  They, as all documents we write, are prone to error.  None are the final word of God.  All subordinate to scripture.

Staying in the PC(USA) provides the assurance of knowing we have not reduced the faith or introduced errors that will compromise ministry and mission as we seek to be faithful to where God is leading us.

It is possible to stand firmly with The Essential Tenets and the sympathies of evangelical Presbyterians who want to split from the denomination, without actually splitting.   In fact, only one of the three primary writers of The Essential Tenets, Laura Smit, is joining ECO.  Both Jerry Andrews and Joe Small understand those who choose to leave, but Jerry says he has never given more than 5 seconds consideration to leaving, and Joe Small published “An Open Letter” in The Presbyterian Outlook where he wrote,

“For my part, I will surely remain a part of the church that brought me to faith. Long ago I learned from John Calvin that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is my mother in the Faith, and that I must remain under her care and guidance. As a child of the church I do not always agree with my parent; I am embarrassed from time to time, and occasionally angry. But the church remains my nurturing parent and I remain its thankful child. I grieve estrangement from any of my sisters and brothers. I will try to remain as close to all of them as possible, and I will hope for the day of family reunion.”

Let’s #StayPCUSA together.

Essentially an Idol

There are many more similarities between the PC(USA) and ECO than there are differences, so it is easy to believe we are all Presbyterian.

@frozchos once tweeted, “‘Oh, you’re Presbyterian! Me too!’ (then there’s that moment of truth) ‘PCUSA?'”

The truth is, while both are Presbyterian, the PC(USA) and ECO are not the same.  And although there are many similarities, where we differ is significant.

One of the differences I find most significant is revealed in the ordination vows of each denominiation.

When the PC(USA) ordains someone they vow to “sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the confessions of our church…”

When ECO ordains someone they vow to, “receiveadopt, and be bound by the Essential Tenets of ECO…”

The Essential Tenets are a third order document (scriptures, confessions, then essential tenets), prone to human error.  It is far beyond me why a congregation would want its ordained leaders to take an ordination vow to receive, adopt and be bound by these same tenets.

In an ECO event hosted by Trinity United Presbyterian Church, Santa Ana, CA in October 2013 two local ECO pastors spoke about the new denomination.  Following the presentation one of these pastors was asked how ECO will handle a pastor whose faith or understanding of the word of God begins to change in ways contrary to The Essential Tenets.  The answer was ECO pastors will be in small groups of accountability partners and it will be the job of the partners to hold each pastor accountable to The Essential Tenets.

There is no room outside the boundary of The Essential Tenets in ECO.  Perhaps this is because those who formed, and are joining ECO, can’t foresee any faithful interpretation of scripture contrary to this boundary.   To get outside the boundary would require having to set the scriptures aside.

ECO’s Essential Tenets state, “The Spirit will never prompt our conscience to conclusions that are at odds with the Scriptures that (God) has inspired.”  I agree, however people’s lives change, we mature in our faith, different circumstances and experiences cause us to read and understand scripture differently.  I believe these new understandings can be formed by the prompting of the Spirit and reveal that it was actually our previous conclusions, not our new conclusions, that are at odds with the Scriptures.

Daniel Migliore, Princeton Seminary Professor Emeritus of Theology described the work of theology in Faith Seeking Understanding, “as a continuing search for the fullness of the truth of God made known in Jesus Christ.”  If the boundary has been set, and accountability groups are there to protect it,  how can the work of theology, the work we expect from our ordained leaders, really happen?

Approaching the scriptures with such fixed expectations can be dangerous, really dangerous.

Angela Dienhart Hancock is an assistant professor of homiletics and worship at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and author of the new book Karl Barth’s Emergency Homiletic, 1932–1933: A Summons to Prophetic Witness at the Dawn of the Third Reich.  In a blog post titled “Is Anybody Listening” Angela writes,

“One of the questions I always ask students when they read a passage from the Bible is this: ‘What do you hope this text will say?’  It’s a good question for interpreters to ask themselves, because answering it reminds us of the sometimes uncomfortable truth that we always read with expectations. We come to texts, to people, to situations, to the world, looking for something. The question we must ask ourselves is this: are we genuinely open to finding something else? Something we did not expect? Something, perhaps, that we had secretly hoped not to find?”

She continues saying,

“In Germany in the early 1930s, most preachers knew what they needed to say before they even opened the Bible. They felt sure that God was at work in their time. They could see it in the National Socialist youth so full of zeal, the overflowing pews, all of the positive attention the church received from the Nazi leadership. These preachers wrote their sermons without calling any of that into question. They read the Bible, yes, but they did so in the sure confidence that it fully supported their vision of the future. They were certain they had all the answers.  Karl Barth spent his time in the classroom in the early 1930s trying to get young Protestants to lay down their social and political agendas and listen deeply to a Word beyond the fever of those revolutionary days.”

Angela concludes by saying,

“It is easy to look back on what happened in Germany and think we would have done better than the many pastors who supported Hitler’s rise to power. But have we really learned to listen well?…Those of us who believe in a God of surprising grace cannot open the Bible confident that we already know what we will find there — confident that we already have the answers. Maybe the deepest listening is not about answers anyway.”

ECO runs dangerously close to making an idol out of its essential tenets by requiring its ordained leaders to be bound by them in a way that precludes any room for the Spirit to prompt a new understanding.

In October 2013 Highland Park Presbyterian Church, Texas’ largest PC(USA) congregation, voted to be dismissed to ECO.  Shortly there after The Reverend Joseph Clifford of First Presbyterian Church PC(USA), whose own congregation had helped plant Highland Park Presbyterian in the 1920s, wrote “A Response to HPPC’s Decision” for dismissal.  He concluded his letter by saying,

“Some see our lack of defined “essential tenets” as a lack of core theological beliefs.  I do not.  It  keeps our theology in proper perspective to the sovereignty of God and the Lordship of Jesus Christ.  So we debate essential tenets of the faith.  We hold to the sovereignty of God in all things, and we debate what that means.  We point to the total depravity of humanity, and we debate what that means.  We debate predestination and its impact on the important decisions of discipleship.  This does not mean we lack core theological beliefs, rather we refuse to make an idol out of our theology.”

Let’s #StayPCUSA together.

A New Thing

One of the defining characteristics of the Reformed tradition is maintaining a posture of openness to hearing a new and fresh word from the Lord.

There are a couple of reasons why this is important to us in the Reformed tradition.

1.  We need to remain open to know what to say and do to be faithful and obedient in our time.

Our Book of Confessions tells us in “The Confessional Nature of the Church Report”, “Faith in the living God present and at work in the risen Christ through the Holy Spirit means always to be open to hear a new and fresh word from the Lord. As the multiplicity of Reformed confessions indicates, Reformed Christians have never been content to learn only how Christians before them discerned and responded to the word and work of God; they have continually asked in every new time, place, and situation, “What is the living Lord of Scripture saying and doing here and now, and what do we have to say and do to be faithful and obedient in our time?” The Barmen Declaration speaks for the best intentions of the whole Reformed tradition when it says, “Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death.”

2. We need to remain open because all theology is at best an inadequate, fallible, human attempt to understand the truth.

Shirley Guthrie wrote in his classic Christian Doctrine, our task is not to try “to master an already fixed system of theology that Reformed Christians believe has once and for all captured the truth about God, human beings, and the world.  According to the Reformed faith, no system of theology can ever do that…All theology, whether that of an individual or of the whole church, is at best inadequate, fallible, human attempt to understand that truth.  According to the Reformed churches, therefore, there has always been and always will be the right and responsibility to question any individual’s, any denomination’s, any creedal document’s grasp of the truth – not for the sake of our freedom to think anything we please, but for the sake of the freedom of biblical truth from every human attempt to capture and tame it.”  

Wallace Alston, Jr., former General Assembly Moderator, was the pastor at Nassau Presbyterian Church in Princeton, NJ when I was a student at Princeton Seminary.  I remember him well, so a story in The Presbyterian Outlook about his son, Macky Alston, coming out to him caught my attention.  

“My father embraced me and told me that nothing could separate our love,” Alston recalled, “but he warned that I would probably meet an unhappy fate.”

Decades later, the elder Alston performed his son’s wedding to his now-husband, Nick. “Decades of rotten church teaching washed away,” he said. “My father’s heart changed when he saw the value of my marriage. He had to do the religious math, Alston said, “and found the way to understand by Stacy Johnson’s book.”

Wallace Alston, Jr. read, understood, taught, and preached the scriptures for many years but came to understand these same scripture differently later in life.  We do not fear this possibility in the Reformed tradition, we recognize and welcome it.

I have not read Stacy Johnson’s book, A Time to Embrace: Same-Sex Relationships in Religion, Law, and Politics, which Macky said his dad read but I have read Homosexuality and Christian Community, edited by Choon-Leong Seow.  The book is a collection of essays written by Princeton Seminary professors, published during my senior year.  What struck me most about the book was that these were my professors who I knew to have a strong Christian faith, as well as a deep love and understanding of scripture, and yet they held different understandings from one another on the biblical issue of homosexuality.  

I am grateful for all of my experiences in the PC(USA).  I have been in ecumenical and interfaith relationships and settings but my entire ecclesiastical life has been spent in our denomination.  From being baptized and growing up at First and Calvary Presbyterian Church in Springfield, Missouri, to high school and college summer mission experiences, to formative camps and retreats at places like Montreat, to pastoral internships at churches in New Jersey and California, to ordination and serving as the associate pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Napa, CA, to my relationships with colleagues in Redwoods Presbytery, and now to my membership at St. Mark Presbyterian in Newport Beach, CA.  The PC(USA) is my church home and it breaks my heart to see it being kicked and disparaged by those who at the same time are requesting a gracious dismissal.  

The Presbyterians I know who find support for homosexual relationships in the bible believe Jesus Christ is the only Lord and Savior and they uphold the authority of scripture.

I’m confident it is people just like these who are discerning God’s will through the actions taken in sessions, presbyteries and general assembly.  I’m also confident that, as Jack Rogers writes in How do Presbyterians make decisions?

“Making decisions as Presbyterians is often a slow process that takes a great deal of work. Making decisions this way, however, usually yields wise judgments rooted in God’s revelation and our best human reflection. If we listen attentively to the Spirit of God, as we hear the greatest diversity of voices and earnestly seek to be faithful to the Bible and our constitution, we are as likely as humans can be to make good decisions.”  

Jack, by the way, is an evangelical Christian and another ordained leader in the PC(USA) who, like Wallace Alston, Jr., came to a different understanding of homosexuality in scripture later in life.

Jack’s writing also reminds us that the doors of the church were opened to you and me when the apostles and elders recognized a new thing was happening,

The Presbyterian way of making decisions looks a lot like the way the New Testament church made decisions as recorded in Acts 15:1-21. When there is a disagreement, we turn it over to a chosen group of representatives. In Acts those representatives were the apostles and the elders. They listened to expert testimony from those who knew the issue best—Peter and Paul and Barnabas. There was a lot of dissension and debate. People understood the Old Testament Scriptures differently.

In the end the apostles and elders discerned that a new thing was happening, the conversion of the Gentiles. They discovered that it was in accord with God’s plan as revealed in Scripture. Then they made some practical compromises so that the values of differing groups were honored. Their decision opened the door of the church to us.

I am choosing to stay in the PC(USA) where our ordained leaders enjoy freedom of conscience, not for the sake of their freedom to think anything they please, but for the sake of the freedom of biblical truth from every human attempt to capture and tame it.

 Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda,” that is, “the church reformed, always reforming,” according to the Word of God and the call of the Spirit.

Let’s #StayPCUSA together.