Polity Matters…A Lot

“Polity, at its best, is really the embodiment of ecclesiology.  The Book of Order is the manifestation of who we are as the Church, as we live it out together.”
– The Reverend Forrest Claassen, Installation Service as State Clerk of The Presbytery of Los Ranchos, Fall 2013

When our polity changes, the manifestation of who we are as the Church changes, which is why I want to share this eye-opening analysis of ECO polity with you. It was written by The Reverend Dr. Daniel M. Saperstein, Co-Leader for Mission and Partnership for the Synod of the Sun, PC(USA) for First Presbyterian Church in Houston, TX.

Dan’s complete, and very thorough analysis, is available for you to read here Notes on ECO Polity.

The following are very pertinent excerpts from his analysis:

“In the PCUSA, the Historic Principles of Presbyterian Government (F-3.02) express how the checks and balances within the polity serve to maintain order and justice. The genius of Presbyterian polity is that as authority in the church expands, so does the scope of accountability, so that issues are ultimately decided by the voice of the whole church.

A comparison of the PCUSA and ECO polities will demonstrate that one key distinction between the two is ECO’s greater location of power in pastors and sessions without adequate accountability either to the presbytery above or to the congregation below. If the oft-cited criticism of the PCUSA by ECO-bound churches is that it is too restrictive in its polity but too lax in its theology, ECO is precisely the opposite – overly restrictive in theology while giving free rein in polity.

 It is not that the PCUSA has elevated polity over theology. Rather, the PCUSA recognizes that polity is the practical expression of our theology. So the question in choosing between polities is which more accurately represents a faithful theology.”

“The ECO constitutional documents are identified as the statement of Essential Tenets, ECO Polity, and the Rules of Discipline. These outline a denomination that is Presbyterian only in the broadest sense of the term. Church councils above the session have virtually no authority to direct the life and ministry of lower councils. There is no provision for administrative review and oversight. There are no structures to promote or ensure inclusion of persons across race or gender. Property and finances are exclusively under the control of sessions. Even the ministry of Word and Sacrament in a congregation could be commissioned without recourse to presbytery. In these regards, the denominational body the polity most resembles is not Presbyterian, but Southern Baptist.”

Some of my primary concerns with ECO polity, which Dan points out, include:

  • The polity of ECO rests on covenants of partnership (membership) and accountability. The use of covenant language suggests that the unity of the church envisioned is contingent on keeping covenant. Unlike the PCUSA Constitution which states that the particular congregations collectively constitute ONE church (F-3.0201), the ECO polity reflects a unity that is a covenantal association of individual churches.
  • ECO restores the office of Assistant Pastor, elected by the session only (not the congregation).  The PCUSA discontinued this because of abuse of pastors in this tenuous role. It is noteworthy that while Assistant Pastors are accorded a vote at presbytery, they do not have a vote on the session they serve.
  • Nowhere does the ECO constitution grant presbytery the authority to set minimum terms of call.  And neither pastors nor congregations have recourse to presbytery in the negotiation of call terms.
  • Presbyteries have the authority only to “settle differences between congregations and pastors” (3.0103). They do not have authority to enter into congregations in conflict or to take original jurisdiction of congregations that are unable to manage their affairs.  While some may welcome this change, it raises the question of whether ECO is in fact a hierarchical denomination with an essential unity, or a mere convention (à la Southern Baptists). It does not protect a congregation from abuse by a rogue session, or unresolved differences within congregations.  Trinity experienced and benefited from this kind of help from Los Ranchos Presbytery ten years ago when the presbytery recognized a problem at Trinity and stepped in to handle it and the subsequent dismissal of our pastor.
  • Whereas the PCUSA Constitution requires that presbyteries consist of at least equal numbers of elders as of minister members, in ECO this is reversed, that is, the number of minister members will at least be equal or greater than the elder commissioners.
  • The Synod executive council is given great power for the whole denomination without the requirement that its decisions be accountable to the representative assembly.  It consists of only 6-9 persons, with a guarantee of only three elder members.  The delegation of such sweeping authority to a small body, with no requirement of representation or inclusion that could conceivably be dominated by a supermajority of pastor members is contradictory to the Presbyterian principles of accountability and parity among ruling elder and teaching elder presbyters.
  • The issue of church property has taken on an increasingly central role in the decisions of churches to move to ECO from the PCUSA. ECO polity contains no property trust clause, leaving property solely in the hands of the local congregation, and prohibits the presbytery from exercising any partnership with congregations in the mortgage financing of building loans (4.0102).  This may provide some sense of satisfaction to those who are concerned that a trust clause may be exercised against their wishes in church disputes, but it also removes an important protection for congregations from abuse by leaders or an influential group. It also removes from smaller congregations an important resource for acquiring funds to expand their ministry, especially when they are in an early phase of development.
  • Pastor CEO?  An odd provision of chapter four also provides that the session or other governing board shall elect an elder, pastor, or staff member to serve as the chief executive officer of the corporation and may elect other corporate officers as it deems appropriate or as required by law. (4.0101).  The idea that the pastor could also serve as the CEO of the church corporation by election of the session reflects a pastor-centric leadership model that is deeply contrary to the historic practice of Presbyterian polity.
  • The Essential Tenets document is part of the constitution, along with the polity and rules of discipline. Every explanatory statement in the Essential Tenets document therefore is written into the constitution and has not only the requirement of a supermajority of presbyteries to amend, but a supermajority within the presbyteries. This is an extremely high bar of amendment, exceeding that of the U.S. Constitution (which only requires a majority vote by three-fourths of the state legislatures).
  • The Confessions of the Church are not part of the ECO constitution. There is no provision in the constitution for adopting or amending confessions. Claims therefore that they share a common confessional perspective with the PCUSA are false; the only functional confession of ECO is the statement of Essential Tenets. Indeed, this has a higher standard of amendment than do the confessions in the PCUSA.
  • ECO has no comparable section to F-3.01 and F-3.02 of the PCUSA Constitution, which outline the Historic Principles of Church Order (“preliminary principles”) and the Historic Principles of Presbyterian Government (“radical principles”). There is no statement affirming the rights or limits of conscience. There is no statement regarding the principles of government. There is no statement regarding the requirement of mutual forbearance when consciences collide. These principles are at the core of the PCUSA polity. They assure that rights are protected. No such assurances are evident in the ECO constitution. The ECO constitution also omits the historic statement of the Great Ends of the Church.
  • The polity of ECO, with its unaccountable leadership (synod executive council), weak structures of hierarchical protection and accountability, and Congregationalist emphases creates an environment in which basic rights and freedoms of members can be trampled.
  • The ECO constitution provides for equal powers of appeal by the accusers in a disciplinary case where a verdict of not guilty is rendered. The PCUSA had briefly offered limited powers of appeal to accusers, but even those limited powers have been rescinded. In ECO the possibility of double and even triple jeopardy exists for a person found not guilty at trial.

There is at least one concern Dan has which I am not certain can be sustained and that is:

  • Presbyteries have the power: (3.0103g) [To] receive, dismiss, examine, install, provide pastoral care for, and discipline pastors.  However, nowhere does the constitution grant presbytery the role of approving calls. The “tripartite” call of the PCUSA apparently becomes a “bipartite” call between a congregation and a pastor.

ECO polity is very abbreviated (low control) and depends on the high level of trust expected within the denomination. However the abbreviation leaves too much room for interpretation, or misinterpretation as the case may be.  Trust is high today because those who are forming ECO have been in relationships with each other for many years.  But can that trust be passed on going forward?  Trust cannot be inherited.

Finally, watch and listen to the Reverend Dr. Ted Wardlaw, President, Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, discuss John Calvin’s suspicion of the potential for the abuse of power in the church.

“Calvin was suspicious of too much power being held in one person’s hands, say a bishop’s hands because of the corrosive possibilities of such power.  Calvin did not trust the trappings of imperial status and the potential for tyranny when so much power was held in one person’s hands.  Calvin was also suspicious of power being held finally in the hands of a congregation, period.  Pure congregationalism, he thought, was hampered by two weaknesses. First, congregationalism is an order of church life that is designed for saints and not for nominal Christians.  And secondly, congregationalism runs the risk of devolving to emphasis simply on the local church and thus loses the universal character, or catholicity, of the church.”

Trinity, let’s stay PC(USA)

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PC(USA) Minute for Mission ~ Souper Bowl of Caring

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…

SBoC LogoSouper Bowl of Caring (SBoC) is a national youth-led movement that works to spread awareness of and fight hunger in the United States with every penny collected by participants. This was the elevator speech I wrote over four years ago at my first SBoC National Youth Advisory Board meeting. Souper Bowl of Caring will send anyone who asks everything necessary to start a donation drive, at a time of year when most food banks are depleted from the holidays. But the best part is that you get to choose where the money goes in your local community. No money gets sent to the organization; all you do is report your total amount raised.

Souper Bowl of Caring is so much more than that, though. It does amazing things for communities around the country, not just through collections but through planned service events too. At Spring Valley Presbyterian Church in Columbia, South Carolina, we always participate in the citywide Service Blitz, in which countless groups spend a day at community shelters and food banks. It is a day that everyone looks forward to.

Because SBoC is led by youth, it provides one of the greatest opportunities for young people to grow and mature into caring adults who live the rest of their lives giving back. I am the person I am today because of SBoC. Although my school does not have a SBoC group—I now give my time to Children’s Miracle Network through Auburn University Dance Marathon—I still thank SBoC every day for the opportunities it gave me to lead and give back. The youth who started it over 20 years ago took a God-given opportunity and grew it into something fantastic that has helped countless people. All it took was a prayer: “Lord, as we enjoy the Super Bowl football game, help us be mindful of those without even a bowl of soup to eat.”

—Michael Hobensack, member, Spring Valley Presbyterian Church, Columbia, South Carolina

PC(USA) 1001 Worshiping Communities ~ El Buen Pastor

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 – El Buen Pastor
Discover how a Presbyterian partnership in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, helps create one of the fastest growing new worshiping communities in the country.

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)

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)