One stated purpose of the authors of the New Form of Government is to “empower the church to engage effectively in the mission of God in the twenty-first century.”
That’s what I want! I want to engage effectively in the mission of God in the twenty-first century. That is also what I want for my own congregation and for this presbytery. So, this document has my attention and my interest, and I hope it does yours!
B. Top Concerns
Having said that, I am here today to present concerns with this document and whether I can commend it to you when this presbytery votes on it in May.
Reading through the full document takes significant time and thought, and my naming all the concerns, particularly for those who have not read the document, would be overwhelming and tedious. So I am going to limit myself to a short list of what I think are the most significant concerns. I hope you will investigate more fully for yourselves, and I will suggest some ways to do that before I am done.
I will divide my concerns into two categories: line-level concerns and big picture concerns. For each, I offer three examples of concerns.
Three Line-level Concerns
1. A first line-level concern is found in F-1.0403, on membership. New members are to be welcomed “regardless of… theological conviction.”
In Christ, by the power of the Spirit, God unites persons through baptism regardless of race, ethnicity, age, sex, disability, geography, or theological conviction. There is therefore no place in the life of the Church for discrimination against any person.
While this phrase could mean minor theological variances, “conviction” suggests something deeper. The same paragraph goes on to mandate “full participation and representation… in governance” – which includes serving on session. [cf current G-5.0103]
This would seem to invite confusion within the life and leadership of the local congregation, particularly when compared with the right of corporate judgment (F-3.0102) whereby a congregation (or council above) “is entitled to declare the terms of admission into its communion, and the qualifications of its ministers and members….”
Does the non-discrimination category of “theological conviction” mean a congregation cannot require certain theological standards of its officers?
2. A second example of line-level concern is found in F-2.01, on the role of the creeds and confessions in the life of the church.
The creeds and confessions of this church arose in response to particular circumstances within the history of God’s people. …They appeal to the universal truth of the Gospel while expressing that truth within the social and cultural assumptions of their time. They affirm a common faith tradition… (F-2.01)
Current language asserts a more present and ongoing value for application: “[the creeds and confessions] serve to strengthen personal commitment and the life and witness of the community of believers” (current G-2.0505b)
While it is a subtle language shift, the proposed new language boxes and limits the creeds and confessions in a way that reduces their value and voice for the modern believer.
3. A third example of a line-level concern is the requirement that each council (i.e., session, presbytery, synod) “shall develop a manual of administrative operations that will specify the form and guide the work of mission in that council.” (G-3.0106)
A council can retain existing manuals, but with the significant changes in the New Form of Government, some manual is required and an out-of-date manual may miss the whole point of a new missional focus.
Additionally, at the end of the amendment booklet containing the nFOG, there is an “Advisory Handbook for Councils for the Development of Policies and Procedures as required by the Form of Government” – this spells out what to expect for each session and presbytery. From the introduction to the guide for sessions:
The following list does not intend to be exhaustive of all actions that might now be included in a session’s Manual of Administrative Operations. It does seek to identify those instances in the proposed Form of Government where specific policies or rules are required.
In other words, this is the MINIMUM for what should be in a session manual of operations as required by the nFOG. The next page (pg. 48 in the online PDF; pg. 70 in the printed booklet) lists all the constitutional provisions with mandatory language, and then questions for the session to consider to address those mandates in the manual of operation. There are 40 questions, and that is the minimum starting place. The presbytery guide on the next page has 51 questions, plus directions to consult three other manuals that deal explicitly with preparation for ministry and other responsibilities.
There are clearly two sides to the trade-off. There is a claimed inflexibility to a single “manual of operations approach” found in the current Book of Order. But there is a definite administrative and human resource weight and cost to developing local manuals. And a key question becomes, “Is that how we want to spend our time?”
Three Big Picture Concerns
4. Connectionalism and local variance
A first big-picture concern is our connection to each other. While I can see an advantage to more flexibility at the local level, there are risks to moving away from a national standard, even when it comes to procedures. In a climate of trust, collegiality, and common theological commitments, we could handle flexible procedures. But we are divided and struggling, and our theological divisions are borne out in our ministries and missions.
With localized manuals at each presbytery, the way a neighboring presbytery prepares candidates for ministry could easily become significantly different than the way we do in our presbytery. My concern for decentralizing our ways of organizing, operating, examining, and approving, is that our differences will be magnified and become a disconnect between governing bodies.
There is some unifying value in a centralized – or better, shared – core. In recent years, I would argue that shared polity has helped hold us together. With much of that shared polity removed, I wonder if the remaining centralized theological core will be sufficient, because that seems to be one of the areas where we are most fragmented.
5. Theology confused and inconsistent
A second big-picture concern is theological. As I read through the nFOG for myself, I kept noticing a pattern of theological language. I first noticed the statement in the opening paragraph, F-1.01, which says “The good news of the Gospel is that the triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—creates, redeems, sustains, rules, and transforms all things and all people.”
Does God in fact redeem and transform all things and all people? That is not my understanding of the Gospel. God indeed loves all the world, but some are not redeemed, having rejected God’s salvation.
Similarly, in numerous paragraphs of F-chapter one, we read about God “reconciling all things… reconciling all creation… making a new creation… redeeming all things and people… all things being new… a new future for all creation.”
All this language is biblical, but it is missing important context. The consistent implication of ‘redeem,’ ‘reconcile,’ and ‘new creation’ in the nFOG is that all people and things are already on their way to a perfect future with God.
What is omitted is in the very same passages in scripture that these terms and language come from. There are also people who turn away from God; there are enemies of God; and there is judgment and destruction of the old before the new. Further, some of the language describes what Christ accomplishes here and now in the human heart and some is describing the new heaven and new earth of Revelation 21.
And this is more than a theological concern, because there are very practical ramifications. If we think God will redeem all people and things in the end, that will skew our witness and mission. In a missional-theological document, of all places, we can’t be confused and inconsistent on what the mission is!
*See Colossians 1:15-25; 1 Corinthians 15:22-27; 2 Corinthians 5:16-20; Revelation 21:1-8
A third big-picture concern flows out of the previous concerns. Each of the previous concerns, which carry their own weight, are also reflective of numerous wording and language changes… numerous! While the task force and then General Assembly committee was charged with not changing language around key issues: property, G-6.0106b, etc…, many other changes will likely result in increased amendments to the nFOG to “correct” deficiencies or additional judicial cases and rulings as new boundaries are tested or challenged.
C. I have culled these top six concerns from a much longer list of concerns listed in numerous places and by numerous groups. I encourage you to 1) read the proposed New Form of Government; and 2) consider the range of pros/cons for yourself. I have collected an exhaustive list of pro and con articles at a help site I’ve created at GAhelp.net.
D. Summary of Concern
Finally, I would offer one more big-picture concern, which really overarches all the others. If I had only had the chance to offer one thing, it would be this. Even after all this, I reaffirm that I am eager for the stated purpose of the nFOG. I want to be part of a church that turns its gaze upward and outward toward God and what God is doing in the world. For some time now in my own congregation, our core question has been, “What is God doing and how can we be a part?”
I think something like the nFOG could work in a culture of trust, mutual respect, and shared theological convictions. But it grieves me that this is not the church culture in which we live. The nFOG acknowledges this in G-1.0102, admitting that it is “not designed to work without trust and love.”
And so my great concern is that in a denomination where we have staked out every bit of the theological, political, financial, and practical territory that we can, this is an effort to clear the table and reset. We are trying to reset according to a new ideal – God’s mission – but I am realistic enough to recognize that rather than reset in that way, we will just scramble madly to re-stake all the same territory. Every changed word or phrase and every potential crack for gaining or losing ground will be pounced upon. And that will actually get in the way of participating in God’s mission in the world.
Bottom line: I believe not only that nFOG will not accomplish its goals, but it will hinder and distract us from reaching those goals.
E. So I urge you to vote against the proposed New Form of Government; but I also urge you to pursue God’s mission in your congregations and this presbytery. That can begin today, with God’s help!
The Rev. Dr. Robert Austell is pastor of Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, NC. He is active in the Presbytery of Charlotte and has served five years as chair of Bills and Overtures, as Moderator of the Presbytery (2009), and currently serves as Vice-Chair of Presbytery’s Council (2011). He also served as a commissioner to General Assembly in 2008.