Diversity And Harmony, Liberty And Love

“We want to align our primary affiliation with an association of congregations (a reformed body of congregations) who uphold the theological tenets and redemptive behavioral standards for church officers that we believe are true to Scripture.”
– Trinity’s “Reasons” for dismissal letter to The Presbytery of Los Ranchos

By requesting dismissal from the PC(USA) to affiliate with other like-minded Christians in a denomination that, as they say, “provides a more congruent theological fit with Trinity,” our leadership is breaking from the long standing historic principle of church order in the Presbyterian Church to “exercise mutual forbearance” toward others in our denomination with whom they disagree.

Aside from the serious concerns I have about affiliating with a denomination that places such a high value on being like-minded (see Birds of a Feather), I do not believe God has called the church to be like-minded in the way our leadership is defining it.

The Reverend Dr. Ted Wardlaw, President, Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, Austin, Texas, talked about his concerns regarding the church being like-minded at First Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX, last September saying,

“My biggest concern about the schismatic rhetoric going on now in our church is this emphasis upon the value of like-mindedness…my problem with like-mindedness is I don’t believe Jesus Christ ever imagined that value as a worthy founding principle for his church…at its best the church has never placed a high value on like-mindedness.  Which is why we can find our place, by the way, in the church…As Tom Currie (the Rev. Dr. Tom Currie, First Presbyterian Church, Pasadena, TX) has said, ‘the heresy of the Reformed Tradition is that somewhere out there, there is a purer church.’”

Watch the 8 minute segment of Ted’s presentation below.  Everything he says speaks right to the issue of being like-minded which we are facing at Trinity today.

Scripture does of course talk about being like-minded, but as Lyndon Unger, a graduate of The Masters Seminary writes in his blog post titled, “Thoughts on Being “Likeminded,”

“…there seems to be a clear pattern in the passages cited that being “likeminded” does not mean being in agreement in relation to doctrinal issues.  Each passage is talking about Christ-like conduct, not points of belief regarding specific issues.  Phil 2 specifically makes the point of being likeminded in reference to Christ, not other believers.  Being likeminded means “thinking and acting like Christ”.

Philippians 2:5-11 (New Revised Standard)
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name,  so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,  and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

This is what it means to be like-minded; to be humble, to empty ourselves, taking the form of a slave, and regarding others as better than ourselves, and in so doing share the same mind of Christ Jesus.

Dr. Barbara Wheeler, retired president of Auburn Seminary, published an article in Sojourners magazine titled, “Why The Liberal Church Needs the Evangelical Church” in which she wrote,

In 1869, the two Presbyterian denominations formed in the bitter split 40 years before came back together. Seeking, said their reunion plan, to create a church marked by “diversity and harmony, liberty and love,” both assemblies met in Pittsburgh, in separate halls from which their members marched to opposite sides of a broad avenue. Their moderators and clerks then stepped into the street and met in the middle. They “clasped hands,” according to a contemporary account, “and amidst welcomes, thanksgivings, and tears, they locked arms and stood together in their reformed relations.”

It was a powerful moment, but I can imagine a more powerful witness. We could skip the split. We Presbyterians, who share so much—a confession of faith, a rich theological heritage, the advantages and the burdens of wealth and social power—could covenant to stay together in our reformed relations, to labor with each other, in love, for justice and truth. It would be very arduous and painful, much more so than splitting or drifting apart. It would be worth it. The world would take note of what the gospel makes possible for those who confess their dis-ease with each other and their displacement by each other but still keep on going, strangers locked in covenant, toward the better country of diversity and harmony, liberty and love.

It is, of course, a long trip. We have only glimpsed what that better country might be like. But God, it says in Hebrews, was not ashamed to be called the God of those who stepped out in faith. Indeed, God has prepared a city for them. God has prepared a city for us strange Presbyterians and for all the other foreigners God loves. I pray that with God’s help, we will get there together.

Staying in the PC(USA) “would be very arduous and painful, much more so than splitting or drifting apart. It would be worth it.”  This would be the mind of Christ Jesus.

Trinity, let’s stay PC(USA)

Tension In The PC(USA)

Truth and Goodness and Mutual Forbearance are two of our historic principles of church order in the PC(USA) I have not heard talked about during our denominational discernment process at Trinity.  And yet they are designed for a time just like this and we should be leaning on them now harder than ever.

The Reverend Dr. Paul Hooker, Director of Ministerial Formation and Advanced Studies at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, Austin, Texas spoke about these two historic principles of church order at First Presbyterian Church in Houston, TX in September 2013 saying,

“When we forget that fundamental tension between knowing the truth and being forbearant of one another we begin to lose the center that helps holds us together, and helps us see our way through to the unity we have in Christ.”

Each of the two historic principles are stated below with italicized commentary provided by the Reverend H. Carson Rhyne Jr., general presbyter and stated clerk of the Presbytery of the James and affiliate faculty in Presbyterian polity at Union Presbyterian Seminary, Richmond, Va.

Truth and Goodness (Book of Order, F-3.0104)
That truth is in order to goodness; and the great touchstone of truth, its tendency to promote holiness, according to our Savior’s rule, “By their fruits ye shall know them.” And that no opinion can either be more pernicious or more absurd than that which brings truth and falsehood upon a level, and represents it as of no consequence what a man’s opinions are. On the contrary, we are persuaded that there is an inseparable connection between faith and practice, truth and duty. Otherwise it would be of no consequence either to discover truth or to embrace it.

The truth is only of value when it causes a difference in the lives and behavior of persons. “By their fruits ye shall know them,” reminds us that we are not seeking some kind of intellectual or philosophical truth, but a truth that is life-changing and life-giving.

Mutual Forbearance (Book of Order, F-3.0105)
That, while under the conviction of the above principle we think it necessary to make effectual provision that all who are admitted as teachers be sound in the faith, we also believe that there are truths and forms with respect to which men of good characters and principles may differ. And in all these we think it the duty both of private Christians and societies to exercise mutual forbearance toward each other.

While people might be seeking this truth, there are “truths and forms with respect to which men of good characters and principles may differ.” Therefore provide mutual forbearance toward each other. In other words, have plenty of room for different points of view as long as everyone is seeking the truth found in Jesus Christ.

Below is a quote and short video segment of Paul’s presentation about these historic principles at First Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX

“The danger before us as a church is not that somehow or another we have found better missions and we ought to be done with this business of disagreeing about one controversial issue or another so that we can be about the mission of the church.  The danger before us friends, is that we will forget to listen to each other, and to learn from each other, and to become thereby the church that Christ has created us to be.”

The Reverend Dr. Jim Currie of First Presbyterian Church, Pasadena, TX has written a document titled, “Some Theological Thoughts on Why Stay in the PC(USA)” in which he writes,

“Even over so profound a difference as the ordination of gays and lesbians, we are family. Why is that issue the breaking point? In his book Ethics Dietrich Bonhoeffer talks about the Ultimate and the Penultimate. On this issue (and perhaps others) some are acting as if theirs is the ultimate, or final, word. Bonhoeffer reminds us that ours is always and only, at best, the penultimate word. We never, ever, have the final word. That always belongs only to God.

What that means is that the decisions we must make can only be temporary, or penultimate. And that means that, both sides must confess, they might be wrong. “Now we see only puzzling reflections in a mirror, ….” So, with humility we do the best thinking we can, the best arguing we can, the best digging we can, and then we embrace one another … because belonging to each other in Christ is more important than insisting that we are right.”

Living with the tension between Truth and Goodness and Mutual Forbearance is not easy, especially during this particularly disruptive time in our denomination’s history when the tension is not well balanced.  Nevertheless, these historic principles are a time tested gift handed down to us over generations in the denomination, and they will continue to serve us well if we will lean on them and trust, that by doing so, we will see through to the unity we have in Christ.

Trinity, let’s stay PC(USA)

PC(USA) Minute For Mission ~ Criminal Justice

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…

Criminal Justice PhotoBut there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. (Isa. 9:1)

On one of our first dates, my wife and I passed a man in a baseball cap who was hanging out on the corner, smoking. As we got closer, he looked up. I assumed that he was going to ask for money, so I felt around in my pocket for some loose change.

But he surprised me. He didn’t want money; he wanted to thank me for visiting him in jail. The last time I had seen him, he was wearing a red prison jumpsuit. Out of context, he looked so different that I hadn’t recognized him. It was wonderful to see him out of jail. He told us how God was moving in his life. We wished him peace and said goodbye.

“I was in prison and you visited me” (Matt. 25:36b). Jail can be a desperate and hopeless place. But the God of life and love brings hope and light into even the darkest places: “The people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Isa. 9:2).

Not all of us are called to go into the jails. Some are called to advocate for more just laws or to care for people reentering the community. There are many ways to serve, but it is the same Spirit who calls us to that service. How is God calling you to serve?

—Rev. Steven Werth, member, PHEWA/Presbyterian Criminal Justice Network leadership team; pastor, Appleby Manor Memorial and Crooked Creek United Presbyterian Churches, Ford City, Pennsylvania

PC(USA) 1001 Worshiping Communities ~ The Bridge @ Union Church

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 – The Bridge @ Union Church
In Los Angeles, California, a new ministry at Union Church called The Bridge is bring together people from varied cultures in worship, loving God and blessing the city.

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)

A Vision of Unity

The statesman’s duty is to bridge the gap between his nation’s experience and his vision”
― Henry A. Kissinger

As Christians we are called to participate in God’s ongoing work of reconciliation, but it is important to realize in a fallen world unity may not always be a healthy option.  Because we are fallen there are times when unity can break us down. But because we are redeemed there are times when unity can build us up in Christ and further God’s kingdom on earth.

The question facing Trinity is whether unity with the PC(USA) will build us up or break us down.

The consensus view of session (no one has ever said unanimous view) is that it will break Trinity down.  But I am certain staying with the PC(USA) will build me up, and I trust it will build the denomination up in return.

I strongly believe it is possible to benefit from a relationship with theological differences.  Two of our denomination’s prominent leaders, Dr. Richard Mouw, retired president of Fuller Theological Seminary, and Dr. Barbara Wheeler, retired president of Auburn Seminary, model this possibility in their relationship with each other.

An article titled “Purple Church,” published online in The Presbyterian Outlook, said that even though Richard and Barbara come from very different theological places and “have serious differences about serious matters, they count themselves blessed by the collegiality and mutual respect through which the Holy Spirit moves, enabling them to become better people and better Christians because of what each has learned from the other.”

Richard and Barbara wrote companion articles for Sojourners magazine, each writing from their own theological position and bridging the gap between our experience of discord and their vision of unity.  

I encourage you to read each article.

Trinity, and our denomination, needs to hear reconciling voices from statesmen and women like these.  

It is possible for Trinity to remain true to its core beliefs and remain in the PC(USA).  Our denomination needs a balance of beliefs, centered on the gospel.  The presbytery and PC(USA) are better with Trinity, and Trinity is better as part of the presbytery and PC(USA).

 In his article above Richard said,

I genuinely believe that a Presbyterian split would be a serious setback for the cause that I care deeply about, namely, the cause of Reformed orthodoxy.”  

Trinity, I see a vision of unity shared by Richard and Barbara that will build us up in Christ.  It is a unity I feel called to live into.  I pray you can see it too.

Trinity, let’s stay PC(USA)

Tapestry

LastSupper

Nine congregations in our presbytery took a straw poll last spring to get an indication of their membership’s interest in engaging the presbytery in a process that could lead to the dismissal from the PC(USA) to another Reformed Presbyterian denomination.

Here at Trinity 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.  This is a larger percentage than other churches in our presbytery whose results I could find posted online.

Straw poll results indicating interest in possible dismissal from the PC(USA)

  • 94% in favor at Christ, Huntington Beach
  • 91% in favor at Good Shepherd, Los Alamitos
  • 88% in favor at St. Andrews, Newport Beach
  • 80% in favor at Trinity United, Santa Ana

One of Trinity’s distinctives that has been overlooked throughout this season of discernment is that we are a theologically diverse congregation.  We are a wonderfully mixed tapestry of disciples, centered on Christ, yes, but always making room for our differences on the periphery.

Being dismissed from the PC(USA) to join ECO will shift the periphery inward and crowd out a part of our tapestry, which is a primary reason I indicated not wanting the session to engage such a process.

Trinity, let’s stay PC(USA)

PC(USA) Minute for Mission ~ Race Relations

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…

The hands that poured water over baby Robin’s alabastar head while the alto voice declared, “I baptise you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” had long, tapering fingers, with nails painted tastefully in seashell pink. The water beaded into tiny droplets on the coffee-colored hands of the one performing the sacrament that typical Sunday morning.

Over the years, Robin saw those same hands break bread and pour the cup; heard the same voice declare, “These are the gifts of God for the people of God.” When Robin became a youth elder, she heard the same voice call her session to order, charging the ruling elders to serve God’s people with, as the Book of Common Worship says, “imagination and love.”

It is with imagination and love—as well as insight, intelligence, faithfulness, creativity, and joy—that women of color serve (or pursue calls to serve) in all areas of ministry and mission. The beauty of Robin’s upbringing, especially as a white person, is that she never knew of a time when she could not experience a woman of color as her pastor.

How wonderful it would be for all God’s children to receive and accept the presence and leadership of women of color so readily! Together, let us build bridges and break down barriers, so that we may joyously echo the words of Psalm 40: “God put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the Lord.”

—Nancy Benson-Nicol, associate for gender and racial justice, Presbyterian Mission Agency

PC(USA) 1001 Worshiping Communities ~ 4 Pointes Church

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 – 4 Pointes Church
See how new worshiping community in metro Atlanta is reaching out to 2nd generation Asian-Americans, inviting them to experience faith, as together they become disciples of Jesus Christ.

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)

A Truly Gracious Dismissal

Since the 18th century, a corollary to our Presbyterian Historic Principles of Church Order has been, “That when any matter is determined by a major vote, every member shall either actively concur with or passively submit to such determination; or if his conscience permit him to do neither, he shall, after sufficient liberty modestly to reason and remonstrate, peaceably withdraw from our communion without attempting to make any schism. Provided always that this shall be understood to extend only to such determination as the body shall judge indispensable in doctrine or Presbyterian government.”

“ … peaceably withdraw … without attempting to make any schism” is deeply etched in our Presbyterian history.

Actively promoting secession from the denomination runs counter to this historic principle.

Instead of actively promoting secession, members in the PC(USA) who are unable to actively concur with or passively submit to the polity of the denomination should “peaceably withdraw from our communion without attempting to make any schism.”  

That would be a truly gracious dismissal.

Trinity, let’s stay PC(USA)

Birds Of A Feather

Bird Migration

I recently read two articles about the polarization of America and was struck by the irony of how easily each could have been written about congregations like Trinity who are seeking dismissal from the PC(USA).

Both articles describe the increasing trend in America to separate from each other based on our differences and migrate into like minded groups.

Read the first paragraph of the BusinessWeek article with just a touch of editing.  I struck a couple of words and (substituted) my own in parenthesis.

“Something strange is happening to state government (the PC(USA)). Fed up with what they see as liberal overreaching, small groups of rural, largely conservative activists have decided they’re done trying to effect political change through the usual channels of votes and bills and the seemingly endless churn of election cycles. They’re plotting something drastic: They’re going to shutdow—wait, sorry. Wrong legislative impasse. What I meant to say is: They’re going to form their own states (denominations).”

Every quote I read in the article sounded nearly word-for-word like what I hear being said by advocates for leaving the PC(USA).

Here is another example,

“‘Here at the state level, we’re controlled by a single party—Democrats—and we feel we have no other recourse,’ he says. ‘We’re sick and tired of being sick and tired. We want to be our own state.’”

So it is interesting to me that Trinity’s “Reasons” letter addresses the “theological, ideological, political, social and moral shifts in American society that have been reflected in the PC(USA)” as a reason for requesting dismissal from the denomination.

In a letter to the congregation dated May 17, 2013 the session wrote, “We are frustrated that issues in the PC(USA) have consistently become more politicized.  Members of our denomination are polarized to the point where time and effort are expended on internal disagreements at the expense of focusing on mission in our community and the world.  We believe that this will become a greater problem as more congregations that hold similar convictions to Trinity continue to be dismissed to other denominations (which is happening in increasing numbers).  We want to be part of a denomination where we are actively welcomed and feel safe to wrestle with issues that arise from ministering in an increasingly non-Christian culture.”

Again, in the “Reasons” letter, the session wrote, “According to our understanding of the Scriptures as interpreted through our Reformed confessions, these cultural shifts should not have an impact on what we believe and how we would seek to behave as God’s people.”

Whether Trinity’s session recognizes it or not, by requesting dismissal from the denomination, their behavior is a direct reflection of this larger, growing, cultural shift toward homogenous polarization and away from God’s work of reconciliation.  

The PacificStandard article writes, “Does your next-door neighbor vote the same way you do? How about the couple who live across the street, or your friends on the next block?  The odds you answered “yes” or “probably” to those questions have increased dramatically in recent decades. Forget red states and blue states: We’re increasingly living in red or blue counties, cities, even neighborhoods.  This phenomenon has been widely cited as one reason behind our current political polarization: It allows strident voices on the right and left to fairly insist they’re fairly representing their constituents.”

Individuals choose to live in communities with ideologies similar to their own to satisfy their need to belong.  But this comes at a high cost.

The article continues, “Unfortunately, this appears to be a clear case where individual contentment and the national interest are at odds. While ‘This homogenization of communities may promote greater personal well-being,’ the researchers write, ‘it may also foster increased partisan hostility’ by minimizing our contact with people on the other side of the ideological divide.”

Another article, published on Bloomberg.com titled, Won’t You Be My (Hyper-Partisan) Neighbor?, by Peter Orszag, also addresses the negative consequences of segregating into like-minded communities.

“The consequences are far-reaching. The social psychology literature clearly shows that when like-minded people are put together, they move to extremes — both because they rarely hear opposing viewpoints and because each person is at least somewhat inclined to prove he is the true believer in the group.  The behavior is observed even among people who otherwise strive to be quite objective, such as judges. Cass Sunstein, the legal scholar who is now administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, documents in his 2006 book “Are Judges Political? An Empirical Analysis of the Federal Judiciary,” that judges appointed by Republican presidents are more likely to vote in extreme ways if they are grouped with other Republican-appointed judges than if they are grouped with Democratic-appointed judges, and vice versa.”

Aside from the unhealthy dangers of polarizing our congregation in a like minded denomination we also need to recognize that as followers of Jesus Christ we are called to resist this kind of separation.

This past fall The Reverend Dr. Jerry Tankersley, pastor of Laguna Presbyterian Church, spoke at Trinity about why he believes we should stay in the PC(USA).  You can find a copy of everything he said here on his blog.  Jerry reminded Trinity there are important biblical and theological reasons to remain in this part of the Reformed body.  He recounted the biblical story of the fall and God’s neverending efforts to restore unity and went on to say,

“The reason that I recapitulate this biblical theology of the unity of God, the unity of the people of God, and the unity of the mission of God is that we may be reminded of what is at the very heart of the movement of the reign of God in human history.  Paradise was lost, walls of the City of God breached,  but God acted to restore paradise in and through the sacrifice of the Lamb of God, Jesus.  He purchased us with his own blood.  Now we belong to him and to his body. His passion and mission must become the passion and mission of God’s people.  God’s promise is of a New Creation in which the original righteousness of the unity of all creation will be perfectly restored and all will be made right to the glory of God and the joy of heaven and earth in the New Jerusalem…To act to sever this unity within any fellowship will have profound implications for the congregation, presbytery, and surrounding community.  The unity of the church is central to our witness to the gospel in a fragmented, chaotic, and lost world.   The world will know we are Christians by the integrity of our love for one another.”

Trinity, let’s stay PC(USA)