Consider, if you will, the following scenario:
During Faith Presbyterian Church’s stated monthly Session meeting, the clerk notes that a letter has been received from Trinity Community Church, requesting that Tom and June Wilson’s membership be transferred to Trinity. Session members anxiously eye one another without saying a word.
Finally one elder speaks: “I deeply regret that Tom and June have left the faith. You all know what we must do. I move that we deny this request and that we write a letter to Trinity, informing it of this decision and inquiring as to why it is so busy proselytizing Presbyterians.”
The motion passes unanimously.
Before you start throwing your Outlook or shooting at your computer monitor a la Elvis, I know just how ridiculous this scenario is.
In real life, we gladly transfer members to and receive members from any legitimate Christian body (although we’d rather transfer in than out), regardless of our perceived doctrinal differences with them. We typically act as though other Christian denominations and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) are connected together in the Church Universal.
Why? Because of a huge theological point: we PC(USA)-ers are part of a greater whole: the holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. People of a wide variety of denominational stripes are just as Christian as we are.
So if we believe this salient, foundational truth, then why, oh why, do we get so exercised, upset, and downright mean about congregations and ministers who talk about leaving the PC(USA) for other places of service? Why does our verbiage convey the message that to leave the PC(USA) is to leave the “true church” and to engage in “schism”? If I have read such sentiments once, I have read them dozens of times on Presbyweb and in the Outlook. How did we get to this point?
Please understand. I am committed to the PC(USA). I am an ordained minister in good standing, educated at a PC(USA) seminary. I became part of the PC(USA) as an adult in a deliberate decision guided by Scripture, prayer, counsel, and discernment. I profess the classic, traditional understanding of Reformed faith and practice. I seek to lead my congregation to exercise faithful ministry within the PC(USA).
I admit freely that if the ordination of self-affirming, practicing gays and lesbians is given constitutional legitimacy, I will need to evaluate my options. But please do not interpret that as a threat. My educated guess is there may be multiple faithful options to consider. My default position is to stay where God has called me until otherwise released.
But to hear many of my fellow Presbyterians talk, any mention of leaving the PC(USA) is disloyal, schismatic, and punishable. In their eyes, what I wrote above would be grounds for, at the very least, a call from my presbytery exec and a note in my file, and at the very worst, the appointment of an administrative commission and removal from ministry.
So, will we sue one another and recklessly spend the bulk of our resources on legal matters, regardless of Kingdom priorities? To what lengths will we go to keep a denomination together?
In our heart of hearts, I believe most of us know, and may even admit publicly, the following:
1. Denominations are not the same thing as the Church. They are human
constructs that have served us well, but we should not confuse any of them with the Church Proper.
2. Denominations now are in a period of transition and evolution — some
say extinction — and no one knows what the landscape will look like in 10-20 years. This may all be moot.
3. Homosexual ordination is not the main issue facing us, but it is today’s
presenting issue. If it did not exist, there would be some other flash point.
4. Instead the main issue facing us is theological in origin. It may be best illustrated by noting our widely differing responses to four simple questions:
Â· Who is Jesus and what did he do?
Â· What is the Bible and how do we interpret it?
Â· What is the Christian ethic and what does it mean to live it?
Â· What is the community of faith and how are we a part of it?
5. Thus far we have attempted to fix theological problems with polity solutions. The result is we are now connected primarily by polity, property, and pensions, not by a shared mission, purpose, and theology.
6. The long-term prognosis for us is not pleasant, barring a supernatural movement of the Holy Spirit. If things continue to devolve in the present direction, then most likely concerns for power and control will rise to the top on both sides of the aisle.
So what should be done? What can be done? I do not claim to be the wise oracle of Delphi. But I believe one step might get us started in the right direction.
Here’s the step: as of today, we all should change our language about one another. What do I mean? Here are three examples.
First, let’s stop using the language of schism to describe our current struggle. Leaving a denomination is just not the same as leaving the Body of Christ. It really isn’t.
Second, let’s put a moratorium on all comparisons of ordination vows with wedding vows and on analogies of denominational membership with marriage. These comparisons and analogies are hugely debatable as to their legitimacy. However, there is little debate that they are unhelpful toward furthering workable solutions.
Third, let’s avoid speaking about one another in ways that attack the motives of those who may answer the four basic questions mentioned earlier differently than we answer them. To be clear: there is nothing wrong with critiquing the answers we give. Truth exists. There are right and wrong responses. But we should not impugn the intentions of others as we do so. I believe my progressive colleagues err on numerous theological points, but at the same time I believe they are sincere and see themselves as serving God the best way they know how. I hope they see me in the same light.
Only as we stop lobbing rhetorical cluster grenades at one another will we become free to see that we may have options other than slash and burn.
For starters, we will be able to approach congregations and ministers who want to leave the PC(USA) now pastorally and redemptively, crafting the best win-win solution possible for all concerned. They are not in schism and leaving the Body of Christ. Instead they are going to serve in another part of the Body.
We will also be able to address congregations and ministers who may decide to leave later, depending on how our judicial process on ordination turns out. If the new perspective on interpreting our Book of Order prevails, the request may come from conservatives to be dismissed. If the traditional perspectives on theology, polity, and ordination hold sway, it may come from progressives. Regardless, we will be free to act in grace.
In short, congregations that sense clearly God’s leadership to go to another part of the Body of Christ should have the ability to do so via a grace-centered, mutually accountable process without the fear of lawsuits, administrative commissions, and declarations of renounced jurisdiction. Certainly unanimous (or nearly so) congregations should be handled differently than deeply divided ones. Certainly fair and just ways to help presbyteries adjust to reduced financial circumstances can be devised. I am confident that God will grant wisdom to us as we ask him for it.
“But the chaos that will result!” you may reply. “Do you know the Pandora’s Box you’re opening?” True, it will not be easy. But is it easy for us now? We are already in chaos. Deciding to treat one another Christianly will not aggravate our present confusion by any means. Instead, it will alleviate the confusion, or at least a good part of it.
“But do you know how unrealistic you’re being?” you might argue. “How much of a Pollyanna can you be?” True, our challenges are complex and multi-layered. Simply changing our language about one another will not cure what ails us. But casting aspersions, suing, and engaging in power struggles will not cure what ails us either. I profess I’m Pollyanna-ish in one sense: I think if we start treating one another as sisters and brothers in Christ in how we speak to and about each other, we may be able to address our complex problems with greater fruitfulness and faithfulness.
Who knows? We may even become better able to craft a solution to our current impasse that can keep the PC(USA) together. I confess I do not see at present what such a solution could be. The theological divide between conservatives and progressives is deep. But I know we will not be ready to find a solution, if it exists, unless we reframe our speech to and about one another to reflect what we truly believe.
Unless, of course, we really want to banish those Presbyterians who transfer to non-PC(USA) congregations, moving them out of the true Church and depositing them into the outer darkness, where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth. That would put a spark in some otherwise yawn-provoking Session meetings, wouldn’t it?
Clay J. Brown is pastor of First Church, Mooresville, N.C.