And that applies especially when it comes to church sessions deciding to give little or no support to the upper governing bodies of the church. I’m confused.
To be honest, I like this freedom. In both the congregations I have served as moderator of session, I have encouraged our missions committees to develop a few direct sponsorship relationships with missionaries. As a result, these Christian servants’ lives have become members of our extended church family, and their heroic stories have been proclaimed boldly whenever their travels could bring them our way. In turn, church members have sensed God’s call upon them to step out into Christian service, even joining them in global ministries. In other words, the freedom to designate some missions giving has provided a catalyst to foster a missional vision within my congregations.
However, we have not redirected nor withheld in a wholesale way our giving to the missions or per capita budgets of the PC(USA). While I won’t preclude the idea absolutely, I have a hard time conceiving circumstances that could merit participating in a financial boycott within the church.
For one thing, the common-sense teaching of my parents militates against such an action. Mom and Dad taught me at a young age that one’s freedom and authority in any social or organizational context would always be matched by the level of responsibility that one is willing to exercise in that context. And, they said, that person would always be held accountable for their exercise of that freedom, authority and responsibility. Accordingly, if I wanted to drive the family car, I needed to treat it well, put gas in it, come home on time, etc. No pay, no play. Authority, responsibility and accountability always operate as equivalents.
One of the ironies about the call to withhold or redirect funds is that most of those doing so are ones who have exercised the authority of their offices — minister or elder — to influence the denomination to establish and enforce orthodox and moral standards for all church officers. However, some of them are now starving the very governing bodies that are entrusted to enforce those standards. Some are urging colleagues to do the same. No pay, but still expect to play?
The second thing that baffles me is how the authority to withhold or redirect funds matches with being Presbyterian. Having served in non-denominational churches in my teen and young adult years, I could eloquently expound on what we called, “the doctrine of the autonomous local church.” The biblical basis for such a position was dubious, but that did not keep us from excoriating those hierarchical churches with their bishops and clerical domination, especially that of the Roman Catholic Church in which I had been reared.
When God called me to the UPCUSA, and I read for the first time the Book of Order, I was stunned by this amazing ecclesiastical structure that was neither hierarchical nor congregational but connectional. The vision for shared leadership between elders and pastors, for accountability between governing bodies, and for mutuality in mission astounded me both for its biblical footings, and for its sound, thorough reasoning. This structure embodied wisdom.
What I hear being advocated these days seems to fly in the face of the spirit of Presbyterianism. On the one hand, the demand for aggressive enforcement by strong middle and upper governing bodies sounds almost hierarchical. But the demand for freedom for the local church to determine where its money goes sounds utterly congregational. It eschews responsibility for and accountability to the larger church. It
sounds like the “autonomous local church.” It sounds like the very local option conservatives have publicly opposed in matters of ordination standards.
Frankly, we can argue all day about such ordination standards, but Jesus said that where our treasure is there we can find our hearts. If my church’s treasure is autonomous, independent and self-determining, then what does that say about my congregation’s and session’s hearts? If my session chooses its own way in all respects rather than loyally living out the covenant life that is so central to our biblical and reformed faith, what is it modeling and teaching my congregation? Should the members withhold their tithes and offerings, or designate all their monies to pay the salaries of the staff they like to the neglect of those they dislike?
Sure, the letter of the law of our Constitution says we can choose for ourselves. But does the spirit of the law of our theology promote such a model of independence and non-responsibility? Does our ethical judgment get shaped only by what the church Constitution allows? Shouldn’t we aim for a higher standard — one shaped by Scripture itself?
Now please don’t call me contentious. Don’t call me disloyal. I do believe we have done the right thing, exercising our influence to establish good ordination standards. I expect our churches and presbyteries to enforce such standards. But it seems to me that, to be consistent, I’ve got to bear my part of the burden, give my fair share, serve my time, give my per capita, support our shared missions, be connectional, be committed. Others should be able to count on me to give to the larger church the same kind of support I expect of my congregation’s members. On that point, I am not confused.
Posted Feb. 16, 2004
Jack Haberer is pastor, Clear Lake church, Houston, Texas.
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