Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Why I'm not leaving the PCUSA

I admit to being embarrassed by the Presbyterian Church sometimes. A year ago my doctor gave my wife a lecture about the 2004 GA decision about divestment in Israel! And I remember Re-imagining, the 1991 sex report, speeches by Ministers of Word and Sacrament who believe Jesus isn't anyone special, or at least he isn't the only way to salvation and yes, the PUP Report. A friend of mine said one time that he just wanted to get through a General Assembly without having to explain something to irate members of his congregation. I sympathize.

But I'm not leaving the PCUSA. It would be better to say I can't leave the PCUSA.

I believe the only time to leave a denomination is when the denomination either becomes apostate or an action of the denomination would cause one to do something that is against one's conscience. We aren't there.

I read yesterday that
a minister in Florida is leaving for the EPC with most of his congregation because he thinks the PCUSA is apostate because of the PUP report. I didn't and still don't approve of the PUP report. I was a overture advocate from my presbytery to speak against the PUP report. But was the PUP report apostate?

Let's define the word: "One who has abandoned one's religious faith, a political party, one's principles, or a cause." (from TheFreeDictionary. Yes, I Googled it.) Has the PCUSA abandoned the one true Christian faith? I think not. We have a Book of Confessions that every ordained person in the denomination affirms contains the "essentials of the Reformed faith." We haven't declared that the Book of Confessions is wrong. We say as a denomination that we believe in the one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in the full divinity and humanity of Jesus, in the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross for the forgiveness of sins, in salvation by grace alone, salvation by faith alone, and the inspiration and authority of the Scriptures for for faith and life. Even people who think the PUP report didn't change anything and is the greatest thing since sliced bread in the PCUSA believe all that. Well, most of us. Governing bodies do make mistakes sometimes in our examination of candidates. To quote the Westminster Confession: "All synods or councils since the apostles' times, whether general or particular, may err, and many have erred; therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith or practice, but to be used as a help in both." (Book of Confessions, 6.175) So yes, sometimes a session or a presbytery makes a mistake and ordains someone who isn't really a Christian or who is a heretic. And yes, sessions, presbyteries, synods and general assemblies make mistakes. Sometimes they make decisions that are not in accord with the will of God or that are not Biblically grounded. But that doesn't make the denomination apostate. It makes us all together and in our various governing bodies and individually human and sinners and not God. We err. We aren't omniscient and we do sin.

Please be assured, I'm not celebrating that fact. The Church is a school for forgiven sinners. We are to teach and learn how to be more faithful Christians both in our beliefs and in our actions. But the truth is we aren't perfect.

No, I am not a Pollyanna. I work hard as a pastor to make sure that when I preach the Word it really is, to the best of my ability what the Bible says to this generation, no matter how difficult the passage may be to hear or to say. I teach the faith once received by the saints as best I can. And as a member of presbytery I stand up and shoot my mouth off and argue with the best of them. Does the session or the presbytery always bow down and say, "Yes Bob, we hear and agree with your great wisdom?" Of course not! Even my wife, wisely, does not do that! Am I sometimes wrong and the rest of the session or the rest of the presbytery right, (or maybe all of us wrong in different ways)? Of course! Am I sometimes right and the decision of the session or presbytery wrong? Probably not as often as I would like to think! But I have the obligation to state what I believe is right.

Read Church history. There never has been a time when the Church made perfect decisions and was at peace. The history of the Ecumenical Councils on the Trinity and the Divinity and Humanity of Christ read like a comedy of errors and a study in how not to come to good theological decisions. If you think Presbyterians get up to bad high jinks in our politics, read about the Robber Council of Ephesus!

Augustine was right. The Church is a bunch of sinners. But we are forgiven sinners. Don't give up on the PCUSA. And God, we Presbyterians believe, brought us together for a purpose. God isn't ready for the divorce of the PCUSA. God still has much to do through us.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

The problems with Amendment A

The Presbyterian Coalition has done a fine job highlighting central problems with the proposed amendment 2006 A which will replace Chapter 14 of the Form of Government. To see the Coalition’s critique please go to http://www.presbycoalition.org/chapter14.htm.

I'm going to cover a variety of stuff that may seem petty. They will not feel petty when they affect churches and ministers. Amendment A will replace the whole of Chapter 14. Other amendments move parts of the current Chapter 14 to other places in the Book of Order. I will refer to the proposed Chapter 14 sections as new 14.xxxx and the current Chapter 14 in the Book of Order as old 14.xxxx. This is necessary because Amendment A also rearranges Chapter 14 so the numbers in the proposed Amendment do not corresponds with the numbers in the current version.

1. BE AWARE! All sections of Amendment A will be voted upon together. A presbytery cannot approve A1 and disapprove A2.

2. If your congregation elects elders who are under 25 to terms shorter than 3 years, the new 14.0222 makes no such provision.

3. Amendment A makes a change in the way smaller congregations make up their Nominating Committees. Currently old 14.0201c allows a congregation with fewer than 70 members to elect a smaller nominating committee with 1 member of the session and 2 members of the congregation. The new 14.0026b requires presbytery approval for a smaller Nominating Committee. Imagine how much that will be appreciated!

4. Old 14.0309d says that candidates for ministry shall not be allowed to negotiate with churches for ministerial service until he/she completes 2 years of seminary and successfully passes the 5 ordination exams. It does however allow situations in which a candidate may be allowed to start such negotiation earlier, if the presbytery approves by a ¾ vote. The reasons for the exception are to be recorded in the presbytery minutes. The new 14.0440 does not require that the reasons be recorded. While this may seem a small thing, removing the requirement to record the reasons would allow a presbytery to make an exception without providing any reason, effectively cutting off review by higher governing bodies.

5. Old 14.0310 says the presbytery certifies a candidate as ready to receive a call or may give this authority to the Committee on Preparation for Ministry, (CPM). When the presbytery gives this authority to the CPM the CPM must report the certification of a candidate to the presbytery. New 14.0450 gives the authority to certify a candidate solely to the CPM. Further the CPM is not required to report the certification to the presbytery.

6. Currently if a church has had a co-pastor model for more than three years an associate pastor currently serving in that church may be elected co-pastor if that election is approved by a ¾ vote of the presbytery (old 14.0501d). New 14.0513 does not require presbytery approval. Of course any changes in a pastor’s terms of call must be approved by the presbytery in both the old and the new Chapter 14, but by majority vote. The old 14 set a higher bar for moving an associate pastor to co-pastor as such a move can be problematic.

7. When ordaining elders and deacons old 14.0206 and 7 say the minister presiding will state the nature of the offices and ask the constitutional questions. Further concerning the ordination and/or installation of a minister of Word and Sacrament old 14.0405a and b and old 14.0510c says the member (of the presbytery or the ordaining/installing commission presiding is the person who states the nature of the offices and asks the constitutional questions. New 14.0330 says “The moderator of the governing body of those being ordained, installed, or commissioned shall ask them (the persons being ordained/installed) to stand before the body of membership and to answer the following (ordination) questions.” If a church is without a pastor and the moderator appointed by the presbytery is pastor of another congregation it will be impossible for that moderator to conduct the ordination/installation service during the regular morning worship service for the church without a pastor! There is no allowance for the moderator to appoint someone to take his/her place. Further the moderator of a presbytery would have to be present at every ordination/installation during his/her term of office. In a presbytery with many congregations this could be unbearable.

8. Old 14.0503a says that the moderator of session appointed by the presbytery or some other member of presbytery shall preside at the congregational meeting at which a pastor nominee is brought before the congregation for election. New 14.0532-3 do not say who shall preside. New 14.0533 simply refers to the moderator of the meeting. How does the moderator of the meeting get chosen? We can’t just say, “Well the Book of Order used to say it was the moderator of the session so he/she is the person referred to in the new Chapter 14!”

9. Old 14.0503b says that the election of a pastor shall be by written ballot. New 14.0532-3 do not require a written ballot. Imagine electing a new pastor by voice vote!

10. Amendment A2 a, b and c refer to advisory handbooks that agencies of the General Assembly will provide. The handbooks suggest procedures but do not require them. The presbytery, synod and GA have to have manuals of administrative operation “to provide effective guidance in the ordination, certification, commissioning and oversight of the work of ministry.” The following are things that will probably be moved to advisory handbooks and manuals of administrative operation as they are part of the old 14 and missing in the new 14

a. Old 14.0310d has definitions that describe the ordination exams. New 14.0431 just has a list of the exams. One hopes that the definitions will be in the handbook for the sake of candidates!

b. Old 14.0505 says what to do when there is a significant minority of the congregation which votes against the call of a new pastor. New 14 says nothing.

c. Old 14.054 says what to do when a candidate is elected as pastor of a larger parish. New 14 says nothing about larger parishes.

d. Old 140507a, b and c say how a call makes its way from the new presbytery of call through a minister’s old presbytery to the minister. New 14 says nothing.

e. Old 14.0510g says that the presbytery shall record that an installation has taken place. New 14 says nothing. How can there be no report of a commission appointed by the presbytery to the presbytery?

f. Old 14.0700 describes the accrediting process for a Certified Christian Educator. The accrediting process is almost completely moved to a handbook.

The Presbyterian Coalition has adequately described the larger problems with the proposed amendments. Let me add my support for their concerns. New 14.0613 says that the presbytery may dissolve the relationship between a pastor and a congregation without the request of the pastor or the congregation. It at least implies that a COM or an Administrative Commission might take this action on behalf of the presbytery. The relevant section reads: “The presbytery, through its committee on ministry or an administrative commission may inquire into reported difficulties in a congregation and may dissolve the relationship if, after consultation with the minister, the session, and the congregation (G-7.0304a(3)), it finds the church’s mission under the Word imperatively demands it.” The language seems to say that a COM may take this action on its own, as may an administrative commission. Further, what exactly are “reported difficulties?” What reported difficulties rise to the level of dissolving a relationship between a pastor and a congregation? How shall a presbytery, a COM or an administrative commission decide if the “church’s mission under the Word imperatively demands (the dissolution)?

Currently the relationship between a pastor and a congregation may be dissolved by the presbytery for three reasons:

1. When it is requested by the minister, (G-14.0602);

2. When it is requested by the congregation, (G-14.0603; and

3. When the pastor has been temporarily excluded from the exercise of the office of ordained minister (D-12.0104e).

4. “when (the presbytery) finds the church’s mission under the Word imperatively demands it.) G-11.0103o

When the minister or the congregation request the dissolution there are provisions and procedures for the minister and the congregation to tell the presbytery why the presbytery should not dissolve the relationship. In each case it says that the presbytery shall hear the reasons why the presbytery shall not dissolve the relationship. When the dissolution is the result of a disciplinary case, (item 3) the presbytery may not dissolve the relationship while there are still appeals pending. In other words, in each case the rights of all are protected. The last reads much like the wording in new 14.0613 and is in a long list of duties of the presbytery. G-11.0103o reads as follows: “to establish the pastoral relationship and dissolve it at the request of one or both parties or when it finds the church’s mission under the Word imperatively demands it.” The first two provisions are in the new Chapter 14, sections 14.0611 and 0612. If the minister requests the dissolution the congregation has the right to speak to the presbytery against the dissolution. If the congregation requests the dissolution the minister has the right to speak to the presbytery against the dissolution. But new 14.0613 allows no such protection if the presbytery seeks the dissolution! If a presbytery, a COM or an administrative commission dissolves the relationship between a minister and a congregation the presbytery need not provide any hearing before the presbytery as to why the dissolution should not be allowed. While the current 11.0103o seems to provide the same duty/right to the presbytery it does not allow a COM or an administrative commission the same power. Also, since it occurs in the list of all presbytery duties it doesn’t sound quite as bald or aggressive

Curiously, whenever a dissolution occurs the new Chapter 14 requires that a congregational meeting occur to consider the matter and to “request, consent or decline to consent to the dissolution (new 14.0610), Why make the congregation have a meeting to consider the dissolution if the presbytery does not need to listen to what the congregation has to say on the matter?

There are just too many changes for the worse and mistakes in this proposed amendment. Vote it down!