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.

Leaving Room For Reformation

Presbyterians have been debating whether its ordained officers should be required to adhere, or subscribe, to a certain set of tenets or beliefs since its earliest days in America.  Initially it was the Westminster Standards in the 18th and 19th centuries and later the famous “five points” in the early 20th century.

  1. The inerrancy of the Bible
  2. The virgin birth of Christ
  3. His substitutionary atonement
  4. Christ’s bodily resurrection
  5. The authenticity of miracles

Today, once again, there is great concern by those advocating a split from the PC(USA) that the denomination does not specifically name its essential tenets.  David S Kennedy, editor of The Presbyterian published an editorial titled “The Present Conflict”, in which he wrote the battle shaping up between conservatives and liberals is “the renewal of the old primitive conflict between cultured heathenism and historic Christianity.”  He wrote this in 1911.  It’s like deja vu all over again, and again.  And again.

In the PC(USA) service for ordination we ask those to be ordained, “Do you sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the confessions of our church as authentic and reliable expositions of what Scripture leads us to believe and do, and will you be instructed and led by those confessions as you lead the people of God?”

ECO’s service for ordination asks those to be ordained, “Will you receive, adopt, and be bound by the Essential Tenets of ECO as a reliable exposition of what Scripture teaches us to do and to believe, and will you be guided by them in your life and ministry?

Clearly there is a difference between receiving and adopting the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the Book of Confessions and receiving, adopting and being bound by the Essential Tenets of ECO.

Of course the concern is that without the moorings of specifically defined essential tenets the denomination will drift theologically.  But we’ve drifted before, to better places (we’ve drifted past restricting women from leadership and slavery as two examples).  What certainly looked like drift to some at the time, we now see as a push by the Holy Spirit.

Once we bind ourselves we are no longer free to be reformed.  

Let’s #StayPCUSA together.