Who Taught These People?

October 20, 2011

One of the heartbreaks of the current climate and conversation in the PCUSA is the discovery that decision-makers cannot tell the difference between truth and error in doctrine. There have been many times at GA when observers have looked at each other incredulously and asked, “Who taught these people?” As an educator and equipper of those preparing to teach for Christian formation, I find it particularly alarming that inadequate, inaccurate, or just plan errant statements of theology and Bible are made during important deliberations. And what do we make of the GAPJC’s reticence to rule on the substance of biblical and doctrinal arguments when specifically asked to resolve a dispute over Essential Tenets? In the Parnell appeal hearing, they said they were not equipped to make such a determination. Soul-searching is what we must do now, as a church and as teaching elders. How can we correct the theological drifts that are carrying the denomination out to sea?

Taking a broad view, it is undeniable that there are variations in the theological center-of-gravity between presbyteries. There are “liberal” presbyteries and “conservative” ones. Some have adopted Essential Tenets documents; others never will because, supposedly, Presbyterians don’t do that.  The pluralism that exists in the PCUSA has produced not just two sides of an aisle but various different gospels. And as long as PJCs like Synod of the Pacific in the Parnell case attach authoritative value to the cacophony of theological viewpoints, doctrinal confusion will only get worse.

The more confusing and choppy our theological waters get, the less we will be able to teach our people. After all, what is our authority for teaching one viewpoint over another? If the Bible is myth, fantasy, or irrelevant, then where do we find our true north to guide people spiritually? This is a serious question, and I ask it of liberals as well as conservatives in the church. What are you teaching? How do you know that what you are teaching is true?

The question is urgent because now more than ever, the decisions we must make together revolve around biblical interpretation, theological meaning, doctrinal commitments, and the morality that it all shapes. Our teaching elders, the clergy, have received a seminary education and have passed ordination exams, for what it’s worth. Their location on the theological spectrum all depends on where they went to school, who their professors were, and the worldview assumptions of the student body.

Ruling elders are a very mixed bag but largely a mystery. In so many cases, ruling elder commissioners rotate their service to presbytery, and never really get the chance to learn the ropes and grow in their knowledge of doctrine. Over the years I have occasionally been inspired by the biblically grounded worldview of elders serving as commissioners to GA. I have also been completely discouraged by ill-advised comments that dismiss what the Scriptures teach. But adding to the mystery factor, only a relatively few elders ever speak out in that forum, and this is often the case at the presbytery level, too. We do not know what our elders are thinking if they never speak up or enter their theological thoughts into faithful discourse. We cannot evaluate how they are bringing the Word to life if they do not share their ideas and interpretations with the Body.  What we eventually find out is how the Body as a whole votes.

But this dynamic leaves a large swathe of our decision-makers untried, untested, and unprepared for the deliberations at higher levels of church governance. It leaves teaching elders and educators without the key feedback they need for doing a better job of teaching. And ultimately, it leaves the church without equipped decision-makers.

Not to let teaching elders off the hook, they have been known to utter close-to-heresy in governing body deliberations, too. Their burden is a greater one: Jesus and the apostles were quite clear that a teacher is called to stricter account because he or she is leading others to believe and do (e.g. Luke 17:2; James 3:1). The content of one’s teaching must be consistent with the true gospel, and if not, the teacher is subject to a greater judgment than the student.

But back to the practice of the PCUSA: the starting point for off-course doctrine is the failure of teaching elders to give adequate attention to the preparation of church officers in their congregations.  It has been our heritage that officers were elected as candidates to their role, prepared theologically and polity-wise, and then examined and confirmed by the session before they were installed to office. Surely the current state of affairs suggests that these steps have not been carried out faithfully across the church.

Tomorrow: reclaiming the ministry of teaching


8 Responses to “Who Taught These People?”

  1. this is excellent, and my experience exactly. In many cases, we’re facing an uphill climb to get to the starting gate.

  2. Ron Says:

    Good comments Mary!

    Perhaps the starting point is really back in Genesis 3 with:

    “Did God actually say, …..”

    The PCUSA is just one way we play this out today.

  3. David Stearns Says:

    Perhaps another starting point is in our seminaries to be sure our teaching elders are being taught the truth consistently so that PNCs wouldn’t need to worry about what school a candidate went to.

    As far as us pew potatos go, I sometimes think the controversies in the church have a silver lining. If there were no discussion and debate there would be no reason for the rest of us to think. It is healthy for us, if we pay attention to the issues, causing us to ask ourselves “What do I believe?”

  4. L. Lee Says:

    I am concerned that the concept of “missional” that is being lifted up is not about studying scripture and knowing the true essentials, nor about spreading the Gospel for salvation. Rather, it is about being “culturally” acceptable and being in the midst of the culture without the tools to evangelize along side social justice issues.
    The church has fogotten what their true “mission” and work is all about: proclaiming what Christ did for us on the Cross to be our savior and atone for our sins. We’ve neglected to pass the torch to the next generation.

  5. Jeff Winter Says:

    Every time I attend GA and listen to commissioners talk about sexuality issues I ask the question Mary asks in her well-worded article….”Who taught these people?” Our denomination is being run by folks (and they are generally nice folks) who don’t really know the Scripture and the Confessions that have guided our denomination for a few hundred years. I understand why we were are in such a mess. We don’t know what we believe.

  6. Ron Says:

    These comments are so good….these are the issues.

    • revmary Says:

      The comments all week have been particularly thought-provoking and thorough! It blesses me that people take the time to think things through and then share their reflections with my readers.

  7. Art Seaman Says:

    What I find disturbing about this is the arrogance. “I know better than you, and my seminary education was better than yours.” People can have different opinions, and that is not because of lack of knowledge, but a different interpretation.

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