April 28, 2012
Closing Argument before
the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
Meeting in Indianapolis on April 27, 2012
Mary Holder Naegeli for the Appellants
[Following a few remarks in rebuttal of the Presbytery's argument . . .]
When a person has been at this process for over four years, as we have, it is worth answering the question, “Why does this matter so much?” I know the outcome of the Commission’s deliberations will matter to the candidate, who has waited long enough for a definitive answer, and to San Francisco Presbytery, which desires to be affirmed in a position it has espoused the last few years. But why does it matter to me as a teaching elder and theological educator? Why does it matter to the people I pastor and mentor in the faith, or the people in the back pew? What impact does this discussion and the Commission’s decision have on my best friend and her gay son whom I have known and welcomed for years? And on those people whose struggle to live in sexual purity has been painfully difficult? How will the decision we hope for make things better for the Presbyterian Church?
A declaration that Scripture, as our only rule of faith and practice, prohibits homosexual practice by church officers (and all people of faith) puts God at the center of the discussion. God, whose Word is the Scripture, has given us his mind and will on the matter. God has not obfuscated, nuanced, or otherwise played hard to get with this revelation. If I were to put the six specific Scriptures before you right now, you would easily recognize that they all, without exception or equivocation, say “No” to homosexual practice. Even scholars and theologians who promote gay ordination admit that the Scriptures themselves all say, “No.”
If you were to put those same six scriptures before the back pew of your congregations, they too would recognize that the Bible says homosexual practice is forbidden by God and not worth the spiritual risk God attaches to it.
If a lesbian couple were to ask me, “What does God (or the Bible) say about homosexuality?” this is what I would tell them:
Here’s what the Bible says, let’s say in 1 Cor 6:9: “Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God.” I would remind them, this pretty much sums up what God thinks about all sorts of prevailing sins, all of which on the face of it disqualify anyone from inheriting the Kingdom of God. It is the loving thing to tell them, since they asked, that if they are interested in having life in Christ and enjoying the benefits of citizenship in God’s kingdom, these are activities or lifestyle commitments to avoid. And yes, homosexual practice is one of them. And so is my particular sin. We all have something in common: a sinful nature that drags us down into some sort of addiction, compulsion, or spiritual black hole.
Having said that, this is not God’s last word on the subject! As Paul goes on: “And this is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.” What God offers to any sinner enslaved by wrongdoing is God’s liberating salvation and transformation, if we want it. We are not liberated to perpetuate our sin. We are liberated to no longer need sin and to need and rely on God more.
God is at the center of this dynamic: God is the one around whom we can all find forgiveness of sin and the spiritual power to walk out of the habits and practices that have a hold on us. God is the one who keeps before us the vision of a holy and sanctified life and empowers us to walk in it. God gives us the content of our preaching as we encourage our church members to pursue godliness in all aspects of life.
I am homing in on this point of God at the center, because the alternative is what mixes us up in this discussion. When we place ourselves at the center of the universe—our needs, our desires, our perspective, our “wisdom,” our experience, our rights—that is when confusion and disunity set in. When we’re all after our own way, believing God’s way to be—what? unattainable, unrealistic? unknowable?—nothing good can come from a self-centered life. Good comes out of a repentant, God-centered life, because God promises this.
And so, to get back to my original question, why this matters to the church is that what we do here today and the decision you make tomorrow will shape the teaching of the church for those people in the back pew, our children, my best friend’s son, and the lesbian couple. This Commission and others who have authority within the PCUSA to render “authoritative interpretations” are in fact conducting the “teaching office of the church” for the benefit of Presbyterians. And the Church needs its teachers to give clear and accurate information and to set standards that are consistent with the Scriptures when the Word is clear, as it is on this issue. We are a people who embrace the Reformation tenet of Sola Scriptura—Scripture alone. Good discipline rightly administered in the church is the product of faithful and accountable discipleship that offers patient teaching of the Scriptures and generous relational support during times of personal transformation. In response to the Great Commission (Mt 28:18-20), the church baptizes people (incorporating them into the household of faith) and teaches them to obey everything Jesus has commanded us. Christian Discipleship requires all of us, on a level field, to submit to the Lordship of Jesus Christ and to do what he says in every aspect of life.
If God were silent on the topic of sexual holiness, we would not presume to fill in the blanks. And we must not obscure God’s truth either. The Synod did not presume God’s silence on the matter, but only pointed to confusion among Presbyterian scholars. If this confusion becomes the standard, then no council could ever be held to account. But “God is not the author of confusion, but of peace.” And the PCUSA, at its best, is not a church of chaos but of order, ordered by Word and Spirit given for our benefit.
If diversity of opinion is all it takes to obscure God’s truth, then how can we be sure of anything? It is easy for human beings to become confused; this is not of God’s doing and this is not a sign of the Spirit at work. Is it not the purpose of the Confessions to clarify: to cut through our confusion to establish a clear understanding of our faith and God’s commands? If that is not their purpose, then why have them? Why have a Constitution, or the Bible for that matter? Why require seminary education of our clergy? It is all rendered irrelevant and meaningless: we have called this Nola Scriptura—no Scripture. If confusion reigns, then teaching only makes the confusion worse. If the church speaks with many voices, then none can be heard as the true instructor of our faith. In that case, we have no standard to live by, and we can hold no one accountable, including lower councils. For lack of any standard, if councils are not accountable, then church officers are not accountable either. And then we have arrived at the same place the Israelites did at the time of Judges: “Everyone did what was right in their own eyes.”
But these gifts to the church—the Scriptures, the Confessions— are not meaningless; they do shape our life together, if we will all abide by them as an act of mutual submission to the Lordship of Christ and the God-centered life. This is what we promised to do in our ordination vows.
And so, on behalf of the church, on behalf of the back pew, on behalf of my friend’s son, on behalf of the lesbian couple, on behalf of all who struggle against sin, including me, I ask you to embrace the truth by which we live and
1. declare that Scripture is our only rule of faith and practice (F-3.0107) and that its teaching is binding.
2. declare that Scripture says “No” to all homosexual practice.
3. and declare that ordaining a committed homosexual person violates this teaching and must be overturned.
Thank you very much for hearing our appeal today.
April 28, 2012
Opening Arguments before
the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
Meeting in Indianapolis on April 27, 2012
First Presentation: Bruce McIntosh for the Appellants
May it please the Lord:
I will take a few moments to address why it is this Commission’s obligation to correct the errors of the lower councils. Later, Dr. Naegeli will discuss how we as a church live into being obedient to God’s commands in the area of human sexuality.
Let me remind us where we are in this process. Recall that this commission remanded the case to the Synod because it failed in two respects: first, to consider whether the Scriptures and the Confessions prohibit the sexual conduct embraced in the candidate’s statement of departure; and second, to determine, in light of scriptural and confessional mandates, whether the presbytery’s decision was constitutional.
First, we applaud this Commission’s implicit acknowledgment that the Scriptures matter; that the Synod needed to consider whether the Presbytery had been guided by Scripture when making its decision. It is good to know this Commission believes that Scripture remains the only rule of faith and manners. If we are incorrect in this conclusion, we ask that you tell the church plainly.
We also applaud the implication that it is proper for a reviewing council to insure lower councils comply with scriptural mandates.
So, did the synod do as it was asked? Unfortunately, not quite. In response, the Synod again focused on its process and not on the erroneous biblical and doctrinal content of the candidate’s departure.
Nor did the Synod seriously consider whether Scripture and the Confessions provided guidance. Indeed, the Synod, in essence, threw up its hands and declared that the mandate of Scripture and the Confessions cannot be known because there is such a “vast diversity of interpretation of the meaning of Scripture and the confessions on the issue of human sexuality.” But is this true? Is there a vast diversity of opinion?
No. There are really only two positions: there is the traditional view and there is rejection of the traditional view.
The traditional view states that Scripture univocally presumes a male-female prerequisite for sexual conduct, and even then only in the context of marriage, and that everywhere in Scripture homosexuality is disapproved. This view is the official position of the church. We know this, because this is what is expressed in our Confessions as our interpretation of Scripture. And as the record in this case demonstrates, through the testimony of Drs Thompson and Gagnon, the traditional view was not reached by happenstance or shallow consideration, but through centuries of deliberation, conversation, and discussion.
How do we process the contemporary view that argues the traditional view is wrong?
First, let me note the mere existence of a view (or even many views) contrary to the church’s classic teaching on the matter does not take away from the authority and binding nature of that traditional view. The whole point of the Confessions is to reflect the decision of the Body as to which interpretation of Scripture is the correct one.
So you, Commissioners, do not have to decide one among many views, but only to adopt, reaffirm, and be guided by the view the Confessions have already taught. You need not be concerned that you are imposing a doctrine on the church. You need only help the church live into what the Church has already “imposed” upon itself.
Indeed, to permit the Synod’s decision and the Presbytery’s act to stand would permit those councils to impose a new standard on the church—even if it is a standard of indecision. This is going about the process in unPresbyterian fashion. A process that perpetuates indecision (or “diversity of views”) yields the argument to the loudest voice.
No, the remedy for those who disagree with the traditional view is NOT to encourage non-compliance, but to undertake a constitutional process, to revise the Confessions through conversation, discussion, and vote.
The Church took this very approach when it replaced G-6.0106b with Amendment 10A in the Form of Government, but in doing so it did not change the scriptural and confessional mandate that G-6 had summarized.
So we come back to the question: why is this the role of this commission—to correct the doctrinal errors of the lower councils? Stated differently, why is this a constitutional question? If the constitution were silent on the issue of Scripture’s authority and applicability, or silent on the issue of sexuality, then the Synod’s deference to the presbytery would be appropriate and presbyteries would have to figure things out for themselves.
However, the present issue is in fact addressed directly in both Confession and Form of Government, in other words within the Constitution that is directive for all Presbyterians. These include two specific declarations: Scripture is the only rule of faith and practice (F-1.0307), and (in the Confessions), marriage defined as between a man and woman and the prohibition of sexual conduct outside of marriage.
This is in our Constitution. Since the Synod failed to apply and adhere to both these declarations, it falls to this commission to take “national responsibility” for correcting the errors of the lower councils.
We agree with Mr. Nave [opposing counsel] when he suggests that this commission does not sit as a council of bishops, as theologians imposing doctrines in the church. And you yourselves, during Q & A the last time we were here, declared you are not theologians. However, we suggest that theologians are not necessarily called for in this case. The theological work has already been done by theologians over millennia. The church’s position on this matter is established. Your job is to enforce what the church has agreed is its standard. Yes, the church “Reformed is always in need of reforming” is not “reforming” to an invented new doctrine, but back to God’s unchangeable truth. That is, conforming to the original form that has become deformed. This commission is charged with ensuring conformity with the form the church has agreed to.
Our desire for this panel is that its decision will boldly declare that Scripture still has binding authority, that homosexual practice is not God’s desire for his people; and that ordaining a committed homosexual person violates this teaching and must be overturned.
Our desire is that those who agree with us, like those who wrote the dissent in the original Synod D & O, would make their affirmation of Scripture and Confessions boldly and prominently featured in your decision, as a gift to the church and encouragement to those who are simply trying to follow the teaching of Scripture.
Please don’t create a procedural wrinkle to hide behind; declare boldly the church’s position. Tell the church: is it still Sola Scriptura? Is Scripture still our only rule for faith and practice? Or will it be Nola Scriptura? For that is your choice: either Scripture is clear enough to require our compliance, or it is not.
April 28, 2012
Yesterday (Friday) my legal colleague Bruce McIntosh and I argued before the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission (GAPJC) at 3 p.m. EDT in Indianapolis, IN. It was, we assume, the last appeal in the matter of Parnell et al v. San Francisco Presbytery, over the Presbytery’s approval of Lisa Larges’ ordination examination in the fall of 2009. (Yes, the wheels turn slowly in our system.) Fourteen GAPJC members heard the case. The Presbytery was represented by Mr. Doug Nave, an attorney who seems to represent “the other side” in many of these cases as they come up. This is our fifth face-off. Though the room was large and could have accommodated quite a gallery, only about a dozen observers sat in on the proceedings. Among them were Lisa Larges and the Rev. Janie Spahr (HR) and one dear pastor who got the Presbyterian Coalition prayer alert that day and drove over an hour to stand with us in prayer and support. What a gift he was to us!
As to the proceedings, each side is given a total of thirty minutes and we, as complainants/appellants are given the privilege to reserve some of that time for rebuttal. Bruce and I divided our allotted time, with Bruce speaking first for ten minutes; then Mr. Nave spoke for about 20-25 minutes, and then I used our reserved time in both rebuttal and a prepared closing. The text of our oral arguments follows in a separate post later today. After our formal presentations, the commissioners questioned us all for an hour or so. Their queries were interesting, probing, not combative, and respectful. We had the opportunity to clarify some points from our brief and to address concerns they had for their role in the process. We felt that God helped us remember salient points, tie concepts together, and remain faithful to our task. It is a humbling experience, but good spiritual exercise to defend our faith and stand for biblical faithfulness in a high-stakes environment. We leave the results both to the commissioners and to God.
We will be receiving the Decision and Order late Monday or early Tuesday, and are authorized to post it at 11 a.m. PDT (2:00 Eastern) on Tuesday. “Read it here first!”
April 26, 2012
In instances too numerous to mention, Presbyterians have claimed that the passage of Amendment 10-A last summer opened the door to the ordination of practicing LGBT people. But is this what 10-A did, really?
Read it for yourself:
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). The council responsible for ordination and/or installation (G.2.0402; G-2.0607; G-3.0306) shall examine each candidate’s calling, gifts, preparation, and suitability for the responsibilities of ordered ministry. The examination shall include, but not be limited to, a determination of the candidate’s ability and commitment to fulfill all requirements as expressed in the constitutional questions for ordination and installation (W- 4.4003). Councils shall be guided by Scripture and the confessions in applying standards to individual candidates. (G-2.0104b)
During debates on this constitutional amendment, its proponents made clear that this was an affirmation of the Lordship of Jesus Christ, and who could be against that? However, its detractors smelled a fish and understood the true agenda was to remove ordination standards from the examination process. The power of this amendment was not in what it said, but in what it did not say. The insertion of this new paragraph removed the fidelity/chastity standard (previously numbered G-6.0106b) and replaced it with language that is innocuous at best, and includes no standard at all. Its true impact comes from the fact that it deleted a clear sexual standard for church officers, which required faithfulness in heterosexual marriage and sexual abstinence in singleness.
What we can say, based on observations since last summer, is that Amendment 10-A created the impression (perhaps wishful thinking) that the PCUSA no longer has a sexual standard for its officers, and this is what several presbyteries are “applying.” The church’s practice is evolving, such that the word “applying” does not mean “require adherence to.” In practice, presbyteries are maybe opening the Bible and saying, “Okay, we see what the Scripture says, and applying it to this case we see no connection between what it teaches and what this candidate wishes to do. But we have referred to it; now we shall do what we see fit.”
However, they should take caution, because 10-A did not achieve what they think it did. By requiring ordaining bodies to be guided by Scripture and the confessions, our Constitution still points to the scriptural teaching that undergirded the fidelity/chastity standard in the first place. Elsewhere in the Book of Order, Scripture is identified as “the only rule of faith and practice.” If this is true, and the teaching of Scripture prohibits homosexual behavior, then the fidelity/chastity requirement is still a standard for ordination. This is the claim that is being tested tomorrow in the Parnell v San Francisco appeal before the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission.
The church is reminded again of the advice given by the Advisory Committee on the Constitution in 1993 that only an explicit constitutional standard (which G-6.0106b was) could assure clarity on the issue for ordination decisions. Now that the explicit instruction has been removed, we can see how prophetic the ACC’s advice was, regardless of the claims of 10-A’s proponents. Why should it take a court case to determine whether the Scripture is binding upon every single ordination decision? Because ordaining councils are showing a willingness to ignore it or waive its requirements.
Please be in prayer for the GAPJC tomorrow, and for the legal teams on both sides, that their presentations will set before the Commission a clear choice; that the Commission will act consistent with the teaching of Scripture; and that the Church will submit to God by adhering to the gracious and truthful Word of God.
April 25, 2012
The last of the PCUSA’s “historic principles of church order” points to the importance of discipline within the church:
F-3.0108 The Value of Ecclesiastical Discipline
Lastly, that if the preceding scriptural and rational principles be steadfastly adhered to, the vigor and strictness of its discipline will contribute to the glory and happiness of any church. Since ecclesiastical discipline must be purely moral or spiritual in its object, and not attended with any civil effects, it can derive no force whatever but from its own justice, the approbation of an impartial public, and the countenance and blessing of the great Head of the Church universal.
This week I and my lawyering colleague Bruce McIntosh are living into the glory and happiness of the church by participating one last time in the judicial process to settle a matter within the church. We are flying to Indianapolis to appear before the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission on Friday afternoon. The case is Parnell et al v. Presbytery of San Francisco, and this current round is an appeal of a decision on remand of the Synod of the Pacific PJC. Though laborious and drawn out, this is the process Presbyterians follow when there is sufficient controversy in the church that a higher council must decide.
And decide they must. The choice before them this time is whether they will
1. own their responsibility for sound doctrine in belief and practice within the church, particularly as it relates to the conduct of ordination decisions in lower councils.
2. declare that Scripture is our only rule of faith and practice (F-3.0107) and that its teaching is binding upon the lives of all ordained officers of the church.
3. declare in this case that Scripture is clear as to the meaning of biblical texts and the intent of God’s will regarding homosexual practice, namely, that it is proscribed in all cases.
4. declare that approving a committed homosexual person for ordained office is a violation of this scriptural teaching, insofar as such a person by teaching and example leads the flock astray biblically, doctrinally, pastorally, and morally.
We hope to overcome the reticence of the Commission to interpret the Scriptures rightly and to make theological decisions. In previous dialogue with this panel, commissioners have said they are not theologians and the task is above their pay grade. It is our hope that in the ensuing months these commissioners have embraced their proper role, which includes determining whether acts or delinquencies are “contrary to the Scriptures or the Constitution of the PCUSA” (D-2.0202, D-2.0203).
Our task as counsel for the Complainants/Appellants is once again to present our case as clearly, passionately, and earnestly as we can. We desire to stand on the ground packed down by many “standers” before us, who have established the foundations of right living, biblical integrity, and Presbyterian polity that have given us the right to question the ordination decision of a presbytery. Your prayers that we would “speak the truth in love” are much appreciated, whether you agree with us or not. We are trying to be faithful to our ordination vows and to work soberly and earnestly through the patience-testing judicial process to get a fundamental question answered. By early next week, the case will be decided and the church will have one more data point to indicate where the PCUSA is headed. Regardless of the outcome, we honor the process of discipline, which is a gift to the church as well as one of its “marks,” and trust that in this case “the process will work” to right what has been done badly and to set us on a corrective course.
April 12, 2012
The few fans of this blog have perhaps noted my silence the last few days. Can it be true that Mary Naegeli is speechless, or has nothing to say? Au contraire, mes amis, the problem is the opposite! There is so much to say, so much to digest, so much to ponder, that one hardly knows where to begin. On the other side of my mind is the desperate need for some perspective, some peace and quiet, some reflection on the meaning of this moment in the life of the PCUSA.
This morning, as I walked out of the gym to dark skies and accelerating rain, a full, uninterrupted rainbow appeared before me. Reaching from one end of the horizon to the other in unbroken glory, God’s sign of promise also reached into my heart once again.
12“This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: 13I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, 15I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. 16When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” (Gen. 9:12-16 NRSV)
The original rainbow was God’s optical reminder to himself and the world that he would never again execute his judgment upon the whole planet by flood. Obviously the promise was not that there would never be flooding somewhere around the world, but God suspended his punitive power prerogative in order to live out the full ramifications of covenant. Human beings had not lived up to their end of the relationship, but God in unilateral covenant kept a grip on his people and would not let them go no matter what they did. By this means, they would know his unending love and amazing grace and perhaps remain open to his divine plan for reconciliation and redemption.
When I see a rainbow, this is what I think:
• that God is present and active in this world
• that God’s promise of care and relationship overshadows any overwhelming flood I might be experiencing
• that God possesses great hope for his creation
I needed that reminder, because this is what I am experiencing these days: a flood of work coming from three different employers (my seminary, my organization, my parish), the river of judicial process flowing to its mouth on April 27 (GAPJC), and what seems to be a denominational appointment with danger at General Assembly in early July.
I am appreciating very much the heart-cries of fellow pastors who do not feel they have the energy for the demands of the parish and the rigors of denominational discourse. I get that. I perhaps differ from many pastors in that I feel called and well suited for the denominational discourse. But for three months (this Spring Quarter) I am living with the tension of trying to balance discourse with discipleship, organizational strategy with organic ministry, geekiness with graciousness, teaching with learning, writing and reading, making things happen and letting things happen. The amazing thing—not to make my full-time pastoral colleagues jealous—is that virtually 100% of everything I do these days is at the heart of my calling, my gift mix, and my personality type, and therefore I love it all. There’s just too much of a good thing at the moment, and I will be very glad when the quarter is over.
Having said all this—in reflection, not complaint—I go back to the basics of spiritual vitality and ministry effectiveness:
• keep your eyes on the rainbow and its Creator (Psalm 8)
• take Sabbath rest and observe the daily rhythm of Christian discipleship (Matthew 11:28f)
• hold fast to the gospel (1 Corinthians 15:1-4)
• persevere—do not give up (2 Timothy 4:5)
• seek first the Kingdom of God (Matthew 6:33)
• plan with humility (Proverbs 16:9)
• endure hardship in joy (Romans 5:3f)
• receive the Holy Spirit and walk in his power (Romans 8:11)
It’s time to get back to work! [You too!]
April 7, 2012
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.
The Christian faith is a life and death matter! The life and death of Jesus Christ, which we have pondered during Lent, are both significant for the life and death we experience as human beings. The Apostle Paul was well aware that the death of Jesus on our behalf was not his only calling. The thirty-three year life of Jesus accomplished something, too. He faced the challenges of mortal “weakness” without succumbing to sin (Heb 4:15), he modeled “walking in the Spirit” as redeemed day-to-day behavior, and by giving it purpose and meaning he proved that this life—as we know it—is worth living.
But here is the staggering news well worth remembering on this “in between day” of Holy Saturday, falling between Good Friday and Easter: the very same life that invigorated Jesus during his thirty-three years and then raised him from the dead dwells in us! Stop and think what this means, Paul urges: you have this same life now, giving energy to this old sack of bones you carry around with you every day. The Spirit that called Jesus Christ out of the grave is the same Spirit giving life to you, oh mortal. Despite your physical limitations, despite your age, despite your discouragements or the roadblocks in your path, despite your mortality, the Spirit of God is at work in you to empower life this side of death.
Experiencing this Spirit-filled life day by day actually prepares us to face our physical death with joy and anticipation of life after death. Death is a transition from “this life” to the “next,” but it is your one continuous life that is being sustained by God’s eternal Spirit. Wow!
April 2, 2012
In lieu of a blog post of my own writing today, I commend to you a Journal of Reformed Thought: Perspectives interview of the Rev. Dr. Laura Smit, found here.
Laura is steeped in the scenes at Fellowship of Presbyterians (FOP) and Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians (ECO), because she served on the theology draft team which she references in the interview. She is associate professor of religion at Calvin College (Grand Rapids). I do not know Laura personally, but based on this article I would enjoy making her acquaintance. Her comments about schism, a term being bandied about rather carelessly these days, are particularly insightful and helpful. “I couldn’t say it better myself,” so I won’t try!
April 1, 2012
The Apostle Paul’s picture of a church in trouble is a dinghy tossed back and forth by the waves of a stormy sea, blown off course by winds of false doctrine and deceitful scheming (Ephesians 4:14). The remedy involves “speaking the truth in love.” Out of compassion for those in peril, we are called to drop an anchor and orient ourselves to an immovable reference point. This is the essential step for getting back on course and for making progress toward our destination, who is Jesus Christ (to mix metaphors, see Hebrews 12:1–2).
It grieves me to say this, but after almost [twenty] years of observing and participating in General Assembly and presbytery, I cannot avoid the conclusion that false doctrine and deceitful scheming have at times confused and prolonged our denominational debates. Lest any of us be unwitting collaborators in this unfortunate and self-destructive course, I offer a few rules for a “good, clean fight.” They conveniently fall into the framework of speaking the truth in love:
Speaking the Truth
1. My goal is not merely to speak my truth, but to promote the discovery of the truth and to find ways to order our common life around it (John 14:6). I am not out to prevail; God’s will is to be discerned and done—through the power of the Holy Spirit.
2. I will focus my energy on tackling the problem rather than personalities. I will offer a clear definition of the actual issue at hand as logically and objectively as I can.
3. I will tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. I will not convey half-truths, misrepresented facts, or manipulated versions of events to gain advantage. I will demonstrate unimpeachable integrity in my testimony, and authenticity in my claims, and will expect nothing less from my opponents.
4. I will do my homework, so I can have confidence that what I say is supported by fact. When I quote others, I will not take their remarks out of context or twist them in ways the speaker did not intend. I will keep statistics and studies in proper perspective.
5. I will use my time to speak positively and passionately for my position (or to correct a misunderstanding or to clarify a point), rather than focus on putting the opposition in a bad light. I will not trivialize, marginalize, demonize, or characterize my opponents with labels that do not represent them fairly or honestly.
6. I will attribute to my opponents only the best of motive and intent, since I cannot presume to know their true intent better than they do. I will give them the benefit of the doubt unless evidence can be presented to expose inconsistencies between their stated intent and action.
7. I will listen carefully to the full debate. I will avoid basing my remarks on my assumptions, responding instead to what my opponents actually say. I will take responsibility for defining my position and my motives clearly, and will allow my opponents to do the same for themselves.
8. I will seek a fair framework for debate, in which major points of view can be clearly and adequately presented for consideration, and statements can be clarified or rebutted in an orderly manner. I will not seek unfair advantage, nor will I use inappropriate times and venues to further my agenda. (In other words, the prayer for the meal is not the time to launch the first salvo in anticipation of the battle after dinner.)
9. I will know, respect, and follow the rules of order that govern this deliberative body. If I feel a change in the rules is necessary, I will propose that change publicly and not manipulate the process behind closed doors. I will use the rules to clarify and articulate the debate, not to confuse or frustrate the proceedings.
10. I will speak in any gathering, private or public, as if my opponents or those who would be hurt by my views are listening and taking notes. This means I will speak in a loving and respectful manner, even if I must say things I expect my opponents would not want to hear.
11. I will not attack my opponents with name-calling, disparaging references, or character assassination. I will refer to them by the label they choose to use to characterize themselves, not by a negative one I coin for my advantage.
12. I will harbor neither hate nor fear in my heart, nor act from those motives. By the same token, neither will I be intimidated by those who falsely attribute hate or fear to me. Rather, I will concentrate on being a non-anxious presence who speaks the truth in love from a pure heart (1 Timothy 1:5).
13. I will not argue in public those matters more appropriately handled privately with the person who has offended me (Matthew 18:15f).
14. As I listen to other points of view or represent them to others, I will not make faces, roll my eyes, hiss, or in other nonverbal ways show disrespect or impatience toward an opposing point of view.
15. I will pray without prejudice for my opponents, because everyone has a family and ministry challenges and health concerns, just as I do.
16. If my position prevails, I will accept its implications with humility and grace, and without exuberant demonstrations, spontaneous or planned. If my position fails, I will be gracious to those who prevailed and prayerfully consider my next step. I will not act out my disappointment with public scenes of grief, anger, or disruption.
As we approach the coming Assembly and ready ourselves for presbytery debates, it is helpful to remember that our ideological battles are fought on various levels. From a human standpoint, we are to be “shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). We must use our heads and maintain a clear conscience as we speak the truth in love.
From a spiritual standpoint, we realize that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12). By this I do not mean that our opponents in any given debate are evil or dark, and it would be wrong to demonize anyone (please hear me clearly!). But we do recognize that the pressures and tensions we feel as a denomination within this culture are fundamentally spiritual in nature, and there are forces at work to discredit godliness, truth, and love.
In both the human and the spiritual realms, preparation is essential. Though the Presbyterian boat may toss back and forth in the storm, doing our homework, taking note of the winds, and praying for ourselves and our opponents will help us navigate the rough waters ahead.
(by Mary Holder Naegeli, reprinted from reNEWS, June 2001. Used by permission of Presbyterians For Renewal.)