Biblical-theological foundations. The General Assembly Overture (OVT068) from Foothills Presbytery addresses all four problems.
Two approaches to mission
First and most importantly, the draft revision sets up an inner tension between two approaches to mission, of which the second is problematic. One approach (a) says, “Where Christ is, there is the Church … participating in his mission and fellowshipping with the living Christ.” The other approach (b) says, “Where the Church is, there is Christ … embodied in and working through the Church to accomplish his mission.”
1. What difference do these two approaches make for mission and church government? The first approach (a) keys the Church’s mission and governance to the living Jesus Christ, who defines our lives by his, who is God with us (Emmanuel). Earnestly seeking Christ at every moment of life, the Church follows wherever Christ leads, communing with Christ in his mission activity and anticipating the future God has in store for all creation. In Christ the Church celebrates and bears witness to the truth of God’s love and grace. In Christ the Church reaches out to others, whether to sinners, the least among us, a broken society, or an evil world. That’s where Christ is, where the action is, where our communion with Christ is.
The first approach comes from the marks of the true church in the Reformation confessions of the PCUSA Book of Confessions (7 out of 11 documents, including Barmen). Jesus Christ is the only Head of the Church and Lord over all of life. The Church communes with, or participates in, all that the incarnate, risen Christ is and does. Such language appears invariably in the opening paragraphs of any Presbyterian book of order [see Draft Revision F-1.0200, Current BOO G-1.0100.]
2. The second approach (b) delegates to the Church Christ’s mission and governance directives. Accordingly, the Church develops strategies and techniques to spread the Gospel, make disciples, and transform the world, anticipating what God has in store for the whole creation. Nurturing Christ in us, the Church musters its resources to engage identifiable needs, whether of the sinner, the least among us, a broken society, or an evil world. The Church is God’s primary instrument to save and transform the world.
The second approach belongs to the church culture of late Modernism-Pietism (1650-1950/present), for which the Church is a utility-, purpose-, or need-driven institution. The draft revision ties into this dynamic when it calls on the councils of the Church to consider the “Great Ends of the Church” as the goals of their work and the Reformation “Notes of the Church” as key methods [see Draft Revision F-1.0304, F-1.0302a, and the “G” references two paragraphs below.]
Instrumentalist language in the draft revision includes:
• “The Church of Jesus Christ is the provisional demonstration of what God intends for all of humanity.” [F-1.0301 + 1.0302a-c]. The problem is: Jesus Christ is the only full demonstration of what God intends for humanity. Provisional or otherwise, the Church is a “demonstration” only in Christ and only to God’s eyes. Presuming to know what only God knows, or intentionally to “demonstrate” to anyone else — instrumentally — how much Christ fills our humanity, invites the old pitfalls of works righteousness and self-righteousness.
• The councils of the church are to govern “so that the congregation is and becomes the sign in and for the world of the new reality God has made available to people in Jesus Christ” [G-3.0201, -3.0301, -3.0401, -3.0501, and -3.0107]. The problem is: The accent here is less on the new reality of the future than on — instrumentally — becoming the sign of it.
• “The Church is the body of Christ, both in its corporate life and in the lives of its individual members” [F-1.0301, F-1.0302a-d]. The problem is: The Church is the body of Christ, yes, but the body of the Church is defined by Christ’s own Body (incarnate, risen, in which we participate), not by Christ incarnate in our bodies (Christ as spirit/soul/head, Church as body).
Specifically instrumentalist language came into the PC(USA) Book of Order with the 1983 merger between UPCUSA and PCUSA. Such language has no precedent either in the literature of Presbyterian polity prior to 1983 or in the two books of order before the merger. The PCUSA Confession of 1967 speaks of the institutional church as an instrument of mission (BC, 9.40), even a “reconciling community” (BC, 9.10, 9.31). But C67 speaks much more about the Church and the Christian life as a participation in Christ. The Confession does not prefer the instrumentalist approach to mission.
3. Do we have to choose between these two approaches? My experience with the issue for over 30 years says, “Yes.”
On the participatory side, we can be full-blown participants in and instruments of God’s mission at the same time. That is, by grace our eyes are opened to seek and participate intentionally in God’s mission. Because God is the One Who makes it happen essentially unbeknownst to us, we can be useful to God in spite of our sin, failure, and other limitations — and still participate fully in God’s mission.
On the instrumentalist side, combining the two is hard. If we are authentic embodiments of God or channels of God’s saving love, how can we avoid putting ourselves in the place of God (“We are the hands and feet of God;” “If we won’t, God can’t;” “It’s up to us.”)? And if God is really and fully embodied in us, working through us, how can we sin or do any wrong? If any sin does show up in the instrument — perhaps a leak in the channel — does God’s love come through piecemeal, damaged, or not at all?
The dilemma of sin in the instrument is a vicious circle. Becoming conscious of our sin, we may try to repent of it. But the harder and more self-consciously we try to be “good instruments,” seeking moral perfection or total humility before God, the more we court works righteousness, self-righteousness, or worst of all, putting ourselves in the place of God. An instrument caught in these dynamics of sin cannot attain deliberate participation in God’s mission.
4. The draft revision includes both participatory (a) and instrumentalist (b) approaches to mission and church government. Operationally and by design, however, it prefers (b). So, we are left with unworkable, internal tensions between participatory and instrumentalist approaches to mission, and between the long-standing Biblical-theological roots of Presbyterian church government and the church culture of late Modernism-Pietism. Why build such tensions into our Book of Order going forward? The draft revision needs to (i) say plainly how Presbyterian church government is rooted in the Reformation marks of the true church; and (ii) establish a participatory approach to the mission of the Church.
The marks of the true Church
Draft Revision F-1.030 lists but does not clearly connect the marks of the true Church. In Draft Revision F-1.0303 the Reformation “Notes of the Reformed Church” take on a merely instrumentalist role without explaining their participatory dynamics. [see references above] In fact, mission as such arose as a mark of the true Church only in the Modernist-Pietist era (so, the “Great Ends of the Church” F-1.0304). The Draft Revision, however, elaborates its own, instrumentalist view of mission using the marks of the Early Church (one, holy, catholic, and apostolic, F-1.0302a-d).
The marks of the Church are crucial to connecting The Book of Confessions with the whole Book of Order, and to addressing the broad skepticism of organized religion today with utter transparency about church government. The Draft Revision needs to distinguish and blend all three sets of marks.
The Church and Its Confessions.
The Draft Revision F-2.0000–the entire chapter–reflects the breakdown of how we, Presbyterians who prize our theology, relate to our confessions today. Late Modernism-Pietism has made formal theology largely irrelevant to our experience of the Christian faith. Following the 1983 Book of Order (G-2.0000), the Draft Revision merely (re-)states this problem without solving it. At the end of the chapter, the Reformed confessions are little more than time-bound, subordinate, sectarian documents. We need our polity to show how our confessions work for us in the 21st Century.
Problem Four: Unity-and-Diversity
Diversity-and-inclusiveness, the current stance of the Draft Revision, cannot be sustained indefinitely by itself. Diversity-and-inclusiveness pertains to the rim of the Church, where members struggle to include those who are different from them. Unity-and-diversity pertains to what holds a diverse Christian community together at the center, namely, Jesus Christ. Current divisions in the PCUSA reflect the turmoil of living at the rim without due attention to the center which holds us together. The Draft Revision, however, simply continues the 1983 merger accents on diversity-and-unity, even when it talks about unity. [see Draft Revision, F-3.0303, F-1.0302d; Current BO G-4.0200-.0204, G-4.0400-.0403.] Our polity needs a strategic shift from diversity-and-inclusiveness to unity-and-diversity, making the PCUSA center-bound instead of rim-bound.
A major revision of the current form of government is timely, important, and doable for the PCUSA. Stemming mainly from the 1983 Book of Order, the four problems covered here cannot be ignored. To peg Presbyterian church government to the church culture of late Modernism-Pietism would be a strategic and historic blunder. The PCUSA deserves a polity that is simple, clear, vigorous, and faithful to our roots, so by grace we can “glorify and enjoy” God at least through the 21st Century.
Merwyn S. Johnson currently is Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology Emeritus at Erskine Theological Seminary in Due West, S.C., and Visiting Professor of Theology at Union-PSCE in Charlotte, N.C.