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In Thrall to the Law

Nothing is clearer, as we go through yet another around of decision-making about sexuality in the presbyteries, than that the Presbyterian Church is in the grip of legalism, which seems not to trust the gospel. We are trying to order our affairs as a church by the book, and the book is really not very helpful right now.

Living by the book alone is the opposite of living by grace alone. We need a book but not the one we have.

Time was when the Confession of Faith and the Book of (Church) Order could almost fit neatly into one’s pocket. That was a Constitution worthy of the church. Churches and governing bodies were then left with Scripture, sound doctrine and polity and the heritage of the church, together with the Holy Spirit, to be the church in action. Nothing complicated, but it worked pretty well — most of the time.

The only way out of the present mess is a vastly simplified constitutional document, but how we get from here to there is anybody’s guess.

A task force of the Advisory Committee on the Constitution worked six years on the task and offered several options on how to simplify the “Book of Order” to the 1999 General Assembly, but they were rejected and the project terminated.

This church is thoroughly in thrall to the law. Legalism has squeezed the life out of us. We seem not to let anything happen unless it’s permitted by the book. And if the book is silent, then it needs to be amended to tell us precisely what to do in every conceivable set of circumstances. And, of course, we cannot possibly conceive of all of them, thus requiring more laws.

The law has become a noose around our neck, and until we cut it off, we will continue to strangle.

Tinkering with what we have will simply not do; only wholesale reform will work — a new, vastly simpler book.

By the way, this editorial should not be taken as support or opposition for any particular amendments before the presbyteries. Since we’re still in thrall to the law, we have to make decisions based on the lesser of evils.

The 2001 General Assembly could best spend its time, not on further tinkering with the book, but affirming wholesale reform.


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