Category Archives: Reformed theology

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

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.

PC(USA) Synod PJC Decision — St. Andrews Session v. Santa Barbara Presbytery Regarding Union Presbyteries

On Friday, 9 November , the Permanent Judicial Commission of the Synod of Southern California and Hawaii heard a remedial case against the Presbytery of Santa Barbara that challenged their action to reorganize themselves as a union presbytery between the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (ECO). The decision in Session of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church of Santa Barbara, CA, et al., Complainants vs The Presbytery of Santa Barbara, Respondents, was announced the next morning but the written decision was not released until the following Wednesday morning.

For a whole variety of reasons I have been working through various ways to present my analysis of this case. I have decided to present an executive summary, then discuss the bulk of the case in my typical fashion. The issue that has engendered the greatest amount of discussion since the decision was announced are the parts dealing with ECO so I want to address those in their own section. And then I will finish up with a look at the dissenting opinion and some general conclusions and comments.

Executive Summary
Nineteen charges were brought against the Presbytery for their action to try and restructure themselves as a union presbytery. All but one of the charges were sustained. The sustained charges included two that argued that ECO, with its Presbytery of the West, is not a Reformed body and not qualified for participation in a union presbytery.

What this means: Santa Barbara’s efforts to create a union presbytery are effectively halted unless this case is overturned on appeal to the General Assembly PJC (GAPJC), a prospect I consider unlikely based on this decision and other recent decisions.

What this does not mean: Since a Synod PJC decision is only binding on the parties involved in the case (207th GA AI on D-7.0402b) this does not automatically disqualify ECO as a Reformed body that churches may be dismissed to.

What this might mean: This decision is precedent setting for the presbyteries in the Synod of Southern California and Hawaii (same AI as above). However, the decision was regarding a union presbytery and not dismissal and in my mind there are a bunch of other issues that call into question the applicability of this precedent and make me think it could be successfully challenged. (That is why the ECO issue gets its own section further on). But I could be wrong.

The SPJC Decision
On 2 June 2012 the Presbytery of Santa Barbara held a called meeting and approved with a 73% majority a Plan of Union for Santa Barbara Union Presbytery (the Plan). Shortly after a remedial case was filed with the Synod PJC listing 19 irregularities. At trial on 9 November both Complainants and Respondents were represented but the Respondents only presented opening and closing arguments and did not have pre-trial briefs or present any additional documentation or witnesses at trial. The Complainants did.

The SPJC ruled unanimously in favor of the Complainants on all but five counts. There is a dissenting opinion that disagreed with the majority on four of the charges. One charge was not sustained.

Two details before I begin breaking this down. First I would like to note a stylistic choice made by the SPJC in
writing their decision. Formal citations are few in this decision and nowhere in the
statement of the charges and the rational for the decision on each one
is there a citation to relevant portions of the Book of Order. Furthermore, for only one charge is there a reference to applicable GAPJC decisions.

Second, as I break down this decision I will be drawing from a wide variety of sources. This was the trial court and their formal decision can only be based on the evidence presented at trial and the ecclesiastical law. While I may have disagreements or concerns at points I also have a larger set of sources to draw from. Documentation related to this case includes, besides the decision itself, the original complaint and the packet Santa Barbara Presbytery put together in advance of the called meeting where the Plan of Union was approved. Almost all documents in this case are posted on a web page St. Andrews Church of Santa Barbara maintains.

Counts 1, 3 and 4 deal specifically with the nature of ECO and I will return to those in a moment. (This decision uses the acronym ECOP. Those are the initials of the original name of ECO and ECO is now an official logo. I will try to use the preferred title ECO but ECOP will appear inside quotations. For the record, the new initials would be COEP.)

It is worth noting that the decision is, shall we say, streamlined and with the large number of counts the commissioners did not expound beyond the minimum on many of them.

Count 2 accused the Presbytery of promoting “division and schism in the church.” The SPJC found that a fuller discernment process would have been better since the Plan, while not intended to be so, it was judged that the “action did indeed bring about schism in the presbytery.”

Count 5 alleged “Mis-use of our constitutional provisions for union presbyteries” and Count 6 alleged the “disregard of important constitutional requirements.” The decision notes that union presbyteries are intended to promote ecumenism and reconciliation and “reduce unnecessary expense.” Instead they found that this plan “has been formed to serve as a ‘shield’ to the denomination’s action and judicial decision.”

Let me take a moment and drill down into this a bit. In the complaint the “Union Presbytery Movement” is discussed in paragraphs 19-21 pointing out that it was developed as a method for churches in the northern and southern branches to cooperate in advance of reunion in 1983. Fair enough – this union presbytery does not fit that model but rather fits the opposite of churches that are dividing but still desire to work together on mission.

But let me take this a step further. While we know historically what union presbyteries have been about is there a fundamental problem with using our polity in new creative ways? After all, one of the objectives of the New Form of Government was “With greater freedom and flexibility, the New Form of Government encourages congregations and councils to focus on God’s mission and how they can faithfully participate in this mission.” (emphasis in the original)

And when I looked at this in the Annotated Book of Order I noticed something interesting — There are no additional instructions in this section. The section of the Form of Government dealing with Union Presbyteries (G-5.04) has no interpretations from GA or the GAPJC.

The bottom line is that while we have a history behind union presbyteries the language of the Book of Order includes nothing of that history and from what I see puts no fundamental prohibition on a union presbytery between the PC(USA) and any other Reformed body.

Now, this does not mean that this specific union presbytery is constitutional and it does suffer from a couple of problems the Complainants point out and the SPJC agreed. First, we have the problem that the SPJC found that ECO is not a reformed body. Second, the ECO Presbytery of the West is not a “comparable council” because it did not yet have the size required of a PC(USA) presbytery. And third, an argument that is in the complaint but is not in the decision at this point — Santa Barbara Presbytery and Presbytery of the West are vastly different geographic sizes and so it would make Santa Barbara Presbytery a de facto non-geographic presbytery. (Presbytery of the West covers all churches west of the Mississippi River.)

A fourth issue is that the Plan of Union did not properly reconcile the requirements of the PC(USA) Book of Order and the ECO Polity. This was not however for lack of trying as Santa Barbara Presbytery had overtured the 220th GA with a proposed method to reconcile the two polities as G-5.0401 requires. The overture and another like it were rejected and the annotation noting this is the only annotation for section G-5.04.

Counts 7, 8, 9 and 10 were grouped together. Count 7 is “Violation of our constitutional guarantee of respect for biblically-formed conscience.” Count 8 is “Conditioning congregational membership on more than a profession of faith.” Count 9 is “Infringing congregations’ right to elect, and sessions’ responsibility to assess the fitness of, congregational leaders.” And Count 10 is “Violation of presbytery’s obligations in assessing its congregations’ choices of pastoral leadership.”

The SPJC responded to all four charges by saying:

Councils do not have the right to bind the conscience of either pastors or members to a pro-forma set of essentials. While teaching elders’ consciences are free within the confines of the church’s polity interpretation of Scripture as put forth in the Constitution, members have the right of conscience to a greater degree as well as freedom of conscience to determine the fitness of their own leaders, both at the congregational level as well as the level of the presbytery. The “litmus test” for ordination is given in the Book of Order and provides presbyteries with the freedom to examine candidates on a case by case basis and determine whether or not they meet those standards and are judged by a particular presbytery to be fit for pastoral leadership.

I have printed it all because this reflects the core of their argument why ECO is not a reformed body as I will get to in a minute.

The implication of Charge 8 is that to even be a member of an ECO church you must agree to something more than accepting Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior. Here the SPJC brevity does them a disservice. Paragraph 1.0402 of the ECO polity talks about congregational membership (covenant partner) saying:

A covenant partner is a person who has made a profession of faith in Christ, has been baptized, has been received into the membership of the church, has voluntary submitted to the government of this church, and participates in the church’s worship and work. Covenant partners are eligible to vote in congregational meetings.

For comparison the PC(USA) says in G-1.0303a

Public profession of faith, made after careful examination by the session in
the meaning and responsibilities of membership; if not already baptized, the person making profession of faith shall be baptized;

The next section lays out the responsibilities of membership which include “taking part in the common life and worship of a congregation” and “participating in the governing responsibilities of the church.”

While ECO has consolidated the participation into the paragraph and the PC(USA) sets it up as a response to membership, in a bottom-line sense I don’t see enough of a difference to sustain Charge 8.

But the SPJC apparently saw something and I have to wonder if the SPJC was interpreting the phrase “has voluntary submitted to the government of this church” as meaning they accepted the Essential Tenets document. Taking it on face value I have trouble seeing this as adhering to anything other than faith in Jesus Christ because when talking about qualifications for officers in 2.0101 the Essential Tenets are explicitly mentioned.

As for the other three charges, the discussion of ECO below pertains to those.

The next six charges are related to details in the Plan of Union and how they conflict with PC(USA) polity and many are related to the failure of the overture to GA.

Charge 11 is “Defiance of the church’s discernment that categorical exclusion of gay and
lesbian Presbyterians is improper.” The decision points out that the ECO Essential Tenets do not conform to the GAPJC decisions in the Parnell and Larson cases. (As I noted above this is the one place in the whole Findings and Rational section where there is a formal citation to the Book of Order or an Interpretation of it.)

Charge 12 is related as it says “Denial of our commitment to remain open to God’s continuing reformation of the church.” The charge is sustained with the logic that by adopting Essential Tenets “…the processes of dialogue and discernment whereby divergent views may be examined with the goal of discovering common ground for agreement have been inhibited significantly…”

Charge 13 is “Violation of presbytery’s duty to exercise genuine, good-faith discernment in
providing for dissident congregations.” Dismissal of congregations is now like examinations for ordination and membership and they must be conducted on a case-by-case basis. To make summary pronouncements like the Plan of Union does is a violation of the constitution.

The rational is similar for sustaining Charge 14 concerning the Plan of Union not enforcing the Trust Clause.

Charges 15 and 16 are parallel. The first is that proper provision is not made in the Plan of Union for churches that are “exclusively loyal to the PC(USA).” The second is that the Plan of Union does not properly provide for ministers in validated ministries and not serving in a congregation. The SPJC agreed with both charges noting that the Plan of Union polity mentions, but does not adequately cover these cases “contrary to assertions otherwise.”

Well we are in the home stretch on this section. Charge 17 is about the differences in the physical size of the two Presbyteries and the SPJC writes that in considering the union the Presbytery “has put theological affinity ahead of doing ministry in a geographical location and to work to develop and strengthen ecumenical relationships with believers of other denominations as a sign of the unity of Christ’s church.” This is also where the concept that this physical mis-match would effectively make Santa Barbara a non-geographic is mentioned in the decision.

Charge 18 was “Failure to conduct business decently and in order.” The SPJC agreed saying:

While those supporters placing the Plan for Union before the presbytery membership observed the letter of the law, the spirit of open dialogue, using every avenue available to share information, using gatherings to answer questions, responding appropriately to written requests for information, allowing open discussion without time constraints – all were clearly missing. Both written documentation and trial testimony confirm this. While the plan was clearly laid out and a timeline presented, members felt excluded and their concerns given little importance. While the process may have been orderly, a significant portion of members did not feel that they were treated decently.

Finally, Charge 19 was that the Presbytery had gone ahead with the Plan of Union before receiving Synod approval and the SPJC found that this was not the case and did not sustain the charge.

I hope you are still with me because that section alone is longer than I usually write for a PJC decision. But wait – there’s more! We have one more important issue to address…

Is ECO a Reformed Body?

The focal point of this question is Charge 3 which says the ECO has been mischaracterized as a Reformed body. The SPJC agreed citing the fact that ECO has Essential Tenets and that by requiring agreement to these the group is placing on members a requirement for membership beyond the “only membership requirement one’s personal faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.” The discussion concludes with this:

The preponderance of the evidence demonstrates that the requirements of ECO are otherwise, and by requiring a signed agreement of like belief, exist beyond the boundaries of what it is understood to be Reformed.

I discussed the membership issue above and my reading that the ECO membership requirements do not differ significantly from those of the PC(USA). In a moment here I want to explore the larger context of ECO’s doctrinal requirements for ordained officers embodied in the Essential Tenets.

Charge 1 follows from Charge 3 — if ECO is not a Reformed body the Presbytery must be “Conferring on a “special interest” group a veto over the constitutional governance of the church.”

Charge 4 is that the Presbytery of the West is not a comparable body with which to unite. This was sustained on a couple of points, one being the problems with ECO. In addition, at the time of the trial it did not have the necessary number of churches and teaching elders for what the PC(USA) would recognize as a presbytery.

In reading through this decision the perspective on ECO is the point that really jumped out at me and that particularly bothered me. But what bothered me was not that they declared ECO to be a “special interest group” and not a Reformed body, but how they did it.

Now, ECO may or may not be a Reformed body in your book and I am personally still in waiting mode before I draw any final conclusions. But for a number of reasons I thought the path to this conclusion in the decision had some issues that I would like to explore.

I find three areas to highlight. (And I would include at this point a reminder that the decision was based on the submitted evidence and I am probably going beyond that.)

1. The decision’s reasoning

For starters there is an AI from the 218th GA on G-3.0301a that says in part:

The 218th General Assembly (2008)… advises the presbyteries that they must satisfy themselves concerning the conformity with this denomination… in matters of doctrines and order.

  • doctrinally consistent with the essentials of Reformed theology as understood by the presbytery;
  • governed by a polity that is consistent in form and structure with that of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A);
  • of sufficient permanence to offer reasonable assurance that the congregation is not being dismissed to de facto independence.

Failure on the part of the presbytery thoroughly to explore and adequately to document its satisfaction in these matters may thus violate, however unintentionally, the spirit of the polity of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)”

First, this AI is not specifically referenced in the decision. In regards to that it should be noted that it is an Interpretation on the section on dismissals and not partners in a union presbytery and that it was issued for a particular situation involving transitional presbyteries in a denomination other than ECO. It does however, in the portion quoted above, contain important useful guidelines for assessing another denomination. Furthermore, as I look ahead I suspect future cases involving the nature of ECO are more likely to be about dismissals and not other topics like union presbyteries.

I would further note one important point in this AI which is not referenced in this case — It is the responsibility of the presbytery to determine the status of the body that a church is being dismissed to.

OK, back to the decision. Now, since the Complaint and the Decision do not reference this three-part test we don’t know if the SPJC applied the first (doctrine) or the second (polity) in considering the issue of freedom of conscience. In the end it really does not matter.

But regarding ECO, let’s go ahead and break this down. The question of doctrine is initially fairly straight forward as ECO has adopted the current PC(USA) Book of Confessions. The conditional, of course, would be whether ECO’s inclusion of the Essential Tenets changes the doctrine enough so it is no longer “consistent with the essentials of Reformed theology.” As for the polity, while not adopted verbatim from the PC(USA) there is a strong similarity in structure and practice, as can be seen in the membership requirements I compared above. Probably ECO’s weakest point in the test is the last “sufficient permanence” test since ECO has only been in existence as a body for less than a year.

I’ll return to ECO itself in a few minutes but my point here is that a broad test exists in the Interpretation of the Constitution. The Decision emphasizes one point as the linchpin of Reformed doctrine and the deciding factor regarding Charge 3.

This argument for the Complainants is emphasized by a Director of the Covenant Network, Doug Nave, who represented the Complainants in this case. When the decision was issued the Covenant Network posted notice of it on their web site and a lively discussion ensued in the comments. At one point in the comments Mr. Nave says this:

The SPJC discerned that the PC(USA) Constitution, interpreted as a whole, gives particular meaning to the term “Reformed.” This includes a rejection of both subscriptionism and “works righteousness” — both of which are found in ECO’s theology and polity documents. While other communions might self-identify in a manner that leaves room for the imposition of abstract “essential tenets,” or for requirements that condition church membership on more than a person’s profession of faith, the PC(USA) does not.

It is lost on almost no one that one of the tensions in the PC(USA) is that officers vow “Do you sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the confessions of our church as authentic and reliable expositions of what Scripture leads us to believe and do, and will you be instructed and led by those confessions as you lead the people of God?” The denomination has steadfastly refused to say what the Essential Tenets are. In the PC(USA) the Essential Tenets only become specific when examining a candidate for membership. It reminds me of the card game Mao where “the only rule we can tell you is we can’t tell you the rules.”

However, the PC(USA) does have a guide to our Reformed theology and polity and that is the new Foundations section of the Book of Order. Before the reorganization of the materials San Francisco Theological Seminary created a document based on the old chapter G-2 that listed ten Essential Tenets of the Presbyterian Reformed Faith. Interestingly, freedom of conscience did not make their list. (To be fair, they based it on the old Chapter 2 and the “Right of Judgement” was in the old Chapter 1.)

There is an interesting parallel piece by Dr. Jack Rogers where he breaks down the various doctrine in a like manner. In the introduction of that article he begins by noting that presbyteries and sessions can not construct fixed sets of tenets. He then goes on to point out how the GAPJC in giving this interpretation then broke that rule by affirming the status of the then in force “fidelity and chastity” section. It is interesting to consider if this SPJC has similarly broken this rule when they suggest an essential when write “Councils do not have the right to bind the conscience of either pastors or members to a pro-forma set of essentials” or in the decision on Charge 8 when they declare that there is a “litmus test” regarding how examinations for ordinations are to be carried out.

The point here is that to many reading this decision the “look and feel” is that the value of freedom of conscience has been raised to a position above, or maybe even in place of, the other Essential Tenets of the Reformed Faith. As the SFTS document demonstrates there are multiple Tenets yet this decision deals with only one without creating a context in regards to the others. This has the feel that in saying there are no stated Essentials one has been declared.

To put it another way, Mr. Nave in his discussion interprets the decision like this – “In all of this, the SPJC applied the principle… that each part of our Constitution – including its use of the term “Reformed” – must be interpreted in light of the whole Constitution.” While the SPJC may have applied this principle their reasoning is not as transparent in their writing as it could be.

What adds to this problem of the “look and feel” is that as officers we agree to “exercise freedom of conscience within certain bounds.” The reference to G-2.0105 was abbreviated and without citation in the decision on the combined Charges 7, 8, 9 and 10. This is the section in the PC(USA) Constitution that sets the openness and also the limits of an officer’s freedom of conscience:

G-2.0105 Freedom of Conscience
It is necessary to the integrity and health of the church that the persons who serve it in ordered ministries shall adhere to the essentials of the Reformed faith and polity as expressed in this Constitution. So far as may be possible without serious departure from these standards, without infringing on the rights and views of others, and without obstructing the constitutional governance of the church, freedom of conscience with respect to the interpretation of Scripture is to be maintained. It is to be recognized, however, that in entering the ordered ministries of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), one chooses to exercise freedom of conscience within certain bounds. His or her conscience is captive to the Word of God as interpreted in the standards of the church so long as he or she continues to seek, or serve in, ordered ministry. The decision as to whether a person has departed from essentials of Reformed faith and polity is made initially by the individual concerned but ultimately becomes the responsibility of the council in which he or she is a member.

2. Historical background in American Presbyterianism

In an interesting line in the decision the SPJC writes

In spite of evidence that the history of the Reformed Tradition did involve
adherence to “essential tenets” and required signed affirmation of same for short periods of time, it is the current understanding that the Reformed Tradition rests on a clear understanding that Jesus Christ alone is Lord of the conscience…

I think this minimizes this very conflict in our ecclesiastical heritage and it would be better phrased that “American Presbyterianism has throughout much of its history held a tension between, and struggled with the balance in, freedom of conscience and subscriptionism.” Let me quote from an interesting article titled Jonathan Dickinson and the Subscription Controversy:

In the early eighteenth century the Synod of Philadelphia was a unique blend of two ecclesiastical traditions and theological mind-sets. Within its small compass the synod was home to both a Scotch-Irish contingent, whose training and heritage rendered its members more likely to be the traditionalists or conservatives on each newly rising issue, and a New England party, whose emphasis was on personalized religion bound only by the Word of God and individual conscience. The confluence of these two traditions within the infant synod meant that controversy was inevitable. As new problems arose, the Scotch-Irish naturally tended to impose the structure and rigidity of Old-World Presbyterianism while the New Englanders opted for a freer, less hierarchical approach. The Scotch-Irish tended to translate the Old-World model of a strong, centralized ecclesiastical government and rigid creedal conformity into a world as yet ecclesiastically unshaped. The New Englanders, by contrast, fearing a return to what they considered the too-rigid control over religion from which their forefathers had narrowly escaped, naturally sought theological and moral protection in places other than tight ecclesiastical control. [Bauman, M., 1998, JETS, v 41, n 3, p 455-467, quoted from p. 456]

Does this sound at all familiar? This has been the struggle throughout the history of the American Mainline Presbyterian Church. Among other things, the Adopting Act of 1729 and the Special Commission of 1925 dealt with this issue. For this decision to cite only written subscription “for a short time” misses one of the major arcs of American Presbyterianism.

This has been a continuing discussion in mainline American Presbyterianism and the general, although not exclusive, trend has been for those favoring confessional adherence to depart the mainline. The present situation is no exception. What this decision seems to imply is that enough confessionalists have departed that the preferences of those on the “personal religion” side now dominate.

3. Bigger picture of Reformed Churches

What probably frustrated me the most with this decision is the implication that the PC(USA) gets to define what it does and does not mean to be Reformed.

Presumably the SPJC had as evidence the Packet with the call to the Special Meeting. In this packet the Presbytery Council had their own analysis of ECO as well as documents from three of their experts – Rev. Eunice McGarrahan, Dr. Richard Mouw and Dr. Wayne Darbonne – all speaking favorably of ECO as a Reformed body. Whether through the choice of the SPJC or the minimal response by the Presbytery the arguments in this packet are not reflected, or rebutted, in the decision.

One of the arguments that the Complaint makes against ECO not being a Reformed body is that it is not yet a member of the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC) (Complaint paragraph 17(b)). Fair enough. So if WCRC membership is the imprimatur of being Reformed, or at least goes a long way towards that designation, I would point out that there are denominations in WCRC that require forms of subscription (e.g. Christian Reformed Church, see Article 5 Supplement in Church Order. And the CRC has a page on “What is Reformed?” and I could not find freedom of conscience in there.) And to take it a step further from what PC(USA) polity understands, it is in full communion with the Moravian Church, a Reformed body that has bishops. (They use the term for an ordained office with teaching responsibilities and not in the sense of an episcopal hierarchy.)

But let’s look at a “close relative.” Historically and polity wise the two closest Reformed bodies to the PC(USA) are the Cumberland Presbyterian Church and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. The PC(USA) is in correspondence with both through WCRC.

If you consider the EPC Book of Church Order, section 13-6 says:

The candidate or transferring Teaching Elder shall provide a written statement of any exceptions to the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms of this Church, and the Presbytery must act to allow or disallow the exceptions. The Presbytery shall not allow any exception to “Essentials of Our Faith.” If the Teaching Elder develops exceptions to the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms after ordination, he or she must report those exceptions to the Presbytery and the Presbytery must act to allow or disallow these exceptions.

And this is fundamentally different from the ECO requirement how? The EPC is a recognized similar Reformed body the PC(USA) is in correspondence with and that churches from the PC(USA) have been dismissed to and it has a subscription requirement in its Constitution that if anything is stronger than ECO’s. Can I get a QED?

It is interesting as you look around that what is meant by “Reformed” varies a bit and is something of a Rorschach test or the five blind men and the elephant. There is not a single definition and as you would expect different emphases reflect different theological perspectives. WCRC probably represents the broadest view of what it means to be in the Reformed tradition while other councils, like the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council have more specific scriptural and confessional standards.

Minority Report

There is a dissenting opinion authored by the Rev. Michael D. Haggin which is joined in part by two other commissioners. No objection is made to the overall decision but as the intro says

I completely concur in the unanimous decision of the Commission that the action of the Presbytery of Santa Barbara to create a union presbytery together with the Presbytery of the West of the ECO is irregular and unconstitutional. This could have been a single point of complaint and would, by itself, justify the remedial action ordered in this case. Complainants, however, allege a large number of additional points of complaints which appear to impute unnecessarily negative motives to the Respondent. Accordingly I cannot concur with my colleagues in their decision on several of the counts of the Complaint.

Pursuant to the discussion of whether ECO is a Reformed body the opinion says

The Form of Government (G-5.04) authorizes a presbytery to unite “with one or more comparable councils or governing bodies, each of which is a member of another Reformed body.” Accordingly, on June 2, 2012, Respondent presbytery voted “to recognize ECO: a Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians as a Reformed body.” This Commission has effectively found that ECOP is not “another” body and that Presbytery of the West is not a “comparable council.” In this count, Complainant asks us to deny that ECOP is “Reformed.” Witness testimony was presented to indicate that ECOP fails a particular theological ‘litmus’ test. I believe that it is at least equally legitimate to classify as “Reformed” bodies whose theological witness descends historically from the central preachers and teachers of the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation, including Huldrych Zwingli, John Calvin, Heinrich Bullinger, Zacharius Ursinus, Thomas Cranmer, John Knox, and others of that ‘school.’ When any individual seeking ordination is examined, the ordaining council has the responsibility of determining whether or not the candidate has departed from essentials of Reformed faith and polity (G-2.0105). In this case, Respondent presbytery exercised its analogous responsibility responsibly and defensibly.

The dissenting opinion speaks similarly about Charge 2 – promoting schism: “By prompting
this Complaint, their action gave rise to divisions in the Presbytery community, but it would be a sheer speculation to say that the divisions and schisms resulting from one course of action were greater or less than those resulting from another course of action… I do not endorse Complainant’s desire to mark it as malevolent..”

Regarding Charge 12 about not being open to continuing reformation he says “Since this count appears to charge Respondent with doing something improper in the future, I cannot concur with the Commission decision here.”

Finally, all three commissioners object to the findings on Charge 18, not conducting the business decently and in order. They say “The presbytery was ready to proceed to a decision on June 2, 2012, even if the Complainants felt themselves to be ‘behind the pace’ in the competition of ideas. Respondent presbytery’s actions were (as we have found) mistaken and irregular, but they were not indecent or disorderly.”

General Discussion
Let me begin by echoing Mr. Haggin’s comments.  There are clear grounds in my mind for ruling the Santa Barbara Plan of Union as unconstitutional — if nothing else the failure of their overture to General Assembly probably guaranteed as much. But what really struck me was the tone of the decision as I read it. I recognize that this could be completely unintentional on the part of the SPJC, but the terse, streamlined and citation-free nature of the decision left this polity wonk with some concerns about the impression it was trying to leave.

The other thing that contributed to my disappointment with the nature of the decision was my knowledge of people in Santa Barbara Presbytery that I have worked with at the synod level. I am more than willing to accept that for some this proposal was an escape or shield from the new reality of the PC(USA) following the passage of Amendment 10-A. But 73% of the commissioners approved the Plan of Union and I have talked with friends in the Presbytery for whom this is not an ideal choice but agreed with it as a possible path forward. They do not want to see division but recognize that one way or another it will probably come. These are good Presbyterians of integrity who came to the conclusion that the Presbytery, as well as the PC(USA) as a whole, is better off working together in a union presbytery setting than as two separate entities. I was disappointed that there was no acknowledgement of this reality in the main decision and only in the dissenting opinion where it says “The evidence shows that the moving actors in Respondent presbytery sought to form a union presbytery in the belief, hope, or expectation that it would hold the Presbytery of Santa Barbara together and prevent a number of the member congregations from seeking dismissal.”

So what does all of this mean? Let me turn to the AI for D-7.0402b for guidance:

Decisions of the permanent judicial commissions of synods and
presbyteries are binding on the parties to the particular cases in which
the decisions are rendered unless overturned on appeal. No synod or
presbytery permanent judicial commission is able to make its decisions
binding beyond the parties to the particular case by simply declaring it
to be so.

At the same time, decisions of synod permanent judicial commissions
are precedent setting for that synod, its presbyteries, members of the
presbyteries, sessions, and members of the particular churches in the
That is to say, governing bodies and members in the same jurisdiction
and a lower jurisdiction below the one rendering a decision should be
aware that the permanent judicial commission will render similar
decisions in cases on the same issues and with like fact situations.

So the first thing we can say that this attempt at a union presbytery has probably ended.

However, as the AI says this decision is binding on no one beyond the parties involved so alternate models for union presbyteries might be acceptable. As I stated above, while this decision appealed to history and original nature of the presbyteries to invalidate the concept, another SPJC or the GAPJC may interpret the constitution only as written and find that they are permitted when all the explicit constitutional requirements are met.

Likewise, the parts declaring ECO is not a Reformed body are not binding elsewhere. At the present time ECO is not seriously threatened by this decision and dismissals to ECO by other presbyteries have gone unchallenged as to the nature of ECO. In fact, in the GAPJC decision in the Tom v San Francisco case the decision’s focus was on process for the Trust Clause and no issue was raised with the body the church was dismissed to regarding it not having a Trust Clause.

Now according to the AI the decision is not binding but precedent setting for the other churches and presbyteries in the Synod of Southern California and Hawaii. So does this determination that ECO is a special interest group carry over to congregations being dismissed to ECO? For me the key phrase is “…the permanent judicial commission will render similar
decisions in cases on the same issues and with like fact situations.” I would expect that future cases tied to this issue would be more comprehensive in submitting evidence regarding the nature of ECO changing the “fact situations.” In addition, ECO is also changing as churches join it. In my opinion the precedent here is not strong, will be short-lived and stands a reasonable chance of being revised in future cases. Finally, the Book of Order and the AI regarding dismissal do make it clear that it is the presbytery’s responsibility and right to determine if the other body is in the Reformed tradition and that usually gives the presbytery an edge when their decisions are appealed.

If this case were to be appealed to the GAPJC I would not expect any of the key charges being overturned. New evidence can only be included on appeal if it is newly discovered so more than likely an appeal would proceed based on the original material. Some findings might be overturned, but even overturning a few of the decisions would still leave enough in place to retain the trial court’s verdict regarding the union presbytery. There is a chance that the GAPJC could be convinced that the available evidence at trial was not properly considered with regards to the nature of ECO and that part of the ruling could be overturned. But one must weigh the risk of a decision that now applies to only one presbytery being upheld and becoming a standard for the whole church.

Let me conclude with these points:

  • From the evidence presented the flaws in the Plan of Union are significant enough to invalidate it, especially in light of the 220th GA not approving the details reconciling the two different polities.
  • The evidence presented and argued at trial ended up presenting a narrow view of Reformed doctrine and based on a more comprehensive view of the world Reformed movement I think ECO’s doctrine and polity would be found to lie well within the bounds of what is more widely considered to be Reformed. In addition, what might disqualify a body as a partner in a union presbytery where cooperation is required might not necessarily be a barrier to dismissal.
  • While the Plan of Union had defects, the dismissal of the fundamental concept of the union presbytery suggests that we are not ready for creative answers to modern issues and are more concerned with preserving the institution as we know it. It has the feel of the Seven Last Words of the Church – “We’ve never done it that way before.”

I think I can say that one way or another at least some of this is not yet a settled question. While I would think the odds are against seeing another union presbytery proposal I would not completely rule it out. On the other hand, the disqualification of ECO sent a collective gasp through much of the denomination from what I read and heard and that is a discussion which could be around for a while before it becomes settled law. While many presbyteries have dismissed churches to ECO without issues this case opens up the suggestion that future dismissals are more likely to be challenged, particularly since this is a question that presbyteries must answer and even the GAPJC can not issue an overriding decision on that question (although they could “counsel” a presbytery when they find the presbytery may have done it incorrectly).

OK, at about 7000 words I have probably written enough – maybe too much.
This ended up being a bit of a core dump so I hope my arguments are
coherent and thought-provoking, and maybe even convincing.

I have a couple of related items in the works but after spending two solid weeks researching and writing this maybe it is time to turn geek share a couple of data sets. Stay tuned…

You Say You Want A Reformation? OK, Now What?

Yes, it is once again Reformation Day. This is the one day we can nail down as having a dramatic specific positive event in the sequence of many actions that were part of the Protestant Reformation.

A year ago I reflected on why this date among many other possible dates and why Martin Luther over several other reformers.

As I was reflecting this year I was considering the “Now What.” On this day in 1517 Martin Luther began his very public quest to ask hard theological questions of the church in which he was a priest and which was dominant in his part of the world. But while that was a pivotal moment it was much more the beginning of the journey than the end. The papal bull was not issued until June of 1520 and was not in Luther’s hands for him to burn until December. The Diet of Worms was the following April. It then took Luther a bit over a year – while in protective custody – to translate the New Testament into the common German language, but it was another twelve years to complete the Old Testament. And throughout all this he was also writing his commentaries and other books, particularly On The Babylonian Captivity of the Church where he laid out his theology and where the church in Rome had departed from scripture.

Similarly, while we mark the beginning of the Reformation, or at least Luther’s branch of it, on this day maybe the next major milestone is not his famous defense (the famous “Here I stand” speech.) but the response to that speech in the Edict of Worms issued a month later. Unlike the papal bull that condemned Luther and banned his writings, this edict cut off his accomplices and followers with him. In effect this created the Evangelisch/Lutheran church.

But Luther was not alone in having a slow and steady march. John Calvin was first convinced to stay in Geneva in September of 1536 but was kicked out a year and a half later. Three and a half years later he accepted an invitation to return and works in Geneva for the remaining 23 years of his life. Similarly, his famous work The Institutes of the Christian Religion seemed to be a work never finished going through five editions between 1536 and 1559.

And the Scottish Reformation was a real roller coaster ride. In 1560, under the leadership of John Knox, the Scottish Parliament cut ties with the papacy and adopted a new confession of faith. However, the structure of the church changed much more slowly and the back and forth of English rule and those that ruled England led to an ebb and flow in the church. There were high points, such as the Presbyterian influence in the Westminster Assembly, and low points like the 28 years of persecution under Charles II. Religious toleration came back at the end of the persecution in 1687 and Presbyterianism recognized as the established religion in Scotland with the Act of Union in 1707.

It is hard to see Reformation as a single date or point in time.

History generally teaches us that major change, and especially reformation, is messy, complicated and takes time. And Luther, Calvin and Knox are the successes while others like Hus, Tyndale and Hamilton did not find political and societal circumstances as fortunate and gave up their lives for their cause.

But in another sense the Reformation never ended. The point of the Reformation was to recover the Word of God and always be subject to it. The reformers made a point of the third mark of the true church, discipline uprightly administered, with the point of it to be constantly seeking together as a covenant community what God would have us do.

And so, on this Reformation Day, it brings us back around to one of the mottoes we associate with the Reformation:

“The Church Reformed and always being Reformed according to the Word of God”

40th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America

  Coming up this week we have the two largest annual American Presbyterian General Assembly meetings. The first will be the meeting of the 40th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America which will convene on Tuesday 19 June in Louisville, Kentucky. The meeting concludes on Friday. Committee meetings and pre-Assembly workshops and seminars happen on Monday and most of the day Tuesday with the Assembly convening Tuesday evening.

There is plenty of info related to this meeting. Here is some of the most useful and important material.

If you want to follow the proceedings on Twitter this should be a fairly active meeting. As already mentioned the official news feed is @PCAByFaith but at this moment it seems the hashtag has not been settled between #pcaga or #pcaga12. As for individuals at GA… where to start? Let me suggest a few and I will update as needed – so for starters @PCAPresbyter, @RaeWhitlock, @EdEubanks, @SeanMLucas and @Weslianus. (That looks like a good Friday Follow on Twitter.) UPDATE: Add to that list @FredGreco

Lots of interesting business coming to the Assembly including that extensive report on Insider Movements.  With this meeting a lot has been known to happen with records reviews so we will see what might happen when that report comes up on Wednesday afternoon.

Fourty-three overtures is a fairly typical volume, or maybe a bit more than typical, for this Assembly and many of them are the routine business of doing things decently and in order. This would include Overtures 5 and 7, 23 and 24, and 22, 39, 40, 41 and 42. Each of these are sets of concurring overtures related to changing presbytery boundaries, including the last one which would dissolve Louisiana Presbytery and merge it into the four surrounding presbyteries.

There is a lot of important business in the overtures so let me break them into a couple of classes. A number of them are polity changes to adjust sections of the Book of Church Order (BCO), the Rules of Assembly (ROA) or the rules of the Standing Judicial Commission (SJC). There are also two (37, 44) recognizing the 30th anniversary of the “Joining and Receiving” of the Reformed Church, Evangelical Synod with the PCA.

Several of the overtures deal with confessional issues and confessional standards. This includes concurring overtures 1 and 2 which seek to have not just those that are ordained, but those that are in the process and are coming up for licensure to be examined for their conformity with the Standards. Another interesting proposed change to the BCO would make the distinction between confessing and catechizing the faith more distinct in the BCO. Overture 35 asks for a rewording of 55-1 and the addition of a new 55-2 so that faith is confessed using the Apostles and Nicene Creeds and is catechized using the Westminster Standards. This is actually part of a related series of overtures from Southeast Alabama Presbytery that deal with membership, including asking for the requirement that to join the church an individual must affirm the Apostles Creed (Overtures 33 and 34).

There are a couple of overtures that explore important theological questions. Overture 30  argues that in the Last Supper Jesus distributed the bread and wine in two separate sacramental actions and since communion by intinction merges the actions it is therefore not an appropriate means to distribute communion. The overture proposes language to make this explicit in the BCO. Another major topic this year is the historic nature of Adam and Eve and two concurring overtures, 10 and 29, ask the Assembly to reaffirm a PCUS statement of 1886 declaring the special creation of Adam and Eve by God with Adam being created from only the dust. These overtures also note that the failure of the PCUS GA to reaffirm this statement in 1969 “was a sign of the apostasy of the PCUS.” In response is Overture 26 which states that current statements on this topic are sufficient and that the specificity of the declaration is outside the Westminster Standards and therefore the statement proposed in the other overtures should not be adopted. (Earlier this afternoon updates from the committee meeting indicate that the committee will recommend not affirming Overtures 10 and 29 and affirming Overture 26.)

Just a sampling of the business before the Assembly. For a fuller discussion of the overtures check out Wes White’s blog Johannes Weslianus.

So I wish all the commissioners and families a good time in Louisville and enjoying the barbeque. Our prayers are with you for your deliberations and work.

Presbyterian News Headlines For The Week Ending May 19, 2012 — Bullying, Departures and a Merger

A few items that caught my attention this week

Church of Scotland hit by staff bullying claims

Herald Scotland, 19 May 2012
As the 2012 General Assembly gets underway there are reports that a secret survey of the Kirk’s central office staff alleges “disturbing levels of bullying.”

Congregations leave local Presbyterian district

Sun Sentinel, 16 May 2012
At its regular stated presbytery meeting the Presbytery of Tropical Florida dismissed nine churches from the PC(USA), most to ECO.

Vicksburg churches switch affiliation

My San Antonio, 19 May 2012 [Originally from the Vicksburg Post post which requires registration – link within this article.]
The Presbytery of Mississippi dismissed three churches from the PC(USA) to the EPC.

France will have new denomination with Protestant merger

ENI News, 16 May 2012
The Reformed Church of France – the largest Protestant body in France and tracing its origin back to the Huguenots – merged with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of France to form the United Protestant Church of France.

Finally, if any news item went viral this week it was the resolution of the Presbytery of the Redwoods objecting to the rebuke of Teaching Elder Jane Spahr by their PJC that was upheld on appeal to the SPJC and the GAPJC. I commented on that and there are numerous article about it including ones from the San Francisco Chronicle, Washington Post and the Associated Press.

We now have two General Assemblies underway so there will be lots to talk about next week.

Threading The Needle — SPJC Approves Standards Statement

No sooner do I get done reflecting on the tension between a presbytery having full authority to determine if candidates hold the necessary and essential tenets of the Reformed faith and the requirement that presbyteries don’t actually try to enumerate them in advance then we have a Synod Permanent Judicial Commission (SPJC) decision that confirms that a presbytery has appropriately threaded this needle.

This case goes back to last September when the Presbytery of Los Ranchos adopted a statement on “behavioral expectations” of officers. This statement reads

Affirming that ‘The gospel leads members to extend the fellowship of Christ to all persons.’ (G-1.0302) The Presbytery of Los Ranchos, meeting on September 15, 2011, affirms that the Bible, The Book of Confessions and the Book of Order (including G-2.0104b and G- 2.0105.1 & 2) set forth the scriptural and constitutional standards for ordination and installation. Los Ranchos Presbytery believes the manner of life of ordained Ministers should be a demonstration of the Christian gospel in the church and in the world, including living either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness and will so notify candidates for ordination/installation and/or membership in the presbytery. In obedience to Jesus Christ, under the authority of Scripture and guided by our confessions, this presbytery will prayerfully and pastorally examine each candidate’s calling, gifts, preparation, and suitability for the responsibilities of office, including a commitment to fulfill all requirements as expressed in the constitutional questions of ordination and installation.

A remedial complaint was filed with the Synod of Southern California and Hawaii PJC – Gerald J . Larson, Gary L. Collins, Rebecca B. Prichard , R. Winston Presnall, Margery Mcintosh, Michal Vaughn, Lucy Stafford-Lewis, July Richwine, Jerry Elliott, Sara McCurdy, Gregory Vacca, Gail Stearns, Steve Wirth, Suzanne Darweesh, Jane Parker , Darlene Elliott, Frances Bucklin, Deborah Mayhew, James McCurdy, Judith Anderson, and Susan Currie, Complainants, vs . Presbytery of Los Ranchos, Respondent (with thanks to the Layman for making the decision available on-line). The complainants had three Specifications of Error which the SPJC wrote “can be disposed of by the following specification: Whether a presbytery has the right to pass a resolution concerning the manner of life for its teaching elders as part of the proper exercise of the presbytery’s authority within the powers reserved to presbyteries . (F-3.0209)” And the decision says – “This specification is answered in the affirmative.”

In stating that the resolution is proper the key line in the decision section says

It does not restate the Constitution in that it explicitly affirms the various documents without offering an interpretation of those documents.

They go on to first note that prior GAPJC decisions are based upon a prior Book of Order, although it is worth mentioning that the Report of the Special Committee on Existing Authoritative Interpretations of the Book of Order is recommending that all the cited Interpretations be retained. The decision then discusses these standards in light of the Bush and Buescher GAPJC decisions. Relative to Bush v Pittsburgh (218-10) they note that the Los Ranchos statement is in compliance with that decision as the “Resolution does not seek to offer an interpretation, paraphrase or restatement of any constitutional provisions.” Regarding the Buescher v Olympia decision (218-09) the Los Ranchos resolution specifically says that each candidate will be individually examined and so it does not have essentials that are mandated in advance.

Then, in what strikes me as an interesting use of this section of the Book of Order, the decision cites F-3.0102 where it says “[E]very Christian church, or union or association of particular churches, is entitled to declare the terms of admission into its communion, and the qualifications of its ministers and members…” I have usually read this in the context of affirming denominational differences not standards for individual presbyteries or particular churches so its use here struck me as out of place. Just my reading of it and I’ve grasped at thinner straws myself.

The decision section concludes with this:

The Resolution does not obstruct any on-going interpretation or implementation of the constitution. It does not alter or interpret the standards for ordination and installation. The Resolution does not seek to define any tenet as an ‘essential’ doctrine of the P.C. (U.S.A.).

But the SPJC has more to say in the order, and while lifting the Stay of Enforcement the Presbytery was also, under order, admonished for the language that they chose:

IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that the Presbytery of Los Ranchos be admonished that while this PJC considers the resolution constitutional, the use of specific language known to be divisive and inflammatory flies in the face of the responsibility to seek the peace, unity, and purity of the church.

Now, the polity wonks probably picked up two items in the decision that seem a bit of an issue, one being the use of F-3.0102 that I just mentioned. Two commissioners dissented from the decision and highlighted these two items in their opinion. Their first point is this:

1. In using the statement, “living either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or in singleness” the Presbytery is using a direct restating of the previous Book of Order requirement which was replaced by the General Assembly action and the presbyteries’ vote. Therefore, it has no constitutional standing and cannot be used to determine a candidate’s ordination eligibility. Such a policy preempts the vote of presbyters meeting in the future for the examination of candidates who have met the current constitutional requirements.

They later write:

This language is purposefully taken out of the standards for ordained service (G-2.0l04b) by the action of the General Assembly and vote of the presbyteries. This renders the statement of the Presbytery of Los Ranchos unconstitutional in form and intent.

Their second point is what they consider the misapplication of F-3.0102 by the majority. Expressing the same understanding of the section I mention above they write, in part:

In F-3.0102 the Book of Order continues to speak of the Christian church [in all its denominations] by saying, “Every Christian Church or union or association of particular churches”[referring to denominations, not presbyteries] is entitled to declare the terms of admission into its communion, and the qualifications of its ministers and members. [Again, referring Reformed Tradition churches, not presbyteries.]

In fact, the Presbyterian Church (USA) specifically stresses in diversity as it states in the Book of Order: (F-1.0403)

The unity of believers in Christ is reflected in the rich diversity of the Church’s membership…

Let me make two brief points in conclusion:

First, the Presbytery of Los Ranchos is trying to walk a very fine polity line here and in the opinion of the majority of the SPJC they have successfully done so.  However, the decision I expected from this case was much, much closer to the dissenting opinion. I have to think that the verbatim inclusion of now-removed language from the Book of Order is a problem in light of the Bush decision. If appealed to the GAPJC I would think this decision has a high likelihood of being overturned. However…

Before the GAPJC will be able to hear this case, if appealed, the 220th General Assembly will be meeting and who knows what polity landscape will come out of that.  One possibility is that an Overture from South Alabama Presbytery (Item 07-08) will be sent to the presbyteries for concurrence providing for presbytery-specific behavioral expectations to be included in the presbytery’s operational manuals. Or maybe officers-elect who are being examined will be explicitly prohibited from being asked to commit on how they would view the fitness of future officers-elect they might be examining. This request for an AI comes from similar overtures from Genesee Valley and Albany.

Finally, just a reminder and in full disclosure that I am, and have been, active in the Synod of Southern California and Hawaii and know a good number of the people on both sides of this issue. The opinions expressed here are my own and do not reflect any sort of official disagreement or agreement with the faithful members of the SPJC. These are purely personal conclusions and remarks.

So, like much in the PC(USA) at the moment the future developments in this case will be interesting to see and heavily influenced by the moving target that is PC(USA) polity at the moment. Stay tuned and we will see what happens.

PC(USA) GAPJC Decision — Parnell v. Presbytery of San Francisco

The Permanent Judicial Commission of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has heard the final installment in a series of cases concerning San Francisco Presbytery’s decision to ordain Lisa Larges as a teaching elder. This has been a long journey which has finally reached its conclusion — this decision lifts the stay of enforcement and clears the way for the Presbytery’s decision to ordain Lisa to be carried out. In the larger context with the passage of Amendment 10-A we have probably seen the last of this type of cases.

I am not going to go through the full, complicated history of this case and the other remedial cases revolving around this ordination process – you can read about it in the GAPJC decision and my previous summaries. Briefly, where we stand with this case is that in the previous hearing before the GAPJC the Commission agreed with the Synod PJC that for the most part the procedure followed by the Presbytery was correct but that in their decision the Synod PJC had not properly dealt with the issue of doctrine. It was remanded back to the Synod for further consideration and now following that consideration, and an SPJC decision that there was no problem, it was appealed back to the GAPJC.

Now, in the case of Eric Parnell, Bruce McIntosh, Cordelia Shieh, Margaret Gelini, Greg Roth, Marsha Roth, Randy Young, and the Session of Walnut Creek Presbyterian Church, Appellants (Complainants), v. Presbytery of San Francisco, Appellee (Respondent):  Remedial Case 220-10 the GAPJC in a unanimous decision did not sustain any of the eight specifications of error.  As I indicated above every one dealt with doctrine and all begin “The SPJC committed an error of constitutional interpretation when it…” These specifications of error are:

  • “…when it failed to act according to its constitutional responsibility to warn and bear witness against error in doctrine within its bounds.”
  • “…when it presumed that it was the presbytery’s prerogative to determine the essentials of Reformed faith and polity, when they are expressed in the Constitution.”
  • “…when it failed to properly reconcile the Historic Principles of Church Order by giving effect only to F-3.0101 (Freedom of Conscience) at the expense of all the others.”
  • “…when it applied the concept of mutual forbearance (F-3.0105) to permit the candidate’s conscientious objection to a scriptural and confessional standard to infringe upon the rights and views of others (G-2.0105).”
  • “…when it failed to apply and enforce the interpretation of Scripture found in the Confessions (G-2.0105) with regard to sexual conduct.”
  • “…when it failed to discipline and rebuke the Presbytery for its failure to admonish and instruct the candidate in correct doctrine (G-3.0301c).”
  • “…when it permitted the Presbytery to accept a candidate for ordination who could not, by her rejection of sound doctrine, provide an affirmative answer to each of the constitutional questions for ordination (W-4.4003, 4005b, 4006b).”
  • “…when it permitted mere authoritative interpretations – in this case, the PUP and Knox AI – to override constitutional provisions, including those found in the Book of Confessions.”

As polity wonks know, every one of these has been an important polity question in the Presbyterian understanding of church government. In this present case some of these are rendered moot by the change in the Book of Order removing the specific restrictive language. But others are more general, such as how free a presbytery is to decide essentials of Reformed Faith and polity or the interplay of mutual forbearance, conscientious objection and confessional standards.  I’ll make a couple of observations in a minute, but first some quotes from the decision itself.

In the opening paragraph of the decision section the GAPJC writes:

[The] alleged errors can be subsumed under two categories: (1) doctrinal error by errant interpretation of Scripture and Confessions, and (2) the authority of the Presbytery in the examination of the Candidate for ordination. The Commission agrees with the SPJC Decision that the Presbytery properly exercised its prerogative in determining that the Candidate did not depart from the essentials of Reformed faith and polity.

They note the “diversity of opinions” in the PC(USA) and that historically “presbyteries have had full authority to determine whether a candidate for ordination adheres to the necessary and essential tenets of the Reformed faith.” The decision section concludes by talking about the Book of Confessions:

The Book of Confessions reflects that the Church listens to a multitude of voices in shaping its beliefs. The Book of Confessions is hardly univocal, containing as it does eleven different creeds, catechisms, and confessions of faith written over millennia of Christian witness. … Therefore, the confessional tradition is, itself, an instrument of reform. The Book of Confessions, much like Scripture itself, requires discernment and interpretation when its standards are to be applied in the life and mission of the church.

The decision of the SPJC is therefore affirmed and the stay of enforcement vacated.

This decision comes with two concurring opinions from two different viewpoints.  The first, signed by four commissioners, is an interesting historical commentary. It begins by noting that the original examination of the candidate involved declaring a scruple which they “believe to have then been unconstitutional.” With the change in the constitutional language this is no longer relevant.

But they go on to note, using language from the SPJC decision, the “vast diversity of interpretation of scripture and the confessions regarding human sexuality” across members of the denomination. They then write:

While we concur with this assessment of where the PC(USA) is as a denomination, we lament that it is in this place – where differences over matters of human sexuality have become so diverse and divisive, where slim majority votes create huge shifts in the communal life of the denomination, and where every decision the church makes in this area is a sweet victory for one side, and a bitter defeat for the other, ultimately causing entire congregations to determine that they can no longer remain in fellowship with the denomination. As Joe Small described in a recent article in First Things, our denomination has relied on polity instead of scriptural and theological discernment to decide particular manifestations of the dilemma in which we find ourselves.

In many respects the denomination has been transformed by a culture of sexual fixation rather than being transformative of that culture. What difference does it make to be “Christian” when it comes to our lifestyles? Have we spoken truth to power on issues such as promiscuity, premarital, extramarital and postmarital sex and the “soft” pornography that is rampant in our television shows and advertisements? Have we been willing to teach our children and each other on these matters? Or have we succumbed to the tyranny of cultural peer pressure? How can we discipline officers for sexual misconduct when we are unwilling to discipline ourselves generally? Have we been blinded by the “trees” of the homosexual issue, while overlooking the “forest” of the larger issues of sexual gluttony generally?

They continue with an interesting comparison of the situation today with the circumstances in the 1920’s that gave rise to the Swearingen Commission. They quote from the Commission’s first report that discussed the lack of interest in changing the Constitution but rather that “They are agreed that the remedies for our troubles are within the Constitution itself.” The opinion then goes on to say:

The same assessment could not be given today, and it is precisely our arguments over the constitution – including acts of outright defiance of constitutional provisions by those on both “sides” in our various debates – that we believe threaten our continued existence and future vitality as a faith tradition. There was a time when our covenantal commitment to each other was strong, and when “mutual forbearance” meant a willingness to abide by our constitution even as we worked to change it. Because of our increasing differences regarding what the constitution ought to say, those days are gone – and we are therefore in the position described by the Swearingen Commission in which our difficulties are “multiplied greatly.”

There is a second concurring opinion by two commissioners that makes an argument about the place of interpretation. They begin by noting that “the matter of interpretation is central because in large part it is inevitable within scriptural and confessional authority.” They go on to write:

The necessary act of interpretation has been at the heart of the Reformed tradition from its inception. One may, in fact, claim that the Reformation in itself was an event of radical reinterpretation, i.e., a corrected interpretation of the Bible in a recovery of the priority of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the means of grace.

They continue:

In this case, the parties agree on the necessity of continuing interpretation in understanding the meaning of Scripture and Confession through the application of modern textual analysis. The record exhibits testimony and general agreement in a number of interpretive conflicts in the church’s more recent history dealing with issues such as the role of women in the church, or in the matter of divorce and remarriage. The use of textual-critical methods, especially in the last century, has altered the range of interpretation to such an extent that scriptural and confessional texts in the arena of social and sexual relations areas have become open to alternate understandings.

Only in the matter of homosexuality do the Appellants claim an exception, i.e., pressing a univocal meaning and interpretation across vastly different historical periods and socio-cultural contexts. Although in other areas of contention there is an acceptance of the conditioning nature of radically altered historical-cultural situations, including differing social and scientific assessments, that may lead to the legitimacy of variant interpretation, in the argument of this Appeal homosexuality is an exception. It alone is held to be exempt from such interpretive analysis. The Appellants do not offer a convincing rationale in support of this exception. There is extended reference to a simple preponderance of pre-modern and early modern testimonies, but the argument remains rooted in an assumption of univocal constancy, with little reference to contemporary critical analysis or contextual differentiation. Absent such substantiation, the Appellants present no basis for rejecting the truth claim in variant interpretations.

The opinion concludes with how the Swearingen Commission described an essential tenet in their second report:

That which is “essential and necessary” is that which must be present in the doctrinal system of the church in order to uphold its central witness and maintain its distinctive character. Absent such doctrine, the system collapses. The test then becomes whether a particular doctrine or practice is necessary for the integrity of the system of doctrine as a whole.

They conclude that the doctrinal issue in this matter does not rise to the level of “essential and necessary.”

Now, while each of these is an interesting commentary and provides insights into the historical context, they are only concurring opinions and are not authoritative. In addition, they are essentially comments on the larger situation in the PC(USA) and how they see that it got into the current circumstances. It is left as an exercise for the reader as to the strengths of each of their arguments.

So, in that vain here are a couple of observations from me that I hope address the implications of this decision…

One of the things that I am on the lookout for when reading PJC or SJC decisions is to what extent they may be setting precedent. Because Amendment 10-A has gone into effect Specification of Error 8 is moot and was not individually addressed so this decision does not help enlighten us on the extent to which a General Assembly may use an Authoritative Interpretation to, shall we say, smooth constitutional language.  The first concurring opinion gave us their belief on the matter. I am concerned that the 220th General Assembly could issue AI’s that will be bouncing back and forth between the GA and the GAPJC much as the PUP and Knox AI did.

One thing this opinion does reinforce is that “presbyteries have had full authority to determine whether a candidate for ordination adheres to the necessary and essential tenets of the Reformed faith.” In doing so the GAPJC again declines to give specific guidance on what those are and leaves it up to the presbyteries. Is the logical extension of this that presbyteries, in discerning the necessary and essential tenets, are empowered to formally establish what necessary and essential tenets are? (exempli gratia) We know from the 2008 Buescher v. Olympia decision:

Attempts by governing bodies that ordain and install officers to adopt resolutions, statements or policies that paraphrase or restate provisions of the Book of Order and/or declare them as “essentials of Reformed faith and polity” are confusing and unnecessary, and are themselves an obstruction to constitutional governance in violation of G-6.0108a.

Candidates must be evaluated individually but if the presbytery has “full authority,” to what extent can the necessary and essential tenets be determined as a matter of presbytery policy?

But while this decision speaks of the full authority of a presbytery and listening to a “multitude of voices,” the polity wonks are well aware of the tension and limits expressed in the Maxwell v. Pittsburgh decision where the GAPJC said that “presbytery’s power is not absolute. It must be exercised in conformity with the Constitution.” They went on to say

It is evident from our Church’s confessional standards that the Church believes the Spirit of God has led us into new understandings of this equality before God, Thus the Confession of 1967 proclaims, “Congregations, individuals, or groups of Christians who exclude, dominate, or patronize their fellowmen, however subtly, resist the Spirit of God and bring contempt on the faith which they profess.” (9.44.)

So a tension is present and over time the confessions may be understood to be more univocal on particular points.

And just a note about how these decisions focus on the church Constitution in general and the confessions in particular.  Yes, it is the charge of the GAPJC to interpret the Constitution, but while the specifications of error made reference to scripture, only passing reference to this is made in this decision to the authority of scripture. The focus instead is on how it is filtered and viewed through the confessions.  Compare this to the charges against Charles A. Briggs in 1893, admittedly a bit apples and oranges since this is remedial and that was disciplinary, which are very specific in regards to scripture references and doctrinal errors. As the Maxwell decision says, the authority of a presbytery is judged in relation to the Constitution, not in direct relation to scripture.

Another point that jumped out at me was the decision’s discussion of the nature of The Book of Confessions.  I don’t think it surprised anyone who has looked at the history of American Presbyterianism to read the line in the decision that says “The Book of Confessions reflects that the Church listens to a multitude of voices in shaping its beliefs. The Book of Confessions is hardly univocal, containing as it does eleven different creeds, catechisms, and confessions of faith written over millennia of Christian witness.” Even with only the Westminster Standards American Presbyterians have had trouble agreeing on what they mean — how much more when you have eight other documents thrown in? In light of the fact that ECO has expressed their desire to be specific about necessary and essential tenets I, and I suspect a number of others, were surprised to see that they propose adopting all eleven of the documents as their subsidiary standards, at least as an opening position.  Recognizing that this variety of statements is not univocal on many doctrinal issues, at the West Coast Fellowship of Presbyterians gathering in March it was interesting to hear TE Jim Singleton, in response to a question about this, commented that there will probably be doctrinal issues to be worked out “once we are all in the boat together” as the new ECO body.

OK, I have rambled on enough here so let me get to the bottom line.  As I read this decision I don’t see that it breaks any new ground but is a confirmation of the current status in the PC(USA). It is significant in two respects: 1) From my tracking all pre-10-A judicial cases have now been concluded. 2) The reinforcing of the status quo comes at a pivotal time with the establishment of ECO and a number of contentious issues coming to the General Assembly in two months. Another milepost on the journey — let us see what happens next.  Stay tuned…

Musings On The FOP NRB Theology Document – 2. Theology Comes First

As we anticipate the next gathering of the Fellowship of Presbyterians I thought I would riff for a few minutes about their draft Theology Document

One month ago the Fellowship released both a draft Theology and a draft Polity document for the new Reformed body ( NRB ) in preparation for their meeting in just under two weeks. The close of the comment period for the drafts was yesterday and registration closes on Monday. The Fellowship says that at the present time 2100 people have registered for the meeting so it looks will have significant participation.

For those interested in polity, parliamentary procedure and process I think you will find some of the analysis by Carmen Fowler LaBerge in the Layman of some interest. She highlights many of the process issues that will come up at the meeting, e.g. Who can vote on these documents? Will substitute motions be permitted? I’m sure the organizers have this all in hand but an announcement of these process issues has not been posted to the Fellowship web site. She also echoes a couple of my thoughts about the Theology document, which I will refer to in a minute.

While my first musing was on the polity related to subscribing to the theology, when the documents were released I probably looked forward to reading the theology document more than the polity — after all, our polity flows from the theology. There were several things I anticipated in the theology document and I can say that I was wrong about several of them.

Maybe my biggest question, and my biggest surprise, was the approach they took to confessional standards. The proposal is to adopt the whole of the current Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Book of Confessions as the initial standards. The Forward to the document begins with this (page 1):

The first task is to identify the statements of our confessional heritage that will connect us with the one holy catholic apostolic church and express our distinctively Reformed convictions within that church. We propose the collection of confessional documents in The Book of Confessions as the appropriate theological expression at this moment in our life together. These creeds, confessions, and catechisms have much-needed wisdom of proven worth for us, and can uniquely serve as the central documents for a new Fellowship that strives to retain meaningful connections among congregations, some of whom will be within the PC(USA), some of whom will be in a new Reformed body. (emphasis as in original)

Later it continues with (page 2)

We recognize that The Fellowship and/or the new Reformed body may, after a time of building and testing theological consensus among us, alter this judgment. But it is our opinion that the theological consensus among evangelicals has not been tested and, further, that to presume a consensus where one does not exist is to repeat one of the most significant theological failures of our generation. As members of the ordered ministries of the Church, we have agreed to The Book of Confessions. Let us keep that covenant that we may be found faithful to any new theological covenant we will make.

As I said, Carmen Fowler LaBerge echoes my surprise at this broad inclusion when she says:

I was surprised that the Fellowship document recommends the entirety of the PCUSA Book of Confessions
as the confessional standard of the new Reformed body.  In particular,
the Confession of 1967 is problematic for many who have grown
disaffected with the PCUSA’s diffuse theological wanderings since its
adoption a generation ago.

I could ask whether the playing field would have been different if the Belhar Confession had been adopted — but since it was not this really is a hypothetical and moot question at this time.

Now, I am going to take the document at face value about their reasoning, but also add that there are obvious pragmatic benefits to this choice: The document mentions the shared confessional standard that would benefit union churches and affiliations as well as the fact that they are beginning with a standard currently accepted and vowed to by those in the Fellowship. But, when you consider the time frame that the drafters were under as well as the potential for bogging down an assembly in fine-tuning a new confessional standard, the benefits of an off-the-shelf known entity are obvious. It also means that the NRB does not have to worry about publishing their own volume of confessions just yet.

The Confessional Standards are the first substantive portion of the document and the second is the Essential Tenets (of the Reformed Faith). I think that most would agree that the Essential Tenets section does a good job of articulating the historical orthodox Christian beliefs as well as what most would consider the traditional Reformed distinctives. Throughout it there is good agreement with the Foundations section of the PC(USA) Book of Order. In general, whether you personally agree or disagree with Reformed theology and basic Calvinism, you have to acknowledge that for the most part this section holds closely to that. And doing this section as a narrative, and not bullet points, I would say enhances the value of it.

The point where the disagreements would most likely begin is in the final “application” section – the document calls it “Living in Obedience to the Word of God.” This is the section that uses as a framework the Ten Commandments. While I discussed some of my hesitancy with this in the previous post, this is the section that applies the preceding confessions and tenets to specific lifestyle issues that a good portion of the church might see in a different light. For instance, the second point says:

2. worship God in humility, being reticent in either describing or picturing God, recognizing that right worship is best supported not by our own innovative practices but through the living preaching of the Word and the faithful administration of the sacraments;

Church historians and polity wonks may recognize that the term “innovative practices” is a loaded term in Presbyterian tradition. This is a current topic among churches, like the Free Church of Scotland, that are discussing flexibility in worship styles, particularly regarding exclusive unaccompanied Psalmody. As one article on the Regulative Principle puts it – “The regulative principle of worship requires man to worship God only as
He has commanded in His Word. To add elements of human innovation into
the worship of God brings His just displeasure.” (emphasis added) Many of these Presbyterian branches would consider some of the worship practices seen across the PC(USA) as “human innovation.”

Specifically, the term “innovations” is a technical term in many branches of Presbyterian polity whose depth of meaning I won’t go into at this time. One place it is regularly found is in the Barrier Act – the standard in many Presbyterian branches descending directly from the Scottish Reformation that says when an act of the General Assembly/Synod must have the concurrence of the presbyteries. A polity discussion from the Free Church Assembly regarding worship practices discusses the Barrier Act of 1697. The sub-title of the act is “Act anent the Method of passing Acts of Assembly of general concern to the Church, and for preventing of Innovations.” (Yes indeed, capitalized as a proper noun.)

But getting back to the Theology document… This complexity around the application of the second commandment is just one example. My point is that it is usually when the church tries to translate doctrine into practice that we run into the biggest differences of opinion.

Moving on I’ll finally get to what I like best about the Theology document, and that is the concept behind section three on Ideas & Questions for Immediate Consideration. Let me back-track to the Forward for the real punch line here (page 1-2):

Casual affirmation of our theological heritage by our generation has severely weakened our worship and witness. We are squandering the gifts our confessional heritage could give us. We confess we have not been good stewards of the Faith. We must now reengage the Faith of the Church in ways that are more deeply committed to its truth and thus its value in ordering our life toward faithfulness. We have a strong conviction that our current theological failures are not the failures of the bishops at Nicea, the divines at Westminster, or the confessors at Barmen; the failures are our own. Now is the time to confess it and strengthen our theological covenant.

It later (page 2) says

Structures for doing theological work and for keeping theological integrity need to be established. Theology is not only to be established in our minds and become formative for our hearts, it is to be embodied in our manner of life and in the structures of the church. Companies of Pastors and Orders of Elders need to be formed. Teaching and Ruling Elders must relearn how to fulfill their missional callings in light of the Faith of the Church.  Our faithfulness depends on it. We strongly propose that new structures will be formed for the purpose of making a contribution to the theological well-being of the church so that our Faith can make its full contribution to the mission of the Church.

[Rant mode on] This may not be true for your congregation but I sometimes ask myself “If we have a Book of Confessions, why don’t we use it?”

One of my concerns with adopting the Belhar Confession was that we have so many documents now that just sit on the shelf, what is the value of adding one more? And I’m sure my pastor is getting tired of my commenting that we don’t use confessions enough in worship and education, or when we use one from another tradition why don’t we use more from our Book of Confessions.

Don’t misunderstand me – just as this Theology document finds the standards “have much-needed wisdom of proven worth for us” I agree and value both the historical and the timeless voice in which they speak. It is not in their intrinsic value that I have questions but in their visibility and application in the church today.

[Rant mode off]

I really like the fact that the Theology document recognizes this and proposes a process for keeping the confessions “on the table,” making sure theology comes first (page 10):

Renewed commitment to sustained conversation is needed. At its best, sustained conversation is characterized by prayerful and rigorous study of the Scripture with attention to clarifying the Reformed theological lens through which we read the Scriptures, by grateful listening to the voice of the church around the world and through the ages, and application of theological wisdom to every part of life before God and for the world.

Toward these ends, we now commit ourselves to the formation of theological friendships in communities that include all teaching and ruling elders – gatherings of elders which covenant to study and learn together, providing mutual encouragement and accountability for the sake of sustaining and advancing the theological and missional work of the church.

If the creeds, confessions and catechisms are living documents, then we must live with them and into them. I very much appreciate that this document and the proposed life of the NRB addresses that fact.

Well, there are a bunch more things I had in my head to muse about, but my time is up and this got longer than I thought it would.  At this point I don’t anticipate another musing before the FOP has their next gathering so I’ll sit back and watch Presbyterian polity at work in a new venue. Prayers for the gathering and I’ll catch up with the FOP on the back side.

The Airline Industry As A Model For The American Mainline Churches

Last Friday on NPR‘s All Things Considered news show there was an interesting piece in their Planet Money segment on “Why Airlines Keep Going Bankrupt.” In that report the following lines got me thinking:

(Reporter) CAITLIN KENNEY: …[A]ll airlines face these challenges and only some file for bankruptcy. He says it’s usually a certain type.

(Interviewed expert) PROFESSOR SEVERIN BORENSTEIN: The legacy airlines.

So my thinking made the jump –

“All churches face challenges and only some are in steep decline: The mainline churches.”

Is there a parallel or model in here?  I am still not sure, but permit me to riff on this a bit.

The story discussed how the legacy airlines had price structures and business models that date from before 1978 when the airline industry was deregulated. After deregulation they could not change rapidly enough to compete with the new low-cost carriers that sprung up and the legacy airlines were driven into bankruptcy, sometimes twice. What did bankruptcy get them?

KENNEY: And that’s where bankruptcy comes in. When you see a
bankruptcy, think of it as an airline saying we want to renegotiate our
contracts so we can be more like newer airlines. James Sprayregen is a
partner at the law firm Kirkland and Ellis. He’s worked on the
bankruptcies of United Airlines and TWA.

SPRAYREGEN: Those contracts, albeit amended, you know, dozens and
probably hundreds of times, they sort of grew on themselves almost like a
coral reef. And a lot of inefficiencies got built into those.

KENNEY: In bankruptcy, work rules change, vacation days go away, pensions and benefits get reduced.

SPRAYREGEN: Unfortunately, bankruptcy is all about breaking promises.

KENNEY: Breaking those promises means the legacy airlines are going to start to look a lot like the newer airlines.

So, let’s break this down a little bit…

The concept of deregulation is an interesting one to consider for denominational dynamics. When the mainline membership peaked in the 1960’s the mainline was pretty close to a de facto established church. Then society changed and the mainline church, and churches in general, lost their cultural and social status and the decline began. Norms were not the same regarding the mainline churches and more flexibility and variability were introduced into society’s church-going habits. As I pondered this change that might reflect a sort of “deregulation” in the American religious landscape two things came to mind that might be indicators and results of this change.

The first is the, shall we say, change in stability of the American Presbyterian mainline. Following the division in the 1930’s related to the Fundamentalist/Modernist debate, the branches of the Presbyterian mainline enjoyed a period of relative tranquility that was marked by unions and not by divisions. Following the 1960’s the controversies heated up again with the formation of the Presbyterian Church in America from the southern branch in 1973 and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church from the northern branch in 1981, and other rearrangements continuing to the present. (Check out the chart of the American Presbyterian branches.)

The second development I thought might be indicative of a denominational deregulation is the external influence of non-denominational churches and particularly megachurches. With the loss of influence, authority and loyalty to denominations in general, and the mainline in particular, independent or loosely affiliated churches grew. Note the similarities in timing discussed in this article by Scott Thumma (written around 1996):

 Nearly all current megachurches were founded after 1955. The explosive
growth experienced by these congregations, however, did not begin in
earnest until the decade of the eighties (Vaughan 1993:50-51). The 1990’s have not slowed this growth. Data collected in 1992 revealed over 350 such congregations (Thumma 1993b).
Vaughan estimates that the number of megachurches grows by 5 percent
each year (1993:40-41). Given this rate over two million persons will
be weekly attendees of megachurches in the United States by the start
of the new millennium. Anyone familiar with the American religious
scene cannot help but have noticed the rapid proliferation of these
massive congregations. In fact, it is precisely their size which
attracts so much attention.

OK, so in this model we have a societal change that results in a sort of deregulation of the denominational, and particularly the mainline, landscape. This deregulation resulted in both internal and interdenominational changes. And like the airlines the churches are in a position that they can not change fast enough to stay competitive. (old inefficient airplanes –> old inefficient buildings?)

In the story the thing really inhibiting the legacy airlines are the labor agreements. For the churches, what would be our “labor agreements” that have built up over time and keep us from being able to transform into the new reality?

  • Our polity? Does nFOG solve this for the PC(USA)?
  • Our structure? Will the MGB Comm be able to solve this? How about the Special Committee on the Nature of the Church for the 21st Century?
  • Our leadership? Not enough creative thinkers or not enough with a good perspective on youth?

I could go on naming elephants in the room and sacred cows and I’m sure you can think of things that I would not.  The point is that there are lots and lots of things which are being mentioned that are keeping a mainline church pointed in the same direction and there is usually someone that thinks that changing that thing will allow the church to, forgive me for using the business term, be more competitive.

Let me step back for a moment here and affirm that there are certain things that are needed for a business and likewise for a church. These can be modified and adapted but not all together dispensed with. To take the analogy to possibly an absurd level of detail, just as an airline needs planes a denomination needs congregations, and as a plane needs a pilot a church needs a pastor. The question is not do we need a plane, but what plane works best in a particular situation? A pilot needs to be trained, but how much and what kind of training for that plane and that situation? Similarly, the “business model” for a denomination does not require every congregation look the same and every pastor have identical training.

If you would permit me a short detour on this theme: Taking a cue from the airline industry, maybe churches need “type certification.” In the airline industry the basic educational requirement for pilots is very similar.  If all you want to do is train to be a air transport pilot you can do it in about 6 months for $60,000. But whenever you switch aircraft types you need to be trained and certified on that specific aircraft. Just because you fly a 737 does not mean you can sit down in a 747 and properly fly it. So, could the church have a basic fast-track training program for pastoral leadership and then a more customized extension for the specific situation the individual is going into? For the PC(USA) there is already an interim pastor training program that does something like this. (Although it is an extension, not a replacement, of the standard course of study.)  And yes, this is a very general proposal and actually off-topic for this post, but maybe something for continued contemplation.

Returning to the original riff – Let’s move on to the most loaded and divisive question in this model: What would the equivalent action be for a mainline church to reorganize like a company would reorganize in bankruptcy?

Let me put it a different way: What does the mainline church need to get out of to continue on as a viable entity? Or to use the language quoted above – What promises does the mainline church need to break to become the church for the 21st century?

Note carefully the model — this is not working around the edges or tweaking a few programs. This is noting one or two really big things that you then throw out and begin over again. This is the opportunity to deal with that one thing that is holding you back and replace it with something you can work with.  Yes it is radical, but in this model, that is what the legacy airlines have to do to remain viable.

So what is it? Maybe the polity? The structure? The ecclesialogy? The theology?  I don’t know and I’m not going to suggest anything specific here. The question for thought and discussion, if you accept this model, is what items are peripheral to our core business of being Presbyterian and Reformed, of “Glorifying God and Enjoying God Forever,” of preaching the Word, administering the Sacraments and upholding Discipline, that we can dispense with at whatever cost? If we said “no more Mr. Nice Guy,” what would you do to change the church?

Now, maybe I am completely off base with this – I am more than ready to accept that conclusion. I am simply extending the historical development of one industry to a completely different realm. I can easily be convinced that the model I have put forward here is way too superficial and general and that comparing the airline industry to the Christian Church is not fair to either. I am cautious that what I have done is forced the analogy, making something fit where no correspondence is deserved.

So there I end the thought experiment, at least for the moment in this form. I will say that enough of the analogies work in my own mind that I don’t plan on stopping to think about it – but I won’t promise any written follow up. However, in this time of rethinking everything about the mainline churches I thought it might be an interesting model to put out there.  Thanks for thinking it through with me.  Your mileage may vary.

Now, where did I put that court decision…

[After thinking about this over the past weekend I was interested to see that on Monday Pastor Questor reposted a similar sort of model, but comparing the mainline to the American auto industry.]

Musings On The FOP NRB Polity Document – 1. Can I Declare An Exception?

Regular readers have probably noted that my blogging productivity has decreased a bit the last few months. This is due to an increased number of personal, professional and Presbyterian commitments. While I always anticipate that I can find more time for blogging in the future, sometimes that does not come to pass.

I tell you that as an introduction to this particular post and probably a few to follow. (I won’t promise anything.) I have decided to classify these as “musings” – posts which are shorter, more spontaneous and less polished than what I consider my regular writing to be. I also consider musing about this particular topic appropriate since the Fellowship of Presbyterians’ New Reformed Body documents are also a work in progress and at a stage where a more informal discussion is probably most appropriate.

Well last weekend I “escaped” and backpacked to a campsite up in a canyon in the mountains above L.A. (picture right) It was a wonderful chance to get away and the weather was really great. (And then that campsite probably got a foot of snow in the storm that rolled through yesterday.) But being so close to the longest night of the year I brought plenty of reading material and had a chance to do a first read of the NRB Theology and Polity documents. (Anyone read them in a more unique location?) A couple of first impressions and thoughts from that reading…


The Fellowship of Presbyterians recently released their two organizational documents for discussion in advance of their Covenanting Conference in mid-January. To set the stage for anyone who has not reviewed the documents yet let me begin with a summary of the two pieces.

The Theology document is a three-part statement that begins by affirming that the confessional basis for the NRB will be the current Book of Confessions of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). The second section then sets out what the NRB considers to be the Essential Tenets of the Reformed Faith. The third part is titled “Ideas & Questions for Immediate Consideration” and sets out a vision for the NRB as a group that actively does theology and has a “renewed commitment to sustained conversation.”

The Polity document is a Form of Government for the NRB modeled on the PC(USA)’s new Form of Government section.  There are no Foundations, Worship or Discipline sections yet.

One point that struck me as I read through the Polity was the reliance on the Essential Tenets section of the Theology.  I found nine references to it (numbers following are the FOG section number, italics as used in the original, text from the version posted now (expecting the obvious typo to be fixed soon)):

  1. (Regarding new congregations) …desire to be bound to Christ and one another as a part of the body of Christ according to the Essential Tenants [sic] and government of the NRB. [1.0200]
  2. (Regarding expectations of members) Those who are invited to take significant leadership roles in the congregation should ordinarily be members for at least a year, agree with the Essential Tenants [sic] of the NRB, be trained and/or mentored, and be supervised. [1.0305]
  3. (Regarding qualifications of officers) Ordaining bodies must ensure that all officers adhere to the Essential Tenets of the NRB. [2.0101]
  4. (Third ordination vow) Do you receive and adopt without hesitation the Essential Tenets of the NRB as a reliable exposition of what Scripture teaches us to do and to believe, and will you be guided by them in your life and ministry? [2.0103c]
  5. (Regarding the preparation of pastors) In addition to adherence to the Essential Tenets, presbyteries shall ensure that candidates for ministry are adequately trained for their task. [2.0400]
  6. (Regarding Affiliate Pastors) Affiliate pastors must adhere to the Essential Tenets of the NRB. [2.0401f]
  7. (Regarding the duties of the synod – note that in this FOG a General Synod is the highest governing body.) c. maintain the Constitution and Essential Tenets of the NRB. [3.0202c]
  8. (Regarding Union Congregations) Congregations, historically members of the PC(USA) or other Reformed denominations, who wish to maintain that membership while joining with the NRB and who recognize and teach the Essential Tenets may request to join a presbytery of the NRB… [5.0202]
  9. (Regarding other denominations) Out of our common Protestant heritage, partnership and joint congregational witness will be encouraged where mission, ministry, and collegiality can be coordinated and approved by the appropriate governing bodies, and where the Constitution and Essential Tenets of the NRB can be followed. [5.0300]

Clearly the Essential Tenets are put forward as the distillation of what is unique and special about the NRB. This is plainly presented as the litmus test of what it means to belong to this branch. For comparison there are only four uses of the term “scripture” or “scriptures,” three of them in the ordination vows, and two uses of “confessions,” one in the ordination vows.

In reading through this I did wonder about the variation in the language regarding the relationship to the Essential Tenets. The word most commonly used is “adhere,” so the intent is to stick to them. But the ordination vow preserves the current language of “receive and adopt” adding the “without hesitation” regarding the Essential Tenets. Are these the same or different? If my promise is to “receive and adopt” is asking me elsewhere to “adhere” to them asking more, less, or something different of me? Remember, I’m just musing about it here and don’t really have an answer at the moment.

I guess what really sticks out to me is that the language seems to be asking me to agree to 100% of what is in the Essential Tenets, even when I think it might conflict with my understanding of Scripture or the Book of Confessions. This is not an academic exercise.

A simple example:  For the sake of this example let’s say that I agree with everything the Essential Tenets say except that as I read them there is one little point that bothers me based on my theological framework. At the end of the document the Ten Commandments are used to summarize some of the points. This is a time-honored way of discussing theology and is used in many catechisms, along with the Lord’s Prayer, as a template for teaching the faith.  But the Essential Tenets summarize the fourth commandment like this:

4. observe Sunday as a day of worship and rest, being faithful in gathering with the people of God;

I honestly have a theological issue with simply taking this commandment and substituting “Sunday” or “Lord’s Day” for the term “Sabbath.” To explain briefly, I see the Sabbath as an Old Testament template or analogy for the celebration of the Lord’s Day in the New Covenant of Jesus Christ. The theological connection is much more nuanced than can be expressed in a simple one-to-one substitution. The Westminster Confession of Faith [section 6.112ff in the Book of Confessions] takes a lot of words to expound on this analogy. Maybe the best brief discussion of the nuances is from the Heidelberg Catechism:

Q. 103. What does God require in the fourth commandment?
A. First, that the ministry of the gospel and Christian education be maintained, and that I diligently attend church, especially on the Lord’s day, to hear the Word of God, to participate in the holy Sacraments, to call publicly upon the Lord, and to give Christian service to those in need. Second, that I cease from my evil works all the days of my life, allow the Lord to work in me through his Spirit, and thus begin in this life the eternal Sabbath.

All this to say that on this point I have a small, but what I consider substantive, disagreement with the Essential Tenets. So what happens now? The Essential Tenets do not address how minor differences in theological understanding are to be treated. Taken on face value I guess I can not adhere to the standard as the Polity requires. (And please understand, I am not putting up a hypothetical disagreement here but one that I honestly and sincerely hold.)

Now, the polity wonks have surely figured out where I am going with this (even if they weren’t tipped off by the title). The American Presbyterian church has been struggling with how to handle these differences, big and little, throughout its entire history. We affirm in the Westminster Confession that “God alone is Lord of the conscience” and we understand that to a certain degree we can differ in belief but must be consistant in practice. That is what the Adopting Act of 1729 was basically about.

So how is the NRB going to approach this? At the present time I did not find a solution in the proposed Polity document.  One approach would be a highly structured method like the Presbyterian Church in America has where ordained officers are required to subscribe to the Westminster Standards and they must declare and explain exceptions like I have done above. As the Book of Church Order says [21-4f]

Therefore, in examining a candidate for ordination, the Presbytery shall inquire not only into the candidate’s knowledge and views in the areas specified above, but also shall require the candidate to state the specific instances in which he may differ with the Confession of Faith and Catechisms in any of their statements and/or propositions. The court may grant an exception to any difference of doctrine only if in the court’s judgment the candidate’s declared difference is not out of accord with any fundamental of our system of doctrine because the difference is neither hostile to the system nor strikes at the vitals of religion.

But this adds an additional layer of administration to a Form of Government which is intended to be simple and clean.  It also opens up the “slippery slope” or “camel’s nose under the tent” problem where a series of very small steps away from the Essential Tenets results in a cumulative substantial difference and heterogeneity in what is intended to be a fairly homogenous belief structure. As I pondered this it seemed to me that incorporating a way to relax a point in the Essential Tenets could be problematical for the NRB.

You can justly accuse me here of focusing too narrowly on minor details — Guilty as charged.  My particular point detailed above is pretty minor in the grand scheme of Christian doctrine. But let me ask these two questions: 1) If I have a tiny little difference of understanding can I still in good conscience adhere to the standard if no provision is made for variability? 2) If differences around tiny details are acceptable, where is the line between the tiny stuff and the big stuff?

Enough musing on this for now. As I continue musing to myself on other points in the Polity and Theology documents maybe a few more will find their way into this virtual space. So until next time I leave you with the sunset over The City of Angles that I watched last Saturday night.