Presbyterians have embraced a faith that is both rooted in Scripture and in life ó “always reformed, always reforming, under the word of God.” Our ability to articulate that faith and to allow it to shape our life together and in the world, at the same time we engage in the constructive task of restating the faith of the church in new settings has been a hallmark of Presbyterian faithfulness.
Today, this grand tradition is in grave danger of being lost. A number of hostile forces in recent decades have undermined our collective ability to reflect theologically on what we say we believe in Scripture, the confessions and the preaching of the church. There have been a number of new theological currents moving in which Presbyterians have participated ó some good, some not good.
The pervasive secularization of the culture has made it more difficult to distinguish between the word of the Lord and human words. The church has failed to invite some of its most gifted members to seek Godís will in considering a call to the ministry of the Word and Sacrament. As a result the qualifications for the ministry seem to be changing in subtle ways. A generation ago ministers were expected to have a sharp grasp of Scripture and the churchís doctrines, and to be able to apply them in positive and influential ways as leaders of individual congregations. Now, in many presbyteries, examinations of candidates for the ministry are largely devoid of serious doctrinal issues. It is almost considered impolite to challenge another personís grasp of our doctrinal heritage.
The result of this process is that some of our ministers may not really be able to guide elders and deacons into a strong and informed understanding of our faith. And, as a consequence, elders, who in the Presbyterian system participate on an equal basis with ministers in the governance of the church, have not had the nurturing in the faith of the church that they once had.
And so we have a church, with a once-vibrant theological core, but now suffering. It is a church, many of whose pastors have not had rigorous theological training; whose elders have not been nurtured in the faith of the church; whose children are often taught by adults who themselves are less inclined than ever to go to adult church school; whose children frequently have not been to church because theyíve been parked in Sunday school by their parents; and whose members enter with little or no training.
The cycle is nearly complete ó a cycle of increasing ignorance of and indifference to the Scriptures and the confessions and, hence, the faith of the church.
How is that cycle to be broken? Not easily. Our main tactic of late has been to protest the new reality but to do nothing about it, or to demonize and attack those who are supposedly responsible in the leadership of the church and the seminaries.
What is really needed is self-examination by the church as a whole: to tell the truth about the sad condition into which we have fallen, to rearrange our priorities and to commit resources ó human and financial ó to reclaiming the faith of the church.
We still have the intelligence and competence and resources within the membership and leadership of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to do this. Whether we have the will to do it is another matter entirely. Right now we are endlessly distracted by issues, the resolution of which require theological competence of the highest order, at a time when very little is to be found.
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