February 15, 2013
I have lost my singing/speaking voice only once in my life. I had just completed a Palm Sunday performance of the Brahms Requiem, in which I was the soprano soloist. Some time during the reception to follow, my voice suddenly closed down. And so it remained for a full six days. I was advised to drink a lot of water, rest as much as a church worker can during Holy Week, and stop trying to talk. My greatest anxiety came with the awareness that I was scheduled to lead the musical worship at a large Easter sunrise service the following Sunday. I went to bed Saturday night unable to sustain a tone, but in faith I set my alarm for 4 a.m.—the service began at 5:30—not knowing what else to do, frankly. I got up, took a hot, steamy shower, and started to warm up vocally. It was all there, well-rested and ready to go, and a very grateful musician drove into the foggy morning eager to sing God’s praises and celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Scary? You bet! A faith-stretcher? Unmistakably! Putting God to the test? I don’t think so; more likely God was putting me to the test.
In the last several years, there has been a lot of talk in the PC(USA) about “voices at the table.” People and groups have complained that their voices have been silenced. Others have felt their voices have been drowned out. I would go so far as to say, in some church environments, that the voice of God has been taken off the air, which should be the most concerning thing of all. A high value has been placed on giving voice to the voiceless, as a matter of justice. The voice of a small minority is given equal time to that of the majority as though it has equal value, truth, or reasonableness. In Christian circles, this extends to the implicit belief that all opinions are biblical and faithful and must be included in our consultation with each other. The unintended consequence of the equal time rule, paralleled in 21st century journalism, is the perception that the house is far more equally divided than it might actually be. This offers the minority the advantage of more air time; we all know, the more times we hear an assertion, the more likely we are to believe it to be true. The church has undergone a major shift in its thinking and practice, precisely because a very vocal minority convinced the majority that theirs in the prevailing and right view.
Unfortunately now, in the PC(USA), the minority view—that persons committed to homosexuality are not barred from ordination and that “marriage” can include same-sex couples—is being adopted in practice and the majority doesn’t know what to do about it. An extension of that minority view is that anyone who differs from it is adorned with a new label: bigot or hater or un-Presbyterian (as the Parnell case implied in March 2012). After being railed against in successive presbytery meetings, evangelical members of my presbytery feel the tension in the room if they rise to ask questions. Murmuring, calls to sit down, and moderatorial gavel falls cutting off questioning all are sending the message that air time is only open to those who agree with the new way of doing things. During Open Space meetings, evangelicals’ comments are not passed on at the reporting phase, as if they never spoke up around the table. This reality stands in sharp contrast to the insistence by presbytery leadership that “we need your voice at the table.” Really? In one instance when the evangelical caucus provided twenty-one names to the mission council, at its request, for inclusion in presbytery/congregational discernment teams, only one was included in the final appointments. The message is clear, “We say we want you at the table, but we really don’t.”
So the question for evangelicals is this: what voice do we have in the church? Is that voice more likely to be heard from within or from without? Will it be a voice of teaching the flock from within, or prophesying to the Body from without? Will it be one voice speaking for many, or many voices speaking in concert? Or will it be a voice that goes underground, silenced for a time, until the prevailing winds of false doctrine eventually implode? These are serious questions we must ask ourselves and ask God, because we don’t know what to do.
My hope is that during this time of evangelical voice loss, we can be nourished in our souls, strengthened in our faith, and prepared for the Zechariah moment with God’s praises on our lips. We may be quiet for a time, but that doesn’t stop us from writing and praying and remaining faithful. We may not be heard by fellow presbyters for awhile— in fact, we may be shunned—but God can overcome the most impossible obstacles when the time is right. And then, will we be ready to speak?
January 2, 2013
Looking ahead to the coming year, my sense is that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) will see an accelerated decline in “the measurables,” and the spiritual gains will be harder and harder to discern. It is customary in some circles to predict the trends of the coming year, so I will take a stab at a list for the PC(USA). By mentioning these things I am not saying I want them to happen, or that I am certain they will, but I feel confident asserting that the trends are a real threat to Presbyterian covenant life. I believe that we will see the following developments continue in 2013:
• Court rulings that promote reinvention of the wheel with every examination and every dismissal—This trend is based on the false assumption that “the Spirit will say something different each time we come back to the same question.” Congregations and church leaders will gradually opt out of the decision-making process because of its seeming futility.
• Increasing difficulty for evangelical pastors to get or keep pastoral positions—pastoral calls will favor those who have not taken positions on anything controversial for fear of dividing a congregation. Evangelicals in particular will be scrutinized more carefully for indications that they might lead a congregation out of the denomination. This trend is based on the false assumption that evangelicals with more conservative worldviews are unable to lead a pluralistic congregation.
• Continued exodus of church members, whether or not their congregations dismiss to another Reformed body—While presbyteries and Sessions undertake the slow (and slowing process) of discernment, ordinary church members will lose faith and seek to resolve their own cognitive and spiritual dissonance with a move elsewhere. Where I live, this is a major factor in the congregational osteoporosis I have named previously.
• Increasing pressure on Presbyterian pastors to conduct same-sex weddings and to overlook moral deviations among church officers—peer pressure, pure and simple.
• A new, corporate “conscience” formed by the holy trinity of “inclusivity, relativism, and denominational loyalty,” rather than by Scripture and the confessions—This trend is based on making unity the highest value, at the expense of purity, and we have seen its expression in Parnell v. San Francisco and in the machinations of the General Assembly. The tipping point has already occurred, but in 2013 we will see those decisions filter down into presbyteries and processes throughout the church.
• A blatant disassociation between what is written and what is practiced—Due to the developments cited above, it is now possible to have perfectly good “books” (constitution and creeds, for example) that are meaningless in the life of the church because “freedom of conscience” reigns as the highest personal value, not “captive to the Word of God.”
• An emphasis on process at the expense of decision-making—that is to say, practice will snowball in certain (liberal) directions without changing anything in writing (constitution, minutes, judicial rulings). Presbyterians will outdo the Pharisees in hypocrisy.
• Transfer of material wealth from congregations to middle-governing bodies and the Foundation—as congregations disband or dismiss rather than continue association with the PC(USA), their assets will be seized to secure the future of a shell organization. Previously, I had privately predicted the demise of the denomination within ten years, but now I think an institutional fountain of youth has been discovered. Presbyteries will increasingly demand property and assets as congregations follow their consciences and seek dismissal to another Reformed body.
• Loss of the evangelical voice in denominational conversation at all levels, despite efforts to open up discussion. In an effort to appear collegial and relational, and employing methods of rule by consensus, evangelicals in the minority will find themselves out-shared, if not outright dismissed in ordinary conversation. We are noting in San Francisco Presbytery that spoken evangelical points of view at round-table discussions never get reported to the whole group or appear in the summaries.
• Tolerance requiring intolerance for doctrinal confidence and definition—an irony noted in the past will only get worse as the situation morphs from a fluid transition to a new hard line.
• The fracturing of covenant groups and pastoral fellowships—the collateral damage of divergent ideological views are blowing groups apart, while forming other alliances aimed at codifying a new liberal position on social issues before the church.
• Growing shyness to include evangelism in church mission—evident in the presentations by Louisville staff to the General Assembly last summer, I observed through note-taking that the mention of “mission” only once included proclamation of the gospel for spiritual conversion and transformation.
• Increasing pressure to preach a so-called gospel shaped by our culture, less from the Bible, and more from psychology and “human wisdom”—as an example, a church in my presbytery has indicated that because fewer than half its members feel the Bible should be the primary text for pastoral sermons, they are looking for a new pastor who will inspire them with diverse texts other than the Bible.
If you feel called to remain in the PC(USA), are you ready to be a part of a church in which these dynamics will increasingly shape the reality? By making this list, I am not saying an evangelical within the PC(USA) must leave the denomination. I’m not planning to do so any time soon, so this is the question I feel challenges me at the moment. Am I ready to stand faithful to Jesus Christ amidst organizational pressure, blacklisting, ridicule, interminably repetitious discussions in presbytery, and dismissal of what I share in supposedly open round table discussions?
One of the most liberating thoughts I have ever had in the midst of trying times as a pastor was this one: Jesus did not need people to like him in order for him to be effective at what he did. He didn’t need ministry to be easy, either, because he had an inexhaustible supply of divine power with which to act.
Lord, in 2013, I repent of the need to win the approval of my presbytery colleagues and to have an easy life as a pastor. I relinquish both and simply ask that you would empower me to stand. Wherever. Whenever. Whatever it takes.
October 31, 2012
Overnight I have had a chance to read not only the Final Decision and Order of the GAPJC in Larson v. Los Ranchos, but also the briefs submitted by the Complainants/Appellants and the Respondents/Appellees (the Presbytery). My initial summary of this case appeared in yesterday’s blog; today I’d like to share my impressions of what this decision means. Folks who believe a manner of life suitable for ordination in the PCUSA includes fidelity in heterosexual marriage and chastity in singleness are going to find it difficult to apply their reasonable biblical standard in ordination/installation decisions. Here’s what I observe to be the effect and fall-out from the GAPJC decision:
1. Presbyteries as a whole are not afforded the right to hold a corporate conscience, which is reserved only for individuals and must be “respected” by the ordaining body. The potential here is that one dissenter of a presbytery’s corporate conscience can tyrannize the rest, giving to one individual the power to override the conscience of the whole. Presbyteries do not have the right to state or enforce any requirement upon all candidates, but only to examine and make a determination of suitability for ordination on a case-by-case basis. The only basis now is “case-by-case,” not Scripture or the Confessions, because, after all, the PCUSA cannot agree on what the Scriptures and Confessions teach (Parnell). Situational ethics in full bloom.
2. The appeal to conscience has now flipped sides, but the door is shut behind those who were granted freedom for their consciences earlier this year. In previous cases, including the ones I argued before the GAPJC (Naegeli v San Francisco; Parnell v San Francisco), liberal progressives were demanding freedom to exercise their conscience and redefine marriage to include same-sex relationships. They were granted that freedom by Parnell. Now that it is evangelical conservatives asking for and acting on the same principle—Los Ranchos Presbytery declaring its conscience to apply the fidelity/chastity standard as a matter of biblical obedience—the door to freedom of conscience is slammed shut and its logical implication must not be allowed. Because— don’t we all know now— the Church has adopted a new and better standard of inclusion, and it is just plain wrong to think or do differently.
3. The removal of “fidelity and chastity” from the Form of Government disallows presbyteries the option of applying it in their ordination decisions, but instead requires an ordaining body not to use it as an ordination standard. This despite the fact that the language that replaced “fidelity and chastity” in the Book of Order offered no replacement standard at all but simply removed the explicit provision. [This argument was used to gather support in presbyteries during the ratification process.] The illogical leap that has been made with Larson is to equate an omission with a prohibition: fidelity/chastity is now omitted and therefore its application is prohibited in all cases as a standard for ordination. The ‘new normal’ is that fidelity and chastity cannot be applied to candidates ever anywhere.
4. Despite its emphasis on case-by-case basis determinations, the GAPJC has twisted itself in a knot of presbydoublespeak. In a former case, in which a specific ordination decision was challenged by members of San Francisco, the GAPJC basically said, Who are we do circumvent an ordination decision rendered by a council that knew the candidate and determined that her interpretation of Scripture and manner of life were acceptable? In other words, we are not in a position to overrule a specific case regarding a specific candidate, despite ample evidence of her violation of Scripture and Confessions. But in the Larson case, the GAPJC did not hesitate to void the action of a presbytery that took its ordination responsibility seriously and was transparent about its obedience to Scripture and Confessions. So on the one hand, a presbytery ordaining on a case-by-case basis can make decisions that are not—for all practical purposes— reviewable by a higher governing body even if they depart from scriptural standards; but a presbytery concluding and recording its understanding of biblical and confession requirements as a Resolution, and acting consistently in light of that belief, is ruled out of order. So much for a presbytery’s right and obligation to “bear testimony against error in doctrine and immorality in life, resolve questions of doctrine and discipline, give counsel in matters of conscience…” (G-3.0102) and “to nurture the covenant community of disciples of Christ . . . includ[ing] ordaining, receiving, dismissing, installing, removing, and disciplining its members . . .” (G-3.0301c). Keeping the door open on a case-by-case basis doesn’t resolve anything or counsel anybody in matters of conscience.
My friends, if you are in a presbytery where the question of sexual ethics is not disputed, count your blessings. For those of you who are in contested presbyteries, life is going to get harder and peaceful sleep will be elusive. Do not in any way diminish or mute your witness against error in doctrine and immorality in life and ministry. Take seriously your calling to teach and to admonish, according to the Scriptures. Your position may in fact lose support or even be ridiculed, but is it not better to suffer for having done the right thing than to suffer the consequences of going along with the wrong thing? (1 Peter 4:12-17). Courage for the journey . . .
August 6, 2012
The charge given to the PCUSA by the General Assembly is to “enter into a season of serious study and discernment concerning its meaning of Christian marriage.” Implicit in this assignment is the exploration of Christian marriage, which gets its definition from Scripture and the history of Scripture’s application within the church. Discernment is necessary when a particular teaching requires a particular doing. Since as Presbyterians we hold fast to the principle that learning is pursued so that we can behave rightly (“truth unto goodness”), the process must aid us in making decisions about what we do regarding marriage. So far, so good. Everything I have contributed to the discussion so far has moved in this direction.
Today I would like to take a step back and regard this task from another vantage point. My reason for doing so is perhaps a fatigue about the many complications brought up when we begin talking about marriage. In my weeks of silence (due to vacation as well as reading and consultation with others), I have come to believe that the various approaches to a curriculum on marriage fall somewhere between overly simplistic and very complicated. In Q & A before the GAPJC, the team arguing for Parnell was told that our understanding of Scripture prohibiting all homosexual practice was “too simple,” that life is more complicated than that. I do not concede the point, but note that on the other hand, justifications for gay marriage are based on overwrought biblical exegesis, arguments from silence, and a perceived superiority of personal experience over God’s Word.
And so, as I have been traveling through the gospel of Matthew this month (in my ‘other life’ as a teaching pastor), Jesus’ comments in the first few verses of chapter 18 jumped out at me. These suggest that a curriculum for adults should be judged on the impact its teaching would have on children’s faith.
At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.
“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of stumbling blocks! Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling block comes!”
I rely heavily on Dale Bruner for insight into these verses. I trust Bruner, a Presbyterian layman and retired Whitworth professor, because he gathers input from early church fathers and contemporary theologians, works well with the Greek, and considers all the angles. He is no simpleton when it comes to biblical exegesis. And yet, when the meaning becomes clear, his commitment to God’s Word is refreshing and challenging. He is a good tutor.
Bruner puts these two paragraphs into a larger section on the nature of Christ-like love. Matt 17:24-27 declares that “Love Limits Its Freedom (Flexibility).” Matt 18:1-5 demonstrates that “Love Redirects Its Ambition (Humility).” And Matt 18:6-9 observes that “Love Doesn’t Want to Hurt Anyone’s Faith (Sensitivity).” In all three segments, Jesus addresses the loving nurture of others’ faith, and the avoidance of making faith difficult for others. In particular, he repeatedly mentions the spiritual welfare of children.
Without going through the entire exegetical chain here, one conclusion I draw from Christ’s teaching is that we must test the purity and propriety of our teaching based on how it will lead children in the faith. Jesus refers to children, and Bruner expands this to mean “little people” or those who are dependent or of low status.
From an educational standpoint, there is a developmental aspect to this, of course. When we teach children about marriage and sexuality at an early age, the terms and scope of our discussion are limited to the concrete (because that is how small children process things—they are not conceptual thinkers yet) and on the need to know. They also need to know what is appropriate behavior and what is not, even before they know the reasons why. (This despite the frequency of the question, “But why, Mommy?”). Have you ever noticed that the person who is more acquainted with the complexities of a subject is in a better position to summarize and “simplify” it so that a child can understand the basics? Children make us check our work; if our rendition doesn’t make sense to them, it may not make sense.
But Jesus seems particularly concerned that nothing would deter or scandalize the faith of children, so it is incumbent upon us adults to point them (and ourselves!) in the right direction. The worldview basic to all teaching, and particularly in the area of sexuality, focuses on the object of our faith: the existence of God, God’s role and sovereignty as Creator; God’s goodness, love, and benevolent nature; and God’s order in creation. This is the basis for Paul’s description of faith’s foundation in Romans 1: showing gratitude to God and giving God the glory. Even adults must cultivate the discipline of remembering the Creator and not worshiping God’s creation, and hold the attitude and position in Christ as grateful recipient and responder.
Tomorrow, with “children” in mind, I will demonstrate the necessity of teaching what God has said in his Word (“Teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” in the Great Commission, Matt 28:19-21), rather than starting with what we wish to be true on the basis of our experience.
 Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary, vol. 2, The Churchbook Matthew 13-28, rev. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 207-216.
July 8, 2012
Hundreds of decisions were made in the course of this week’s General Assembly. Tracking the business is a little like maintaining a baseball scorecard. Some runners may get on base but never make it to home plate. The weather may delay the game. An error may be offset by a brilliant field catch. The final score is only one indication of what happened during the game; but the routine plays, the hand signals, and the errors throughout the game reveal the true condition of the team. To carry this analogy into the PCUSA, the Big Decision not to change the definition of marriage is an indicator of something, but throughout the week, there were other less-publicized decisions that demonstrated where we really are as a church. What I would like to do today is list the actions and moments that may not have made the news but which indicate, to me at least, that our denomination is in a serious slump and suffering from injuries.
1. The false start by the Moderator, Neal Presa, who originally supported the candidacy of his Vice-Moderator Tara McCabe, despite her conducting a same-sex wedding on April 28 in Washington, D.C. She resigned on Wednesday in anger but not repentance, and was replaced by Tom Trinidad of Colorado Springs. The Moderator of the Assembly apparently did not believe that violation of one’s ordination vows disqualifies one from high denominational office.
2. In our polity, proposals were made that would have strengthened top-down governance and control of the church through the
• elimination of elected synods and appointment of regional administrative commissions to replace them. This part of the Mid-Councils Commission (MCC) report (05-12) did not pass.
• requirement that presbyteries pay all per capita due to synods and GA even if their congregation do not. This measure (03-02) passed.
• severe limitation of business coming to the assembly from presbyteries and commissioners, but not from GA entities. 03-01, Rec. 3, did not pass.
Except for the per capita decision, which was expected, the proposals to reorganize and redirect business upward did not prevail. Presbyterians value their representative form of governance and desire the initiative for business to come from below, not from above. By turning back the MCC Recommendation 6 to form new (provisional) non-geographic presbyteries, however, the Assembly demonstrated not a unified vision of bottom-up innovation but an allegiance to the status quo.
3. On the sexuality issue, we averted immediate disaster as reported on Friday, but this vote to retain the traditional definition of marriage did not represent a resounding affirmation of Scripture’s witness nor the authority of our Confessions, but the political reality that a constitutional amendment could not muster presbytery ratification. As one retired PCUSA official said privately, “When it comes to the moment of truth—pressing the button on the keypad—commissioners vote on the side of unity in the church.” But with this action comes more Presbyterian double-speak:
• Postponement of “The Decision” for two years of study, as if the denomination has not been hashing over this topic for decades. This “solution” creates a limbo period for those on both sides of the aisle, for those who desire an immediate affirmation of gay marriage and for those who consider a change in the marriage definition to be the deal-breaker. Without a definitive decision on this matter this year, churches are prone to ambivalence about their relationship with the PCUSA.
• The implication (or desire) that non-compliance will be permitted in the meantime. A few commissioners admitted that they have not waited for the church to complete its discernment on gay marriage to start conducting same-sex weddings. Their admission is either a dare or an implicit dogma: the left can defy the constitution, but the right can’t prosecute while the subject is under scrutiny. For scofflaws, it does not matter what the constitution says. “People are going to do what they’re going to do” (Naegeli Law No. 137). But historically, in a time of discernment, churches have been courteous and patient with the process and declined to defy the standing rule until the Body has decided the matter. No more, it seems.
4. Cutting loose the Confessions from ecclesiastical decision-making. The Stated Clerk advised, and the Moderator ruled, that the proposed constitutional amendment to change W-4.9000, the definition of marriage, did not contradict the Confessions because “the confessions themselves do not agree with each other, but are rather a progressive representation of what the church has believed through history.” This ruling is based on false information (i.e. that the confessions disagree on the matter of marriage between and man and a woman, which they most certainly do not). But by saying what he did, the Clerk perpetuated the myth that our conduct is not based on what we believe (i.e. the confessional part of our Constitution) but on the rules we set (i.e. the Book of Order). This official ruling (of the Moderator, concurring with the Clerk’s opinion) was a second “official” statement rendering the Confessions irrelevant to everyday Presbyterian life (the first being the GAPJC’s decision in Parnell v. San Francisco). To me, this was the low point of the Assembly and a cowardly failure on the part of the Clerk to fulfill his office at a moment when it really counted.
Having said this, isn’t it ironic that liberals before the 2010 Committee on Confessions demanded a retranslation of the Heidelberg Catechism in order to remove the reference to “homosexual perversion” in Q. 87? Why would they feel this was important, if the Confessions really do not order our life together doctrinally? The church is not of one mind about where our authorities lie, and frankly, these erroneous rulings are causing ecclesiastical osteoporosis. Ultimately, and perhaps very soon, we will not be able to stand without breaking weakened bones.
5. Withholding all means of ‘relief of conscience’. I outlined this outcome in a previous post but it is worth saying again that if the church is going to depart from its historic faith and Presbyterian ethos to allow same-sex marriage and the ordination of GLBT persons, in all fairness it must provide relief of conscience for those they insist must stay in the denomination. To differentiate from the denomination at large a congregation and/or presbytery needs to be able to cease participation in the Board of Pension benefits plan, have freedom to form new presbyteries or to adopt presbytery-wide ordination standards, withhold of per capita, or ultimately leave the denomination with property. All of these avenues were closed off at this Assembly, leaving evangelicals with huge dilemmas on how to differentiate from a wayward denomination.
6. The Q factor, raised when a commissioner asked what the Q in LGBTQ meant, and the moderator of Committee 13 said, “queer.” The commissioner thought it meant “questioning,” which she as a youth appreciated, because she wasn’t sure about the orientation of her sexuality just yet. Later the Moderator talked about the queue for the microphone, which he had to spell in order to differentiate from the Q everybody else had in mind. But going back to the youth commissioner’s comment, it seemed to me that YAADs were getting a pretty heavy dose of the gay agenda, based on the number of rainbow stoles they were wearing and their microphone comments. What I find sad and appalling is that youth, who are still learning and easily confused about sexuality anyway, now are confronted by a political advocacy group inviting them to explore the possibility they might be gay, or worse, urging them to experiment with homosexual practice as part of their “sex education.” [I’m not saying that is what is happening with the YAADs at GA, but homosexual education is required at junior high schools and, in some states, grades schools, according to Linda Harvey, who addressed the OneByOne lunch on Tuesday.]
So the GA game was not the PCUSA’s finest hour, and the team is dealing with injuries that may not heal. Not to say spiritual disciplines and training in godliness wouldn’t help avert the looming crisis. But now that the GA All-Star break is over, it is time for coaches across the country to go back to teaching the fundamentals of discipleship, promoting obedience to Jesus Christ and God’s way revealed in the Scriptures, and retraining theologically. The Coalition will do its part to provide materials for study, bibliographies for referral, and other helps for Presbyterian decision-makers learning to choose the Way of Life.
This was my last post for presbycoalition.wordpress.com, uploaded here also to make the transition to my personal blog. I am not dropping the subject of GA—believe me, I’m just getting started!—but exercising my freedom to delve into topics of my choosing as time goes on and things happen. Thank you for your interest and encouragement through the week; and again, I apologize for promising to write everyday and then not carrying through as consistently as I had hoped.
June 28, 2012
On my flight to Pittsburgh today, I was recalling memorable moments from previous PCUSA General Assemblies. High points and low points abound, of course, depending on one’s point of view. But one particular moment stands out as a commentary on our modus operandi.
I was meeting in a hospitality suite with fellow evangelical/conservatives on Monday of the Assembly, probably at lunchtime. On the schedule, this would be in the middle of committee deliberations, so the commissioners are getting to know their fellow committee members, learning how to conduct business, and otherwise sinking in to the deep pile of work before them. A YAD stopped in and wanted to talk. Out of his school backpack he pulled his Bible. He opened it and sighed and looked at me with tears welling up in his eyes. He said, “I was so excited to come to General Assembly, because I thought we would gather around the Word of God and make decisions based on what we read there. Why is it that when we get down to business, the Bible is never mentioned or referred to in our deliberation? I am so bitterly disillusioned about what this meeting is.”
For an advisor to commissioners and a long-time participant of these meetings, I was heartbroken for this young man. It was like the Assembly was robbing him of his innocence. Ever since that day, I have been observing how the Assembly processes the Scriptures in its decision-making. The news on this front is not good; the Bible does not seem to figure significantly in the outcome of many issues before the commissioners. Why would this be so? I believe there are two main reasons and perhaps a third that is a guess, based on my work as an educator and discipling pastor.
Reason 1: Busy with Business—The docket of General Assembly is packed with reports, celebrations, ecumenical greetings, overtures and resolutions, meals, and morning worship gatherings. The schedule of events for an eight-day meeting, including all the various options for attending programs, is 27 pages long. The pressure to move on through the docket of 120+ overtures is enormous. And much of the business before the body is bureaucratic, financial, and political. There may not be, for many commissioners, a clear connection between God’s Story in Scripture and the Presbyterian story here. The Bible most certainly could instruct us on organization, money, and politics; but those disciplines are not represented in Scripture in chewable bites. I’m afraid, for all practical purposes, that the Scriptures are perceived to be irrelevant to the questions and dilemmas the Presbyterian church faces as an organization.
Reason 2: “Diverse Interpretations”—Carrying forward from the Parnell v. San Francisco Presbytery GAPJC case, where the judicial commission had a golden opportunity to make a ruling based on what Scripture says about sexual practice, the newest cop-out is the statement, “but there are so many ways to interpret the Word; we can’t pick just one on any given matter.” I say “cop-out” because it is simply a resignation to say, “This is too hard.” [One of the things that makes biblical study difficult these days is the 3-Gs pull toward unbiblical practices that tugs at the heart and pulls a person away from obedience to God’s will.] I’ve said it here before, and I will say it again: Presbyterians have already thought of that. And to counteract that helpless feeling, the PCUSA has adopted a set of Confessions that arbitrate biblical interpretation. “There’s an app for that” has been true for Presbyterians since their inception.
Reason 3: Biblical Illiteracy—It is my guess that most Presbyterians, and certainly they are represented by the commissioners to this Assembly, could not piece together a Bible study on a topic under consideration. The lack of knowledge of the Bible’s contents has appalled me for years, and it is my prime motivator for teaching the Bible on a regular basis. The church has failed to disciple its members over the long haul, and that lack of scriptural depth shows every two years when we get together to make decisions. When commissioners do take the risk to quote Scripture or to use its reasoning in debate, others roll their eyes or turn away (this goes ideologically both ways, by the way).
What I would really like to see happen at this Assembly, let’s say on the topic of marriage, is for leisurely time to be taken to make the case for a male-female prerequisite for marriage from the Bible, and likewise for those who think the definition only goes to “between any two people” (male/male, female/female, or male/female) to prove their assertion from Scripture. Different approaches? You bet! Mutually exclusive in some ways, such that the two cannot peacefully coexist. Show me from the Bible how you make your case, because I still believe “the Scriptures are the only rule of faith and practice.” Would this not make for an edifying and inspiring Assembly, if we were to start from the beginning of our biblical underpinnings, and work from there?