Category Archives: Reformed theology

Sola Scriptura And A War On Christmas?

On this Fourth Day of Christmastide in the “Fools rush in” department, you might want to play along with me in a simple thought exercise.

Our starting presumption is Sola Scriptura – the good old Scripture Alone admonition of the Reformation.

Now given that let me ask “Why do we celebrate Christmas?”

From the four Gospels we have four accounts of Jesus’ nativity. Yes, Mark is minimalist with the call of Isaiah to “prepare the way of the Lord.” And the account in John is more symbolic with “And the Word was made flesh and tabernacled among us.” The accounts in Matthew and Luke, while more detailed, each have very different emphases.

So, based on Scripture, what are we celebrating?

Looking a little further, we can raise the question of when was Jesus born? I won’t go into the year as that is well worn territory and there are historical landmarks for that in the texts. The date of December 25 is a bit more problematic as there are really no solid clues as to the date of birth and even the date of December 25th has multiple possible origins.

So, based on Scripture, when should we be celebrating?

Finally, if we are to be guided by Scripture in our worship, what is the pattern we find of the early church for celebrating the nativity? The New Testament gives us no mention that it was a point of worship and it is not until the late second century that the church fathers make mention of trying to put a date on it. (Hint: the date is not certain and it certainly is not in December.) And then it is not until the early fourth century that a date becomes standardized and celebrations develop around it.

So, based on Scripture, how are we to be celebrating?

Therefore, based on Scripture alone, do we have enough evidence or direction to even be celebrating it?

Now, moving on from this thought exercise, is it any wonder that our predecessors in the Reformed branch in the Reformation, who were trying to recapture the basic core of the Christian faith and throw off all the human innovations of the intervening 1500 years, decided that the Feast of the Nativity could be dispensed with? There is no question that our modern celebration of it has issues, such as the good old question about whether the three gifts from the magi mean there were three magi or why we add the magi to all the characters in the stable scene when Matthew clearly states they found Jesus in a house.

But taking the long view – a trend I seem to be on at the moment – why do we take it as seriously we do? The Scottish Reformation led to Christmas not being celebrated until 1956 in Scotland and in the U.S. it was not a formal national civic holiday until 1870 although introduced in many states before then.

The churches that have the Second Helvetic Confession as a confessional standard, such as the PC(USA), are probably covered since Chapter 24 does provide for certain special days:

The Festivals of Christ and the Saints. Moreover, if in Christian liberty the churches religiously celebrate the memory of the Lord’s nativity, circumcision, passion, resurrection, and of his ascension into heaven, and the sending of the Holy Spirit upon his disciples, we approve of it highly. But we do not approve of feasts instituted for men and for saints. Holy days have to do with the first Table of the Law and belong to God alone. Finally, holy days which have been instituted for the saints and which we have abolished, have much that is absurd and useless, and are not to be tolerated. In the meantime, we confess that the remembrance of saints, at a suitable time and place, is to be profitably commended to the people in sermons, and the holy examples of the saints set forth to be imitated by all.

But if your confessional standards include the Westminster Directory for Publick Worship of God you have an appendix in there that begins:

THERE is no day commanded in scripture to be kept holy under the gospel but the Lord’s day, which is the Christian Sabbath.

Festival days, vulgarly called Holy-days, having no warrant in the word of God, are not to be continued.

This year the specter of the War On Christmas has been raised again. Personally, I have to chuckle a bit because my doctrinal heritage has been a long-standing war on the holy-day from the other perspective. Rather than being an attempt to remove the religion from the holiday it has been an effort to remove the holy-day from the religion. It is the view that Scripture is so important that if the event is not clearly defined in it then there is no warrant to celebrate it.

Let me take this moment to confess that I personally live in a tension about this holy-day. While I acknowledge all the difficulties and perspectives mentioned above I also recognize the importance of the fact the event did indeed occur and if we are to remember the conclusion and significance of Jesus’ earthly ministry it is also important to recognize the beginning of his earthly presence. It is not just a celebration of certain stories but a time to recognize the beginning of the Incarnation, the coming of Emmanuel – God With Us.

So, in whatever manner you celebrate this holiday, best wishes to you and yours as we remember the coming of him whose work was foretold throughout the Old Testament. And whether you celebrate this season or not, may we always remember that at one point in history God was present in this fallen world and would ultimately give up his human life as a sacrifice for us.

Postscript

First, let me acknowledge at this point that in most cases the five solas of the Reformation are considered mostly in matters of essential doctrine and are cited primarily in the matter of the doctrine of justification. As the Second Helvetic Confession passage above mentions the celebration of events from Scripture are, in the view of most, a matter of Christian liberty and not an essential. Further sola scriptura says that Scripture is the supreme authority in matters of doctrine and practice but again, as implied above, our understanding can be further informed by the subordinate standards of the creeds and confessions.

If you want other commentaries on this topic you might be interested in a through article titled The Religious Observance of Christmas and ‘Holy Days’ in American Presbyterianism or a perspective published by the OPC titled Is Christmas Scriptural? which answers the question in the negative. And yesterday it turns out that Church Norris weighed in on aspects of this topic arguing that the lack of public observance of Christmas did not mean that Colonial and early American religious and civic leaders were not religious.

The Discussion of PC(USA) Identity And Musings On An “Ecclesiastical Hackathon”

About a month ago the Moderator of the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Heath Rada, issued a “Call to the Church” to rethink what the PC(USA) should look like and in doing so build trust within the church.  This started the wheels in motion for a discussion in the denomination about what the identity of the PC(USA) is now and what it should be. Specifically he said in his remarks:

It became apparent [within a small task force on mission funding] that we all believed a painful situation existed [in the PC(USA)] and for anything significant to be accomplished we must find ways for that trust to be restored. It was felt that our denomination needed to explore these matters in depth and that I should announce a CALL TO THE CHURCH to help in addressing them.

The statement goes on to list five areas of importance, from the church’s changing place in the wider culture to the theological institutions to the urgent need for action. And with that the statement outlines five steps to take but at multiple points emphasizing the need to involve all levels of the church.

In a follow-up article in the Presbyterian Outlook he updates us on the response he has gotten and what next steps might be. While some are a bit further off – specifically part of the preparation for the 222nd General Assembly – other steps were being implemented quickly. This past week we saw the first of those and that is a survey opened up by Research Services to gather input from the full breadth of the PC(USA). You are encouraged to “Join the Conversation” and you have until November 13 to respond on that survey.

Another step is the announcement of two Twitter chats with the Vice-Moderator of the 221st General Assembly, Larissa Kwong Abazia (@LarissaLKA). The first chat begins this afternoon at 6 PM EDT (3 PM PDT) and will use the hashtag #pcusaidentity. The second chat is on Thursday November 12 at 9 PM EST (7 PM MST).

In reading that follow-up article a few things jump out at me. One is that the responses include “groups…wanting to be part of the conversation.” So must a group come forward to be included? Another is that Office of the General Assembly and Research Services will be the ones surveying the church and figuring out how to initiate discussions. It struck me that groups and offices in the national church seem to be headlining what looks like an institutional response. This is no surprise since at one point in the initial Call Moderator Rada wrote:

Again let me state the obvious. Someone has to take a lead. I am asking that the denomination affirm and actively participate in the COGA process which is getting ready to be unveiled and which will undertake the massive task of assessing the church’s will (in accordance with God’s will) concerning who and what we need to be as a denomination.

An interesting article three weeks ago takes a very different approach…

The Presbyterian Outlook published an op-ed piece by Deborah Wright and Jim Kitchens titled “An Open Letter to Moderator Heath Rada: What if . . . we held an ecclesiastical hackathon?

As Presbyterians you have to love the idea, but more on that in a moment.

Their idea is an open call and competition where people form teams of six individuals and come up with their ideas about what the PC(USA) should look like or be doing. As they say:

Game theorists radically believe that the solutions to tough social problems reside in the players. Adaptive Change theorists believe deep challenges of uncharted territories must find solutions in unknown corners. Positive Deviance theorists act on the notion that the village has the answers, if one only looks to the fringes. What if this once – instead of committees and task forces and hired expert consultants – what if . . . we bucked up our Reformed theology and went looking for our unheralded prophets out there, trusting God to provide!

The idea is that a set of “rules and tools” would be issued by the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board (PMAB) and any group of six members of the PC(USA) would have a few months to assemble a team and present a plan, solution, strategy, what ever was being asked for.

A number of theological and polity positives jump out at me here. As the authors emphasize, we are a priesthood of all believers. Why should we let the brains at OGA and PMAB have all the fun with this. The Reformed community should be the specialists at crowd sourcing as we believe decision making and the corresponding mission are to be done at the lowest applicable level and our structure is supposed to allow the most people and those with particular gifts for the situation to be involved.

It is arguable whether groups of six are theologically supported here – seven is a more spiritual number or we could just think of two groups of six making twelve. But in our church history it was the group of the “Six Johns“, led by John Knox, that over four days wrote the Scottish Confession of Faith of 1560. Not exactly a hackathon since they were the only group working on it but still a model of a group of six that worked quickly to produce a product that changed history.

Now looking at this proposal I do cringe a little bit to see that the process is directed by the agencies at the top. They are the existing coordinating bodies after all and in a position to be able to do this so there is a solid rational for this. But let’s think a bit outside the box here.

What if we thought about this a bit more as a crowd sourced or grassroots project and tried to find another point to run this from. What if the responsibility were devolved to someplace in the church that is actively doing something like this, such as the 1001 New Worshiping Communities group? Or maybe an existing recognized affiliated body like the NEXT Church group or the Presbyterian Outlook board. Or maybe something completely different like a joint steering group made up of members of the Covenant Network and the Fellowship Community? Or a really radical thought: Just go for it!

The idea would be for groups that wanted to get involved to brainstorm changes and then send it to the next General Assembly from the bottom up. Get your group together and then take the idea to your two or three nearest presbyteries for endorsement as ascending overtures so they will be considered as business in Portland. If this hackathon concept is taken seriously maybe one of the commissioner committees at GA could have the responsibility for reviewing these and helping the Assembly to think in new ways. And remember, the deadline for proposed Book of Order changes is February 19, 2016, and for overtures with financial implications it is April 19, 2016.

So there you have my riff on the hackathon idea. I don’t think this is too far off from the ideas Landon Whitsitt discussed in his book Open Source Church. And remember, the hackathon – or whatever you want to call it – concept has two purposes: One is discussed above as a model for drawing more fully from the wisdom and knowledge of the whole group. The other is to involve more people in seriously visioning and thinking about the problem and empowering them to do something about it so they have ownership of situation. This is not answer a survey or participate in a guided discussion sort of thing. The idea is to empower any interested member to dive into the details, inner working and think about the problem at the deepest levels. Where it may go we don’t know so this certainly could be a “stay tuned” moment for the PC(USA).

You Keep Using That Word…

[Prefatory note: Yes, it has indeed been almost two months since I last posted here, a full month beyond my planned quiet period. While I have several articles in draft form that I want to complete I have been busy on a couple of other fronts that has taken time away from my writing. I am hoping to be a bit more regular for the next few months. In addition, I have a large data acquisition and analysis project related to my Big Tent series that has been where I have dedicated my blogging hours. We will see where that goes.]

Today was one of those days where I ran across something that hit one of my sensitive nerves, raised my blood pressure and sent me to the keyboard to vent. It was an online article from the Presbyterian Outlook titled “Distance education: Seminary comes to you.” It is overall an interesting article from the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary – and not from the Outlook staff – that talks about distance learning, particularly for those that don’t traditionally attend seminary. The lede begins with a quote from back in May from the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), RE Heath Rada:

Recently Heath Rada, moderator of the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), asked, “How might the denomination use the seminaries more effectively? . . . Could the training of commissioned ruling elders be moved under the seminaries’ oversight? Might a renewed emphasis on education of the laity be incorporated into the curricula of these schools in ways that could incite enthusiasm throughout our denomination in new ways?” The University of Dubuque Theological Seminary (UDTS) has been asking just these sorts of questions for the last 15 years and has answered with the development of a wide variety of online educational options for the theological education of laity and clergy.

Did you catch the wording? I did a quick check on the PC(USA) Book of Order and the words “clergy” and “laity” are not to be found. Even worse, this quote, and in places in the rest of the article, seem to use “laity” interchangeably with “ruling elder.” (The term is also used in places where they talk about other educational tracks that could include students from non-Reformed traditions so it may be awkward for the Presbyterians but technically acceptable.)

To be fair, this is not the only place in discussions of Presbyterian polity that you will find these terms used. But in a strict sense as I understand it Presbyterians know nothing of the laity in its traditional sense. To quote that bastion of knowledge, the Wikipedia article for laity,

Presbyterianism

Presbyterians do not use the term “lay”. Thus the Church of Scotland has “Readers”, men and women set apart by presbyteries to conduct public worship. This arises out of the belief in the priesthood of all believers. Ministers are officially ‘teaching elders’ alongside the ‘ruling elders’ of the Kirk Session and have equivalent status, regardless of any other office. In the Church of Scotland, as the Established church in Scotland, this gives ruling elders in congregations the same status as Queen’s chaplains, professors of theology and other highly qualified ministers. All are humble servants of the people in the congregation and parish. Ministers are simply men and women whose gift is for their role in teaching and possibly pastoral work. They are thus selected for advanced theological education. All elders (teaching and ruling) in meetings of Session, Presbytery, or Assembly are subject to the Moderator, who may or may not be a minister but is always an elder.

OK, Wikipedia is not my first choice for a credible argument, and in this case I disagree with a couple other details in the article and the emphasis is on the Church of Scotland, but I think it correctly makes the point that there is a priesthood of all believers and some are set aside for ordered ministry. Furthermore, teaching and ruling elders rule jointly and in the administration of the church generally either flavor of elder may hold any given leadership position.

Now, if you want the argument from a credible Presbyterian source, you can do no better than Teaching Elder Joe Small, the previous head of the PC(USA) Office of Theology and Worship. In a talk he gave in 2010 before he retired he is quoted as saying “Clergy and laity are two words that should never escape the lips of Presbyterians.” He expands more fully on the historical development of the ordered ministry in the Reformed tradition in a chapter he contributed to a book on church governance.

If you want corroboration of this thought, two other giants of Presbyterian polity, John Bolt and Jan Edmiston have also spoken or written about the distinction and its importance. And yes, I have ranted about this before – as I said it touched a sensitive nerve with me.

So as I close this discussion, or a sequel rant if you will, I want to be clear that this is not just a semantic distinction. In my thinking about Reformed theology this is at the heart of how we view ourselves as the Body of Christ. Traditionally the use of the terms clergy and laity imply a difference in function and standing between the two groups. If we accept the concept of the priesthood of all believers this distinction does not exist. Yes, there is an ordered ministry for proclamation, one for spiritual guides and a third for mercy ministry. But these are always exercised within the context of the covenant community. It is everyone working together with some set aside (not elevated) for particular tasks.

OK, rant over. We now return you to your regular programming.

[And it is nice to be back. More about my summer later.]

Musings On How Big Is The PC(USA) Big Tent – Part 2: He’s In My Church?

I found it an interesting exercise over the last week or so to see the reaction to a particular political candidate declaring he was a Presbyterian and, with some corroborating evidence, he could specifically be affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). An interesting set of reactions ensued, most seeming to have the implicit or explicit expectation of “How could he be one of us?” I will return to that at the end, but my reaction to the reaction is “If the PC(USA) is a big, inclusive tent why can it not include him?”

In case you have missed it, the political candidate in question is Donald Trump. His Presbyterian affiliation was not a mystery if you caught the early religion media coverage like the Religion News Service’s article 5 Facts About Donald Trump: A Presbyterian who collects Bibles, or World Religion News’ article Donald Trump is a proud Presbyterian. It really seemed to catch people’s attention when he Tweeted last weekend “I am now in Iowa getting ready to speak. People are always amazed to find out that I am Protestant (Presbyterian). GREAT.” For the record the current retweet count is 1002 and the favorite count is 2812. There are far too many replies to spend time counting those. And for good measure he also posted on Instagram a picture of him with his confirmation class at First Presbyterian Church, Jamaica, Queens, New York.

Let me drill down in this a little bit, but this is probably a good time for me to add the clarification that this is mostly a thought exercise and that where I am going with this is far from an endorsement of his – or any – political candidacy. This is intended to be a case study aimed at considering the question of membership in the PC(USA) and the church as a big tent that includes a diverse group of people. So based on the confirmation photo we can confirm that he joined the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. in 1959. I have not asked the church if he is still carried on the rolls and a direct inquiry on the Facebook page has not been answered. And while First Pres seems to be the first answer to his affiliation, Marble Collegiate Church , a congregation in the Reformed Church In America, seems to be regularly mentioned as a more current choice and one source says that is where he is a member. An old Faith and Reason article does a good job of listing his various church associations.

But let’s consider his self-identification at face value – make it a hypothetical situation if that makes you feel better. He says he is a Presbyterian, can we work with that? A lot of people have trouble with that including a response on twitter that says “He have better luck convincing ppl he’s Rasta.” and a Washington Times column by W. Scott Lamb titled “Donald Trump is a Presbyterian? Who knew? – When it comes to Presbyterian theology and social witness, Trump is an equal opportunity offender.” Taking it one step further, I am sure dozens of Reformed theologians, at best, cringed when he was interviewed last week and when asked if he had asked God for forgiveness:

“I am not sure I have. I just go on and try to do a better job from there. I don’t think so,” he said. “I think if I do something wrong, I think, I just try and make it right. I don’t bring God into that picture. I don’t.”

Yes, it sends chills down my spine just doing the cut-and-paste. (And his other comments in the article about the Lord’s Supper are equally cringe-worthy.) But now let us turn to the PC(USA) Book of Order. Specifically, what does it take to be a member? G-1.0302 says:

A congregation shall welcome all persons who trust in God’s grace in Jesus Christ
and desire to become part of the fellowship and ministry of his Church (F-1.0403). No person shall be denied membership for any reason not related to profession of faith. The
Gospel leads members to extend the fellowship of Christ to all persons. Failure to do so
constitutes a rejection of Christ himself and causes a scandal to the Gospel.

So in the PC(USA) membership requires a profession of faith – which he would have done as part of his documented confirmation class. It does not require an understanding of the Reformed doctrines of Original Sin, Pervasive/Total Depravity and the need for confession and pardon for sin. But I will acknowledge that his comments do point to a problem with the “trust in God’s grace” part.

Now, one would expect a member once they have joined to continue growing in their faith, something we don’t have documented in this case. But to be a member, following the period of instruction, requires professing your faith in Jesus Christ and God’s grace, renouncing evil and saying that you intend to participate. Further agreement with church doctrine as guided by the confessions or policy statements of the General Assembly are not in there.

And yes, to be clear, the standards are much higher for the ordained offices of the church. We have an example from another denomination this week where a pastor/theologian was removed over his doctrinal views and the Presbyterian Church in America is in the continuing process of deciding the extent to which those officers that hold tenets of what is known as the Federal Vision theology deviate from the Westminster Standards.

It is also worth noting that he would also probably have problems in those Presbyterian branches that “fence the table.” Even in the PC(USA), if his attendance has been low – although he does say he attends regularly and especially Christmas and Easter – he could easily be removed from the active rolls. And even if he were an active attender one would hope that through the word preached, the sacraments administered and church discipline his understanding of Reformed theology would be developed. You could even go so far as to argue that regular attendance might moderate or change views that you don’t agree with.

But returning to the thought experiment, my question is not really about the specific individual here except to the extent that based on his history we know that he has been confirmed in a predecessor denomination and he self-identifies as a Presbyterian. But we also know that he is outspoken and has views not in line with pronouncements of the General Assembly, remembering that the GA speaks only for itself. So here is the question for the PC(USA): “Is the tent big enough to include an individual that publicly expresses views that some (many?) would strongly disagree with but who has the characteristics for membership and who seeks to be considered a member of the denomination?”

The answer is left as an exercise for the reader…

[Editor’s note: For those of you going to Big Tent – enjoy. I am hoping to read lots about it. I am about to begin my August quiet period and will probably have more to say about Big Tent and the big tent a few weeks from now.]

The Presbyterian Pastor Who Did Not Sign

Typically on this Fourth day of July we American Presbyterians tend to gravitate to the Rev. Dr. John Witherspoon, the only pastor to sign the Declaration of Independence, and the 11 other signers that were Presbyterian.

But near the start of the Second Continental Congress there was a second Presbyterian pastor present, the Rev. Dr. John Joachim Zubly. In the end he found himself “on the wrong side of history” as we might say today. But while branded as a loyalist and traitor, and even today not always viewed kindly, taking a closer look at his complicated position and the theology behind it is worth a few minutes of our time.

Rev. John J. Zubly [from Two Heads are Better Than One]

Rev. John J. Zubly [from Two Heads are Better Than One]

Hans Joachim Zublin was born in St. Gallen (or St. Gall), Switzerland, on August 27, 1724. (That is in the very northeast corner of Switzerland is you are curious.) His family immigrated to South Carolina in 1736 but he remained behind to complete his education. He was ordained in the German Reformed Church in London in 1744 and moved to the colonies to minister to other German and Swiss immigrants. He went first to South Carolina and then in 1760 moved to the Independent Presbyterian Church of Savanna, Georgia. His early life is well documented by Roger A. Martin in his 1977 paper “John J. Zubly Comes To America.”

In his ministry he was well regarded, the church in Savanna grew and by the end of his first decade there Nichols (2001) describes him as “the most influential minister in Georgia in pre-revolutionary America.” He later says that the congregation became “the largest and most popular in Georgia.” The New Georgia Encyclopedia tell us:

Zubly was known as a man of “lively cheerfulness” whose sermons were described as being “full, clear, concise, searching, and comfortable,” lighting the hearers’ souls, warming their hearts, and raising their affections. Zubly was known to preach in the morning in English, in the afternoon in French, and in the evening in German. His strict Calvinist theology was very suitable to life in the multicultural environment of the American colonies in the eighteenth century.

Zubly also became known for his criticism of the British government and how it was governing the colonies. He preached a sermon in 1766 in response to the then repealed 1765 Stamp Act arguing that the imposed restrictions were ill-conceived and against the natural rights of the colonists. New restrictions in 1769, including the Dependency Act, caused him to write a political tract called An Humble Inquiry.

His expressed opinions and respected position got him elected to the Georgia Provincial Congress. Perkins (1931) describes the opening of the Congress:

A Provincial Congress was organized at Tondee’s Long Room in Savannah on July 4, 1775. Every district was represented, and Dr. Zubly was one of the twenty- five from Christ’s Church Parish. After electing officers, the Congress proceeded in a body to the meet- ing-house of Dr. Zubly, who preached a sermon on “the alarming condition of American affairs,” using as his text the twelfth verse of the second chapter of James’ gospel : “So speak ye and so do as they that shall be judged by the law of liberty.” His sermon made a profound impression, and he was later to be publicly thanked for it. How differently was he to be judged just one year later! How his fellow-men were to forget the judgement of any law of liberty save their own!

The Congress also declared a day of fasting and elected five representatives to the Second Continental Congress, including John Zubly. The Continental Congress had began on June 14, 1775 and Zubly arrived, presented his credentials and was seated on September 13.

However, his tenure was short-lived. As Nichols writes:

As a delegate to the Continental Congress the following month, Zubly initially cooperated fully with the Congress. However, as it became clear that the tenor of the gathering was shifting toward preparation for military offensives and ultimate separation from England, Zubly became increasingly uncomfortable. He was prepared to go along with defensive military preparation, but never entertained the idea of separation. Although Zubly never stated why he was unwilling to separate, it seems clear from his sermons and pamphlets that he believed that the rule of law dictated obedience to England even during times of oppression and that the king was the agent of God even if the king was unsympathetic to the colonists’ pleas. Zubly left the Continental Congress less than two months after its inception, although the circumstances of his departure are somewhat unclear.

To put this in perspective consider the lines from Perkins:

[Zubly] seems to have had no slightest thought of independence. Nor was this astonishing. Every school boy should know that the Revolution was not begun for independence. Witness Franklin’s statement to Pitt in 1774, “I have never heard from any person, drunk or sober, the wish for separation.” Thomas Jefferson wrote, “There is not in the British empire a man who more cordially loves a union with Great Britian than I do.” Washington was not an advocate of independence when he took command of the Continental Army. Virginia had sent her delegates to the Congress instructed to uphold the rights of Englishmen, but not to break with Britian. Only Paine, the firebrand, had first preached the doctrine of separation. No human trait is queerer than this; we change our course and then condemn all who do not change with us. Dr. Zubly was in good company when he strove for justice, not separation.

Yet Zubly was remembered by the members of the Continental Congress. In a letter John Adams wrote on July 1, 1776 to another delegate from Georgia, Archibald Bulloch, he regrets that Bulloch could not be present due to other matters but informs him:

This Morning is assigned for the greatest Debate of all. A Declaration that these Colonies are free and independent States, has been reported by a Committee appointed Some Weeks ago for that Purpose, and this day or Tomorrow is to determine its Fate. May Heaven prosper, the new born Republic,—and make it more glorious than any former Republic has been.

But at the beginning of the letter he refers to an atmosphere “enjoying the Satisfaction of Seeing a Temper and Conduct here, Somewhat more agreable to your Wishes, than those which prevailed when you was here before.” (A possible reference to Zubly’s dissent early in the term of the Congress.) Adams concludes the letter with “Tell [Mr. Houstoun] the Colonies will have Republics, for their Government, let us Lawyers and your Divine Say what We will.” The reference to “your Divine” being understood as a comment about Zubly and his non-separation arguments.

On his return to Georgia things did not go well for him. Branded a traitor he was briefly arrested and later fled to South Carolina. His house was plundered and his library thrown in the river. He was able to return when the British took control of Georgia and died there on July 23, 1781, almost two years before the end of the war. As all accounts agree, to use the words of William Pauly (1976):

Tragically, he could not or would not, alter his principles to include the possibility of political separation from the mother country. He was consistent to the end and died a broken and rejected man.

In looking at his consistent position it is important to consider his theology. Nichols considers this in detail and begins with this summary:

Zubly’s sermons and pamphlets often reveal his close theological ties to Calvin’s conceptions of the sovereignty of God, natural law, and human nature. To be sure, Zubly’s political writings clearly bear the marks of Enlightenment writers, social contract theorists, legal thinkers, and historians. But we miss the depth of the man if we overlook the role theology played in informing his political ideas concerning the democratic process and the rule of law.

Nichols goes on to show how Zubly’s arguments regarding Democracy and the Rule of Law can be traced back to Calvin’s thinking. Regarding the Rule of Law Nichols writes, in part:

For Zubly, as for Calvin, the rule of law had its foundation in the duties of rulers and subjects. Zubly’s greatest complaint against the British was that they were not acting in accordance with the British constitution-that they were not fulfilling their duties as rulers. Like many Americans, he was very critical of England’s treatment of the rights of the colonists, whether through the Stamp Act, the Declaratory Act, the Boston massacre, continued increases in taxation without representation, or other actions. Zubly proffered both theological and legal arguments in protest of British oppression.

The journey to revolution took different paths for different people and the two Presbyterian pastors, John Zubly and John Witherspoon, ultimately come to different conclusions. The two gentlemen knew each other and had met at least twice before the Continental Congress when the College of New Jersey had conferred honorary degrees on Rev. Zubly in 1770 and 1774. Nichols concludes with a section comparing and contrasting the two of them using their sermons. For Witherspoon it is his sermon preached in May 1776 titled The Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Men. Nichols says this about the two sermons:

The two sermons share many similarities. They both focus on a single passage of biblical text. They both call each listener to look inwardly to ensure “his own soul’s salvation.” They both ask their listeners to confess their sins and turn humbly to God. They both speak of the need for good government and seek freedom from oppression. They both advocate looking to God for assistance and approbation. Yet they part company on how the listeners should respond.

Zubly reminded his listeners that “our interest lies in a perpetual connection with our mother country.” He advised his listeners to “think cooly, and act deliberately,” for rash counsel and decisions are rarely good ones.” Zubly continued to advocate obeying the laws of the land; this would bear witness to the colonists’ faithfulness to Britain. “Every government must be supported, and what is necessary for the support of government, is also justly due, and ought to be given with readiness and willingly.” Zubly’s main concern still seemed to be the protection of property-which had been taken away through improper taxation without representation-and he did not at all discount the necessity of continual obedience to the magistrate by the subjects.” Thus, although Zubly did not direct his hearers how to act in response to British oppression, he fell on the side of deliberate action in response to improper taxation and remained committed to submission to the magistrate. His purpose was to call the magistrate (the Parliament) to look to the public welfare of the subjects and abide by the rule of law. Put differently, the duty of the magistrate to govern had been translated into the right of the subject to good government but Zubly did not advocate enforcing that right through force, but only through petition.

Witherspoon was more willing than Zubly to see God’s design and plan in the circumstances of the colonies. Rather than focusing only on the duty of the subject to submit to the magistrate, he juxtaposed that duty with a concomitant duty of every Christian: “In many cases it is the duty of a good man, by open reproof and opposition, to wage war with profaneness.” Witherspoon equated the current state of affairs in Britain with this “profaneness,” and his logic thus led to the need to exercise one’s duty to oppose Britain. Witherspoon rationalized that the cause of America was a cause of religion, thereby implicitly (though weakly) invoking Calvin’s “exception” to the rule against rebellion. He was thus willing to make the bold proclamation that “the cause in which America is now in arms, is the cause of justice, of liberty, and of human nature.”

Not surprisingly it is Nichols’ conclusion:

A strict reading of Calvin’s Institutes seems to support Zubly’s stance rather than Witherspoon’s. From the perspective of history, however, Witherspoon’s stance looks to be the correct one.

So what is the place of a conscientious objector, of someone with a principled, consistent and reasoned dissent? Consideration of this in the long view of history or in light of current developments – governmental and ecclesiastical – is left as an exercise for the reader or for another time. As for me, I and my family are off to a parade, barbeque and fireworks.

And may you all enjoy this fourth day of July, whether you think there is something to celebrate today or not.

Bibliography

Martin, Roger A., 1977, John J. Zubly Comes To America, The Georgia Historical Quarterly, Vol. 61, No. 2 (Summer, 1977), pp. 125-139.

Nichols, Joel A., 2001, Man True to His Principles: John Joachim Zubly and Calvinism, Journal of Church and State, Vol. 43, pp. 297-317.

Pauly, William E., Jr.,1976, Journal of Presbyterian History (1962-1985), Vol. 54, No. 1, in PRESBYTERIANS AND THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION: AN INTERPRETIVE ACCOUNT (SPRING 1976), pp. 61-71, 73-81.

Perkins, Eunice Ross, 1931, John Joachim Zubly: Georgia’s Conscientious Objector, The Georgia Historical Quarterly, Vol. 15, No. 4 (DECEMBER, 1931), pp. 313-323.

Reformation Day Thoughts On A Reforming Pope

On this Reformation Day I would like to spend a few minutes talking about a pope that is not of the traditional nationality for popes, is an outsider to the Holy See and upon taking office sets his sights on reforming the church starting at the top with the Curia and the administration in Rome and thereby raising resistance and concern from the traditional insiders. Current history? Hardly.

Some of the Reformation era popes are fairly well known. Leo X is remembered as the pope that authorized selling indulgences to finance St. Peter’s and then excommunicated Martin Luther when he complained about it (and some other stuff). Clement VII, who happened to be a cousin of Leo’s, is known for his disagreements with Henry VIII and getting Michelangelo to paint the Last Judgement on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. But until I started doing the research for this post I am not sure I was ever aware of Adrian VI whose short papacy lies between those two.

Adriaan Floriszoon Boeyens was a native of Utrecht, now in the Netherlands, and was the last pontefice barbaro, that being a non-Italian pope, until – wait for it – John Paul II. He is also one of only two modern popes to keep his given name upon becoming pope. While highly regarded for his loyalty, intellect and administrative abilities much of his higher church duties were in Spain, which is where he was in January 1522 when the other cardinals elected him. They had reached the conclusion that no one in the room in Rome would receive enough votes and upon considering others Adrian was overwhelmingly elected. When he arrived in Rome to be installed it was the first time he had ever been in Italy.

Adrian had no illusions about the state of the church and immediately set about trying to reform it. One biography describes his efforts and the response like this:

History presents no more pathetic figure than that of this noble pontiff, struggling single-handed against insurmountable difficulties. Through the reckless extravagances of his predecessor, the papal finances were in a sad tangle. Adrian’s efforts to retrench expenses only gained for him from his needy courtiers the epithet of miser.

Another says:

Adrian VI. lost no time in adopting measures designed to put an end to the religious troubles agitating Europe. He rightly began with the Roman Curia, but made slow progress, because the evils which he sought to eradicate were deep seated and of long standing.

One of his immediate challenges was the Diet in Nuremberg where the German princes were gathering and the duty of trying to keep them loyal to Rome fell to the pope’s legate Francesco
Chieregati, Bishop of Teramo. Adrian prepared for him Instructions to be read to the Diet which one source says is a document “unique in the history of the Papacy” and “is of exceptional importance to an understanding of Adrian’s plans of reform, and his opinion of the state of things.” Here is the Instruction delivered to the Diet on 3 January 1523 quoted in an essay written for the 400th anniversary of the Reformation:

“You are also to say,” wrote Adrian to Chieregati, “that we frankly acknowledge that God permits this persecution of His Church on account of the sins of men, and especially of prelates and clergy: of a surety the Lord’s arm is not shortened that He cannot save us, but our sins separate us from Him, so that He does not hear. Holy Scripture declares aloud that the sins of the people are the outcome of the sins of the priesthood; therefore, as Chrysostom declares, when our Saviour wished to cleanse the city of Jerusalem of its sickness, He went first to the Temple to punish the sins of the priests before those of others, like a good physician who heals a disease at its roots. We know well that for many years things deserving of abhorrence have gathered round the Holy See; sacred things have been misused, ordinances transgressed, so that in everything there has been a change for the worse. Thus it is not surprising that the malady has crept down from the head to the members, from the Popes to the hierarchy.

“We all, prelates and clergy, have gone astray from the right way, and for long there is none that has done good; no, not one. To God, therefore, we must give all the glory and humble ourselves before Him; each one of us must consider how he has fallen and be more ready to judge himself than to be judged by God in the day of His wrath. Therefore, in our name, give promises that we shall use all diligence to reform before all things the Roman Curia, whence, perhaps, all these evils have had their origin; thus healing will begin at the source of the sickness. We deem this to be all the more our duty, as the whole world is longing for such reform. The papal dignity was not the object of our ambition, and we would rather have closed our days in the solitude of private life; willingly would we have put aside the tiara; the fear of God alone, the validity of our election. and the dread of schism, decided us to assume the position of Chief Shepherd. We desire to wield our power not as seeking dominion or means for enriching our kindred, but in order to restore to Christ’s bride, the Church, her former beauty, to give help to the oppressed, to uplift men of virtue and learning; above all, to do all that beseems a good shepherd and a successor of blessed Peter.

“Yet let no man wonder if we do not remove all abuses at one blow, for the malady is deeply rooted and takes many forms. We must advance, therefore, step to step, first applying the proper remedies to the most difficult and dangerous evils, so as not by a hurried reform to throw all things into greater confusion than before. Aristotle well says: ‘All sudden changes are dangerous to states.”’

Amazingly frank words about the state of the church coming from the very top. And apparently an admission resulting from the pressure generated by Martin Luther’s calls for change.

A few historical points should be noted about all this. First, the Instruction acknowledges the corruption in the system but the church stood by the doctrinal standards that were also at issue with Martin Luther. In fact, part of the message of the legate to the Diet was for them to stand by and enforce the decision of the Diet of Worms against Luther.

Second, the Instruction was an acknowledgement that Luther and other reformers were correct on certain points and it should come as no surprise that Adrian’s acknowledgement of the need for reform of the system was seized upon by them as validation of those claims that reform was needed.

Third, the work and stress of reforming the church took a heavy and rapid toll on Adrian and from his installation on 31 August 1522 he served barely a year until his death on 14 September 1523. The essay says of his successor, Clement VII, “Although he had given evidence of efficiency and was free from extravagance, yet he lacked decision.”

Yet the need for reform was acknowledged and while the path was not straight and the wheels turned slowly, Adrian’s naming the problems helped pave the way for Clement’s successor, Paul III, to convene the Council of Trent.

Finally, an editorial note: Lest you think that I was being selective in my sources to prove my argument and show the medieval church in a particularly bad light, I would point out that every quote, source and link in this post is from a document from the Roman church. In particular, I was excited to find that collection of essays titled The Reformation: A Series of Articles Published in The Tidings which collected in one volume 24 articles published by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles in their weekly The Tidings from November 1916 to May 1917 in their  recognition of the 400th anniversary of The Reformation. I may not agree with their doctrinal interpretation of the Reformation, but I have found it a rich source of historical information from the Roman perspective. [And for my friends on Twitter and Facebook – this was the unnamed “rabbit hole” that excited me last weekend when I found it and discovered a rich source of information for my Reformation Day post.]

And so with that I wish all my Protestant and Reformed friends a very good Reformation Day. May you always be reforming according to the Word of God and the leading of the Holy Spirit.

210th General Synod Of The Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church

Beginning tomorrow, Tuesday 10 June, the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church will convene the 210th Stated Meeting of the General Synod. The meeting, running until Thursday morning, 12 June, will be held at the ARPC conference center Bonclarken, in Flat Rock, North Carolina.

This meeting is not live streamed but the schedule and the reports packet are available online.

For the constitution and secondary standards, which will be necessary for this meeting, you can download the current version as a single document. For the individual parts you can download the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Form of Government or the 2012 Draft of the new FOG, the Directory for Public Worship and the Book of Discipline or the draft of the new Book of Discipline that is part of the discussion at this meeting but is itself being superseded.

News items about the meeting can be followed through the official ARP Magazine web page.

There is also a pre-Synod conference for Outreach North America and one following for World Focus 2014.

For social media you can watch the ARP Facebook page for updates or a better place to follow is the ARP Magazine Facebook page. The official feeds on Twitter are @ARPChurch and @ARPMagazine. The official hashtag has been announced as #Synod2014, but while the ARP Synod may be the dominant one using the hashtag this week, you are advised to read carefully since a couple other discussions are using that hashtag, including lingering conversation from the URC Synod Visalia that finished last week and the meeting of the Diocese of Guyana this week. In various threads I have also seen suggestions for using the hashtags #arpsynod, #GeneralSynodARPC and #210ARPGS so some tweets may appear under those as well. (Personally, I would have gone for #arpsynod as the least confusing and most character efficient but I am kinda late weighing in.)

UPDATE: As the Synod gets under way it appears that #210ARPGS is the crowd favorite for a hashtag. Looks awkward to me since it reminds me of one of the LA Freeways.

Besides the official Twitter feeds, a couple more that stand out so far include Andy Stager (@ARStager), Daniel Wells (@danielfwells) and  Michael Cochran (@koineguy – and I’m with you on the hashtag preference). There is also the parody account @ARPModerator which has not been active since last Synod, but you might want to keep an eye on it.

Considering what I am most interested in some of the business before this Synod is the most interesting that I have seen queued up for this year.

Leading off is a discussion of their version of the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) and whether to drop two sections and a declaratory statement added roughly a century ago. The sections are 35 Of the Holy Spirit and 36 Of the Gospel. The Special Committee reviewing these later sections recommends eliminating them from the WCF and returning the WCF to a form closer to the original. Their report begins on the 48th page of the packet and picking one short piece from their report they say:

Our committee finds that our current version of the WCF deviates from our historic identity as an evangelical, Reformed and confessional Church that is passionate about the Gospel. Our current WCF with the two additional chapters, Of the Holy Spirit and Of the Gospel, are relics of 20th-century theological modernism’s movement away from historic, confessional Calvinism. Both additional chapters—by emphasizing human agency in salvation—alter the original WCF’s design that highlights God’s sovereign, eternal decree to save sinners by grace alone.

They go on to argue that “The brilliance of the WCF is found in its pervasive treatment of the person and work of the Holy Spirit throughout many chapters.” For a good review of the development of the WCF and the inclusion of those sections the rest of the report is an interesting read.

Turning to Presbyterian polity, both the Form of Government and the Book of Discipline are being revised. Maybe the most interesting development is a decision by the committee working on the Book of Discipline to reshape that document and their revision may not be ready for this meeting. They explain it this way (38th page of the packet):

However, during the meeting on February 17, the committee decided to change the emphasis of the Book of Discipline from an adversarial format to a pastoral, shepherding, board of inquiry format, which we submit is more Biblical. In light of this change in paradigm, your committee is completely revising the draft revision (hereinafter referred to as Draft # 1) which was included in the 2013 Synod Packet. We hope to have this new draft (hereinafter referred to as Draft #2) ready for this General Synod. However, failing that, we will endeavor to have Draft # 2 circulated, so that we can receive suggestions and comments, and ultimately produce a user-friendly document (a “Discipline for Dummies,” if you will) which will edify the church and bring glory and honor to our Heavenly Father.

The revision to the Form of Government was approved at the last General Synod and sent down to the presbyteries for their concurrence. At this Synod meeting there is a memorial (some other branches would call it an overture) from Catawba Presbytery (142nd page of the packet) to “delay its implementation until such time has passed that the amendment process can correct any flaws or include such suggestions which were not deemed of enough import to convince the Committee to include them in the proposal.”

Finally, what is an ARP General Synod meeting without breaking news from its college and seminary, Erskine. It was recently reported that a top candidate for the position of President of Erskine pulled out of the running because objections were raised that he was a Baptist and not a Presbyterian. This could produce interesting discussion, although in the Erskine report (114th page of the packet) was produced before the short list was presented to the full Board of Trustees. However, the report does highlight positive responses from the Erskine Board to recommendations from the last General Synod.

Those are the business items that caught my attention and it will be interesting to see how those, and other business items, develop over the next few days. As always, prayers for the commissioners to the General Synod for their prayerful discernment and productive discussions around these and all the matters they have before them.

Where Are The Ruling Elders?


Fair warning – this probably qualifies as another one of my rants on one of the topics I rant about from time to time – Where are the ruling elders?

In the last few days two documents have come out of agencies of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) that seem to overlook the fact that according to our Book of Order “This church shall be governed by presbyters, that is, ruling elders and teaching elders.” (F-3.0202 first part) and the last part of G-2.0301:

Ruling elders, together with teaching elders, exercise leadership, government, spiritual discernment, and discipline and have responsibilities for the life of a congregation as well as the whole church, including ecumenical relationships. When elected by the congregation, they shall serve faithfully as members of the session. When elected as commissioners to higher councils, ruling elders participate and vote with the same authority as teaching elders, and they are eligible for any office.

And your point is…?

The first document to come out was a press release from the Presbyterian Publishing Company (PPC) – one of the six agencies of the PC(USA) – concerning their decision to stop using Cokesbury for distribution to brick and mortar locations and that they would now distribute their products almost exclusively online through their own system. Now that is an interesting development in and of itself and I may return to it. But within the press release was the line:

PPC encourages all PC(USA) clergy, church educational and office
professionals, religious academics, and lay members to support the
denominational publisher by purchasing books and resources through these
websites.

And where are the ruling elders? For those not familiar with Presbyterian polity they do not fall into the category of “lay members.” And this from the publishing house that operates the The Presbyterian Leader imprint. Maybe it is just that the ruling elders are not encouraged to support the denominational publisher.

OK, I was going to let this go as a one-off, an oversight, a press release put together in a hurry. After all, one point does not define a trend. But then we got another point…

In the meeting this morning of another PC(USA) agency board, the Presbyterian Mission Agency, a proposed revision to the Directory for Worship was revealed. The Board agreed to send it to the 221st General Assembly with the recommendation to forward it on to the whole denomination for study. I will have more to say on this document at a later time. For now I will say that there are a number of typos in the document that need to be cleaned up.

But reading through the Rational section I was intreagued and concerned to read about the focus group they put together to get reaction to the document:

A diverse group of scholars, pastors, and mid council leaders provided feedback on the proposed revision…

And where are the ruling elders? Yes, within the scholars and mid-council leaders there probably were ruling elders. But if pastors were invited were ruling elders from churches invited to give feedback on the document and not just ecclesiastical professionals?

As regular readers of my blog know the equal governance of teaching and ruling elders together is an area that I am hyper-sensitive about and when I read documents with that filter things like this jump out at me. I am sure that some of you are thinking that I am blowing this out of proportion. But to me the situation is something to pay attention to. If we are serious about our government structure then we need to be intentional about including ruling elders in the mix the same way we are intentional about including the wide diversity of our membership in the decision making process. Furthermore, the joint decision making by teaching and ruling elders is the genius of our system and provides the means for better decision making (see Landon Whitsitt’s Open Source Church – sorry, could not find it on The Presbyterian Leader to link to) and it is the means to engage a greater cross-section of the church in ministry. Both of these quotes, to me at least, place more emphasis on the institutional side of the church and not it’s wide diversity.

OK, my coffee break is over. Just a few thoughts for now. But I leave you with the famous words of Cynthia Bolbach, the Moderator of the 219th General Assembly…

“Elders Rule!”

To every action… (A Reformation Day Reflection)

…there is always an equal and opposite reaction.

That is Newton’s third law of motion as translated from the Latin of his Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, often noted by the shorthand Principia.

That is the rule in Physics, so on this Reformation Day I wanted to consider the ecclesiastical reaction to the Reformation. Whether it was “equal and opposite” is left as an exercise for the reader.

The personal consequences of Martin Luther’s questioning of the Roman church that is commemorated on this day are fairly well known: The papal bull, his excommunication, his stand before the Diet of Worms, the protection by political authorities who may have had motives more or less theological versus political, and the resulting split with Rome in parts of Germany have been regularly chronicled in the popular media.

But what about broader and longer-term reactions to the Protestant Reformation?

There was a reaction in the Roman church which goes by a few different names but is commonly called the Counter-Reformation. And as I began researching this I found that the Roman church laid claim to Martin Luther in this, at least to a point…

[T]he name [Counter-Reformation] suggests that the Catholic movement came after the Protestant; whereas in truth the reform originally began in the Catholic Church, and Luther was a Catholic Reformer before he became a Protestant. By becoming a Protestant Reformer, he did indeed hinder the progress of the Catholic reformation, but he did not stop it. It continued to gain headway in the Catholic South until it was strong enough to meet and roll back the movement from the North. [from Catholic Encyclopedia]

They go on to argue that it was not a reaction but continuing process, even talking about how the movement continues today since the heresies from the time of Luther still continue. (I guess they figure that there are still Lutherans running around.)

This idea is echoed in a scholarly article from The Catholic History Review (Vol. 75, No. 3 (Jul., 1989), pp. 383-404 ) by Wolfgang Reinhard titled “Reformation, Counter-Reformation, and the Early Modern State a Reassessment.” He writes:

Traditionally, German, and to a certain extent European early modern
history as well, is divided into three periods: the “Reformation” 1517-
1555, the “Counter-Reformation” 1555-1648, and the “Age of Absolutism” 1648-1789. This division has become almost indestructible
because of the simple and convincing dialectical pattern it is based
upon: a progressive movement, the “Reformation,” as thesis, evokes a
reaction, the reactionary “Counter-Reformation,” as antithesis; their contradiction leads to extremely destructive armed conflicts, until Europe
is saved by the strong hand of the absolutist early modern state, which because of its neutrality in the religious conflict is considered the synthesis, a synthesis which opens the way to that culmination point of
world history the modern national power state. This view of history is
wonderfully convincing, but quite incorrect. If only we were able to free
ourselves from its grip, we might easily learn from recent research that
“Counter-Reformation,” if a reaction, was still not simply reactionary.
But we would also recognize that the relation between “Reformation”
and “Counter-Reformation” was not just that of action and reaction, but
much more that of slightly dislocated parallel processes.

The article goes on to talk about the modern state making this a mildly interesting article. But that is not the point today.

Returning to the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation, I am willing to grant that on one level these were movements in much broader developments across Europe at this point in time and that there were reform movements clearly working within the Roman church (such as the Society of Jesus). But there are two historical developments that I am not sure would have developed as they did were it not for the Protestant Reformation, leading me to see the Counter-Reformation as truly “counter” to the Reformation.

The first event occurred on 21 July 1542 when the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was founded under the original name of the Sacred Congregation of the Universal Inquisition. According to that web site it has the “duty… to defend the Church from heresy.” (It should be noted that Inquisitions had existed before in local or regional settings but now it was, and its successor is still, based in Rome for the whole church.)

The second event followed a couple of years later when on 13 December 1545 the Council of Trent was opened. According to the abstract of the article in the Catholic Encyclopedia the Council is described thus:

Its main object was the definitive determination of the doctrines of the Church in answer to the heresies of the Protestants; a further object was the execution of a thorough reform of the inner life of the Church by removing the numerous abuses that had developed in it.

My point is not to call the Roman church to task for defending its doctrine and correcting abuses – it has every right to do that although the methods were sometimes extreme to our modern sensibilities. The point is that even if there were certain internal reform movements already in place, the unprecedented success of Martin Luther’s challenge to the Roman church certainly got the church’s attention and the Roman church decided that a response in the form of some major and targeted action was necessary.

Equal? Maybe or maybe not. Opposite? Not entirely as it did address some of the same internal abuses that got Luther going.

But a response to the action? From my reading of history there clearly was. But you can be the judge for yourself.

Happy Reformation Day. May we always be Reformed and always being reformed according to the Word of God.

Affinity Classes In The Reformed Churches

A news article caught my eye earlier this week and the parallels to some discussions in Presbyterian branches induced me to write about it here. But before I dive into this a very short polity note.

This discussion involves a couple of Reformed churches who are very close cousins to the Presbyterian family. Their levels of governing bodies are parallel to those found in Presbyterian branches but with slightly different names: At the congregational level the church is governed by the consistory which is like the session. At the local level the classis is similar to a presbytery. There are regional synods like those in some Presbyterian branches. And at the highest level is a General Synod.

Regarding the classis a couple of details. The first is important for this discussion – the plural of classis is classes, as in the title of this piece. The term classis comes from the Latin where classis means a military group invoking the image of churches as boats journeying together in one fleet. A polity point that is not as important here but is interesting is that unlike a presbytery which continues to exist between meetings a classis only exists during the meeting. And finally, if you have a Google alert set for “classis” what you mostly get are misspellings of “classic/classics” or a typo of “class is” – In case you care.

But, I did got a hit on this interesting news item…

The Christian Reformed Church in North America has had a bit of a discussion going about women as officers of the church. While they are included at the national level and in most classes there are a few churches and classes that believe that women holding ordained offices in the church is contrary to Scripture. This past week the CRC released a news story saying that the Classis of Kalamazoo and the Classis of Grand Rapids North have overtured the 2013 Synod to “allow the formation of a new classis for congregations that exclude women from holding ordained office.” This would be an affinity classis that is non-geographic in structure.

The full text of the two overtures can be found in the Synod 2013 Agenda beginning on page 398. They each give the background, a small portion of which I recount below. The overtures themselves are similar – Overture 3 reads:

Therefore, Classis Grand Rapids North overtures Synod 2013 to direct the Board of Trustees to help establish a new classis in the Michigan area in accordance with Church Order Article 39. The purpose for this would be to create a classis in which churches whose convictions do not allow women to serve in the offices of the church to participate freely.

Each overture is followed by the Grounds section. As part of this the grounds for Overture 3 – the one from Classis Grand Rapids North – it says, in part:

4. We realize that starting a new classis on the ground of theological affinity is weighty and should be done with extreme care, wisdom, and patience. The CRCNA has two opposing positions regarding women serving in the ordained offices, calling for mutual respect and honor.

Synod 1996 did not accede to an overture for a new classis based on theological affinity because of concerns about further fragmentation within the denomination, impairing effective ministry… Sadly, several congregations have split or left the denomination, which is precisely the fragmentation we don’t want. Because this issue has deep-rooted convictions on both sides, realistic unity and mutual respect can be effectively achieved by providing a theological classis for churches serving in the denomination without having to register a protest for their biblical convictions.

It is also interesting to note that in one of the overtures they note that there are ten to twelve churches who would join such an affinity classis.

We will have to wait for the 2013 Synod to see how that works out for them but this is not the first time an alternate arrangement has been requested for churches that have this issue of conscience. Three years ago at Synod 2010 one church from each of the classes who passed the current overtures requested to be transferred to Classis Minnkota, a classis which does not have women in ecclesiastical office. The request was denied that time, at least in part because Classis Minnkota does not border either of the classes of the requesting churches. At the Synod the majority report did recommend for the transfer but the Synod adopted the minority report that did not recommend it. It is unknown if the request had been for a adjoining classis whether the Synod would have granted the transfer.

As I was researching this issue I was interested to find that an affinity classis of a bit different nature was approved in the Reformed Church of America. Back in 2008 it’s General Synod approved the concept of an affinity classis and the Far West Regional Synod created what was then called the City Center Network Classis, now known simply as City Classis. In that RCA news article the idea was described like this:

“The vision of the Center City Network is to be a missionary classis
that will recruit and train urban church planters, start multiple
churches in unreached cities, and form regional coaching networks that
will lead to new, thriving geographic classes in areas currently not
being served and in great need of churches that proclaim the good news
of the kingdom in word and deed,” says Mike Hayes, one of the pastors at
City Church in San Francisco. “The classis is formed out of a dual
commitment to sound ecclesiology and joining in the mission of God
through the expansion of the church.”

What began with three churches has now expanded to ten in cities across the western US.

The idea of a non-geographic classis was met with concerns from within the church that echos the concerns expressed about non-geographic presbyteries. In one collection of concerned statements on The Chicago Invitation blog there is one from Jim Reid who says, in part:

It defies logic that the RCA, which has devoted so much recent energy
to celebrating our diversity and emphasizing inclusiveness of
difference, would now make an about-face and endorse, or even condone, a
classis structure based on sameness—which is what any “affinity
classis” is.

To give a non-geographic classis voice and vote in the General Synod
is to plop an orange in the midst of a bushel of apples claiming, “
..but they are all round.”   Seating an “affinity classis” at GS 2009
will be the death throes of General Synod as an assembly of peer
delegations.

In another expression of concern the author of the Credo <–> Oratio blog writes about City Classis and his concerns with affinity classes:

To be fair, even though I’m a polity curmudgeon, I’m not particularly concerned about this particular creation. What concerns me are the potential implications of allowing the creation of affinity Classes. Here are a couple of them:

  • If it’s appropriate to create an affinity Classis, it is possible
    for Regional Synods to “ghetto-ize” congregations that don’t agree with
    something specific.  For example, a Regional Synod could create a
    Classis that didn’t allow the ordination of women or a Classis that only ordained blondies… or elderly people… or ???
  • The concept of an affinity Classis suggests, at least at a certain
    level, that there is little to be gained in the diversity of the greater
    church.  In other words, it implies that congregations from a
    particular affinity (i.e. Urban) don’t need the checks and balances of
    those from another (i.e. rural)… or poor and wealthy… or white and
    black… or ???

I have not found further review of how City Classis is working out but doing a quick check of the ten churches now a part of it there appears that roughly two thirds were established churches that moved into that classis and one third are new church plants.

To wrap up I am sure that many of you have connected the dots here for the similar developments in Presbyterian circles. The one unique item is the formation of City Classis as I am not aware of an affinity presbytery of similar nature having been approved. The CRC’s discussion of possibly allowing congregations to join an adjoining classis is similar to the agreement that the Evangelical Presbyterian Church has for membership in adjoining presbyteries for those churches with views that differ from their presbytery practice on women’s ordination. Likewise, affinity presbyteries (even on a provisional basis) and transfer of churches to near-by, but not necessarily adjoining, presbyteries has been proposed but regularly rejected by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

So it will be interesting to see how this proposal turns out in the CRC and what develops out of their discernment process. They will be meeting June 7-14 at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI.