Essential Tenets: Believing Without Needing To Be-Leaving

Trinity’s leadership has questioned the PC(USA) for refusing to specifically define its essential tenets beyond their broad expression in our Book of Confessions.  The suspicion, implication and charge is that, without specifically naming our essential tenets, the denomination has lost its ability to unite us in common ministry and mission, and opened the door to heresy.

So Trinity’s leadership has decided it’s best for Trinity to request dismissal from the PC(USA), with property, and join ECO who has a defined set of essential tenets, many of which are already believed and accepted by a large number in our congregation.  

Given these circumstances it seems logical to split and realign.  But our ways are not God’s ways, and sometimes God’s ways defy our logic.  For example, Jesus told his disciples “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25).  I believe this is one of those times.

It is clear members of Trinity’s Strategic Futures Task Force and session believe our congregation would be better off with a defined set of essential tenets.  But what is not clear is how much consideration these same leaders ever gave during their discernment process as to why our congregation would actually be better off without a defined set of essential tenets.

There are good reasons for not having a set of defined essential tenets.  I’ve found Jack Haberer’s column, “Essential Tenets and Sweaty Palms”, published in The Presbyterian Outlook to be a very helpful voice for not specifically defining them.

In Jack’s column he writes, “Given our ordinands’ declaration of allegiance to Jesus Christ, to the triune God, and to the Scriptures, what more do we need?…We could have listed a simple set of propositions that would tell people what they need to believe and do. And we could have kept those propositions brief and simple….Why shouldn’t we give in to that desire? Why not publish a clear, authoritative synopsis of what we believe?”

Jack gives us two good reasons to avoid reducing our faith to a concise set of essential tenets.

1. Any condensation of the faith does just that: it condenses the faith

Jack writes, “If our faith were that simple, don’t you think God would have provided us a pocket-sized summary of it? The eternal Word knows a thing or two about communications. The eternal Word chose to provide us not a pamphlet but a person, the living Word. God also chose to inspire dozens of writers to produce scores of manuscripts in order to convey a nuanced, deep faith to the very complicated, diverse peoples of the world. To turn that into a checklist or a collection of propositions siphons off its depth and shortchanges its breadth.”

Joe Small, former Director of the Office of Theology, Worship and Education for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), was one of the three primary writers of The Essential Tenets (ironically Joe has written a book on why we should not define our essential tenets).  Joe shares a similar concern for reducing the faith to a list of essential tenets in this short 2 minute video

2. The other problem with faith summaries is the inevitability of errors

Jack writes, “Councils of the church are inclined to err. But that’s the point. No statement developed by any body of believers can ever quite do justice to the faith revealed in God’s Word.  In fact, most churches of the Reformed Tradition have recognized that the biblical Word is fundamentally different from all of our human words, however godly and well intentioned and useful for instruction they might be. The refusal of our Presbyterian ancestors to compel across-the-board subscription to a single confession or pre-defined list of essential tenets of the faith results from their desire not to place any humanly-contrived words between the church’s members and the living Word of the Bible. That biblical Word is the only sovereign and authoritative foundation of the church’s life and ministry.”

Jerry Andrews, the second of the three primary writers of The Essential Tenets, shared a similar sentiment at a Presbytery of Los Ranchos discernement event when he said the essential tenets are not to be taken as a final word, but as a first word.  They, as all documents we write, are prone to error.  None are the final word of God.  All subordinate to scripture.

Laura Smit, the third of the three primary writers of The Essential Tenets, talked about The Essential Tenets in January 2012 at the Convenanting Conference of the Fellowship of Presbyterians in Orlando.  In an article about the conference titled Fellowship of Presbyterians, published online by The Layman, she said she thought of the tenets as a “curriculum you use to study the confessional documents. … You can fight with it, edit it and rewrite it in your session. It is meant to be explored. … I hope that five years from now, it will be replaced with something much stronger and better.”

Trinity would be better served, not by ensuring its ordained leaders are bound by The Essential Tenets, but by introducing them to the congregation in a variety of formats where we could use them as a curriculum in conversation with our Book of Confessions.  We could wrestle with them, edit and rewrite.  In this way they could actually become a springboard for our faith rather than a limiting boundary.

Rather than splitting from the PC(USA) and joining ECO I believe a better course for Trinity would be to remain in the PC(USA) and join the Fellowship of Presbyterians.  The Fellowship of Presbyterians is an umbrella organization holding like minded evangelical Presbyterian congregations together, regardless of their denominational affiliation.  Both ECO and the Fellowship of Presbyterians have adopted The Essential Tenets.  As a member of the Fellowship of Presbyterians Trinity would enjoy the common ministry and mission we desire, with like minded evangelicals, and we would be able to uphold The Essential Tenets as a statement of what a majority of our leadership and members believe.  Staying in the PC(USA) would afford us the broader assurance of knowing we have not reduced the faith or introduced errors that will compromise our ministry and mission as we seek to be faithful to where God is leading us.

It is possible to stand firmly with The Essential Tenets and the sympathies of evangelical Presbyterians who want to split from the denomination, without actually splitting.   In fact, only one of the three primary writers of The Essential Tenets, Laura Smit, is joining ECO.  Both Jerry Andrews and Joe Small understand those who choose to leave, but Jerry says he has never given more than 5 seconds consideration to leaving, and Joe Small published “An Open Letter” in The Presbyterian Outlook where he wrote,

“For my part, I will surely remain a part of the church that brought me to faith. Long ago I learned from John Calvin that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is my mother in the Faith, and that I must remain under her care and guidance. As a child of the church I do not always agree with my parent; I am embarrassed from time to time, and occasionally angry. But the church remains my nurturing parent and I remain its thankful child. I grieve estrangement from any of my sisters and brothers. I will try to remain as close to all of them as possible, and I will hope for the day of family reunion.”

Trinity, let’s stay PC(USA)


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