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.

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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.