New Form of Government ~ Part II, Mission

Part II – The Mission of the Church
The Foundations of Presbyterian Polity, The Mission of the Church


If there is any change regarding the mission of the church in the new Form of Government (nFOG) it’s that the locus of that mission is now firmly rooted in God’s action rather than our own.  Language has been changed in the nFOG to reflects a reality we have always believed and has always been true, that it is God’s mission, and our responsibility as the church is to be a witness to that mission.

We believe…

The mission of God in Christ gives shape and substance to the life and work of the Church. In Christ, the Church participates in God’s mission for the transformation of creation and humanity by proclaiming to all people the good news of God’s love, offering to all people the grace of God at font and table, and calling all people to discipleship in Christ. Human beings have no higher goal in life than to glorify and enjoy God now and forever, living in covenant fellowship with God and participating in God’s mission.  (F-1.01)

We also believe…

God has put all things under the Lordship of Jesus Christ and has made Christ Head of the Church, which is his body. The Church’s life and mission are a joyful participation in Christ’s ongoing life and work (F-1.0201).

The Church is not a building or an institution but a community of witness, called into being and equipped by God, and sent into the world to testify and participate in Christ’s work.  The church does not have missions; instead, the mission of God creates the Church.  We call this missional ecclesiology and you can read more about it in this paper, “What is Missional Ecclesiology?” by The Rev. Dr. Paul Hooker.

One of the ways we made this understanding more clear in the nFOG is in our description of the session’s responsibility.  Previously our Book of Order stated “The session is responsible for the mission and government of the particular church” (G-10.0102).  The nFOG clarifies our understanding that it is God’s mission (not the mission of a particular congregation) by stating “The session shall have responsibility for governing the congregation and guiding its witness to the sovereign activity of God in the world, so that the congregation is and becomes a community of faith, hope, love and witness” (G-3.0201).

People concerned with this change point out that although both the old and the new Book of Order give authority over mission in their spheres to the General Assembly, synods and presbyteries, the old Book of Order also specifically assigned responsibility over a congregation’s mission to the session.

Our nFOG now clarifies mission strategy is established and designed by the higher councils of the church (councils comprised of elders elected and sent from our pews) and sessions lead their congregations in participating in the mission of the whole church.

The reason for this change has everything to do with our theological understanding of the unity of the church and that together, as one church, we serve God’s call to mission.  The change is not about preventing sessions from discerning how and where their congregations joyfully bear witness to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in the world.  We are simply recognizing and affirming our unity in Christ’s mission.

The mutual interconnection of the church through its councils is a sign of the unity of the church. Congregations of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), while possessing all the gifts necessary to be the church, are nonetheless not sufficient in themselves to be the church. Rather, they are called to share with others both within and beyond the congregation the task of bearing witness to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in the world (G-3.0101).

We witness together.  But that does not mean congregations will lose their autonomy to discern how they joyfully participate in Christ’s ongoing life and work.

In fact, when I look at the specific requirements of the session when it comes to leading and guiding the witness of the congregation in section G-3.0201 there are only three things they are required to keep in front of them.

The three things a session (and presbytery, synod, and General Assembly for that matter) is required to keep before them as they lead and guide the witness of the congregation are

The Marks of the Church (F-1.0302)
The Notes of the Reformed Church (F-1.0303)
The Great Ends of the Church (F-1.0304)

 A full text of all three are included in The Foundations of Presbyterian Polity link at the top of this page but in brief this is what each of includes.

 The Marks of the Church (F-1.0302)
The unity of the Church
The holiness of the Church
The catholicity of the Church
The apostolicity of the Church; 

The Church strives to be faithful to the good news it has received and accountable to the standards of the confessions. 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 Church is sent to be Christ’s faithful evangelist: making disciples of all nations in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; sharing with others a deep life of worship, prayer, fellowship, and service; and participating in God’s mission to care for the needs of the sick, poor, and lonely; to free people from sin, suffering, and oppression; and to establish Christ’s just, loving, and peaceable rule in the world. 

The Notes of the Reformed Church (F-1.0303)
Where Christ is, there is the true Church. Since the earliest days of the Reformation, Reformed Christians have marked the presence of the true Church wherever: the Word of God is truly preached and heard, the Sacraments are rightly administered, and ecclesiastical discipline is uprightly ministered. 

 The Great Ends of the Church (F-1.0304)
The great ends of the Church are:
the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind;
the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God; the maintenance of divine worship;
the preservation of the truth;
the promotion of social righteousness; and
the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world.

These are the mission priorities of the Presbyterian Church (USA) that we keep before us, at all levels in the denomination, as we joyfully participate as one church in Christ’s ongoing life and work.  Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Let’s #StayPCUSA together.

New Form of Government ~ Part III, Theology

Part III – The Theology of the Church
The Foundations of Presbyterian Polity, The Church and its Confessions


The Presbyterian Church (USA) states its faith and bears witness to God’s grace in Jesus Christ in the creeds and confessions in The Book of Confessions. In these statements the church declares to its members and to the world who and what it is, what it believes, and what it resolves to do.  
~ Presbyterian Church (USA) Book of Order (F-2.01)

Critics have charged the most significant theological difference in the new Form of Government (nFOG) is that the authority of scripture has been changed based on the removal of G-6.0106b which required ordained elders to “lead a life in obedience to Scripture.”

 This is a very misleading charge.

Jack Haberer addresses “guidance” versus “obedience to” in the panel discussion video below.  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.

Removing the requirement from the Book of Order for a candidate for ordination to lead a life in “obedience to scripture” does not mean we are a denomination where anything goes.  The PC(USA) has simply returned to the polity we had in place before G-6.0106b was included in 1996.

Just as it always has been, it is the the right and obligation of an ordaining, installing, and enrolling council to prayerfully and pastorally examine each candidate’s calling, gifts, preparation, and suitability for the responsibilities of office on a case by case basis.  Councils are required to be guided by scripture and the confessions in applying standards to individual candidates (G-2.0104b).

Some people claim there are no denomination wide standards in the PC(USA) but that’s not true.  We have standards in the constitutional questions for ordination and installation (W-4.4003).  Of course what people who say this really mean is we do not list behavioral standards, specifically sexual behavior standards such as fidelity or chastity like we did from 1996 to 2010.  There were, and still are, many other behavioral standards we could list such as idolatry, gluttony, greed, lust, pride, lying…The problem with naming behavioral standards is deciding where the list starts and where the list stops.  And how many pieces of pizza constitutes gluttony?  How much work constitutes breaking the sabbath?

What we chose to say instead is

Standards for ordained service reflect the church’s desire to submit joyfully to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all aspects of life (F-1.02). The council responsible for ordination and/or installation (G-2.0402; G-2.0607; G-3.0306) shall examine each candidate’s calling, gifts, preparation, and suitability for the responsibilities of ordered ministry. The examination shall include, but not be limited to, a determination of the candidate’s ability and commitment to fulfill all requirements as expressed in the constitutional questions for ordination and installation (W-4.4003). Councils shall be guided by Scripture and the confessions in applying standards to individual candidates” (G2-0104b).

Rather than a predefined list of standards we have long ago decided it is better to give individual commissioners the freedom to vote their conscience when assessing any candidate for ordination, installation, and admission on a case by case basis, after what should be a thorough and rigorous examination.

Permanent Judicial Committee cases like Larson and Parnell have upheld this decision.

One of the hallmarks of our Reformed tradition is the sovereignty of God.  In the end, when choosing between naming behavioral standards and leaving room for the sovereignty of God, the PC(USA) chooses to lean on our tradition and leave room for the sovereignty of God to work within each council and every candidate.

Just this week I was listening online to a sermon by a pastor in ECO who said he is continuing to learn from scripture even after being immersed in it for forty five years.  In his sermon he said he had always read a passage one way but this last week he totally changed his mind.  He saw the same scripture he had immersed himself in for forty five years differently.  That’s the danger of insisting on one interpretation, sometimes God shows us a new understanding.

Nevertheless, even today without a predefined list of standards or biblical interpretations, any commissioner whose conscience does not allow them to vote for a candidate following their examination, including for reasons related to fidelity and chastity, is under no obligation to vote for the candidate.

The notion that by removing the requirement to lead a life in “obedience to scripture” means anything is acceptable in the PC(USA) is simply not true and to suggest otherwise is at best uninformed.

Now then, one last thing to keep in mind about our confessions, they are subordinate standards.  The Foundations of Presbyterian Polity tell us,

These confessional statements are subordinate standards in the church, subject to the authority of Jesus Christ, the Word of God, as the Scriptures bear witness to him. While confessional standards are subordinate to the Scriptures, they are, nonetheless, standards. They are not lightly drawn up or subscribed to, nor may they be ignored or dismissed. The church is prepared to instruct, counsel with, or even to discipline one ordained who seriously rejects the faith expressed in the confessions. Moreover, the process for changing the confessions of the church is deliberately demanding, requiring a high degree of consensus across the church. Yet the church, in obedience to Jesus Christ, is open to the reform of its standards of doctrine as well as of governance. The church affirms Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda secundum verbum Dei, that is, “The church reformed, always to be reformed according to the Word of God” in the power of the Spirit.” (F-2.02)

Watch as The Rev. Dr. Jerry Andrews, pastor of First Presbyterian Church San Diego and one of the three primary writers of ECO’s Essential Tenets, describes our confessions as being prone to error at a presentation to Los Ranchos Presbytery in the spring of 2013.

Contrary to what you may have read or heard the nFOG doesn’t cause the confessions to be any less of a reliable exposition or summary of the timeless truth the Bible teaches.  The risk of human error has always been inherent in our confessions.  Recognizing that the confessions “appeal to the universal truth of the Gospel while expressing that truth within the social and cultural assumptions of their time” (F-2.01) only acknowledges that risk, it doesn’t increase it.

For example, the Westminster Confession, referred to by some as the gold standard of Presbyterianism, was written at a time (1647) when the social and cultural assumptions of their time precluded the possibility of Protestants marrying “Infidels, Papist (Catholics) or other Idolaters: Neither should such as are godly be unequally yoked.”  Divorce was only permitted for “adultery, or such willful desertion as can no way be remedied.”  And remarriage was not allowed with any of the first spouse’s close blood relatives.

Many faithful Christians would say it is right and good that these social and cultural assumptions in the Westminster Confession were later recognized and revised.

Let’s #StayPCUSA together.

Polity Matters…A Lot

“Polity, at its best, is really the embodiment of ecclesiology.  The Book of Order is the manifestation of who we are as the Church, as we live it out together.”
– The Reverend Forrest Claassen, Installation Service as Stated Clerk of The Presbytery of Los Ranchos, Fall 2013

When our polity changes, the manifestation of who we are as the Church changes, which is why I want to share this eye-opening analysis of ECO polity with you. It was written by The Reverend Dr. Daniel M. Saperstein, Co-Leader for Mission and Partnership for the Synod of the Sun, PC(USA) for First Presbyterian Church in Houston, TX.

Dan’s complete, and very thorough analysis, is available for you to read here Notes on ECO Polity.

The following are very pertinent excerpts from his analysis:

“In the PCUSA, the Historic Principles of Presbyterian Government (F-3.02) express how the checks and balances within the polity serve to maintain order and justice. The genius of Presbyterian polity is that as authority in the church expands, so does the scope of accountability, so that issues are ultimately decided by the voice of the whole church.

A comparison of the PCUSA and ECO polities will demonstrate that one key distinction between the two is ECO’s greater location of power in pastors and sessions without adequate accountability either to the presbytery above or to the congregation below. If the oft-cited criticism of the PCUSA by ECO-bound churches is that it is too restrictive in its polity but too lax in its theology, ECO is precisely the opposite – overly restrictive in theology while giving free rein in polity.

 It is not that the PCUSA has elevated polity over theology. Rather, the PCUSA recognizes that polity is the practical expression of our theology. So the question in choosing between polities is which more accurately represents a faithful theology.”

“The ECO constitutional documents are identified as the statement of Essential Tenets, ECO Polity, and the Rules of Discipline. These outline a denomination that is Presbyterian only in the broadest sense of the term. Church councils above the session have virtually no authority to direct the life and ministry of lower councils. There is no provision for administrative review and oversight. There are no structures to promote or ensure inclusion of persons across race or gender. Property and finances are exclusively under the control of sessions. Even the ministry of Word and Sacrament in a congregation could be commissioned without recourse to presbytery. In these regards, the denominational body the polity most resembles is not Presbyterian, but Southern Baptist.”

Some of my primary concerns with ECO polity, which Dan points out, include:

  • The polity of ECO rests on covenants of partnership (membership) and accountability. The use of covenant language suggests that the unity of the church envisioned is contingent on keeping covenant. Unlike the PCUSA Constitution which states that the particular congregations collectively constitute ONE church (F-3.0201), the ECO polity reflects a unity that is a covenantal association of individual churches.
  • ECO restores the office of Assistant Pastor, elected by the session only (not the congregation).  The PCUSA discontinued this because of abuse of pastors in this tenuous role. It is noteworthy that while Assistant Pastors are accorded a vote at presbytery, they do not have a vote on the session they serve.
  • Nowhere does the ECO constitution grant presbytery the authority to set minimum terms of call.  And neither pastors nor congregations have recourse to presbytery in the negotiation of call terms.
  • Presbyteries have the authority only to “settle differences between congregations and pastors” (3.0103). They do not have authority to enter into congregations in conflict or to take original jurisdiction of congregations that are unable to manage their affairs.  While some may welcome this change, it raises the question of whether ECO is in fact a hierarchical denomination with an essential unity, or a mere convention (à la Southern Baptists). It does not protect a congregation from abuse by a rogue session, or unresolved differences within congregations.  A PC(USA) congregation I belonged to experienced and benefited from this kind of help from the presbytery ten years ago when the presbytery recognized a problem a serious problem and stepped in to handle it and the subsequent dismissal of our pastor.
  • Whereas the PCUSA Constitution requires that presbyteries consist of at least equal numbers of elders as of minister members, in ECO this is reversed, that is, the number of minister members will at least be equal or greater than the elder commissioners.
  • The Synod executive council is given great power for the whole denomination without the requirement that its decisions be accountable to the representative assembly.  It consists of only 6-9 persons, with a guarantee of only three elder members.  The delegation of such sweeping authority to a small body, with no requirement of representation or inclusion that could conceivably be dominated by a supermajority of pastor members is contradictory to the Presbyterian principles of accountability and parity among ruling elder and teaching elder presbyters.
  • The issue of church property has taken on an increasingly central role in the decisions of churches to move to ECO from the PCUSA. ECO polity contains no property trust clause, leaving property solely in the hands of the local congregation, and prohibits the presbytery from exercising any partnership with congregations in the mortgage financing of building loans (4.0102).  This may provide some sense of satisfaction to those who are concerned that a trust clause may be exercised against their wishes in church disputes, but it also removes an important protection for congregations from abuse by leaders or an influential group. It also removes from smaller congregations an important resource for acquiring funds to expand their ministry, especially when they are in an early phase of development.
  • Pastor CEO?  An odd provision of chapter four also provides that the session or other governing board shall elect an elder, pastor, or staff member to serve as the chief executive officer of the corporation and may elect other corporate officers as it deems appropriate or as required by law. (4.0101).  The idea that the pastor could also serve as the CEO of the church corporation by election of the session reflects a pastor-centric leadership model that is deeply contrary to the historic practice of Presbyterian polity.
  • The Essential Tenets document is part of the constitution, along with the polity and rules of discipline. Every explanatory statement in the Essential Tenets document therefore is written into the constitution and has not only the requirement of a supermajority of presbyteries to amend, but a supermajority within the presbyteries. This is an extremely high bar of amendment, exceeding that of the U.S. Constitution (which only requires a majority vote by three-fourths of the state legislatures).
  • The Confessions of the Church are not part of the ECO constitution. There is no provision in the constitution for adopting or amending confessions. Claims therefore that they share a common confessional perspective with the PCUSA are false; the only functional confession of ECO is the statement of Essential Tenets. Indeed, this has a higher standard of amendment than do the confessions in the PCUSA.
  • ECO has no comparable section to F-3.01 and F-3.02 of the PCUSA Constitution, which outline the Historic Principles of Church Order (“preliminary principles”) and the Historic Principles of Presbyterian Government (“radical principles”). There is no statement affirming the rights or limits of conscience. There is no statement regarding the principles of government. There is no statement regarding the requirement of mutual forbearance when consciences collide. These principles are at the core of the PCUSA polity. They assure that rights are protected. No such assurances are evident in the ECO constitution. The ECO constitution also omits the historic statement of the Great Ends of the Church.
  • The polity of ECO, with its unaccountable leadership (synod executive council), weak structures of hierarchical protection and accountability, and Congregationalist emphases creates an environment in which basic rights and freedoms of members can be trampled.
  • The ECO constitution provides for equal powers of appeal by the accusers in a disciplinary case where a verdict of not guilty is rendered. The PCUSA had briefly offered limited powers of appeal to accusers, but even those limited powers have been rescinded. In ECO the possibility of double and even triple jeopardy exists for a person found not guilty at trial.

There is at least one concern Dan has which I am not certain can be sustained and that is:

  • Presbyteries have the power: (3.0103g) [To] receive, dismiss, examine, install, provide pastoral care for, and discipline pastors.  However, nowhere does the constitution grant presbytery the role of approving calls. The “tripartite” call of the PCUSA apparently becomes a “bipartite” call between a congregation and a pastor.

ECO polity is very abbreviated (low control) and depends on the high level of trust expected within the denomination. However the abbreviation leaves too much room for interpretation, or misinterpretation as the case may be.  Trust is high today because those who are forming ECO have been in relationships with each other for many years.  But can that trust be passed on going forward?  Trust cannot be inherited.

Finally, watch and listen to the Reverend Dr. Ted Wardlaw, President, Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, discuss John Calvin’s suspicion of the potential for the abuse of power in the church.

“Calvin was suspicious of too much power being held in one person’s hands, say a bishop’s hands because of the corrosive possibilities of such power.  Calvin did not trust the trappings of imperial status and the potential for tyranny when so much power was held in one person’s hands.  Calvin was also suspicious of power being held finally in the hands of a congregation, period.  Pure congregationalism, he thought, was hampered by two weaknesses. First, congregationalism is an order of church life that is designed for saints and not for nominal Christians.  And secondly, congregationalism runs the risk of devolving to emphasis simply on the local church and thus loses the universal character, or catholicity, of the church.”

Let’s #StayPCUSA together.