Also featured in the Outlook forum this issue: Unity and Purity by Richard Lovelace
Mae West said, “I used to be Snow White, but I drifted.”
Isn’t that the way we usually make compromises–we just drift a bit? We make an assumption that just seems right and worry about consequences later. Here’s one: My private pursuit of happiness is no one’s business. Many Americans believe that as long as we stay out of each other’s lane and obey the traffic laws, then what happens inside my car should not concern you. Yet, on the contrary, what happens inside the car affects how we relate to traffic. Still, the prevailing assumption is that private freedom trumps common values. Many within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) have been chasing this trend.
This drift towards the priority of the private has been gradual but steady. And like the frog in the kettle that cannot detect the temperature rising, our common doctrinal values are slowly getting cooked. There is such confusion about doctrine that many people in the church deflect time-tested, biblical truth, thinking that they are being more Presbyterian by doing so. Some think that exchanging our confessional point of reference for the Spirit of the Age is what it means to be the “church reformed and always reforming.”
The Task Force on Peace, Unity, and Purity has made further provision for our drift. The report’s Recommendation V seems to allow a local and more subjective evaluation of what is necessary and essential in the context of ordination:
Lines 1193-99 [Ordaining bodies must determine] a. Whether a candidate being examined for ordination … has departed from scriptural and constitutional standards of fitness for office; b. whether any departure constitutes a failure to adhere to the essentials of Reformed faith and polity in G-6.0108, thus barring the candidate for ordination. …”
This “a … b” split begs the question: Can we depart from scriptural and constitutional standards of fitness for office and still be ordained? The way it is written and their emphasis upon G-6.0108 tend to let us answer that question locally and subjectively.
Our polity does provide latitude in governing locally. But this part of the report quietly allows local committees to determine the range of latitude itself. In fact, it accommodates a range that breaches the tipping point of doctrinal unity. The emphasis upon freedom of conscience disrupts the delicate balance in our polity between local and national bodies. Recommendation V does not come right out and say what it accommodates, which is concerning itself. Yet the ambiguity of this section, whether intended or not, appears to make a local ordaining body accountable only to itself. Any higher review appears to be limited (according to the report) to the method of examination rather than its content and result.
It is clear that task force members achieved an admirable level of trust and appreciation despite differences among them. Appropriately, they challenge the whole church toward this same goal. But this idealized policy created in that intimate setting does not account for human frailty within the broader system. It relies on something that our general church has not yet achieved. The cart is before the horse.
The subtle difficulty here is how to critique nuances when the report on the whole seems so magnanimous. Yet we must, because even more than ordination standards are at stake. The report’s big-tent approach to ordination standards lapses towards pluralism. Officials celebrate the report as a gracious way of “agreeing to disagree.” But they overlook a radical shift in authority and worldview. To paraphrase Lesslie Newbigin: Pluralism is a secular trend to approve no official pattern of belief, but rather to subject all dogmas to critical examination on the basis of what seems reasonable and democratic. Make no mistake, there is an assumed pattern of belief in the report, and that is pluralism itself.
In an attempt to calm the cycle of conflict the task force implies a broader, more plural approach to ordination standards. Running in the background is a worldview that is at odds with basic Christianity. We do not come to some round table as equals to determine right from wrong in dialogue. Rather, we are equal and united only under a common Authority outside us. The former approach may seem compelling in its spirit of compromise, but it is consistent with an egalitarian worldview, putting all ideas on equal footing subject only to human sensibility. Sorry, Jiminy Cricket–conscience is not enough.
Instead of making this ambiguous and potentially volatile concession, where is the Task Force’s proactive vision for the national church? We need a biblical vision for national unity that includes both boundaries and compassion. Consider the freedom we would have for true compassion if we made ordination standards indelible. These clear boundaries would free us to be God’s called-out ones (ecclesia). How? They would allow us to reach every kind of person without creating confusion about our purpose. Doctrinal clarity lets us welcome all kinds of people into fellowship without losing our identity. Better than any other denomination, we are positioned to take up the winsome challenge that Niebuhr set by moving “theologically to the right and socially to the left.”
What is compassionate about these standards? The culture says, “To love me is to accept me as I am, period.” The Christian says, “Come as you are, but do not ask to be left that way.” The first statement sets aside the transforming power of the Gospel. It requires affirmation without hope of transformation. It reduces our theology to a humanistic brand of faith and fairness.
The world is desperate for something more than a mutual admiration society. The world must hear from the church that we are far more sinful than we ever imagined, but far more loved than we ever dreamed. The PUP report falls far short of this biblical vision.
Tim Filson is minister of congregational life at Signal Mountain church near Chattanooga, Tenn.