Jesus, The Bible, and Essential Tenets in the Presbyterian Church (USA)

I spoke as part of a presentation John Calvin Presbytery was invited to give to First and Calvary Presbyterian Church in Springfield, MO on Wednesday night, May 13, 2015, about the PC(USA)’s beliefs regarding Jesus Christ, the authority of scripture, and essential tenets.  As you will read in my transcript below, I grew up at First and Calvary and have them to thank for teaching me who Jesus is and what the body of Christ looks like.  Here is what I said to them about what the PC(USA) I know and love believes.


My faith was formed here at First and Calvary with you.

I was baptized here as an infant and from that day you took your promise to that baptismal covenant seriously.  You nurtured my faith through worship, Sunday School classes, choirs, youth groups, confirmation, high school mission trips, and you connected me with our larger denomination through presbytery camps and conferences and Montreat summer camp.

In college, you provided me with opportunities to serve our community and presbytery as a member of the SUMMIT team, one summer you sent me to work at Ghost Ranch, another summer to Cameron House, a Presbyterian community center in San Francisco’s China Town.

After college you gave me the opportunity work with the youth and college students, you supported me in a number of ways through seminary and, in 1996, you were here with me for my ordination to the ministry of Word and Sacrament.

And you haven’t just done this for me.  You’ve done it for countless numbers of us who have grown up here and been loved so well by you.

It is only by the grace of God that any of us have faith in Jesus Christ but it is because of you that I know who Jesus Christ is and what the body of Christ looks like.  Much of who I am today, including my faith in Jesus Christ, was formed here in relationship with you.  And so I am very grateful to be here with you tonight.

I remember sitting in the sanctuary here at First and Calvary in 1983 when the reunification of the northern and southern branches of the denomination was announced in worship.  I was a young teenage boy with many other cares in the world but even then I knew something incredibly special had just happened.  That announcement preached to me as powerfully as any sermon I have ever heard.  It was one of those powerful revelatory moments when the living Word of God moves before your own eyes.  On that day, in that moment, I witnessed the reconciling love of Jesus Christ.  I’ve never forgotten that day.

And so now when some people are talking about splitting from our denomination I’m pouring myself into keeping us together.

The first I knew anyone was thinking about leaving was in early 2013 when the PC(USA) congregation my family and I belonged to in Orange County started the process of discernment that eventually led to their dismissal to ECO last summer.

I thought I knew our denomination pretty well, but when I started hearing the reasons why some people wanted to leave the denomination it really caught me off guard.  I remember being in a congregational forum when an elder who was on our congregation’s denomination committee stood up and said the PC(USA) General Assembly, our highest governing body made up of elected elders, had defeated a motion that would have declared Jesus Christ as the “singular, saving Lord.”

My heart was turned and I began to believe my relationship with the PC(USA) was coming to an end.

I would understand if you have heard things that have turned your heart too.

But I couldn’t let it go.  I questioned myself, wondering how I had become so out of touch with the PC(USA).  The facts and information I heard from our denomination committee just didn’t resonate with my experiences or relationships in the PC(USA).  And so I started doing my own research.

I learned it was a fact that 45% of PC(USA) clergy surveyed do not agree that “only followers of Jesus Christ can be saved.”

I learned it was a fact that the PC(USA) Book of Order had changed its language from being “obedient” to being “guided” by scripture.

But I also learned that facts don’t always mean what we think they mean or point us to the right conclusion.

I’ve been a part of our denomination my whole life, both as a member and ordained minister, and I’ve been in different congregations and presbyteries across the country: liberal, moderate, and conservative.  I know the PCUSA is not a perfect church.  We have major disagreements. We read the Bible through different eyes and grids. We have our heretics.  We have our noted sinners on the left and the right.  But on the whole the PC(USA) I know is a denomination filled with a large core of faithful members who believe Jesus Christ is the Word of God incarnate, the only Lord and Savior, the only way to God; and that holy scripture is the inspired and infallible written word of God.

Tonight I want to tell you about this PC(USA) I know and love; specifically our theological understanding of Jesus Christ and the authority of scripture.

And hopefully, if your heart has been turned against the denomination the way mine once was, we’ll begin to get it turned back around.


First, Jesus Christ.  There is this idea floating around out there that the PC(USA) is questioning whether Jesus is God.

We are not questioning that.  We know Jesus is God. But the idea that we are questioning whether Jesus is God got started back in July 2000 when 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.  Language we get from The Second Helvetic Confession.

However the headlines read the PC(USA) General Assembly refuses to affirm Jesus is “singular, saving Lord.”

Furthermore, the same General Assembly in 2001 directed the denomination’s Office of Theology and Worship to create a study for the whole church, so as a whole denomination we would 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 General Assembly in 2002 who received that document overwhelmingly approved “Hope in the Lord Jesus Christ” by a vote of 497 yes, 11 no, 5 abstentions.

Then in a very unusual move the following General Assembly voted to reaffirm “Hope in the Lord Jesus Christ,” which they didn’t have to, and this time there were even more votes in support.

Never the less people continue to claim the PC(USA) has abandoned the Lordship of Jesus Christ because the General Assembly rejected the language of “singular, saving Lord.”

We have our individual heretics who would probably deny the “singular, saving” Lordship of Christ.  I suspect The Reverend John Shuck who is referenced as one of our heretics in you Q&A booklet is one of them.  John is a beloved child of God and I try to always keep that in mind when I think about him, but his blog and podcasts are far beyond the pale of our orthodox beliefs, and as someone working to uphold what the PC(USA) believes he drives me crazy.

The PC(USA) believes “That truth is in order to goodness…And that no opinion can either be more pernicious or more absurd than that which brings truth and falsehood upon a level, and represents it as of no consequence what a man’s opinions are. On the contrary, we are persuaded that there is an inseparable connection between faith and practice, truth and duty. Otherwise it would be of no consequence either to discover truth or to embrace it.” (Book of Order F-3.0104)

Based on this foundational belief of ours it’s not only fair but right to criticize John’s theology.  And our denomination is not always as quick to refute or discipline our heretics as we should be.  That’s a criticism I can accept.

But what I don’t accept is that because a few people like Dick Ficca and John Shuck have PC(USA) next to their name that you or I or the rest of the denomination share the same false beliefs.

The PC(USA) I know and love believes we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone.

So then you might ask why would 45% of PC(USA) clergy responding to a survey say that Jesus is not the only way to salvation?  The short answer is they didn’t.

Many of you have probably heard about the survey recently conducted by the PC(USA) where survey participants were asked to agree or disagree to the following statement, “Only followers of Jesus Christ can be saved.”

45% of the pastors responding did not agree that “only followers of Jesus Christ can be saved.”

And so people are looking at these results and saying PC(USA) pastors, in large measure, do not believe Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation.  But that is not what the survey said.

Both the survey and its results are misleading.

The survey statement was not “Jesus Christ is the only way of salvation,” the survey statement was “only followers of Jesus Christ can be saved.”

At first it sounds like those two statements are saying the same thing which is why there is so much misunderstanding and why I want to repeat them.

The survey statement was not “Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation,” the survey statement was “only followers of Jesus Christ can be saved.”

Or to put it another way the survey asked can children who die as infants, can the mentally impaired, can people-groups and individuals who never had exposure to the gospel, and can even people who through no fault of their own had a bad experience with falsified Christianity, can these people who never followed Jesus, can they be saved?

You see that is a very different question than is Jesus Christ the only way of salvation?

There is a video on the denominational issues page of your website where you can see a panel discussion that took place in 2013 about this survey.  Jack Haberer, one of the panelist and then Editor of The Presbyterian Outlook, referenced infants who die and those in the Old Testament who are now credited with their faith and 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, another panelist and the synod executive of the ECO Presbyterian Church agreed that the survey could have led to results that were skewed.  Even Dana said,

“I do agree that I think the survey was 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.”

And here is what our doctrine in the Westminster Confession says “Elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated and saved by Christ through the Spirit, who worketh when, and where, and how he pleaseth. So also are all other elect persons who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word.” (Section 6.066)

Our doctrine in the PC(USA) clearly provides salvation to the elect, including infants and others who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word – and these are not followers of Jesus Christ yet our doctrine in the Westminster Confession, the confession some consider our gold standard, provides them a means of salvation.

Chapter 16 of The Second Helvetic Confession also teaches there is salvation to the children of believing parents.

Knowing that, and believing that, how would you have responded to the survey’s claim that “only followers of Jesus Christ can be saved?”

Look, I think the way we respond to this survey and the way we respond to the results depends on if we put the emphasis on the word “followers” or the words “Jesus Christ.”  If the emphasis is on the word “follower” then the PC(USA) does not and should not agree with the statement.  Because we do not believe that only “followers” of Jesus Christ can be saved.  But if the emphasis is on the words “Jesus Christ” then the PC(USA) I know and love should and does agree with the statement.  Because we do believe that salvation is through Christ alone.

Which probably explains the 41% of clergy who agreed with the statement.  So 45% didn’t agree, 41% did agree and I think both could be right.

This is why Dana Allin said the survey may not have been articulated well and led to results that could be skewed.

And yet the survey continues be shared as an example of how little the PC(USA) thinks about Jesus.  And that misunderstanding is tearing us apart and destroying the “peace, unity, and purity” of the church, the very body of Jesus Christ.

The PC(USA) is not questioning whether Jesus is God.  We believe in one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  And we believe nothing less than Jesus Christ alone is head of the Church and Lord and Savior.  There is no equal, he has no competitors.

But if you have any doubts about what the PC(USA) believes about Jesus let me suggest three things.

One, read “Hope in the Lord Jesus Christ.”  You can find it on it on my website under the Stay Resources tab.

Two, read chapter one of our Foundations of Presbyterian Polity in the Book of Order which you can also find on my website.  They are seven short but powerful pages that declare our foundational beliefs about who Jesus is.

And three, actually spend time with other members in the PC(USA) outside of First and Calvary and find out what they believe about Jesus.

Don’t let your understanding of what the PC(USA) believes about who Jesus is be formed by what you see in surveys, or by what you read online or in publications, or by what you hear from those who are leaving or want to leave the denomination.  Let it be formed by those of us who are in the PC(USA), and who are staying PC(USA), and are hoping you will stay too.

The PC(USA) I know and love believes unity is God’s gift to the Church.  To be one with Christ is to be joined with everyone Christ calls.  And because in Christ the Church is one, we strive to be one.

John Calvin, this presbytery’s name sake, said he would “cross ten oceans in order to keep the body of the Church from being dismembered.”

Everyone of us should be doing everything we can to stay together.  Maybe you won’t cross ten oceans but you can worship with ten other PC(USA) congregations in the presbytery or as you travel around the country this summer.

We should be doing this not because John Calvin would be, although that is a good reason, no, we should be doing this because I believe it is what Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior, the Word made flesh, is calling us to do.

Authority of Scripture

Ok, now on to the authority of scripture.

The PC(USA) I know and love believes scripture is the inspired and infallible Word of God.  Meaning it was God breathed and will not fail to accomplish it’s purpose.  And that through the scriptures the Holy Spirit bears unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ.  Scripture is not a witness among others, but the witness without parallel whose authority comes from God.

We hold a high view of scripture in the PC(USA) but we have always been careful not to hold it quite so high that we idolize it.

In part be because we take seriously 1 Corinthians 13:12 which says “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

But the other reason is because we know the written word of God is a witness to the living Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, who alone is worthy of our worship and praise.

As Reformed Christians we believe more strongly than others that we may not have a complete or correct understanding of the scriptures.  There is a tendency outside of the Reformed tradition to lock up a scripture’s meaning and teach it forever as an unchangeable truth.  But that is not who we have been and it’s not who we are.

We have, on the other hand, 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 in 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.”

With the passage of 10A in 2011 that removed the fidelity and chastity amendment from our Book of Order, and most recently the passage of 14F that allows our clergy to perform same-sex marriages in states where it is legal and where their sessions have permitted, some people believe the PC(USA) has elevated cultural standards above scripture.

But the fact that our denomination has a new understanding about a long and widely held traditional belief like same-sex relationships does not necessarily mean we have had to diminish the authority of scripture, to come to this understanding.  It means we have a new understanding of what the living Lord of scripture is saying and doing here and now.

Obviously this is a new understanding many people in the denomination are having a hard time getting behind.  I get that.  Even though my own position has moved from non-affirming to affirming over the years I wouldn’t firmly plant myself in that camp yet.

But, as a Presbyterian I believe my own understanding of scripture is more limited than the understanding of the larger councils of the church, which have, in this matter, discerned God is leading the church in this new direction.

Now, councils not only can err, councils do err, in fact I’m going to say something about that in just a little bit, but this is where the rubber really meets the road for Presbyterians.  This is where each one of us has to decide for ourselves, are we really a Presbyterian in practice or only in name.  Do we accept the judgment of the larger council even when we disagree or do we only accept their judgement as long as it matches our own and when it doesn’t we break away?

Breaking away is always an option for a Presbyterian, but it should be our last option.

As Presbyterians we know we know we won’t always see eye to eye on every issue.  That’s been true for generations of Presbyterians, and so we have an understanding, a corollary to our Historic Principals of Church Order, for how we handle those situations when a person’s conscious simply will not allow them to remain in the denomination.  And that understanding is we will peaceably withdraw without attempting to make any schism.  That is how Presbyterians dismiss ourselves when the larger councils have settled a matter by vote and our conscious no longer permits us to remain a part of the body.

But of course, I hope you don’t leave.

I’m choosing to go with the wisdom of the larger council on this and at the same time am continuing to work on my own understanding of how the Holy Spirit is leading me through scripture.  And unless your conscious won’t permit it I’d like for you to do the same.

If you want help understanding how an evangelical Christian could support same-sex relationships and uphold the authority of scripture read Matthew Vines’ book God and the Gay Christian.

Matthew grew up in Eastminster Presbyterian Church in Wichita, which at the time when he was growing up there was one of our denomination’s flagship evangelical congregations.  Matthew’s parents were active leaders in the congregation and held a traditional view of same-sex relationships.  His dad, who is a litigation attorney and was an elder in the congregation, described the day Matthew came out to him as the worst day of his life. He suggested they do a Bible study together and assumed that once they did, Matthew would see his error.

Eastminster Presbyterian Church in Wichita has since left the PC(USA) for the Evangelical Presbyterian Church.   And after their six month bible study it was Matthew’s dad who came to understand scripture differently than he had before.

In the introduction to his book Matthew writes, “…many Christians now support same-sex relationships.  But those who do tend to see Scripture as a helpful but dated guidebook, not as the final authority on questions of morality and doctrine.  That is not my view of scripture.  Like most theologically conservative Christians, I hold what is often called a “high view” of the Bible.  That means I believe all of Scripture is inspired by God and authoritative for my life.”

Other Presbyterians in the PC(USA) who hold a “high view” of the Bible, just like Matthew, are finding this new understanding in scripture.  William Stacy Johnson, professor of systematic theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, is member of our denomination who has also written a book about this new understanding that people are finding helpful called, A Time To Embrace.

And of course this is not the first time a new understanding of scripture has changed a once long and widely held traditional belief.  Or the first time a new understanding has rocked the Church.  Starting with gospel being opened to the Gentiles in Acts, which by the way is good news for all of us.  To the freedom of slaves, issues of divorce and remarriage, and the ordination of women.

The PC(USA) I know and love values tradition – we hold on to our Reformed tradition and submit ourselves to the authority and guidance of our confessional standards, but at the same time those same confessional standards require us to be open to hearing a new and perhaps different word from the living Lord – and this is the church being reformed.

The PC(USA) is a community of believers who are “Reformed and always being reformed.”

Shirley Guthrie wrote in his classic book 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.”

All of this brings me to the change we made to our Book of Order in 2011 that removed the “fidelity and chastity amendment” which included the requirement for those who are ordained to obey the Word of God.

Let me read that section we removed to you,“Those who are called to office in the church are to lead a life in obedience to Scripture and in conformity to the historic confessional standards of the church. Among these standards is the requirement to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness.”

Never mind that among those same standards women would not be allowed to perform the sacrament baptism as there is both biblical and confessional language prohibiting it.

If you don’t understand our Presbyterian and Reformed suspicion about obeying scripture then the removal of the fidelity and chastity amendment, section G-6.0106b would seem troubling.

But when you understand that we believe we are to obey Christ alone as he is illumined in the scriptures by the Holy Spirit, then the removal of the fidelity and chastity amendment can start to make more sense.

Jack Haberer, who I mentioned earlier, 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.

So “obedience” went in the Book of Order in 1996 and came out 2011, a relatively brief and recent 15 years.

But from the backlash this change created you would think we just completely undid a bedrock foundation of our denomination, but in fact by removing language of obedience we have actually restored a bedrock foundation.

Jack believes one of the reasons 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.”

Like the Barmen Declaration tells us, 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.

To criticize the PC(USA) for removing language of being obedient to scripture, language that had only recently been inserted, is to not understand our history, our Reformed tradition, or who we are as a Presbyterian denomination.

Please don’t suggest this is symptomatic of a shift to diminish the authority of scripture in the PC(USA).  It isn’t.

Essential Tenets

And the same reason why the PC(USA) does not use language of being obedient to scripture is related to why we don’t specifically name our essential tenets.

Because we take authority of scripture so seriously we dare not put any human words between us and the word of God.  We believe we are limited, fallible, sinful people and any words or essential tenets we try to name are at best provisional and subject to revision and correction.

So instead of specifically listing our essential tenets we require our church officers to receive and adopt our understanding of the Reformed faith as it is expressed in the broader confessions of our church.

The alternative, which ECO has incorporated into their constitution, is to bind its church officers to list of essential tenets.  In ECO the Book of Confessions is not part of their constitution like it is in ours.  Their essential tenets however are.

Where the PC(USA) requires its officers to receive and adopt our essential tenets of the Reformed faith as they are expressed in the confessions, ECO requires its officers to receive, adopt, and be bound by their list of Essential Tenets.

The PC(USA) I know and love does not bind the conscious of it’s officers to any human words – not for the sake of our freedom to think anything we please, as Shirley Guthrie said, but for the sake of the freedom of biblical truth from every human attempt to capture and tame it.

We know that no statement developed by any body of believers can ever quite do justice to the faith revealed in God’s Word.

The Westminster Confession of Faith states, “All synods or councils since the apostles’ times, whether general or particular, may err, and many have erred; therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith or practice, but to be used as a help in both.”

It’s not that we lack core theological beliefs, it’s that we refuse to make an idol out of our theology.

It’s interesting, to me at least, that two of the three primary writers of ECO’s essential tenets, The Reverend Doctors Jerry Andrews and Joe Small are staying in the PC(USA).

Joe Small has said,

“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.”

And Jerry Andrews has talked openly about his own experience of having gone through a church split in the church he grew up in.  He talks about the pain it caused and the separation it created between him and his father.

Voices Staying

There are many influential voices in our denomination besides Jerry and Joe who are staying in the PC(USA) but there are two more in particular I want you to hear.

One is The Reverend Dr. Richard Mouw, retired president of Fuller Theological Seminary, and the other is The Reverend Dr. Barbara Wheeler, retired president of Auburn Seminary.  Neither are PC(USA) seminaries but both Richard and Barbara are members of the PC(USA) and prominent leaders in our denomination.

Even though Richard and Barbara come from very different places theologically and “have serious differences about serious matters, they count themselves blessed by the collegiality and mutual respect through which the Holy Spirit moves, enabling them to become better people and better Christians because of what each has learned from the other.”

They each wrote an article about why the Evangelical and Liberal parts of the church need each other that was published in Sojourner’s magazine in February 2004.  Barbara’s article was titled “Why the Liberal Church Needs the Evangelical Church.”  And Richard’s was titled, “Why the Evangelical Church Needs the Liberal Church.”

Barbara, the liberal, wrote,

“We could skip the split. We Presbyterians, who share so much—a confession of faith, a rich theological heritage, the advantages and the burdens of wealth and social power—could covenant to stay together in our reformed relations, to labor with each other, in love, for justice and truth. It would be very arduous and painful, much more so than splitting or drifting apart. It would be worth it. The world would take note of what the gospel makes possible for those who confess their dis-ease with each other and their displacement by each other but still keep on going, strangers locked in covenant, toward the better country of diversity and harmony, liberty and love.”

And Richard, the evangelical, wrote,

“I genuinely believe that a Presbyterian split would be a serious setback for the cause that I care deeply about, namely, the cause of Reformed orthodoxy. I spend a lot of time thinking about how people with my kind of theology have acted in the past, and I am convinced that splits inevitably diminish the influence of the kind of orthodoxy that I cherish, for at least two reasons.

First, the denomination from which the dissidents depart is typically left without strong voices who are defending their understanding of orthodoxy…

The second way in which the cause of Reformed orthodoxy was diminished has to do with what happened to the conservatives themselves after they left the mainline denomination. They quickly began to argue among themselves, and it was not long before new splits occurred in their ranks. The result was that conservative Calvinism itself increasingly became a fractured movement.

I worry much about what would happen to Presbyterian evangelicals ourselves if we were to leave the PC(USA). When we evangelical types don’t have more liberal people to argue with, we tend to start arguing with each other. I would much rather see us continue to focus on the major issues of Reformed thought in an admittedly pluralistic denomination than to deal with the tensions that often arise among ourselves when evangelicals get into the debates that seem inevitably to arise when we have established our own “pure” denominations.”

I love the PC(USA) in large measure because you taught me to love it.  Not because we are a pure denomination but because I find Jesus here, and it is my home.  And if you go I’m confident you will find Jesus wherever you end up, because Jesus will never leave us or forsake us where ever we go; even if we choose to leave and forsake each other.  But it will be harder for both of us to find Jesus in the church if you leave, because the more we split into like-minded groups the more the church will begin to look like us and less like Jesus.

When it comes to being like-minded I think scripture is clear that means one thing – not that we agree on every position but that we have the same mind that was in Christ Jesus, “who though he was God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself, and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” ~ Philippians 2:5-8

Know that there are many of us hoping and praying you will stay but that if you must go, may the peace of Christ will go with you.


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.