Most of us were so excited at the merger of northern and southern Presbyterians in 1983, we didn’t pay close attention to the Book of Order (BO) that came with it. In fact, the 1983 BO contains defects that have fostered our divisions. Left uncorrected, these defects will continue their corrosive effects and lock us in to an era — late Modernism/Pietism (1650-1950/present) — from which, by all accounts, we are straining to emerge. We need a major revision of our Form of Government (FoG) not only to stop the dynamics working against us but also to heal our divisions and move on.
The first task is to realign the current/1983 FoG with the core affirmation of Presbyterian church governance, namely, Jesus Christ is the principal actor at the center of the Church. This essay spells out the core affirmation (A), connects it with the mission of the Church (B), and considers how the current/1983 FoG obscures it in two ways. This FoG substitutes uniformity for governance (C1) and layers the procedures of church government (C2).
A. The Core Affirmation of Presbyterian Church government is Jesus Christ is the principal actor at the center of the Church.
That core affirmation is the basis of Presbyterian church governance. The government will be upon his shoulders … (Isaiah 9:6) All power/authority (exousia) in heaven and on earth have been given to me [Jesus] (Matt. 28:18). The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand (Mark 1:15). Jesus is Lord, before whom every knee shall bow, in heaven and on earth (Phil. 2:11+).
The PC(USA) Book of Order and all its predecessors echo these verses of Scripture (see G-1.0100 and G-9.0102a-b) as does the our Book of Confessions. That is, when the Word is spoken in preaching (proclaimed), based on the Word in writing (Scripture), bearing witness to the Word made flesh (Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us), then by the power of God’s own Spirit — not automatically — Jesus Christ himself stands before us at the center of the worshiping congregation, speaks with his own voice, and … governs us personally both individually and collectively.
The sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper act out the Gospel Word in stark simplicity. Combined with preaching, the sacraments sift, consolidate, and seal upon our lives — again, by God’s own Spirit — the Word of Christ proclaimed. Speaking to us by name and by Word, Christ embraces the moment with his own presence and activity, making even our response wholly his gift and our efforts a fellowship with him at the moment (Eph. 2:8-10, KJV, RSV).
At the center of the Church’s life, her worship, the elders of the Church are thus accountable to Jesus Christ and his governance of the Church. That includes clergy and lay, and extends throughout the Church, congregation-by-congregation, governing council-by-governing council. That includes gathering people to worship the triune God, scattering to follow Christ wherever he leads, and nurturing the people of God along the way.
B. Mission and The Form of Government
The core affirmation pertains to the Church’s mission as well as its governance. In Matt. 28:16-20 the Great Commission (19-20a) is sandwiched between Jesus’ claim to power and authority over all creation (18b) and his on-going presence and activity with us (20b). Our going, baptizing, and teaching participate in CHRIST’S making disciples of all nations, CHRIST’S drawing all people into the name of Father-Son-and-Holy-Spirit, and CHRIST’S commanding presence and activity. As the main actor at the center of the Church’s life, Christ cuts through all barriers and obscurities, and connects us with himself. He does so whether we are busy with the church, everyday life, evangelism, or peace with justice.
The mission of the Church is the mission of what CHRIST?HIMSELF is doing. Without a living, active Christ there is no Christianity, no mission, no Church. Christ himself is the life and liveliness of the Christian Church as of its mission. As such, Christ himself is also the heart of Presbyterian governance (see G-9.0102-.0103), beginning with our worship. The elements of church governance are important precisely because they point to and participate in Christ, with whom the Spirit unites us. In a running fellowship with CHRIST’S active life, we find our true, immediate freedom (John 8:31f, II Cor. 3:17, Gal. 5:1), our direction in life, authentic community, unity without uniformity, and abundant life with unending joy.
C1. The Problem of Uniformity
The era of late Modernism/Pietism leaves us between a rock and a hard place concerning church government. On the one hand is the demand for uniformity in matters of religion, notably in experience and relationships, but also in doctrine and morality. Uniformity raises serious questions about the nature, purpose, and means of religious governance. On the other hand is the rejection of all authority, mandates, requirements, or restraints imposed from outside us. The absence of external authority raises questions about whether formal church governance is necessary or even possible.
This dilemma hits Presbyterians especially hard. An intentionally confessional church, we have a whole book of doctrinal standards, The Book of Confessions. An intentionally connectional church, we have a definite organization, the Book of Order. We are being pressed for more latitude — fewer rules, less dogma, looser standards, fluid structures, and “local option” in applying standards. At the same time the culture presses us to identify the Spirit of God with the ebb and flow of our own, individual, human responses, feelings, spontaneity, morality, and/or spirituality. So, can we bypass organization and doctrine altogether, and still remain Presbyterian? Do we have to replace it, perhaps, with a relational network in order to survive? Notice how the rock of uniformity and the hard place of no authority converge here (!).
Observing Americans in the 19th century, Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville warned of “the tyranny of the majority.” A democratic majority, he observed, is not satisfied just to win the vote. The majority wants the minority to agree with them in the end. So they exert a form of peer pressure, namely, the threat of ostracism, to force the minority to conform. Ostracism cuts people off from their defining relationships, destroying them if they don’t conform. I watched these dynamics happen among children on the playground as a boy, and again among both blacks and whites during the U.S. civil rights struggles of the 1960s. People who revel in their individuality are the first to succumb to such demands for uniformity, for they have no context other than themselves to assess or to resist community pressures of this kind.
Current demands for uniformity are intense, in American church circles. The issues are undeniably important, but the demand for uniformity gives them an edge that undermines their true value. For example, many Christians insist that the uniform experience of a “born again” personal conversion is the sole proof of authentic Christianity. Consensus, a widely used alternative model of decision-making, easily morphs into uniformity. The recent “worship wars,” I believe, also manifest the demand for uniformity of worship styles — traditional, contemporary, blended, or ethnic.
Specifically in the PC(USA), doctrinal agreement on “essential tenets” (W-4.4003c, G-2.0100b) reflects a demand for uniformity coming from the right. Stringent policies and practices of inclusiveness for all members and offices of the church (see G-9.0104-.0106+) reflect the demand for uniformity coming from the left. Mission looks like a demand for uniformity when the right presses for mission-evangelism or the left presses for mission-social action, as if the two could ever be separated.
The current/1983 Form of Government reinforces the drive for uniformity. A quasi-manual of operations, this FoG blankets us with rules and regulations for managing and micro-managing our operations uniformly. Year after year since 1983, the rules have become more far-reaching and detailed. Keeping the rules has become more exacting. We now gauge the rules by which side they favor, liberal or conservative. Enforcing the rules has thus become an issue of demanding instead of governance. For those who resist, not keeping the rules often seems more faithful than keeping them. At such moments, on both sides, we easily become self-absorbed in our own righteous cause. We lose our focus on Christ. And we fracture the Church.
That result brings us back to the rock and the hard place. Are Presbyterians not stuck between (a) governing by a rule-enforced uniformity and (b) having no enforceable rules at all? Both options are utterly self-defeating. Uniformity is clearly no substitute for church governance. Having no rules except from within leads to tribalism and a vicious tug-of-war between competing uniformities. We lose the core affirmation of our church government when we reduce it to such bare, human, utilitarian dimensions. For Presbyterians historically, church governance centers in God, not ourselves. As principal actor at the center of the Church, Jesus Christ steers clear of this rock and hard place.
C2. The Problem of “Layering”
“Layering” also belongs to the era of late Modernism/Pietism and it diminishes our core affimation. In “layering,” the Gospel operates at one level, our everyday lives operate at another, and there is a running disconnect between the two layers. “Layering” leaves a gap we have to fill, to connect our lives (one layer) to God’s life (another layer), or the Church (one layer) to the World (another layer). Unresolved, “layering” afflicts us with the crushing sense of irrelevance, that the Gospel has no bearing upon everyday life, or worse, that God is absent from us at the critical moments of our lives.
“Layering” misses the concrete immediacy of “God with us,” whether that be the concrete presence of the historical-but-resurrected Jesus Christ or the concrete fruits of the Spirit. When the world around us is our most immediate reality, then we become the mediators of God to the world. We try to mediate through our believing, our exemplary lives, and our efforts on God’s behalf. We then become the principal actors of the Church, preempting Christ.
The truth, however, is the reverse. Jesus Christ is our Mediator (Calvin, Barth, Bonhoeffer). Christ mediates not only between God and us but also between the world and us, even between us and one another. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. … All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. … And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth (John 1:1-2, 14). In the power of God’s own Spirit, Jesus Christ (Emmanuel, God with us) is our most immediate reality. He is the One who created us and reconciles us with God, one another, and all creation (Bonhoeffer). That’s why Jesus Christ is the principal actor of the Church.
• After Chapter 1, “layering” is a constant feature of the current/1983 FoG: Delegating the mission of Christ to the Church puts Christ at one layer and the delegated tasks of mission at another. The weight falls on what we are to do, not on what Christ is doing. (See G-3.0200-3.0401d.)
• Call-and-response language “layers” Christ’s call and our response in carrying out the tasks of being Church, or more broadly, God’s act of salvation and our human response of faith and life. The weight falls thus on us responding (“demonstrate”), not on Christ calling (See G-3.0100-3.0103 vis-à-vis G-3.0200-.0401d; G-4.0303 & 4.0401; G-5.0101a & .0102). Note: The “layered” use of call-and-response here is different from (a) the vocational call of ministers or certified workers in the church, or (b) the call to meet as a congregation, presbytery, etc.
• The structure of the current/1983 FoG magnifies the “layering” effect of call-and-response. Chapters 1-4 present God’s call theologically. Chapters 5-18 cover our human response in executing church government. To get things done in the church, however, the weight falls on what we have to do, not on God’s running engagement with us. “Layering,” call-and-response language is not prominent in our predecessor books of order (UPCUSA, PCUS), which stand closer to Reformation insights.
• Church-and-world language is “layering” on a global scale. The church is one “layer,” the world is another. The weight falls not on what God does, but on what the church has to be or do in order to become a sign or demonstration for the world. (See G-2.0100, G-3.0100 & 3.0200-.0401d, G-9.0402a, G-10.0102j, G-11.0403a, G-15.0105, G-16.0201b.)
• Theory-and-practice is also a form of “layering,” because it separates the Church’s confessional theology from its practice. The weight falls on the “practical” elements of the faith, distinct from its “theory.” Joining the two is then up to us, voluntarily. But if they ever conflict, the “practical” will invariably crowd out the “theoretical.” Such “layering” lies behind FoG Chapter 2, “The Church and Its Confessions.”
“Layering” gets in the way of governance and doesn’t belong in the PC(USA) FoG.
For Presbyterians Jesus Christ is the principal actor at the center of the Church, whether the activity is worship, mission, the nuts and bolts of church polity, or life. That core affirmation avoids putting uniformity in place of governance or “layering” the Gospel and life. The PC(USA) urgently needs a major revision to recover a Form of Government built around that core affirmation.
Merwyn S. Johnson is professor of historical and systematic theology emeritus at Erskine Theological Seminary, Due West, S.C., and visiting professor of theology at Union-PSCE at Charlotte, N.C.