The previous speaker — Parker Williamson, editor-i- chief of the Presbyterian Layman — had made the crowd feisty with his remarks that “you are the church,” not the denominational leadership of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which Williamson accused of driving away 1.7 million Presbyterians. So, before he preached, Logan led the folks in singing hymns, turning the back mood back to worship.
That dichotomy, between theological reflection and firing up the troops, was laced throughout the Confessing Church Movement’s national gathering, held Feb. 24-27 in Atlanta.
Key presentations were dedicated to theologians discussing Jesus and the Bible, full of rich imagery — including Andrew Purves describing the Holy Spirit binding people to Jesus “like cosmic Elmer’s glue” and Bruce McCormack saying the Bible was written “to help a starving man or woman find bread . . . to confront us with God’s ice-pick, the instrument He uses to break up the frozen ice in our souls.”
At the same time, Jeff Arnold, one of the organizers of the event, said the celebration’s “theme verse” was Romans 12:1-2, which speaks of the faithful offering their bodies as living sacrifices to God. So that was the part where people were asked to sign “commitment cards” before they went back home — promising how they’d help the Confessing Church Movement make changes in their congregations, presbyteries and in the national denomination. The commitment cards will determine “if people are just going to want a pep rally” in the Confessing Church Movement or “how willing the body is to get up and walk,” said Bob Davis of the Presbyterian Forum.
But that concept — convening a national meeting to organize a grassroots movement to walk somewhere together — shows another of the Confessing Church Movement’s paradoxes.
On the one hand, planners of the celebration made it clear they do consider this to be a grassroots movement. Doug Pratt, a pastor from Pennsylvania, said they don’t want to elect a board of directors and don’t know whether God wants the confessing churches to hold annual meetings.
“I hope and pray that it does not become a hierarchical, top-heavy, national Confessing Church organization,” Williamson told the crowd. “We have an abundance of those in the Presbyterian church. We do not need elitists at the top to confess the faith for us.”
On the other hand, the Confessing Church Movement clearly is getting more organized. Its leaders are setting up a network of 14 regional coordinators and creating three strategy teams — one each for theology, development and finance. They have a Web site (www.confessingchurch.homestead.com/index.html) and are raising money — asking those in attendance to give $32,000, both to help cover costs of putting on the meeting and to allow the movement to keep doing God’s work (by the end of the meeting, organizers announced, $22,151 had been given or pledged). They also are in conversations with confessing church movements in other denominations, and are planning a cross-denominational gathering with those groups in October.
Some of those who came seem puzzled by, or even skeptical of, the contention that the Confessing Church Movement does not want to be seen as anything but grassroots. “We’re not an organization at all, but all of a sudden we’re doing all of these organizational things,” said Ron McHattie, a pastor from Cupertino, Calif.
And there are obvious ties between the Confessing Church Movement and other, more “organized” renewal groups — many of whose leaders turned out in force for the Confessing Church meeting. For example, Pratt — one of the organizers of the Confessing gathering — was recently elected co-moderator of the Presbyterian Coalition. Bob Davis, of the Presbyterian Forum, will direct the 14 regional coordinators.
And John Huffman Jr., senior pastor of St. Andrews church, Newport Beach, Calif., suggested that money might become a reason for the renewal groups to align even more closely — saying his congregation already supports six renewal groups, and suggesting that the groups might want “to winnow that down” so evangelical congregations aren’t stretched too thin.
Along with an emerging sense of what the Confessing Church Movement might look like in the months to come, there also was a lot of discussion about what it should work on — what the concerns are of the people involved. Although it was called a “celebration,” this was not a gathering permeated with joy — despite the evangelicals’ recent victory in which the presbyteries voted strongly to reject allowing sexually active gays and lesbians to be ordained as church officers. But many people came to this meeting angry at what they see as deviations from orthodox theology, scornful of the national church and determined to force it to change.
Several keynote speakers urged congregations to stay in the PC(USA) — not to abandon ship, as Catherine Purves, a pastor from Pittsburgh, preached. But there was a clear sense of things in the denomination having gone wrong — and of the desire to build, from the ground up, some sort of “shadow denomination” that can lead Presbyterians back to the Bible and to solid theology.
Anger over PJC decision in Florida
One of the things people seemed most upset about was a recent church judicial case involving First church, Sebastian, Fla. The Permanent Judicial Commission of Central Florida Presbytery in late February ordered the Sebastian session to rescind its confessional statement — ruling that it conflicted with the Book of Order and that requiring anyone to affirm that statement as a prerequisite for being ordained or installed as church officers or being hired for a ministry position was not permitted.
The discussion of the Sebastian case was heated. Many saw it as a direct attack on the rights of local congregations to issue confessional statements and to declare their belief in Jesus as the way to salvation and the authority of the Bible.
There was some acknowledgement that the case might involve other elements. Davis, who’s both a pastor and a lawyer, said the ruling involved the question of whether the Sebastian session could require people to affirm the confessional statement before they would even be considered for selection as a deacon or elder. That, Davis said, might be interpreted as a “subscriptionist” requirement, going beyond the ordination standards in the Book of Order.
But others said the judicial commission would be wrong to say that Confessing Church statements contradict the PC(USA) Constitution — because what they do is affirm and lift up principles already in the Book of Confessions.
“You faithfully proclaim the gospel no matter what the PJC says,” theologian Mark Achtemeier said in one workshop. “You keep confessing until they kick you out. This confessing stuff bears a cost.”
Howard Edington, pastor of 5,300-member First church, Orlando, said his church will throw its resources into defending the Sebastian session. “If you don’t see this as a direct, frontal attack on the Confessing Church Movement, you’re missing the whole point,” Eddington said, adding that he would “dare the Permanent Judicial Commission to come after First Presbyterian Church Orlando.”
Just before the meeting closed, Paul Roberts — whose congregation kick-started the Confessing Church Movement by issuing a confessional statement last spring — asked for prayer for the Sebastian church and called forward others who feel they are also “under attack” for their beliefs. About 20 people came up — followed by hundreds others who packed the front of the hall to lay their hands on those people, holding hands, arms across one another’s shoulders, a woman’s hand raised high in supplication as Roberts prayed for protection “against the wiles of the devil.”
If the Sebastian case got people angry — feeling “under attack,” as Roberts put it — but other issues dug under their skin as well. Among them were:
o Defiant churches, those that say they intend to ordain non-celibate gays and lesbians despite what the PC(USA) Constitution says. As one man put it in a question-and-answer session, he sees the PC(USA) as on the brink of a confessional crisis and in the midst of a crisis of discipline. Some at this meeting say they intend to go after those whose views on the Constitution and on theology aren’t orthodox — to “be an agent of discipline to protect the sheep,” as it was described in one breakout session — and they lambasted those, including PC(USA) Stated Clerk Clifton Kirkpatrick, who they contend aren’t aggressive enough in enforcing proper standards.
“The first commandment of presbytery conduct is to step on no one’s toes, and that is absolute nonsense,” said theologian Ulrich Mauser. “The only way to be kind is to step on one another’s toes very thoroughly.”
Williamson said Kirkpatrick “appears more exercised over those who choose not to pay per capita — a choice guaranteed them in the Constitution — than over those who would openly defy the church’s faith and practice. Putting those priorities in the language of the Middle Ages, it is more important to pay indulgences than it is to bear faithful witness to the Word of God.”
o Unorthodox theology. Repeatedly, people said they fear that the PC(USA) is becoming known as a denomination where even ministers may not believe in basic Christian doctrine. In Presbyterian churches, prayers are addressed “to a whole pantheon of divinities,” Mauser said in a workshop. “If that’s not neopaganism, I don’t know what to call it.” A man in that workshop said, “I have been blessed so many times in the name of the Creator and the Redeemer and the Sustainer that I could throw up.”
o Different meanings. Even when people speak of their belief in Jesus as Savior, some suspect they don’t mean the same thing. Roberta Hestenes, a California pastor and minister-at-large with World Vision, spoke of widespread “reductionism of the Gospel,” including a redefinition of the doctrine of sin — so God is seen as only loving, not judgmental, and people are seen as basically all right, just needing a little fine-tuning (“a nice God for nice people,” as one person put it). Roberts said a caller to a Christian radio show he listened to said Presbyterians “don’t believe in repentance. They never talk about how you’re a sinner.”
o Resistance to stating publicly, unequivocally, what Presbyterian Christians do and don’t believe. Several speakers said the Confessing Church Movement has been unfairly criticized, because Christians should not be afraid to say that salvation comes only through Jesus or that the Bible is authoritative or that people should live holy lives and that sexual activity should not take place outside of marriage, which are the three key points of many of the statements that Confessing Churches have adopted.
That led to discussions of essential tenets — which the Presbyterian church has not been willing historically to adopt. But there is a longing in some Confessing Church congregations to enforce core beliefs. For example, some at this meeting said their sessions would not ordain a deacon or elder who could not affirm the three points in the confessional statements. Some also suggested that those three points could be used as a condition for membership in Presbyterian churches, including a woman who advocated in one breakout session for “vigorous examination prior to membership. We’ve got to find out whether these people are born-again or whether they are just playing games.”
The organizers of the meeting at one point considered, but later put aside, the idea of having those present vote on a “corporate affirmation” stating that the three points in the local confessional statements should be considered “as essential to the faithful proclamation of the Reformed faith in our time.”
Ultimately, they chose not to take that vote. They decided “that didn’t really fit, so let’s just throw it out,” Roberts told the group. “We didn’t think it was really needed.”
Among the themes that were identified in the breakout meetings as priorities — things those present wanted most to pursue, Arnold said — were elder training; scrutinizing what’s being taught at Presbyterian seminaries; connecting through the Internet; examining how people are nominated to serve in presbytery and denominational positions; equipping lay people for ministry; strengthening preaching and teaching; and emphasizing prayer and courage.