I confess that I used to think how much better our denomination would be if those who held to theological positions different than mine would opt to go elsewhere. I have a feeling my liberal colleagues felt the same about my fellow conservatives and me. I learned, however, that all of our voices are important.
Many people will lift up recommendation #5 as the single most important part of the report of the Theological Task Force. I believe, however, that recommendation #1a is the most important. It reads: “The Task Force recommends that the General Assembly strongly encourage: every member of the PC(USA) to witness to the church’s visible oneness, to avoid division into separate denominations that obscure our community in Christ, and to live in harmony with other members of this denomination, so that we may with one voice together glorify God in Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit.”
I was working in my study a couple of days after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks when my secretary informed me that the Moderator of the General Assembly was on the phone. That’s not something that happens every day in Lakeland, Fla., so I picked up the phone with great anticipation. Jack Rogers was calling from Louisville. We talked about the recent tragedy and how the G.A. offices and the Lakeland Church were responding to the emotional and spiritual needs of people. Then the moderator asked me if I would serve on the Theological Task Force, and I responded with a resounding “yes.” I had heard about the formation of the Task Force, and had even sent the three moderators a few suggestions of people I felt would make good members for such a committee. I did not include my name on the list, but was both honored and humbled to be selected.
I am a theological conservative. The church in which I was raised had been part of the old United Presbyterian Church of North America. I graduated from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. I classify myself as an “evangelical” and identify with such affinity groups as Presbyterians For Renewal, Presbyterians Pro-Life, The Coalition, One by One, and the Confessing Church Movement. At one time, back in the mid 1970’s, I served on the Shenango Presbytery chapter board of the Presbyterian Lay Committee. So, I was thrilled to be asked to represent an evangelical voice on the Theological Task Force. I knew I was not alone; there were other evangelicals such as Gary Demarest, Jack Haberer, and the late Betty Achtemeier who would also be serving on the Task Force and carrying the evangelical banner.
The congregation I am privileged to serve in Lakeland is a large, conservative church that traces it roots to the old PCUS. Many people at First Church in Lakeland have been highly critical of the actions and activities of the General Assembly. When I was appointed to the Task Force, therefore, a number of people said to me “go up there and save the Church.” Those were my marching orders from both members of the congregation and my own internal bent.
I remember well the first meeting of the Task Force at a large conference center between Dallas and Fort Worth, Texas. Most of us did not know each other. We knew we had been chosen for our diverse views, and I think, we somewhat feared one another. Some of us wanted to start our work by addressing the serious issues that divided us, but Betty Achtemeier had a different suggestion. She said we should begin by studying the Bible and theology and then move to current issues. How wise she was. That was the only meeting she attended. She became ill, and died a year later. However, God used her to point the Task Force in the right direction.
We have met numerous times over the past four years. We have worshiped, worked, studied, debated, laughed, argued, and wept together. It has been quite a journey. The group of twenty has become like a family. Maybe we look at times like the family in the movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” We sincerely care about each other, but we are not of the same mind on everything.
I was pleased we were on the same page when it came to understanding the Trinity. I was surprised that we were in agreement on Christology. That was “a biggie.” It was also one of our mandates.
We discovered that we hold to different understandings of the inspiration of the Bible, but I was pleased to find that everyone takes the Bible seriously and believes it is the unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ in the Church universal and God’s Word for us. Our understandings of the inspiration of Scripture all fall within the G.A. guidelines from 1983.
More and more I began to realize that all of those who sat at the table of the Theological Task Force were part of the Christian community, and belonged in the PC(USA.) I confess that I used to think how much better our denomination would be if those who held to theological positions different than mine would opt to go elsewhere. I have a feeling my liberal colleagues felt the same about my fellow conservatives and me. I learned, however, that all of our voices are important.
Please do not misunderstand me, I still think my interpretation of Scripture and my understanding of ordination standards are correct. I have not become a “peace at any price” type of person. Just ask my fellow Task Force members who have had to put up with my conservative views on many issues, including the formation of the final report.
However, I have come to believe that there is a way we can stay together and move forward as a Church. I think our Task Force report will help us to do that, including the two controversial recommendations, number 5 and number 6.* I believe that those two recommendations are a piece that belong together. I fought long and hard for the national ordination standards we have and do not desire to see them removed. However, I believe that local congregations and presbyteries are the primary place those standards are applied. This balance, I pray, will help restore our unity and peace, and maintain purity as it did in 1729, 1758, and 1927 when it was used to calm similar controversies.
I hope the commissioners to the 217th General Assembly will study our report seriously and endorse it in whole, not in part. I believe it will help us move forward together as members of the Coalition and Covenant Network, PFR and Witherspoon Society, and commissioners from Beaver Butler and San Francisco presbyteries.
Perhaps we will put up our swords and begin to reach out together to a lost world; a world that desperately needs to know the love and forgiveness of Jesus Christ. Perhaps we will begin to recognize one another as brothers and sisters in Christ and stop labeling each another. In my work on the Task Force I discovered that a person I had categorized as an opinioned, left wing, bleeding-heart liberal, Barbara Wheeler, is actually one of the most sincere Christian people I have ever met, and a true friend. I still think I’m right and she’s wrong on many issues, but I’m glad we’re part of the same denomination and can arm wrestle at the same table.
*#5 Ordaining and installing bodies, acting as corporate expressions of the church have the responsibility to determine their membership by applying these standards to those elected to office. These determinations include: a. Whether a candidate being examined for ordination and/or installation as elder, deacon, or minister of Word and Sacrament has departed from scriptural and constitutional standards for fitness for office, b. Whether any departure constitutes a failure to adhere to the essential of Reformed faith and polity under G-6.0108 of the Book of Order, thus barring the candidate from ordination and/or installation
#6 If the 217th G.A. adopts Recommendation 5, the task force strongly encourages a. the 217th GA. To adopt no additional authoritative interpretations, to remove no existing authoritative interpretations, and to send to the presbyteries no proposed constitutional amendments that would have the effect of changing denominational policy on any of the major issues in the task forces report….b. all church members acknowledge their traditional biblical obligation, as set forth in Matt. 18, Matt. 5, and the Rules of Discipline to conciliate, mediate, and adjust differences without strife….”
Dr. Mike Loudon is pastor of First Church, Lakeland, Fla.