I am the half-orphaned child of parents who were considered old, even when I was a child. You know, the set of parents that everyone mistakes for grandparents. My dad was 50 years old when I was born, and my mom was 36. By the time I was in middle school, my dad’s health began to deteriorate. As I grew stronger, he grew weaker. By the time I was in high school, my dad had two heart attacks behind him, was a chain smoker, a heavy drinker, and didn’t let his heart problems slow him down.
Despite all the warnings from the doctors and my helpless mother, my dad continued to defy the odds by living with all his bad habits in tow. In a few years, however, as I was entering college, he was diagnosed with an abdominal aneurysm that placed a heavy burden on him. From the time of that diagnosis, he was a changed man. No longer did he want to get up from the chair any more, because he might burst his aneurysm, and bleed to death internally before the ambulance could get there. No longer did he want to do anything, even walk to the mailbox, due to the threat of burstation. This aneurysm gave him a fear of death that nothing before it had managed to accomplish. The effect spread like a virus through our family. No longer did we take frequent trips to the mountains, since the change in air pressure and the winding roads might cause the death of my father. We lived with the threat that each day as my mom and I left for work and school, there was a very real possibility that we may come home to find him dead in the recliner.
A couple of months ago, over a thousand people, calling themselves “The Fellowship of Presbyterians” from across the PC(USA) met in Minneapolis to propose a change in the way that we organize our churches. They met in response to a “White Paper” published in which several white, male pastors, all of large congregations, wrote to express their unhappiness at the possibility that the PC(USA) might begin to ordain homosexuals. In the white paper, they expressed a desire to somehow leave the PC(USA) without leaving the PC(USA). “While a strong confessional stance will connect these ‘in’ and ‘out’ congregations, the wall between will be permeable and allow congregations to be participants in the association and supportive of it even if not a full member” (White Paper, p. 4). In effect, they propose to create an aneurysm within the PC(USA). An aneurysm is defined as an abnormal widening or ballooning of a portion of an artery due to weakness in the wall of the blood vessel. Having had some experience living and working with an aneurysm, I humbly submit a few things that I believe and don’t believe about the future viability of this proposal.
First, I believe that neither I nor anyone else has the right or authority to aneurise the body of Christ. This is not my church, nor it is yours. Paul warned the Corinthian church, “Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.” While we don’t know the exact nature of the argument that Chloe came and reported to Paul, this verse can still serve as a directive and a corrective for those who wish to de-unify the church over theological issues, even ones that they feel strongly about. I’m sure the good folk in Corinth felt strongly also. Further, to aneurise the church goes against the vows we have taken as pastors and elders. In particular, the vow to “promote the peace, unity and purity” of the PC(USA). Like any marriage vow that must be sustained even when we argue, this vow must be maintained even during times of disagreement.
Second, I believe that you can’t, on this side of heaven, have your cake and eat it too. This seemed like an archaic and misguided cliché as my parents drilled it into my head when I was young. With age, I come to see that they were right, and I stand firmly on those words. Those who disagree with the passage of Amendment 10a want to leave the PC(USA), but are led by elders who do not want to lose their (as if!) property (as it would be forfeited back to the presbytery), and pastors who do not want to lose their pensions. In fact, two of the five short-term goals in the White Paper clearly state, “Work with different constituencies to reverse the Property clause toward the goal of easing exit” and “Appeal to the Board of Pensions to delay their current discussion of the extension of benefits while we remain deeply divided on the issue” (White Paper, pg. 4). Clearly, you may not have had parents as pragmatic as mine, but this is a costly lesson to be learned in process.
Third, I believe that the living church of Jesus Christ has made theological errors in the past, and I believe that she will make theological errors in the future. Take, for instance, her stance in favor of slavery. Our forefathers split the Presbyterian church into the Northern Church and the Southern Church over the issue of slavery. We have to remember that those pastors and elders felt just as strongly that they were right as those who stand on each side of the ordination issue do now. The majority of churches stood on the wrong side of the civil rights movement, denouncing King and his followers as “uppity” and promoting the “separate but equal” nonsense. Many of the churches in Germany stood in favor of Nazism, and all it stood for. Need I go on? Is the passage of Amendment 10a a theological error? I don’t know. I’m not God.
This leads me to my fourth and final belief that I ask to humbly share with you this day. I believe that God can, has, and will correct any and all errors that we, as his church, may make. God has corrected our understanding of Scripture in the area of slavery, civil rights, the ability of women to be ordained, and many other issues over time. IF the passage of Amendment 10a is an error, I trust that the Lord Jesus Christ will correct it. After all, it’s his church. IF the passage of Amendment 10a is not an error, I then trust the Lord Jesus Christ to change me, and any and all others who believe that it is an error.
The truth that I learned from my dad and his aneurysm is this: an aneurysm will never hold. They are designed to burst and kill the body. Those who are unhappy with the passage of Amendment 10a will not continue to stay happy, even with the proposed plan of leaving without really leaving. Because, the truth is, you’re not really leaving. To continue to be part of the body of Christ that is the PC(USA) will still be enough of an irritant for some to continue to complain. And, in fact, in their White Paper, they readily admit this. “New Presbyteries that still remain in a denomination which enacts change we strongly oppose may be an insurmountable problem for many. Some members of our Association will feel the need for an entity apart from the current PCUSA” (Ibid). Many will not be satisfied until they have left completely. Until then, the fear and sense of dread that will be instilled into the body of Christ may be enough to stifle growth, and discourage relationships.
Instead, why don’t we have a real and meaningful dialogue about what it means to be a part of the body of Christ. My feet complain and argue every time my brain decides to take up jogging. My back protests every time it has an itch that my arms can’t reach to scratch. However, heretofore, my feet have never contemplated divorce, and my back is not trying to form a union with my fingers in opposition to my arm. Like the church in Corinth, can we find a way to disagree, while agreeing to remain together, at least until such time that God gives us more clear landmarks in which way we are supposed to move? In fact, there is biblical precedent for just such an action. In Jeremiah 28, the people of Israel were in a time of waiting. They were waiting to come back to their homes after being in exile in Babylon. This chapter gives us a showdown between two prophets, Jeremiah and Hananiah, who stand on two different sides of that debate. Hananiah insists that within two years, God will bring back his people from exile. Jeremiah begs to differ, encouraging the people to continue to serve Babylon. Both are quoting God, both are using language and symbols of the faith, and both stand firmly in the tradition of prophetic utterances. However, it is Jeremiah’s words of caution that can serve us in this debate. “The prophets who preceded you and me from ancient times prophesied war, famine, and pestilence against many countries and great kingdoms. As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes true, then it will be known that the Lord has truly sent that prophet.” In the words of Jeremiah, only time will tell which side truly has the blessings of God. In the meantime, instead of causing division, let us reunite under the umbrella of prayer and discernment, while we wait for God to clearly tell us in which direction he would like us to move, just as he has issued correctives on the previously mentioned issues. Let us not make the mistakes of our forefathers who bet the church as if it was theirs, dividing her into the Northern and Southern churches like a Sunday ham.
In fact, let us learn from that error, and vow never to do that again.
I was recently talking to a pastor colleague who went to the conference in Minneapolis. He came back excited about the future possibilities of this movement. He stated that he had several elders who were so against Amendment 10a that they were ready to vote to leave the PC(USA) today. However, he didn’t want to bring that vote before the congregation, and excitedly told me how this would make his life so much easier. He wouldn’t have to push that vote, and he could appease his upset elders. I have to admit, I almost cried. Our job as pastoral leaders is not supposed to be easy. In fact, if it is, we are not doing something right. Leading good folk on their spiritual journey should never be easy, and looking to this as a cheap “out” is relying on cheap grace. After all, sir, as the old saying goes, that is why you make the big bucks ($125,000/yr. to be exact)!! Let us pastors take the hard stance of confirming our ordination vows, and encouraging our elders to do the same. Let us commit to unity, come what may. Let us actually trust in a sovereign and omnipotent God who controls and judges all things, especially his church. And, finally, let us “lean not on our own understanding” but put our full faith in a God whose ways are not our ways.
Deidra Crosby, a 2007 graduate of Columbia Theological Seminary, is pastor of Rocky Springs Presbyterian Church in Laurens, S.C.