On February 2, 2011, a group of 45 Presbyterian ministers published a white paper and an accompanying letter to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) declaring that because the denomination is “deathly ill,” they are seeking a radical change to the way Presbyterians relate to one another. In both the white paper and the open letter, they wrote,
We believe [the PC(USA)] will not survive without drastic intervention. We are ready to do something different, TO THRIVE as the Body of Christ. We call others of like mind to envision a new future for congregations who share our Presbyterian, Reformed, Evangelical heritage. If the denomination has the ability and will to move in this new direction, we will rejoice. Regardless, a group of us will change course, forming a new way for our congregations to relate.
The background segment of the white paper, called “The Situation,” describes what the Fellowship believes is ailing the denomination: declining membership, “wee kirks” of questionable viability, an aging demographic, and stagnation in leadership. Further, homosexual ordination, described as “the flashpoint of controversy for the last 35 years,” “masks” what the Fellowship believes is the real crux of the matter: “differing understanding of scripture, authority, Christology (both the person and the work of Christ), the extent of salvation (creeping universalism), and a broader set of moral issues around which fracture lines appear.” The very notion of what it means to be Reformed has become an area of debate, the Fellowship contends. Congregations who might have left the denomination already are held “captive” by the Book of Order’s property clause.
This paper could be about any one of these issues, but I intend to offer an alternative criticism of and vision for the PC(USA) on the basis of Reformed, Christological ecclesiology. While I agree with the steering committee of the white paper that the PC(USA) faces critical issues, I believe these issues are merely symptomatic of a Christological amnesia on the part of the denomination. What is forgotten is that “as the body of Christ, the church has its life in Christ and is, therefore, decisively shaped by union with one another in him.” To put it colloquially (and, perhaps, glibly), the denomination has lost its Head! The white paper not only does not address this Christological crisis, but it also both serves as evidence of the crisis and threatens to exacerbate it through its proposed solutions.
I shall take as my scriptural basis for this argument Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians, in which Paul is writing to a fractious congregation whose various factions label themselves (1 Cor. 1:12) with names that apparently carried meaning for them at the time. Paul appeals to the Corinthian church (and to us members of the PC[USA]) that “all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.” (1:10) He gives as his reason for this exhortation a report he received that various self-labeled factions have arisen within the congregation. “Has Christ been divided?” he asks. (1:13a)
Paul reminds his readers that the truth upon which the Church is built is Christ, whom he describes as “the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (1:24) When he again takes up the theme of divisions within the church, in Chapter 3, Paul returns to questioning the legitimacy of the self-labeled factions: “For when one says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ and another, ‘I belong to Apollos,’ are you not merely human?” (3:4) In a phenomenon with which we are all too familiar, they had begun labeling themselves and flocking into like-minded groups, which caused them to deny their common identity and common ministry in Christ. They might have declared, “I belong to the Covenant Network,” or “I Belong to the Presbyterian Lay Committee,” or “I belong to Presbyterians for Renewal,” or “I belong to More Light Presbyterians.”
We sing the hymn “They’ll Know We are Christians by Our Love,” but are church quarrels any less mean-spirited or unreasonable than those of, say, secular politics?  Does that make the quarrelers unchristian? No, but Paul is bold enough to point out that it makes them immature Christians. (1 Cor. 3:1-4)
While Paul asks his rhetorical question “Has Christ been divided?” in Chapter1, in Chapter 3he gives us his answer. “What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each.” (1 Cor. 3:5, emphasis added) Here, Paul acknowledges that he and Apollos are merely workers in Christ’s field. “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who gives the growth.” (3:6-7) They each have a role to play, and they play their roles as directed by the Holy Spirit, but in the end, it’s not their ministry, it’s Jesus’ ministry. Although Paul, Apollos and Peter participated in Christ’s ministry, and called upon the Christian community at Corinth to do the same, Paul wrote to the congregation out of a concern that their increasing factionalism might lead to schism. He reminds them of their unity in Christ by virtue of their baptism into Christ (“by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ”), and beseeches them to be in agreement with one another in order to stave off schísmata, remaining united in the “same mind and the same purpose.” (1 Cor. 1:10) The congregation, whatever its disagreements, must remember that it remains united in Christ.
In his book Reconstructing Pastoral Theology: A Christological Foundation, Andrew Purves writes,
As the body of Christ, the church has its life in Christ and is, therefore, decisively shaped by union with one another in him (e.g., Rom. 12:4-5; 1 Cor. 12:27). As the Second Helvetic Confession puts it, “Since there is always but one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, Jesus the Messiah, and one Shepherd of the whole flock, one Head of this body, and, to conclude, one Spirit, one salvation, one faith, one Testament or covenant, it necessarily follows that there is only one Church” (Chapter 17). The unity confessed is with believers in every time and place. Union with one another, because it takes place in Christ, is grounded in the fact that all are joined to Christ in faith by the power of the Spirit. The church has a powerful witness to make here, both to society and to the world at large, as the Spirit helps us live into the oneness that is ours in Christ. Union with him and in him transcends and overrules every lesser loyalty that threatens to separate people one from another.
Time For Something New takes the problem of factionalism in the PC(USA) to the next level, using the phrase “like-minded” repeatedly in its appeal to readers. While the white paper’s steering committee cites the phenomenon of division in its rationale (“…but the PCUSA is in a state of division already. This proposal only acknowledges the sadly divided denomination we have become”), it does not recognize this as a Christological or ecclesiological problem or ask the rhetorical Biblical question “Has Christ been divided?” Instead, it prescribes increased, formalized division leading, by design, to schism.
If the goal is the reformation of the Presbyterian Church (USA), then such reformation ought to be in response to the Word of God: ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda secundum verbum Dei. And yet Time For Something New, despite certain points in the steering committee’s own rationale, offers solutions to the problems of the denomination that are merely functional, rather than theological or spiritual. The white paper might have been helpful if it had clearly and concisely outlined the “united theological core”  to which its steering committee would have the denomination “subscribe,” as well as how they believe the denomination has departed from this theological core. Because they fail to diagnose the crisis as Christological or ecclesiological, we have no way of knowing with any precision how Christology informs their ecclesiology (other than to point out the banal statement that “We are ready… TO THRIVE as the Body of Christ”), and the white paper shows itself to be symptomatic of the crisis, rather than a viable solution to it.
The authors of the white paper list four “values” which underpin their desire to change the way congregations in the PC(USA) interact with each other. These values concern church polity, property ownership, decreased connectionalism, and creating an “atmosphere of support for congregations both within and without the PCUSA.” The proposed corrective actions bear out these values through the creation of “an association of congregations”; new, non-geographical middle governing bodies that will enable congregations and pastors of “like mind” to congregate for common mission; the possible creation of a “new Reformed body” (notably not referred to as a new Presbyterian body); and consideration of “re-creating” the current denomination, despite the fact that the authors state that “We think the denomination no longer provides a viable future.” Nowhere in the “values” or “proposals” sections of Time for Something New is the denomination’s crisis of Christological ecclesiology correctly identified or elucidated.
Ongoing conversations between factions of the church notwithstanding, I know of nothing that is currently being done that will rescue the denomination from its Christological crisis, because I know of no place where the crisis has been rightly identified. Indeed, our denomination may well be staring into the abyss. But “the antithesis [between the true and the false church] must be overcome not through the victory of one party over another in a church, or through the victory of one church over another, but through the victory of the truth, through restoration of the lordship of Jesus Christ in the church.” It is the Word of God that governs the Church, as well as reforms it.
It is in Jesus Christ that she possesses her true nature, unity and holiness—not in what the men gathered together in her, as men, even the greatest and most serious of them, are, say and do, but in what Jesus Christ is for them, has said to them and done for them. She possesses her true nature, unity and holiness in the hidden work of the Holy Spirit, in His electing, calling, directing and comforting.
In our union with Christ, the Holy Spirit calls particular churches (and, presumably, particular denominations) together into unity in Christ. “Because union with Christ is responsible for calling the church into particular communities of worship and mission, individual congregations are more than just voluntary associations of like-minded individuals gathered together for a common religious purpose.” We deny Christ’s call and countermand Christ’s will for the church when we answer disagreement with schismatic rhetoric. Worse than this, we do violence to the body of Christ itself, since our union in Christ is a direct product of our union with Christ. If, as Reformed theologians, we affirm that faith and practice cannot be divorced, then our church’s polity and our “life together” must necessarily reflect what we believe theologically. If we believe both in union with Christ and union in Christ, schism is not a faithful expression of what Christ has revealed to us about himself.
Additionally, while our practices are informed by our theology, our theology is also informed by our practices. What we do communicates what we may or may not want others to think we believe. If we remain united in our disagreements, we communicate one Christological position; if we divide over disagreements, we communicate another.
It is the case that the church must always hold itself up to the refining and reforming standard of the Word of God, seeking ever to remain the true church. If our denomination has become so apostate that it no longer bears the marks of the true church, then it is the responsibility of the true church within the Church—a righteous remnant, if you will—to speak this truth to those in ecclesial power. I don’t believe that the denomination is apostate: it continues to affirm the Lordship of Jesus Christ, the authority of Scripture and the sovereignty of God (answering the question of “creeping universalism”), as well as other classical expressions of Reformed faith. More to the point of this paper, though, the authors of Time For Something New not only miss the opportunity to offer theological or scriptural corrections to “theological error and biblical drift,” but offer instead proposed structural reforms to the governance of the denomination that betray concerns that are not theological or biblical at all, causing their argument to appear disingenuous, and leading to the very schísmata that Paul exhorted the Corinthians to avoid.
We are left with the impression that what the steering committee desires is for the denomination to be in complete agreement on every issue, and specifically to agree with them—which it can’t, since the proposed reforms to church governance are intrinsically un-Presbyterian—and barring that, the formation of a new structure whereby they won’t have to deal with anyone with whom they disagree.
Disagreements are necessary for understanding and growth as a community. They are evidence of concern and rely upon communication between loving parties. Arguing and quarreling, on the other hand, are signs of spiritual immaturity, insofar as otherwise good, well-meaning Christians cannot accept that the Body of Christ is made up of other parts than themselves, and even other systems than the one to which they belong. If each of us is a part of the Body of Christ, then perhaps a like-minded collection of us—like the kind Paul warned against—is a bodily organ system. The problem with the white paper’s proposed solutions, then, is that while a like-minded faction of the church can identify itself as, say, the digestive system of the Body of Christ, it is still foolish to think that it can say to the circulatory system, “We have no need of you.” (1 Cor. 12:21) And that is why it may be suggested that the white paper’s proposal is unbiblical. Christ is not divided and, speaking ontologically, cannot be divided. (1 Cor. 12:12)
While I disagree with the findings and proposed solutions of the white paper, it accidentally touches on something that does warrant consideration: the notion that in order for Christ’s ministry of resurrection to take place, something has to die. Christ’s ministry isn’t reviving or revitalizing—it is resurrecting. In baptism, we die with Christ and rise with him to newness of life. When we talk about “revival,” what we’re really describing is the dying to oneself and one’s own anxious grasping at control, and allowing Christ to be the Lord of one’s (or a denomination’s) life.
In one sense… there is no place left for human autonomy, human aspiration, or even, maybe especially, human piety, religion and ethics. On the other hand, everything is placed upon the human agency of Jesus Christ, and on our life in that agency lived, died, and ascended to rule on our behalf. The argument may be that the Christology of vicarious agency is too big, too engulfing, too imperial. Barth… might well reply that this is what the Lordship of Jesus Christ means. Faith is the gift of God to trust our lives at every point to this Lordship.
Christ’s ministry is redemptive because it is resurrection ministry. Time For Something New, for all its shortcomings, invites us to consider the death of our denomination as we know it. Though not the point that the steering committee of the white paper was trying to make, it does offer us the opportunity to reflect on the possibility that we may be experiencing the crucifixion of our denomination’s ministry. Times come when a pastor’s ministry, a congregation’s ministry, or even an entire denomination has to die in order for Christ to replace that ministry with something of his making and doing.
It is later in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians—in a place where he is specifically addressing the subject of resurrection, in fact—that Paul returns once again to agricultural metaphor.
“What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And as for what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body… So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised in a spiritual body.” (1 Cor. 15:36-38, 42-44)
Regardless of what may become of our denomination, if we are faithful in sowing (and by this, I mean burying as dead anything that stands in the way of Jesus’ redemptive ministry, even if that is my ministry, the life of a congregation, or even of the whole denomination), then our resurrected Lord, the first fruit of the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:20-23), will be Lord of a new and more abundant harvest!
What will be required in order to sow the seeds of this harvest is not changes to church polity or hand-wringing over whether local sessions steward their own properties, but transformation that comes with the renewing of our minds. (Rom. 12:2) It is in the 12th Chapter of Romans that Paul communicates his aforementioned “Corinthian” ecclesiology to the church at Rome:
For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members of one another. (Rom. 12:3-5)
“How we got to this place is less important than how we move forward,” it is suggested in Time For Something New. Nothing could be farther from the truth! Without understanding how we got to this place, we are doomed to repeat the mistakes that got us here. What appears to have gotten us here is confusion about the nature of Scripture, whereby some venerate Scripture to the point of bibliolatry while others conclude that Scripture’s imperfection undercuts its authority. What appears to have gotten us here is the fact that the church serves to fulfill the desires of humankind, rather than the will of God. “The god ‘so-called,’ which the proposition about ‘ane onelie God’ [in the Scots Confession] was designed to combat, is above all man himself.” But what has really gotten us here is a woefully inadequate understanding of and acquiescence to the Lordship of Jesus Christ—the living, reigning Lord—and his vicarious agency on behalf of humanity and his Church.
For what is the debate about Scripture, but a debate over whether “the Bible” is the God-breathed Word of God, or whether it is a unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ, who is the Word of God? What is the institution of the visible Church but humanity’s attempt to do for itself that which can only be accomplished by God in, through and as Jesus Christ (namely, procure our salvation through the fulfillment of the Law)? These obstacles are two parts of a single stumbling block: the Lordship of Jesus Christ! (Rom. 9:30-33)
I posit that the wholesale annihilation of our denomination, suggested by the white paper, would be catastrophic, not only for the churches themselves and potentially for the people who compose them, but also for the denomination’s witness in the world. We are not only human, but Christian; not only Christian, but Protestant; not only Protestant but Reformed; not only Reformed, but Presbyterian; not only Presbyterian, but members of the Presbyterian Church (USA). We have infinitely more in common with one another theologically than we do with any other people on earth. On the one hand, this would seem to suggest that the schism of our denomination would be virtually meaningless as an action within the communion of saints that is the church catholic, given how much both sides would continue to have in common with one another. It might also serve as evidence of the impossibility of the task of ecumenical reconciliation, for if disagreement over even nonessential tenets of our life together is enough to split the PC(USA), what hope do we have (other than our hope in the Lord Jesus Christ) of reconciling our beliefs—or, for that matter, even maintaining meaningful dialogue—with those of Wesleyans, Anabaptists, Roman Catholics, the Orthodox, etc.? But regardless of how the people of the visible church ultimately behave, Christ is not divided; the invisible Church continues, with Jesus Christ as its Head. Quickly dismantling a denomination as historic and connectional as ours for reasons of property rights and political backbiting would certainly not offer a credible witness of Jesus Christ to the world.
However, if the denomination were to reexamine its relationship to its Head and endeavor boldly to proclaim the Reformed Christology of vicarious agency to a world in need of this very good news (and starting with its own leadership and its own congregations, thus inaugurating a new era of evangelical high Christology and spiritual formation), then its current “witness” of “behaving according to human inclinations” (1 Cor. 3:3) will have been crucified, dead and buried, to be resurrected as a community of mature Christian disciples. To its credit, the white paper affirms in its concluding section that “together we must re-discover (sic) our calling and identity in Christ.” It also states that the steering committee’s “goal is not institutional survival but effective faithfulness,” which sounds spot-on until you read the second clause: “fully participating in the world-wide church.” We as a denomination will be getting somewhere when the authors of its white papers are able to articulate a desire to “fully participate” not in the institution of the visible, world-wide church, but in the ministry of Jesus Christ in the world.
 See Appendix, Time for Something New, i. (Emphasis added.)
 TFSN, ii.
 Andrew Purves, Reconstructing Pastoral Theology: A Christological Foundation. (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2004), 94-5.
 Andrew Purves notes, “Theological debates and denominational politics often display levels of intensifying toxicity that mirror the style and tone of national politics,” in The Crucifixion of Ministry (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007), 18.
 Purves, Reconstructing, 94-5. (Emphasis added.)
 TFSN, i.
 “[An association of congregations] is an intermediate tool to begin to bring together like minded congregations and pastors to begin the work of another future, different than the current PCUSA.” TFSN, iii.
 “We have tolerated what we regard as theological error and biblical drift far too long, hoping something would change for the better.” TFSN, i.
 TFSN, ii.
 Karl Barth writes, “Such a decision or confession of faith… cannot under any conditions wish to usurp the place of the Word of God. It cannot claim a validity which is absolute and obligatory for all time. It cannot set up any new doctrine or ordinance which goes beyond the Word of God… It cannot bind men’s consciences, it is not in principle free from error… If it wished to be more… in that case it could not be obeyed and its assumed authority would have to be defied in the name of faith, in the name of Jesus Christ.” The Knowledge of God and the Service of God According to the Teaching of the Reformation: Recalling the Scottish Confession of 1560. (Zurich: Theologischer Verlag. 1938) 2005 English publication by Wipf and Stock, Eugene, OR., 184.
 TFSN, i.
 TFSN, iii.
 TFSN, iii-iv.
 Barth, 167-8.
 Barth, 157.
 Purves, Reconstructing, 95. (Emphasis added.)
 TFSN, ii.
 “More importantly, we long for Presbyteries where we have theological and missional consensus rather than fundamental disagreement over so many core issues of theology.” TFSN, iii. (Emphasis added.)
 That is to say, Paul equates the human inclinations that undergird such behavior with the inability to receive spiritual “solid food” (1 Cor. 3:1-4)
 Andrew Purves, “The Christology of Vicarious Agency in the Scots Confession According to Karl Barth”. Unpublished article manuscript, 2011, 29-30.
 TFSN, i.
 Barth, 17
 I here again refer the reader to Purves’ comment on this subject in Reconstructing Pastoral Theology, block-quoted above on page 4.
 “There is no longer a common understanding of what is meant by being ‘Reformed.’” TFSN, ii.
 TFSN, v.
 “The Christian life is participation in Christ’s righteousness, holiness and mission through the bond of the Holy Spirit. Our being and becoming Christian is not something that we work out through our heightened religiosity, morality, activity or spirituality. It is first of all a divine initiative.” (Purves, Crucifixion of Ministry, 71.)