“I believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ,” I tell them, “therefore it’s not a question I can ask.” These problems are not what I see; I see Christ, robed in his broken body, the Church. I see an infinite treasure in clay jars (2 Cor. 4:7). Some have said I am blind, or in denial. Yes, I am blind — blind to all but Christ. And I am in denial — I deny and defy everything that would try to bully me away from my faith in the sufficiency and sovereignty of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Of course, I’m not completely honest. I’ve worried about the future of the church myself. I’ve given in to the demons that prey upon my doubts. But then I preach the gospel to myself all over again and realize that from inside the gospel, “Does the Presbyterian Church have a future?” is not a question I can faithfully ask. The Presbyterian Church is not our church. It doesn’t come from the earth and doesn’t belong to the earth. The treasure that is the church is not stored on earth where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal (Matt. 6:19). The church’s very nature and destiny are stored in heaven. It’s future is promised to us by God. Even if some power should rise and crush the church, no power can overpower the church; we shall rise again, “Eastered” anew, not by our own power but by the calling and sending of our Lord Jesus Christ.
I treasure nothing other than Jesus Christ — not my Calvinism, not my Presbyterianism, not my Evangelicalism, not my position, my organization, my pension. Because I treasure no lesser thing, I can live loosely with all things and can free myself from the ways they would define me, enslave me, use me. “Naked I came from my mother’s womb,” Job tells me, “and naked shall I return there; the Lord [gives], and the Lord [takes away]; blessed be the name of the Lord,” (Job 1.21). If I were to treasure anything else in all creation, my heart would be given to something less than Jesus Christ, loving and holding on to created things and not the Creator who is forever praised.
This is why I cannot give in to the anxiety over the actions of our General Assembly, even though there’s much to feel anxious about. This is why I cannot join in the hand wringing or threat making. This is why I cannot ask the question so common today, “Does the Presbyterian Church have a future?” Instead, the Lordship of Jesus Christ compels me to ask a more positive and far-reaching question, a question that if lived into long enough and daringly enough will deliver us from the chaos arising from the predictable and certain failure of a never-ending cycle of conservative and liberal proposals and counter-proposals designed to fix the church. The church doesn’t need fixing; it needs us, living obediently, trustingly, daringly.
From that place, here’s the question I’m asking: “How is the God of the future calling the Presbyterian Church to change? Or, “How is the God who owns the future calling us to change for the sake of the world with a robust and winsome evangelical faith?”
That is a question worthy of our times. That is a question worthy of our ordination vows. That is a question that stirs our energy, intelligence, imagination, and love for the missional conversion of the church. That is a question worth living for. It is a question worth dying for.
The church is changing, and in fact must change. And we Presbyterians, as heirs of the Reformation, confess that we are “reformed and always being reformed according to the Word of God.” John Calvin in Geneva and John Knox in Edinburgh were muscular agents of change. To the “presbyters” of their day, infatuated with their positions and organizations, their buildings and their budgets, Calvin and Knox were ecclesiastical terrorists — leading people astray, inciting treason against tradition, infecting minds with false doctrine, and imperiling the people with eternal damnation.
As heirs of the Reformation and friends of the Word of God, we must welcome this present trouble. Trouble is never an enemy of the church. Trouble awakens us when we’ve grown sloppy and lethargic. Trouble forces us to examine ourselves in the light of God’s Word. Did the fall of Jerusalem in 587 B.C. end the mission of Abraham? No. Through the crisis preaching of Jeremiah God birthed a new thing. Did the crucifixion of Jesus end the mission of Jesus? No. The crisis birthed an Easter church. Did the persecution of the church end the mission of the church? No. Did the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Christians under Emperor Diocletian bully the early Christians into silence? No. At every turning in history, trouble, initiated by the Devil or by cruel human powers, became the seed of the future.
At this hinge in our history, the God of the future is once again provoking us to change in order to meet the future with a robust and winsome evangelical faith.
I don’t know what that future looks like, and I’m unwilling to champion a particular form it should take. That’s why I’m unwilling to speak for or against a particular reconfiguration of our polity — non-geographic presbyteries, or affiliation with other denominations or renewal groups. And that’s why I’m unwilling to speak for or against the ordination of monogamous or chaste gay and lesbian Christians.
I do know that change is coming to our polity and our forms of organization. And I do know that we must find ways of being solidly evangelical while being more inclusive of those who have been marginalized, objectified, and oppressed by the evangelical faith that ought to have won them to the Savior.
I do know there are at least five things we must practice if we Presbyterians are to enter that future.
First, we must preach the gospel to ourselves over and over again, every time despair or worry or hand wringing takes over. This is not our church, it’s God’s. The Kingdom is coming and indeed has come. Therefore we are triumphant in hope, unruffled by trouble, yielded in every way to the presence and power of the Holy Spirit who is ever disturbing the church to follow the Lord Jesus into new paths of obedience. There must be more gospel and less grumbling when Presbyterians gather if we are to enter God’s future.
Second, we must return to the life of prayer. The anagram for Presbyterian is “best in prayer.” Not “best in polity.” Not “best in protesting.” Not even “best in preaching.” Best in prayer. Are we? By the look of things, too many of us still trust in our motions and emotions, our protests and our polity. What if we spent more time at our presbytery meetings united in prayer with God? “We don’t have time,” you protest. “My congregation wants action.” They want action, do they? That sounds rather like the tail wagging the sheep. The tail doesn’t lead the sheep, nor should the sheep lead the shepherd. Who is the shepherd, you elders or your flock? Are you called to give them what they want or to lead them to what they need? They need to learn the life of prayer, especially in our world that knows nothing but the kind of bold human action that the Bible is very suspicious of. Bold action may be what they want, but it’s not what they need. The Bible aims to check that impulse by its frequent call, “Wait for the Lord.”
Third, we must pursue purity of the heart. Purity of heart, genuine holiness of life is not about rules, the dos and don’ts of a tired Christian legalism. It’s about the deeper formation of our inner lives until they radiate the love and goodness of God. There is no harder work than this heart-work, and it could make us shine like the sun winning others to Jesus Christ. However, most of us are strangers to our own hearts. Our current struggles are evidence to me that there’s a deep hunger among us for genuine experience of the Holy One, but we’ll never taste it so long as we’re alienated from the depth of our own pain and sinfulness, avoiding that heart-work by obsessing over “the speck in the eye of our neighbor while there’s a log stuck in our own” (Matt. 7:3).
Fourth, we must practice a gutsy inner relinquishment. When Jesus called his disciples they were to leave everything behind. He called them to a holy poverty — a relinquishment of all things. We too must relinquish all things. Is there anything that is non-negotiable for you, anything that even God would have to pry from your hands? Your dreams? The script you’ve written for yourself, for your church? Your opinions, your ideas, your need to be right? All these are impediments, Jesus says, to discipleship. “Unless you hate [all things], you cannot be my disciple,” (Luke 14.26).
There isn’t a person in the church, on the Right, on the Left, and in the Middle who doesn’t want out of the mess we face over ordination and the inclusion of gay and lesbian Christians in the life and ministry of the church. We all are in pain. But we will never find a way out and into God’s future as long as we hold tightly to our visions and values, our designs and desires. Each and every one of us is trapped, like a monkey with his hand in the jar desperately gripping what he so desperately wants but cannot have unless he lets go. In Acts 5.38-39, Rabbi Gamaliel invites an assembly of agitated “presbyters” into the relinquishment that could have opened them to the newness of God in Jesus Christ: Let it go, he said. If this “is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them — in that case you may even be found fighting against God!” Only with empty hands can we receive God’s future.
And fifth, we must give the Bible freedom to judge us broadly and save us wholly.
Where do we stand on the greatest moral challenge of our day — violence and warfare, the threat of nuclear holocaust and the six trillion dollars we Americans have spent on nuclear arms since WWII? Is this even on our radar? We’re concerned about sexual orientation and ordination, and for good reason, but we run roughshod over our Lord’s command about the treatment of our enemies. Do not return “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. … Do not resist an evildoer,” Jesus said. “If anyone strikes you on the cheek, turn the other also. … Love your enemies.” (Matt. 5:38-44). We who hold to a high doctrine of Scripture nevertheless disregard or minimize Christ’s clear teaching. Why? The realities of this fallen and violent world may require us to kill or support killing. But let us not apply interpretive license to one set of Biblical texts while allowing no such wiggle room for another. Let us confess that we’re never as purely Biblical as we’d like to think we are. Let us recognize that Biblical work requires real work, not just proof texting. We can all proof text our favorite causes and biases and prejudices. Real and faithful Biblical work can lead us to acknowledge that the realities of this world can make obedience to Christ’s teaching problematic. Despite the clear teaching of Jesus, Christians, we acknowledge, may make use of lethal force, and may participate in a “just war” for the sake of a safer and better world. If this is true, is it not also possible … in fact, necessary for us to rally the same kind of serious Biblical work in order to learn if God, despite our well-rehearsed litany of Biblical texts, is calling us through other voices in Scripture to seek a form of justice that makes this a safer and better world for gay and lesbian persons, who like us all are children of God?
Evangelical witness in this real world with all its challenges requires a much greater Biblical fidelity than we’ve known up to this point, a much more robust faith in Jesus Christ, and a deeper humility before the daunting complexities we face. But sustained by an inner life of prayer, a purity of heart, and a relinquishment of all we’re tempted to love more than we love God, we will be a church reformed and always being reformed according to the Word of God.
Chris Erdman is pastor of University Church in Fresno, Calif.