I have been encouraged by moderator Heath Rada’s “Call to the Church” to re-think our Presbyterian identity, to re-think how we do business as a church, to re-envision who we are – not just in terms of size and scope, but in terms of who we are and what we are about in our mission as a church in the world, reformed and always reforming, according to the Word of God.
I have also enjoyed reading the many overtures from Foothills Presbytery as they have attempted to offer some radical reforms to what our General Assemblies do, when they do it and what their primary focus and business would be. I have also enjoyed reading the reactions, critiques and responses to those overtures. There are number of tensions that are being pushed to the breaking point in these discussions, and I hope to outline some of them here.
While I am not necessarily a proponent of these overtures, I do believe we need to consider and implement some major institutional changes, and so I appreciate the sentiment that lies behind them. Our current structure is unsustainable and the outcomes of our recent General Assemblies have led to a significant portion of our churches leaving the denomination.
Here is one area of tension: Many say those churches and colleagues are collateral damage due to our prophetic witness and stands on controversial issues. Perhaps this is true. But like Lehman Brothers in the fall of 2008, I worry about how much more collateral damage we can sustain before we cannot put the pieces back together. I was struck that some of the rhetoric critiquing the Foothills overtures used terms like “ultraconservative,” and “taking us back to the 1960s.”Part of the problem is that there are progressives who think that there are still some “ultraconservatives” left in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Are we are now attempting to redefine our centrists and our few remaining conservatives and evangelicals as “ultraconservatives”?
The language of purity (i.e., peace, unity and purity) is flawed. I think we need to replace the language of purity with the language of holiness. Whether we frame our debates in terms of the purity related to homosexuality or in terms of the purity of our social witness and cause, purity is a theologically suspect term and an eschatological one at best. What God demands from us is not some degree or level of purity, but holiness and faithfulness in spite of our sinful ways and our feeble attempts at purity. Instead of exhibiting purity as a church or as individual members of Christ’s body, I believe we are called to live faithfully before God and in our obligations to one another in spite of our impurity, to pursue holiness together and to cling to one another as a church in times of trouble – and across ethnic, racial, ideological and political divides. We are called to pursue true diversity and holiness on all fronts, especially in a nation and culture that brings sociologist Jonathan Haidt to argue that our partisan differences and ideologies now divide us as deeply as race, class and religion.
As a church, it seems that our polity often drives our theology, our distinct identity and what we think is important. I think it should be the other way around. What makes me Presbyterian (in spite of a very polity-driven name) is the Reformed identity and the particular way of being the Christian community the Reformed tradition emphasizes. Karl Barth even goes so far to say that there is actually no direct correlation between our theology and our polity, and that no polity is sacred, though many often make that case.
After all, Hungarian Reformed Christians have bishops and many Anglicans identify as Reformed in their theology and practice. The Reformed Identity is deeper, broader, and more theologically and ethically determinative of who we are and who we hope to be as a church (not too mention more interesting) than our polity and our abilities to create and adopt new policies and procedures each year. Perhaps the world is changing so fast that we need to create new policy and procedure every two years as a church. But the status quo is also putting a significant strain on the church. The tension between those who believe General Assemblies and denominational leadership are to lead on the big and controversial issues and those who believe the General Assemblies and denominational leadership exist to support and carry out the ministry and mission priorities of the local church and churches (presbyteries), is being stretched to the breaking point.
We are a polarized church in a polarized world. So, could the most faithful solution to our problems be found not in doubling down on our righteous policy-making or by finding new and destructive ways to depart from the denomination, but in enacting some real reforms that seek to reduce our zero-sum, winner take all way of life? Could it be found in reforms that demand that we live truly counterculturally as a church? I look forward to reforms that seek to address our tribal and ideological blinders and allegiances by encouraging us to pursue reconciliation and holiness as zealously as we pursue purity.
CHRIS CURRIE is pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Shreveport, Louisiana.