We’re Better Together

I believe all of us in the PC(USA) are trying to be as faithful to God as we know how to be. But we have to admit we don’t all view God, the Bible, and human experience the same.

One of the freedoms and blessings of the PC(USA) is the denomination makes room for its leaders to exercise “freedom of conscience” captive only to scripture, as it is interpreted according to the essentials of the Reformed faith and polity expressed in our constitution.

The PC(USA) believes the Holy Spirit works within an individual’s “freedom of conscience” and we believe the discernment of these individuals is made most clear in the collective conscience of our larger bodies (sessions/presbyteries/General Assembly).  Currently the General Assembly, the largest body of the denomination, is moving in a direction some believe is contrary to scripture.  I think we have to be very cautious when we start thinking about dismissal because we disagree with the collective discernment of the larger body.

Our different views about God and the Bible keep each of our theologies more true.  This is a view shared by Jerry Deck, a self described evangelical and past executive director of Presbyterian Global Fellowship, in an opinion column titled “Liberal Conservative or Conservative Liberal?“, published in the Presbyterian Outlook dated June 25, 2012.

Jerry writes,

“For the most part I feel this denomination (the PC(USA)) has given me that opportunity in ways that few others ever could, and for this I am incredibly grateful…the reality is that as a Christian community we are in peril if we lose one of our “ends” which hold us in tension. All too often when this tension is lost, we are left with a community that looks less like Christ and more like ourselves.”

There is no question, we are a diverse denomination but I’m staying PC(USA) precisely because our denomination includes a range of conservative and progressive voices.

Not every one of these voices is like-minded but they are centered on the gospel and rooted in the hallmarks of our Reformed Tradition:

  • the sovereignty of God
  • the authority of the scripture
  • justification by grace through faith
  • and the priesthood of all believers

We’re better together.  In fact two of the three primary writers of ECO’s essential tenets are staying PC(USA).  I’m staying PC(USA) and I hope you will too.

Let’s #StayPCUSA together.

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A Vision Of Unity

The statesman’s duty is to bridge the gap between his nation’s experience and his vision”
― Henry A. Kissinger

Some people see an unreconcilable gap between the Liberal and Evangelical parts of the denomination.

There is a gap but it’s only unreconcilable if we let it be.

In fact I strongly believe it is possible to benefit from a relationship with theological differences.  Two of our denomination’s prominent leaders, Dr. Richard Mouw, retired president of Fuller Theological Seminary, and Dr. Barbara Wheeler, retired president of Auburn Seminary, model this possibility in their relationship with each other.

An article titled “Purple Church,” published online in The Presbyterian Outlook, said that even though Richard and Barbara come from very different theological places 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.”

Richard and Barbara wrote companion articles for Sojourners magazine, each writing from their own theological position and bridging the gap between our experience of discord and their vision of unity.  

I encourage you to read each article.

Our denomination needs to hear reconciling voices from statesmen and women like these.  

It is possible to remain true to your core beliefs and remain in the PC(USA).  Our denomination needs a balance of beliefs, centered on the gospel.  Your presbytery and the PC(USA) are better with you, and you are better as part of your presbytery and the PC(USA).

 In his article above Richard said,

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 see a vision of unity shared by Richard and Barbara that will build us up in Christ.  It is a unity I feel called to live into.  I pray you can see it too.

Let’s #StayPCUSA together.

Birds Of A Feather

Bird Migration

I recently read two articles about the polarization of America and was struck by the irony of how easily each could have been written about congregations who are seeking dismissal from the PC(USA).

Both articles describe the increasing trend in America to separate from each other based on our differences and migrate into like minded groups.

Read the first paragraph of the BusinessWeek article with just a touch of editing.  I struck a couple of words and (substituted) my own in parenthesis.

“Something strange is happening to state government (the PC(USA)). Fed up with what they see as liberal overreaching, small groups of rural, largely conservative activists have decided they’re done trying to effect political change through the usual channels of votes and bills and the seemingly endless churn of election cycles. They’re plotting something drastic: They’re going to shutdow—wait, sorry. Wrong legislative impasse. What I meant to say is: They’re going to form their own states (denominations).”

Every quote I read in the article sounded nearly word-for-word like what I hear being said by advocates for leaving the PC(USA).

Here is another example,

“‘Here at the state level, we’re controlled by a single party—Democrats—and we feel we have no other recourse,’ he says. ‘We’re sick and tired of being sick and tired. We want to be our own state.’”

It’s interesting that advocates for leaving the denomination often cite theological, ideological, political, social and moral shifts in American society being reflected in the PC(USA) as a reason for requesting dismissal from the denomination.

Whether they recognize it or not, by requesting dismissal from the denomination, their behavior is a direct reflection of this larger, growing, cultural shift toward homogenous polarization and away from God’s work of reconciliation.  

The PacificStandard article writes, “Does your next-door neighbor vote the same way you do? How about the couple who live across the street, or your friends on the next block?  The odds you answered “yes” or “probably” to those questions have increased dramatically in recent decades. Forget red states and blue states: We’re increasingly living in red or blue counties, cities, even neighborhoods.  This phenomenon has been widely cited as one reason behind our current political polarization: It allows strident voices on the right and left to fairly insist they’re fairly representing their constituents.”

Individuals choose to live in communities with ideologies similar to their own to satisfy their need to belong.  But this comes at a high cost.

The article continues, “Unfortunately, this appears to be a clear case where individual contentment and the national interest are at odds. While ‘This homogenization of communities may promote greater personal well-being,’ the researchers write, ‘it may also foster increased partisan hostility’ by minimizing our contact with people on the other side of the ideological divide.”

Another article, published on Bloomberg.com titled, Won’t You Be My (Hyper-Partisan) Neighbor?, by Peter Orszag, also addresses the negative consequences of segregating into like-minded communities.

The consequences are far-reaching. The social psychology literature clearly shows that when like-minded people are put together, they move to extremes — both because they rarely hear opposing viewpoints and because each person is at least somewhat inclined to prove he is the true believer in the group.  The behavior is observed even among people who otherwise strive to be quite objective, such as judges. Cass Sunstein, the legal scholar who is now administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, documents in his 2006 book “Are Judges Political? An Empirical Analysis of the Federal Judiciary,” that judges appointed by Republican presidents are more likely to vote in extreme ways if they are grouped with other Republican-appointed judges than if they are grouped with Democratic-appointed judges, and vice versa.”

Aside from the unhealthy dangers of polarizing congregations in a like minded denomination we also need to recognize that as followers of Jesus Christ we are called to resist this kind of separation.

The Reverend Dr. Jerry Tankersley, pastor of Laguna Presbyterian Church, Laguna Beach, CA spoke at Trinity United Presbyterian Church, Santa Ana, CA in the fall of 2013 about why he believes the congregation should stay in the PC(USA).  You can find a copy of everything he said here on his blog.  Jerry reminded Trinity there are important biblical and theological reasons to remain in this part of the Reformed body.  He recounted the biblical story of the fall and God’s neverending efforts to restore unity and went on to say,

“The reason that I recapitulate this biblical theology of the unity of God, the unity of the people of God, and the unity of the mission of God is that we may be reminded of what is at the very heart of the movement of the reign of God in human history.  Paradise was lost, walls of the City of God breached,  but God acted to restore paradise in and through the sacrifice of the Lamb of God, Jesus.  He purchased us with his own blood.  Now we belong to him and to his body. His passion and mission must become the passion and mission of God’s people.  God’s promise is of a New Creation in which the original righteousness of the unity of all creation will be perfectly restored and all will be made right to the glory of God and the joy of heaven and earth in the New Jerusalem…To act to sever this unity within any fellowship will have profound implications for the congregation, presbytery, and surrounding community.  The unity of the church is central to our witness to the gospel in a fragmented, chaotic, and lost world.   The world will know we are Christians by the integrity of our love for one another.”

Let’s #StayPCUSA together.

Tension In The PC(USA)

Truth and Goodness and Mutual Forbearance are two of our historic principles of church order in the PC(USA) designed for a time just like this and we should be leaning on them now harder than ever.

The Reverend Dr. Paul Hooker, Director of Ministerial Formation and Advanced Studies at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, Austin, Texas spoke about these two historic principles of church order at First Presbyterian Church in Houston, TX in September 2013 saying,

“When we forget that fundamental tension between knowing the truth and being forbearant of one another we begin to lose the center that helps holds us together, and helps us see our way through to the unity we have in Christ.”

Each of the two historic principles are stated below with italicized commentary provided by the Reverend H. Carson Rhyne Jr., general presbyter and stated clerk of the Presbytery of the James and affiliate faculty in Presbyterian polity at Union Presbyterian Seminary, Richmond, Va.

Truth and Goodness (Book of Order, F-3.0104)
That truth is in order to goodness; and the great touchstone of truth, its tendency to promote holiness, according to our Savior’s rule, “By their fruits ye shall know them.” 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.

The truth is only of value when it causes a difference in the lives and behavior of persons. “By their fruits ye shall know them,” reminds us that we are not seeking some kind of intellectual or philosophical truth, but a truth that is life-changing and life-giving.

Mutual Forbearance (Book of Order, F-3.0105)
That, while under the conviction of the above principle we think it necessary to make effectual provision that all who are admitted as teachers be sound in the faith, we also believe that there are truths and forms with respect to which men of good characters and principles may differ. And in all these we think it the duty both of private Christians and societies to exercise mutual forbearance toward each other.

While people might be seeking this truth, there are “truths and forms with respect to which men of good characters and principles may differ.” Therefore provide mutual forbearance toward each other. In other words, have plenty of room for different points of view as long as everyone is seeking the truth found in Jesus Christ.

Below is a quote and short video segment of Paul’s presentation about these historic principles at First Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX

“The danger before us as a church is not that somehow or another we have found better missions and we ought to be done with this business of disagreeing about one controversial issue or another so that we can be about the mission of the church.  The danger before us friends, is that we will forget to listen to each other, and to learn from each other, and to become thereby the church that Christ has created us to be.”

The Reverend Dr. Jim Currie of First Presbyterian Church, Pasadena, TX has written a document titled, “Some Theological Thoughts on Why Stay in the PC(USA)” in which he writes,

“Even over so profound a difference as the ordination of gays and lesbians, we are family. Why is that issue the breaking point? In his book Ethics Dietrich Bonhoeffer talks about the Ultimate and the Penultimate. On this issue (and perhaps others) some are acting as if theirs is the ultimate, or final, word. Bonhoeffer reminds us that ours is always and only, at best, the penultimate word. We never, ever, have the final word. That always belongs only to God.

What that means is that the decisions we must make can only be temporary, or penultimate. And that means that, both sides must confess, they might be wrong. “Now we see only puzzling reflections in a mirror, ….” So, with humility we do the best thinking we can, the best arguing we can, the best digging we can, and then we embrace one another … because belonging to each other in Christ is more important than insisting that we are right.”

Living with the tension between Truth and Goodness and Mutual Forbearance is not easy, especially during this particularly disruptive time in our denomination’s history when the tension is not well balanced.  Nevertheless, these historic principles are a time tested gift handed down to us over generations in the denomination, and they will continue to serve us well if we will lean on them and trust, that by doing so, we will see through to the unity we have in Christ.

Let’s #StayPCUSA together.

Diversity And Harmony, Liberty And Love

Requesting dismissal from the PC(USA) to affiliate with other like-minded Christians is breaking the long standing historic principle of church order in the Presbyterian Church to “exercise mutual forbearance” toward others in our denomination with whom they disagree.

Aside from the serious concerns I have about affiliating with a denomination that places such a high value on being like-minded (see Birds of a Feather), I do not believe God has called the church to be like-minded in the way those who advocate leaving the denomination are defining it.

The Reverend Dr. Ted Wardlaw, President, Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, Austin, Texas, talked about his concerns regarding the church being like-minded at First Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX, last September saying,

“My biggest concern about the schismatic rhetoric going on now in our church is this emphasis upon the value of like-mindedness…my problem with like-mindedness is I don’t believe Jesus Christ ever imagined that value as a worthy founding principle for his church…at its best the church has never placed a high value on like-mindedness.  Which is why we can find our place, by the way, in the church…As Tom Currie (the Rev. Dr. Tom Currie, First Presbyterian Church, Pasadena, TX) has said, ‘the heresy of the Reformed Tradition is that somewhere out there, there is a purer church.’”

Watch the 8 minute segment of Ted’s presentation below.  Everything he says speaks right to the issue of being like-minded.

Scripture does of course talk about being like-minded, but as Lyndon Unger, a graduate of The Masters Seminary writes in his blog post titled, “Thoughts on Being “Likeminded,”

“…there seems to be a clear pattern in the passages cited that being “likeminded” does not mean being in agreement in relation to doctrinal issues.  Each passage is talking about Christ-like conduct, not points of belief regarding specific issues.  Phil 2 specifically makes the point of being likeminded in reference to Christ, not other believers.  Being likeminded means “thinking and acting like Christ”.

Philippians 2:5-11 (New Revised Standard)
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of 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. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name,  so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,  and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

This is what it means to be like-minded; to be humble, to empty ourselves, taking the form of a slave, and regarding others as better than ourselves, and in so doing share the same mind of Christ Jesus.

Dr. Barbara Wheeler, retired president of Auburn Seminary, published an article in Sojourners magazine titled, “Why The Liberal Church Needs the Evangelical Church” in which she wrote,

In 1869, the two Presbyterian denominations formed in the bitter split 40 years before came back together. Seeking, said their reunion plan, to create a church marked by “diversity and harmony, liberty and love,” both assemblies met in Pittsburgh, in separate halls from which their members marched to opposite sides of a broad avenue. Their moderators and clerks then stepped into the street and met in the middle. They “clasped hands,” according to a contemporary account, “and amidst welcomes, thanksgivings, and tears, they locked arms and stood together in their reformed relations.”

It was a powerful moment, but I can imagine a more powerful witness. 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.

It is, of course, a long trip. We have only glimpsed what that better country might be like. But God, it says in Hebrews, was not ashamed to be called the God of those who stepped out in faith. Indeed, God has prepared a city for them. God has prepared a city for us strange Presbyterians and for all the other foreigners God loves. I pray that with God’s help, we will get there together.

Staying in the PC(USA) “would be very arduous and painful, much more so than splitting or drifting apart. It would be worth it.”  This would be the mind of Christ Jesus.

Let’s #StayPCUSA together.