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.
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.
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.”
“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.”
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.”
“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.
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.
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.
In seeking to be faithful and open to God’s continued reformation, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) implemented a new Form of Government in July 2011. With greater freedom and flexibility, the new Form of Government encourages congregations and councils to focus on God’s mission and how they can faithfully participate in this mission. In offering a structure that is more horizontal than hierarchical, the new Form of Government encourages the church to be open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit as it seeks to be Christ’s body and live out its calling as a community of faith, hope, love and witness. ~ The Presbyterian Church (USA) Office of the General Assembly
Our new Form of Government (nFOG) became effective July 10, 2011. And while it has been welcomed by many in the denomination, others had concerns about it before it was even approved.
Today, three and a half years later, the light of day has shown us that what looked like monsters in the dark were really only trees.
Unfortunately fear (especially the promise of freedom from fear) sells so the fear mongering continues to circulate online and within certain circles of the denomination. This needs to stop. Especially among our elders in the denomination who have vowed to “be governed by our church’s polity” (W-4.4003e) and to “further the peace, unity, and purity of the church” (W-4.4003g).
The continuing promulgation of these fears are what’s damaging to the denomination, not the nFOG.
Even though time is proving the nFOG is not the monster it was made out to be we still want to have a better understanding of the changes that were made.
As a starting point it is essential to read our nFOG through the lens of The Foundations of Presbyterian Polity. Our Foundations of Presbyterian Polity are set out in the first section of our Book of Order and divided in three sections;
the mission of the church
and our confessions/theology.
It is essential to read The Foundations of Presbyterian Polity first because they guide our understanding of what follows in the Book of Order and guard us against mistaking our own hopes or fears in what we read.
To better understand our Presbyterian form of government it is important to first understand that our form of government is rooted in our theological belief in the unity of the church. This is not a new belief for Presbyterians, see F-3.0201 in the new Form of Government (nFOG) and G-1.0400 in the old.
We believe all of our congregations share a relational connection as one church governed by groups of elders, elected by the members, in ascending councils; sessions, presbyteries, and the General Assembly. It is a thoroughly Presbyterian understanding of church government that places authority in the higher councils of the church over the lower councils. We are one church manifest in 10,000 congregations across the denomination where the actions of one council are the action of the whole. We govern ourselves as Presbyterians.
Our Presbyterian form of government stands in contrast with the Episcopal form of government that places power in the hierarchy of bishops, and the Congregational form of government that places power in the congregation itself. We place power in our elders who we elect and send to the higher councils of the denomination.
In the sense that our higher councils have authority over the lower councils this is “top-down” but we must always keep in mind that the “top” is comprised of elders elected and sent from the “down” and the true head at the top of the church is Jesus Christ.
One change in the nFOG is how we refer to the councils of the church. Previously we referred to our councils as being “separate and independent.” The nFOG describes councils as being “distinct.”
The change reflects a recommendation made in a Special Committee on Middle Governing Body Relationships report from 1999 that pointed out “No PC(USA) governing body is an island; indeed, none can serve its historic role apart from the others.”
Dan Williams served as served as Co-Moderator of the Form of Government Task Force from 2008-2010, and as Vice Moderator of the Assembly Committee on Form of Government Revisions at the 218th General Assembly (2008). In his blog where he shared information about the Foundations of Presbyterian Polity and new Form of Government he wrote this,
“The councils of the church are distinct, with powers and responsibilities reserved to each, as defined by our constitution. However, the councils of the church are not, and never have been, islands unto themselves. We have always governed the less inclusive parts of the church by the more inclusive councils, but never as “us” and “them,” but “we,” as presbyteries, synods, and the General Assembly do not exist except for the ruling elders and teaching elders that constitute them, as determined by the actions of our congregations, sessions, and presbyteries.”
“Separate and independent” is much more Congregational than Presbyterian and did not genuinely reflect our theological understanding that while we are “distinct” we are nonetheless one church. In the body of Jesus Christ we are not independent, we are united.
Despite critiques to the contrary, we are no more “top-down” in the nFOG than we were in the old.
Another change between the old and the new is that members who previously “put themselves under the leadership of their officers, whom they elect” (G-7.0103) in the old Book of Order now “put themselves under the leadership of the session and the higher councils (presbytery, synod, and General Assembly” (G-1.0103) in the nFOG. And I would add, the higher councils whom we elect and send from our pews.
Again, this change in language better reflects a Presbyterian form of government and our theological understanding of the unity we share in the church. It’s a change that reflects what has already been true.
One other change to address is language that was removed in the nFOG that specifically gave members of the congregation “permissive powers” such as “the desire to lodge all administrative responsibility in the session, or the request to presbytery for exemption from one or more requirements because of limited size” (G-7.0304a(5))
Keep in mind, this change is only related to the business permitted by the members of a congregation in an official congregational meeting. I’m not sure what undefined “permissive powers” the members would want, or should even have in our Presbyterian form of government. As Presbyterians we elect elders to represent the members, we are not congregationalists.
I realize there is an example circulating online about a presbytery who was “very aware” that a congregation “now has more limited powers” and was quick to point out that “under the new Form of Government, a congregation is not allowed to have a congregational meeting and take a vote on whether or not to request dismissal from the PCUSA. They did decide that the presbytery could hold a gathering and allow the congregation to indicate its preference.”
It is very misleading to make connection between the loss of “permissive powers” and the presbytery’s actions described above. It’s true members of a congregation do not have the authority to vote to dismiss the congregation under the nFOG, but they didn’t have that authority under the old form either. That authority did (G-11.0103i), and still does (G-3.0303b), reside solely with the presbytery.
Members have always been limited in the actions they can take in a congregational meeting however there is nothing in the nFOG preventing a congregation from taking a non-bind “straw poll” of it’s members. If any presbytery suggest otherwise I contend they are out of line.
In general, the concerns I’ve seen about the structure of church government in the nFOG stem from changes we made in either our language or actual form of government that better reflect our long held theological understanding of the unity we share in the church, as well as the corollary to this which is a perceived loss of independence.
Perhaps it’s not at all surprising that those who are concerned with the PC(USA)’s nFOG are gravitating to ECO with its strong bend toward an independent form of government. A form of government presenting its own opportunities for problems. See Polity Matters…A Lot.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
“In life and in death we belong to God. Through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Sprit, we trust in the one triune God, the Holy One of Israel, whom alone we worship and serve.” – Opening of A Brief Statement of Faith, PC(USA) Book of Confessions
Explicitly or implicitly, all of the creeds and confessions in the PC(USA) Book of Confessions confess the doctrine of the Trinity. Yet concerns exist that in practice the PC(USA) does not hold firm to this doctrine.
One of the places this allegation stems is a from a paper titled “The Trinity: God’s Love Overflowing” that was received by the 217th General Assembly in 2006. The General Assembly declined to approve it. Even though the definition of the Trinity is scrupulously orthodox there was unease with some of the paper’s discussion of language. The paper is not the policy of the denomination.
Jack Haberer, past editor of The Presbyterian Outlook, addresses this paper in the brief video below.
The controversial Re-Imagining conference held in 1993 is often cited as a second example of PC(USA) theology that is dismissive of traditional Trinitarian language and conceptions of God.
There is no question the conference went beyond the boundaries of Reformed theology, however, the conference did not represent the theology of the PC(USA), officially, or even in practice, by any significant number of members in the denomination. Less than 1/10 of 1% of the denomination was in attendance. Furthermore, it would not be fair to assume everyone who attended supported all of the theology presented.
One of the co-planners of the conference was the director of the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s Women’s Ministry Unit, and the PC(USA) did contribute $66,000, but this was not a PC(USA) conference. This was an interfaith, Christian feminist conference sponsored by three Minnesota councils of churches and the Twin Cities Metropolitan Church Commission. A reported 2,200 people were in attendance, many of them from the PC(USA), but there were 40 Christian denominations, 49 states, and 27 countries represented.
The conference was repudiated by the denomination. The director of the Women’s Ministry Unit of the PC(USA) was forced from her job, and the following General Assembly in 2004 officially said, in a ten-page statement, that the controversial event went “beyond the boundaries” of Reformed theology.
Today there is still a small minority in the denomination who continue to re-imagine and advocate for a theology which the denomination as a whole would consider outside the boundaries but this gives us no reason to believe the PC(USA) is in any way, shape, or form changing its doctrine of the Trinity.
Unfortunately there are people for whom the traditional male gender language for God has become a roadblock to hearing the Gospel. Certainly there are boundaries we should not cross, but faithfully re-imagining traditional language for God, to reach these unreached, is a missional task we should not be afraid to embrace.
The PC(USA) stands strong in the Reformed Tradition’s understanding of the Trinity.