One Last Time: It’s the Essentials, Stupid!

September 27, 2011

There are a lot of issues to distract Presbyterians right now. The white noise comes from all quarters, as various subgroups of the denomination try to get the attention of people in the pew. Interpretations of past events and actions fly, as in a Louisville staffer commenting in a webinar about the Mexican church’s alienation from the PCUSA: “Amendment 10-A did not really have to do with sexuality, it was about a person submitting in all aspects of his life to the Lordship of Christ!”[1] The smoke and mirrors, the denial, even the incredulity some of my presbytery colleagues show are signs that people with power do not want the people in the pew to dwell too much on what happened in Minneapolis (late August), what the GAPJC in Parnell v San Francisco meant (late July), and what Amendment 10-A accomplished (mid July).

As Bill Clinton tried to wrest attention away from the Gulf War, a cause for George H. W. Bush’s popularity in 1992’s election year, he capitalized on underlying issues with the slogan, “It’s the economy, stupid!” Well, in this season of the PCUSA, it is time to say, “It’s the Essentials, stupid!”

What is getting lost in the shuffle here is the import of the GAPJC’s August 2 rulings in Parnell and Caledonia, the Synod PJC’s rewritten decision on Parnell, and the imminent ordination of Scott Anderson in John Knox Presbytery and perhaps later of Lisa Larges in San Francisco Presbytery. This perfect storm of events has robbed the church of any true meaning to the term “essential tenets of the Reformed faith.” Specifically, implications of the Parnell ruling for San Francisco Presbytery follow this line of reasoning:

1. The GAPJC decided that micromanaging presbyteries in the ordination process was not its job. That is, it was not their place to declare a decision by a lower council (in this case both the Presbytery and the Synod) unbiblical or inconsistent with the Reformed tradition. It was the Synod’s job to make that ruling, and the GAPJC remanded the case to the Synod of the Pacific so they could take another run at it.

2. The Synod PJC decided this month that it was not its place to choose one side or another of a theological debate: since Presbyterian scholars disagree with each other about what the Bible and the confessions say about homosexual practice, that area is not part of “the essentials of Reformed faith and practice,” and therefore, out of reach for correction or rebuke.

3. The Synod’s position is predicated on the belief, articulated in its decision, that “thoughtful disagreement among reasonable and faithful Presbyterians is itself an important and faithful part of the Reformed tradition. . . . Disagreements over particular passages of scripture and confessions, . . .preclude designating such passages as somehow uniquely central to determining the fitness and faithfulness of a candidate for office.” In other words, it is part of the Reformed tradition that we disagree on doctrinal matters, and since we do, those doctrinal matters cannot be considered essentials of Reformed faith and polity.

4. This point of view, then, calls into question whether any pillar of Christian doctrine can be considered an essential of Reformed faith and polity. Since scholars disagree on Christology, the bodily resurrection of Jesus, the atonement, and a host of other topics, is nothing to be considered sacred? If nothing falls into the category of decided—that is, beyond idle speculation, or binding—then we have no essentials of the Reformed faith. And then, in practice, no one can be held accountable for heresy or false teaching, because there is no standard for what is true.

5. This point of view ignores a unique feature of the Reformed tradition, that we are a biblical and  confessional people. It isn’t biblical scholars who have authority to interpret the Word for us. By our vows and by our practice through the centuries, we have agreed that the Confessions are our authority for interpreting the Word especially when we disagree! Who said seminary professors have an edge on knowing what is and is not the teaching of the church? Who said their disagreements could trump the doctrinal agreements recorded in our confessions? This assertion itself is false teaching and reveals the confusion of the twenty-first century post-modern.

6.  The “essential tenet of the Reformed faith” that keeps popping up on the relevance scale these days is our doctrine of Scripture. By it, we understand that if the Scripture, properly understood, says it, we are bound by it.  Our job, and that of every judicatory, is to align ourselves with the standard of God’s Word. Our spiritual authority carries any weight at all only when we proclaim and put into practice what the Scriptures teach. Period. If we back away from what the Scriptures teach, as is happening in the matter of ordination in the present moment, then we lose all moral authority and credibility in the world. This is why the Mexican church wants nothing to do with us (see a report here).

7.  We lose our credibility as people called to demonstrate the Kingdom of God to the world when we seem unwilling to fully represent God’s heavenly will on earth (Matthew 16:19, 6:10). This point creates the link between obedience to Christ and missional effectiveness:  without obedience, we can have no lasting impact in the world. If we want to be missional, we must be true disciples of Jesus Christ, hearing the Word and doing what it says.  The new Form of Government will not accomplish this for us; we will become truly missional only as we agree to behave ourselves and to teach and represent the will of God rather than our own fabrications of the truth.

8. The fact that we have supposedly “thoughtful disagreement” on matters of great import theologically is not to be seen as a strength but a weakness: in fact, let us call it what it is, dissension, which is not a sign of the Holy Spirit at work but of the flesh (Gal 5:20). God will not bless us or our work if we insist on ministering on our own terms, by our own definitions, or in merely human power.

The background noise of this disagreement, dissension, confusion, and idle speculation is drowning out our witness in the world. It is time for the church to recommit itself to the essentials of Reformed faith and practice. If that means naming those essentials for the purpose of regaining our focus, then naming them we must. But saying, “because we disagree on a doctrine indicates— by definition— that doctrine is not an essential” is just ludicrous. We can do much better than that, and for the sake of fulfilling the Great Commission, we must: “. . . teaching them to obey everything that [Christ] has told us” (Matthew 28:20).


[1] We’ve already covered that topic here, but just to review:  as far as evangelicals are concerned, the significance of Amendment 10-A was not what it said, but what it did not say, and what it took out of the Book of Order. It didn’t say individual candidates or officers were to “joyfully submit to the Lordship of Christ,” but that governing bodies were assumed to have that commitment. It took out the specific “fidelity-chastity” requirement for church officers.  Of course 10-A was about sexual ethics!

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5 Responses to “One Last Time: It’s the Essentials, Stupid!”


  1. There’s quite a lot to digest here.

  2. Jim Berkley Says:

    Mary,

    Thank you for pointing out that there simply is no “standard” of joyfully submitting to the Lord Jesus Christ in the new Form of Government wording. That insidious amendment muses cleverly about standards but sets no standard whatsoever. Anybody who says that joyful submission is the new standard cannot read an English sentence with comprehension! And there are a whole lot of non-readers in national leadership.

    Jim Berkley
    Bellevue, WA

    • Jake Horner Says:

      So right you are, Jim. There is no standard expressed until you get to ordination questions 3 and 4. But now those are undone by the SPJC decision, as Mary has thoroughly demonstrated. In fact, the logical consequence of the SPJC decision is that authority rests with the interpreter, and not Scripture itself.

  3. Mark Schneider Says:

    Mary,

    Also of concern is the effect the SPJC decision could have on disciplinary cases. If an accused is charged with an offense based on a violation of Scripture, this SPJC would appear to provide a strong defense where the accused can muster a few experts to support his or her interpretation. For example, it can’t be X because the “proper” Scriptural interpretation of the offense is Y, and here’s some experts to back me up. Since the accused is presumed innocent, a simple disagreement among experts as to the proper interpretation should be enough to sufficent to carry the day.

  4. L. Lee Says:

    From your blog it is evident that no essentials have been placed as mandatory by all groups.
    Everyone is acting on what they see as “essential” in their own eyes.
    No unity, no purity, no peace…..exists for the PC(USA).
    If the church were willing to be in a place to be led by the Holy Spirit….what would that be like to renew and revive the essentials based on truth in Scripture. I think the problem is a lack of learning about, submitting to, obeying and receiving the Holy Spirit. The state of the PC(USA) by elevating immoral behavior results in a lack of the Holy Spirit and is missing the gifts that only the Holy Spirit gives including unity and truth, power and growth and understanding God’s word to us. Even when Jesus spoke to people, some got it and some did not. It is a heart matter as much as a head (doctrine) matter. I want to be in the place where the power of the Holy Spirit is working and be ready to go with the movement of God. I hope the church will repent of how it has limited the work of the Holy Spirit among us because of our disobedience to God’s word and unwillingness to submit to God. If our personal relatinship with God, through Christ, enabled by the presence of the Holy Spirit is healthy, strong and growing the essentials will be understood.

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