Yesterday, I suggested that denominational life is likely to become more difficult for evangelicals as we move through 2013. My predictions of trends are discouraging, I know, but today I want to give a word of encouragement. A difficult life, in and of itself, is not a sign that Jesus has left us orphans, nor is it an excuse to give up and give in to the worldly influences surrounding us. Rather, a difficult life calls us to depend on our Savior all the more and to hold fast to what we have been given. We have our testimony of faith, which is not ours alone but that of the whole Church of Jesus Christ. We have the Communion of Saints cheering us on toward the finish line, and we have a great confessional heritage that has stated eloquently and fervently the hope of our calling. To these things we must cling as we walk the path our Lord has set for us.
God through his Scriptures offers us examples and exhortations for witness-bearing. From Matthew’s gospel, we have the account of that check-in conversation between Jesus and his disciples. After a round of significant public meetings, Jesus took them aside and asked them what the people out there were saying about him. “And they said, ‘Some say [you are] John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. . .’” (Matthew 16:14-18). Our Catholic friends understand “the rock” to be Peter, and express this by building the church around the papacy through “apostolic succession.” Protestants like us take this verse to mean “the rock” is Peter’s confession of faith in Jesus, and the church is built upon a steadfast witness to Christ’s Lordship. Good arguments support both views, but for today’s purposes I would like to expand on the Protestant view.
When Peter got it and recognized Jesus’ true identity on this occasion, he gave a clear statement of doctrine and faith. Central to the life of the Church is this awareness that Jesus Christ’s identity as Son of God and Messiah is the Church’s defining belief. The Apostle Paul later spoke of passing on to his readers the gospel entrusted to him, “as of first importance,” that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters . . . and finally also to me” (1 Corinthians 15:3-6).
Later, Peter himself exhorted those he was teaching: “…but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame” (1 Peter 3:15-16).
As we face difficult times within the PC(USA), we are reminded once again that we are here for Jesus Christ, to serve him alone, to promote his gospel only, to hold fast to what he taught us, and to do as he commanded. Period. We must teach this and model obedience, understanding that we are torch-bearers in a long-standing relay race of Christian testimony.
To that end, it behooves us to know the Story. For most of my adult life, this has meant becoming intimately acquainted with the Scriptures from Genesis to Revelation. But as I get older I want to be sure I am passing the Story along to my children and the next generation, with deeper appreciation for the faithful witness of the saints who have gone before me. As a Presbyterian, I have access to nine creeds, confessions, and catechisms (among others to be sure), which set forth the essentials of Reformed faith and Christian doctrine. These confessional documents organize our beliefs in teachable, transferable form, and they are a gift to the church. If we learn them well, we are equipped for that conversational moment, that debate moment, that ordination examination moment—all those “teachable moments” in the life of the church—to give the reason for the hope that lies within us.
If the PC(USA) really does descend into doctrinal chaos, it won’t be too long before people previously sucked in by the world’s bad ideas are going to be looking for hope. We may be the very ones to provide it, through the testimony to God’s gracious and truthful revelation in Jesus Christ, Lord and Savior, and his Word transmitted through the generations to our time and place. So let us learn the creeds, confessions, and catechisms. Let us read, study, and internalize the Scriptures. Let us practice speaking out loud what we believe in our hearts. And then, let us be bold to add our own testimony to that of the saints through Christian history, so that this generation can place its hope in the only One who can save us, Jesus Christ the Lord.
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.
On this Fourth of July, while Americans consider the implications of Liberty, Presbyterians were in their plenary session of the General Assembly in Pittsburgh, PA. The Assembly was surprised by the announcement of the Vice-Moderator Tara McCabe, that she was resigning that office immediately. After a tearful statement infused with anger and defensiveness, she was released from duty and replaced by Tom Trinidad of Faith Presbyterian Church in Colorado Springs.
What Tara learned was that with church office comes a limit to one’s freedom. As office holders in the PCUSA, elders agree to bind their consciences captive to the Word of God and to abide by the polity of the church. This is expected of all people who answer the constitutional questions for ordination and installation, regardless of what position they hold.
When one takes a public elected office in the PCUSA, a standard exists—it’s not even a higher standard—and it is willingly adopted, for the good of the office. We could add that it is good for the peace, unity, and purity of the church for PCUSA leaders to thrive within the limits given us by the Scriptures and our polity.
This is not a heroic obedience required of Moderator and Vice-Moderator. The standard required of Tara McCabe is the same for everybody: teaching and ruling elders are not at liberty to marry same sex couples. This is based on our understanding of marriage defined as between a man and a woman, given forth in Scripture and confirmed in the Confessions, and church law recently upheld by the Spahr v. Redwoods Presbytery remedial decision of the GAPJC.
Tara is mistaken to believe that as a “private citizen” she could marry a same-sex couple or that it was permissible for anyone to do it. Tara’s action did not become a mistake after she was elected. It was a mistake to do it in the first place. That act alone has generated the circumstances that unfolded today, culminating in her resignation. It is unfortunate that her personal error was compounded by its incompatibility with holding the office of Vice-Moderator. But the error was not that she was found out, nor that she had to resign from office; the error was the act itself. We are not at liberty to marry same sex couples.
It was the right thing to do, to resign from office. She should have offered to withdraw from the election weeks ago. Unfortunately, her step-down was not accompanied by regret, confession, repentance, or sorrow for her act of ecclesiastical disobedience. There were no signs of apology for embarrassing the office of Vice-Moderator, defrauding the Moderator, or diminishing the integrity of the Assembly. Instead, her reaction was anger, defensive accusations of bullying and “pernicious poison,” in other words, a victim mentality. She is being set up as the 220th GA Martyr, but she is no martyr. No one here at the Assembly hates her; this fall is of her own doing, and it happened when she took a liberty that had not been granted her. As a consequence of a series of missteps—her lapse of good judgment, her implicit deception, her assumption that she as a candidate for Vice-Moderator was above this law, and her disrespect for the Assembly—all of these things revealed a person who is not ready for a national role in PCUSA leadership. It was the right thing to do, to resign from office. We should all embrace her with gratitude for taking the right step, even now and even if for the wrong reasons. And then we should move on. She needs to heal, and so do we.