Advent resources

A response to the Foothills Presbytery from the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP)

The Presbytery of Foothills sent copies of several of its overtures to the Advisory Committee in June, after developing and circulating these proposals for some time. Our members have debated about responding, as our response may inevitably seem self-justifying. Yet the Presbytery has asked our view (as GA rules require) and we believe that other presbyteries considering concurrence deserve an analysis of how the significant but selective changes proposed would severely limit the work of the General Assembly, focus the church inward in cumbersome processes, and virtually freeze in place current social witness (and constitutional) positions.

While we also remember the extensive alternative Book of Order the Foothills Presbytery overtured the Assembly with in 2008, and understand some of the tensions in our church that the Presbytery seeks to address, the cumulative effect of their proposals—to us—would seem to erect a great filter between what God is doing in the world and the official discernment of the church. Thus this memo will present how ACSWP’s work fits within the current Design for Mission linking General Assembly policy to the programmatic work of the Presbyterian Mission Agency. We will not argue that the church’s engagement with social witness cannot be improved, but note that we strive to adapt to financial constraints and internet opportunities, just as we do in our congregations and presbyteries.

We will also challenge the elevation of the “Six Great Ends of the Church” over the Confessions, soon to include Belhar, and in fact believe that Foothills profoundly misinterprets and fragments the Great Ends in its desire to separate efforts to transform society from other parts of church life (which sometimes have their own controversies!). We commend the Presbyterian Outlook for hosting discussion of the Foothills proposals, and offer this response ourselves for consideration there and on Unbound, an online Christian justice journal sponsored by ACSWP for ongoing debate and discussion related to our social witness.

Then we will comment on overtures 3-6 individually.

What is “social witness policy” & what does the Advisory Committee on it do?
Social witness policy statements, long and short, are simply excerpts from the minutes of the General Assembly. General Assemblies have addressed social concerns since the first one wrote President Washington a letter commending the early government to maintain public morality and offering our support. Since the late 19th Century our Presbyterian Church General Assembly predecessors developed agencies that also proposed statements and actions. A committee dedicated to what became “social education and action” was begun in 1936 and has taken various forms up to today’s Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy.

While the primary rationale for at least the first 3 of the Foothills overtures seems to be the fear of controversy and disagreement in the church, most social witness statements are approved by large margins and are not terribly controversial. Similarly, most of the amendments to business items made by the Advisory Committee in Advice & Counsel memoranda are approved and are not controversial. Basically the Committee is 12 people elected by the Assembly not to do program, but to help the church address matters of Christian conscience in an informed way, drawing on the expertise of members and ministers who generally volunteer their service on study teams. Like other Assembly bodies, ACSWP is reviewed by the Assembly on a regular basis. The Committee’s last review by the General Assembly can be found online. It reviews how ACSWP reports and advice fared over a six year period. Basically, the Assembly affirmed that the Committee was effectively following its mandate, “Why and How the Church Makes A Social Witness,” which specifies the forms social witness statements should take.

“Why and How” is based on the Confessions of our church and the Reformed tradition’s commitment to public witness. It outlines a discernment process to listen to the voice of God in scripture, the voice of confessions, the voice of the church, including our mission partners, and the voice of those who suffer most in a given context. Why and How then affirms the way that General Assembly decisions on the reports guide the Office of Public Witness in Washington, DC, and other national offices, and are advisory and educational to all members and other councils.

Social Witness, Controversy, and Division
The primary concerns of the Foothills overtures would seem to be the impacts of close votes on inclusive ordination and marriage equality for gay people, and on actions to help end the occupation of Palestine. Neither of these recent proposals were actually brought forward by ACSWP, although we believed they were consistent with the overall witness of our confessions and principled approaches of prior Assemblies. The Foothills overtures do not mention the Advocacy Committees on Women’s Concerns and Racial Ethnic Concerns, and the Committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment, and other advisory committees. Together, however, the set of committees form the way our church has decided over years to regularize but not suppress dealing with potentially divisive matters of racial, gender, economic, and environmental justice. As Jesus recommends going out to help Lazarus at the gate, so our church has tried to bring the Gospel of Peace for social as well as personal healing.

The Foothills overture numbered four (4) tries to affirm social witness and disavow the tradition of the “spirituality of the church” which separates (in the overture’s words) “matters of social justice, economics and politics,” from “matters of the church and theology.” Yet that overture ignores the prophetic Jesus who said he came “not to bring peace but a sword.” The overture quotes no scripture or confessions and, consistent with the overall Foothills emphasis on presbytery rights, would endorse a form of discernment without the possibility of decision, at least on the national or General Assembly level. This is a challenge to the corporate nature of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) as a Reformed body, as in the fundamental affirmation that “the larger part of the church, or representation thereof, shall govern the smaller” (F-3.0203).

Then the overture makes the claim that only one of the Six Great Ends deals with “social righteousness” as a reason for limiting the scope of that business. This is a direct effort to restrict the capacity of other presbyteries to submit overtures, as it is the number and content of overtures that currently determine much of proportions of General Assembly business. And of the current studies being undertaken by the Advisory Committee, all were initiated by presbytery overtures.

Do social policy statements cause congregations and individuals to leave the church? Paul Rack, the Stated Clerk of Elizabeth Presbytery, dismisses both the impact of many social policy statements and the use of the Six Great Ends, which he regards as dating from a Christendom or Establishment period in the church’s life.  ACSWP assists the program offices of the church in disseminating social policies approved by the Assembly, but there is regularly the tension between the claims (like Rack’s) that: “nobody knows or cares” and “the church is making too much noise.” Certainly when a foreign head of state responds directly to General Assembly action, some influence is being made. ACSWP is trying, through Unbound and other means, to test ideas, promote discussion, hold hearings, and in the case of the Peace Discernment process, to invite formal responses from presbyteries to five affirmations developed from congregational discernment processes. At the same time, however flattering it may be to have our one committee be focused on as a singular cause of disaffection for our church, we are afraid it is not terribly convincing.

Misunderstanding the “Great Ends of the Church”
The Great Ends of the Church is not a list of discrete activities, but names integrally related dimensions of the church’s single response to God’s grace in Jesus Christ. Preserving the truth, for example, cannot be separated from the proclamation of the gospel or the maintenance of divine worship. Similarly, a church that does not promote social righteousness is not preaching the gospel, nurturing the children of God, preserving the truth, exhibiting the kingdom of heaven, or maintaining divine worship. While “social righteousness” and demonstrating kingdom values to the world may point most clearly at ACSWP, they function within a whole.

Consider that the gospel Jesus preached was summarized in his call to “repent, for the kingdom (or reign) of God is near.” The gospel of Jesus Christ entrusted to the church must include Jesus’ invitation to a new life made possible by God’s in-breaking rule. The demonstration of the Kingdom of heaven before the world must include all aspects of the church “reformed according to the Word of God,” including the call to integrity in its preaching and practice.

A kingdom is not simply a king or ruler, but rather a system of governance and rule. God’s in-breaking rule overthrows all rebellious earthly kingdoms and powers that have organized themselves in defiance to God’s will. Christ’s cross and resurrection mark the defeat of these earthly powers, named as sin, evil and death. For a people living without hope, who despair that evil earthly powers control our destiny, this is truly good news. It has an urgency to it lacking in the Foothills sequential approach. The evangelical message of “salvation” is, literally, the healing of our relationship with God, neighbor and our true selves that Jesus Christ accomplished and makes possible for everyone.

This is likely the greatest truth we preserve. It grounds and makes possible the new life we nurture. It creates a spiritual fellowship among believers and bids us to divine worship. Similarly, the new life into which we are summoned involves repenting and living into God’s new order. This necessarily means confronting rebellious principalities and powers. Thus we see that the promotion of social righteousness is integral to living out all the ends of the church.

For deeper study of the Great Ends we recommend The Great Ends of the Church Series edited by the former head of our Theology & Worship Office, Joseph Small, who says the 6 present “a holistic vision of the church’s life.” It is for this reason also that we would oppose an arbitrary and deterministic use of the Great Ends to restrict business coming before a series of General Assemblies. If Alisdair MacIntyre is right in seeing traditions as on-going conversations about what is most important, then the General Assembly should not be narrowed but open to all six interpenetrating concerns.

Brief comments on several Foothills overtures
Overture 3 On restricting the focus of General Assemblies to a single theme from the Great Ends of the Church and requiring overtures seeking to amend the Book of Order to have at least 25 sponsoring presbyteries.

Beyond the arbitrariness of the Great Ends theme, there are polity assumptions here that reduce the functions of the General Assembly and its role as a central and unifying body. They have clearly been unhappy with Assembly votes the majority have celebrated and believe in focusing on the congregational horizon, rather than seeking to help expand the horizons of all congregations. G-3.0101 includes: “Congregations of the PCUSA, while possessing all the gifts necessary to be the church, are nonetheless not sufficient in themselves to be the church.” By setting the bar for constitutional amendments so high, they would effectively set a default position of “no action” for most efforts to improve our church’s functioning.

Overture 4 On restricting the Assembly’s consideration of social, economic, and political matters to making suggestions for congregations, without use of usual parliamentary procedure, and to require a third of presbyteries to concur in any overtures on such matters.

Our Christ is a “Prophet, Priest, and King,” our Bible contains many prophetic books, and our Confessions affirm that all parts of the church have a prophetic dimension. The word, “prophetic,” does not appear in the Foothills approach to social witness. Think for a minute about the Nazi challenge to the freedom of the Gospel—would a Foothills style church have used its voice to say NO at Barmen? Think of King’s letter from the Birmingham jail. Would he still be writing to the folks in Foothills who want no controversy, and perhaps no social change? Or on the issue of women’s ordination: would the Foothills’ principles have the whole church “keep silent?” And what about Belhar’s treatment of justice and unity— could the church afford the price of unity the Foothills overtures propose?

Beyond the question of who would enforce the gag rules proposed in this overture, there is a basic moral logic in our tradition, as in the phrase, “truth is in order to goodness… there is an inseparable connection between faith and practice, truth and duty” (F-3.0104).

Much as the early church gathered at the Council in Jerusalem, the local church needs people who gather from across the broader church, who bring differing perspectives into conversation so that the larger body may discern the mind of Christ. Imagine if the local Jerusalem Church had not heard or heeded Paul’s testimony! We note that the decision of the Jerusalem Council continued to be controversial in the Jerusalem Church. How would Paul’s mission to the gentiles have advanced if they had demanded consensus?

Being as large as it is, the General Assembly needs a working group, such as ACSWP, to spend time together studying the Biblical, theological, ethical, scientific, legal, and sociological dimensions of moral issues, consulting with experts and church members, and, in light of this, to offer its best counsel. This work is then submitted to the larger body for consideration and debate. Disagreement and controversy are built into the process, and in this we are little different than the church we see in the New Testament.

Overture 5 On restricting the functions of the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy to “generating discussion in the presbyteries about any social witness policy concerns that arise” for the next 3 General Assemblies (until 2022).

The stated goal of the discussions would be consensus, with no “up or down” votes unless one third of the presbyteries were able to unite around overtures on the kind of “political, economic, and social justice” matters circumscribed elsewhere. But is it actually true that “this form of decision making,” (binary choices), “has often led to deep divisions in the Church”? Or are the divisions related to real differences over how to achieve justice, and on whose timeline? We are not saying this is a case of “shoot the messenger,” or only that, but of recognizing that our church stands in a very politically polarized time and that we are a body that bridges both private and public spheres. Regional ethos adds to our differences, on gun violence for example.

This overture repeats the claim that Social Witness Policy of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has been decided at General Assembly “sometimes by narrow margins,” which clearly points to later overtures that call for supermajorities, allowing minorities to slow change and reducing democratic function. We have pointed out that the recent authoritative interpretation and investment policy implementation measures were not from ACSWP. In fact, about half of ACSWP reports receive such majority support in committee that they are placed on the Consent Agenda. All ACSWP reports debated individually at the 2014 General Assembly, the Tax Justice; Drones, War, and Surveillance; Peace Discernment; and The Gospel from Detroit (on urban policy) were not close votes, and nor were the assignments of further studies to ACSWP to be brought to the 2016 Assembly.

Now it may be that by not mentioning the Advocacy Committees and the Office of Public Witness in Washington, DC, and the Committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment, and the Stated Clerk’s office, and so on, that the Foothills presbytery assumes that these other bodies will continue to act on pressing and timely issues, and do so independent of consultation with ACSWP. By naming only ACSWP, the overture would curtail the General Assembly’s capacity for proactive study, drawing on the volunteer expertise of members, and its awareness of the depth and scope of past Assembly social teaching. But the other bodies would continue to carry out their mandates.

This overture, then, would not silence voices of justice at the General Assembly that will inevitably discomfort some members. Justice concerns, like the language of peacemaking, run through many structural parts of our life as a church, and are clearly present in the assignments of the Mission Agency and the Office of the General Assembly (see G-3.0501c). What Foothills might have looked at was G- 3.0501b, which equally enjoins “pastoral care” from the Assembly as well as the many prophetic, educational, missional, and yes, discernment-oriented activities.

Let us be clear, choosing not to decide is itself a decision. Preventing the General Assembly from weighing in on difficult new issues of justice and moral concern sends the message that the Bible and our theological traditions provide little moral guidance and are irrelevant to life. In an increasingly secularized culture that yet thirsts for justice and mercy (notice the popularity of Pope Francis’ message), to strip the church’s capacity for careful social witness would be a misplaced economy.


From background writings from Foothills, we believe that the presbytery does not wish to be part of a denomination that is overtly racist and sexist and that they understand that the church sometimes benefits long-term from taking stands that hold a short-term cost. As presbyters who have undoubtedly faced invitations to leave the PCUSA, we think that they share our view: that while the unity of the church is an important goal, unless it is held in tension with God’s call to holiness (which includes doing justice and seeking God’s reign), the church becomes an idol.

As the church considers the Foothills Overtures, we invite the church to remember God’s purposes for the church and how we may practically live out these purposes. Surely there are things we can and must do better, and that includes conversations of all kinds in our church. Yet we don’t just make prophetic proposals, we want to become a faithful, prophetic community. We want our church to support and even be encouraged by its policy statements (the vast majority of which have stood the test of time!). We want our church, as much as is humanly possible, to speak truthfully in one voice. Certainly that is the message of the most recent Confession, that of Belhar, which sees passivity in the face of injustice as the greatest cause of church division.

The Foothills overtures claim to want wider and more democratic deliberation by the church but undercut their argument by making actual passage of any actions or changes to the Book of Order virtually impossible. We simply do not believe we can be God’s “chosen” and be so “frozen” in place. Foothills constraints would hardly motivate people to participate in the deliberation they profess to want.

Further, by trying to knock out the policy development function, the Foothills advocates would diminish the ability of commissioners to guide what the agencies of the church do, reducing the General Assembly to ceremonial and celebratory functions. The Book of James warns that worship without looking out for the poor and the causes of war is insufficient.

On behalf of the full Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy and its staff, Dr. Christine Darden, Co-chair and Rev. Dr. Ray Roberts, Co-Chair