October 29, 2011
As Reformation Sunday approaches, thoughts turn to the question, “What sort of reformation is necessary for the PCUSA to get back on solid footing with God in order to fulfill its mission?” The great 16th century Protestant reformers addressed this question with renewed focus upon the unadorned and uncorrupted gospel of Jesus Christ: “The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God” (Luther, Thesis number 62). Aware of God’s awesome power and holiness, Luther, for instance, trembled in his own repentance and called the Church to its own. The particular presenting problem (the sale of indulgences) was unique to that period in church history, but the need for thorough systemic correction was not. We are yet again in a time and place where the church must reform its ways and turn back to God in full obedience and faithfulness.
Last night I saw the marvelous movie The Way, starring Martin Sheen, about a man named Tom who travels to France to retrieve the remains of his adult son, who died while hiking the Camino de Santiago. He decides to complete the journey his son started, and along the way encounters many other pilgrims with their own issues. In one surprising scene, Tom’s backpack is stolen by a local juvenile. Discouraged and bereft, Tom is about to give up on the trek when the boy with his father comes into the local watering hole to return the pack and apologize for taking it. It was not the boy’s idea to humble himself thusly, but under his father’s stern discipline, the boy is required to carry Tom’s pack to the town’s border as a sign of repentance. Every parent can relate to the tension of such a moment, perhaps recalling in one’s own childhood a similar hard lesson.
The PCUSA is encountering its own learning opportunity. We could legitimately be accused of stealing from our people the most holy gospel, if we persist in saying that immorality is of no moment and biblical theology is of no consequence, that Jesus lacks the power to transform us even to the level of our identity, or that forgiveness for sin places an obligation upon us to reform—not to earn salvation but to give thanks for it. My hope for Reformation Sunday is that we would not shrink from the prophetic voices of our past but instead take heed of God’s Word and do it.
To conclude on this Saturday, meditate with me on the exhortation found in Hebrews 12:1-13. Stay with me here; this is not a short excerpt but it is relevant and a timely word, evoking the image so beautifully portrayed in the movie:
1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses [all those saints listed as exemplars of the faith in Hebrews 11], let us also lay aside every weight [impediment] and the sin that clings so closely [so easily distracting], and let us run [much faster than walking] with perseverance the race that is set before us, 2 looking to Jesus [to learn from him] the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.
3 Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart. 4 In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. 5And you have forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as children—
“My child, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
or lose heart when you are punished by him;
6 for the Lord disciplines those whom he loves,
and chastises every child whom he accepts.”
7 Endure trials for the sake of discipline. God is treating you as children; for what child is there whom a parent does not discipline? 8 If you do not have that discipline in which all children share, then you are illegitimate and not his children. 9 Moreover, we had human parents to discipline us, and we respected them. Should we not be even more willing to be subject to the Father of spirits and live? 1 0For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share his holiness. 11 Now, discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.
1 2 Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, 1 3 and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed.
October 28, 2011
We’re approaching Reformation Sunday, a highlight in worship and preaching for many PCUSA churches around the country. Great hymns, bagpipes, Geneva robes, and a walk down memory lane get us in touch with our roots. Recalling Luther’s bold debate-starter in Wittenberg and Calvin’s audacious experiment in Geneva, we celebrate being part of the Reformed Tradition. It is a great tradition, worthy of remembrance and respect, and compelling in its claims. My life was transformed by the gospel passed on to me in this tradition and I am grateful to God for the intervention.
And yet, for some I suspect the celebration is a rather tongue-in-cheek affair tipping the hat to old-fashioned and outmoded ideas. Almost five hundred years later, we Americans have progressed through the Enlightenment, the Modern Era, and the Information Age. “We now know . . .” has taken the place of “And God said . . ..” We think we can run our lives by scientific data and somehow get along without the moral and spiritual knowledge that is as true as anything one might prove empirically.
In keeping with the season, our PCUSA leaders issued a letter this week that stated: “Today, in our time, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is in the midst of another reformation. God is creating a new church in and through us. Signs of it and responses to it are plentiful.” They cite new worshiping communities that are “springing up,” a more flexible Form of Government, and several committees currently at work to “further the work of congregations and presbyteries.”
I most certainly agree that something akin to a sea change is happening in the PCUSA, but I am not sure I would call it “another reformation.” If in fact a new church is appearing, I am not at all sure that God is the one creating it. The ironies associated with “a more flexible Form of Government” were pointed out here earlier this week, and only Presbyterians, it seems, are proud of the fact that new committees have been formed to further the work of congregations and presbyteries.
A reformation, the way the Reformers used the term, referred to a renewed identification with the form: the life of repentance, gratitude, and obedience in Christ that was taught by Jesus and the Apostles. As we acknowledge our drift away from that norm, we seek God’s help to conform to a robust biblical faith, and reform our life together in accordance with the Word of God. Many of the changes we are seeing in the PCUSA are not moves toward a biblical orthodox faith but go in the opposite direction. This is deformation, not reformation.
Is God creating a new church in and through us? Something new certainly is emerging, no doubt about that. I see it more like the process of knitting a long scarf. One starts with some yarn and knits a few rows, but as one continues knitting one discovers the first rows are raveling. As the raveling and the knitting continue, at some point the product is no longer the scarf one started and has become an entirely new one instead. The PCUSA started as a body knit together by God’s Word, exhibiting the marks of the Church; but in the last century that original theological base has been raveling and a new construct is being introduced. It will not be long before the old is gone and the new will be an unrecognizable creation of human invention. God is not abandoning his Word, but we are in danger of doing so if we do not stop the raveling and go back to repair the Church (with God’s help and the courage of the Spirit). As God said to Saint Francis of Assisi, “Go, and rebuild my Church,” our charge is to respond to the conviction of the Holy Spirit, reverse our divergent course, and re-conform ourselves to God’s revealed will.
I can think of no better way to celebrate the Reformation this week than to repent and seek God’s restoration as individuals and as a church. And then as God has his way among us, perhaps we can claim that it is God building a new church in us and through us. It will be God’s Church then, not one of our own making. Make it so, Lord Jesus!
October 27, 2011
After reflecting on “Convenient Confessionalism” in yesterday’s post, I got curious about the meaning of the word “standards” as used in the PCUSA constitution. Here are all the occurrences of the word in the Book of Order:
F-1.0302d: The Church strives to be faithful to the good news it has received and accountable to the standards of the confessions.
F-2.02 The Confessions as Subordinate Standards
These confessional statements are subordinate standards in the church, subject to the authority of Jesus Christ, the Word of God, as the Scriptures bear witness to him. While confessional standards are subordinate to the Scriptures, they are, nonetheless, standards. They are not lightly drawn up or subscribed to, nor may they be ignored or dismissed. The church is prepared to instruct, counsel with, or even to discipline one ordained who seriously rejects the faith expressed in the confessions.
G-2.0104b: b. Standards for ordained service reflect the church’s desire to submit joyfully to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all aspects of life (F-1.02). . . . Councils shall be guided by Scripture and the confessions in applying standards to individual candidates.
G-2.0105: It is necessary to the integrity and health of the church that the persons who serve it in ordered ministries shall adhere to the essentials of the Reformed faith and polity as expressed in this Constitution. So far as may be possible without serious departure from these standards, . . . His or her conscience is captive to the Word of God as interpreted in the standards of the church . . .
The usage, in proper context, points to the meaning of the word. From these data points, we can deduce the following about standards as they exist in the life of the PCUSA:
1. The church strives to be accountable to the standards of the confessions. By saying this, the PCUSA has indicated its intent to measure itself by its adherence to the confessions. Accountability indicates recognition of authority and expectations for performance in alignment with that authority. When an employee is hired and accountable for a work ethic and fulfillment of a job description, the employee’s authority is “the boss,” and the standards are those rules and descriptions to which the individual seeks to be faithful. So being accountable to the standards of the confessions means Presbyterians submit to their measurable expectations under the authority of Jesus Christ.
2. The Confessions are standards in the church, subject to the authority of Jesus Christ, the Word of God, as the Scriptures bear witness to him. Elaborating on Point #1 above, this usage of the term standards refers specifically to the Confessions, which. by virtue of their interpretive role, are subordinate standards to that which they interpret: the Scriptures. Namely, their authority is derivative of the Bible’s authority. To the extent the Confessions conform and consistently interpret Scripture, they are reliable expositions of what the Scriptures lead us to believe and do (W-4.4003c). The word of God is interpreted in the standards of the church. We presume this to mean that when there are disputes about what the Scripture teaches, we can be confident that the Confessions on that subject are meant to elucidate the interpretation agreed upon by the church.
3. The Confessions are subordinate to the Scriptures, but they are still standards. We are reminded that the fact that the Confessions are supportive of the Scriptures in no way diminishes their role as standards. This concept is akin to the great affirmation of the Second Helvetic Confession that “The preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God.”
4. The essentials of the Reformed faith and polity are expressed in the PCUSA Constitution comprising both the Book of Confessions and the Book of Order. This point emphasizes the fact that our standards also include the Book of Order. There is some discussion about whether “the essentials of Reformed faith” and “the essentials of Reformed polity” are two sets of standards delineated, for example, by reference to the Confessions (faith) and the Book of Order (polity). An alternative would be to see “the essentials of Reformed faith and polity” as one set of standards comprising both the Confessions and Book of Order. Take your pick; I favor the second view.
5. And surprise, surprise: subscriptionism is not forbidden. See “they are not lightly . . . subscribed to, nor may they be ignored or dismissed.” “They” are the confessional statements. The assumption is that church officers who answer the constitutional questions for ordination (W-4.4003) are subscribing to the Confessions. Subscription in this usage means agreement with, support of, or endorsement of them.
Since the Confessions, all nine of them, comprise many pages, are in some ways redundant, and certainly cover a range of topics, is it not possible to identify some holdings in the Confessions as essential, as a “spot check” for the whole collection? What is wrong with identifying a few essentials, as some presbyteries are attempting to do, as an essential subset of the whole? I took a stab a few weeks ago at naming a few I felt were biblically necessary affirmations. If we have already said yes to the whole kit ‘n’ kaboodle, why would we resist saying yes to a few well-chosen doctrinal statements as essential?
October 26, 2011
The current progression of situations in presbyteries, leading to actions contrary to the Word of God and inconsistent with historic Christian doctrine, has caused a crisis of conscience requiring some congregations to look for a way to disassociate from this waywardness. They need a way to live according to their consciences, shaped by the Word of God. Some have opted for relief of conscience through the adoption of ordination requirements or essential tenets in their procedural manuals.
What happens when a presbytery adopts a list of theological tenets it has agreed are essential to the faith? What happens when a presbytery adopts ordination standards for itself, based on its understanding of Scripture and the Confessions? Let’s even add to the scenario: let’s say it can be demonstrated that there is a strong scriptural and confessional rationale for every single tenet and standard agreed to by the ordaining body?
Here is what happened in at least one presbytery with which I am acquainted: somebody piped up with a protest and filed a remedial case, saying, “You can’t do that! You can’t establish essentials tenets in advance. Those have to be identified on a case-by-case basis with every candidate!” Parenthetically, if our forebears had believed this was at the heart of the Reformed Tradition, we would have no creeds, confessions, or catechisms. But we do have such documents, because church leaders understood it was important to have our beliefs written down and agreed to, for the peace, unity, and purity of the church.
As a general rule, candidates inspire and move me with their orthodox statements of faith. But it also happens that presbyters suffer through the inarticulate statements of faith of candidates, who can be forgiven somewhat for inelegance but not for doctrinal error. However, when a teaching elder will not make a clear statement about substitutionary atonement when asked to clarify (see October 10 post here), a presbytery must exert its discipling muscle and guide the tongue-tied through an examination that contains no obfuscation or avoidance. We do have standards, which ordained officers have vowed to uphold; they are doctrinal standards (belief) as well as behavioral standards (practice). Theology matters, or at least it did in the PCUSA until recent PJC decisions suggested otherwise.
Now the Book of Order is changed, and judicial commissions at the Synod and GA level have failed to act according to their constitutional responsibility to warn and bear witness against error in doctrine within their bounds (G-3.0401c). As a result of this abdication of responsibility, presbyteries can pretty much do what they like theologically at the time of an examination for ordination or installation. If they agree to accept an errant doctrine in a candidate’s statement of faith, it’s done. And it’s unlikely that a higher judicatory will warn or rebuke them. The goal of the whole scheme to remove the fidelity and chastity standard as a requirement for ordination was “local option,” and that is what we have now. Ordinations can occur in one presbytery that cannot be affirmed in another.
Which leads us to convenient confessionalism: what virtue do these people feel they are exhibiting first, by refusing to allow the agreement upon some biblically and confessionally essential tenets, and secondly, by turning around and saying some other doctrine must be accepted? They are opening the front door to new ideas permissively, and then ushering the old out the back door so only the new ideas remain as the New Essentials. Only for a few minutes do the two views occupy the house together. Mark my words, the PCUSA of the future will hold no resemblance to the Reformed Tradition after this theological metamorphosis is complete. Then, it will be convenient for those not held to orthodoxy to become very dogmatic in their insistence upon a liberal point of view.
Dorothy L. Sayers, in Letters to a Diminished Church: Passionate Arguments for the Relevance of Christian Doctrine, claims, “The Christian faith is the most exciting drama that ever staggered the imagination of man—and the dogma is the drama. That drama is summarized quite clearly in the creeds of the Church. . . . The plot pivots upon a single character, . . ..” The church will live into its calling if it holds fast to this drama, the gospel of Jesus Christ, and define its life around obedience to the Word become flesh, made known to us in the Word Written, Proclaimed, and Enacted. Sometimes Christ’s message is not convenient or welcome upon first hearing, but as we align ourselves with it in living, breathing obedience to our Savior, we shall find a dogma that shapes us and not we it.
October 25, 2011
The mutually exclusive claims we know exist within the PCUSA have necessitated some creative thinking about how we can differentiate where we must, while collaborating where we can. One of the creative options under consideration is the formation of presbyteries with porous boundaries. Three forms of this idea have surfaced: 1) the formation of new presbyteries from a composite of congregations in close geographic proximity; 2) the transfer of congregations from one presbytery to a neighboring one; or 3) the delineation of a new presbytery within the bounds of an existing presbytery. I realize that for some, even these solutions maintain unacceptable ties with the PCUSA, and for them, dismissal to a new reformed body is really the only answer. But for those who cannot avail themselves of dismissal, some sort of firewall needs to be installed for them to maintain sanity, theological integrity, and mission. Presbyteries with porous boundaries offer one way to accomplish this goal.
The problem is pointed out, however, by those who have some kind of interpretive authority (like our Stated Clerk), that synods may not form porous presbyteries. There is no provision in the constitution for them. Non-geographic presbyteries are limited only to those formed around language and immigrant groups. Any other form exceeds the bounds of constitutional provision, most especially those formed around theological affinity.
So my question is this: Where were these constitutional purists when conservatives were trying to uphold a very clear constitutional provision, G-6.0106b? The “Fidelity and Chastity” standard for ordination was in our book for fourteen years, but this did not prevent More Light congregations and even presbyteries such as San Francisco, Twin Cities Area, and John Knox from pushing the envelope with irregular ordinations. When they did it, they were describing their actions as “progress,” and “something we have to do to be faithful.” In my presbytery, an honorably retired minister urged the body with this comment: “I don’t care what the Constitution says. We should ordain this women!” in reference to the candidate who is the subject of Parnell et al. v. San Francisco Presbytery.
But when conservatives try to think creatively, and move towards an equitable solution to their crisis of conscience, the liberals become constitutional traditionalists. I call this “convenient constitutionalism,” and it simply is not just. If it was alright for presbyteries to press the point on LGBT ordination, as a means of forcing change in the denomination, then why is it not alright for disaffected evangelicals to do the same—and without promoting personal immorality or false doctrine in the process? A double standard is being perpetrated.
If, on the other hand, all Presbyterians want to commit to faithful and consistent constitutionalism, then let us all submit to the entire PCUSA constitution, Book of Confessions included. Let us constrain the free exercise of our conscience to the Word of God as interpreted by the standards of the church (G-2.0105). Let us honor and abide by all eight of our Historic Principles of Church Order (F-3.01). Anything short of this is a selective, convenient constitutionalism.
October 24, 2011
Conservative congregations around the country, and certainly within my own presbytery, are researching possibilities for some kind of creative and equitable way out of the crisis of conscience they are facing in the PCUSA. We are in an unprecedented moment of change in this denomination, wrought by a stream of decisions now trickling down to the local level. Before the new Form of Government was incorporated into the Book of Order and Amendment 10-A was inserted (removing the ordination standard of “fidelity & chastity” in the process), arguments made in debate assured theological conservatives that it was all about Christ’s Lordship and the mission of Jesus Christ, not sexuality. [To be fair, we conservatives never believed this.] Conservatives were promised that no presbytery or congregation would be obligated to accept departures from Reformed faith and practice by their ministers and candidates. [We had our doubts this promised would be enforced.] We can enjoy a unity of mission and purpose if we maintain mutual forbearance, while giving every person freedom of conscience in their interpretation of Scripture: this was the claim. Amendment 10-A was promoted as a way to stay connected, under a big tent, and to promote peace and avoid conflict in our dealings with each other.
The problem is this: Congregations and individuals in our denomination hold one of (at least) two points of view that cannot peacefully coexist in the same church. Put on your algebra hats for an illustration that will make the point: If you plot the graphs of two algebraic functions, 1/x=y and 1/-x=y, on a two-dimensional graph (with a horizontal x-axis and a vertical y-axis), you get two curves which cannot intersect. Because x can never be zero, the two curves are always separated by the y-axis between them. This is the asymptote (your new word for the day).
The asymptote illustrates the reality we experience in our presbyteries and higher councils. One side, 1/x=y, says, “Because the Bible prohibits homosexual practice and sex outside of marriage, we cannot ordain a person who practices such things.” The other side, 1/-x=y, says, “The Bible promotes justice and love, and because of this we must affirm the loving, monogamous, committed relationship between persons of the same sex, and affirm their ordinations if they are so gifted and called.” In the wake of 10-A’s passage, liberals are asking conservatives to accommodate to the new rule regarding ordination by letting presbyteries ordain those who are disqualified by biblical standards. They say, we are so close here, can’t we just reach across the aisle (the asymptote) and shake hands?
But they can’t both be right; to say they are violates one of our Historic Principles of Church Order, “no opinion can either be more pernicious or more absurd than that which brings truth and falsehood upon a level, and represents it as of no consequence what a man’s opinions are” (F-3.0104). According to our graph, “shaking hands” is possible only if conservatives redraw the fundamental defining parameters of their faith. This situation is illustrated by a change to the graph that results in the two lines crossing. If the right curve is redefined as 1/x-1=y, then the two lines would cross. This is tantamount to saying, “The Bible is wrong on homosexual practice. God’s word on the matter does not hold authority for today.” But conservatives are simply not willing to sell their biblical, historical, confessional, and evangelical soul to make such an assertion. This is why we have an untenable and unsustainable chasm within the PCUSA.
[Changing metaphors…] As a result of this, the earthquake fault between the two tectonic plates of conservative and liberal is under stress. We are feeling the adjustments in jerks and rolls even now, because the two plates cannot occupy the same space. This week I will continue to describe what I see happening, as the hallmarks of Presbyterianism—Constitution, Connection, and Confessions—erode and readjust to accommodate the adoption of so-called local option by ordaining bodies.
October 22, 2011
Yesterday, I made a case for reclaiming teaching ministry in the PCUSA. Our focus is on current church members who need equipping, and on not-yet-disciples who need basic information about the faith. But what do people need to know? What sort of learning experience, from our vantage point, should we be providing? Members of the congregation may have some idea of what they want to learn, but their input is only one data point when deciding what to teach. There is a body of information from which to choose, passed on from generation to generation, and now in our hands. It should be the goal of every pastor to cover this ground in a matter of years serving within a congregation.
Ideally, a pastor begins instruction the minute he or she walks in the door of a church. One’s total ministry provides opportunities to teach: session meetings, congregational meetings, weekly worship, interactive Bible studies, town hall meetings, pastoral counseling, retreats, church picnics. One never knows when a teachable moment will appear, but it is closer at hand than most pastors and congregations appreciate.
My readers will blanch when they read my outline below. Impossible! Too much! This is why I went to seminary! And I agree with all those comments. I imagine the people of Geneva reacting similarly in the 16th century when John Calvin purposed to preach through the entire Bible, chapter by chapter, daily in the auditorium adjacent to the church sanctuary. He did not complete the project, but he made a huge contribution as evidenced by his commentaries and sermons. So I am emboldened by his example to provide here the scope of the pastor-teacher’s task. This outline tidies my mind and gives me some kind of boundary within which to navigate as time goes on and a “need to know” emerges with my people.
So, here is my list of topics for church leaders:
The Content of the Faith
The Narrative Arc of the Bible (Creation, Fall, Israel, Jesus, The Church, New Creation)
The Redemptive Purpose of God that could be accomplished only by Christ (Reconciliation of humankind to God through the one mediator, his Son)
The True Condition of People without God
New Life in Christ, Generated by the Holy Spirit
The Nature of faith, what we are to believe, and to what end?
The Essentials of Reformed Faith (in Systematic Theology categories if you want: God the Father and Creator of All, Divine Revelation, Theological Anthropology, The Person and Work of Jesus Christ [Incarnation, Atonement, Resurrection, Ascension], The Kingdom of God, The Work of the Holy Spirit, The Church and Its Mission, Worship and Sacraments, Eschatology)
The Conduct of the Faith
Practicing “Good Manners” within God’s Household (Ten Commandments unto Obedience from the Heart)
Living into Kingdom Values As an Extension of God’s Household
• The Great Commandment (Love God and Neighbor)
• The Great Commission (Make Disciples by Baptizing and Teaching)
Blessed to Be a Blessing (Gen 12:1-3; Isaiah 49:6; Matthew 25:34-46);
The Competence of the Faith
Every Believer a Minister
Ministry Adequacy Empowered by the Holy Spirit
“Good Works”—we are created to do them; faith without works is dead
Spiritual Gifts: what they are, why God has imparted them, and how to discover yours
How to Become an Independent Learner (how to study the Bible, etc.)
The Clarity and Confusion of the Faith
Sola Scriptura, Sola fide, Sola gratia, Solus Christus, Soli Deo gloria.
Contemporary Areas That Misuse, Misinterpret, or Misappropriate the Bible’s Teaching.
Current Apologetics Topics (depends on the year and your circumstances)
The Communication of the Faith
Skill: Giving your own testimony of faith in Jesus
Skill: Informative conversation with unbelievers
Skill: Listening for the heart of another person
Skill: How to teach others the faith at an appropriate developmental level
Skill: How to apply biblical faith to decisions the session makes
The current debates in the PCUSA give ample motivation to unpack foundational theological concepts of the Christian faith. Seize the moment while you and your people are curious and challenged, and embrace the rich heritage of our faith through systematic study of the Bible and Christian doctrine.
 An excellent book on the teaching and pastoral ministry of John Calvin is Randall C. Zachman’s John Calvin: Pastor, Teacher, and Theologian (Baker, 2006).
October 21, 2011
The generation of Americans growing up in the 1950s and 1960s (and their parents) might remember the weekly television program of Bishop Fulton J. Sheen called Life Is Worth Living. The winsome bishop taught Catholic values and addressed moral issues of his day to an audience of ten million viewers at the peak of his popularity. During this era, the Reverend Billy Graham also had risen to prominence as an international evangelist. For fifty years, his message was conveyed through a weekly radio program called Hour of Decision and reinforced by televised crusades and newspaper columns. These teachers of the gospel were generally revered and their messages respected even by those who would not identify themselves as believers. Through them, Americans were exposed to the basic content of the gospel delivered with integrity, humility, and conviction.
Meanwhile, Presbyterian Church membership in the United States peaked in approximately 1965, coinciding with the coming of age of the Baby Boom generation. While youth ministries by necessity flourished, and parachurch organizations such as Campus Crusade and InterVarsity were founded, demand for church-based Sunday school for adults also surged. New published curricula became available, such as the Bethel Series (by Lutheran minister Harley Swiggum in 1961) and publications from Gospel Light (founded by Presbyterian Henrietta Mears in 1933). Meanwhile, in the secular realm, educational theorists such as Jean Piaget, Malcolm Knowles, and James Fowler were contributing their seminal theories on cognitive development, the special issues related to adult education, and the unique dynamics of faith development. Out of the confluence of these events and trends, small group materials were published starting in the 1970s, making Bible study accessible to anyone.
In the decades since this resurgence in traditional Christian education for adults, the cultural landscape has changed considerably. Religious and spiritual practice in twenty-first century North America has been largely reduced to what Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton call “moralistic therapeutic deism,” and teaching is perceived to be equivalent to force-feeding geese for foie gras. The challenge for the church is to reclaim the ministry of teaching—and learn how to conduct it—to shape the lives of a population that has widely rejected organized religion.
My interest in this subject is long-standing. Since the time of my commitment to Christ in 1970, I was conscious of a ministerial call and gifting to teach. Through a season as lay specialist in Discipleship and Equipping, and twenty-four years as a Presbyterian pastor focused on adult discipleship, teaching has been my calling and passion. This experiences has led me to realize that the ministry of teaching has been underutilized in the church. When a church rearranges its priorities to quiet the teaching/learning dynamic within the congregation, it is abdicating its responsibility to make fully functioning disciples.
Any Christian disciple wishing to conduct ministry in today’s world does well to put the full Great Commission of Jesus into practice (Mt 28:18-20). Jesus’ mandate to “teach them everything I have commanded you” raises an important question for twenty-first century Presbyterians, pastors, and teaching elders: Would the Church be more effective in witness for Christ—and would the PCUSA be more peaceful, unified, and pure— if it were to teach people to obey everything Jesus has told them? The question is an important one on several levels:
1. It takes the Great Commission—make disciples, baptize, teach—seriously. It charges the Church to pay careful attention to disciples’ incorporation into the community of faith through baptism and to their instruction in that faith as a matter of ongoing practice. In the PCUSA, we place great weight on the baptism of our church members, and yet in many settings we do not continue the process of making disciples.
2. The question challenges our reticence to teach people what to believe and do as followers of Jesus. Yes, we are called to teach our people what to believe and do. Enough of this irrational unwillingness to identify essentials of Reformed faith—get over it! It is no wonder that our ruling elders, who are elected from the membership of a congregation, can be so ill equipped for the decisions and ministries entrusted to them.
3. The question challenges church leaders to find new methods for teaching the faith so that the current generation, with all its foibles and philosophies, can learn and benefit from it. Methods that were effective in first-century Palestine or in your mother’s Sunday school may be old-fashioned, but variations of them may in fact engender a new receptivity. Postmodern and “religiously allergic” people, not to mention those enamored by aberrations of the gospel coming to light in the PCUSA, need a direct and fresh exposure to information in order to discover new life and serve Christ faithfully. Pastors and sessions should review the content of classes taught to adults, examine and appreciate the characteristics of their members, and then figure out how to build a bridge between content and learner. Christian learning does not happen automatically; it’s time for the church to get intentional about instruction of its decision-makers.
4. The question assumes that current teaching practice has largely failed to produce informed new disciples who can function in a worshipping community around the grace and truth of the gospel. Teachers of adults must be equipped to teach differently than they have been doing for the last sixty years. Devising effective methods is one challenge, but the most creative method in the hands of an ill-equipped teacher is unlikely to make its mark. Therefore, equipping teachers to teach is an essential assignment in the fulfillment of the Great Commission. Our seminaries can do a better job of this; our teaching elders can make the effort to live into their new title in the congregation; it’s time, my friends, to reclaim the ministry of teaching.
5. The question requires the Church to admit and to face the possible consequences of not teaching the orthodox faith to its members and those who have yet to make a commitment to Christ. Those consequences include biblical illiteracy and inhospitality to the gospel, characteristics evident in Presbyterian proceedings even now. These outcomes endanger the future of the Church itself if its disciples are not grounded biblically and therefore susceptible to deviations from the true gospel. Our people are now being tested by the winds of false doctrine circulating in our culture and in the PCUSA. Will they be able to stand firm in and for the gospel when the time comes to explain their belief?
 Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 162-70.
October 20, 2011
One of the heartbreaks of the current climate and conversation in the PCUSA is the discovery that decision-makers cannot tell the difference between truth and error in doctrine. There have been many times at GA when observers have looked at each other incredulously and asked, “Who taught these people?” As an educator and equipper of those preparing to teach for Christian formation, I find it particularly alarming that inadequate, inaccurate, or just plan errant statements of theology and Bible are made during important deliberations. And what do we make of the GAPJC’s reticence to rule on the substance of biblical and doctrinal arguments when specifically asked to resolve a dispute over Essential Tenets? In the Parnell appeal hearing, they said they were not equipped to make such a determination. Soul-searching is what we must do now, as a church and as teaching elders. How can we correct the theological drifts that are carrying the denomination out to sea?
Taking a broad view, it is undeniable that there are variations in the theological center-of-gravity between presbyteries. There are “liberal” presbyteries and “conservative” ones. Some have adopted Essential Tenets documents; others never will because, supposedly, Presbyterians don’t do that. The pluralism that exists in the PCUSA has produced not just two sides of an aisle but various different gospels. And as long as PJCs like Synod of the Pacific in the Parnell case attach authoritative value to the cacophony of theological viewpoints, doctrinal confusion will only get worse.
The more confusing and choppy our theological waters get, the less we will be able to teach our people. After all, what is our authority for teaching one viewpoint over another? If the Bible is myth, fantasy, or irrelevant, then where do we find our true north to guide people spiritually? This is a serious question, and I ask it of liberals as well as conservatives in the church. What are you teaching? How do you know that what you are teaching is true?
The question is urgent because now more than ever, the decisions we must make together revolve around biblical interpretation, theological meaning, doctrinal commitments, and the morality that it all shapes. Our teaching elders, the clergy, have received a seminary education and have passed ordination exams, for what it’s worth. Their location on the theological spectrum all depends on where they went to school, who their professors were, and the worldview assumptions of the student body.
Ruling elders are a very mixed bag but largely a mystery. In so many cases, ruling elder commissioners rotate their service to presbytery, and never really get the chance to learn the ropes and grow in their knowledge of doctrine. Over the years I have occasionally been inspired by the biblically grounded worldview of elders serving as commissioners to GA. I have also been completely discouraged by ill-advised comments that dismiss what the Scriptures teach. But adding to the mystery factor, only a relatively few elders ever speak out in that forum, and this is often the case at the presbytery level, too. We do not know what our elders are thinking if they never speak up or enter their theological thoughts into faithful discourse. We cannot evaluate how they are bringing the Word to life if they do not share their ideas and interpretations with the Body. What we eventually find out is how the Body as a whole votes.
But this dynamic leaves a large swathe of our decision-makers untried, untested, and unprepared for the deliberations at higher levels of church governance. It leaves teaching elders and educators without the key feedback they need for doing a better job of teaching. And ultimately, it leaves the church without equipped decision-makers.
Not to let teaching elders off the hook, they have been known to utter close-to-heresy in governing body deliberations, too. Their burden is a greater one: Jesus and the apostles were quite clear that a teacher is called to stricter account because he or she is leading others to believe and do (e.g. Luke 17:2; James 3:1). The content of one’s teaching must be consistent with the true gospel, and if not, the teacher is subject to a greater judgment than the student.
But back to the practice of the PCUSA: the starting point for off-course doctrine is the failure of teaching elders to give adequate attention to the preparation of church officers in their congregations. It has been our heritage that officers were elected as candidates to their role, prepared theologically and polity-wise, and then examined and confirmed by the session before they were installed to office. Surely the current state of affairs suggests that these steps have not been carried out faithfully across the church.
Tomorrow: reclaiming the ministry of teaching
October 19, 2011
Last night’s Bible study class (which I lead weekly) continued in the Sermon on the Mount to the topic of “Murder Management.” Jesus raised the bar on the fifth commandment, “Do not murder” to include the avoidance of anger:
21“You have heard that it was said to an older generation, ‘Do not murder,’ [that is, criminal killing] and ‘whoever murders will be subjected to judgment.’ 22But I say to you that anyone who is angry with a brother will be subjected to judgment. And whoever insults a brother* will be brought before the council, and whoever says ‘Fool’ will be sent to fiery hell. 23So then, if you bring your gift to the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother and then come and present your gift. 25Reach agreement [lit. make friends] quickly with your accuser while on the way [implied: to court], or he may hand you over to the judge, and the judge hand you over to the warden, and you will be thrown into prison. 26I tell you the truth, you will never get out of there until you have paid the last penny!”[NET Bible]
*Literally, “whoever says to his brother ‘Raca’”—that is, an Aramaic word of contempt or abuse meaning “idiot” or “empty head.”