DALLAS — At certain times, Christians have felt compelled to speak out — compelled by difficulties in their world to write a statement confessing what they believe (and often what they oppose) and why.
Some 20th century examples:
Â· Germany in 1934, as Hitler rose to power (The Barmen Declaration).
Â· South Africa in 1986, in the midst of apartheid (The Confession of Belhar).
Â· Korea in 1988, as people longed for reunification (The Declaration of the Churches of Korea on National Reunification and Peace).
Â· So what can the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) with its own basket of troubles, learn from such confessional statements– known by the Latin term “status confessionis”? (The term basically means “a situation in which confession is demanded,” according to theologian William Stacy Johnson.)
Johnson, a lawyer who teaches systematic theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, also is a member of the Theological Task Force on the Peace, Unity and Purity of the PC(USA). At the group’s meeting in Texas on March 3, Johnson led a discussion outlining four instances in which Christians have felt compelled to write confessional statements — presenting the information not necessarily to encourage the PC(USA) to do the same, but to examine the theological foundations of statements when lives were at stake and when it was considered, as he put it, “make or break” to speak out.
In such situations, “if you don’t confess at this time, you’ve left the precincts of the Christian faith,” said Mark Achtemeier, a task force member who teaches systematic theology at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary.
But Achtemeier said that, while he hopes statements such as the Barmen Declaration from Germany would give the PC(USA) “a pattern of lights to steer by,” he also hopes discussion of them would not create “an enthusiasm for declaring status confessionis all over the place,” because doing so “is a hazardous thing.”
In fact, part of what Johnson emphasized in his presentation was how such confessions have been rooted in faith in Jesus Christ more than anything else. In the end, no matter what the difficulties, Jesus alone is the source of theological judgments, Johnson said. He put it this way: Jesus Christ alone is Lord of all of life.
And that message — that faith in Jesus is at the core of everything — may turn out to be at the heart of anything the task force decides to say in its final report, Achtemeier suggested.
SPEAKING OUT AGAINST INJUSTICE
Johnson’s presentation was like a tall layer cake — some bites of history, some of theology, some of current events, all mixed together.
For example, he explained that theologian Karl Barth wrote most of the Barmen Declaration during a lunch break of a meeting, when the German Lutherans went off to eat and Barth did not, staying behind with a cup of strong coffee and a Brazilian cigar. By the time the Lutherans came back from lunch, Barth had written almost all the declaration.
At one point Johnson and John “Mike” Loudon, a pastor from Lakeland, Florida, got into a pointed but polite back-and-forth about the U.S. government’s position today on torture — an exchange that jump-started more conversation about when churches should speak up, what constitutes injustice, and what are the greatest sins confronting the church.
Emphasizing that he was speaking as an individual, not a task force member, Johnson voiced outrage about recent accounts in the news media that a Canadian citizen had been detained while changing planes at Kennedy airport in New York, was sent to Syria, imprisoned for a year and tortured, “real torture as in physical pain,” Johnson said.
Earlier, Johnson had argued that belief in Jesus Christ cannot lead to indifference, and that theological statements should “stand the test of being with people in suffering.”
If the U.S. government countenances torture, then Christians should be in the streets protesting, Johnson said, and Presbyterians should consider that a much greater concern than the denomination’s internal fight over whether to ordain lesbians and gays.
Later in the presentation, Loudon protested a little, saying he wished Johnson had not brought in the subject of the U.S. government and torture, and that he was concerned that reporters in the room might write stories saying the task force had become sidetracked in talking about the war in Iraq.
Johnson responded that he hadn’t said a word about the Iraq war, and, regarding allegations involving the U.S. government and torture: “I’m disappointed in the church for not lifting it up more prominently than it has … I think you’re dead wrong.”
Likewise, Loudon shot back.
Johnson: “History will agree with me.”
Loudon: “You weren’t here for the discussion of Hananiah,” a reference to a Bible study that Frances Taylor Gench, a New Testament professor, had led the day before drawing on a passage in Jeremiah about a confrontation between Jeremiah and Hananiah, who turned out to be a false prophet and was dead within months. The previous day, before Johnson had been able to arrive at the meeting, there had been plenty of Hananiah jokes — so at this quip from Loudon, others on the task force started to laugh.
“I’m not laughing,” Johnson responded, saying he’s disturbed that the use of torture, which used to be considered outside the U.S. tradition, now has become a debatable issue. “It’s to the church’s shame that we’re not in the streets over this.”
Johnson said some in the church want to make ordaining gay and lesbians a “wedge issue” but he agrees with those who argue that militarism and torture are greater concerns than some moral issues that others raise.
So “why not put all sins on an equal level,” why elevate some over others, Loudon asked. Johnson responded that “some sins have a more pernicious effect than others,” comparing the impact of torturing someone, for example, with the case of two gay men prosecuted for sodomy after having sex, consensually, in their own home.
Later, José Luis Torres-MilÃ n, a pastor from Puerto Rico, broadened the discussion further, raising concerns about other injustices — about immigrants dying as they try to enter the United States to escape poverty in their own countries, about Puerto Ricans who are not permitted to vote in U.S. presidential elections but are being killed and injured serving in the U.S. military in Iraq.
People in many places “are dealing with issues of death and life and they are proclaiming Christ,” while Presbyterians are concerned about whether the denomination will live or die, Torres-MilÃ n said.
Johnson made it clear that sometimes Christians have issued confessions of faith in Jesus Christ — and pointing out the false doctrine surrounding them — even when doing so could result in death. Some German Christians who opposed Hitler, including Dietrich Bonhoeffer, paid with their lives. The 1973 Theological Declaration of Korean Christians, a declaration written by Koreans living under the regime of President Park Chung-hee and which criticized his oppressive regime and declared God “the ultimate vindicator of the oppressed, the weak and the poor,” had had to be written anonymously .
Johnson also explored some of the landscape of when confessions are written. John Calvin cited examples of theological differences that are “adiaphora,” that should not be considered church-dividing, not at the center of things — such as whether arthritics should be required to kneel at worship. Others have argued for the idea of “Processus confessionis,” for making theological declarations not in response to a particular situation at a particular time but to a more pervasive set of circumstances where people’s lives are at stake — for example, economic injustice. The idea of processus confessionis has been controversial, Johnson said, with some considering it too vague.
And Jack Haberer, a pastor from Houston, pointed out that sometimes, in their ordinary lives, individual Christians are able to transcend differences that others contend ought to be church splitting — describing two men he knows who come down on opposite sides of controversial church issues but are able to work together on church projects and have become good friends.
Loudon referred to “a church that’s divided into red and blue presbyteries.”
And Barbara Everitt Bryant, former director of the U.S. census, said that what Haberer had been describing — people working things out among themselves at the grassroots, despite their differences — is known as “purple states.”
Exactly where all this is leading — well, who knows? But the task force must present its report to the PC(USA) by September, and is likely to have things to say about what this denomination should be speaking out about and whether its theological divisions are worth splitting over.
The theological declarations that Johnson discussed can be found on the website of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, at www.warc.ch/pc/20th/index.html .
DISCERNING THE SPIRIT
Earlier, Gench, who teaches New Testament at Union Theological Seminary and Presbyterian School of Christian Education in Richmond, had led another Bible study session about discerning God’s leading. How, she asked, does one test to see whether something is indeed the pull of the Holy Spirit, or instead is some form of false teaching? In the New Testament, “when someone spoke in inspiration the community did not simply listen gape-mouthed and accept it without question,” but tried to figure out whether it was truth, Gench said. “Every word had to be tested, weighed, assessed before it could be approved as the word of God.”
She listed three methods that appear in the Bible as ways of doing that testing.
Â· First, the norm of earlier revelation — does what’s being said support the gospel story of following God and seeking salvation through Jesus Christ?
Â· Second, an ethical test — does the prophet’s character and conduct support the prophet’s message? Loudon used the example of Jimmy Swaggart, who preached an orthodox message but whose personal conduct drove people away from the church.
Â· Third, is there a community benefit? Is the prophet willing to allow the broader Christian community to critique the prophecy and see if it seems like God’s word?
Discernment is difficult work, Gench said. As the apostle Paul put it, “We see in a mirror, dimly.”
The task force went into closed session the afternoon of March 3, and planned to meet in private for a day and a half. It has scheduled a brief open session for the evening of March 4 to talk about what it has accomplished at this Dallas gathering and where to go next.