I thought about strategies of officer training when confronted by two quite disparate comments this week. Both of them rest upon distinctly “un-Reformed assumptions” about the character and conduct of human life in society — not only the nation, but also the church. Enshrined in the comments is the inevitable conflict between respecting the right of individual conscience and the upholding the confessions, laws, bill of rights, etc., which, as citizens and disciples, we hold in common and which bind us together. One person, asked on what she based her arguments for intelligent design as scientific principle, said that her “Creator revealed it to me in my heart.” The other assertion was quoted from a Supreme Court justice’s majority opinion based upon the sovereignty of the individual.
The comments demonstrate the dead end that awaits us when we make the individual sovereign, whether on the basis of rights or divine revelation. All of us must submit to something or someone to live in community. All of us have had our consciences formed in community, have learned the practices, habits, and values that make life worth living (and for some of us bearable) in community. We have come to faith in Jesus Christ and have professed that faith in the Triune God in community. And speaking for the church, we have thereby become and remain members of the body of Christ — not of our own doing, any of it. It is the gift of God. We do not exist alone.
These may seem simple-mind assertions, but they become revolutionary in the present age, as we decide how to govern ourselves in church and state — assuming that we can still, in rational assembly, make decisions that will effectuate the future of institutions, i.e. PC(USA), for which we have responsibility. I’m speaking of ministers and elders of course, but also of legislators. Where is the foundation? The armies and events of history can sweep away everything but professed faith.
The questions (and answers) with which we train our officers may prove helpful, for they ground us — not in changing laws and regulations, not in individual opinion or even the right of conscience which suddenly appears to be so precious. The questions and answers speak of a common faith, worked out in costly struggle. It is a faith that requires assent if we are to move forward together as disciples of Jesus Christ formed into a denomination with a living history, which emerged from the womb of the holy universal church in the 16th and 17th Centuries. To fritter away such insights as these is to practice identity theft.
Who has the right to say what is genuinely and finally Christian?
How do we tell the difference between what is Christian and what is opinion (either personal or public)?
The answer is in our Reformed creeds and confessions. Reformed confessions “are statements, spontaneously and publicly formulated by a Christian community within a geographically limited area, which until further action, define our character to outsiders; and which, until further action, give guidance for its own doctrine and life. A Reformed creed/confession is a formulation of the insight currently given to the whole Christian church by the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, witnessed to by Holy Scripture alone.”
It is therefore of crucial importance to remind ourselves that the work of the Task Force on the Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church, as well as the New Wineskins initiative, are grounded first and foremost in confession and theology, and not in polity and institutional survival alone. In recent decades we have invested far too much in polity and regulation in an effort to hold ourselves together since reunion in 1983. It is long past time that we should have begun to return to the more authentic Reformed way.
If God is merciful we will not have waited too long.