Editor’s Note: This is an enlarged presentation of an article published in the print magazine.
The Mid Councils Commission is proposing to the General Assembly that it vote to change the constitution so that presbyteries can be reconfigured non-geographically. In this fashion Presbyterians of a more common affinity can be engaged in common mission. Congregations would petition present presbyteries to release them into a provisional presbytery, divide the per capita assessment by agreement and property would remain with the original presbytery. We would try this on for a few years and see how it goes. Why not be bold and adventurous? Try something new!
There is much in the commission’s report of value regarding the range of flexibility that presbyteries are currently exploring. I would agree with the points that mid council structures exist to serve the health and mission of congregations (to the degree that that mission corresponds to the mission of God), and that presbyteries should be given latitude to exercise that service. However the current proposal for non-geographic presbyteries would, in fact, compromise a presbytery’s ability to provide the very service it would seek to promote.
The apostles Jesus called into ongoing community included Matthew the tax collector and Simon the Zealot. Jesus even made them get into the same boat and sail across a windswept sea. God has called us into community across our differences with foreknowledge of how seasick we would be. No doubt, if given the choice, Matthew and Peter would have taken separate boats. A primary motivator for this proposed change is the shift in ordination standards that do not explicitly prohibit a congregation or a presbytery from ordaining and/or installing gay or lesbian elders or deacons in committed relationships. Evangelicals who favored the fidelity and chastity clause in the former Book of Order are seeking a differentiated space so they might stand apart from those who indulge what they perceive as sinful. Non-geographic presbyteries would enjoy more like-mindedness and agreement around moral purity. We would all be more comfortable, but my faith formation does not rely on my comfort but on the other Christian who challenges me to scrub my own point of view of any tacit idolatry. My salvation depends on the Christian who disagrees with me across the table. So does yours! Dividing into more comfortable configurations avoids our spiritual invitation from God.
Restraining sin is an essential activity of a presbytery. Without boundaries, the flow of grace is quickly perverted and distorted. The biblical witness points to the importance of that oversight. While the “regulatory” model is appropriately jettisoned in terms of the mission we shall pursue together, regulation pertaining to the boundaries that shall not be crossed still needs to be enforced. This is never popular. No one enjoys it when their own sin is restrained. The commission report notes that “the system” needs to be changed to engender more trust in GA and presbytery structures. Might the generalized rancor concerning “bureaucracy” in fact be a reaction to the mutual accountability involved in appropriate biblical oversight? Criticism of regulation is appropriate and welcome when it can point to specific practices that may be inappropriately restrictive. Absent those specifics, I suspect the abstract rancor is just grousing about someone else restraining someone’s sin. Might much of the anger directed at presbytery and General Assembly structures that provide this mutual accountability be more the projection of the general animosity to the exercise of any authority that is ubiquitous in our culture? The bifurcation of this oversight across two presbyteries, as the motion proposes, disempowers both presbyteries, erodes appropriate biblical oversight, and consequently will result in damaged congregations and compromised witness.
While “Geography isn’t what it used to be,” geographic proximity is a value. When times are tough we need to sit beside each other in the flesh. Presence is incarnational. Geographic boundaries are not “arbitrary.” Most were created to provide an intentional variety of congregations in each presbytery such that the small, resource-strapped congregations and the relatively robust, larger congregations share common resources within a presbytery. This self-selected non-geographic approach can quickly concentrate the larger congregations across several presbyteries, leaving the remaining smaller congregations, who rely significantly upon the encouragement and guidance of presbytery committees and staff, in a presbytery completely lacking the resources to be able to serve them. The rich are likely to get richer and the poor poorer in this design. A modest-sized Presbytery may be weakened to the point of being ineffective at which time the legal, ecclesiastical, and organizational complexities will detrimentally impact the congregations themselves.
The proposed purpose of these non-geographic presbyteries is being accomplished without reconfiguring presbyteries. Presbyteries, as noted in the commission report, are already experimenting. Presbyteries are already on the way to flat, flexible and faithful. Connectionalism has already taken a different shape than the former regulatory, centralized control. Mission dollars go directly from congregations to the local and international mission field. Once upon a time, 90 percent of a congregation’s undesignated external mission giving routed up through the denomination. Now we see about 10 percent of that mission dollar, yet National Capital Presbytery has over 100 different international mission projects that are sponsored by our congregations. I see just as much missionary energy, it’s just decentralized now.
Is there a measure of nostalgia operative up under the commission’s call to the “new and different” here that would return to a recentralized presbytery? We have been trending toward a decentralized connected approach to mission. This model seems to be a move toward a recentralized connected approach. I prefer what we have now in a flat, flexible, faithful presbytery which gives congregations remarkable latitude to connect across congregational boundaries to execute mission that is consistent (as they discern it) with the mission of God in the world. In fact the flow of these organic mission initiatives can be better pursued with the current regulatory plumbing. I see the objectives stated by the commission’s motion better and more feasibly met with the decentralized connectionalism we are living into now rather than the recentralized presbyteries the commission proposes.
The differentiation sought by self-identified evangelical/ orthodox congregations, ruling elders and teaching elders can be accommodated with clearly bounded presbyteries which practice mutual forbearance. There is no need to create non-geographic presbyteries when any group of churches can covenant together around certain criteria for any officers related to “manner of life” issues. There is nothing to prevent such a covenant group from forming and encouraging and reinforcing its own common life together. There is still an edge with a fence, but it’s a big field and you can hold hands inside the field around anything you care to gather around. There is nothing to stop any group from networking and covenanting together any way they wish.
I urge the General Assembly to vote against the motion to provide for non-geographic presbyteries. Such a practice violates several values we hold as a communal church. I do not see the gain in this change exceeding the loss we would suffer. This seems to be a technical solution to an adaptive challenge we are already embracing together.
G. Wilson Gunn Jr. is general presbyter of National Capital Presbytery.