By the grace of God, the Presbyterian Church seems to have been given a moment in the “time between the times,” in which those who have fought one another to something of a standoff over the controversial issues, may be able to repent of the sin of self-righteousness. Perhaps we can reach across the divide, re-establish contact with those long considered to be enemies, toward the end of exploring possible ways of living together in a complex culture which is rapidly being transformed largely by forces beyond the church’s control.
Such efforts will require boldness on the part of leaders at many levels, patience and persistence in talking with and caring about one another — and constant repentance and prayer. There are no guarantees that honest efforts can move us any closer to the reconciliation that so many desire, but without such efforts, reconciliation will not be achieved at all.
It seems, on the basis of the history of the past 25 years or so, that if there is to be a “mainstream” inclusive Presbyterian denomination in the United States, there will have to be lots of give and take. Covenants, explicit or implicit, governing the way people and groups of different persuasions relate to one another will have to evolve, and a certain etiquette that permits the existence of wide variance in opinion without surrendering to the lure of a excessively relativistic approach. Should the latter occur, the church would have sold its soul for a mess of pottage.
Furthermore, governing bodies and their bureaucracies beyond the congregation — presbyteries, synods and General Assembly — will have to seek actively to redefine roles and functions among the various levels, as well as work out much more satisfactory relationships with informal groups of Presbyterians organized to promote particular causes, some of them totally at odds with one another.
From a theological standpoint, the church is not a voluntary body; it is the organic body of Christ which precedes anyone’s coming into it; it is founded by God; governed by Jesus Christ; and the Holy Spirit is its lifeblood. Yet from a human point of view, the church is one voluntary organization among many. If someone wants to leave he or she can. People join and stay or don’t stay according to whether they sense that their basic needs are being met.
The challenge of the church in these times, is for leaders in many places and at many levels of responsibility — official and unofficial — to begin to think collectively. We need together to seek the mind of Christ in all of its glorious extent and diversity. We need to imagine the church organized and functioning in new and different ways. We need to see the opportunities present for more vital mission through the new configurations, and, then, to work intentionally to bring the best result forward for the sake of Christ and his church.
Such an approach by a large majority of the leaders of the Presbyterian Church, would represent a sea-change in point of view. Turf protection is one of the principal elements at every point on the compass.
But were many Presbyterians, especially our leaders, to make the commitment to see this part of the body of Christ which is Presbyterian in a new way, and if they were to understand the newness as the act and gift of God, then over time, former enemies might become partners in mission. After all, that’s why Christ came: to break down the dividing walls of hostility. He accomplished that, but many walls of hostility remain in place and impede the work of Christ’s church. A bitterly divided church does not have much of a witness to make to the world.
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