In your sound-proof room, with earphones on, listen to these tones and tell me what you hear:
“ . . . mindful of its commitment to tend to the unity of the denomination. . . the [Covenant Network] Board has decided not to support or encourage overtures to the 2012 General Assembly to change the constitutional language regarding marriage. The Covenant Network will, however, encourage overtures seeking Authoritative Interpretation to protect pastoral discretion to celebrate same-gender marriages where they are sanctioned by the civil authorities,” (from the Board’s letter of October 28).
Evangelical ears pick up some good news here: Oh, the Covenant Network is committed to “tending” the unity of the PCUSA; and therefore it will not be pushing its agenda on presbyteries by forcing a vote on a constitutional redefinition of marriage.
The bad news follows the “however”: We will bypass the presbyteries altogether by advocating for an authoritative interpretation from the General Assembly (GA) that gives pastors the freedom to marry same-gender couples.
What did you hear? Here’s what I picked up:
The Covenant Network is very careful about expressing its agenda in positive terms, or in those negative terms assumed to sound positive, like “we will not promote a change to the Book of Order.” In this case, the positive statement is the promise to “retain pastoral discretion,” which pastors certainly appreciate. They are given so little of it in the Book of Order. Basically, a pastor cannot be told what to preach or pray (W-1.4005a) nor whom to marry (W-4.9002b).
But in fact—and here is where we must go back to the Divine pitch-pipe—an authoritative interpretation allowing a pastor to conduct a same-sex wedding where it is legal to do so alters the definition of marriage as surely as a constitutional change to W-4.9000. Not only that, but such an action would by fiat create a disunity in the church on several levels: by adapting itself to cultural norms and state law, by creating different practices in different presbyteries (“local option”), by insulting a plain understanding of Scripture on the subject of marriage, and by doing all of this by action of only a few hundred presbyters at one GA rather than through its diverse presbyteries.
The Covenant Network used this same strategy—putting in the positive that which is a dismantling of Presbyterian faith and practice—in the passage of Amendment 10A. What was pitched in that debate? “We are joyfully submitting to the Lordship of Jesus Christ,” but then the language gutted the Book of Order of any specific standard by which individuals would be expected to show their submission to Christ. This strategy is deceptive and underhanded, and it worked for 10A.
Further, those who promoted the gay agenda expressed in debate the reassurance of local option. They said, no worries! A presbytery retains full control of its membership roster through the examination process and is never required to ordain someone it does not find suitable. But this guarantee was short-lived, as many predicted. In October, a first remedial case was filed in Los Ranchos Presbytery to challenge the presbytery’s right to define a manner of life for church officers, including fidelity in heterosexual marriage or chastity in singleness. The suit, with the full support of the Covenant Network, seeks now to deny the very “local option” that was its selling point before Amendment 10A was passed. This is a dissonant note in the church’s harmony, and it will not promote “unity” unless it achieves a church-wide mandate that no presbytery may adopt a fidelity/chastity standard and every presbytery will be required to demonstrate that GLBT people have been considered for every church office.
I put “unity” in quotes above, because any attempt to adopt, promote, or affirm that which goes against God’s Word is actually the foundation for disharmony, not unity. We can only find true unity in Christ in our willingness to submit joyfully to the Lordship of Christ through obedience to God’s commands. Anything short of this is fake; it cannot sustain itself; and God will not bless us. Let us get our hearing checked before it is too late, so that when Jesus says, “Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches” (Revelation 3:6, 13, 22) we are in tune with him and ready to respond in joyful obedience.
Yesterday, I strongly suggested that Presbyterians desiring to stay on pitch spiritually and ecclesially should keep their ears attune to God’s Word. This obviously involves study and contemplation of the Scriptures, so that one is familiar both with the tone and harmony of the gospel through the Old and New Testaments. In musical terms, we call this “ear training,” when one is exercised to discern the subtle shifts of pitch, music intervals, and chords. One of my favorite choral teachers put his chorale students through an exhausting exercise during a rehearsal I will never forget. We started with a pitch, and he instructed us to “go up a whole step,” “go down a half step,” and led us through a musical maze. At the end, our pitch was checked by the piano accompanist who had been following along without playing, until the very last note. How close were we? We got to the point where Dr. Ramsey could include shifts of a quarter step, and was still unable to knock us off course. That was fun; and wow, did we develop an ear.
Ear training is required in the Presbyterian Church today if we are to live by our commitment to listen to God and grow in Christ-likeness in harmony with one another. One reliable guide in this exercise through the years has been Terry Schlossberg, a ruling elder from National Presbyterian Church, Washington, D. C.. After over 24 years in prophetic, teaching, and organizational ministry in renewal organizations, Terry retired this month from leadership of the Presbyterian Coalition. I did not want the moment to pass without acknowledging her tireless work which helped us all keep our ear on what God is saying to the church. She has been a role model of tenacity, faithfulness to Christ, humility of spirit, and a powerful intellect captive to the Word of God.
I first met Terry in 1992 when I was a commissioner to the General Assembly in Milwaukee and she was executive director of Presbyterians Pro-Life. That was the year a policy statement regarding abortion was presented, amended, and adopted by the Assembly. Though in the Big Picture, the policy was a huge disappointment to those who desired an unfettered pro-life statement, nevertheless, under her leadership, a team of commissioners was able to modify its accommodation to abortion.
Later, when Terry came to work for the Coalition in 2005, she led nation-wide efforts to equip elders and ministers for many debates on the ordination issue. Her weekly email blasts chronicle the careful work she did to analyze issues and proposals and to put in the hands of presbyters the tools needed for effective action at the local level. I for one am grateful for Terry’s service, which had a significant role in my own development as a Christian, an activist, and a leader in my presbytery.
The church would do well to raise up a new generation of saints to carry on Terry’s disciplined work of ear training. As we Presbyterians practice discerning the differences in theological argument, catching the points of divergent from orthodox Christian teaching, and making mid-course corrections back to our biblical roots, we will be living into our heritage as those “Reformed and always needing to be reformed according to the Word of God.”
Tomorrow: an ear training test for Presbyterian “singers.”
For the first time in decades, my husband and I are singing in the same choir, he in the bass section, me with the sopranos. It’s a small group, twenty in number, comprising staff and volunteers of the local hospital. This week we begin a series of thirty-minute concerts for the hospital’s seasonal events, corporate dinners, and convalescent facilities. Our director is getting very picky now, which is to be expected, demanding blend. The challenge is particularly acute for the sopranos, who make up almost half of the whole chorus. The exhortation is to “listen to one another and stay together,” which is particularly effective when we singers are attempting to match tone quality. However, it is not an effective approach when the whole section is sinking in pitch as much as a half step within sixteen bars of music!
Without the aid of accompanying piano, the chorus is required to stay on pitch. Given the propensity of the whole to go flat, how can this be achieved? It turns out, in our chorus, one or two of the sopranos has perfect pitch—a functional musical memory that allows them to “hear” the correct notes and sing them regardless of what else is being sung around them. Of all the people in our section, they are the ones who should not listen to the others, but rather stay on pitch and let the others match them, trusting that they will keep the whole section from sliding into musical oblivion.
The parallel to the church these days is obvious, to me, at least. Many on the other side of the aisle in the PCUSA are saying, “We need to listen to each other as a way of listening for the Spirit.” I’m all for listening to each other, and I’m all for listening for (and to) the Spirit, but it is questionable whether listening to mere human beings can guarantee we stay in tune with the Holy Spirit. What I see happening instead, among Presbyterians, is too much listening to the cacophony of voices that are dragging us all down, out of tune with our Savior and out of unison with each other.
Ah, but you say, that is fine and good that we should listen to the ones with perfect pitch and match our tone to theirs. But who among us is worthy, or how can we tell who will not lead us astray? There are certainly many contenders for leadership in the church, and many claim the sort of perfect pitch others should have confidence to follow. But where is the equivalent to the tuning fork, that gives accurate pitch or the A=440 kind of standard by which all other tones are judged? Uh, that would be God. Do not receive this news with cynicism or contempt, which I have seen unfold during our debates of ordination issues.
You know what I am going to say: God has invested quite a lot of effort and care in making his will and way known to us. To say this is unavailable, clouded, or ineffective is to diminish God’s power to reach anybody with the message he desires to give. God’s Word is the reliable, sufficient, understandable, and trustworthy pitchpipe, and notes not in tune with it are going to throw the music off. In other words, if every Presbyterian believer were to tune his or her life to God as revealed in the Scriptures, the church would be experiencing harmony and a common direction. The precepts, commandments, and teachings of Scripture will not only shape personal behavior but also shape the church for its mission. The church and its detractors can no longer hide behind the claim that there are many interpretations of particular Scriptures, insisting, then, that they cannot offer any norm that would keep us all aright. It is time to affirm that there have been reliable witnesses and practitioners through the ages of a godly way of life, of spiritual transformation, of sacrificial obedience, and prophetic bravery. We should follow those who follow Christ and obey what he has commanded. Only then, in a spirit of humility and repentance will we find our voices blending and the Presbyterian Church making compelling music for the world to hear.
Friends, sermon writing must take priority today—which is going to be tricky even without getting up at 4 to write for you. Jacob has me wrestling with the Genesis 32 text . . . and because of travel to be with family for the holiday and an inconsistent internet connection, I’ve decided to take a week off from blogging and return to you Monday, November 28.
In the meantime, consider the life-giving priorities the apostle Paul put before Christ-followers: gratitude and glory to God, from Romans 1:21. Is this not the season to ponder anew the blessings God has heaped upon us all? And to give God the credit when credit is due? Those very actions and thoughts are foundational for our faith, so let us not be timid about showing our gratitude this week.
The blessings given to me through the Presbyterian Church have included stellar mentors, a calling in ministry, three amazing communities of faith in the Bay Area, the insistence on a good education, and a perspective on history and theology that has shaped my life. To God be the glory!
As you share Thanksgiving hospitality this week, find ways to express your gratitude to God with those you love. And when God “shows up,” be sure to acknowledge that you noticed! To God be the glory!
And I am grateful to my readers, most of them silent, but some generous with their time and insights to comment. By sharing from their perspective how they feel about Presbyterian things, they encourage all of us. This, too, is a priority this week.
And I almost forgot: I am grateful to report that my Doctor of Ministry degree has been conferred. It’s official: you can call me “Doctor,” though to most of you I remain “Mary” or perhaps “that woman.” To God be the glory!
Blessings abundant, to you and through you—Mary
When one writes a daily blog, one participates in an aerobic rhythm of listening and speaking, pondering and reflecting, thinking and writing. This essay takes me at least an hour, sometimes two a day. That time is spent struggling with a Scripture, understanding its original context, and then bringing it to life for today. My main question is, Does this Word have anything to say to me as a Presbyterian clergywoman or to the Presbyterian elder somewhere struggling with the way things are in our denomination? Sometimes a blog is sparked by an event that begs for a biblical response. Today, it is discovering a mysterious event in the life of Jacob. I’ve been wrestling with it all day, unsure of the outcome. I’d better figure it out soon, as I am preaching on it this Sunday!
Jacob’s relationship with his father-in-law has deteriorated to a point that he must exit Laban’s estate and head out with his family (Genesis 31). This entails a journey from Haran (on the present-day border between Turkey and Syria) southwest to Canaan. Jacob flees, Laban pursues, Jacob is frightened, Laban surprises them all with a conciliatory attitude and a blessing as his daughters and grandchildren make their way back to the land of Jacob’s father without him. They part ways.
Before he can find safe haven there, however, Jacob must also “face the music” with his twin brother Esau. Given Jacob’s wresting away Esau’s birthright, the two are not on good terms. In Genesis 32, the reader feels Jacob’s anxiety rising. He is accompanied by angels, which affords him some reassurance of God’s protection. But when he hears from messengers that Esau is coming to meet him accompanied by 400 men, he experiences “great fear and distress.” He activates a strategy to mitigate his risk: dividing his people and flocks into two groups, and then praying to God, “Save me from the hand of my brother” (Gen 32:11). He sends servants ahead of him to meet Esau with extravagant gifts of livestock—Jacob is very wealthy—and ushers his wives, servants, and eleven sons to safety across the Jabbok River.
So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.” But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
The man asked him, “What is your name?”
“Jacob,” he answered.
Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob [Cunning], but Israel [Wrestler with God], because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.”
Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.”
But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there.
So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”
The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel, and he was limping because of his hip.
What follows in Chapter 33 is a peaceful reunion of twin brothers, a Jacob willing to share the blessing he finally realizes can only come from God, making amends. This coming together is a formality, however, as Esau has his own land south of Canaan to which he returns, and Jacob is heading to Shechem in the northern half of the territory. They part ways, friends, but apart.
The reconciliations Jacob experiences are opened to him only as he understands his primary relative is God. God is the giver of blessing, Jacob the recipient. God is the one who brings about justice, Jacob only God’s spokesperson (31:42). Jacob can forsake scheming, and embrace the life God wants to give him on God’s terms alone. But God must wrestle with Jacob, show superior strength, overpower his impulses, wrest his cunning out of him, and render him weak and dependent upon God. No one encounters God face to face and comes away unscathed.
In our struggle against sin, scheming, and inflated self-image, we Presbyterians may well come to better terms with one another if we each have our wrestling match with God. And then, known to him by name and marked for life by our encounter, we may be able to reconcile enough with each other to live alongside if not under the same tent. We may part ways, but if we are each reconciled to God, we depart as friends.
I pray that such an encounter might transform the way the Jacobs and Esaus of the Presbyterian Church find each other in order to part ways so that both may prosper. Make it so, Lord, for the sake of your Kingdom. Amen.
Completely unique among world religions, Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount that we are to “love our enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:43-48). I’m pretty sure I have my share of those who, as Dallas Willard says, “would not be sorry to learn [I] have died” (Divine Conspiracy, p. 181). I have found the following prayer to be an earnest and challenging expression of humility and gratitude for enemies. It was written by St. Nikolai Velimirovic (1881-1956), a Serbian Orthodox bishop of the last century, who is well-known to American orthodox people for his many visits and eventual immigration to the United States after WWII.
Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.
Enemies have driven me into Your embrace more than friends have. Friends have bound me to earth, enemies have loosed me from earth and have demolished all my aspirations in the world.
Enemies have made me a stranger in worldly realms and an extraneous inhabitant of the world. Just as a hunted animal finds safer shelter than an unhunted animal does, so have I, persecuted by enemies, found the safest sanctuary, having ensconced myself beneath Your tabernacle, where neither friends nor enemies can slay my soul. Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.
They, rather than I, have confessed my sins before the world.
They have punished me, whenever I have hesitated to punish myself
They have tormented me, whenever I have tried to flee torments. They have scolded me, whenever I have flattered myself. They have spat upon me, whenever I have filled myself with arrogance.
Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them. Whenever I have made myself wise, they have called me foolish. Whenever I have made myself mighty, they have mocked me as though I were a dwarf.
Whenever I have wanted to lead people, they have shoved me into the background.
Whenever I have rushed to enrich myself, they have prevented me with an iron hand.
Whenever I thought that I would sleep peacefully, they have wakened me from sleep.
Whenever I have tried to build a home for a long and tranquil life, they have demolished it and driven me out.
Truly, enemies have cut me loose from the world and have stretched out my hands to the hem of Your garment.
Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.
Bless them and multiply them; multiply them and make them even more bitterly against me:
so that my fleeing to You may have no return;
so that all hope in men may be scattered like cobwebs;
so that absolute serenity may begin to reign in my soul;
so that my heart may become the grave of my two evil twins: arrogance and anger;
so that I might amass all my treasure in heaven;
ah, so that I may for once be freed from self-deception, which has entangled me in the dreadful web of illusory life.
Enemies have taught me to know what hardly anyone knows, that a person has no enemies in the world except himself.
One hates his enemies only when he fails to realize that they are not enemies, but cruel friends.
It is truly difficult for me to say who has done me more good and who has done me more evil in the world: friends or enemies.
Therefore bless, O Lord, both my friends and my enemies.
A slave curses enemies, for he does not understand. But a son blesses them, for he understands.
For a son knows that his enemies cannot touch his life. Therefore he freely steps among them and prays to God for them.
Bless my enemies, O Lord. Even I bless them and do not curse them.
Nehemiah suffered the opposition of men who did not want to see the Jews succeed in rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem. From the first six chapters of the book of Nehemiah, we find opposition in the following forms, some of which are evident today within the PCUSA:
1. The destruction of the Jerusalem wall, and the burning of its gates (Neh. 1:3).
Evangelical/conservative Presbyterians see this happen in the PCUSA in the form of deconstruction of our doctrinal foundation, redefinition of faithfulness, acceptance of sinful practice as normative.
2. Accusations of disloyalty to worldly authorities (Neh. 2:19)
“You’re not a loyal Presbyterian if you even discuss the possibility of leaving the denomination” as demonstrated by the dissolution of a pastorate and replacement of a Session with an administrative commission. The cause was the Pastor’s leading a town-hall meeting to discuss the pros and cons of leaving the denomination.
3. Ridicule of godly efforts as futile, impossible, incompetent, pipe-dreams (Neh. 4:2-3)
Reaction of Louisville staffers to the creation of a “new Reformed body” by the Fellowship of Presbyterians. “Can’t happen; it’s unconstitutional.”
4. Plots to cause dissension within the ranks of God’s people (Neh. 4:8)
There is dissension, but I doubt it is the result of plots. But if there were to be a perceived division of the ranks among evangelicals, I believe our opponents would seek to exploit it. Evidence: using quotations (out of context) of our esteemed Dr. Tom Gillespie to support the Covenant Network agenda at a General Assembly committee meeting, as part of a presentation in favor of ordaining practicing homosexuals. A furious Dr. Gillespie himself refuted the false claim to that committee when notified of the use of his name in quasi endorsement of an unbiblical view.
5. Harassment and open fighting against the people of Israel (Neh. 4:8)
This happens at presbytery meetings openly, across the country, as it did to me last Tuesday and has been evident in our debates about a “gracious” dismissal policy.
6. Killing of Jews and defeating the work (Neh. 4:11)
Thankfully, we haven’t seen this happen, although I am among those who have received threats for a public stand against ordaining practicing homosexuals. (To be absolutely fair, even I do not think these threats came from a fellow member of presbytery, but from someone in “the world” who read the newspaper account of a presbytery meeting.)
7. Dissatisfaction; economic conditions having negative impact within Israel (Neh. 5:1-5)
The downturn in the American economy has certainly affected churches and could very well add to the pressure to exact exorbitant fees from departing congregations.
8. Calling a meeting as part of a scheme to harm (Neh. 6:2)
Not sure about the “scheme to harm” part of this, but Presbyterians are known for calling meetings in times of stress. As long as we are meeting with our opponents, a (false?) hope is kept alive that a solution might be found. But meanwhile, proactivity is stalled and members are lulled into a perpetual holding pattern. Presbyteries have every advantage the longer a “discernment” process drags out, all under the guise of “meetings.”
9. False accusations of sedition, revolution, nonconformity (Neh. 6:6f)
“You are not a loyal Presbyterian; you are fomenting schism; why can’t you get with the (Presbyterian) program?” Yep, heard this one: “How can you be so sure that you are right? Your view is unPresbyterian.” Au contraire, mes amis, in this Kingdom, I am obeying the King of kings and cannot condone a Presbyterian alternative universe.
10. Intimidation with power-plays or false prophets (Neh. 6:9-13)
Power-plays? Let me count the ways: Covenant Network’s bald attempt to give definitive guidance for the examination of ministry candidates (see Viola Larson and Jim Berkley commentaries) or rulings from clerks to thwart the adoption of definitions and commitments to orthodoxy and biblically consistent sexual ethics.
Tomorrow: Sermon on the Mount: “Love your enemies.”
It was one of those days where “life happened.” Some serious pastoral care emergencies came up yesterday, putting me behind schedule; and a long evening meeting last night took my last writing period away. So I’ll pick up where I left off in a day. Meanwhile, I continue to be encouraged/energized by your comments, including a verbal one that my posts are getting a little long! So I’ll try to go back to my “between 600 and 800 words” rule . . . Blessings on your ministries. Stay faithful and true to our Lord, and serve with gladness, to God’s glory.
The weekend retreat gathered forty-five women, many of them new in the faith, to a lovely site on the Pacific Ocean. The speaker’s topic was “Courage,” which would seem to have obvious application for women today; but the choice of Nehemiah 1 through 6 as the text was fascinating to me. God moved quite strongly among and in the women, and for that we were all very grateful!
While listening to our speaker, the geek in me “traveled” to the former time and place and what the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s wall meant to God’s people, to their opponents, and, yes, to us in the PCUSA. My contemplation of the Word followed this track, straight from the text:
1. Nehemiah 1:3—“They said to me, ‘Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.’ When I heard these things, I sat down and wept.” I too lament the breakdown of boundaries and foundations that have previously defined us as Presbyterians.
2. Nehemiah 2:4—“The king said to me, ‘What is it you want?’ Then I prayed to the God of heaven, and I answered the king, ‘…send me to the city in Judah where my fathers are buried so that I can rebuild it.’” Might we also be called to rebuild what has been trampled in the PCUSA and rediscover our Reformed roots in the process?
3. Nehemiah 2:17—“Then I said to [Jews who had previously returned to Jerusalem], ‘You see the trouble we are in. Jerusalem lies in ruins, . . . Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem.’”
4. Nehemiah 2:19—“But when . . . Sanballat, . . . Tobiah, . . . and Geshem . . . heard about it, they mocked and ridiculed us. ‘What is this you are doing?’ they asked. ‘Are you rebelling against the king?’” But rebuilding the integrity of the PCUSA is inviting ridicule and even judicial obstruction from those who have a vested interest in keeping the walls ill-defined: people shaped by secular values outside and within the church.
5. Nehemiah 3:17—“Next to [Nehemiah ben Asbuk], the repairs were made by the Levites under Rehum . . .. Beside him, Hashabiah . . . carried out repairs in his district. Next to him, the repairs were made by . . . .. Next to him, . . . Next to him, . . .Next to him.” The work before us can be accomplished if we labor shoulder to shoulder.
6. Nehemiah 4:1—“When Sanballat heard that we were rebuilding the wall, he became angry and was greatly incensed. He ridiculed the Jews, . . .. ‘Can they bring the stones back to life from those heaps of rubble—burned as they are?’”
7. Nehemiah 4:4-6—“‘Hear us, O our God, for we are despised.’ . . . So we rebuilt the wall till all of it reached half its height, for the people worked with all their heart.”
8. Nehemiah 4:7—“But when Sanballat, Tobiah, . . . heard that the repairs to Jerusalem’s walls had gone ahead . . . they all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and stir up trouble against it. But we prayed to our God and posted a guard day and night to meet this threat.”
9. Nehemiah 4:21—“So [in response to the plots against us] we continued the work with half the men holding spears, . . .” In the face of institutional opposition, our quest for godliness and strong, defining boundaries, can be accomplished by faith and pragmatism.
10. Nehemiah 5:1—“Now the men and their wives raised a great outcry against their Jewish brothers [regarding economic injustices and enslavement within the community].” The dissention within the ranks is just as distracting, if not divisive, as the threat from without. Great attention must be paid to meeting the pastoral needs and encourage the unity of any reform movement within the PCUSA.
11. Nehemiah 5:9—“‘What you are doing is not right. Shouldn’t you walk in the fear of our God to avoid the reproach of our Gentile enemies?’” Throughout the rebuilding process, the builders must confess sin and seek to practice God’s justice/righteousness. Repentance continues to be necessary for us to succeed in God’s work.
12. Nehemiah 6:1—“When word came to Sanballat, Tobiah, Geshem the Arab and the rest of our enemies that I had rebuilt the wall . . . [they] sent me this message: ‘Come, let us meet together in one of the villages on the plain of Ono.’ But they were scheming to harm me; . . .” Intimidation in the form of “Let us meet to discuss what you are doing” is another way to neutralize the PCUSA rebuilding effort. The longer we stay in meetings, the more temptation we have to fall asleep, get distracted, or be satisfied by less than God’s desire for the church.
13. Nehemiah 6:8—“I sent this reply: ‘Nothing like what you are saying is happening; you are just making it up out of your head.’ They were trying to frighten us . . . Should a man like me run away? . . . [They] had hired [a prophet] to intimidate me so that I would commit a sin . . .” People sounding very pious can derail the efforts to rebuild the church.
14. Nehemiah 6:15—“So the wall was completed . . . in fifty-two days. When all our enemies heard about this, all the surrounding nations were afraid and lost their self-confidence, because they realized that this work had been done with the help of our God.” No human threat can ultimately undermine what God desires to do through courageous and submitted saints.
Tomorrow: Are Presbyterians being intimidated into accepting the status quo?
This of course is the harder question to answer: what would Jesus do with the PCUSA, and how would he advise congregations about their relationship with the denomination? To be honest, we have to start out by saying, “We really don’t know,” because there were no denominations in the first century. And what Jesus had in his mind’s eye for the church was a united body (John 17). We lost that distinction centuries ago, even before the Protestant Reformation.
In recent posts I have commented on a few cornerstone assumptions going into this discussion:
1. No one denomination can claim it is the one, true church. Though they have the longest history, not even the Catholics can legitimately make this claim today. Presbyterians do not make the claim; yet every once in awhile, our rhetoric drifts in the direction of equating the PCUSA with “the Church.” We must be careful about this. Is it possible that there is no one, true Church? If “church” is located in a human institution, then I’m afraid the answer must be no. But the Church, comprising all those who have believed in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior through the ages, does exist. Some forms that approximate it are remnants of a faded glory, and yet we have hope that what Jesus began in us will be completed in That Day when the Church is presented to Christ as the spotless Bride (Revelation 21:2).
2. No one church, including the PCUSA, then, can place an exclusive hold on its members as if leaving it would be leaving Christ. Congregations are thinking about leaving the denomination precisely because they think the church itself is departing from Christ’s ways. What are they to do? The everyday reality of folks in many presbyteries across the country (not all, thankfully) is that the PCUSA has sullied Christ’s reputation by calling evil good, by designing heavy-handed dismissal policies, by confusing the spiritual landscape, and by adopting secularized values.
3. The corporate expression of the church still has potential for honoring Christ, but it is not clear to me that Jesus is requiring every Christian to freeze in place as if any migration to another denomination would further divide the Body. Denominations differ in doctrinal emphasis, leadership arrangement, polity, mission focus, and worship format. The fact that these differences exist does not necessarily imply disobedience to Christ’s prayer that we be one. Each congregation within the same denomination also has distinctives in demographic, spiritual gifts, ministry context, and programmatic expertise. Some churches split over disagreements, but others split in order to plant daughter churches. Because of these observations, I believe that the decision to move from one denomination to another can be a morally neutral one, or even a moral mandate for some, depending on their local situation.
4. Congregations seeking gracious dismissal from the PCUSA in order to affirm and live within orthodoxy did not start this conflict. The honest questions that were the catalyst for the Definitive Guidance of 1978 on sexuality did not start this conflict. This conflict started where all conflicts since the Garden of Eden do: with prideful self-assertion and disobedience to God’s Word. The corporate way this has taken hold in the PCUSA is through the coming out of More Light Churches and the unbiblical advocacy of organizations like That All May Freely Serve, the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, and Voices of Sophia.
So what would Jesus do with the PCUSA? Jesus would say, “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand!” “Come to me and be healed, not to sin again.” “Don’t take organizational pride in actions and teachings that are contrary to the Law I came to fulfill!” “Turn the other cheek; be generous in supporting congregations on their faith journey, even as they move on to the next village.” “Don’t take the name of the Lord in vain by calling me ‘Lord, Lord’ and then not do what I say.” “The one who seeks to be greatest must become the servant of all.” “Feed my sheep and beware the wolves that want to devour them.” “Don’t spend your effort keeping up appearances without authentic repentance at the heart level.”
Many, many more things Jesus would say. And we haven’t even started on Paul and Peter. Because Jesus is saying so much, our temporal path is not so clear but allows for a few godly options. The one your congregation chooses will depend on the spiritual strength of your members (the “weaker” they are in the faith, the more they need protection from the wolves, accomplished by leaving); the stronger your prophetic voice, the more you are needed in the PCUSA; the more property you own, the more you must hear the old Jewish proverb: “The poor have little choice but to respond to God’s call, ‘Depend on me.’ The rich with lots of assets are lured by the voice of their possessions, ‘Depend on us.’” May the Lord direct us all in the way that will honor him most, demonstrate radical obedience to Jesus Christ, and place our trust squarely upon him.