The Courage of the Minority

September 26, 2011

Evangelical Presbyterians, depending on their context, feel their strength or weakness relative to those with whom they serve. One might feel comfortable and strengthened by being part of a majority in a presbytery or congregation; another feels beat up and discouraged at being the minority in a different presbytery or congregation. One purpose for this blog is to encourage the theologically conservative of the PCUSA, to identify with their dilemmas, and to support them in their efforts. The fact that there are several different efforts underway, during this sea-change we are experiencing in the denomination, is the reason why one point of view one day and other the next are highlighted in this blog. But this is my way to acknowledge the different ways of handling the situation, depending on one’s call.

There is one doctrinally courageous minority to be applauded, prayed for, and otherwise encouraged: the three members of the Synod of the Pacific PJC in the Parnell et al v. San Francisco Presbytery case who wrote a six-page dissent to the otherwise short “Decision and Order.” In response to the disappointing and, in my view, erroneous decision made by the SPJC, these three drafted a thorough assessment of the doctrinal claims made by Complainants and Respondent, and came to the conclusion that the action of San Francisco Presbytery was biblically and doctrinally unjustifiable. They gave a great service to the church by spelling out their conclusion in a tight, carefully reasoned summary of the evidence and its implications for church practice. You can read it yourself, by going to “Pages” (on the right column) and clicking on Parnell v. San Francisco (SPJC Decision on Remand).

Serving in the conservative minority of a committee or commission in the PCUSA can be exhausting, demoralizing, intimidating, and time-consuming. The temptation is to give up, give in, stop working mentally, vote “no,” and get out and get home. After three or six years of showing up, one wonders if one accomplished anything. But one should be encouraged by the way these three elders handled themselves and stayed engaged in the dialogue. They wrote a dissenting opinion. They asked for it to be included in the final Decision and Order as an addendum. They were not able to persuade their colleagues to their point of view, but they tried. And even better, I believe someone else in some other presbytery or PJC will read what they wrote, understand more clearly the issues they raised, and build on their contribution in a new setting.

Thank you, Commissioners, for the effort. Nothing you have done has been wasted. It will bear fruit.

Conservatives may feel themselves to be the minority, and in voting bodies it would appear that this is true—for now. But I am not convinced that, in the overall PCUSA population, evangelicals have been defeated or are outnumbered. “The people in the pew” as denominational leaders are wont to call them are a formidable body, sometimes voiceless or powerless (they think), but the root of the transforming gospel runs deep in their souls. This is why it is strategic to equip them for service, teach them the Bible, bring the Word to life, help them serve on committees, and otherwise support any effort to secure their representation in voting bodies in the PCUSA.

Can one imagine how God could use the present opportunity, if the result were a more biblically literate, theologically astute, and organizational courageous laity? One can absorb the information and learn the skills, but only God can give the courage. His saints should be receptive to this courage, because we of all people understand that “God’s power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9). But weakness is no excuse for laziness. Those three commissioners had to work overtime to draft that dissent. They were required to defend their position in the executive sessions of the SPJC’s meeting. They dug deep into their memory and their study to produce a helpful paper that was consistent with the Scriptures, the confessional witness, and the Reformed tradition they were called to uphold. 

More power to them! And more power to the rest of us at those moments when we are tempted to give up or succumb to fear in the challenging situations still ahead.  On the flyleaf of my copy of Renovation of the Heart, Dallas Willard wrote, “Courage for the journey, Mary.” Such a profound blessing must be passed on to all who are taking their stand in difficult settings: “Courage for the journey!”

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6 Responses to “The Courage of the Minority”


  1. Yes. And the journey is not a sprint . . it’s a marathon. Best wishes as you continue to “bring” the light, Mary. Peace and love, Mary Koepke Fields

    thanks for the snail mail card . x o

  2. Viola Larson Says:

    Mary,
    I love the words by Barth as the Church in Germany was fighting over electing a political bishop, and after reminding the church that Christ was head of the church, he writes:
    When it is recognized that He, and He alone is the Leader, there is the possibility of theological existence. And then in all deference, even if one be but a an ever-so-insignificant theologian, or the obscure village pastor, or even not a pastor or theologian at all, but ‘merely’ somebody like a lay-elder, then one is himself the genuine Bishop, if he only knows his Bible and Catechism: a ‘bishop’ as foreseen in Holy Writ.”
    Yes! more power and courage to the rest of us. Thank you.

  3. Derek Simmons Says:

    RevMary:

    I have a vivid imagination, a requirement I think, to do what you suggest:
    “…Can one imagine how God could use the present opportunity, if the result were a more biblically literate, theologically astute, and organizational courageous laity?…”
    But for me, the part of your blog today that requires none of my imagination bears repeating:
    “…Serving in the conservative minority of a committee or commission in the PCUSA can be exhausting, demoralizing, intimidating, and time-consuming. The temptation is to give up, give in, stop working mentally, vote “no,” and get out and get home. After _______ years of showing up, one wonders if one accomplished anything…” Godspeed to those elders you cite, but–for me–I find no encouragement there.

    Your Brother in Christ,
    Derek

  4. Bob Mc Says:

    The phrase:

    “warning and bearing witness against error in doctrine and immorality in practice”

    was in the duties of the Synod and GA in the 2009-2011 Book of Order but has now been additionally added to Presbytery and Session duties in the 2011-2013 BOO.

    Sounds like it is dearly needed, at all levels.

    • revmary Says:

      Well done, Bob! A much needed addition; and yet, upon what will our people be basing their assessment of error and practice?

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