Commitment to the rules of the game

Bill Tammeus

The way our General Assembly guides the church can be tedious, cumbersome and annoying.

But in some ways it’s a laudable theological version of how our civil governments should work — but now rarely do. So it’s vital that we Presbyterians keep our process functioning reasonably well because our disintegrating federal, state and local governments soon may need us as an example, a lifeline back to functionality.

In his distressing but important new book, “Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic,” David Frum, a senior editor at The Atlantic, describes the goal:

“Constitutional democracy is founded on a commitment first and foremost to the rules of the game. The losers in any round of play agree to accept their loss because they believe they will soon have another turn; the winners accept limits on their gains because they anticipate that next time they may number among the losers.”

That’s how the General Assembly works, coupled with the understanding that voters there first are to discern God’s direction. The analogy between the GA and any legislative body – let’s focus on Congress – can be helpful even though it breaks down in the sense that Presbyterians unhappy with assembly actions can (and sometimes do) secede from our union by joining or forming a different denomination.

The only time Americans tried that approach, it was a bloody disaster with repercussions still affecting us today. And, except for the occasional outlier, we’ve agreed never to do that again.

But our government, at least at the federal level, is increasingly a prisoner of elected officials who view principled compromise as an evil instead of as the very tool that makes government work.

Leading up to our General Assemblies, proposals get debated at the presbytery level and forwarded up the ladder, where they’re again subject to debate and compromise. Many of you are familiar with this complicated process, rooted in the idea that Jesus is head of the church.

And, borrowing Frum’s words, there is “a commitment first and foremost to the rules of the game.” Even those who take themselves out of the game – such as congregations that have left the PC(USA) in response to changes in our constitution about ordaining otherwise-qualified LGBTQ folks – nonetheless play by the rules until they leave.

By contrast, legislative procedures at the federal level are in considerable jeopardy now after years of angry discontent expressed by the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter movements, by the Republicans’ (failed) goal of limiting Barack Obama to one term and by Donald Trump’s campaign and presidency.

Although Republicans now control the White House and both houses of Congress, there’s so much bitterness and incivility on Capitol Hill that precious little gets done — and what does get done often happens only because principles are abandoned.

This denigration of process and principle is destroying our national model for representative governance. If that model finally disintegrates, where will the nation find ones that work?

One place to look is to the PC(USA) and its layers of representative government, especially to the General Assembly. For it’s there that we can see how spirited debate works and principled compromise can happen.

We Presbyterians don’t always get that right, of course. Sometimes the ways of the world are too much with us. But the process, however complicated, usually is followed.

And you know, of course, how to tell when Presbyterians are really fired up about an issue: It’s when we begin to quote Robert’s Rules of Order and the Book of Order.

Perhaps that commitment to decency and order as well as to the common good is a gift we can give to our American lawmakers when they find themselves in what looks like final uncivil gridlock.

Bill TammeusBILL TAMMEUS is an elder at Second Presbyterian Church in Kansas City, Missouri, and former faith columnist for The Kansas City Star. Visit his “Faith Matters” blog ( Read about his latest book ( Email him at