I am thankful for the work of the Peace, Unity and Purity Task Force, for modeling a way of speaking the truth in love to one another and to the church, even if there is no clear “prescription”. Patience, forbearance, and faithful engagement are marks of the church that are easily overlooked in a results-oriented society. Affinity groups have also been tackling the presenting issues of the day for decades, especially the issue of ordination standards. However, I have come to realize that the options for renewal we have currently are not enough.
In the post-modern age, we have come to the end of Enlightenment rationalism with new paradigms for thinking emerging. As children of the Reformation, we are still too deeply rooted in Athens. The birth of Protestantism occurred, of course, when the Roman Church, very much under the influence of Thomas Aquinas (who borrowed heavily from Aristotle), was countered by Luther and Calvin, both influenced significantly by Augustine, a neo-Platonist. That the Western church is influenced by Plato/Aristotle is not any more noteworthy than that the Eastern (East Asian) church is influenced by Confucius/Lao Tzu. But in the church in America, I am convinced that our Platonic dualism has led to a national bipolar disorder.
The Western church, through the influence of Greco-Roman philosophy, law and culture has come to the point where Christians gravitate either toward a relativistic, privatistic, pluralistic faith (loosely, ‘liberal’), or a rigid, rationalistic, propositionalistic confessionalism (loosely, ‘conservative’). One group is concerned about society and justice (“life and work”) as faithful Christians should be, but has pressed for an affirmation of homosexual practice that appears to many evangelicals to be beyond the bounds of what Scripture teaches. In the words of R. R. Reno, their ‘bourgeois bohemian’ sensibility calls for sexual freedom coupled with ruling class respectability. Like the Sadducees, those on the Left are seen as comfortable with ecclesial power but not too concerned with theological orthodoxy.
On the other hand, there is a group opposed to this move whose agenda revolves around personal morality, especially the kind that kindles the anxiety of privileged, white, middle class Christians. At their best, they build up “faith and order”. At their worst, these social conservatives are like the Pharisees who were theologically orthodox, but whom Jesus called hypocrites because they would not lift a finger for the poor and oppressed.
Beyond this, we Americans have become so hyper-individualistic that we cannot bear to be with others with whom we disagree. Despite the errors that still plague the Roman Catholic Church, it does tend to correct its errors over time, even when it takes hundreds of years to do so (like restoring Galileo, apologizing for anti-Semitism, etc.), without provoking schism each time there is a perceived error. Is our Protestant impatience with human error in the church, when God chooses to be patient, itself an error? Does our Protestant (protest) heritage coupled with modern radical individualism mean that we will continue to have schism until we become a church of one?
I love the Reformed tradition and I sincerely believe it approximates faithful Christianity closer than does most other traditions. But we ought not idolize it. The Reformed tradition produced a stream of Presbyterianism in America that condoned slavery for hundreds of years. The Dutch Reformed tradition even generated apartheid theology that the Nationalist government in South Africa eventually adopted, producing a vile and oppressive caste system. Although there are more than five million Presbyterians in Korea, they are members of some of the most fractured and contentious churches in the world, with well over 300 Presbyterian denominations.
Have we American Presbyterians not seen up close the brutality of church splits among Korean congregations in our presbytery or synod? Furthermore, the Presbyterian churches in many developing nations tend to reflect an educated, wealthy and elitist attitude compared to other denominations.
There are some elements inherent to the Reformed tradition that are deeply flawed, and none of us can see them if we align ourselves only with like-minded people (contra homogeneous unit principle). The absolute brilliance of our tradition is that it is completely natural to be ‘always reforming’ the church, according to the Word of God. The problem is, we Presbyterians have all too often chosen the easy path of schism (and exported that worldwide) rather than the difficult path of revision, reform and reconciliation. The hard Left and the hard Right of the PC(USA) both want hegemony — the imperialist impulse is alive and well. And if one side cannot prevail, schism is the inherent (and often explicit) threat.
But if we do have a schism, and if the choice is to join the Sadducees or the Pharisees, which should we choose? This is a serious dilemma, especially for those of us who come from racial ethnic minority communities. We are daily confronted by social injustice and struggle with issues of racism, inadequate healthcare and employment, immigration issues, racial profiling, sub-standard public education, affordable housing … the list goes on. Like the white liberals, we care deeply about matters of justice, but unlike them, nowhere among the racial ethnic communities does the issue of homosexuality rise to the level of urgency as have the other issues listed. And by and large, we ethnic minorities are marked by a deeply evangelical, orthodox and spiritual faith.
So on the issue of ordination standards, we share similar orthodox convictions with our white conservative brothers and sisters. But where are they after we stand and vote with them on the ordination amendments? In the face of massive poverty, war and disease around the globe, and the disintegration of the family, rampant consumerism and hedonism in American society, I can’t help thinking that the elevation of sexuality as the dominant ecclesial debate is a uniquely Western fetish.
I wonder if we are ultimately suffering from an ecclesiological crisis, more than a theological one. Is the church a big-tent circus where anything goes, especially the latest novelty act? Or is it merely a corporate/bureaucratic entity that we can tear down at will when we feel it is not ‘holy’ enough? Who’s worse–the liberals who plan to aggressively push for another punishing round of amendment debates on ordination standards that will surely cause a significant portion of the church to consider schism, or the conservatives who already are preparing for schism in the guise of a ‘new ecclesial wineskin,’ however meritorious the details of structural overhaul may be? Who, in the midst of all this, loves the church?
I don’t think any one–General Assembly task force, affinity organization or racial ethnic caucus–has the answer to these questions. But I do believe we need better leadership. We need a new movement that brings together ethnic minority leaders and Euro-American leaders whose first loyalty is the church of Jesus Christ, over and against any ideological commitment. We need to hear the perspectives of the historically oppressed in this country: the African Americans and Native Americans. We need also to hear from the global Christians who have come to the U.S. since the Immigration Reform Act of 1965 (an act that has changed the face of America probably more than has any other social movement of the 1960s). Because there is much less bifurcation and political polarization of theology in racial ethnic communities, such conversations will need to be consultative, round table discussions. Instead of each ethnic group working for its own interests (including those in the white ethnic group), leaders, regardless of background, ought to gather to build up the whole church, to do the ministry of reconciliation.
“Is our God too small?” Is the diminished church of our day the result of our worshiping a diminished God? Is God not sovereign over all? Did Christ not die for all? Has God not reconciled the world to Himself in Christ? I wonder what could happen if we gathered to confess our sins before God (confession, not confessionalism) as a church–then asked God to give us a new vision rooted in God’s very heart for the church and the world. I pray that the Presbyterian Church will confront these challenges anew, with the fresh perspectives of Christians who seek to be faithful even among the ruins of a denomination.
Jin S. Kim is pastor of the Church of All Nations PC(USA) in Minneapolis, Minn. He is also chair of the advisory board, Cross Cultural Alliance of Ministries.