The Big Picture for Presbyterians (And Others)Columns, The Purpose-Driven Centrist — By Tim McGeary on June 23, 2011 at 6:28 am
In early May 2011, a majority of the 173 presbyteries of the Presbyterian Church (USA) had approved a change to the ordination standards. The amendment will remove the constitutional requirement that all ministers, elders, and deacons live in “fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness” (G-6.0106b in the church’s Book of Order). The new language reads,
“Standards for ordained service reflect the church’s desire to submit joyfully to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all aspects of life (G-1.0000). The governing body responsible for ordination and/or installation (G.14.0240; G-14.0450) shall examine each candidate’s calling, gifts, preparation, and suitability for the responsibilities of office. The examination shall include, but not be limited to, a determination of the candidate’s ability and commitment to fulfill all requirements as expressed in the constitutional questions for ordination and installation (W-4.4003). Governing bodies shall be guided by Scripture and the confessions in applying standards to individual candidates.”
This is a change that has been coming for some time. Four times the General Assembly of the PC(USA) had approved similar changes to ordination, and each time the local presbyteries voted against, albeit in decreasing margins of majority. This amendment has passed both voting processes, and will take effect on July 10, 2011.
Earlier this month, my church – the First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem, PA – held a town-hall meeting for the congregation to discuss the suggested course of action as voted by the Session of Elders. After a 20-minute presentation by the senior pastor, a full hour of congregation commenting took place. Most of the comments focused directly on being against or in favor of ordination of practicing homosexuals. Some broadened the discussion to argue that this change allows all variations of sexual behavior to be acceptable for ordination. Some people announced they would leave the church and denomination, while others asked that people wait out their impulses and stay in membership.
I stood up to say that I see this decision by our denomination to be a larger opportunity and challenge than simply dealing with the changes of ordination and absence of guidelines and accountability for sexual behavior. Just as important, there are published studies and surveys by polling groups, such as Pew and Barna, that indicate my generation (Gex X) and the next generation (Millennials) are not willing to draw the same lines in the sand on issues of hot button issues, such as same-sex marriage, abortion, war, and others.* The trends indicate more neutral or central stances of what previous generations have battled for or against for the purpose of encouraging open discussion, transparency, and civil communication. Surveys have shown these generations are spiritually more comfortable with questions that have no easy answers, more open to expressing doubt, and more interested in communities that have a diverse points of view. I find these trends to be relatively true in my circle of friends, and as an independent, centralist-minded person, I myself concur.
In this context, I believe the challenges of this constitutional change are bigger than the change in ordination standards. The opportunity, then, is for us to examine these issues as we decide how to continue to participate in PC(USA). I hope that those in leadership of PC(USA) churches, as well as other denominations, will approach the future by examining these three areas:
- Tradition vs Faith
- Hierarchy vs Community
- Self Survival vs Investment
Tradition vs Faith – By definition, tradition is humanly created, defined, and interpreted. It is created by someone and followed by others within the customs or beliefs passed down through generations. Traditions, however, do not define God nor our faith in God, but rather are derived by our fallible interpretations, senses, and beliefs in what has been held to be true in the past. Much of the foundations of our denomination are indeed built on tradition. The opportunity before us is to live out our faith in God, not in our traditions. We must identify specifically those things we hold closely or push aside as tradition and those things we live out in faith. We must declare that our God is great, is just, and loves overwhelmingly, and we will journey together toward our God.
Therefore, the question I raise to leadership is this: Are the actions you propose for the future as a congregation lie in traditions you hope to preserve or in faith you hope to live in?
Hierarchy vs Community – One definition of hierarchy is “a system or organization in which people or groups are ranked one above the other according to status or authority.” Much of what we read and interpret from the gospels is Jesus overthrowing the hierarchies the Jewish leaders created for themselves to separate both themselves and God from the common people. Jesus, as God himself, flattened this hierarchical separation and, moreover, turned the whole idea upside down. Jesus humbled himself and lifted everyone up over himself, the chief of the kingdom at the very bottom of the chain. He defined leadership not as authority over others but as servants under and within the community.
I commend our pastoral team for living this example out, consistently resisting the temptation to lead over us as a congregation, but instead living and serving within and alongside the congregation. I believe the greatest failure of the western Church is the CEO/Board-like nature pastors and elders have tried to lead churches, and I am thankful this has not been the case at FPC-Bethlehem. The process and setup of ordination does have the taste of elevating a person over a community, and, indeed, communities of believers often give in to the temptation to allow pastors to lead over them rather than participating with these leaders to invest in their community together. But we have wonderful examples of first-century communities who lived in community together, wholly dependent on each other. They had little-to-no knowledge of the New Testament, other than a letter actually addressed to them. But they invested in the community together and moved together, right or wrong. Sometimes they had to be corrected, and other times they were commended. I hope that we can live out community similarly.
The question I raise to the leadership is this: Are the actions you propose for the future as a congregation based on preserving the hierarchical requirements of authority of a few over many or through a vision of how we, as a congregation, can live within these new definitions as a community and within the larger community that is PC(USA)?
Self Survival vs Investment – I believe there is nothing more shocking in the gospel than Jesus declaring in order to save your life we have to lose it. There is little, if any, scripture that can be used to justify a position of self survival. Nearly everything in the gospels prescribes living beyond our definitions of generosity in money, love, service, and forgiveness while removing all traces of judgment, violence, hate, exclusivity, prejudice. And yet our American culture, politics, and economics pushes us into self-survival mode that contradicts the gospel. I fall terribly short in my attempts to be generous in these areas.
But in a time of uncertainty as this situation brings, it would be tempting as a church for us to focus on self survival rather than continuing to invest in our congregation, our communities in our cities, around the country, and the world. If we are to live out the gospel, living in our experience of God’s overwhelming love for us, then we need to fight against this temptation to simply focus on self survival.
The question I raise to the leadership is this: Are the actions you propose for the future as a congregation focused simply on surviving as a church, neglecting our neighbors, our sister churches around us, our sister churches in PC(USA), or focused in continuing to invest in our communities, our sister churches, and the world around us? Are we running away from relationships that are now difficult, or are we becoming more generous in our love, service, forgiveness, and financial support? Are we taking positions of judgment, exclusivity, and prejudice or taking positions of openness, inclusiveness, and welcoming? Finally, are we stubbornly resisting conversation and discussion of difficult topics, or are we admitting our questions to which we have no answers, being transparent in our doubts to our community and denomination, and being open to discussion, disagreement, and commitment to continuing relationships?
I believe this situation is an opportunity for us to invest deeper in our congregation, our communities, and in the denomination. I believe it is a challenge worth embracing, a challenge to live within our faith in God to lead us closer to himself, and to show others just how great that love is.
- Generation X and Work/Life Issues, Sloan Work and Family Research Network, Boston College, Volume 7(2) February 2005 http://wfnetwork.bc.edu/The…/08/The_Network_News_Interview08.pdf
- Sandfort, Melissa A. and Haworth, Jennifer G. “Whassup? A Glimpse Into the Attitudes and Beliefs of a Millenial Generation” Journal of College and Character 3(3): 2002
- “Young Adults and Liberals Struggle with Morality” http://www.barna.org/teens-next-gen-articles/25-young-adults-and-liberals-struggle-with-morality August 25, 2008
- “Americans Describe Their Moral and Social Concerns, Including Abortion and Homosexuality” http://www.barna.org/culture-articles/50-americans-describe-their-moral-and-social-concerns-including-abortion-and-homosexuality January 21, 2008
- “The Millennials: Confident. Connected. Open to Change.” http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1501/millennials-new-survey-generational-personality-upbeat-open-new-ideas-technology-bound February, 24, 2010
- “The Millenials” http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1437/millennials-profile January 11, 2009
- “The Progressive Politics of the Millennial Generation” http://www.newpolitics.net/node/360?full_report=1 June 20, 2007
- “A New Generation Expresses its Skepticism and Frustration with Christianity” September 24, 2007 http://www.barna.org/barna-update/article/16-teensnext-gen/94-a-new-generation-expresses-its-skepticism-and-frustration-with-christianity?q=generation
- The Pew Research on Millenials http://pewresearch.org/millennials/