Essentially an Idol

There are many more similarities between the PC(USA) and ECO than there are differences, so it is easy to believe we are “all Presbyterian, all Presbyterian, all Presbyterian” which is what I heard an elder at Trinity tell a member of our congregation who expressed concern about requesting dismissal from the PC(USA) to join ECO.

@frozchos recently tweeted, “‘Oh, you’re Presbyterian! Me too!’ (then there’s that moment of truth) ‘PCUSA?'”

The truth is, while both are Presbyterian, the PC(USA) and ECO are not the same.  And although there are many similarities, where we differ is significant.

One of the differences I find most significant is revealed in the ordination vows of each denominiation.

When the PC(USA) ordains someone they vow to “sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the confessions of our church…”

When ECO ordains someone they vow to, “receive, adopt, and be bound by the Essential Tenets of ECO…”

The Essential Tenets are a third order document (scriptures, confessions, then essential tenets), prone to human error.  It is far beyond me why the leadership at Trinity wants its ordained leaders to take an ordination vow to receive, adopt and be bound by these same tenets.

In October Trinity hosted two local ECO pastors to speak with our congregation about the new denomination.  Following the presentation one of these pastors was asked how ECO will handle a pastor whose faith or understanding of the word of God begins to change in ways contrary to The Essential Tenets.  The answer was ECO pastors will be in small groups of accountability partners and it will be the job of the partners to hold each pastor accountable to The Essential Tenets.

There is no room outside the boundary of The Essential Tenets in ECO.  Perhaps this is because those who formed, and are joining ECO, can’t foresee any faithful interpretation of scripture contrary to this boundary.   To get outside the boundary would require having to set the scriptures aside, as one of Trinity’s elders put it.

ECO’s Essential Tenets state, “The Spirit will never prompt our conscience to conclusions that are at odds with the Scriptures that (God) has inspired.”  I agree, however people’s lives change, we mature in our faith, different circumstances and experiences cause us to read and understand scripture differently.  I believe these new understandings can be formed by the prompting of the Spirit.

Daniel Migliore, Princeton Seminary Professor Emeritus of Theology described the work of theology in Faith Seeking Understanding, “as a continuing search for the fullness of the truth of God made known in Jesus Christ.”  If the boundary has been set, and accountability groups are there to protect it,  how can the work of theology, the work we expect from our ordained leaders, really happen?

Approaching the scriptures with such fixed expectations can be dangerous, really dangerous.

Angela Dienhart Hancock, former member of Trinity, is now the assistant professor of homiletics and worship at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and author of the new book Karl Barth’s Emergency Homiletic, 1932–1933: A Summons to Prophetic Witness at the Dawn of the Third Reich.  In a blog post titled “Is Anybody Listening” Angela writes,

“One of the questions I always ask students when they read a passage from the Bible is this: ‘What do you hope this text will say?’  It’s a good question for interpreters to ask themselves, because answering it reminds us of the sometimes uncomfortable truth that we always read with expectations. We come to texts, to people, to situations, to the world, looking for something. The question we must ask ourselves is this: are we genuinely open to finding something else? Something we did not expect? Something, perhaps, that we had secretly hoped not to find?”

She continues saying,

“In Germany in the early 1930s, most preachers knew what they needed to say before they even opened the Bible. They felt sure that God was at work in their time. They could see it in the National Socialist youth so full of zeal, the overflowing pews, all of the positive attention the church received from the Nazi leadership. These preachers wrote their sermons without calling any of that into question. They read the Bible, yes, but they did so in the sure confidence that it fully supported their vision of the future. They were certain they had all the answers.  Karl Barth spent his time in the classroom in the early 1930s trying to get young Protestants to lay down their social and political agendas and listen deeply to a Word beyond the fever of those revolutionary days.”

Angela concludes by saying,

“It is easy to look back on what happened in Germany and think we would have done better than the many pastors who supported Hitler’s rise to power. But have we really learned to listen well?…Those of us who believe in a God of surprising grace cannot open the Bible confident that we already know what we will find there — confident that we already have the answers. Maybe the deepest listening is not about answers anyway.”

ECO runs dangerously close to making an idol out of its essential tenets by requiring its ordained leaders to be bound by them in a way that precludes any room for the Spirit to prompt a new understanding.

In October Highland Park Presbyterian Church, Texas’ largest PC(USA) congregation, voted to be dismissed to ECO.  Shortly there after The Reverend Joseph Clifford of First Presbyterian Church PC(USA), whose own congregation had helped plant Highland Park Presbyterian in the 1920s, wrote “A Response to HPPC’s Decision” for dismissal.  He concluded his letter by saying,

“Some see our lack of defined “essential tenets” as a lack of core theological beliefs.  I do not.  It  keeps our theology in proper perspective to the sovereignty of God and the Lordship of Jesus Christ.  So we debate essential tenets of the faith.  We hold to the sovereignty of God in all things, and we debate what that means.  We point to the total depravity of humanity, and we debate what that means.  We debate predestination and its impact on the important decisions of discipleship.  This does not mean we lack core theological beliefs, rather we refuse to make an idol out of our theology.”

Trinity, let’s stay PC(USA)

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