Why I’m Not Leaving the Presbyterian Church (USA): a Reformed Ecclesiology in a Post-Christendom Context

Why I’m Not Leaving the Presbyterian Church (USA): a Reformed Ecclesiology in a Post-Christendom Context

 Introduction

“Behind every act of altruism, heroism, and human decency you’ll find either selfishness or stupidity.”[1]

I love the Presbyterian Church (USA) for a variety of reasons. I was baptized and nurtured in the Christian Faith at Millbrook Presbyterian Church (as of a few years ago, no longer PCUSA) in Fresno, California. I responded to God’s love for me in Jesus Christ during eighth grade Communicants Class (Confirmation Class now). I participated in mission and social justice ministries. I served as a deacon as a college student and received my call to full-time ministry as a teaching elder. Then off to seminary and I was ordained in 1982. I celebrated my thirtieth year of ordination as a teaching elder August 15. My entire experience as one loved by God has been within the context of the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America and the Presbyterian Church (USA).

The division that is happening in our denomination has historical precedence; we’ve been there and done that! Division breaks my heart. So I am a bit selfish in writing this paper in that a family breakup is painful. I do not want my church family to continue disintegrating into factions. Secondly, I feel a bit stupid in writing this paper in that I am arguing a point which will be misunderstood by progressive[2] and conservative alike. So, what is my desire for writing such a paper? The current focus in our denomination on division is missing the point. Division does not meet the need of the irreligious and it misses the mark of the gospel; God’s mission.

According to the World Values Survey, 28 percent of Americans say they are active members of a church…Yet the number of Americans with no religious affiliation has been increasing at an impressive clip. According to the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, the religiously unaffiliated constitute roughly 16 percent of the U.S. population…The worldview of the religiously unaffiliated, whether they believe in some loose sense or not, is different in important respects from that of the 39 percent of Americans who report to Pew that they attend church every week or almost every week.[3]

In the Presbyterian Church (USA), many congregants, deacons, ruling elders and teaching elders are in the midst of a discernment process about denominational affiliation. The question is being asked whether to stay in or leave the PC (USA).

But denominational affiliation is not the foundational question to be asked. The question that must be asked is, “Are we participating in God’s mission”?

God’s Mission

“Mission is not what we do for God, but what God is doing through us in the world.”[4] God’s intent from the beginning was to be in relationship with humanity and creation. From the Beginning, God’s plan was to use a fallen humanity, restored in Christ, to bless all the earth and its inhabitants. Due to Adam and Eve’s original sin and the subsequent Fall, humanity and the earth are living under the curse of that original sin. It is God’s mission to reach those still living under the curse in and through those who have experienced God’s electing choice of them in unconditional grace. And it is the community of Jesus followers, the Church/church that is the movement God is using to love others into the kingdom of God. Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes,

It is not simply to be taken for granted that the Christian has the privilege of living among other Christians. Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies. At the end all his disciples deserted him. On the Cross he was utterly alone, surrounded by evildoers and mockers. For this cause he had come, to bring peace to the enemies of God. So the Christian, too, belongs not in the seclusion of a cloistered life but in the thick of foes. There is his commission, his work.[5]

Participating with God in his mission is a primary value. Bringing others to Jesus is assisting others in moving from impiety to piety; living into the reality of John 3:16-18,

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.[6]

John 3:16-18 is a primary value. And Matthew 22:36-40, the Great Commandment serves as our conscience when evaluating how we are doing living into the reality of John 3:16-18.

‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.[7]

Take the story of the paralytic in Mark 2:1-12. Four unidentified people took the paralyzed man to Jesus. They ripped a hole in the roof of the house in which Jesus was teaching and lowered the paralytic in. The unidentified persons wanted the paralytic to see and be with Jesus. The unidentified persons wanted the paralytic healed. Jesus forgave the paralytic his sins and commanded him to stand up and walk. The paralytic began the journey from impiety to piety that day.

Many are leaving the PC (USA) as an issue of conscience. Progressives and conservatives interpret the Scriptures differently. From my viewpoint, the dominant issue of conscience for those who are leaving is the denomination’s tacit affirmation through its commitment to “local-option” that heterosexual and homosexual sexual orientations are equally valid and God ordained. Those leaving or contemplating leaving the denomination find this affirmation to be in contradiction to the Scriptures. I understand this as a matter of conscience for many. Yet, I yearn for an understanding of being faithful in settings and with brothers and sisters with whom I disagree. Might matters of human sexuality, although important and a matter of social justice, be secondary to the primary matter of engaging others in the process of living into the reality of John 3:16-18 that is bringing others to Jesus?

Participating in God’s Mission

According to our Form of Government, it is God’s mission in and through Jesus Christ that informs the life and work of the Church. “In Christ, the Church participates in God’s mission for the transformation of creation and humanity by proclaiming to all people the goodness of God’s love, offering to all people the grace of God at font and table, and calling all people to discipleship in Christ.”[8]

This mission, simply stated, is about remembering, telling and living the way of Jesus. Jennifer Haddox writes, “Our God is a missionary God, going into the world to redeem people. The word mission is derived from the Latin missio, which means “to send.” In Genesis we witness God’s intention to be sent; in Jesus Christ, we see the ultimate sending, of God the Son (John 3:16-18); and by the Holy Spirit, we too are sent (Acts 1:8). This is God’s mission, the Missio Dei.[9]

The Church/church is the movement of God’s mission. She defies definition by the left or right. Mainline denominations and conservative evangelicalism do not define the Christian faith. We need each other in order to fully represent and present the fullness of the gospel.

“Jesus’ teaching on peacemaking, reconciliation and forgiveness”[10] are to be lived out as an offering of hope to the world. I agree with Todd Friesen that our calling as the Presbyterian Church (USA) “is to be a church that is always welcoming others to follow Jesus…and to learn how to live as he intends.”[11]

Participating in God’s mission offers hope to the world. Or at least it should.

Church and church

What is at stake for those discerning whether to stay in or leave the Presbyterian Church (USA)? A Reformed ecclesiology; that is what being Church/church is about. For Presbyterians, our Reformed ecclesiology has an answer to the question of whether to stay or leave. The ontology or “being” of the Church/church is paramount to the discussion. Being the Church/church is rooted in this idea and experience of community. By definition, community is “a group of people living together in one place, especially one practicing common ownership; a group of people having a religion, race or profession in common.”[12] Being the Church/church, is a group with a common identity and mission. Being the Church/church is a community participating in God’s mission.

An ecclesiology seeks to articulate the nature, constitution and function of the Church/church. What is the Church? What is the church? In the Apostles’ Creed, Christians over the centuries have affirmed “I believe in the holy catholic Church.” That is, followers of Jesus believe in the holy “universal” church. There is one Church. It is visible and invisible. The visible and invisible Church is defined by those who profess faith in Jesus Christ. In practice, the Church is made of three streams in its visible physicality (Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant). The visible universal Church is the result of schism and due to its humanity, it is schismatic in nature. The invisible Church is not defined by institutional forms.

For the purpose of this paper, “Church” is defined as the collective body of all Christians; “church” is defined as a particular denomination or group of Christian believers. The Church/church should be about “being” not the institution.

I argue that a Reformed ecclesiology is one which fosters remembering, telling and living the way of Jesus.[13] Remembering, telling and living the way of Jesus is most critical for us as congregations and followers of Jesus. It is at the heart of the matter. Denominational affiliation is not. The Presbyterian Church (USA) is just one field in the plantation, the Church. A denominational moniker is a secondary value.

A Reformed ecclesiology demands more from me and us. Unity, with brothers and sisters in Christ who are real people who have real needs who live in a real world who have differences of perspective on beliefs, behaviors and interpretations of the Scriptures, is fundamental in our tradition. Can we come to the place that our unity in Jesus Christ, the one who was obedient, suffered, died, raised from the dead and ascended into heaven for humanity to know new life in him be the common ground we stand on? Is not our union in Christ all that ultimately matters? I pause and ponder. I am convicted, challenged and humbled.

With this conviction, it seems straight forward enough to say that the Church/church must focus its attention on the doctrines that undergird the gospel message. Let us recover and utilize the historic solas of the Reformation. “Salvation is revealed in Scripture alone (sola scriptura), accomplished by Christ alone (solo Christo), by grace alone (sola gratia) through faith alone (sola fide), to God’s glory alone (soli Deo gloria).”[14] The primary, fundamental, basic and exclusive message of the Bible is God’s good news of redemption, accomplished by Jesus alone, by grace not works, through faith not reason, for God’s credit not human’s.

Looking back to our Reformed tradition’s beginning with John Calvin, he argues for an ecclesiology that is first and foremost rooted in the Church universal and then in a local congregation. Regarding the church, Calvin argues that schism should never take place when the Word of God is sincerely preached and listened to, wherever the sacraments are administered to Christ’s institution and the discipline practiced.[15]

Being the Church/church in today’s societal milieu is not easy. In fact, culture does not help the Church/church in any notion of a growth matrix like it did in the 50’s-70’s. In a recent poll taken by NEWSOK in The Oklahoman, the question was asked, “Do you regularly attend a religious service? 49% responded yes and 51% no.[16] Are people attending religious services less regularly because what they experience is not hope, but derision, ideology, mean-spiritedness and fear?

Schism, Disunity and Unity

Schism is never a subject to be taken lightly. Schism means division or disunion. Ecclesiastically, it means a formal division within, or separation from, a church or religious body over some doctrinal difference. Schism forms a new sect or body. It is also the offense of causing or seeking such a division. I submit that attempting to identify the “true church” or declaring a local expression of the Church apostate are not helpful or our prerogative. Jesus is head of the Church/church. He is the one who will separate the wheat from the chaff. Jesus is the one who will say “I do not know you.” Bonhoeffer writes,

Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ. No Christian community is more or less than this. Whether it be a brief, single encounter or the daily fellowship of years, Christian community is only this.

What does this mean? It means, first, that a Christian needs others because of Jesus Christ. It means, second, that a Christian comes to others only through Jesus Christ. It means, third, that in Jesus Christ we have been chosen from eternity, accepted in time, and united for eternity.[17]

The Word of God is living and written. As living Word John 1:1 reminds us, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” As written Word, 2 Timothy 3:16 reminds us, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” The Word (Jesus and the Scriptures) is important.

Unity in the church is important for one reason; remembering, telling and living the way of Jesus. We know and encounter this Jesus as the living Word and authoritatively narrated in the written Word. Our witness as Church/church is only as effective as its united voice and presence. Yes, God is sovereign, but we are what the religious unaffiliated see and experience. Our unity communicates the amazing good news of the Gospel more effectively than disunity.

Disunity inhibits and distorts, both individual and Church/church, in their remembering, telling and living the way of Jesus. Disunity promotes factions and discord. Fundamentally, disunity is not about the memory, history and story of being a Christian.[18] Disunity becomes the story we remember, tell and live as opposed to that of Jesus. Disunity is a focus on secondary matters that removes us from the primary matter of living into the reality of John 3:16-18.

Disunity in the church is comprised of selfish interests and individual preferences. Disunity places the need for doctrinal purity and isolation from all people who are not pure. This holds true for ideas as well. Isolation is a higher value than honest, authentic and vulnerable dialogue about the thing that matters most: the remembering, telling and living the way of Jesus.

Paul Watermulder, pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Burlingame, California, writes,

Many churches in our denomination are restive at being a part of the Presbyterian Church (USA). Some are leaving in order to join newer and smaller denominations where they feel people may be more consistently like-minded.

Desires to join a church or denomination as an “affinity” group are obvious-we don’t spend so much time apologizing for (or wondering about!) each other if we all think and act alike. It is more comfortable for everyone.

The Apostle Paul tackled these feelings in Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12, when he wrote that the Church (like a family) has never been a group of people who vote-shop-think-worship all alike…The point of unity is in serving, loving, growing in Jesus Christ. It is not in the particularities of how each person lives that out, as if we might be “cookie cutter Christians.”

Paul found in Corinth a church that argues over worship, theology, sexuality, diet; people filed lawsuits against each other, and things had become an uproar. His word to them all was that the very last thing any should do was leave. They were expected to find how to be one (unified) by looking to Christ. He expected them to work as brothers and sisters, not as people who had an option to walk away.[19]

Wherein Lies the Church’s/church’s Authority

I assert that the disunity we are currently experiencing within the Presbyterian Church (USA) is about authority.

We Presbyterians hold differing views on soteriology, sin, Christology and the mission of the Church because of the locus of authority for our varying beliefs about soteriology, sin, Christology and the mission of the church.

The Word (Jesus and the Scriptures), tradition and experience are competing authorities in the Presbyterian Church (USA). Some hold that the Word (Jesus and the Scriptures) trumps tradition and experience. Others hold that tradition trumps the Word (Jesus and the Scriptures) and experience. Still others hold that experience trumps the Word (Jesus and the Scriptures) and tradition.

The Church is the community of those who profess faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. From our Reformed perspective, all three sources of authority, the Word (Jesus and the Scriptures), tradition and experience validate one’s confession/profession of being a Jesus follower. And a Reformed ecclesiology reinforces the way of Jesus being the plumb line for ecclesiological definition. All three authorities must be held in tension without one trumping the other. The Word (Jesus and the Scriptures), tradition and experience will confirm that belief and behavior are integrated and congruous; there is integrity.

God’s plan for the redemption of humanity is the primary message of the Bible. Let us not forget the historic solas of the Reformation. Once again, the primary, fundamental, basic and exclusive message of the Bible is God’s good news of redemption, accomplished by Jesus alone, by grace not works, through faith not reason, for God’s credit not human’s. The Word (Jesus and the Scriptures), tradition and experience must confirm the gospel, the good news of salvation.

Jesus Christ is head of the Church. The Church’s authority is Jesus Christ; the Church is the body of Christ; there is one Church, because there is one Spirit and one hope. According to Ephesians 4:5-6, “…there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.” The Church is called to holiness. “Because in Christ the Church is holy, the Church, its members, and those in its ordered ministries strive to lead lives worthy of the Gospel we proclaim. In gratitude for Christ’s work of redemption, we rely upon the work of God’s Spirit through Scripture and the means of grace to form every believer and every church community for this holy living.[20] The Word (Jesus and the Scriptures), tradition and experience all speak into our lives and our existence as Church/church.

Forming every believer and every church community for holy living is a process and it’s messy. Believers and churches mirror to each other what conversion looks like. The Word, Jesus, demonstrates what holy living looks like. The Word, the Scriptures, is the revelation of this Jesus, God incarnate; fully God and fully man. The Reformed tradition in which we stand is articulated in the Confessions of our church; the Confessions articulate both doctrine and theology. Our experience as Jesus followers and congregations both denies and confirms the authorities of the Scriptures and tradition. All three authorities are at play. Is one authority more authoritative than the other?

For Martin Luther, his reformation was Christocentric; everything revolved around the living Word, Jesus Christ.[21] As Luther was encountered by Jesus Christ, the living Word was the ultimate Word. The words of God are contained in the Bible. They testify to the living Word.

The Reformed tradition is anchored in the Word (Jesus and the Scriptures), elucidated in the Confessions and experienced through remembering, telling and living the way of Jesus. The Word (Jesus and the Scriptures), tradition and experience assist us in loving God and others. All three aid us in remembering, telling and living the way of Jesus.

The Word (Jesus and the Scriptures), tradition (elucidated in the Confessions) and experience engage the head and heart; orthodoxy and piety; obedience and freedom.  Borrowing British evangelical theologian John R. W. Stott’s notion of “double listening”[22] that is one ear listening to God’s Word and the other to God’s World, I argue that we must really do “triple listening”; to the Word (Jesus and the Scriptures), tradition (elucidated in the Confessions) and experience.

The soteriological theme of conversion to and in Jesus Christ is critical to a Reformed ecclesiology. How the Church catholic and church particular represents that conversion to the world is equally paramount. Conversion is about the head and heart, orthodoxy and piety; and obedience and freedom. Unity holds the poles together in tension. Disunity lines up the poles consistently with one set opposed to the other with no recognition of the necessary integration.

New life in Jesus Christ begins at our election and we discover that new life through faith and repentance or as we often refer to that process, conversion. Through our union with Christ, we have become new creations; the old has gone and the new has come.[23] But our union with Christ is a process of conversion both for individual (head and heart; orthodoxy and piety; obedience and freedom) and church (head and heart; orthodoxy and piety; obedience and freedom).

It is in and through conversion that we discover and experience our union in Christ. In the document “Union In Christ: A Declaration” we read, “By our union with Christ our lives participate with God’s mission to the world: to uphold the value of every human life, to make disciples of all peoples, to establish Christ’s justice and peace in all creation and to secure that visible oneness in Christ that is the promised inheritance of every believer.”[24]

Union in Christ as a theological doctrine embraces the truth and reality of John 14:20: “On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” This is Jesus’ teaching about the promise of the Holy Spirit and how although he was leaving, he would not leave his followers orphaned. In and through God’s election of you and me, the Holy Spirit begins God’s regenerative work within us. By the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus begins to live his live in and through us. With Paul followers of Jesus can say, “…and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”[25]

The Significance of Conversion

What does Reformed theology assert about the nature of conversion? Both personally and institutionally, the Reformed tradition[26] acknowledges the need for the continual reformation, change and conversion of the church and individual followers of Jesus. This notion has been identified with the descriptive phrase ecclesia reformata semper reformanda secundum verbum Dei (the church reformed and always being reformed by the Word of God).  Simply stated, churches within the Reformed tradition are committed to a process of continual self-examination, reformation, change and conversion according to the Word of God (Jesus and the Scriptures).

The Latin conversio means “a turning, changing or revolution.” Two possible ways of considering conversion, for example, might be referred to as punctiliar and continuous. The former can be defined as a conversion experience consisting in a self-contained moment or event of limited temporal duration. The latter defines conversion, instead, as a process not contingent upon any one event, but inclusive of many. Conversion can helpfully be thought of under both the punctiliar and continuous models.

John Calvin’s understanding of conversion was expressed in terms of pietas. He understood pietas to be true godliness, consisting of a sincere love for God as Father and an equally compelling fear and reverence of God as Lord.[27] For Calvin, pietas is “…the shorthand symbol for his whole understanding and practice of Christian faith and life.”[28]

Calvin’s understanding of conversion is a reorientation of the soul of an individual. He views conversion as a process initiated by God. It is an encounter by and with pietas. Conversion is a growing awareness of the implications of such an understanding and a practice of that understanding in Christian faith and life. Although Calvin himself underwent a reorientation of the soul, he does not write of his conversion as a single event with a limited and focused temporal duration. Rather, Calvin describes conversion as a process demonstrating movement from impietas toward pietas, a transition of sorts.

Conversion is at the core of the life of the Church/church for it is made up of individual members of the body of Christ who are undergoing ongoing reformation, change and conversion that is mortification of the flesh and sanctification.

Conversion, in Reformed theology, is not a singular and conclusive punctiliar event. It is an ongoing experience of the benefits provided by Christ’s imputed righteousness and the renewing work of the Holy Spirit. The salvation experience is a process oriented transition from impietas toward pietas. This process begins with regeneration, continues with sure faith and proceeds with ongoing obedience to Jesus Christ. Conversion has both individual and corporate implications.

Through the gift of faith, conversion begins the transition from the knowledge of God as Creator, functional ungodliness (impietas) to that of the knowledge of God as Redeemer, functional true godliness (pietas). Faith moves us into the particular knowledge of God as Redeemer and sets us on the road to seek true godliness through forgiveness of sins, repentance, the mortification of the flesh and rebirth. This is our salvation.

In Reformed theology, faith precedes forgiveness of sins and repentance. It claims the promise of Jesus Christ’s human obedience, death, resurrection, and ascension as our very own. We are engrafted into the life of Jesus Christ. Faith is a gift from the Holy Spirit. John Calvin writes, “For we need to have faith increase constantly, while we are in this life. This is nothing but progress on the road, until we clearly reach God, in whom the whole of our perfection rests.”[29]

The Church catholic is the presence of Christ in the world in and through particular churches. As participants with Christ in the conversion transition from impietas toward pietas, we are not simply individuals added onto a salvific chain. We are adopted into the family and become one with Jesus Christ. Thus, salvation is to partake of Christ and be united with him. And as we partake and are united with Christ, we are to follow his example. As he gave himself for us, we are to give ourselves to one another. We are to participate in the Great Commandment.

In Christ, we are reborn, adopted, sanctified, and renewed day by day.[30] “In short, if we partake of Christ, in Him we possess all the heavenly treasures and gifts of the Holy Spirit, which leads us unto life and salvation. Except with a true and living faith, we will never grasp this.”[31] God the Father in Christ has chosen us. Through the illumination of the Holy Spirit, we were given faith to place in Jesus Christ to redeem us through his human obedience, death, resurrection and ascension. We are adopted as sons and daughters of God.

Who is this Jesus Christ? Jesus Christ has reconciled us to the Father. Jesus Christ is our wisdom, righteousness, purity and power. We are engrafted into Christ. Calvin writes,

Therefore he sanctifies us, cleanses the filth of our sins, governs and leads us, until we reach to himself, through death, which will bring an end indeed to our imperfection, but a beginning to our blessedness, which we shall receive in him, so that his Kingdom and glory may be our mainstay, power, and glorying against hell.[32]

Standing On Both Legs of the Gospel

From my cursory and limited historical, theological, biblical and sociological analysis, progressive Christianity lifts up heart, piety and freedom, almost to the exclusion of head, orthodoxy and obedience. Conservative Christianity lifts up head, heart and obedience, almost to the exclusion of heart, piety and freedom. Whereas progressive Christianity may be conformed to secular liberalism, conservative Christianity may be conformed to secular conservatism.

Neither “brand” of Christianity is embracing the full message of the biblical message. The Gospel has two legs: personal faith and social justice. Progressive Christianity seems to rely most heavily on the leg of social justice whereas conservative Christianity the leg of personal faith.

A look back to the Social Gospel movement might be our best example of Christianity holding head/heart, orthodoxy/piety and obedience/freedom together. The Social Gospel movement, standing on both legs of the Gospel, had a “deep grounding in Bible Study, family devotions, personal prayer and worship.”[33]

As ruling elders, deacons and teaching elders, we are called to make disciples of Jesus not just converts. We are to follow Jesus as well as obey his teachings. There is nothing easy about being a follower of Jesus and obedient. “Jesus taught us to do some really difficult things: forgive 77 times, feed the hungry, renounce violence, love our enemies, suffer for what is right.”[34] The Church/church cannot be silent on matters of social injustice. The gospel is both word and deed.

May I assert that the social justice issue related to human sexuality, particularly the inclusion of the lesbian and gay community into the full life of the church, is the driving force compelling churches to leave the Presbyterian Church (USA). Many say it is Christology, soteriology, sin and ecclesiology. But I humbly beg to differ.

Have any of you opined like me that the primary message of the Bible is often overlooked in the discussion regarding homosexuality in the church? Rogers notes that the discussion focuses primarily on eight texts. None of the texts is about Jesus and do not include any of his words.[35] Interpretation of the Bible is always at play. I agree with Jon Meacham that tradition, reason and history inform one’s interpretation of the Bible.

If we interpreted all Scripture at the same level of authority, however, we would be more open to slavery, to the subjugation of women, to wider use of stoning. Jesus himself spoke out frequently against divorce in the strongest of terms. Yet we have-often gradually-chosen to interpret the Bible in light of not only tradition but also reason and history.[36]

I am keenly aware of the sin nature in human. Our innate desire to go against God and his mission is clear. But as I stated earlier in this paper we must first deal with sin as nature not actions if we are truly to understand the significance of redemption in and through Jesus. I am not redeemed from sexual infidelity, but pride.

What is essential in a Reformed soteriology and ecclesiology; union in Christ or sex?

I applaud being faithful sexually. I question making one’s sexual orientation determinative for an orthodox understanding of soteriology and ecclesiology. The narrow fundamentalism by progressives and conservatives is inexcusable when it comes to this matter of living faithfully in one’s sexual orientation as a disciple of Jesus Christ.

May I suggest, for progressive and conservative alike, that if schism occurs and is attributed to non-nature matters such as worship styles, race, violation of the Ten Commandments, fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, greed, anger, wrath, slander, abusive language from the mouth, lying, women in leadership, house church models, the marriage/civil union debate[37] or living faithfully in one’s sexual orientation as ruling elders, deacons and teaching elders as opposed to nature, which is the outright rejection that we are adopted into the family of God by grace and united with Jesus in and through his baptism, obedience, death, resurrection and ascension in order to participate in God’s mission, then schism misrepresents the fundamental calling of followers of Jesus. We are to be of the same mind as Jesus Christ, thus living a life worthy of our calling and the Gospel. And what is a life worthy of our calling? Remembering, telling and living the way of Jesus for the sake of others.

Let us focus on what matters most; one’s relationship with Jesus Christ and the difference in nature that relationship makes in a real person’s life who has real needs who lives in a real world.

Let us focus on the nature of conversion and let God sort out the consequences of various actions. Conversion must occur in the nature of human. Yes, integration of faith and action is critical. But the former, in all humility, takes precedence. If that is askew, then there is limited hope for actions to be transformed.

The way of Jesus clearly speaks into the human need for salvation and forgiveness of sin, both in personal and social justice forms. Non-inclusion into the full life of the Church/church based on race, gender or sexual orientation faithfully expressed is unacceptable. The only exclusive claim in Christianity is whether or not a person is one with Christ; that is united in Christ. Union in Christ is confessed and professed through one’s remembering, telling and living the way of Jesus. The Word (Jesus and the Scriptures), tradition and experience will validate the one exclusive claim of Christianity. And this exclusive claim is most inclusive, welcoming and hospitable in its application.

If the Church/church disowns the exclusive truth of union in Christ and replaces it with a particular social justice issue as what matters most, might it then cease to be Church/church?

In Reformed theology, the doctrine of total depravity lifts up the truth of the Word (Jesus and the Scriptures) that from the start, human is corrupted by sin and is overcome with “inordinate desires.”[38] The conversion from “inordinate desires”, impietas, toward pietas, is a fundamental change of orientation in the whole of human existence, in that we are reborn in the imago Dei, a life of holiness. “…it will be nothing amiss for us to regard holiness of life to be the way, not indeed that leads, but by which those chosen by their God are led, into the glory of the Heavenly Kingdom.”[39]

Yes, the Church/church must name sin; nature and actions. However, is the homosexual who is faithful within a civil union or celibate within singleness committing sin?

Therein lays the problem facing individual followers of Jesus Christ in the particular church known as the Presbyterian Church (USA) as well as the denomination. A Reformed ecclesiology is first and foremost rooted in our union with Christ. We are saved in and through Jesus Christ and are to participate in God’s mission; loving God and others. The gospel has two legs, personal faith and social justice. It is our condition as sinners, our sin nature[40] that must be addressed. It is the sin nature that Jesus has vanquished. Engaging people in the process of John 3:16-18 matters most. Living the implications of the Great Commandment is the consequential outcome of experiencing John 3:16-18.

Head, orthodoxy and obedience must be in conversation with heart, piety and freedom. It is here that nature and actions meet. This provides the conversion context.

A Pragmatic View

What is the Church/church? It is a movement of people, united in Christ, remembering, telling and living the way of Jesus. The biblical witness seems to indicate that the way of Jesus involves wilderness[41], wandering[42], exile[43] and remnant[44] experiences.

The Church/church is a people defined by the covenant made to Abraham and fulfilled in Jesus Christ is in exile; both universally and particularly as the Presbyterian Church (USA). We are aliens in a strange land.[45] The Church is not an institution. It is a dynamic and living movement of a people who in history have been faithful to the promise made to Abraham. The Church continues to live in and fulfill that covenant as the covenant is most fully and completely known in Jesus Christ.

As believers standing in the Reformed tradition, we have been elected to salvation. We know God through the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit and affirm Jesus Christ’s victory over sin in that justification is by faith and faith alone in Jesus. We grow in God through sanctification and his providential care. We connect in God through authentic fellowship. We serve God by living the Great Commandment and participating in God’s mission; the Great Commission. We glorify God through worship in that to glorify God is the chief end of man, male and female.

The Church/church possesses a faith which is centered in a person who had a real life. Jesus’ life was significant in that he was God incarnate and rose from the dead as he promised. We cannot substitute the gospel for moral, political and sentimental tests. We must recover the biblical doctrine of the two kingdoms as Luther and Calvin did so clearly almost five centuries ago. In the kingdom of culture, what Augustine called “the city of man” there are rulers, there are laws, there are customs that are regulated by human wisdom. In the kingdom of Jesus Christ, or “the city of God” there is one ruler, our Lord Jesus Christ, and he advances his kingdom through the proclamation of the gospel in word and deed and by the administration of the sacraments. If we view sin in terms of actions and not primarily in terms of condition, we will see the answer in terms of moral reform, not in terms of throwing ourselves on the mercy of God.

I wonder how many people we turn off  to the Gospel by arguing about interpretations of the ethical and moral teachings of the Bible and their justice implications all the while missing the core of Christianity that being union in Christ, rather than sharing the truth of Jesus’ love and mercy to save us from the wrath we deserve. I offer the suggestion that we begin with the change of nature that God offers us in and through Jesus Christ and then examine our actions and social justice engagements in that light.

I keep reminding myself that remembering, telling and living the way of Jesus matters. And Jesus spoke to our nature and behaviors; the former being the foundation of the latter. This is where our unity can be affirmed. Our union in Christ is on display. Jesus, God incarnate, is the life-changer. Real people who have real needs who live in a real world need to see and experience the way of Jesus. God begins to remove the calloused shell that has enclosed the imago Dei and the image of God begins to take over; the old nature is gone and the new has come.[46] It’s all about John 3:16-18 and how we live into its reality.[47]

The Pharisees seemed to be about head, orthodoxy and obedience. Their leadership was disconnected from heart, piety and freedom. They consistently tried to trap Jesus. Jesus messed with their religion. He wanted them to see that religion is not, a set of principles and propositions that primarily engages head, orthodoxy and obedience. Instead, Jesus envisioned religion to be movement of people remembering, telling and living the way of Jesus, thus living into the reality of John 3:16-18 and the Great Commandment, thus integrating head and heart, orthodoxy and piety and obedience and freedom. According to Jesus, the Pharisees were in effect offering “a patch” on an old garment; “old wineskins” attempting to hold new wine.

Think about the analogy of the patch on an old garment. Jesus offered a new garment. In fact, Jesus was disappointed that the garment the Jews were given at the calling of Abraham had become old. The covenant was never to have become old. It was to have remained constantly new. People were to shed old clothing and take on the new offered in and through Judaism. Jesus said that he came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it.[48] In fact, when someone comes to Jesus Christ in faith, the Word (Jesus and the Scriptures) tells us that the old is gone because the new has come.[49]

Think about the analogy of the wine and wineskins. Wine was the most common drink for people in Palestine. The containers were leak-resistant animal skins that could be processed and treated in such a way that they could expand and stretch along with the new wine as it fermented. Wineskins were bags made of animal skin, usually a goat hide sewn at the legs and the neck with an opening for a spout. Unfermented grape juice was poured in. As the new wine fermented and expanded, it would stretch the new wineskins. Putting new (unfermented) wine in old wineskins, which had already been stretched and somewhat dried out, would result in the bursting of the wineskins. The wine and wineskin are both ruined.

The meaning of the sayings of the patch and new wineskins is that the presence and teaching of Jesus was something new. Jesus could not patch or pour his new ministry into old Judaism. Judaism had become inflexible due to the accumulation of centuries of institutional practice, the practice of emphasizing head, orthodoxy and obedience almost to the exclusion of heart, piety and freedom. Over time, we in the Reformed tradition have become pharisaical with both progressive and conservative camps. We have turned our ecclesiology into something life taking as opposed to life giving.[50]

I have been a follower of Jesus Christ, a Christian, for forty-two years. I have been a teaching elder, for thirty years. As a follower of Jesus Christ I am a new person, but often attempt to justify the existence of my old life; the old nature. As a teaching elder, I continue to butt up against the bifurcation of head and heart, orthodoxy and piety and obedience and freedom, which does not mesh with the way of Jesus.

As a follower of Jesus, I cannot completely remove my old life. I am broken, because of sin. I must continually believe God’s promises, repent of my sinful nature, confess my sins, throw myself onto the mercy of God and receive God’s forgiveness. I must repeatedly claim my new identity in Jesus Christ.[51] I must undergo a life-long conversion. That is true for me and all followers of Jesus Christ. And if that is so, church communities must undergo life-long conversion as well, according to the Word of God (Jesus and the Scriptures). The Word (Jesus and the Scriptures), tradition and experience are each at play in conversion and subsequent discipleship.

Conversion is the beginning of real Christian life. Christian nurture, education and worship may be valuable preparations. But no one is, or should be called, a Christian until he has personally encountered God in Jesus Christ, until he has personally repented, until he has personally accepted God’s gift of salvation through faith in Christ, until by faith he has individually been born again[52]. The reality of the church in every generation consists in those who have thus been born again. The continuance of the Church in the world depends on there being enough people who have passed through this experience, and through whom it can be passed on to others.[53]

The Church/church is to be a gospel-driven community infused with the biblical vision of justice.[54] An ontological understanding of the Church/church is necessary. Simply doing the tasks or function of Church/church is shallow and debilitating. It is in and through an ontological experience of Church/church that followers of Jesus will live the interfacing and integrated process of John 3:16-18 and the Great Commandment.

Being church Rooted in a Reformed Ecclesiology

The Presbyterian Church (USA) is one of the fields within the plantation owned by the landowner. The field has wheat and weeds. The landowner will hold the tenant farmers accountable for the quality and quantity of the harvest.[55]

There are many fields within the plantation. There are Episcopalian, Reformed Church of America, Lutheran, Methodist, Disciples of Christ, United Church of Christ, Baptist, Nazarene, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Presbyterian Church of America, Reformed Presbyterian, Orthodox Presbyterian, Evangelical Presbyterian and any number of independent varieties. Every field has patches on old garments, new garments, new wine in new wineskins and new wine in old wineskins. And the tenant farmers, those followers of Jesus, ruling elders, deacons and teaching elders get angry. We get angry when patches and old wineskins are still used and some don’t see the error of their ways. We get angry when new garments and new wineskins are used and still others don’t see the error of their ways. And Jesus looks into the face of anger on both sides and calls for change; he calls for unity. Only those followers of Jesus, teaching elders, deacons and ruling elders who repent will tend the field properly.

When it is all said and done, it will be up to the plantation owner to say well done good and faithful tenant farmers. The landowner will decide who invested the talents properly. He will decide between the sheep and the goats.[56] The fields contain both wheat and weeds; the pious and impious.

With Tod Bolsinger, I confess that the Presbyterian Church USA “needs significant change and continued organizational and spiritual transformation.”[57] Like Tod, I desire to “reengage the pew with presbyteries”; foster “the development of leadership capacity that can create communities of continual transformation” (conversion); and “rebuild trust in a world where there is so much cynicism and skepticism.”[58] Our reengagement of the pews, the development of leadership and the emergence of communities of faithful followers of Jesus will require a focus on John 3:16-18 and the Great Commandment.

It is true that many congregations in the Presbyterian Church (USA) are losing members. There are a variety of reasons I am sure. An ability to graciously allow for differences in interpretation of the Scriptures and tenaciously hold on to John 3:16-18 and the Great Commandment (remembering, telling and living the way of Jesus) are paramount for unity and just perhaps to stem the tide of our membership decline.

Churches lose members, not because they are wrong, but because they are not compelling, not heroic, not relevant, not courageous. Our children need and want a church that is heroic-like Jesus, like Francis of Assisi, like Desmond Tutu, like Dorothy Day, like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Our children want to be challenged to the bones. Our children want to be invited to something that will ask a lot of them. And so do we.[59]

Instead of placing so much energy in having the right denomination moniker on our letterhead, let us insist that we “be” the church not simply “do” church. Let us be united in our common belief in the exclusive truth of union in Christ and work out our salvation in fear and trembling by embracing the important and necessary social justice issues as a matter of praxis.

According to the General Social Survey, 26 percent of Americans born in 1981 or later are not affiliated with a religion. By way of contrast, the same is true of only 5 percent of those born before 1928, 6 percent of those born between 1928 and 1945, 13 percent of those born between 1946 and 1964, and 20 percent of those born between 1965 and 1980…If the so-called millennial generation born in or after 1981 doesn’t dramatically change its religious stripes, the share of the U.S. population that is unaffiliated will surpass the share that belongs to mainline Protestant churches, and it might even overtake the share that belongs to evangelical Protestant churches. Moreover, this process could easily accelerate; as what we might call America’s religious middle continues to hollow out.[60]

I don’t know about you, but in my life I have placed a lot of value on having the right list of essential tenets; a “pure” reputation; hanging out with “pure” people; having polity and politics line up in congruence; and simply looking good in appearance all the while denying the bankrupt nature of my soul and the souls of those who are yet to know Jesus. I must say that just perhaps, many who are thinking about leaving are guilty of the same things I cited above; things that have broken me and at times still wreak havoc in my life. And what are our selfish attitudes and behaviors and inability to be Church/church saying to the increasing number of religious unaffiliated?

I am called to repent. I must become more like one of the four who carried the paralytic to the house Jesus was in; rip open the roof; and get the paralytic to Jesus.[61]

Being church rooted in a Reformed ecclesiology existing in a Post-Christendom context is a community of Jesus followers marked with

  • Union in Christ.
  • Conversion, punctiliar and continuous.
  • Unity as relationship experienced not a value affirmed.
  • Jesus as the Son of God; Savior and Lord.
  • Redemption as the central message of the Word (Jesus and the Scriptures).
  • Gratitude and graciousness; a welcoming and hospitable spirit.
  • Fidelity in civil union or celibacy in singleness.
  • Humility before God and in matters of faith and practice.
  • Obedience to the integrated authorities of the Word (Jesus and the Scriptures), tradition and experience.
  • Transformation.
  • The belief that sin is defined by nature first and then actions.
  • The pairings of head and heart; orthodoxy and piety; and obedience and freedom.
  • The mission of the Church/church as remembering, telling and living the way of Jesus.
  • The testimony that Jesus was raised from the dead and brings about resurrection from the dead (lives and structures).
  • The person of Jesus in order to be the best Jesus others see and experience.
  • Preaching the gospel, administering the sacraments and practicing discipline.
  • Honoring, respecting and practicing the ordination vow of “being a friend among your colleagues in ministry.”
  • Understanding and respecting the ideas of other religious traditions.
  • Listening to and engaging the religious discussion.
  • Loving God and others.
  • Remembering, telling and living the way of Jesus.

 Conclusion

A Reformed ecclesiology promotes unity; and that is significant in a Post-Christendom context. Remembering, telling and living the way of Jesus is not “a method of guaranteeing salvation” but “the acknowledgment and proclamation of astonishingly good news.”[62] In unity there is gratitude.

Perhaps the best way to describe an ecclesiology that promotes unity, a unity that fosters gratitude is to speak to the notion of community. Remember, community is a group with a common identity and mission. Being the Church/church is a community participating in God’s mission.

My life is not my own. I was born to two parents. I have a sister. My mother and sister are deceased. I am married and have been so for thirty-three years and we have three children. My family, both extended and immediate, never gets along perfectly, but we have stayed together. We have stayed together through it all; the highs and the lows. I belong to God and am a member of God’s family, the Church and a particular church, the Presbyterian Church (USA). My family and Church/church family are communities.

Unity in my families is not a value. It is a relationship. Why? My families are communities. Unity is not uniformity. But, we have an agreed upon common denominator the holds us together and creates an environment for discussions that are lively, energetic and meaningful. And that common denominator is Jesus Christ. We are committed to remembering, living and telling the way of Jesus. In either community, we often do not agree. But our disagreements are not about fundamentals. Most often, the disagreements are about actions not nature. And it is in the praxis, the engagement between a fundamental and an outcome that real dialogue can occur.

The Hegelian dialectic (thesis, antithesis and synthesis) has much to teach us about unity and community. It is in the dialectic that unity in diversity fleshes out authentic community in which we can be grateful. Gustavo Gutierrez writes,

In our relationship with God and with others there is an inescapable personal dimension: to reject a fellow human-a possibility implicit in our freedom-is to reject God as well. Conversion implies that we recognize the presence of sin in our lives and world. In other words, we see and admit what is vitiating our relationship with God and our solidarity with others-what in consequence, is also hindering the creation of a just and human society.[63]

Leaving the Presbyterian Church (USA) seems to illustrate that those leaving are the creator of Christian community and their ideal is what will hold followers of Jesus together. To the contrary, the community is God’s and we are invited into it by Jesus and sustained in it by the Holy Spirit. Not leaving the Presbyterian Church (USA) models and promotes community.

God has not left the Presbyterian Church (USA). God is not finished with us as congregations, individuals, friends, worshipping communities or a denomination. We need to embrace our individual and corporate brokenness and become stronger in and through the broken places. Citing 1 Corinthians 1:18, “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes,

God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and God Himself accordingly. He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of brethren. He as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together. When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure. When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sets the community going to smash. So he becomes, first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself.[64]

As followers of Jesus, ruling elders, deacons and teaching elders who are tending parts of the field of the Presbyterian Church (USA), we better keep farming the field. Let us stop using patches and old wineskins and work for the removal of patches and old wineskins in our lives, congregations, presbyteries and synods. We have been assigned to the field of the Presbyterian Church (USA). Let us farm it. We could change fields, but I do not believe the Landowner is telling us to do so.[65] The Bible tells us there is one way to farm.[66]

And as those who are farming parts of the field of the Presbyterian Church (USA), let us remember five things. First, nothing has changed in the Book of Confessions. Second, there is no specific authorization in the Book of Order for laxity in living sexually faithful lives for ruling elders, deacons and teaching elders. Third, the ordination vows that ruling elders, deacons and teaching elders take speak to the community values of accountability, discipline and unity. Fourth, there is no loss of church property or a financial settlement to the presbytery. And fifth, there is no distraction in a local congregation’s participation in God’s mission.

Given the mandate in the Word (Jesus and the Scriptures), the Reformed tradition and our experience to be people who love God and others, let us focus on what kind of people our churches are sending out into the world; what kind of church forms those kind of people; what kind of leader forms that kind of church; and what kind of staff forms that kind of leader.[67] Unity in “being” in our Reformed ecclesiology is essential for adaptive change. With Jack Haberer, I agree that “the church needs to jettison its self-absorption and judgmentalism or it will be left behind.”[68]

We are confronted with an adaptive challenge. We must confront and be confronted by the gospel itself. By doing so, we will see that we are being saved in our brokenness as opposed to perishing. It is truly all about the exclusive claim of our union in Christ. With union in Christ as our foundation for unity, we can then address social justice issues with grace and keep all that we do focused on individuals experiencing the fullness of relationship with Jesus Christ. Living into the reality of John 3:16-18 and the Great Commandment is our mission.

Living into the reality of John 3:16-18 and the Great Commandment is done in the context of conversion. According to the Reformed tradition, conversion “radically transforms one’s heart, mind, and will.”[69] Conversion is fundamentally “the work of the Holy Spirit according to which the intellect and the will of the sinner are turned toward God in contrition and faith.”[70] Union in Christ is the outcome of this punctiliar and continuous conversion process.

I passed my oral examination for ordination on the floor of a presbytery meeting at First Presbyterian Church, on a sweltering hot day, in Bakersfield, California in June 1982. I was ordained thirty years ago, August 15, 1982, at Millbrook Presbyterian Church in Fresno, California. Both First and Millbrook were congregations in the Presbytery of San Joaquin; both United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America congregations. Those congregations are no longer in the Presbyterian Church (USA), a denomination which was formed by the merger of the UPCUSA and PCUS denominations in 1983.

Wow, thirty years…how the landscape has changed.

I grieve for those teaching elders, ruling elders and congregations who have left and are considering leaving the denomination. Jesus is Savior and Lord, yet many in the church have made Jesus plus a particular interpretation of biblical text (s) the criteria for an orthodox understanding of soteriology and ecclesiology.

Along with Jack Rogers, I affirm that the Bible’s message is about reconciliation between God and man. And that message is clear that “God came into the world in the person of Jesus Christ, whose life, teaching, death, and resurrection overcame alienation and renewed the relationship between God and God’s people.”[71]

From my perspective, unity trumps schism.

Jim Wallis in a recent column in Sojourners writes,

I have been a Little League baseball coach for both of my sons’ teams for many years. And I’ve learned that baseball can teach us life lessons. Just a few weeks ago, my 9-year-old’s team was down 5-0, and we had already lost our first two games. It didn’t look good. But all of a sudden, our bats came alive; all our practice and preparation suddenly showed itself. Best of all, our rally started in the bottom half of the order, with our weakest hitter. In a long team meeting afterward, the kids couldn’t stop telling each other what they had learned. “We didn’t give up, and we came back!” “Sometimes you get what you need from unexpected places.” “Everybody helped us win today.” “This just goes to show you: You can’t ever give up on hope. We always have to keep on hoping no matter what.” This is central to our vocation in the churches: to offer unexpected hope, because our mission is to the kingdom of God. And while the kingdom of God was the central message of Jesus and the New Testament, it has faded as ours. Finding salvation to heaven is part of the message, getting closer to God is part of the message, but the heart of the message of Jesus was a new order breaking into history-changing everything about the world, including us.[72]

Instead of leaving, let us be about bringing hope to people who are searching, many in despair, for a better way to live. Let us be about remembering, telling and living the way of Jesus. For in remembering, telling and living the way of Jesus the Church/church is being Church/church. In this regard, the authorities of the Word (Jesus and the Scriptures), the Reformed tradition and experience each have something to say; and the three held together in healthy tension are stronger than when one is lifted up in isolation.

Being the Church/church is participating in God’s mission; assisting others to discover and experience the good news that God came into the world in the person of Jesus Christ, whose baptism, earthly obedience, suffering, death, resurrection and ascension made the way possible for human to be set free from alienation and be renewed in right relationship with God. Union in Christ makes all the difference in the world.

The Church/church is called to gather, grow and go. Every follower of Jesus must consider the reality that worship, learning and serving are not optional. Jesus modeled such for disciples then and now.

The God I believe in, with my whole being, wants a Church/church gathering, growing and going in order for it to cherish and heal those who are wounded in our world.

I know, although more keenly at some times than others, that my life is not my own and that who I am and the ministry that God has given me is a gift and only by God’s mercy. I continue to embrace my brokenness and give it to God for his healing. It is through transparency and authenticity that I believe God is made most evident. I renounce shameful things and the practice of cunning. I will not falsify the central message of the Bible. I commend myself to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God, yet am so aware of my sinful nature.[73]

Persuasion is difficult. Unity is significant. Jesus is not divided nor is the mission of God. But the body of Christ, the Church, is. It is naïve to believe the Church in its various particular churches will ever unite. But the field of the plantation on which God has nurtured me and placed me to serve, I yearn for unity in the Presbyterian Church (USA) around remembering, telling and living the way of Jesus.

A bit of selfishness and stupidity has informed the writing of this paper. I grieve over the disunity in the Presbyterian Church (USA). I selfishly yearn for a unified mission to and with the un-churched. Brighter minds and more informed souls have forgotten more than I will ever know about a Reformed ecclesiology. Thus my “stupidity” may limit the effectiveness of my endeavor in this paper. Yet, I humbly submit my thoughts for your consideration. On the journey together, I remain faithfully yours.

I am indebted to those with whom I’ve been in conversation, personally or through their writings. The conversation has included individuals representing both “stay in” and “leave” the Presbyterian Church (USA) perspectives. I give thanks to God, my family, John Calvin, Bill Hendrix, Mateen Elass, Robin Nygaard, Trevor Hart, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Phil Butin, Cynthia Bolbach, Aaron Carland, Keith Koch, Tom Are, Joe Small, Mary Naegeli, John Buchanan, Seth Svaty, Tim Hast, Jeff Hosmer, Christine Chakoian, Mark Brewer, Jack Haberer, Diana Butler Bass, Peter Barnes, Bob Schwenck, Stephen C. Neill, Steve Hein, Cathy Northrup, Michael Horton, Charles Wiley, Betsy Straeter, Jack Rogers, Glenn McDonald, Jennifer Haddox, Jon Meacham, Bruce Reyes-Chow, Robert Austell,  Stacy Johnson, Ron Scates, Jim Cahalan, Gil Mitchell, Reihan Salam, Jay Ayers, Roger Dermody, Sue Trei-Conrad, John R. W. Stott, Todd Friesen, Richard Muller, Tracy Evans, Jeff Ritchie, Darrell Guder, Jerry Andrews, Amy Schulke, Jack Jezreel, Gustavo Gutierrez, Matt Meinke, Ross Douthart, Kyle McCormick, Carol Waters, Paul Watermulder, Laura Crihfield, Jim Wallis, Ford Lewis Battles, Landon Whitsitt, Tod Bolsinger, Jonathan Haidt, Michelle Junkin, Stephen Neill  and James C. Goodloe IV. Our conversations are interspersed throughout this paper. I am grateful to each of them and know that the conversation will continue.

Copyright 2012; Steven M. Marsh; All rights reserved.


[1]Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind (New York: Pantheon Books, 2012), 128.

[2]In this paper, “progressive” does not mean those committed to contemporary worship styles, freer expressions in worship and house church models.

[3]Reihan Salam, “Getting Religion” in National Review, June 11, 2012, 25.

[4]Jennifer Haddox, “Whose mission?” in Presbyterians Today, June/July 2012, 4.

[5]Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, translated by John W. Doberstein (San Francisco, California: HarperSanFrancisco, 1954), 17.

[6]All Scripture citations in this paper are taken from the New Revised Standard Version.

[7]Matthew 22:36-40

[8]The Foundations of Presbyterian Polity, Chapter One: The Mission of the Church, F-1.01

[9]Jennifer Haddox, Presbyterians Today, June/July 2012, 5.

[10]Todd Friesen, “Training in Jesus’ Way in The Christian Century, August 22, 2012, 35.

[11]Ibid.

[12]Concise Oxford Dictionary tenth edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 289.

[13]The phrase “…remembering, telling and living the way of Jesus is taken from Diana Butler Bass’, A People’s History of Christianity (New York, New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2009). See Bass’ book for further development and articulation of the idea.

[14]Michael S. Horton, “Conversations for a Modern Reformation” in Modern Reformation September/October 2012, 26.

[15]John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, vol. 2, translated by Ford Lewis Battles and

edited by John T. McNeill (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), 1011-1276.

[16]The Oklahoman, Thursday, August 30, 2012, 2A.

[17]Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 21.

[18]The phrase “Being a Christian should involve memory, history, and story” is found in Diana Butler Bass’ A People’s History of Christianity, 9.

[19]Paul Watermulder, “A New Look at Presbyterians” in the First Presbyterian Church of Burlingame’s The Spire, February-April 2012, 1-2.

[20]The Foundations of Presbyterian Polity, F-1.0302

[21]Diana Butler Bass, A People’s History of Christianity, 152.

[22]John R. W. Stott, The Contemporary Christian: Applying God’s Word to Today’s World (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 24-29. “double listening” is “the faculty of listening to two voices at the same time, the voice of God through Scripture and the voices of men and women around us. These voices will often contradict one another, but our purpose in listening to them both is to discover how they relate to each other. Double listening is indispensable to Christian discipleship and Christian mission” (29).

[23]2 Corinthians 5:17

[24]Taken from Union In Christ: a Declaration, adopted at Gathering III of the Presbyterian Coalition in Dallas, 1998.

[25]Galatians 2:20

[26]There are common theological themes that unite churches, which identify themselves within the

Reformed tradition. The Constitution of the World Alliance of Reformed churches (revised 1982) states that membership is open to “any church which accepts Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior; holds the Word of God given in the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the supreme authority in matters of faith and life; acknowledges the need for continuing reformation of the church catholic; whose position in faith and evangelism is in general agreement with that of the historic Reformed confessions, recognizing that the Reformed tradition is a biblical, evangelical, and doctrinal ethos, rather than any narrow and exclusive definition of faith and order.” (Historical Dictionary of Reformed Churches, edited by Robert Benedetto, Darrell L. Guder, and Donald K. McKim (London: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1999), xlix.)

[27]John Calvin, Catechism 1538, translated and annotated by Ford Lewis Battles (Pittsburgh: The Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, 1972), 2.

[28]Ford Lewis Battles, Interpreting John Calvin, edited by Robert Benedetto (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1996), 289.

[29]John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 1536 edition, translated by Ford Lewis Battles (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1986), 67.

[30]Ibid., 18

[31]Ibid.

[32]Ibid., 56

[33]Gary Dovrien in Ross Douthart’s Op-Ed piece, “Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved” in The New York Times (July 15, 2012).

[34]Todd Friesen, The Christian Century, August 22, 2012, 32.

[35]John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 1536 edition, translated by Ford Lewis Battles, 67. Also see Genesis 19:1-29; Judges 19:1-30; Leviticus 18:1-30; Leviticus 20:1-27; 1 Corinthians 6:9-17; 1 Timothy 1:3-13; Jude 1-25; and Romans 1.

[36]Jon Meacham, “Of God and Gays and Humility” in Time (July 30, 2012), 16.

[37]I agree with the editorial board of The Washington Post in its September 23, 2012 column, “Civil Unions for all couples-gay or straight.” In that column, the editors state, “Full and equal legal status as members of a civil union should be available to every couple-gay or straight. The government should be taken out of the marriage business altogether. ‘Marriage’ is essentially a religious construct and it exists in a realm outside of the government’s jurisdiction.” As a religious construct, marriage should not be legislated. It should be a sacrament/blessing administered by the Church/church. The Church/church then can exercise its discretion on administering the sacrament/blessing according to its particular polity, theological, biblical and doctrinal interpretations.

[38]Augustine rightly asserts this notion of “inordinate desires.”

[39]John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 1536 edition, translated by Ford Lewis Battles, 41.

[40]Romans 5:12-21

[41]Exodus 15:22; Mark 1:12-13

[42]Numbers 14

[43]Jeremiah 29

[44]Revelation 2-3

[45]Hebrews 11:8-10

[46]2 Corinthians 5:16-17

[47]Matthew 22:36-40

[48]Matthew 5:17-20

[49]2 Corinthians 5:17

[50]The discussion on the centrality of Jesus, wine/wineskins and garments/patches has been influenced by several written communications by as well as conversations with Ron Scates.

[51]1 John 1:8-10; 2 Corinthians 5:17

[52]The meaning of “born again” in this context is reflective of Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus. Being born again is synonymous with the notion of conversion as both punctiliar and continuous in nature. The baggage associated with this term as brought to it through the Jesus Movement in the seventies as well as that of fundamentalist Christianity is not the intention in this citation.

[53]Stephen C. Neill, “Conversion,” Scottish Journal of Theology 3 (1950): 353.

[54]Adapted from Jack Jezreel, “Gospel-Driven Communities: Being a Church with the Biblical Vision of Justice” in Congregations, Issue 2 2012, 14.

[55]Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

[56]Matthew 25:31-46

[57]Taken from Tod Bolsinger’s blog, “Why I’m Staying…an open letter to my friends in the #PCUSA”, January 14, 2012.

[58]Ibid.

[59]Jack Jezreel, “Gospel-Driven Communities: Being a Church with the Biblical Vision of Justice” in Congregations, 16.

[60]Reihan Salam, “Getting Irreligion” in National Review, June 11, 2012, 25.

[61]I appreciated Cynthia Bolbach’s sermon at the opening worship service for the 220th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Cynthia was the moderator of the 219th General Assembly.

[62]John M. Buchanan, “Grace before anything” in Christian Century, June 27, 2012, 3.

[63]Gustavo Gutierrez, We Drink From Our Own Wells translated from the Spanish by Matthew J. O’Connell (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1984), 97.

[64]Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 27-28.

[65]Matthew 18; 1 Corinthians 5:1-13; 1 Peter 3:1-2; 1 John 4:1-6

[66]Matthew 13

[67]Christine Chakoian, “Hurry up and wait” in Outlook, June 25, 2012, 35. The adaptive questions are borrowed from Shepherd of the Hills Presbyterian Church in Austin, Texas.

[68]Jack Haberer, “Editor’s Outlook” in The Presbyterian Outlook July 23, 2012, 5.

[69]Donald K. McKim, Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), 62.

[70]Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House Company, 1985), 82.

[71]Jack Rogers, Jesus, the Bible, And Homosexuality (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 69.

[72]Jim Wallis, “Hearts & Minds” in Sojourners, August 2012, 7.

[73]Many thoughts in this paragraph reference Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 4:2

4 thoughts on “Why I’m Not Leaving the Presbyterian Church (USA): a Reformed Ecclesiology in a Post-Christendom Context

  1. Thank you for words of wisdom and compassion! They are undergirded by thoughtful reflection on Scripture and theology. Blessings, Jackie Leonard (The Rev; PC(USA), Nevada Presbytery)

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