It was an unforgettable Sunday. I had been the pastor of the church for a little over a year. Faces now familiar glared as the liturgical curveball I’d thrown on this particular Sunday was making its way to the plate.
While people will indeed surprise us, there was no need for Pew’s poling of this crowd. Election Day, a few months earlier, came to our town like every other American town. I don’t know if it’s the fact that we’re mere miles from the Palmetto State line, or if it’s the many Stars-and-Bars flags flying over the graves of Civil War veterans that make up our cemetery’s Memorial Day honorary décor, or if it’s the staunch conservatism chiming in between sips and spoon-to-soup-bowl dings while eating oyster stew at Tuesday Night Men Suppers. Something told me few in our congregation had voted for the victor.
The sermon was preached. A hymn sung. It was time. I eased back into the pulpit, clinging to the bulletin like the in-game clinging of a faithful fan to the scorecard of their favorite baseball team – as though I could somehow claim, “Hey, I’m just reading what it says!” The affirmation of faith for the day came from The Confession of 1967. Oh, but there was more than just affirming our faith together. Since we approached the Pastoral Rite of the Church section of the worship, it seemed an appropriate time in the service to not only affirm but to celebrate a palpable fruit of the Reformed faith and Presbyterian confessional tradition, evident in the election of the first African American to the office of President. “Pastoral Rite of the Church? What gives you the right?” I punned to myself amidst all the discomfort and perspiration. My shaky larynx let out its best emulation of confidence as we moved through the rite together. And, with that great, convicting line of our 44 year-old friend that cuts with all the integrity of Christ’s double-edged sword, the Holy Spirit completed our witness to reconciliation (regardless of how imperfect) that day: Congregations, individuals, or groups of Christians who exclude, dominate, or patronize their fellowmen, however subtly, resist the Spirit of God and bring contempt on the faith which they profess (Book of Confessions, “Confession of 1967,” p. 259, 9.44).
You know, I never heard one negative comment about that liturgical curveball. Maybe I had misjudged. Maybe it’s my preconceived notions that truly need reconciling with reality, “however subtly.”
Two years later (just yesterday actually), I wished for a phone-a-friend lifeline at our Presbytery meeting as more than two dozen people lined up on each side of the sanctuary in order to duel it out over amendment 10A. As expected, conversation…hmm, scratch that…rather, “emotional and anecdotal appeal”… revolved off-kilter around two subjects: 1) obedience to the words of an inerrant, infallible Bible; and 2) the question of whether or not God created homosexuality. That’s right. A longing for the companionship of our 44 year-old friend, The Confession of 1967, fell over me. As I listened to bizarre comments caressing an almost Seventh-Day Adventist’s take on Scripture and others flirting with Unitarian Universalist notions, confusion and a stream of inquiries was all that resulted. How can an issue, which isn’t really even insinuated in 10A, cause exam-passing pastors and lifelong elders to totally abandon socio-historical approaches and critical thinking when it comes to understanding the Bible? Our 44 year-old friend, The Confession of 1967, called out: The one sufficient revelation of God is Jesus Christ, the Word of God incarnate, to whom the Holy Spirit bears unique witness through the Holy Scriptures, which are received and obeyed as the word of God written…The Bible is to be interpreted in the light of its witness to God’s work of reconciliation in Christ. The Scriptures, given under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, are nevertheless the words of men, conditioned by the language, thought forms, and literary fashions of the places and times at which they were written. They reflect views of life, history, and the cosmos which were then current. The church, therefore, has an obligation to approach the Scriptures with literary and historical understanding. As God has spoken his word in diverse cultural situations, the church is confident that he will continue to speak through the Scriptures in a changing world and in every form of human culture…God’s word is spoken to his church today where the Scriptures are faithfully preached and attentively read in dependence on the illumination of the Holy Spirit and with readiness to receive their truth and direction (Book of Confessions, “Confession of 1967,” p.257, 9.27, .29-.30). There’s nothing like the smell of neo-orthodoxy in the morning!
The Bible will not be much help as a utility for usurping coups wanting to destroy the PC(USA) by infiltrating its leadership structure with sexual taboos. Nor will the Bible lend itself as a crutch of justice for those who feel they’re famished for lack of righteousness/justice. The Scriptures are merely the “word of God written” –“words of men” – until they are “faithfully preached and attentively read in dependence on the illumination of the Holy Spirit and with readiness to receive their truth and direction.” It is then that we receive “the one sufficient revelation of God…Jesus Christ, the Word of God incarnate…” The word of God becomes the vehicle through which the Holy Spirit “bears unique witness” to the Word of God, but only when the Holy Spirit illumines. This will never happen as long as we attempt to control and maneuver the Bible, wielding it in hopes of humbling our enemies.
Another Presbytery meeting looms. More debate from pastors and elders is to come. While there’s no room to get into it now, my prayer is that we’ll remember our 44 year-old friend, The Confession of 1967, as we debate the remaining issues, especially when considering whether or not to add The Confession of Belhar. We could argue which – the Confession of ’67 or the Confession of Belhar – makes the strongest case for unity and reconciliation from now on; but, as for me, our 44 year-old friend will be on standby in my heart and mind as a trusty phone-a-friend and proven (January 20, 2009) conversation partner.
Michael Sears is pastor, Olney Church, Gastonia, N.C.