The Pastoral Dilemma When the Church Loses Moral Authority

March 15, 2012

This week I am addressing questions raised in comments about my post on the moral authority of the PCUSA. The first is a question about church membership:

“Peajay” asks, “But if the PCUSA has, as you write, ‘lost its moral authority,’ what is a minister or member to do? On what basis can one continue to recruit new members to such an organization? Since every Presbyterian congregation is part of this organization, and contributions to every Presbyterian congregation are, at least in part, contributions to the whole organization, how does one invite people to increase their partnership in that mission?”

Peajay raises an interesting question that has a more ecclesiological answer as well as a practical one. From the standpoint of “what is ‘church’?” (ecclesiology), is the task of the pastor to “recruit to the organization” or to “make disciples”? If we were to do the former, the dynamic is necessarily one of institutional maintenance. Yes, the PCUSA (as other churches) is an institution, and viability of that institution necessitates vigilance in areas of budget, planning, facilities, and other earth-bound concerns. But of course, what we are involved in is far more dynamic and personal than that: we are responding to Christ’s charge to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them . . .and teaching them to obey everything [Christ] has commanded” (Matt. 28:19). Regardless of what is going on with the institution, making disciples rightfully remains our priority and our focus.

Is it possible, advisable, and/or legal to make disciples without joining them to the institution? In other words, is it one of our options to embrace people in the life of the church without actually securing their names on the PCUSA membership rolls? It is certainly possible. Legal? It is the session that instructs and brings disciples into membership in the local congregation. It is up to them whether or not to add particular names to the roll, after examining the person as to his or her faith in Jesus Christ. If the faith is there, and the person wants to join the membership, the session is obligated to add the person to the roll. Advisable? In this process, it would seem feasible, given the difficulties and climate of a compromised denomination, to ask a potential member if joining the institution really expresses personal faith in Jesus Christ and joyful submission to his Lordship. If it does, for them, great! Sign them on! But if it doesn’t, it seems to me that affiliate status (or something similar) might offer the moment of commitment to Christ in the context of Christian community with a clear conscience but without the baggage of identification with the PCUSA. This particular resolution, then, does not involve the payment of per capita (a very concrete contribution to the whole church).

It’s an interesting concept, Peajay, that “contributions to every Presbyterian congregation are, at least in part, contributions to the whole organization.” Looking at where one’s tithes and offerings go suggests a rather limited range—depending on the congregation, of course—of PCUSA destinations. You have per capita, that per-member assessment that finances presbyteries, synods, and GA; you have contributions to the Benefits Plan (pension and medical) for participating Plan Members (clergy, mostly); and then you have Presbyterian mission, which these days is largely designated. Some churches have made the decision to withhold per capita, in order to find relief of conscience or a specific remedy. Since per capita remains a voluntary contribution, a session can elect to withhold it. The crisis of conscience regarding the Benefits Plan has been addressed in the last week or two here. That leaves Presbyterian mission, which is wholly within the discretion of the individual congregation (session) to decide. The churches I have served in the last thirty-five years have all designated mission funds after significant evaluations of goals, gospel, and effectiveness.

Membership in the PCUSA certainly invites an individual to participate in the denomination’s mission. And that mission, by the book, is right on target (see Book of Order, F-1.0304). Quibbles about F-1.0101 aside, in general, we must claim the impressive and effective heritage of Presbyterian mission locally and around the world. It’s the practical expression of that mission that has sometimes been distorted in particular areas. Participation in a congregation challenges an individual to be a missionary right there, in the neighborhood, as a giver of time and talent, if not treasure. If the thought of doing this with a congregation that has “Presbyterian” in its name bothers the conscience, then do as many churches have done, and change your name to delete the denominational reference. Years ago, First Presbyterian Church of Milpitas filed a “doing business as” petition with the county, and for a $50 fee became “Christ Community Church.”

I understand that these suggestions really challenge the classic understanding of connectionalism. Granted. But has not the true value of connectionalism already been vandalized by those who refused to abide by our agreed-upon standards and the Scriptures upon which they were built? Legally or not, local option is now the practice for actions formerly considered “actions of the whole church” (like ordination). And proponents of Amendment 10-A, in the spirit of the Knox Overture, insist that every ordaining body has the right (!) to determine essentials of Reformed faith. It seems to me that these very provisions have so undermined connectionalism already, that people differentiating themselves on the basis of conscience cannot be seen as any worse.

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2 Responses to “The Pastoral Dilemma When the Church Loses Moral Authority”

  1. Derek Simmons Says:

    Mary:
    Check the shoreline. You may have just crossed the Rubicon.
    Derek

    • revmary Says:

      My toes may be in the water from time to time, but I haven’t crossed over and don’t intend to any time soon. Too much to do on this side of the river.

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