For all of our claims to the contrary, we Presbyterians are congenitally dumb-headed in some aspects of theology. Most especially, most of us believe in an ecclesiology — a theology of the church — that is an admixture of other competing ecclesiologies that has put our connectionalism into a state of disarray.
Neal Presa, moderator, and Tom Trinidad, vice moderator of the 2012 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), recently convened a three-day conference at the Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in the hope of engaging in a conversation on ecclesiology. Apart from the speakers, I was one of about two dozen people to show up for it. Okay, it was organized on short notice. But even the online audience — it was live-streamed — still numbered just a few dozen (though that number is growing as others are viewing portions after the fact).
I was there not only because I report denominational news. I will applaud any effort by any PC(USA) leaders who try to prompt a serious conversation on ecclesiology.
This was a serious conversation. The moderators — both having earned Ph.D.s in liturgical theology — unleashed their pastor-theologian skills not only in the comments and questions they posed but also in the choices of presenters and responders — professors, pastors and M.Div. students — that they had invited.
Each speaker presented a paper, some expounding on scholarly research, others reflecting on experiences in the pastorate or parachurch ministry. Every paper and each speaker offered a compelling message that both affirmed classical Trinitarian theology and challenged some aspect of the status quo.
Our status quo spouts long and hard about its Presbyterian polity, but it operates more as an amalgamation of the ecclesiologies of the two largest American denominations: Roman Catholic and Southern Baptist. The Catholic (add Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist) and Baptist (add congregationalist, non-denominational, fundapentacharisgelical) so dominate the American religious scene that most Presbyterians in the pews and many pastors in the pulpits really subscribe to a mix of those other two. In one breath we play to the top-down hierarchical — the people always to blame for our ills are the presbytery (cf. the bishop) and Louisville (cf. the Vatican). And in the next breath we play to the autonomous congregational — our association with each other gets treated as a matter of personal choice, we withhold per capita apportionments, decry the property trust clause, skip presbytery meetings and instead join self-selected groups formed among our ideologically pure enclaves of agreement.
Both of those approaches are abandonments of everything Calvin. Mix them together as we have, and you produce connectional chaos.
For the first time ever, we have a moderator and vice moderator with advanced education on the subject of humanity’s chief end: glorifying and enjoying God. These leaders have mined the Reformed tradition’s insights on how to pursue that end in the community of the body of Christ. Plus they are seeking to do it via cultivating the missional church, while elevating conversations in the church above both congregationalist-catholic ecclesiology and a shallow, utilitarian polity focus.
Presa and Trinidad understand that the way forward must begin with laying claim to a truly Reformed, liturgical, missional ecclesiology. It is that pursuit that drove this local church pastor into writing the book “GodViews” over a decade ago, and which drew me into serving the larger church via advocacy organizations, committees, task forces and ultimately as editor of this publication.
A handful of folks attended the recent colloquium, but those presentations are available to read and/or view online — Do check them out. The moderators will convene a second colloquium on ecclesiology at Princeton Seminary on Dec 9-11, to be followed by a conversation on unity with difference on Dec. 11-13. Whether you can attend in person or via WebStream, do join the conversation.