First, there were intimations that the expectations some have of the task force will not be met (although what the task force will do, particularly on the most controversial questions, has not been made clear).
Barbara Wheeler, president of Auburn Seminary, said during a presentation on unity that “I found it daunting” and theologically distressing to listen to comments at this year’s General Assembly in Denver suggesting that “the task force is going to produce the magic pill that is going to fix the church.” Some critics have suggested that “if we would stop frittering away our time on theological questions” and on getting to know each other, the task force could move faster to fix things, Wheeler said.
But Wheeler contended first that “I don’t think that is our job as a task force to decide who or what is right in the current debates” about Christology, biblical interpretation or ordination standards.
And she and others made it clear they think the task force might well have significant things to say to the church on issues beyond whether gays and lesbians should be ordained. In other words, as Presbyterians today consider if they want to be one church — not just a denomination in turmoil, but part of the greater body of Christianity — they should take into account theologically what that really means.
To do that, the task force spent part of the time at its meeting Aug. 6-8 talking about what it means for a denomination to really care about unity, about purity and about peace.
Both Wheeler and Mark Achtemeier, a professor of systematic theology at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, built their remarks around passage from the second chapter of Ephesians, where Paul tells the church at Ephesus that ” by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”
Among the lessons Wheeler challenged the group to consider:
Unity in the church is a gift from God — a result of the sacrifice Christ made on the cross and the love that God extends to all sinners through that sacrifice — and is not the result of the hard work of human beings. “This is God’s church,” Wheeler said. “We can’t boast as Ephesians said or take any credit for the faithfulness of the church,” and it’s not in the task force’s power to make the church more peaceful, unified or pure — to fix what’s broken. That’s the work of the Holy Spirit. “This is God’s church, this is Christ’s body,” she said, “not ours.”
Despite the current inclination of people to church-shop and to think of picking a church in consumer terms — finding a church that meets their needs — that’s not what the Reformed tradition teaches. “We believe in election,” Wheeler said, so if a person is doing ministry in a particular church or denomination, “then you are there by God’s gracious choice, not yours. It’s God’s will that you be there.”
The church of Jesus Christ isn’t made up just of the people we agree with or like — God’s love is open to all. “The church of Jesus Christ is different from our affinity groups,” the special-interest groups so busy in the life of the church, Wheeler said. “We don’t have trouble with the idea that we can be reconciled to God,” that our sins can be forgiven, but we do tend to have much more trouble with the idea of being reconciled to one another, she said. But if Christ can break down the barrier separating humans from God, it shouldn’t be so hard, Wheeler said, for God to break down the barrier between her and someone else, “who just like me is a sinner.”
The Presbyterian church and indeed the Christian church through the ages has almost always been in conflict — so divisions and controversies are nothing new; they should be expected. Whatever the task force does, “life in the Presbyterian Church is not suddenly going to become easy,” Wheeler said. “But the church might wake up to the fact that it’s equipped by Jesus Christ to do the tough stuff, to face the hard issues.”
Wheeler acknowledged that the points she was making were counter-cultural and not popular — the ideas that God chooses us, that we don’t choose our churches and we don’t get to choose those who are in the church with us. Life in the church involves suffering and the hard work of reconciliation, as well as comfort and joy and rest. “And unity is not an option” — we have no choice. It’s a requirement of God, what Sarah Sanderson-Doughty, a pastor from New York state, later called “an integral part of our identity.”
Wheeler also spoke of the breaking of unity — how splits do sometimes occur. Sometimes, it’s from circumstance, she said — someone moves away and leaves a church, or is called to ministry somewhere else. (Wheeler said a sociologist friend calls that, “the circulation of the saints.”)
But that’s different, she said, from what’s not permitted. “Christians may not break fellowship with other Christians who offend them by their opinions and actions” — not unless they determine that those people are not Christians, that they’re outside the bounds completely and are worshiping other gods. Otherwise, “we may not leave them and we may not banish them because we don’t agree with them,” Wheeler said. To do so is essentially to deny the power of Christ’s death to make us whole together with Christ, to say “the differences among Presbyterians are too big for Christ to deal with. It’s blasphemy” and “violence against God. It breaks the body. It’s a crucifying act.”
And remember, she said, John Calvin taught that “no church is without blemish” and that if one searches for a perfect church, “then ultimately you’re going to end up with no church at all.”
Achtemeier too warned of the dangers of trying too hard and too stringently to make the church pure — as if a sinful people could do that. The church’s righteousness, he said, is established by Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, “and everything else is our efforts at catch-up.”
The Bible teaches that people are saved by grace and faith, not works — “we are a church of forgiven sinners who have been given a tremendous gift,” Achtemeier said. And the path to God — the way one gets there — is a matter of faith, and sometimes mysterious too. He cited the account from Luke’s gospel of a woman who had a constant flow of bleeding and who touched the hem of Jesus’ robe, certain that if she did — almost superstitiously, as if she were being zapped by some force — that she would be healed. Some might scoff at that, Achtemeier said. But Jesus told her, “Daughter, your faith has saved you” — suggesting, Achtemeier said, that “almost anything goes, as long as it brings people to Jesus Christ.”
That’s not to say that works and discipleship aren’t important, but they are the consequences of faith, Achtemeier said. As he put it: when the Holy Spirit hits you hard enough, “you come to Jesus looking for help,” then “our good works are praise for God’s generosity,” sort of a hymn of praise for what God has done.
Achtemeier also offered what he described as some snapshots from church history — revisiting a controversy from the fourth century between the followers of St. Augustine of Hippo and those of the Donatist church. That discussion of what was considered “pure enough” emerged from a time of persecution — where the bishops, being tortured for their beliefs, broke under the torture and handed over to their persecutors their only copies of the sacred Scriptures. Later, the question was raised of whether someone who cracked like that under torture was pure enough to lead the church.
The two groups, the Augustinians and the Donatists, had very different ideas about that. And their ways of thinking also reflected, Achtemeier said, two markedly different views about purity and sin and the power of God’s grace.
The Augustinians viewed the church as a hospital for sinners — intensive care for the broken, and a place where sin had been broken and lost its power, so “we don’t need to be so scared of it,” Achtemeier said.
But the Donatists said “sin is powerful and contagious” — a dangerous force the church needed to separate from, setting up strong boundaries to keep the contaminant far away. In that view, rather than drawing near to the sinners, “sin is a power you’ve got to run from because it’s real and it’s dangerous,” Achtemeier said.
The Augustinians didn’t wink at sin, but neither did they shun sinners or feel the need to separate from them, he said. Instead, they thought “Christ loved sinners,” and wanted the opportunity to be like Christ — to show, as Christ did, love, forbearance and caring.
There was some discussion in the task force about redemption — about whether it’s necessary, for example, for one to acknowledge one’s sin to receive forgiveness. Is saying that all are welcome in the church the same as saying “whoever’s here is just fine,” no matter what they’re doing, asked Joe Coalter, a professor at Louisville Seminary.
What’s being affirmed, Wheeler said, is that “we are all not fine. And we’re there.”
Charles Wiley, of the PC(USA)’s Office of Theology and Worship, and Leanne Van Dyk, a professor of theology at Western Theological Seminary, a Reformed Church in America seminary in Holland, Michigan, led the discussion on peace — focusing on the idea of extraordinary and ordinary discipline in the church.
Ordinary discipline, as Wiley has defined it, is “the practice of the church to assist Christians to stay true to their deepest desires” — a way of helping people to live a faithful life and to honor the vows they’ve voluntarily made. And extraordinary discipline, he says, is “either holding persons to their vows against their wishes, or resolving a dispute between parties where there is no agreement on the good.”
Ordinary discipline is not holding people’s feet to the fire, Wiley said, but holding them to promises they made voluntarily and which they have said are important for them to keep.
Both Wiley and Van Dyk said they were speaking to the task force in part from personal experience. Wiley said he’s been driven in his work by a question a former co-worker, a Roman Catholic, asked him years ago: “How do Protestants decide what church they go to?”
And Van Dyk said she’s motivated in part by “my own longing for what I know the church can be, but so rarely is.”
The heart of their argument had to do with the importance of ordinary discipline in creating a church of peace — an understanding that as much as we may want to do the right thing, and have promised to do so, we often need help — the support of a community, and can’t always do it alone. Joan Kelley Merritt, an elder from Seattle, gave an example — a time when her pastor called her in, when she was serving as moderator of a governing body, to engage her in conversation with another church member who felt wronged by something Merritt had done in her role as moderator.
Merritt said at first she felt misunderstood and uncomfortable, but realized as things went along that her pastor was doing something that doesn’t happen enough — bringing two people together and saying, “This person has been hurt by you or there’s a misunderstanding. Can we sit down and talk about it together?”
More often, Wiley said, congregations practice a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy about the troubles people are having. “In many ways, we’d just as soon not know, and we don’t want to tell anybody.”
And Wheeler said many times people don’t even feel free enough to ask for prayers when they’re hurting and really need it. “In church life today 90 percent of what’s really going on in people’s lives, what matters most, is under the table and not on the table,” she said. The prayer lists are mostly about cancer or pneumonia or heart attacks, “illnesses that are not their fault” (rather than, say, drinking problems or divorce), but “this is 10 percent of what needs to be prayed about.”
For there to be more emphasis on ordinary discipline — a bonding together to lift up baptismal promises of the people in congregations — Wiley and Van Dyk argue there need to be tangible and specific changes in Presbyterian worship practices.
The worship liturgy, the patterns of hospitality and confession and forgiveness in community life, and the congregation’s patterns of service to the world should be well-planned and focused, not “a haphazard collection of stuff the church does,” Van Dyk said, “but a coherent vision of the body of Christ called to do God’s work in the world.”
She also argues for making the language and symbolism of baptism more pronounced in congregations, to make it more vivid to people how the “staggeringly huge” promises of baptism unite people directly with Christ. The baptismal font “should not be hidden behind the praise team,” Van Dyk said, but should be at the front of the church, and filled with water every week.
Some task force members expressed skepticism about how likely that is to actually happen. That kind of emphasis on baptism isn’t there in most churches, said Mike Loudon, a pastor from Florida, who said most Presbyterians worry instead that the baptism will drag on too long.
When babies are baptized, some view it as almost entertainment — especially if the cute baby pulls the minister’s glasses off, said Barbara Everitt Bryant, a research scientist at the University of Michigan Business School.
Van Dyk said that may be true — but that doesn’t change her mind. “I am convinced,” she said, “that sacramental renewal by God’s grace is going to be key to the renewal of the Presbyterian church.”
One example: her seminary — Western, in Michigan — decided several years ago to serve Communion every Friday morning during worship, and that practice “has transformed our community,” Van Dyk said. Now, many graduating students describe weekly Communion as the most formative experience of their seminary years.
Achtemeier said he sees these practices of ordinary discipline — making a covenant, breaking bread together, worshiping, sharing Communion — as already transforming the task force itself. And Jack Haberer, a pastor from Houston, spoke of the power of the Lord’s Supper — how even people who’ve been arguing relax a little and put aside their differences and wish each other Christ’s peace when they gather around the table.
But Coalter presented a real challenge: how to build those practices beyond the local level, how to do such things in a diverse, contentious, geographically divided denomination. Wiley said he didn’t have all the answers, but he does have ideas about what a church really is — a place where people “worship, eat, spit and fight” with each other, where they engage heart-to-heart, not “a hierarchical, heady, mechanistic thing.”