I have been dismayed by the comments of those that see the Assembly affirmation as a denial of the authority of Christ as the only Savior and Lord. That statement says, “Every other authority is finally subject to Christ” and “It is his life, death, resurrection, ascension and final return that restores creation, providing salvation for all those whom God has chosen to redeem” (this language is from The Crucified One Is Lord). Christ is not simply the greatest among many lords. His authority is different in kind from every other authority. He alone is worthy of our complete allegiance. His action is determinative for the salvation of the world. If my statement seems to say anything other than that, it is because of failure in communication, not intent.
I offered the statement as an amendment to the report from the Committee on Theological and Educational Issues because I felt that the Assembly should issue a strong affirmation of the Lordship of Christ. This is not a matter about which there is substantive disagreement among most ministers in our church. We may argue about how to say it, but almost all of us believe that Christ’s authority is supreme and his action necessary. There is, however, confusion among many lay members of Presbyterian churches about the relationship between the work of Christ and truths revealed in other religions. It is an issue about which our church needs to speak with clarity, to educate and to invite discussion.
The greater disagreement in our church is not about who is Lord but who is saved. Some of us believe that there can be no salvation for those who do not explicitly confess their faith in Christ as Lord and Savior. Others of us believe that it is not proper or possible for us to judge who is saved. As “Hope in the Lord Jesus Christ” puts it,
No one is saved apart from God’s redemption in Jesus Christ. Yet we do not presume to limit the sovereign freedom of “God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). Thus, we can neither restrict the grace of Jesus Christ to those who profess explicit faith in Christ nor assume that all people are saved regardless of faith. Grace, love and communion belong to God, and are not ours to determine.
I hope that all of us will agree that “Who is Lord?” is a more important question than “Who is saved?” But “Who is saved?” is also important and needful of discussion in our church. We should discuss it, however, as those who identify our differences clearly and are searching together for the truth, not as those who are trying to win political battles.
Of course all our language about God needs to be redefined in the light of God’s action and revelation. Christ is not Lord in many of the ways that word is commonly understood. He has shown us that lordship means not domination but servanthood. His authority is not patriarchal or authoritarian but gracious and self-giving.
My greatest disappointment during the months since the 213th General Assembly has been to see its statement on the Lordship of Christ attacked by persons who, I feel, agree with most of what I intended to say. I know and respect many of these persons. Why did they believe that this statement meant the opposite of what I believe it meant? Was it because of my failure to communicate clearly? Probably it partly was, but I fear that it was also because we have divided ourselves into political camps that assume the worst about each other.
The New Testament language of “principalities and powers” (Ephesians 6:12; Colossians 1:16; 2:15) is helpful for understanding what is happening in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Principalities and powers are those structures, institutions and beliefs which are necessary for the order of the world but which assume more authority than is mandated to them by God. Even good theologies and causes can become principalities and powers which claim for themselves a role that is proper only for God. It is not in the best interests of church movements and affinity groups to join together with those who oppose them in order to search together for the truth. The best way to gain followers and raise funds is to declare a position, stand pat on it or move to a more extreme position, and find arguments to support that position. To admit the possibility of a higher authority, a different perspective or a deeper truth is to risk going out of business.
I would like to give a personal illustration to support my belief that the different factions in the church have much to offer each other if we could listen to each other. The critics of the Assembly statement on the Lordship of Christ have helped me realize that the use of the word “unique” in the statement is problematic. I intended “unique” to mean “sole” or “only.” Jesus Christ is the only Lord. I now realize that “unique” can also mean “one of a kind.” Each of us is a unique person, although there are many other persons. I believe that other sentences in the Assembly statement declare clearly that Jesus Christ is the only Lord; nevertheless, if I were to write the statement again, I would avoid the word “unique.” Critics have helped me clarify my understanding of the truth and my ability to express that truth.
“Who is Lord?” is a matter of not only good theology and right belief, but also right loyalty. To turn on its head criticism of the Assembly statement, it is a question not only about who is the Lord, but also about who is our Lord. Is our highest allegiance to some movement in the church and its version of the truth, or to Jesus Christ, who is the Head of the Church and whose Spirit leads us into all truth?
Malcolm Brownlee is interim pastor, Second church, Lexington, N.C.
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