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Living in tension: Polarities in Presbyterian polity — Unity and particularity

I teach polity at Austin Seminary, and I try to convey to my students two core truths. First, that the Book of Order is not a rule book. Instead, it is a picture of the church when we the church is working as it should. Our polity is aspirational in character: it holds before us a vision of our best selves, and constantly invites us to do better. And second, that polity is a theological discipline. What we believe about God (our theology) is reflected in what we believe about the church (our ecclesiology), which in turn is expressed in concrete terms in our polity.

In these articles, I want to add a third truth: that we are a church that lives in tension, negotiating the polarities posed by dilemmas both ancient and modern, polarities that continue to have an impact on us. I think that is exactly what we’re supposed to be, where God calls us to be and where we are at our creative, productive, imaginative best.

The first polarity I lift up is “unity and particularity.” The tension between the polarities is informed by our theology, and what our theology says about our sense of church.

The church is the body of Christ. In the Pauline correspondence, no image for the church leaps off the page with greater frequency than Paul’s insistence that the church is Christ’s body. Paul understood that the little faith communities he founded throughout the eastern Mediterranean were disparate, largely out of communication with each other and inclined to develop their own ways of thinking and doing. He knew that believers tended to fragment into like-minded groups – sometimes even within congregations in a single place – and to write off those who disagreed as not part of the faithful. In an effort to stanch the rising tide of separatism, Paul spoke about the church as the body of Christ, and of individuals as members of it. He talked about the essential uniqueness of eyes and ears, hands and feet, and yet the simultaneous reality that the loss of or injury to any part impairs the function and well-being of the whole.

Paul’s vision of the church as the body of Christ is the reason we Presbyterians talk about the church as an “organic unity” — a body of believers knit together with one another just as the parts of the human body are connected, finger to hand to arm to shoulder. We talk about this sense of organic unity in the Foundations for Presbyterian Polity, the first section of the Book of Order:

“Because in Christ the Church is one, it strives to be one. To be one with Christ is to be joined with all those whom Christ calls into relationship with him. To be thus joined with one another is to become priests for one another, praying for the world and for one another and sharing the various gifts God has given to each Christian for the benefit of the whole community.” (F-1.0302a)

But there are other voices in the polity, voices that would counterbalance the language of unity with language about congregational and individual particularity. We Presbyterians, from the earliest days of our history, have affirmed that “God alone is Lord of the conscience” (F-3.0101) and we have provided in our constitution that persons being examined for ordination may declare objections to one or more provisions of the constitution (F-2.0105). We have cherished the tradition that the congregation has responsibility for the mission of the church in its particular locale (G-1.0101), and that the session has responsibility for guiding and governing that mission (G-3.0201). Our Directory for Worship speaks of the tension between “form and freedom” in the way we construct prayers in worship (W-2.0102).

So, what does living with this tension between organic unity and congregational particularity teach us?

1. A vision of the congregation. Read what G-1.0101 says about the nature of a congregation:

“The congregation is the church engaged in the mission of God in its particular context. The triune God gives to the congregation all the gifts of the gospel necessary to being the Church. The congregation is the basic form of the church, but it is not of itself a sufficient form of the church. Thus congregations are bound together in communion with one another, united in relationships of accountability and responsibility, contributing their strengths to the benefit of the whole, and are called, collectively, the church.”

Do you notice the language of particularity: “engaged in mission in its particular context”; “given to the congregation all the gifts necessary to be the church”; “the basic form of the church”? And yet, at the same time, unity: “not of itself a sufficient form of the church”; “bound together in communion”; “united in relationships of accountability and responsibility”; “called, collectively, the church.” In one paragraph, we do honor to both the unity and particularity of the church.

2. A notion of membership. When we use the word “member” in common parlance, we evoke images of initiation ceremonies and dues payments, of qualifications to join and rights and privileges for having done so. We think of membership as something we initiate, seek out. None of that is what Paul means when he talks about membership in the body of Christ. No eye or ear decides to join the body; it is called into being as part of the body. No hand or foot has rights and privileges; each has a unique and irreplaceable function. When the stomach hurts, the whole body hurts. When a leg is lost, the whole body is debilitated.

Paul thinks that church membership is like that. We do not decide to join; we are called into the body by the gracious action of God in Christ (G-1.0301). We don’t have rights and privileges; we have functions — essential functions without which the church suffers. When the church is divided – and by this, let me be clear, I mean any division, including the continued existence of denominations, to say nothing of the creation of new ones – the body is wounded. Each member is valuable; each member is unique (the language of particularity) but each member’s ministry has meaning only as part of the whole — the language of organic unity.

3. A perspective on church controversy. Occasionally, as part of the rhetoric of disaffiliation that circulates among our congregations, I hear the argument, “If we leave the PC(USA), we won’t have to go through the biennial controversies over somebody else’s problems.” The logic seems to be that sexuality or divestment or whatever the contretemps du jour is someone else’s struggle, and shouldn’t disturb us. But the fact that we are organically united with one another means that we are here as pastoral resources – “priests” – for one another, and that we “contribute our strengths to the benefit of the whole.” When a presbytery brings an issue its people are struggling with to the floor of the General Assembly, they are seeking the guidance and strength of the rest of the church to illumine the path and point out a solution. And each of us has a sacred responsibility to participate in that communal wisdom-gathering, not merely because what is today someone else’s problem may tomorrow be our own, but because what troubles any part of the body upsets the whole body. Organic unity gives a kind of strength and resourcefulness we don’t have as particular congregations.

4. A view of church property. One of the ways this tension between unity and particularity plays out is in the ownership and management of church property. For most of the life of the Presbyterian Church, and in all the antecedent churches prior to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), congregations held ownership of their property, and were entitled to manage it – to buy, sell, encumber or lease it – as their sense of mission demanded. The primary difference between the UPCUSA and PCUS streams lay in whether the presbytery’s approval was necessary before a congregation could make some administrative change in its property status: in the North, yes; in the South, no. But in both UPCUSA and PCUS, reaching as far back as there are denominational discussions about church property, the church has insisted that the congregation’s ownership of its property is not unrestricted, and that the larger church has an interest in what happens to it. In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Jones v. Wolf in 1979, both streams introduced the “property trust clause” (found in G-4.0203) into their polities: that a congregation holds its property in trust for the use and benefit of the PC(USA). Some see this as intrusive “big-brothering” on the part of the larger church. But it is really the extension of the notion of the organic unity of the church into the realm of property. While we recognize the right of any congregation to manage its property as it deems right (the notion of particularity), we also recognize that the obligations undertaken in mortgages, or the loss of property through sale or dissolution, or the destruction of property through neglect or catastrophe, is not just a loss for the congregation; it’s a loss that affects the whole church’s ability to do ministry.

The bottom line: We are an organic unity, not a voluntary association of the like-minded. But our unity bears within it a particularity of function that is essential to our common life. And both contribute something essential to our identity as a church.

PAUL HOOKER is an associate dean at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary where, among other things, he teaches Presbyterian polity.

Note: This is the first in a series of three articles.

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