The days of Moses and Joshua were gone. The period of the judges was a time of rebellions, wars, and disruptions of life and order. Unable to fend off the Philistine army, the people appealed to God for a king, just like the other nations; there never had been one before. After stumbling in the period of Saul, the monarchic principal was firmly established under David.
We see in this story common patterns occurring time and again in the course of human history. Societies, empires, civilizations tend to accomplish a lot when there is a good and firm authority providing leadership. When that authority works badly, the system tends to splinter into competing fiefdoms. The decline in authority can come from success, as when the Roman Empire grew so large it exceeded the ability of a single emperor to manage it, and split into eastern and western governance regions. Sometimes a general failure of authority results in splintering, as when the western Roman Empire succumbed to the various attacks by migrating tribes.
Whatever the cause, we in the church are living today in one of those eras when there is no king in the land.
Several weeks ago I was in the audience at a discussion of the concept of “emergent” churches. Five different folks from several Christian traditions tried to define what it means to be emergent. Though none of the participants could well explain what it means, they had one clear unifying attitude, general hostility to the notion of authority. These young participants reflected the “maturing” of the rebellions of the 1960s, where young people — my generation — challenged all authority. That suspicion of authority appears to be embedded in society.
We Presbyterians do not tolerate kings very well, by whatever name. We organize ourselves into congregations and leader groups (councils, governing bodies), giving specific authorities only to certain groups. We have abjured the notion of executive authority in favor of these constituted bodies, assigning each specific responsibilities and powers. Yet we also have said this does not mean everyone can do what is right in each one’s eyes. Historically we have insisted on certain standards of belief, practice, and behavior, monitored and enforced by these governing bodies.
In these days, however, many in the PC(USA) feel free to do what is right in their own eyes. Loud is the lament that many are abandoning Presbyterian polity in favor of congregationalism, not a surprise in a social milieu where the most rapidly growing churches are independent, doing what is right in their own eyes.
Few will deny that the PC(USA) is experiencing significant fragmentation. Aversion and distrust of presbyteries and the General Assembly are widespread. Ordained officers, congregations, and governing bodies flout this or that provision of the Constitution, justifying their disobedience by some special argument or interpretation. There is no king in the land.
The report of the General Assembly’s Special Committee on Issues of Civil Union and Christian Marriage is emblematic of the fragmentation, even balkanization, of the Church. The Committee has found that there is insufficient common understanding and belief for it to declare any kind of certainty on the issues it was charged to investigate. The Committee declared that there just is not enough unity in this small committee to decide the matter.
There is no king in the land, and everyone does what is right in his or her own eyes.
It isn’t that the Special Committee has failed, however. It just has not understood its accomplishment.
In the face of the lack of unity among its members, the Committee adapted and adopted a covenant from the one created by the Task Force on Peace, Unity, and Purity in 2001. By so doing, the Committee members pledged themselves to a set of principles regarding how they will relate to each other. What they have done is make a covenant, a commitment of loyalty that constitutes a unifying principle.
This is not a new thing. The people of Israel stood at the foot of Sinai and covenanted with God and each other to obey the Law, a covenant reiterated many times in Scripture. Like the people of Israel, the unifying principle in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is not that we agree on all social policies or theological principles. What holds us together is our commitment to covenant.
Our Constitution is the social compact to which we as Presbyterians have pledged commitment, before God and all these witnesses. This Constitution, with its theologies and polities and courts and principles of worship, is what unifies us. It is a human covenant — certainly an imperfect one — an obligation entered into voluntarily in which we agree that we will accept certain premises, worship in recognizable forms, discipline ourselves with certain procedures, and govern ourselves in a certain way, so help us God. When the promise to abide by this covenant breaks down, no unity is possible. It becomes a time like the period of the judges when everyone does what is right in each one’s eyes.
For the purpose of unity, the exact form of a covenant is not as important as the covenant itself. Whether it be a covenant made by the Special Committee, found in the current Form of Government, or proposed in a new Form of Government, there will be no unity unless we, the members of the PC(USA), are willing to commit to such a covenant, and honorably to keep our commitment. For since we will not tolerate a king in any form, we have no enforcement except our mutual pledge to a set of principles about how we will live, worship, and serve together.
Unless there be a commitment to this principle, everyone will continue to do what they think is right, and the unity so many of us desperately seek will remain elusive.
EDWARD KOSTER is stated clerk, Detroit (Mich.) Presbytery.