Misused Words and Misleading Thoughts

“How often misused words generate misleading thoughts”
― Herbert Spencer, 19th century British philosopher

This spring an elder, and member of Trinity’s Strategic Futures Task Force, stood up during a “Trinity Distinctives Dialogue” filled with hundreds of Trinity members and said the PC(USA) General Assembly had defeated a motion in 2001 declaring Jesus Christ as the “singular, saving Lord.”

I remember hearing that and thinking to myself, for the first time, maybe the PC(USA) had lost its mooring.

Then, at a following “Trinity Distinctives Dialogue,” Steve Yamaguchi, our presbytery pastor, briefly explained in less than a minute not only what happened at that General Assembly in 2001 when they refused to declare Jesus Christ as the “singular, saving Lord,” but why it happened.  I felt much better about the denomination again after listening to Steve.

So why did it happen?

Below is a 6 minute audio recording of Steve explaining why it happened at a presentation he made at Christ Presbyterian Church in Huntington Beach, CA on September 26, 2013.

I encourage you to listen to Steve’s brief, but full, explanation of why it happened, but here is a summary of what he said.

In July 2000 The Reverend Dirk Ficca, a PC(USA) pastor and Executive Director of the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions, made a speech at a Peacemaking conference held at Chapman University where he asked the rhetorical question, “what’s the big deal about Jesus?”  That question was then lifted out of context by publications and became an inflammatory headline causing an outcry in the denomination.

The General Assembly (GA) in 2001 wrestled with this outcry.  Commissioners attending that GA were really upset and wanted to press the PC(USA) to make a declaration that Jesus is the only savior.  So a committee worked on this issue and they brought an action to the GA which the GA adopted.  This action affirmed Jesus Christ is the unique authority as Lord, also that he is uniquely Savior of the world.

In the process of doing this however, one commissioner who was on that committee, brought a statement and wanted to use language that said Jesus is “singular, saving Lord.”  The committee felt like that was not traditional language.  Historically the church has never used this phrase “singular, saving Lord,” so the committee, and then the General Assembly, rejected that language in order to affirm the unique authority of Jesus Christ as Lord and that Jesus Christ is also uniquely Savior of the world.  The headlines read, the PC(USA) refuses to affirm that Jesus Christ is “singular, saving Lord,” which is true, however, we did affirm he is the only Lord and the only Savior.

Advocates for leaving the denomination are still using this very misleading headline to point to the denomination’s theological drift.

Furthermore, in 2001 the GA directed the denomination’s Office of Theology and Worship to create a study for the whole church, so as a whole denomination we have a resource to study what the scriptures say about Jesus as Savior and Lord.  In 2002 this study process brought back a report to the GA titled “Hope in the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Statements in the document “Hope in the Lord Jesus Christ” include this, and others like it,

“Jesus Christ is the only Savior and Lord, and all people everywhere are called to place their faith, hope, and love in him. No one is saved by virtue of inherent goodness or admirable living, for ‘by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” [Ephesians 2.8].  No one is saved apart from God’s gracious redemption in Jesus Christ.'”

The GA overwhelmingly approved “Hope in the Lord Jesus Christ” by a vote of 497 yes, 11 no, 5 abstentions.

In addition to what Steve has said, Los Ranchos Presbytery hosted a panel discussion this spring and addressed the same misleading statement.

If you are interested you can watch the panel discussion regarding the misleading statement below

Considering it was an elder, and member of Trinity’s Strategic Futures Task Force, who shared this misleading statement with the congregation, I am deeply concerned misrepresentations like this are what led Trinity’s Strategic Futures Task Force to recommend dismissal from the PC(USA) to the session.

The PC(USA), by an overwhelming majority, affirms the Lordship of Jesus Christ and recognizes him as the only Lord and Savior.

Trinity, let’s stay PC(USA)


X% Of PC(USA) Clergy Don’t Believe…

The Presbyterian Church (USA) conducted a survey of currently serving elders, other members, and clergy between 2009-2011.  Survey participants were asked to agree or disagree to the following statement, “Only followers of Jesus Christ can be saved.”

The results were shared at Trinity’s congregational meeting in November, during an impassioned defense of our session’s request for dismissal from the PC(USA).  As evidence of how far the denomination has drifted from orthodoxy, the congregation was told 45% of pastors and 60% of specialized clergy in the PC(USA) do not believe that “only followers of Jesus Christ can be saved.”      

The implication, if not outright claim, was PC(USA) pastors and specialized clergy, in large measure, believe Jesus Christ is just one way of salvation among many.  But that is not what the survey asked.

Both the survey and its results are misleading.  To offer them as justification for the session’s request for dismissal from the PC(USA) is reckless.  

This specific survey was addressed in a panel discussion held earlier this year at Trinity for members of Los Ranchos Presbytery.  The three panelist were Laird Stuart, retired PC(USA) pastor and interim president of San Francisco Theological Seminary, Jack Haberer, editor of The Presbyterian Outlook, and Dana Allin, ECO Presbyterian synod executive.  

You can see how they each responded to the survey here

Jack was the first to point out the survey did not ask is “Jesus only one way of salvation,” the survey asked “can people be saved who are not committed believers in Christ.”

Referencing 2 Samuel 12:23 (infants who die) and Hebrews 11:39-40 (speaks of those in the Old Testament who are now credited with their faith) Jack said,

“So I’m one of those who votes that other people can be saved, other than those who believe in Jesus.  I think the bible tells us so.  And so to say we have this broad number of ministers who think Jesus is just one way among others, that’s not what the survey asked them.  That’s what some publications have interpreted that survey to say.  It’s not true.  Many of us believe that some will be saved that do not believe in Jesus because the salvation accomplished by Jesus, God has the right to spread to others.”

Dana Allin, ECO Presbyterian synod executive agreed that the survey could have led to results that were skewed.  Dana said,

I do agree that I think the survey was not maybe not articulated in the way that it should have been and led to results that could be skewed.  For example as Jack said about children dying in infancy.”  

I am deeply concerned misrepresentations like this are what led Trinity’s Strategic Futures Task Force to recommend dismissal from the PC(USA) to the session.

Trinity, let’s stay PC(USA)

PC(USA) Minute For Mission ~ Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary

The Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer and Study dates back to 1892 and has the longest history of any denominational mission and prayer book in the United States.

Today’s PC(USA) Minute for Mission from the Mission Yearbook…

Austin Seminary Minute for MissionTravel and the transformation of landscape are themes that resonate in today’s lectionary reading of Isaiah 35:1–10. These themes, moreover, were clearly in my mind during a winter travel seminar to Guatemala and Mexico. One particular day in the trip brought new meaning to Isaiah’s themes.

One Sunday, arrangements were made for us to visit Iglesia Presbiteriana de Ocuilapa. Our journey to this rural church in the mountains of southern Chiapas Mexico physically and spiritually transported us into the clouds. Pouring rain made the town’s roads difficult to traverse. After walking a short distance through ankle-deep mud, we finally arrived at the church, where we were greeted graciously.

Without any prior notice, the pastor and a group of leaders invited me to preach the morning sermon. Stunned and terrified, I managed to accept their invitation. Frantically scrambling through the pages of a borrowed Spanish Bible, I was able to create a very rough sermon outline during the beginning hymns and prayers. Before this point, I had moved through the trip keeping my emotions regarding the chronic poverty in the country at bay. With weak hands and feeble knees, I stood behind a pulpit in an unknown church among unfamiliar people. Looking out, I saw the faces of a suffering people who came from near and far to hear a message of hope and healing. Overwhelmed with the weight of the moment, midway through the sermon I was no longer able to control my emotions. With tears in my eyes, my academic exercise was transformed into a genuine and profound encounter with the holy.

—Dr. Gregory Lee Cuéllar, assistant professor of Old Testament, Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary

PC(USA) 1001 Worshiping Communities ~ Hope For Life Chapel

1001 Worshiping Communities is movement happening in the Presbyterian Church (USA). Across the PC(USA), God is raising up leaders in churches and presbyteries who are creating new worshiping communities. They are taking on new and varied forms of church for our changing culture. Primarily they are seeking to make and form new disciples of Jesus Christ, to change and transform the world.

Today’s Spotlight Community – Hope For Life Chapel
Tamara John lives in a 5th wheel RV trailer with a chapel in the back where she ministers to people in need.

Learn about this and many, many, many more exciting new worshiping communities of the PC(USA) at www.onethousandone.org

“The Holy Spirit is on the move. It’s an exciting time to be Presbyterian.” ~ Bill Golderer, 2013 PC(USA) Moderators Conference

Trinity, let’s stay PC(USA)

What You See And Hear

“For what you see and hear depends a good deal on where you are standing: it also depends on what sort of person you are.”
― C.S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew

I believe the PC(USA) is being misrepresented and unfairly characterized by the leadership at Trinity.  And I am deeply concerned these same misrepresentations are what led Trinity’s Strategic Futures Task Force to recommend dismissal from the PC(USA) to the session.

With very few exceptions Trinity’s leadership has only told the congregation what they believe is wrong with the denomination, not what is right.

I do not believe the misrepresentations have been intentional, but I know they reflect a mindset, which from the beginning of Trinity’s process of discernment, was convinced the PC(USA) was “deathly ill”.

Southern California, and The Presbytery of Los Ranchos in particular, happens to be one of several pockets around the country where the fervor for dismissal has taken root.  Standing inside this pocket you would think the entire denomination is unraveling.  I think Trinity would be surprised how little their concerns are actually even an issue with thousands and thousands and thousands of other PC(USA) congregations around the country who are faithfully going about their work of being the Church.

Soon after Trinity’s Strategic Futures Task Force and other leadership began discussing discernment with the congregation earlier this year, a group of members at Trinity realized the perspective being presented was one sided and did not fully or fairly represent the denomination.  There was, and still is, no formal organization to the group, just a loosely gathered collection of members (most of whom are long-term members of Trinity, many have served on session), known as the Trinity Fairness Group, who wanted a more balanced perspective shared with the congregation.

As Trinity’s leadership became aware of Fairness Group concerns, discussion opportunities were added.  Several of the most tangible outcomes of the group’s efforts have been

  • Presbytery Pastor Steve Yamaguchi’s presentation about the PC(USA)
    No audio or video of the presentation was made available on Trinity’s website.  The video was made available by the presbytery and can be seen here in four parts (videos #1-#4) under the heading “Los Ranchos Presbytery, The Case for the Presbytery
  • The Stay or Go presentation made by Jerry Tankersley and Gary Watkins
    No audio or video of the presentation was made available on Trinity’s website.  A copy of Jerry’s presentation to Trinity is posted on Jerry’s blog.
  • The Trinity Fairness Group’s letter to the congregation
    The session did not agree to mail the letter to congregation, choosing instead to make it available in the narthex and church office during the first two weeks of December, with their own cover letter.  To my knowledge, no announcement about the letter was ever made to the congregation.  The letter is not available on Trinity’s website.

The Fairness Group’s thesis, however, is that all discussion and education should have taken place before conducting the straw poll.

Even still, 20% of the congregation indicated they were either uncertain (5%) or did not want (15%) the session to engage the presbytery in a process that could lead to the dismissal of the congregation (with property) to another Reformed Presbyterian denomination.  Based on this outcome the Trinity Fairness Group asked for representation on both the Strategic Futures Task Force and the Joint Discernment Team (composed of members of Trinity and presbytery representative).  Both requests were denied.

In all fairness it was late in the game to be adding a new member to the Strategic Futures Task Force, but in fact more diversity should have been accounted for from the beginning.  On the other hand, the work of the Joint Discernment Team had not yet begun, and adding one voice (out of five) to represent the 20% does not seem unreasonable or out of line.

It is unclear what opportunities those of us who are concerned with the discernment process and decision to request dismissal will have to share our voice with the Joint Discernment Team.  The Fairness Group has submitted a letter to the team.  Beyond that, all we know for sure is there will be at least one congregational meeting with the team.  Congregational meetings however are no place for true dialog and discussion.

And so we do what we can, and we blog…

Trinity, let’s stay PC(USA)


A New Thing

One of the defining characteristics of the Reformed tradition is maintaining a posture of openness to hearing a new and fresh word from the Lord.

There are a couple of reasons why this is important to us in the Reformed tradition.

1.  We need to remain open to know what to say and do to be faithful and obedient in our time.

Our Book of Confessions tells us in “The Confessional Nature of the Church Report”, “Faith in the living God present and at work in the risen Christ through the Holy Spirit means always to be open to hear a new and fresh word from the Lord. As the multiplicity of Reformed confessions indicates, Reformed Christians have never been content to learn only how Christians before them discerned and responded to the word and work of God; they have continually asked in every new time, place, and situation, “What is the living Lord of Scripture saying and doing here and now, and what do we have to say and do to be faithful and obedient in our time?” The Barmen Declaration speaks for the best intentions of the whole Reformed tradition when it says, “Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death.”

2. We need to remain open because all theology is at best an inadequate, fallible, human attempt to understand the truth.

Shirley Guthrie wrote in his classic Christian Doctrine, our task is not to try “to master an already fixed system of theology that Reformed Christians believe has once and for all captured the truth about God, human beings, and the world.  According to the Reformed faith, no system of theology can ever do that…All theology, whether that of an individual or of the whole church, is at best inadequate, fallible, human attempt to understand that truth.  According to the Reformed churches, therefore, there has always been and always will be the right and responsibility to question any individual’s, any denomination’s, any creedal document’s grasp of the truth – not for the sake of our freedom to think anything we please, but for the sake of the freedom of biblical truth from every human attempt to capture and tame it.”  

Wallace Alston, Jr., former General Assembly Moderator, was the pastor at Nassau Presbyterian Church in Princeton, NJ when I was a student at Princeton Seminary.  I remember him well, so a recent story in The Presbyterian Outlook about his son, Macky Alston, coming out to him caught my attention.  

“My father embraced me and told me that nothing could separate our love,” Alston recalled, “but he warned that I would probably meet an unhappy fate.”

Decades later, the elder Alston performed his son’s wedding to his now-husband, Nick. “Decades of rotten church teaching washed away,” he said. “My father’s heart changed when he saw the value of my marriage. He had to do the religious math, Alston said, “and found the way to understand by Stacy Johnson’s book.”

Wallace Alston, Jr. read, understood, taught, and preached the scriptures for many years but came to understand these same scripture differently later in life.  We do not fear this possibility in the Reformed tradition, we recognize and welcome it.

I have not read Stacy Johnson’s book, A Time to Embrace: Same-Sex Relationships in Religion, Law, and Politics, which Macky said his dad read but I have read Homosexuality and Christian Community, edited by Choon-Leong Seow.  The book is a collection of essays written by Princeton Seminary professors, published during my senior year.  What struck me most about the book was that these were my professors who I knew to have a strong Christian faith, as well as a deep love and understanding of scripture, and yet they held different understandings from one another on the biblical issue of homosexuality.  

I am grateful for all of my experiences in the PC(USA).  I have been in ecumenical and interfaith relationships and settings but my entire life has been spent in our denomination.  From being baptized and growing up at First and Calvary Presbyterian Church in Springfield, Missouri, to high school and college summer mission experiences, to formative camps and retreats at places like Montreat, to pastoral internships at churches in New Jersey and California, to ordination and serving as the associate pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Napa, CA, to my relationships with colleagues in Redwoods Presbytery, and now to my membership at Trinity.  The PC(USA) is my church home and it breaks my heart to see it being kicked and disparaged by those who at the same time are requesting a gracious dismissal.  

The Presbyterians I know who find support for homosexual relationships in the bible believe Jesus Christ is the only Lord and Savior and they uphold the authority of scripture – they are not anything like the caricature being presented to the congregation at Trinity.

I’m confident it is people just like these who are discerning God’s will through the actions taken in sessions, presbyteries and general assembly.  I’m also confident that, as Jack Rogers writes in How do Presbyterians make decisions?,

“Making decisions as Presbyterians is often a slow process that takes a great deal of work. Making decisions this way, however, usually yields wise judgments rooted in God’s revelation and our best human reflection. If we listen attentively to the Spirit of God, as we hear the greatest diversity of voices and earnestly seek to be faithful to the Bible and our constitution, we are as likely as humans can be to make good decisions.”  

Jack, by the way, is an evangelical Christian and another ordained leader in the PC(USA) who like Wallace Alston, Jr., came to a different understanding of homosexuality in scripture later in life.

I am choosing to stay in the PC(USA) where our ordained leaders enjoy freedom of conscience, not for the sake of their freedom to think anything they please, but for the sake of the freedom of biblical truth from every human attempt to capture and tame it.

 Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda,” that is, “the church reformed, always reforming,” according to the Word of God and the call of the Spirit.

Trinity, let’s stay PC(USA)

PC(USA) Minute for Mission ~ Auburn Theological Seminary

The Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer and Study dates back to 1892 and has the longest history of any denominational mission and prayer book in the United States.

Today’s PC(USA) Minute for Mission from the Mission Yearbook…

Auburn Theological SeminaryIf you ask pastors about how coaching influenced their ministry, each one will tell a different story, yet one with a common theme: hope. One describes how coaching helped her work with her congregation to discern and embrace a whole new direction of ministry when she had been doubtful that such a transformation was possible. Another tells how coaching helped her to keep from being consumed by a significant conflict in her church and to discover a sense of new direction to move beyond it. A third describes a basic shift in his whole approach to pastoral leadership: “Before coaching, my basic strategy was like a ‘whack-a-mole’ game at a carnival: I felt like I was always just reacting to the last thing that had popped up. Coaching helped me figure out what the church needed me to focus on and how to stay focused to do what I was called to do. The difference is amazing; this is what I’d always hoped ministry would be like.”

Paul tells the Romans that it is through steadfastness and encouragement that we have hope, and at Auburn Seminary we see its truth embodied in our pastoral-coaching program. Auburn’s mission is to “equip bold and resilient leaders,” and our coaches work one-on-one with pastors to build the resilience and encourage the boldness they need to lead their congregations into new vitality and opportunity. Together, they discover anew that the God of steadfastness and encouragement is at work in their midst, giving hope for a vibrant future of ministry and mission.

—Rev. Katharine Henderson, president, Auburn Seminary, and Rev. J. C. Austin, director, Center for Christian Leadership, Auburn Seminary

PC(USA) 1001 Worshiping Communities ~ Bare Bulb Coffee

1001 Worshiping Communities is movement happening in the Presbyterian Church (USA). Across the PC(USA), God is raising up leaders in churches and presbyteries who are creating new worshiping communities. They are taking on new and varied forms of church for our changing culture. Primarily they are seeking to make and form new disciples of Jesus Christ, to change and transform the world.

Today’s Spotlight Community – Bare Bulb Coffee
This just might be what church looks like: Discover what church looks like when a congregation in Warner Robins, Georgia, engages their community and drives their mission outside the walls of their church.

Learn about this and many, many, many more exciting new worshiping communities of the PC(USA) at www.onethousandone.org

“The Holy Spirit is on the move. It’s an exciting time to be Presbyterian.” ~ Bill Golderer, 2013 PC(USA) Moderators Conference

Trinity, let’s stay PC(USA)

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)

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)