“Does anybody here understand what it means to be Reformed?” Those words disrupted the discussion in the meeting of 50 or so conservative-evangelical Presbyterian leaders several years ago. After surveying the room, he spoke more softly but with staccato resolve: “Tell me. What does it mean to be Presbyterian and Reformed?”
Not one to be shy, I blurted, “Grace.”
“No,” he retorted. “That’s not it.”
“Sovereignty of God,” said another.
“Not that either.”
Others followed: “Election.” “Predestination.” “Reformed, always being reformed.” Each time he responded, “No.”
With a look of disgust on his face he finally answered his question. “Being Presbyterian and Reformed means having a constitutional form of church government.”
That discussion proved to be a harbinger of what would ensue over the next several years. Conservative-evangelical Presbyterians had long promoted the grace-given, Bible-revealed, incarnation-effected, atonement-enabled, resurrection-empowered, election-called, Spirit-applied, pulpit-proclaimed Gospel of redemption in Jesus Christ. But a noticeable change began. Proclamation of the Scriptures surely continued to hold sway on Sundays, but on the other days and especially in national church politics, the Bible seemed to take a back seat to the Book of Order.
Debates in the church soon were revolving around constitutional subscription rather than biblical interpretation.
Such a shift has come to full fruition over the past few months, as dozens of church sessions have presented to their respective presbyteries proposals to preserve standards for ecclesial conformity (see p. 4). Following one of a few boilerplate models, these sessions have been proposing policies that deny their presbyteries any latitude in applying standards of belief and conduct for the ministers and officers serving within their bounds.
Well intended as they are, these overtures miss the real spirit of the work of the Theological Task Force. The TTF’s first four proposals, adopted by a whopping 87% of the commissioners to the Birmingham General Assembly, express the heart of the TTF plan: 1) determine to stay together, 2) form theological reflection groups across ideological lines to engage in worship and Bible study, 3) utilize the theological statement of the TTF as a starting point for such reflection, and 4) try applying group discernment methods in governing bodies as they seek to understand and implement God’s will.
The session-to-presbytery overtures leapfrog over those actions en route to negating the fifth proposal from the TTF, the authoritative interpretation regarding examination of minister and officer candidates. The proposed rules declare “off limits” a candidate’s option to divulge any points of departure they take from the standards. In contrast, the new authoritative interpretation encourages the candidates to disclose those questions and variant convictions, and authorizes the ordaining bodies to assess them accordingly. To adopt an air tight prohibition before the fact ensures that such candidates will just avoid difficult topics of discussion when they are examined for ministry fitness.
The ultimate tragedy of such initiatives is the way they substantiate the claims of that speaker at that leaders’ meeting. Oh, I love the Reformed ecclesiology and Presbyterian polity outlined in our Constitution. It beats all alternatives. But its strength arises from its ability to engage people with our core theology, grounded in the Gospel, and to give the world a corporate expression of the transforming Good News we Presbyterian and Reformed Christians have come to know. But the constitutional form is not the Gospel content. Being Reformed is less about government than it is about grace.