Wilkinson, who’s pastor of Third church, Rochester, N.Y., and has himself been involved in the current roiling in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) over whether to ordain homosexuals, knows that these men poured their passion and their intellect and their political finesse into a blistering theological battle in the 1920s over what Presbyterians should teach and believe — a battle that led to a compromise crafted by the Swearingen Commission that, decades later, some praise and others say didn’t solve the problem at all.
But here’s some of what Wilkinson — a member of the Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity and Purity in the PC(USA) — says the lessons of history have to tell:
“This is not the first time we’ve been here.” Presbyterians have fought over doctrine and right belief through the centuries, and a map of Presbyterian schism over the years is “more complicated to read than a Chicago train map,” Wilkinson said. Conflict and compromise have been part of the fabric of American Presbyterianism from the beginning.
The debates, while passionate and persistent, have not resolved the questions of what are considered essential and necessary tenets. Down through the years the tensions have persisted — between latitude and local autonomy, orthodoxy and central authority, between the right of the individual to believe as he or she does and the right to insist on certain theological truths.
And for Presbyterians, there is an “inextricable linkage” between theology and polity. What Presbyterians believe and how Presbyterians behave cannot and should not, in Wilkinson’s view, be separate.
As the 1983 report “Historic Principles, Conscience and Church Government” puts it: “The polity of Presbyterianism — with its strong insistence on the rule of the majority and the rights of the minority — is indeed the way which Presbyterians affirm their unity amid their diversity. This polity not only organizes dissent and diversity, it is itself a product of dissent, diversity, compromise and the creative resolution of bitter conflict.”
It also stated: “The people of God in Scripture are often engaged in conflict. There is no such thing as a biblical picture of serenity as the reality of God’s covenant people. The three different values which must always be before us — peace, purity and unity — will always be in tension. Those who seek a church free of conflict are seeking something that cannot be had in this world except at the price of disobedience, avoidance of difficult issues, or subservience to the will of a few. The diversity of the church is its strongest asset in seeking to discover God’s will and that diversity will be expressed in very different opinions.”
So, led by Wilkinson, the task force spent some time talking about polity and church history — about the Adopting Act of 1729 and the Swearingen Commission in the 1920s, about the paths taken at particularly tense moments in the church.
The Adopting Act, approved by the Synod of Philadelphia, held that ministers of the synod should declare agreement with the Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Westminster Confession of Faith, unless the minister declared a “scruple” involving some aspect of those documents. (Scruple, Wilkinson said, comes from the Latin word for having a little pebble in one’s shoe, “and it bugs you so much you have to do something about it.”)
The scruple could only involve aspects “not essential and necessary” in doctrine, worship or government. But the Adopting Act never defines what those “essential and necessary” elements of belief might be.
Mark Achtemeier, who teaches theology at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, said the Adopting Act is “utterly vacuous” on the question of what’s essential and necessary doctrine and also doesn’t answer “essential and necessary for what? For being Presbyterian, for being in Christ, for being saved?” That, he said, is “what’s come back to bite the church.”
The same thing shows up in the Historic Principles, which says there’s diversity in nonessentials but doesn’t define that, said Joe Coalter, a professor and until recently the interim president at Louisville Seminary.
Later, after small-group discussion, task force members said they’d talked about the idea, as Coalter put it, of “what peace looked like if conflict is perennial.”
With the understanding that conflict is inevitable, there may be a Œdifferent understanding of peace” — not an expectation of “everybody is happy,” but that people will be frank about their differing views but still able to break bread together, said Sarah Sanderson-Doughty, a pastor from New York state.
And Achtemeier said people should definitely put aside “this notion of a golden age before everything came unglued” — that’s never happened, he said, in all of Christian history.
Some also raised questions about whether the Presbyterian church deals differently with behavior versus beliefs — whether, as Jack Haberer, a pastor from Houston, put it, “We legislate behavior, we don’t legislate belief.” The PC(USA), for example, won’t ordain someone who’s not practicing fidelity if they’re married or chastity if they’re single. But it will ordain people who publicly say that those ordination standards are dead wrong.
Before coming to this meeting, task force members read Bradley J. Longfield’s book, The Presbyterian Controversy, which chronicles the doctrinal disputes that spread among Presbyterians in the 1910s and 1920s like dandelions taking over a field.
And they spent one morning in Chicago discussing Longfield’s book and the impact of the Commission of 1925, also known as the Swearingen Commission, which reported back to the church in 1926 and 1927, following years of fierce debate in the denomination over doctrine and belief — touching everything from evolution and biblical interpretation to Sabbath keeping and the use of alcohol. The task force members talked about the personalities of the men involved, issues of power and theology, and the reality that the commission wrote a report that some applauded but others said didn’t prevent a split of the denomination not too many years after and which, once again, did not answer the question of what are the essential tenets of the church.
Earlier, the General Assemblies of 1910 and 1916 had adopted “five fundamentals” that candidates for ordination were required to affirm — what some described as the “essential and necessary’ doctrines of the inerrancy of Scripture, the virgin birth, substitutionary atonement, bodily resurrection and the miracle-working power of Christ.
But the 1923 General Assembly removed that requirement for ordination. And the Swearingen Commission, while not turning its back on the five fundamentals themselves, also spoke of the need for latitude in doctrinal matters, particularly as it served the evangelical ministry of the church.
It stated that “the Presbyterian system admits of diversity of view where the core of truth is identical.” It spoke of the ties of the heart binding Presbyterians together, and said “the Church has flourished best and showed most clearly the good hand of God upon it, when it laid aside its tendencies to stress those differences, and put the emphasis on its unity of spirit.”
Some contend that in that report, the church essentially avoided the controversial issues, which caused a “theological identity crisis” which persists today, Sarah Sanderson-Doughty said, summarizing points raised in a small-group discussion of the Swearingen Commission report. Others talked about the issue of what does it mean to have a theological core?
All of these issues — what’s necessary and essential doctrine, the way in which the church engages the culture and exercises discipline, questions of local latitude and overall standards, biblical interpretation, power and jurisdiction — still are on the table today, and indeed are at the heart of what this task force is considering, Wilkinson said.