The goal of the Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church is to “lead the PCUSA in spiritual discernment of our Christian identity in and for the 21st century.” This is no small task, especially given some of the issues contributing to our denominational quagmire — the authority and interpretation of the Bible, our understanding of the person and work of Jesus Christ, and the standards for ordination. Thus several Task Force members have assured us that we should not expect a “magic bullet.” There isn’t one. But what should we hope for as we anticipate the September 2005 “final” report? (Note: this article was written prior to the July 19 release of preliminary reports.)
Based on the preliminary report to the 216th G.A. and various public comments by Task Force members, it’s fair to expect their report to include orthodox statements on the Trinity and Christology. This is very good. It is no small matter to confess belief in the eternally triune God who entered human history in and as Jesus Christ to save lost humanity from sin. Indeed, I hope the report will confidently confess Jesus Christ as the only Lord and Savior of the world and exhort the church to call all people to faith in him. This would be a great start toward greater faithfulness in the 21st century. On the one hand, it is not a happy thing to have to remind the church of these basics of our faith. On the other hand, it would be a hopeful sign if we unequivocally confess these basic teachings of historic Christian orthodoxy.
Yet such a confession does not stand alone, for it is grounded in the authority of Scripture and a respect for both classical Christian tradition generally and the Reformed tradition in particular. It is very important that the Task Force speak to the church about the authority and interpretation of the Bible. Beneath each of our current controversies is the question of proper biblical interpretation, from which the authority of Scripture cannot be separated. The “worst-case” scenario for the upcoming report would find it approving the present cacophony of interpretive practices as authentically Presbyterian. We hope that instead the Task Force will help us recover a mode of biblical interpretation that humbly seeks to discern and submit to the intended meaning of the texts, accepting Scripture as a whole, along with the challenges that God presents therein. If we are to do so, we must clearly reject interpretive schemes which raise any human principle or ideology above the Lord Jesus and the whole counsel of God. Hopefully the Task Force will speak about guidelines for interpretation, such as those in the1982 policy statement on “Presbyterian Understanding and Use of Holy Scripture.” In order to manifest peace, unity, and purity, we need a common understanding of what it means to be reforming secundum verbum dei (according to the Word of God).
The report’s polity section is certainly the most anticipated, because it will address the most immediately explosive issue, ordination standards. This aspect of the Task Force’s discussions has been most secretive. We should look for coherence with the other sections of the report. The best-case scenario would be for the report to reflect the mind of the church and its understanding of Holy Scripture. Given that less than thirty-percent of the members and elders of the PCUSA believe that homosexual practice can be part of an acceptable alternative lifestyle, the report should recommend that we uphold the calling of our ordained officers to live in fidelity in marriage between a man and a woman, or to live in chastity in singleness.1 No surprise there. Any suggested change in our standards — or change in the way in which those standards may be interpreted or applied –will have a massive uphill battle with most everyday Presbyterians. And any suggested change that would bypass presbytery voting (i.e., removal of Authoritative Interpretation) could well leave many people feeling disenfranchised and make the next General Assembly feel like a true Armageddon. Of course, since the Task Force has already suggested further study at the presbytery level, it would only make sense to give presbyteries the opportunity to make any decisions for change.
We should all be grateful for the work of the members of the Theological Task Force. They have devoted their time and energy to a task unlikely to draw much gratitude from across the spectrum of the church. We should also recognize that despite the good work of the Task Force, the church still will need to make up its own mind about the way forward. Since the Task Force is not a commission, we must take their suggestions as a piece of the multi-faceted discussion that will lead to decisions by our representative governing bodies. Hopefully the Task Force report will begin nine months of further discussion and debate, and reading of Scripture and the confessions, i.e., another step in our ongoing pursuit of peace, unity, and purity. Communal discernment, self-sacrifice, and the pursuit of the truth are all paradigmatic for a church wrestling with vestiges of sin — such as strife, disunity, and impurity. And because peace, unity, and purity are God’s to grant, not ours to create, we must always pursue them in conversation, not compromise.
The search for peace, unity, and purity in the 21st century church ought not to be motivated by the question of how much diversity we can tolerate given that we agree on certain “essentials.” Rather, we must ask how we can allow this agreement on essentials to be made manifest in common obedience to our confession, that we might embody the fullness of the Gospel. North Americans today are not looking for pared down beliefs or for compromised forms of community life, but for a comprehensive vision, forgiveness, transformation, and a deep sense of purpose that comes with being part of a community of conviction. To that end, well beyond the Task Force report, let us continue to seek the peace, unity, and purity that are ours in Christ Jesus.
MICHAEL R. WALKER was elected in December 2004 as executive director of the organization Presbyterians for Renewal (http://www.pfrenewal.org). He had been completing work as a Ph.D. candidate in history and ecumenics at Princeton Theological Seminary.
1 Presbyterian Panel Report, August 2000, pp. 12-13.