He has served the church well and has not been afraid of criticism from any quarter, seeking instead, I believe, to serve God by his best lights. Still I would like to raise several areas of further exploration and even disagreement with his piece, “A Sacred Trust.”
The three items in his article upon which I would like to comment are:
1. His reference to us in the PC(USA) as a “great denomination;”
2. Our stewardship of this denomination since its reunion in 1983; and
3. Whether or not “meeting in the middle” is really a hermeneutical and epistemological concept that is consistent with the way Reformed Christians have done theology.
1. In his article Robert writes about “the deep conviction that the unity of this great denomination is worth fighting for.” What I am about to say may cause some readers to wince and say “ouch,” but I feel that one thing all sides need to consider is that while we Presbyterians might once have been a “great denomination,” we are no more.
By God’s grace, we might, miraculously, once again become a “great denomination”, but right now we are not. It is true that by the penultimate reckonings of some church historians, we are a denomination with a great past, but in our present reality I believe we have fallen greatly from those times. How else could there be eternal verities which are up for grabs in much of the PC(USA) which should not be up for grabs in any Reformed church of Jesus Christ: some among us are not sure that there is salvation only in Christ, salvation by grace alone through faith alone, although that belief is central to our heritage. Others doubt the clear teaching of God’s word about the sinfulness of sexual relations outside of marriage between a man and a woman. Still others see Scripture as mainly a record of what people used to believe about God, rather than being God’s living and inspired Word to us today. At one of the gatherings of the Presbyterian Coalition, I was moved by a sermon in which the preacher, in my judgment one of our denomination’s greatest theologians, quoted — with respect to the Presbyterian Church — Haggai 2:3. It reads:
“Who of you is left who saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Does it not seem to you like nothing.”
I agree with Robert Bullock that our unity, along with our peace and our purity, is worth fighting for, but I do not agree that a reason to fight for our unity is because we are any longer a great denomination. The way a church is great is to be a faithful servant of its master. I believe the PC(USA) will be great in the future only as we humble ourselves and faithfully serve our Lord, abiding in His word rather than trying to change it.
2. Secondly, Robert mentions the great history of the Presbyterian Outlook and particularly its endorsement of the reunion of the PC(US) and UPC(USA) which eventually happened in 1983. However, I am constrained to add my conviction that we have not been good stewards of that reunited church which God gave us in 1983.
To begin with, when we celebrate the 25th anniversary of that reunion in 2008, we will have to admit, if present trends continue and if we are being honest and not just cheerleading for the denomination, that since reunion we will have lost a number of members nearly approaching the total that the PC(US) brought into the reunion in 1983.
Moreover, when the two denominations reunited, each of them had a definitive guidance /authoritative interpretation that said that homosexual practice was sin. Much more importantly, the two predecessor denominations adopted by a vote of over 90 percent of the presbyteries, confessions which speak to two of the issues which seem to divide us. These confessions say over and over again that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone, and that salvation is only through Christ, and yet this central affirmation is regularly denied in our church at all levels.
The confessions adopted as part of the Plan of Reunion (and which have not been amended since) also say clearly at two places, B.C. 4.087 and B.C. 7.249, that same-gender sex is sin, and they either quote or footnote two of the salient Scripture passages in this debate; Romans 1: 26-27 and I Corinthians 6:9. Our Book of Order is clear that if we believe more light has broken forth from Scripture, we should amend our Constitution (which takes 2/3rds of the presbyteries and two successive General Assemblies) but lacking the votes to do that, much of the reunited church simply ignores in its Constitution what it does not like. So in two ways, preserving the membership we had in 1983 and preserving and defending the Constitution we got in 1983, I believe this church has been a bad steward of its own Reunion.
3. The Presbyterian Book of Order does not often speak of the “unity” of the church apart from its “peace” and “purity.” Obviously reformers like Luther, Calvin and Knox were not interested in taking the measure of their differences with Roman Catholicism and then splitting the difference to meet in the middle as if truth were subject to negotiation. Certainly Luther’s words, “here I stand; I can do no other,” are a Reformation principle. All of which brings us back to a fundamental question: where is the center of this church? Is its center simply to split the difference on important issues like salvation through Christ alone or biblical sexual mores, or is the abiding center of the church, that which made it once great, to stand–in season and out of season, when it is popular and when it is not, and even when the people have itchy ears–on the truth of God’s revealed word?
In closing let me say that it is my hope and my belief that God will once again bless the Presbyterian Church. To continue the theme from Haggai which that Presbyterian maidservant (viz. Acts 2:18) preached, I too believe that by God’s grace a day will come when this verse can and will come true for the PC(USA): “the glory of this present house will be greater than the glory of the former house,’ says the Lord Almighty. And in this place will I grant peace.” (Haggai 2:9)
But, because I believe we are not now great at all, but rather like the Laodiceans whom the glorified Christ described in Revelation 3:17, we are “wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked,” I am convinced that only God, by a supernatural action, only God by His miraculous hand, can make the latter glory of this house greater than the former glory! Only God can restore us to (and beyond!) our former “greatness.” Both James 4:10 and 1 Peter 5:6 say that when we humble ourselves, eventually God will lift us up. That means that everyone in our church, including evangelicals, liberals, and centrists (and I myself before anyone else), must humble ourselves, pray, repent and seek God’s face. Only then can and will He lift us up and heal our church and our land.
When that restoration, renewal, awakening, and healing happens . . . surpassing anything we can ask or imagine . . . what a day it will be! Because of our current humble state as a church, on that day it will be abundantly clear that God and God alone, together with His Son Jesus Christ, through the Holy Spirit, is to receive all the glory!
Perhaps on that day someone will remember the thought of that great old Presbyterian hymn based on Psalm 100 and sing it as a new song:
O enter then His gates with praise
Approach with joy His courts unto
Praise, laud and bless His name always
For it is seemly so to do.
For why, the Lord our God is good
His mercy is forever sure
His truth at all times firmly stood
And shall from age to age endure.
Winfield “Casey” Jones is pastor of First church, Pearland, Texas.
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