Do Presbyterians Consult the Bible at GA?

June 28, 2012

On my flight to Pittsburgh today, I was recalling memorable moments from previous PCUSA General Assemblies. High points and low points abound, of course, depending on one’s point of view. But one particular moment stands out as a commentary on our modus operandi.

I was meeting in a hospitality suite with fellow evangelical/conservatives on Monday of the Assembly, probably at lunchtime. On the schedule, this would be in the middle of committee deliberations, so the commissioners are getting to know their fellow committee members, learning how to conduct business, and otherwise sinking in to the deep pile of work before them. A YAD stopped in and wanted to talk. Out of his school backpack he pulled his Bible. He opened it and sighed and looked at me with tears welling up in his eyes. He said, “I was so excited to come to General Assembly, because I thought we would gather around the Word of God and make decisions based on what we read there. Why is it that when we get down to business, the Bible is never mentioned or referred to in our deliberation? I am so bitterly disillusioned about what this meeting is.”

For an advisor to commissioners and a long-time participant of these meetings, I was heartbroken for this young man. It was like the Assembly was robbing him of his innocence. Ever since that day, I have been observing how the Assembly processes the Scriptures in its decision-making. The news on this front is not good; the Bible does not seem to figure significantly in the outcome of many issues before the commissioners. Why would this be so? I believe there are two main reasons and perhaps a third that is a guess, based on my work as an educator and discipling pastor.

Reason 1: Busy with Business—The docket of General Assembly is packed with reports, celebrations, ecumenical greetings, overtures and resolutions, meals, and morning worship gatherings. The schedule of events for an eight-day meeting, including all the various options for attending programs, is 27 pages long. The pressure to move on through the docket of 120+ overtures is enormous. And much of the business before the body is bureaucratic, financial, and political. There may not be, for many commissioners, a clear connection between God’s Story in Scripture and the Presbyterian story here. The Bible most certainly could instruct us on organization, money, and politics; but those disciplines are not represented in Scripture in chewable bites. I’m afraid, for all practical purposes, that the Scriptures are perceived to be irrelevant to the questions and dilemmas the Presbyterian church faces as an organization.

Reason 2: “Diverse Interpretations”—Carrying forward from the Parnell v. San Francisco Presbytery GAPJC case, where the judicial commission had a golden opportunity to make a ruling based on what Scripture says about sexual practice, the newest cop-out is the statement, “but there are so many ways to interpret the Word; we can’t pick just one on any given matter.” I say “cop-out” because it is simply a resignation to say, “This is too hard.” [One of the things that makes biblical study difficult these days is the 3-Gs pull toward unbiblical practices that tugs at the heart and pulls a person away from obedience to God’s will.] I’ve said it here before, and I will say it again: Presbyterians have already thought of that. And to counteract that helpless feeling, the PCUSA has adopted a set of Confessions that arbitrate biblical interpretation. “There’s an app for that” has been true for Presbyterians since their inception.

Reason 3: Biblical Illiteracy—It is my guess that most Presbyterians, and certainly they are represented by the commissioners to this Assembly, could not piece together a Bible study on a topic under consideration. The lack of knowledge of the Bible’s contents has appalled me for years, and it is my prime motivator for teaching the Bible on a regular basis. The church has failed to disciple its members over the long haul, and that lack of scriptural depth shows every two years when we get together to make decisions. When commissioners do take the risk to quote Scripture or to use its reasoning in debate, others roll their eyes or turn away (this goes ideologically both ways, by the way).

What I would really like to see happen at this Assembly, let’s say on the topic of marriage, is for leisurely time to be taken to make the case for a male-female prerequisite for marriage from the Bible, and likewise for those who think the definition only goes to “between any two people” (male/male, female/female, or male/female) to prove their assertion from Scripture. Different approaches? You bet! Mutually exclusive in some ways, such that the two cannot peacefully coexist. Show me from the Bible how you make your case, because I still believe “the Scriptures are the only rule of faith and practice.” Would this not make for an edifying and inspiring Assembly, if we were to start from the beginning of our biblical underpinnings, and work from there?


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2 Responses to “Do Presbyterians Consult the Bible at GA?”

  1. John E Says:

    I recall audible groans in the assembly hall when a YAD quoted Scripture to argue against the PUP Report in 2006 … I attended that GA as an observer. The best part of my week in Birmingham was discovering Jim and Nick’s BBQ.


  2. […] Do Presbyterians Consult the Bible at GA – Here’s something to think about as we are praying for the church while our General Assembly is in session. […]

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