Social witness of the church: Commentary on Foothills Overture #1

Guest commentary by Ray Roberts

We live in times of tremendous cultural change. We also live in times of high anxiety as a church, having lost so many congregations over the past two years. During these times, we are going to be tempted by solutions that may lead us astray. Overture #1 suggested by Foothills Presbytery is alluring because it promises to reunite the church around its core mission. Yet it reflects numerous misunderstandings. It is supported by a factually challenged view of the way the church is making its social witness and by a romantic memory of a more united church of the 1960s.

But there is another deeper, more troubling theological flaw. The authors claim that the “promotion of social righteousness” is but one of the six great ends of the church and that it dominates the General Assembly docket to the exclusion of other worthy purposes. To solve this, they recommend that the church silence the Advisory Committee for Social Witness Policy (ACSWP) for several years.

They believe that The Great Ends of the Church is a list of discrete activities when, in fact, The Great Ends of the Church 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.

Consider that the gospel Jesus preached was summarized in his call to “repent for the kingdom of God’s is near.” 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 hold our destiny, this is truly good news. 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.

This is the greatest truth we preserve. It grounds and makes possible the new life we nurture. It creates spiritual fellowship among believers and bids us to divine worship.

The gospel of Jesus Christ we proclaim must include Jesus’ invitation to the new life made possible by God’s in-breaking rule. Similarly the demonstration of the Kingdom of heaven must include confrontation with “the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world.” In all of this we see that rather than being a discrete activity, the promotion of social righteousness is integral to living out all the ends of the church.

The authors of the overture claim they do not want to eliminate the church’s social witness, but its recommendations would damage the church’s prophetic voice.

Much as the early church gathered at the Council in Jerusalem, local congregations need 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 know 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?

The General Assembly needs a working group, such as ACSWP, to study the biblical, theological, ethical, scientific, legal and sociological dimensions of moral issues, consult 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. This overture from Foothills presbytery provides no workable alternative to this. By demanding consensus, it advocates constipation.

The authors assert that social witness policy of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has been decided at General Assembly “sometimes by narrow margins.” In fact, about half of ACSWP reports receive such majority support in committee that they are placed on the consent agenda. Of those brought up for individual attention, virtually all receive strong majorities. None of the ACSWP reports debated individually at the 2014 General Assembly, (tax justice, drones, war and surveillance and The Gospel from Detroit) were close votes. None.

Of course the exception to this general pattern is the vote to divest from American companies doing business in Israel. But, we note, the overtures calling for this originated not from ACSWP but from presbyteries. The adopted statement was carefully crafted in a General Assembly subcommittee – with input from ACSWP (and others) – to reaffirm a two-state solution, to uphold Israel’s right to exist peacefully within internationally recognized borders, to condemn violence on both sides and to condemn anti-Semitism. Regardless of what one thinks of this particular vote, it is difficult to see how the overture Foothills Presbytery suggests would solve the problem they think we have.

The overture’s writers remember the 1960s as a time of great institutional loyalty. They forget that this was the decade when the Presbyterian Church of America split off from the larger church over issues of race and gender, organizing the current denomination in 1973.

The overture writers’ faulty memory is telling, because it implies that they support statements that were highly controversial in their day. It suggests that they too do not wish to be part of an overtly racist and sexist denomination. They understand that the church sometimes benefits long-term from taking stands that hold a short-term cost. They believe that while the unity of the church is an important goal, unless it is held in tension with God’s calls to purity (which includes doing justice and seeking God’s reign), the church becomes an idol.

Perhaps our time is more like the 1960s than the overture’s authors care to admit. There is widespread questioning of authority, especially among the younger generation. There is widespread anger among members of both political parties. People do not trust that the institutions of society are interested in their future. They don’t know how to respond to the crises of our time. There is a general sense that our world has lost its way. This is just the time for the church to make a faithful witness to Jesus Christ.

As the church considers the overtures from Foothills Presbytery, I would invite the church to remember God’s purposes for the church and consider how we may better live out these out. We don’t want to just make prophetic pronouncements; we want to become a faithful, prophetic church. We want our church to support and be encouraged by its policy statements, the vast, vast majority of which have stood the test of time. And surely we need to become more effective at making disciples of Jesus. But let us be wary of solutions that would prevent the General Assembly from weighing in on difficult issues of justice and moral concern. For this would send a message that the Bible and our theological traditions provide little moral guidance and are irrelevant to life.

Ray RobertsRAYMOND R. ROBERTS is the pastor of River Road Presbyterian Church in Richmond, Virginia, and co-chair of the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP).