Amid the onslaught of judgment calls made by the commissioners to a General Assembly, how can the most faithful conclusions be reached? We could simply say, “Follow the Bible” or “Follow the church’s constitution,” but if those sources were explicitly clear on all topics, then we wouldn’t need a GA. Indeed, the apostles wouldn’t have needed the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15). Times of decision call for the wisdom that can emerge from the counsel of many.
What guidelines best help the commissioners make such judgments? How, for example, do they sort through the competing values around the proposal to require all churches to pay per capita to the upper governing bodies of the church?
In this editor’s education for pastoral ministry, I had the privilege of taking two courses on ethics, first in an undergraduate church-related college and later in post-graduate seminary studies. In each case, the professor was a devout Christian scholar. Both cited teachings and examples from the Bible, with special emphasis upon Jesus’ words and actions. Yet they drew different conclusions.
The college professor argued for deontological ethics (deontological means literally “the science of duty”), the assertion that moral questions are best addressed by following key ethical principles regardless of their impact upon others. The rule of law prevails: “Do the right thing.”
The graduate professor argued for teleological ethics (teleological means literally, “the science of ends or goals”), the assertion that ethical dilemmas are best addressed by producing the most positive results, even if some rules are violated. The rule of love prevails: “Do the purposeful and loving thing.”
I learned a simple truth: try to do both the right thing and the purposeful, loving thing. Whenever facing a moral, ethical dilemma, ask all the right questions, not just a select one question.
In the case of requiring per capita of every church, the questions get specific.
What principles and laws address the per capita proposal? Two competing sets arise. The specific rule found in The Book of Order is somewhat vague. An Authoritative Interpretation of the 1999 GA makes the payment mandatory. Recent rulings of General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commissions state that the per capita tax is voluntary. Nevertheless, common sense tells us that any club has every right to expect its members to pay their dues, and local churches have every right to expect their members to share–by way of tithes and offerings–in the costs of its mission, ministry and administration. The rules of law are somewhat contradictory. Further questions arise.
What purposes might we anticipate from the GA forming an authoritative interpretation making such giving obligatory? Baltimore Presbytery’s overture 23 would fund the larger church’s service without causing undue hardship to the presbyteries in the process. They are expected to send 100% of all per capita assessments for all their member churches, and, says the overture, that obligation should be met by the churches themselves. What else might we anticipate from such a ruling? Well, just the opposite is likely to happen.
Consider basic human nature. When participants in an organization sense their goals’ converging, they quickly volunteer generous sacrifices of time, talents, and treasures to reach those goals. But when the enthusiasm wanes, and their goals diverge, the reverse happens. If the organization then tries to force full participation, ill-will results, and some members leave.
Sad to say, many Presbyterians today distrust church leaders. They see their values conflicting with those of the national church. The enthusiasm and pride they once felt toward their denomination has turned cold. If at this time we respond to their disaffections by making obligatory the contributions they once gave willingly, we only test their patience and provoke legal battles to force their hands. Do presbyteries wish to take over the financial management of their member churches? Will those church members continue giving tithes and offerings under such circumstances? The ultimate, predictable results would be counter-productive.
How might commissioners to a GA respond to all these ethical questions? How about using moral-suasion? How about claiming the high road by re-introducing our member churches to the commonly held values that have weaved a common spirit of mutual support into the Presbyterian Church family? Perhaps the GA issues a pastoral letter reminding us all of the family obligations that are implicit in our covenantal theology. Perhaps we tackle the present malaise by expressing pastorally–not punitively–the need for us to work together to rekindle a new esprit de corps.
The most faithful thing we can do is to consider both the principles involved and the loving relationship at stake.