Monday, November 12, 2007


One of my favorite passages in the Bible is in Deuteronomy:

1When you have come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, 2you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the LORD your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the LORD your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. 3You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, “Today I declare to the LORD your God that I have come into the land that the LORD swore to our ancestors to give us.” 4When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the LORD your God, 5you shall make this response before the LORD your God: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. 6When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, 7we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors; the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. 8The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; 9and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. 10So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O LORD, have given me.” You shall set it down before the LORD your God and bow down before the LORD your God. (Deut. 26:1-10, NRSV)

God gives freedom. The whole story of the Exodus tells us that God had made a covenant with the descendants of Abraham and Sarah. Those descendants were down in Egypt, enslaved, oppressed. God, as the passage says, led them out with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and led them into a fruitful land. God set them free.

But it is, in a sense, a terrible thing to be part of God’s people. Freedom given from God is not freedom to do as we wish. It is freedom to be what God intends us to be. The people of Israel did not put aside their idols and false gods. They oppressed the poor among them and bribed judges. God warned them that they were to live as holy people for God had set them apart as a light unto the nations. Ultimately because they misused their freedom God took away their freedom and punished them.

But something happened in exile in Babylon. There was a renaissance of faith in God. There was a renaissance of obedience to God. The people of God began to see that outward slavery did not deny freedom. The people began to celebrate their freedom. The Sabbath meal became a meal of freedom. While God’s people might labor six days a week, on the seventh day they rested for, as it says in Deuteronomy, God commanded them to do so for God had led them out of slavery. (Deut. 5:12-15) The Sabbath was a celebration of freedom.

So was the Passover. Every year the people would gather and remember that God had set them free. No matter how awful daily life might be, God was still a God who brought liberation.

But freedom always exists within bounds. I remember hearing James McCord when he was president of Princeton Seminary preach one time that God was not only a God of liberation. God did not simply lead the people out of Egypt. God led them to the Mountain and gave them commandments. True freedom can only exist within limits. St. Augustine said, “Love God and do as you please.” The assumption behind this statement is that if we love God we will seek to please God. We please God by living as God commands us to live. To live as if freedom means there are no limits is to live in chaos. This is precisely the problem we have in America and in the PCUSA today.

People drive up the street I live on with stereos that have massive bass speakers in their cars. They turn the music up loud and the bass reverberates through the neighborhood. My house shakes and I can hear the bass notes even with the windows closed. Now I like loud music as much as the next person. But when in my house I want to hear my own music, not that of someone driving by. Fire and police sirens I understand. They are necessary. So are train whistles. But as nice as the driver with the bass booster is to share his music with me, I wish he wouldn’t. He probably claims to have the freedom to play the music as loud as he wants. What about my freedom to be at peace in my house?

And if we all thought we were free to do as we wish the roads would be a colossal mess. If we all thought that we don’t have to stop at stop signs or at red lights traffic would be so snarled that no one would ever get anywhere! (Oops, I forgot: there must be a new law I haven’t read that says that four cars can turn left on red!)

I’m going to come back to the limits on freedom. There is another freedom that is important: the freedom God gives in Jesus Christ.

Jesus came and taught the way of freedom. He lived the way of freedom. He died and rose again to set us free. And curiously the way of freedom for Jesus was the way of obedience to the Father. We are set free from the powers of sin and death because Jesus chose to obey the Father, to allow himself to be arrested, to die in our place. Jesus shows us that the way of freedom includes the way of obedience to the Father.

Martin Luther puts it this way:

A Christian is a perfectly free lord, subject to none.

A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant, subject to all. Martin Luther, A Treatise on Christian Liberty)

As Luther points out, this sounds like a contradiction. It isn’t. God made us for freedom. Jesus died to set us free. But Jesus didn’t die so that we could do as we please, totally ignoring God. As Paul says in Romans, “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” (Romans 6:1-2 NIV)

I spoke previously about the covenants God makes. God always acts with grace first. Then God calls people to be the people of God, to be holy, to live for God. Our freedom then is to be dedicated to serving God.

That is freedom for the people of God. What about freedom for others? Contrary to what Christians did for more than 1500 years, we cannot impose obedience to God upon others. There are at least two kinds of freedoms in a free society. There is the freedom of the people of God, which is freedom to serve God. There is also freedom for everyone. When Christians come to legislate in a free society they cannot impose their beliefs on others as law. We must make a case that the laws we propose, (and this must be true for all), are good for all no matter what people believe. In a sense we could say that law is based on freedom. One cannot kill another because killing takes away the freedom of the other to live. One cannot pay another substandard wages because the worker deserves the freedom to live and eat. Law must be for the good of all the people. Christians cannot impose, say, attendance at Christian worship upon others.

The problem with freedom in America and in the PCUSA today is that freedom is too often no longer seen as freedom within limits so that all may be free. Freedom is seen as the right to do what I want no matter how it affects the other. As participants in a consumerist society we believe we have the right to riches beyond the imagining of the rich in the past. We forget that riches are earned and that even the possession of riches comes with commands from God, to serve God and other with riches.

The same is true in the PCUSA. We have taken on the language of rights, the watchword of the Enlightenment. People say they have the right to be ordained. No one has the right to be ordained. God calls people to particular tasks and gives people the gifts to enable them to carry out those tasks. Many tasks demand a certain amount of holy behavior. A congregation should not call a pastor who openly has a wife and a mistress. Yes, I know, there were people in the Old Testament who had concubines. In fact it was even a habit that was not ruled out among Christians in the early years. But we have come to see that God calls most men and women together to be one, to be married. One cannot be one with more than one other person. Check out the stories of those in the Old Testament who had more than one wife! Everyone man who had more than one wife or wives and concubines had troubles.

In the Church we have freedom within limits. We are free to serve God. Even if we are oppressed for our faith we are free because Christ has made us free.

Let us so live that our freedom shows that we love the Lord with all our hearts, minds and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves. That is true freedom.

Pastor Bob

Thursday, November 8, 2007


I have terminated my conversations with John Shuck. While we have been friends for a long time, and still are friends John has mocked members of the Presbyterian Church. He did so in three posts on his blog:

New Winos Are Too Holy for PCUSA

New Winos Are All About Jesus

Name the New Wineskins Contest!

Now I will be the first to admit that some of the folks in the New Wineskins movement have not been at all polite in the comments about the Presbyterian Church. Further, as some of them leave the denomination, the call the PCUSA apostate. I disagree with them. And frankly some of them have been terribly nasty to John. But I don’t believe in returning evil for evil. So I posted the following on John’s blog:


I find your mocking of the New Wineskins people totally unacceptable. I can no longer in good conscience participate in a dialogue with you.

I certainly don’t agree with the people leaving the denomination but frankly your current behavior is exactly what has caused me pain from the rigid liberals for my whole career.

I know you love and are concerned about the PCUSA. I do and am too. But the way to respond to all who disagree with you, no matter what their behavior, is by treating them as we have each other not by mocking them. Others may not respond as we have but we still have a responsibility to “. . . be (friends) among (our) colleagues in ministry, working with them, subject to the ordering of God’s Word and Spirit,” even when others do not behave in such a fashion.

If you remove the three mocking posts about the New Wineskins and apologize for mocking them I will continue in dialogue with you. Just send me an email if you have done so.

I have appreciated our conversations and continue to love you as my friend.


I make no claim to be sinless. But I do try to be courteous to all, no matter how much I may disagree with them. I believe the greatest thing the PCUSA needs is careful, courteous listening.

I say this and do this with a heavy heart. John is still my friend. I don’t approve of what people have said about him. But I expect him to extend the same courtesy to others as he has to me.

But I am going to continue my posts on the essentials of faith. Look forward to a post coming soon on Freedom.

Pastor Bob

Tuesday, November 6, 2007


This post is longer as the proposed Form of Government is longer. You can find the full text of the proposed Form of Government here.

Again FoG refers to the Form of Government

1. Old G-5.0103 new G-1.0302: I think the deletion of this: “No persons shall be denied membership because of race, ethnic origin, worldly condition” is a mistake. I think our racism is still with us and needs to be stated directly rather than indirectly.

2. New G-1.04: I think the removal of the category of inactive members is a missiological mistake. Granted too few congregations reach out to inactive members but it is an important ministry that should be revived rather than abandoned.

3. New G-1.0402: “Active members shall regularly, after prayerful consideration, recommit themselves to the disciplines and responsibilities of membership outlined in G-1.0303.” What would this look like liturgically? How might a session provide for such re-commission? What does this mean?

4. New G-1.0404 loses the distinction between baptized who are not members and non baptized persons. This blurs the distinction between those who may receive the Lord’s Supper and those who may not. To say, “Persons who are not members . . . are welcome and . . . may participate in and worship of this church . . .” confuses the question of whether non baptized persons may or may not receive the Lord’s Supper, even though it is stated elsewhere that they may not.

5. Old G-5.0502: “The session shall review the roll of members at least annually, and shall counsel with those who have neglected the responsibilities of membership.” What happened to this responsibility?

6. I recognize that the new FoG seeks to be a constitution and not a handbook, but losing G-6.0202 loses both Scriptural definitions of teaching elders and various categories of possible ways teaching elders may serve. It may become important to the lives of Associate Pastors and Co Pastors to have their offices listed, particularly if the later sections do not protect them.

7. Why lose the list of responsibilities of ruling elders and deacons? I use these as primary teaching tools for new officers, pointing out to them that the constitution requires certain tasks of them.

8. Old G-6.0404: If it isn’t made clear that the deacons are responsible to the session some bad stuff may happen down the road! I am sure this came into the FoG because there were conflicts over who made the final decision!

9. “Release from the Exercise of Ordained Office G-6.0600a. If a minister, elder, or deacon against whom no inquiry has been initiated pursuant to D-10.0101 and D-10.0201, against whom no charges have been filed . . .” Isn’t this an important tie to the Rules for Discipline? Later in both the old and the new sections it specifically says, “No judgment of failure on the part of the ruling elder or deacon is implied in this action.” But if there are charges against the person there may indeed be a judgment of failure! Then the action of restoring the person to the roll if requested seems to be automatic! There has to be some procedure for dealing with cases of misconduct of some kind even if the person seeks release from office. Leaving the denomination is another matter.

10. G-1.0101: “All the gifts of the gospel necessary to being the church are present to the congregation.” This sentence would be clearer if it said . . . present in the congregation.

11. Old G-7.0302c has been deleted! Does this mean a congregation may conduct business anyway it chooses to? What happened to Robert’s Rules?

12. New G-1.0501 says: “Adequate public notice of all congregational meetings shall be given at a regular service of worship” I bet this will be a problem is some session thinks adequate means “Today we are going to have a congregational meeting to dissolve the relationship between the pastor and the congregation.” The old 2 week rule had a lot of value and I bet was put in place because of a situation like the one I suggested. We Calvinists have rules like this one because we know humans, including all Christians, still sin.

13. Old G-9.0102b: “They may frame symbols of faith, bear testimony against error in doctrine and immorality in life, resolve questions of doctrine and of discipline, give counsel in matters of conscience, and decide issues properly brought before them under the provisions of the Book of Order.” Why was this removed? It seems to remove some powers from the session, the synod and the General Assembly, since all powers not named revert to the presbytery.

14. No more Committees on Representation? I don’t think we are ready to get rid of this!

15. I approve of the use of the word “council,” however it is going to take some time to learn that it does not mean presbytery, synod or GA council.

16. I think there is a curious problem with saying that other means of discernment may replace Robert’s Rules. By eliminating the section which says who may dissent or protest the new FoG necessitates turning to Robert’s Rules. Also the elimination of the right to dissent or protest a judicial decision leaves a member of the council with no possible action except judicial to disagree publicly with a judicial decision.

17. New G-3.0107: “Presbyteries may apportion requested funds to sessions within their bounds.” Does this mean that presbyteries may require sessions to pay particular amounts to the presbytery? Since we have eliminated per capita apportionments, what does apportion mean in this context?

18. Since the following sections of G-3.0107 are divided into different paragraphs, Councils more inclusive than the session may provide examples of policies and procedures that may be gathered into advisory handbooks. These examples illumine practices required by the Constitution but left to councils for specific implementation. Such handbooks may also offer information that enhances or secures the ministry of the particular council.” And “Each council shall develop a manual of administrative operations that will specify the form and guide the work of mission in that body. A council may delegate aspects of its tasks to such entities as it deems appropriate, provided that those entities remain accountable to the council.” Does this mean that a session must have a manual of administrative operation?

19. New G-3.0109a doesn’t seem to require the review of the rolls of a congregation or a presbytery, although it does require review of the minutes. While this may not seem important, some records of a congregation may not be included in proceedings and actions such as deaths and weddings. Baptisms of member’s children might not be included either as well as the records that ordinations and installations have taken place. While these things should be in the minutes what happens if the clerk failed to record them?

20. New G-3.0204: for historical reasons records of weddings and deaths, (with place of burial) should be maintained as well for those in future generations seeking to search their genealogies.

21. New G-3.0110: a commission no longer has to keep records and provide them to the council?

22. New G-3.0301c I think where the word congregation is used the word presbytery is meant.

23. Could the first paragraph of G-3.0307 be construed to mean that the presbytery may not only set criteria for what work will be considered validated but also what a MWS must believe to be a member?

24. Ordination and Installation questions should be retained in the FoG. While they will be asked in a worship service they are, nevertheless, questions concerning a person’s qualifications for leadership.

25. Are synods really needed except for review of presbytery records and judicial proceedings? Leave in G-3.0404 and take out the rest about synods.

26. Ordination exams should be listed in the FoG. Otherwise a committee of the GAC might change the number or nature of the exams without the approval of the presbyteries.

27. It is my opinion that a person who has served in a temporary position with a congregation, particularly that which is currently called an interim pastor should not be eligible to serve as the next pastor. The interim period provides time for a congregation to go through a process of self examination and examination of its mission. If an interim pastor can serve as the next installed pastor that person may not provide the leadership needed in an interim period. Further, since an interim is hired by the session, allowing an interim pastor to be a candidate to be the next installed pastor does not give a PNC the appropriate latitude needed for its search. Also putting a presbytery in the position of deciding whether an interim pastor can be come the installed pastor may damage the relationship between the presbytery and the congregation seeking to call their interim as their next installed pastor. I strongly urge this section be changed. Frankly I think it is one of the possible deal breakers for this new FoG.

28. G-2.0701 is contrary to the agreed upon section of the G-14 passed by presbyteries in 2007. We were assured that there would always be a congregational meeting if a dissolution of relationship is considered. This too is a deal breaker.

New G-5.05b says: “Such joint witnesses shall be formed according to a plan approved by a two-thirds majority of the members of each of the congregations at duly called meetings of the congregation, and by the presbytery or comparable council or governing body of each church.” This sentence seems to suggest that both the congregation and the presbytery or comparable governing must approve the plan by a 2/3 majority. Is this the intention because it isn’t clear?


Some of you, Presbyterian at least, may know that there is a Task Force to write a new Form of Government, part the PCUSA constitution. These are my comments and questions on the first section. You can get a full copy of the Foundations of Presbyterian Polity here.
Abbreviations are as follows: PCUSA refers to the Presbyterian Church (USA), FoG refers to the Form of Government, and BoO refers to the Book of Order
  1. 1.01 “The Church proclaims that in the one God’s threefold work” – What does this say about the Trinity and the work of God? Does it mean that the work of God is divided between the persons of God?
  2. 1.01 Why leave out the clause about the resurrection? The current FoG 1.0100 is a clear quote from Scripture. Why change it?
  3. 1.0202 Why exchange the word “Kingdom” for “new reality? Isn’t Kingdom more Biblical?
  4. I like the listing of the Great Ends of the Church. It is clearer than the present paragraph.
  5. Are there going to be references to Scripture as in the current BoO?
  7. 3.0304 – The new section abandons geographical and theological diversity. The lists in G-4.0403 provide for a clearer picture of what diversity means and makes a specific connection to leadership in the church.
  8. The first 4 chapters of the current FoG is clearly part of the FoG. What will be the relationship between the Foundations and the FoG and will they have the same power of law as they would if they were part of the FoG?