Unity in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) today will arise if people will come together in agreement in five different areas.
1) Unity will arise out of a shared brokenness. We are a broken people. We are a broken denomination. It is time to admit our brokenness. It is time to acknowledge our sinfulness, our pride, our arrogance, our rebellion, our greed, our lust for status and success and our selfishness. As long as we continue to point the finger at everybody else, and say this problem is their fault, we will not be united as a church. Unity will only come when we all realize we are in this mess together, and we are all a part of the problem.
2) Unity will arise out of a shared commitment to Jesus Christ. We need to recommit ourselves once again to Jesus Christ. We need a shared understanding of the person and work of Christ. We can mouth the same words and say the same creeds, but we don’t have the same understandings of the same words. We need a shared understanding of the person and work of Christ. We need to join hands with each other in recommitting ourselves to Christ alone.
3) Unity will arise out of a shared theology. What are the few, core, non-negotiable beliefs of our church, which truly define what it means to be a Presbyterian? Unity can happen if we return to our historical position of essential tenets. The Reformed principle of “in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity” will still work today. The problem is that we have repeatedly resisted attempts to define what our essentials are. Unity will arise when we determine what beliefs are essential for congregations and people who want to be called Presbyterian. A connectional church must have a connectional theology as its glue. We will not be bonded to one another without the same core beliefs. If we can define our essential beliefs, we can live with lots of diversity on the non-essentials. The reason we struggle with diversity today is that we can’t agree on what is essential and what is not. If we did that, our tolerance would increase, not decrease.
4) Unity will arise out of a shared adherence to our Constitution. We need a set of shared rules and shared ethics to govern ourselves by, which we all agree to live by. No organization or civilization can survive whose members deliberately and defiantly disobey its laws. No organization or civilization can survive whose leaders do not enforce its laws. Without enforcement, there is chaos and anarchy.
No one likes to enforce laws. We all wish that everyone would have an innate desire to obey the laws, but that won’t happen. In such cases, loving discipline must be applied. Nobody likes to discipline another person, but it is our obligation if we love our brothers and sisters. In Revelation 3:19, God says, “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent.” It is the parent who loves a child who disciplines that child. The parent who does not discipline the child is the one who does not truly love the child. Without a shared adherence to our constitution, we will not experience unity in our church.
5) Unity will arise out of shared vision and values. Every healthy organization has a vision that all its members believe in and pursue. It answers the questions ‘Why are we here? What is our purpose? What are we working towards?’ We cannot be all things to all people. We cannot be everything to everyone. We must prioritize our efforts and focus on doing a few things well.
We need a sense of what our shared values are. We have lots of values, but which ones take precedence over others? We have shifted from being chaplains in a Christendom culture to being missionaries in a secular culture. We used to send out mission workers, and while we still do, we have also become the sent ones. We must recover a sense of what it means to be the missional church in North America today.
Our former modern worldview was naturalistic, overly optimistic, humanistic and culture-bound. The new post-modern worldview that is emerging is much more supernaturalistic, realistic, theistic and cross-cultural. However, without a shared sense of vision and values, we will not have the unity we seek, as we seek to minister to the hurting world around us.
The disintegration of a human denomination should not surprise us. We have promoted diversity over unity. Our culture has become more decentralized. We have adopted a culture-bound corporate hierarchical model which had a limited “shelf-life” to begin with, and which is now being replaced by a more relational network model. Active and passive refusal to define and live by a set of core ideas, beliefs, vision and values has been sending us in opposite directions for years. Uniting a divided denomination will not be easy. The truth is only God can do it. We must be willing to participate, to repent, to commit, to obey, to communicate and to pray. We must wait on the Lord and see where he leads. Then, we must be willing to follow, even if Christ leads us where we don’t want to go.
Posted April 18, 2002
Clark Cowden is executive presbyter, San Joaquin Presbytery.
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