A New Job, and Renewed Vision

December 19, 2011

As you may have heard by now, the Presbyterian Coalition has appointed me its new “Renewal Director” effective January 1, 2012. You can read more about the Coalition and its purpose on its website.  I am delighted with this appointment on many levels and feel that God orchestrated the various factors to bring about this result. I have previously served on the Board, and one year as a Co-Moderator, so the Coalition family is familiar and dear to me. It will be a privilege to serve with this organization, for Kingdom purposes in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

My vision for ministry—bringing the Word to life—will find specialized application in my work with the Coalition. Building on the hundreds of relationships that have developed over the last twenty-five years, I hope to give leadership to an effort that goes way beyond “renewal” to “reconstruction.” This part is nothing new: I feel the urgent need to facilitate the equipping of every single Presbyterian for the work of service, witness, and faithfulness that will be required in the years ahead. Through the networks already in existence, I hope to strengthen ties and encourage the Coalition (and really, the entire Renewal Network) to offer presbyters opportunities to flourish in their faith, find their niche in Presbyterian decision-making, and feel ready and equipped for effective service in the church.

So now, a word about this blog, which I plan on continuing even as I adapt to my new role: I want to say clearly that what I post here will be my own thoughts on matters before us, and they are not to be construed as coming from or representing the Coalition. The Coalition is governed by a Board of Directors, which has authorized me and the Moderator Steve Marsh to represent the organization when required. That work, those statements, and the official viewpoints of the Board will be shared on the Coalition website. But here on Bringing the Word to Life, I am a “private citizen,” so to speak.

As a further “point of personal privilege,” I list the projects I will be working on in 2012:

1. My book, coming out of my doctoral dissertation “Reclaiming the Ministry of Teaching in the Missional Setting.” Clearly, this thing needs a new title for popular consumption! But because I feel its themes are so vital and necessary for the rebuilding of the church, I place high priority on getting it done and published as soon as possible.

2. The remedial case, Parnell et al v. San Francisco Presbytery, which has one more hearing before the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission in April.

3. The San Francisco Presbytery Evangelical Caucus, of which I am moderator, coordinating processes for achieving differentiation in a theologically divided presbytery.

3. Preparation for General Assembly, of course (I’ll learn on January 31 whether I will be going as a commissioner or as an observer).

4. Ongoing parish-associate ministry at Saint Matthew Lutheran Church, which became my worshipping community when I changed lanes into academia five years ago. Praise God for these people and a delightful staff who keep me from going off the Geek-Deep-End.

My postings are going to be somewhat erratic from now until January 2. I’m finding that the PCUSA news feed is slowing down quite a bit, so there is not as much to respond to at the moment. But as thoughts strike me, I’ll write and share. The best way to keep track when I do post is to subscribe to the blog, which is easy to do and can be cancelled at any time.

And now, a few days of full-time Christmas preparation!

Back in the day, when the controversy was over subscription to the five doctrinal Fundamentals (divine inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture, substitutionary atonement, the historical reality of Christ’s miracles, the virgin birth, and the bodily resurrection of Jesus), the Presbyterian Church duked it out at Princeton Seminary. The Fundamentalist/Modernist debate, represented by Harry Emerson Fosdick (the liberal) and Gresham Machen (the conservative), resulted in Princeton realigning its theological faculty toward the modernist view. Consequently, Machen’s group founded Westminster Seminary in 1929 to preserve the conservative view. In the 1930s, the divide particularly over the view of Scripture resulted in the formation of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

I have not read accounts or details of these splits, both academic and ecclesiastical, to know what individuals said and in what spirit they debated. So in once sense I am starting as a blank slate, with Joe Small’s question, “What is a (more) faithful way of expressing and living out our differences in conviction?”

General usage of the term ‘faithful’ takes on various connotations depending on which Presbyterian you consult, ranging from institutionally loyal to biblically consistent. For our purposes today, I am choosing to understand “faithful” (from the Greek pistos) to be “reliable” or “trustworthy” or perhaps “true,” as in aligning with a standard like true north. A person who is faithful would be one whose conduct is true to the Christian faith, reliably consistent with Scripture’s teaching, and shows oneself to be a trustworthy steward of God’s Word and its application in everyday life. If Joe meant something different that this with his use of the term, he can refine his point for our benefit. As I see it, though, faithfulness is expressed in a commitment to stand by something or someone (as faithfulness in marriage, forsaking all others).

The historical question I would have about the early 20th century debates, then, was whether the participants—in the way they conducted themselves—demonstrated trust and obedience to Scripture and lived out their faith in Christ-like grace and truth toward their opponents. In the heat of debate, did they express themselves in anger, bitterness, rancor, or derision? If so, they were not being faithful in the way they expressed their differences. Did they seek to tear down or destroy one another in the process? If so, they were not being faithful in the way they expressed their differences. Several professors lost their Princeton jobs to more liberal teachers. Was their firing an unfaithful act on the part of Princeton? Were the dismissed ones bitter and vitriolic in their departure? I do not know the answers to these questions, but these are the ones I would ask if I were evaluating “faithful ways of expressing our faith differences.”

Is it a sign of unfaithfulness that two factions separated into two seminaries and then ultimately two churches? Or could separation into two be considered the more faithful act among the options, allowing each the freedom to pursue their theological lines to their conclusions?

So far, I am only asking more questions, am I not? But here is a thought: true freedom in the Spirit of Christ—a vital New Testament call— is difficult to maintain by faith, and easily devolves to legalism when challenged by envelope-pushing actions. So one must ask, how faithful is it to push the envelope? How faithful is it to look for ways to skirt the law of God? True freedom of a divine sort is possible only when the free willingly maintain limits to their freedom. Adam and Eve were completely free to enjoy and eat anything from the Garden, except for the fruit from that one darn tree. That tree’s existence was their daily reminder that they did not and could not have everything, unless they wanted everything but God. In which case, they would gain the whole world but lose their soul.

So for us Presbyterians, what are the appropriate limits to our freedom, in order to fully enjoy and thrive in the freedom we are given?  This is where our dispute lies. Some might say that limiting sexual expression to heterosexual marriage is one such limit, or in another era it might have been agreement with the Five Fundamentals or refraining from eating meat sacrificed to idols. The test of such a limit is Scripture’s teaching; the test of how we assume that limit upon ourselves as a body is the Law of Love expressed in grace and truth.

Finishing this three-part reflection on Joe Small’s “Open Letter,” the third topic of note requires an historical perspective. Joe writes, “I believe that the current differentiation and likely separation is a tragedy. Could it have been avoided? Maybe . . . but only if decades ago we had found more faithful ways of expressing and living out our differences in conviction.”

As I have explored the arguments and counterarguments for change in the PCUSA (especially in ordination standards), a few historical references repeatedly come up. They link to each other like a daisy-chain, with implications that a radical change of course now would be perceived as a sudden shift from historical Presbyterianism. Therefore, some conservative/evangelical proposals for correction may turn out to be naïve, reversing only the most recent developments following a centuries-old string of events. Nevertheless, I believe that it has been a misrepresentation and misunderstanding of some historic documents that have contributed to the sad state of affairs now.

So now, some groundwork. Working backward, the milestone events of interest to the current debate are these:

• Adoption of Amendment 10-A, now G-2.0104b that omitted the “fidelity/chastity” requirement for ordained officers—2011.
• The Knox Overture, Authoritative Interpretation of 2008, that claims the right of any candidate to declare a departure from any provision of the Book of Order, both in matters of belief and behavior and permission for a presbytery to accept such a departure—2008.
• The founding of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC), where ordination of women would be a “local option”—1981
• The requirement that all officers of the church be willing to ordain and serve with women also ordained to office (the Maxwell case, in the matter of Walter Kenyon)—1975
• The formation of the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA), in response to the adoption of the Book of Confessions and (in their view) a diluting of doctrine of Scripture—1973.
• Adoption of a Book of Confessions to replace the Westminster Standards as the only confessional statement of the church—1967.
• The establishment of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) after conservative professors and pastors were kicked out of the Presbyterian Church for forming an independent foreign missions board—1933.
• The reorganization of Princeton Seminary to include liberals on the faculty, motivating Machen and others to establish Westminster Seminary—1929.
• The Modernist/Fundamentalist Debates of the 1920’s between Fosdick and Machen, which ultimately produced for the Presbyterian Church the Swearingen Commission Report, which denied that a particular set of beliefs was required for ordination—1927.
• The Adopting Act of 1729 which provided the creedal basis for the Presbyterian Church in the Colonies (the “system of doctrine” found in the Westminster Standards) while emphasizing church governance free from civil intrusion (scruples allowed for chapters 20 and 23).

The particular problem I see in the daisy-chain is the dependence upon a redefinition of words over time and taking paragraphs of reports out of context to justify a new Presbyterianism. This new thing lifts up the 21st century trinity of relativism, inclusivity, and tolerance over theological clarity and a desire for doctrinal purity. But even into the 1930’s when the Fundamentalist/Modernist controversy was shaking out, enumerated in the reports were theological/biblical doctrines that were not in dispute, including the Virgin Birth and the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. Substitutionary atonement, as another example, was unquestioned. The statements then, allowing variants in “non-essentials” did not presume to allow or condone the doctrinal heresies we hear uttered in some presbyteries now under the protection of “freedom of conscience” and “mutual forbearance.” The fact is that in the early 1900s and early 1700s, the Presbyterian Church enjoyed a general theological consensus, and in that context the cited documents were generated.

Now, of course, our reality is entirely different. Many have described our current plight as two churches with markedly different theologies living (and fighting) under the same roof. And yet liberals seek protection for unorthodox views from the Swearingen Commission Report and the Adopting Act of 1729, alleging that these reports promote forbearance over theological accuracy. I believe that Mr. Swearingen et al and the framers of the Adopting Act of 1729 are rolling in their graves to be so misinterpreted.

So, in light of our history and in light of the serious theological divide that has been widening since the 1920’s, what would have been “more faithful ways of expressing our differences” then? I will answer tomorrow!

Continuing in respectful dialogue with friend and colleague Joe Small, in response to his “Open Letter,” the second topic of note is essential tenets of Reformed faith. The Fellowship of Presbyterians has decided to embrace the current Book of Confessions as its theological basis. When asked my opinion, before the document was released, I signed off on this approach as the best way to keep continuity, since all of us elders had already agreed to hold these confessions and catechisms as instructive and guiding to our life together. It is, frankly, an easy way to make the transition, though I believe as time goes on the Fellowship will probably hammer out its own theological declaration. And I would affirm that move, too.

Joe articulates the reticence of the church to identify theological tenets as essential to the Reformed faith. Nevertheless, theological conservatives can be cheered by his statement: “there are also evident problems in assuming that we all know what they are without naming them, or that they can be whatever we want them to be.” We are seeing what happens when nothing can be pinned down as essential: anything goes. The up side of not naming any essentials takes up Joe’s point, that every single Presbyterian must do the work of studying the Scriptures, developing in discipleship, applying the Word of God to life, and owning a personal statement of faith. I get that, and it is not a point to be downplayed. How I long for an honest, deep look in my own presbytery at topics like “the Lordship of Jesus Christ” and “the Resurrection of Jesus Christ and its implications.” The fact is, most “Presbyterians in the pew” cannot articulate a reasonable, Bible-based faith or cohesive theology. They might be able to smell something fishy in a sermon or statement of faith, but they rely heavily on someone else more knowledgeable to correct an error. If the ones they trust are themselves corrupt theologically, all are led down a rabbit trail (at best) or the road to perdition (at worst). We currently have examples of both at work in our Presbyterian family today.

The Reformers used catechisms to distill the basics of the faith and to equip the saints with theological clarity. Those are in our Book of Confessions and worth the time to study, memorize, and install in the DNA of a congregation. Having said that, what is wrong with attempting to draft a 21st century catechism that covers the basics of our faith (the “essentials”) in a way that enables today’s Presbyterian to explain what Reformed Christians believe? As legitimate as it is to ask, “Why do we need a new confession?” we should be asking, “Why are we so afraid to write a list of essentials?” Why are we so reluctant to commit ourselves to paper? What is the harm in stating once for all the few statements that get to the root of our Christian faith and our Presbyterian distinctives?

The answer is this: Because there are, at this time, some in our number who do not believe the basics. They question whether God is sovereign, whether Jesus Christ’s conception and birth was a miraculous incarnation of God, whether he died on the cross for our sins, whether he was risen from the dead, or whether the Holy Spirit is one in substance with the Father and the Son and that the Trinity acts together as One God in Three. And these same people vote in presbyteries and are coddled through candidacy and are “needed” for their “creative,” “ground-breaking,” or “different” outlook in our inclusive denomination. Look where this has gotten us! We are being had, my friends, and unless we want the Holy Trinity to be replaced by the 21st century trinity of relativism, inclusivity, and tolerance, it is time to “conduct the serious, sustained theological work” amongst the saints as a matter of utmost importance. The situation will only get much worse if we do not establish a curriculum for doing so, and without that we will not know who we are any longer.

Tomorrow: perspectives—and regrets?— from history

In the interest of constructive dialogue, I would like to respond to the “Open Letter” written by Joseph D. Small and published yesterday in The Presbyterian Outlook.

First, a little background and an affirmation: I have been acquainted with Joe for many years most especially through our participation in a Reformed dialogue on the Sacraments in Geneva in the late 1990s. I last spoke to him at breakfast in Minneapolis during the August Gathering of Presbyterians. The grief he expressed then and now about the divide in the PCUSA is based on a grounded orthodox understanding of our faith and heritage. He is a steady guy, a thorough thinker, and a patient, devoted Christian. I think the world of him, and was glad to see his name on the New Reformed Body theological statements released last week.

Joe makes three points I would like to comment on, having to do with bitter schism, naming essential tenets, and possible historic missteps. In the interest of limiting the length of my posts, I’ll take these one at a time this week.

Schism. Joe mentions three significant separations, dating back to the 1930s (Orthodox), 1960s and 70s (PCA), and 1980s (EPC). Each of these peeled away from the UPCUSA the most conservative congregations so that what reunited with the PCUS in 1983 was a more liberal church than the Northern stream of the early 1860s. (One recalls the “North-South” split ostensibly caused by the Civil War but with deep theological issues at the root.) He characterized these separations as “bitter” and admonishes the church, if it is to differentiate now, to avoid the bitterness of the past. He is, of course, justified in giving this caution; but it is a tough sell.

While not intending to avoid the charge of bitterness, we should at least take a look at what bitterness is and whether it is bitterness or something else we have been experiencing together. In English usage, the word bitterness is defined as “marked by intensity or severity” as in relentlessly determined (partisanship), animosity (enemies), cynicism and rancor (contempt), among other usages. The NT biblical word translated “bitterness” is pikrias, which points to envy or resentment, the sort of rancor that is held and fed and (as envy is a ‘deadly sin’) leads to other sins. We are admonished in Scripture to “get rid of all bitterness and anger” (Eph. 4:31). It is a poison that erodes one’s spirit, most certainly.

In an unsolicited dialogue with PCAers in the last year, I can attest that this sort of poison exists in the wider Body of Christ over some issues like the women’s question and über Calvinism. But disagreement within the family, in and of itself, does not have to be bitter, and separation from the PCUSA is not by its very nature bitter though bitterness is always a temptation. As Joe suggests, we must do what we must do without rancor and without bitterness. But this means honestly held convictions expressed with civility and processed respectfully must not be attacked but must be accepted as the expression of conscience. The Book of Order guarantees as much, and allows that conscience may in fact require an individual to leave the Presbyterian fold.

What is problematic, and the issue Joe is raising methinks, is when an entire congregation feels its conscience has been violated, not just individuals who are free to leave at any time.  The system makes it extraordinarily difficult for a congregation to act as a unit, giving all benefit to the denomination in times of division. The ensuing arguments pit a loyal PCUSA minority against a disenfranchised majority (in the case where the vote to leave is not unanimous), in many cases awarding to the minority all visible forms of church (property). An insistence upon this arrangement by presbyteries rubs salt in an open wound, cripples the ability of a majority to carry on in ministry, and gives evidence that the issue is money and power, not ministry.

Joe makes the assertion that “these divisions have resulted in the multiplication of weakened churches and the diminution of credible Reformed witness to the gospel in America.” I would simply ask if statistics are available to prove this. I do not doubt that within the PCUSA this is true. But is it really a loss to credible Reformed witness in America if PCA and EPC churches are more vital and growing than ever as a result? [I do not know this is true, but would welcome evidence one way or the other.] Only if one considers the PCUSA to be the only Reformed witness around! And finally, as to evidence, how does the decline of PCUSA churches compare with the status of other denominations and non-denominational churches? If our decline is steeper than others, or if it is consistent with other denominations, that tells us something about factors going way beyond schism to explain the weakening of churches.

But surely, churches are weakened and the Kingdom of God suffers a terrible loss when property issues bankrupt a thriving congregation, put a large property in the hands of a few remaining members and perhaps as a remedy is sold for other uses. The “narrower divide” Joe seeks would be much more attainable if we took competition for resources out of the equation.

Tomorrow: Identification of Essential Tenets of Reformed Faith

An Advent Meditation: Lights

December 12, 2011

The one job I do not look forward to in December is stringing the lights on the fresh Christmas tree. I complained once too often a few years ago about wires showing, and the task became mine in perpetuity as a result. There are several aspects of the process that bring discomfort: the tree stays outside until the lights are on, for ease of access all the way around the tree, so it’s a cold job (if you can call 45° cold, which we do here in sunny California). One must hold one’s arms high for what seems an interminable amount of time. Then there’s the sap and the sharp needles to sting the effort. And last but not least, despite pre-testing, sometimes a string does not light when the tree is plugged into the electrical socket.

But I did it, and the tree is now in our family room glowing and beckoning us more deeply into the season.

The thought struck me that the normal Presbyterian life is lot like stringing tree lights. Being a light in the world, and—as we were discussing last week—a light within our own PCUSA family, is not always easy or fun. To be a light can be costly, inconvenient, tedious, or even painful. It can also be frustrating, if one goes to a lot of work only to end up with lights that do not work.

The tree lights we use have this irritating feature: if one bulb is not working properly, the whole string goes out. The biblical equivalent of this reality is mentioned by Paul at 1 Cor 12:26: “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it.” Lights go out by one of two means: veiling the light of Jesus from view, that is, hiding the good news of the gospel we believe, or extinguishing the light altogether, a more active rejection of the good news. We might hide our light because we feel intimidated into silence by a world inhospitable to the gospel, remembering that this “world” is well represented within the PCUSA itself. We might extinguish the light by disbelief or hostility toward God and his purposes for us, in the form of open disobedience to God’s Word. But dysfunctional relationships and skewed family systems will do it, too, and turn us into mere institutional survivalists. In any case, even one congregation gone rogue undermines the light-bearing capacity of the rest.

In some presbyteries, congregations, and among individual Presbyterians, the light of biblical faithfulness, obedience to Jesus, and vivid testimony of the transforming power of God is fading. And since Presbyterians hold dear the value of connectionalism, if one Presbyterian light bulb short-circuits, it has the potential for damaging the integrity of the denomination’s entire witness. This is one reason why congregations either want to take “Presbyterian” out of their name—to minimize guilt by association—or disaffiliate with the PCUSA.

But here is the Advent Call: the stresses of the present moment should motivate all Presbyterians to stay plugged in to our Power Source, reflect the glory of our risen Savior, shine brightly in the hope that sustains us, and prophetically light the way toward Christ the Lord. “Let your light so shine before people, that they will see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven!” (Matthew 5:16).

Light in a Dark World

December 10, 2011

The sixth reason why individual Presbyterians must be equipped for stand-alone discipleship is perhaps the most obvious one: we have an incredible challenge to evangelize our own PCUSA tribe, the “world” of which we are a part.

A word of explanation about terms: We are hearing more Presbyterians talk about the missional challenge before us, but they may not be referring to the same dynamic I am. Many groups are co-opting the term “missional,” but its original meaning (according to authors like Michael Frost and Darryl Guder) has to do with incarnational ministry outside the church-circle. A missional advance is one in which a missional community is formed in a new cultural context.  People are invited not to extract themselves from that culture into the “church” culture but to incarnate Christ’s life in the new one.

What I am talking about today is the dynamic of reformation within the PCUSA, to reach (again) the people whose Presbyterian culture has become a worldly one. This culture foreign to the gospel demands grace as a right, reduces morality to brain chemistry (Paul Zak), or redefines good and evil (Isaiah 5:20). In this sophisticated environment where many Presbyterians have been inoculated against the Real Faith by quasi-theology, evangelists who know the difference between what the Scripture teaches and the world promotes are most urgently needed.

If not expressed precisely in these terms, advocates of GLBT ordination have seen the PCUSA (and other mainlines) as their “mission field.” If the church could give approval to same-sex marriage, for instance, then these advocates believed the civil culture would have to buy it, too. What’s interesting is that the world (American society) has capitulated to the pressure to endorse same-sex arrangements, and now the arguments that managed that feat in society have been imported into the church. By standing firm the last thirty-five years, the conservative wing of the church has actually exposed LGBT “liberation” as a worldly agenda, belying any claim that PCUSA endorsement of homosexual commitments is a prophetic ministry or a light to the world. What it is has been revealed: the world’s darkness encroaching upon the church.

So the PCUSA needs light-bearers, individuals and congregations committed to godliness, costly discipleship, and prophetic ministry. As long as there are candles alit, the darkness cannot take over. We have a vested interest in keeping ourselves and the PCUSA in the light. Our fellow Presbyterians comprise not only advocates of unbiblical practice and prophetic witnesses of the transforming gospel, but also those “civilians” in this spiritual battle who will be affected by the outcome. They will lose their way if the darkness takes over, and who will be responsible for that?

So take this as a call to action. Evangelical/conservative Presbyterians still have a vital role to play to further God’s purposes in the world of the PCUSA. If you count yourself as a “civilian” in this spiritual conflict, I encourage you to seek out the equipping you need in order to withstand the challenges to your faith, your walk with Christ, your spiritual leadership, and your mission.

The fifth reason why individual Presbyterians must be equipped for stand-alone discipleship is to capitalize on the opportunity to grow spiritually through times of trial. Spiritual progress can certainly be made when things are going well, but the testimony of saints through the ages is that growth is accelerated when things are going badly, if one is open to it. Another observation must be made sadly. If one is not open to the work of God through suffering, suffering can become an obstacle to growing faith. The novel The Shack exposes this reality vividly, but any pastor will tell you stories of individuals who utterly rejected God because of some unexplainable tragedy in their lives. This is why great attention must be paid in discipleship ministries to learning the Scriptures, contemplating the character(istics) of God, building faith and trust in the long view of God’s purposes, and cultivating hope. Without these, it is all too easy to give up, to exit the difficult situation, and in the process squander a golden opportunity for spiritual development.

The testimony of saints through the ages is that God has met them in their pain and strengthened the bonds of covenant love and grace.  As an example, St. Thérèse of Lisieux suffered from tuberculosis as a young Carmelite nun, but saw her physical torment as an invitation to “the fellowship of sharing in [Christ’s] sufferings” (Phil 3:10). This way of interpreting what is an extremely unpleasant experience is counter-cultural and even suspect in the current environment.  Americans with access to health care expect that any problem encountered can be fixed, healed, or anesthetized.  Embrace pain?  Why?  By cultivating the attitude of avoidance, people buffer themselves against the very conditions that can draw them closer to Christ. 

For some, however, the pain itself is the wake-up call and God’s presence is recognized.  C.S. Lewis, in The Problem of Pain, wrote:

We can rest contentedly in our sins and in our stupidities, and anyone who has watched gluttons shoveling down the most exquisite foods as if they did not know what they were eating will admit that we can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.[1]

Madame Guyon (1648-1717) gives testimony to this dynamic, experienced in 17th century France.  She was born to wealthy and well-placed parents, and at a young age was impressed with spiritual things and desired to cultivate a relationship with God.  Her parents arranged her marriage in 1664 to a man much older, whom she did not love, and she played into the world of fashion, social contacts, and shopping to keep her spirits up.  During this time, the young woman was known for her exquisite beauty. Three children arrived in quick succession, but not before her life started experiencing severe reversal.  Her husband lost most of his wealth in 1666.  Mme. Guyon got deathly ill that year, and her sister and her mother both died.  In 1670 she contracted small pox, the scarring of which marred her face permanently.  Her youngest son died a year later, and in 1672 her father and her daughter died.  Two years later, a seven-year period of spiritual desolation started, during which time her husband also died.  She was imprisoned in the 1680s for her Christian teachings, was poisoned there and ill for seven years.  She was imprisoned again in 1695, including terms in a dungeon and banishment, until her death in 1717.  Her reflection of the calamities and afflictions that had befallen her led to this conclusion:  “Such was the strength of my natural pride that nothing but some dispensation of sorrow would have broken down my spirit, and turned me to God.” Later, she wrote this prayer, “Thou hast ordered these things, O my God, for my salvation! In goodness Thou hast afflicted me.”[2]

Fleeing into the presence of God when affliction persists is one way to practice the affirmation of the Westminster Confession, “Q1. What is the chief and highest end of man?  A.  Man’s chief and highest end is to glorify God and fully to enjoy him forever.”[3]  Affliction sorely tests one’s basic desire in life:  Do we desire comfort and ease more than we desire to glorify and enjoy the living Lord?  It is possible and necessary for Christians, despite pain, to find their satisfaction in the Lord and Giver of Life.

This new appreciation for spiritual fruit amid tribulation is one motivator for embracing the difficult life many conservatives experience in the Presbyterian Church. It may not be a sign of superior spirituality to leave the church that causes such deep pain, if in fact the point of leaving is to avoid the pain. Rather, to embrace the pain and allow God to shout to us (and through us, to the church) a call to repentance and a word of hope can reap huge spiritual benefit.

Paul spoke of the connection between trials and the experience of God’s love: “. . . we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Rom. 5:3-5). Let us seize the opportunities for spiritual growth through adversity— encountered far too often, I know—and be prepared for the trials ahead by the practice sessions we experience at our presbytery meetings. God will meet us there and strengthen us against all temptation to take short-cuts, if in preparation we have learned to trust God and enter the fellowship of Christ’s suffering.


[1] C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 90-1.

[2] James Gilchrist Lawson, Deeper Experiences of Famous Christians (Uhrichsville, OH: Barbour Publishing, 2000), 84.

[3] “The Larger Catechism” of the Westminster Confession of Faith, The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Part I, Book of Confessions (Louisville, KY: The Office of the General Assembly, 2002), 195.

The fourth reason why individual Presbyterians must be equipped for stand-alone discipleship is that we never know when we will be called upon to make a defense of the gospel or a biblical point of view. The impact of a well-placed word literally at any moment cannot be underestimated. But if we are ill-equipped to give that word, ignorant of the things of God, slow to pick up on where a conversation is going, or otherwise tongue-tied, we may miss an important opportunity. Over many years time, I have been awed by those occasions in a committee meeting or one-on-one conversation when a simple word has actually redirected the course of decision-making. I have often felt that “bad” things happen in presbytery because good people simply freeze in their seats and do not object or give another point of view for the consideration of the body.

Many factors keep presbyters from participating in Presbyterian discussions: belief that someone else is “appointed” to speak on evangelicals’ behalf, brain freeze (the adrenaline rush that shuts down one’s frontal cortex), misunderstanding of one’s orderly options at the moment, and just plain fear. But the one obstacle I would like to help my readers avoid is that sick feeling in the stomach when one senses something fishy going on, but is baffled about what it is exactly and confused about possible remedies. By the time one’s wits are gathered, it is too late. The moment has passed, the vote has been taken, and a erroneous transaction has gone unanswered.

One’s readiness to jump into a conversation or to give witness to the truth is a combination of miracle and method. The miracle part of this dynamic is based upon the promise of Jesus himself in one of his disciple-equipping sessions. The Lord is preparing his disciples to stand on their own two feet when he is gone. He says: “When they bring you to trial and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say; but say whatever is given you at that time, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit” (Mk. 13:11). When we are on the hot-seat, under pressure, we can ask and believe that the Holy Spirit will speak through us, providing the right words in the right tone, in order to accomplish God’s purposes.

Three years ago, in our first trial (Naegeli et al v. San Francisco Presbytery, the precursor to Parnell v. SFP), I testified for four hours, during which time I was asked biblical, theological, historical, and polity questions from those who opposed the fidelity/chastity ordination requirement. Every possible argument, (mis)quotation of Scripture or John Calvin, and trap were thrown before me during that time, and miraculously I was able to give reasonable answers and not fall prey. The Holy Spirit was palpably present in my mind, to remind me of papers I had written 25 or 30 years before, guiding me in my responses, and otherwise showing up in my time of need. I believe Jesus’ promise; the Holy Spirit spoke through me that day. I count this in the miracle category.

The method part of this entails preparing oneself with increasing knowledge of God, the Word, and whatever else will equip one for authentic and accurate testimony. The apostle Peter, not one to shrink from the opportunity to give witness after the resurrection of Jesus, exhorted Christians to “[a]lways be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Peter 3:15). In the first chapter of the same epistle, Peter instructed believers to “prepare [their] minds for action.” Our forbears in the faith recognized that one must undergo preparation for salty speech, learn their lessons well and accumulate a body of knowledge and insight—a process itself invigorated by the Holy Spirit—so that when needed, one’s speech is grounded in the Word of God.

Among the many disciplines that aid in the “moment of truth” is Scripture memorization. It is almost passé to talk about it, but stop and think:  one does not always have one’s computer Bible program at hand; one does not always have a Bible close by; one does not have time in a pinch to look something up. I learned a long time ago as a musician that I didn’t really know a song until I had memorized it. This discipline enables me to fully own what I have learned and, as a part of me, it is sharable at any time. One of the most inspiring moments in pastoral ministry for me occurred when I visited a dear, retired pastor in the hospital maybe three weeks before he died. He was well into his 90’s, had been hale and hearty until just a few months prior. On this pastoral call, he was uncharacteristically depressed. His wife said he could no longer read, so it would appear his greatest source of comfort was no longer available to him. But that couldn’t be right, I said, because he had memorized Scripture for years! So his wife prodded him, asking him to recite something from Isaiah 6 (the account of Isaiah’s call to the office of prophet). She uttered just five words, “In the year King Uzziah . . .” and his eyes flew open, and he began to recite the entire chapter from memory. He was there in the Throne Room, enthralled and blessed and transported into the presence of God. I will never forget this moment. When I am on the threshold between this life and the next, I want to be able to summon Scripture from memory just as he did. And even before then, when the need arises, to be able to recall accurately what God has said is a great gift, blessing, discipline, and life-saver.

You never know when you are going to need what Jesus has planted in your heart. So get ready!

The third reason why individual Presbyterians must be equipped for stand-alone discipleship has to do with the strained resources of our renewal groups. For decades, organizations like the Presbyterian Coalition, Presbyterians For Renewal, and the Presbyterian Lay Committee have been publishing discipleship resources, sponsoring retreats and conferences, and providing staff to help guide and coordinate evangelical efforts throughout the country. Together with many other specific-interest groups, they have created a Presbyterian Renewal Network to resource commissioners to General Assembly, cultivate leadership for nomination to PCUSA offices, and keep tabs on trends and changes in Presbyterian life.

As churches have felt the strain of the nation’s economic downturn, so have renewal groups seen a significant reduction in contributions due to donor misfortunes. As if that were not enough, evangelical organizations in particular have suffered the loss of supporting congregations who have been dismissed from the PCUSA. The very hand that feeds non-profits is withdrawing and taking its money elsewhere.

So money is tight, and the services provided in the past by these very fine organizations have downsized. What that means for ordinary Presbyterians in the pew is less help, fewer props, fewer publications, fewer phone calls for encouragement, fewer . . . everything.  In the next decade, it will be those Presbyterians who can stand on their own two feet spiritually who will be able to sustain a vibrant life and witness in the rough and tumble world of Presbyterian debates and debacles.

Some day I will address more directly the issues facing evangelical/orthodox groups in orbit around the PCUSA; but today I want to focus on presbyters and what will enable them to withstand the stresses and strains of their service for Christ and this church. The good news is that many resources are archived on the websites of these groups. Take some time and explore them. PFR, for instance, published reFORM, a theological journal for elders and pastors (I edited several of those issues). Theology Matters puts out a stellar newsletter periodically, to address in some depth a particular theolgoical issue before the church. Polity resources abound at the Presbyterian Coalition website; and the Layman has news and commentary on events as they unfold in the church.

What there is not enough of, in my humble opinion, is the opportunity for presbyters to get together specifically to be equipped for service in the church. The type of equipping I have in mind ranges from theological reflection to ministry skill development, from mastery of Robert’s Rules to pastoral care methods. Some topics that elders crave include these: How to Follow What’s Going On in a Meeting; How to Prepare a Two-Minute Speech for Debate; How to Write an Overture; How to Inform Your Congregation of Denominational Issues; What Does It Mean When the Church Says ________?, and the list goes on and on. Many of these topics are addressed in written form on the aforementioned websites, but somehow we must personalize the equipping effort while expanding its reach to everyone who wants to learn. Our renewal organizations have done this in the past, but right around the corner is the time when it will depend on individual presbyters to do their research and offer workshops at the local level.

In San Francisco Presbytery, our basic method has entailed forming an Evangelical Caucus.  Though the word “caucus” sounds political, we are really a fellowship of like-minded individuals who offer encouragement and foster empowerment for the tough meetings we have as a presbytery. We meet some time before the Presbytery meeting (which is bi-monthly) to prepare strategy, talk through the theological issues under discussion, and otherwise learn by doing.  We also pray for each other, divide into sub-groups according to interest, and pool our resources when needed. If all our conservative think-tanks and renewal organizations folded tomorrow, I think we could hold our own here in the Bay Area, and would continue to stand while relying completely on God’s strength, the teaching ministry of the Holy Spirit, and the love and prayers of our Savior Jesus Christ. I pray that the same can be said of you in your presbytery, but if not, that you would be inspired to start working together to stand firmly, humbly, and steadfastly for Christ in your presbytery.