DALLAS — The Theological Task Force on the Peace, Unity and Purity of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) gathered again in Texas beginning March 2 — and this is considered to be a crucial meeting, coming just six months before the group’s September 15 deadline for releasing its report to the church. Its only other meeting before the deadline is scheduled for July.
But the heart of this meeting — the most serious discussion — will be held behind closed doors. The task force has voted unanimously to close basically half its meeting to observers. Its leaders have promised to take no formal votes in private session, as that’s not permitted, but whatever direction-setting movement takes place, whatever bargaining or truth-telling or discerning what God wants, will happen outside the view of the church.
There also was discussion at this meeting about the need to come out of the July meeting “singing out of the same hymnbook,” as task force member Barbara Everitt Bryant put it, and to develop “common talking points,” as Vicky Curtiss explained it, to sell the report to the church. The plan for how to communicate the report to the church is still being developed.
And then of course there’s that other question.
What does the task force intend to do?
On the most divisive questions facing the church — including that of ordaining gays and lesbians — what will that report say?
To learn that, Presbyterians will have to wait.
There was, however, some discussion of discernment — of how one knows when and where the Holy Spirit is leading, and if it’s possible to be wrong about that. When two sides both claim to be following God, and they want to go in different ways, how can those involved tell who is right?
Frances Taylor Gench, who teaches New Testament at Union Theological Seminary and Presbyterian School of Christian Education in Richmond, is again leading Bible study for the task force, focusing this time on some passages about prophets who claim to know the will of God.
She turned in the first session to the Old Testament, to the 28th chapter of Jeremiah, in which both Jeremiah and Hananiah, essentially dueling prophets, try to explain what it is that God wants for the people of Jerusalem — whether God is willing to allow the Babylonians’ rule over Jerusalem to continue. They come to different conclusions — Hananiah says within two years the Babylonians will leave, and Jeremiah that it is God’s will for the people to submit to Babylonian control and to serve King Nebuchadezzar of Babylon for as long as God desires. In the end, God speaks. Jeremiah accuses Hananiah of lying to the people; within months, Hananiah is dead.
What does this passage say, Gench asked, about the signs of a true prophet?
Answers weren’t easy to come by.
“Whenever I hear someone promising a quick fix, I’m suspicious,” said José Luis Torres-MilÃ n, a minister from Puerto Rico. But Mark Achtemeier, who teaches systematic theology at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, pointed out that sometimes God has acted fast — witness the resurrection of Jesus.
Maybe discernment takes time, said Sarah Sanderson-Doughty, a pastor from Lowville, New York. In verse 11, Jeremiah walks away for a while.
“Maybe God’s going to do what God’s going to do,” regardless of what a prophet says, said John Wilkinson, a pastor from Rochester, New York.
Maybe prophets tell people uncomfortable things, things they’re not ready to hear (it couldn’t have been easy, Gench said, to hear the message, “Submit to the Babylonians.”) And John “Mike” Loudon, a pastor from Florida, said folks on the task force could use that to argue, “Absolutely, our side speaks the hard words” (and so, presumably, God is with us).
Maybe discernment involves a group of Christians together seeking God’s leading, not just one person, said Scott Anderson, executive director of the Wisconsin Council of Churches. When others speak, “we have to pay attention to those voices, no matter how difficult that may be.”
The task force also considered a draft of a report regarding denominations, and specifically the question of whether splitting up a denomination, which some suggest the PC(USA) should do because of its theological differences, is in effect splitting the body of Christ. The report was co-written by Milton ‘Joe’ Coalter, the library director at Union Theological Seminary and Presbyterian School of Christian Education in Richmond, and Jack Haberer, a pastor from Houston.
Achtemeier, who presented the report, said the question was suggested by the task force’s preliminary report, which stated, in part, “Christians cannot even entertain the notion of severing their ties with sisters and brothers in Christ without also placing themselves in severe jeopardy of being severed from Christ himself.”
But the PC(USA) is a denomination, not the entire church, Achtemeier reminded the task force. What might be said about denominational splits — what are the theological implications of those?
Once again, there were no definite answers, and it’s not clear whether this draft will even become part of the task force’s final report. But among the points Achtemeier made:
Â· The invisible church
Some argue that the idea of the “invisible church” — all the elect believers from all eternity, Achtemeier said — is where the church’s oneness is grounded, so “changing or leaving a particular denomination has little bearing on our participation in the one (invisible) church, which stands over and beyond particular denominational entities,” the draft paper states.
But the paper contends that that would be a misunderstanding — that the invisible church isn’t an abstraction or just an idea, but a collection of real people, Christ’s followers. “It is the boundaries of the church that are invisible, not the church itself,” the paper states. So “to claim oneness by virtue of our participation in an abstraction while shunning the actual fellowship of Christ’s people is an exercise in hypocrisy.”
Â· God desired unity
Dividing the church into separate denominations is not what God desires and is “at odds with the will of God revealed in Scripture,” the report states. Even if there have been times — the Reformation, for example — when divisions have led to church renewal, “multiplying divisions within the fellowship of committed Christians moves the church in a direction away from the will and intention of God rather than toward it,” the report states.
With so many denominations now, “can we say it’s a matter of no consequence that we split and make another one?” Achtemeier asked. “Heaven knows there are hundreds of them already. What difference does it make if there’s another one?”
He contended that “this is not what Jesus was praying for and falls short of God’s ultimate will for the church.”
Â· Does the reason for leaving matter?
When people leave a denomination, does it make a difference why?
Achtemeier gave an example of when it would be understandable — a Presbyterian family moves to a small town where there is no Presbyterian church, so they start worshipping with the Methodists. They don’t leave in anger; they don’t go seeking Christians who think more like they do; they don’t try to take others with them.
But some North American Christians have a consumerist attitude towards church, the paper argues. “American Christians are tempted to view themselves as religious ‘consumers’ seeking a denominational ‘product’ that fits their desires and preferences. Consequently, they shop around for a `brand’ of church that suits them, and if they become dissatisfied with one brand, they switch to another that is more of their liking. This sort of consumerist approach to church life is a distortion of the Gospel and a denial of the true basis of the church,” the report states, presuming that church is some sort of voluntary association of people who think alike, not God’s creation.
“Breaking ties with committed Christians in order to seek a communion more in keeping with our own desires proclaims the false Gospel of a church that is the creation of our own preferences, held together by our own strength,” the report states.
But some task force members raised concerns about that conclusion, pointing out that many who worship today in Presbyterian churches came from other faith traditions — that would include some of the task force members themselves.
If a family has children, and they leave a church because it’s not equipped to nurture those children in the faith, “Is that consumerism?” asked Barbara Wheeler, president of Auburn Theological Seminary in New York. “If God shows you the deep meaning of liturgical life and the congregation of another denomination is a better actor of liturgy than yours, is that consumerism? These are tough issues.”
What if one denomination is seen as a leg of the body of Christ, another as an arm — different but both part of the whole, asked Lonnie Oliver, a pastor from Georgia.
“Calling the Presbyterians an arm and the Southern Baptists a leg kind of glides over the fact that there’s almost no common life together,” Achtemeier said.
In the end, the task force agreed to keep thinking about all this.
It’s expected to do more Bible study with Gench on March 3, plus a presentation from Stacy Johnson, a professor from Princeton Theological Seminary, that will include discussion of status confessionis — what happens when the divisions are over confessional issues, issues on which the church stands or falls.
After that, closed doors, again.