One of the promises that all those ordained in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) make when ordained and/or installed is in answer to the following question:
"Do you promise to further the peace unity and purity of the church?" (W-4.4003g)
If you are getting ordained you have to answer all of the questions in the affirmative, in this case by saying, "I do." If you say "I don't" you don't get ordained. Of course I've never heard anyone say "I don't" or "I won't" even if the person didn't really understand the question. It’s kind of like someone stopping a wedding in the old order of service for a marriage. Who dares when the pastor asks, “If anyone knows a reason why this couple cannot lawfully be joined together in marriage let him speak now or forever hold his peace.” The only place I’ve ever seen anyone say that is in a Jane Austen novel. It just never happens.
This is an interesting question because it puts together three words that often seem to be at odds with one another. For some of us in the Presbyterian Church today, given recent events, these words do not describe the PCUSA today.
I write to suggest that among the people of Christ all these words must go together. And one of the major problems in the PCUSA today is that different groups within the denomination define the words in different ways.
So I begin with a series of affirmations:
1. where there is no peace there can be no unity and no purity.
2. Where there is no unity there can be no peace and no purity.
3. Where there is no purity there can be no peace and no unity.
To be in Christ is to be at peace with one another. Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead to make peace between those who believe in Jesus and the Father. We are therefore part of what some scholars call the organic unity in Christ. They refer to Paul’s images of the Church as the Body of Christ. Unless one is ill the hand will cooperate with the wrist and the foot with the shin. As Paul says in Ephesians 2,
For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit. (Eph. 2:14-18 NIV)
So the spiritual fact of the matter is we are at peace because Christ has made peace between us, as Paul says Jesus has “destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility.”
And yet, no matter what the spiritual reality we act as if there is no peace. From a human point of view f in the PCUSA today there is no peace. There has been no peace for years. (Has there every really been peace?) Curiously those in two different groups in the denomination: those who call themselves Evangelicals and those who call themselves Progressives agree that there is no peace. Some of us may not say that there is no peace. But when we disagree we blame each other. Evangelicals blame Progressives saying that if they would just drop this stuff about homosexuality then maybe we could have peace. To be fair we would disagree about other stuff but since homosexuality has been the leading issue in the denomination for more than 30 years, Evangelicals want some peace. Drop the argument, Progressives. You've lost so many times, why can't you accept it? (Sometimes I wonder if our argument about homosexuality is a way to avoid arguing about bigger, deeper issues, but let's stick to the presenting problem for now.)
Progressives on the other hand say that there can be no peace where there is no justice. For more than 30 years homosexuals have been oppressed in the PCUSA (and for millennia before that) and justice delayed is justice denied. There can be no peace until homosexuals can take their full place in the denomination including in ordained leadership. And they aren't going to drop it until they get their way. Besides if my definition of Progressive is correct, (and since I am not a Progressive I may very well be wrong), Progressives seem to believe in Progress. They believe sooner or later they will win because that is the way history is progressing. They don’t give up because they believe they just have to work long enough and sooner or later the denomination will move over to their opinion. To be fair Evangelicals are going to fight, trying to make sure that Progressives never get their way.
So while we who are in Christ are spiritually at peace here on earth there is no peace. Jesus calls us to love one another and many of us reach across the battle lines and love our friends who disagree with us but when it comes to votes we vote the party line. Sometimes we can have polite conversations but underneath the politeness there are a lot of strong feelings including a lot of anger and blame. I know I’m angry and I know I’m not alone.
The curious thing is that when we are talking about something else we can at least pretend we are at peace. We all agree that the ongoing genocide in Darfur is an abomination before God. We may not agree what to do about it and we may not even know what can be done about it, (although I think we all agree sending in the U.S. Army would be a mistake), but we can agree it is terrible. Nevertheless, even when we agree about some things there is always this big problem in the back of our minds. We all know that the day is coming when we will debate the issue again.
What I am about to say will sound radical but it is the way I think about it. I can be at peace with people who read the Bible and interpret it differently that I do. They are wrong, I know they are wrong, but we all make mistakes in translation and interpretation. (Humble, ain’t I?) The people I have problems with, the people I struggle to be at peace with are the ones who say that they know that they disagree with what the Bible says, its just that the Bible is wrong on the subject, or to put it in their words, science has shown that the writers of the Bible did not understand the concept of homosexual orientation. Some go even further, like Walter Wink, who says that he is sure that if Paul knew that homosexuality could be an orientation he would still think that homosex behavior was wrong. Still Wink thinks the behavior is acceptable to God. How can I be at peace with someone who simply says the Bible is wrong? Or is the problem that we have different concepts of Biblical authority as over against general revelation? Even then how can I be at peace with someone who takes general revelation, (what we see in the world), and place that as a higher authority over the Scripture?
A quick note for those who think I’m saying that there aren’t galaxies out there and the sun revolves around the earth: I believe that the authority of Scripture is limited to what the Bible intends to say. The Bible has nothing to say about dinosaurs or the workings of stars or galaxies. Neither is the point of the Noah narrative to tell about how the water came from outside the firmament into the world. But when we understand what the Bible intends to say the Bible is authoritative. Then, of course we have the responsibility to properly apply it to our present world which is another part of the problem.
Unity. Paul says in Ephesians 4, "There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called— one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all." (Eph. 4:4-6 NIV) We may not act like we are one in Christ but the fact of the matter is, we are one in Christ. One of the biggest problems in the Church Universal is that for reasons big and small in this world we are not one in Christ at least at an organizational level. Denominations seem to multiply daily. But no matter how we be behave the fact of the matter is that everyone who is in Christ, that is everyone who is a Christian is one. We are unified.
Of course we have some problems with definitions. We Trinitarians say that the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Mormons aren't really Christians and so we aren't one with them in Christ. (One as members of the human race, yes. One in Christ, no.) And speaking as a Trinitarian there seems to be a few leaders out there in the PCUSA who aren't Trinitarians. (To be fair we have done such a terrible job teaching the members of congregations over the last 50 years a lot of them can’t explain the doctrine of the Trinity at all!)
But all Christian are one in Christ. We are unified in Christ. Alas we don't act that way. In the PCUSA we gather in our political groups and plan how to win. We don't talk sometimes with those we disagree with because we don't want them to know our strategy. We call each other names. And sometimes we even say the person on the other side isn't really a Christian. It doesn't look like unity.
Unity doesn't mean we all have to vote the same way. But it does mean we have to acknowledge that we are one in Christ and treat one another as loving members of the same family, (and not a dysfunctional family!).
But how do we find unity when at the end of a General Assembly meeting some rejoice and some weep? What do we do when those who rejoice don’t care about the feelings of those who weep and vice versa?
And worse, what do we say about those who have finally had enough, who are tired of the argument and decide to leave the denomination? Granted the PCUSA is not the Body of Christ, but it hurts when someone says I can’t be in the same denomination as you anymore, even if you think that person, (or that congregation), is just wrong, that their reasons for leaving are not only misguided but a complete misreading of the situation?
Unity does not mean that all the Christians in a particular area have to send their pastors and an equal number of elders to a PCUSA presbytery meeting. Wouldn’t that be a mess? A blessed mess to be sure, but where would we meet? In the local stadium that holds 70,000 people? Besides some would expect us to send bishops to the meeting and we Presbyterians know we don’t need no steekin’ bishops! We’ve fought wars to get rid of bishops and Romanish liturgy! The unity that Christ has made is hard to find.
On to Purity. Again, in Christ all who believe in him are pure. “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. . .” (Romans 8:1 NIV) Christ made us pure when he died for us and rose for us.
But again the reality in this world is quite different. Christians all with the help and guidance of the Holy Spirit are working at sanctification. At least we are supposed to. We know we are sinners and we depend on the Spirit to help us sin less.
The problem in the PCUSA today is that we look at homosexuality and see purity in two different ways. Evangelicals and some others say homosex behavior is sinful. To be sure it is behavior that God will forgive but it is sinful. And what horrifies us the most is that some in the Church teach that what is sinful is not sinful. Progressives don’t like the comparison but for us Evangelicals it’s like saying that adultery isn’t sinful or that polygamy isn’t sinful. (In fact I think I can make a better case for polygamy from Scripture than I can for homosex behavior.) It is the task of the Church to help people in their process of sanctification. How can we do so if we tell people that sin is not sin?
For others, those who believe that homosex behavior between 2 consenting adults is not sinful homosex behavior is pure. It glorifies God. God made some people heterosexual, some homosexual, some bisexual and some people are transsexual, (I’m not sure if transsexuals believe God made them that way or that somehow things got messed up in this sinful world and a man somehow ended up in a female body.) Anyway, most in the PCUSA who take this position believe that God intends for people to love one another and sometimes that love takes the form of two people of the same sex loving one another romantically and physically. That is not only pure but it is something to celebrate.
So in Christ we are at peace, unified and pure. In this world we are not at peace we are not unified and we are not pure. Of course we should all look to ourselves first and get some help from brothers and sisters in Christ to examine ourselves and figure out what God wants us to work on in the process of salvation. Our problem in the PCUSA is that as we seek to further the peace, unity and purity of the church those of us who disagree find ourselves destroying the peace, unity and purity as we seek peace unity and purity! Or to put it bluntly, we really believe that those who disagree with us are destroying the peace, unity and purity of the church.
If only you Evangelicals would love and accept homosexuals! Then we could have peace, unity and purity. Duh! We Evangelicals do love homosexuals! We see Christian homosexuals as brothers and sisters in Christ who struggle with sin just like the rest of us. Our problem is that some of them and some heterosexuals believe that homosex sin is not sin. Then we get accused of having different standards for heterosexuals than we do for homosexuals. That accusation really confuses me. I would refuse to participate in the ordination of someone who was having a sexual relationship with someone of the opposite sex with whom that person was not married. I won’t let that person work with youth or teach Sunday School either because I don’t want people looking to him/her as an example for behavior. Do I love that person? Of course I do! I have relatives who have sex outside of marriage. Do I love transsexuals? Yes! Again, I have transsexual relatives. Do I love my friends who are homosexuals? Of course! Love does not mean you necessarily approve of what a person does. I don’t approve of everything I do! In fact I have a longer list of sins for myself than I do for anyone else. Of course I am always there when I sin and others don’t necessarily see me, particularly when the sin happens to be one of thought. I’m not always there when someone else sins, thank God.
If only you Progressives would obey the Bible and accept the authority of the Bible! Then we could have peace, unity and purity. This one is a bit more complicated for me partially because I disagree with Progressives on this issue and partly because I see a number of different viewpoints. Some look at seven passages that they believe refer to homosex behavior in the Bible, (and reject other possible passages), and think they applied to particular situations in the ancient world or don’t really talk about homosex behavior as we see it today. Also they think some of those passages aren’t really about homosex behavior in any form in any age. I would suggest that the dialogue has gone beyond this among scholars that are up on the most recent interpretations of the passages but some think that I and others like me are misinterpreting the Bible. My good friend and brother in Christ Jack Rogers interprets the Bible on this issue in ways that have brought him to the conclusion that homosex behavior between two people in a committed relationship is not wrong but a gift from God. Then there are those who think that the Bible does say homosex behavior is wrong but that since no one understood that homosexuality is an orientation back then the passages don’t really apply. And then there are those who love their homosexual friends and think that no matter what the Bible says God loves them as they are. (This is an argument I’m hearing more and more, that God loves everyone, that we shouldn’t judge others and look at what a fine person Jim is. Why shouldn’t he have a beloved like heterosexual couples just because he wants his beloved to be a man?) Or some combination of these and other positions. But how can you Progressives tell people that their sin is not sin? Don’t you know that you are endangering that person’s salvation? And how will you explain to God that you taught people that sin was not sin? It’s like saying, to quote one scholar, that incest between two consenting adults is not sin! We all know that God doesn’t approve of that!
Peace, Unity and Purity. Even if we solved this particular problem we wouldn’t have peace, unity and purity in the Church here on earth. But I don’t see how we Presbyterians can have peace, unity and purity around this issue. It isn’t, as some say, that one side wants unity and the other side wants purity. Both sides know that there can only be peace, unity and purity when they win. And to be fair to those on both sides we all in good faith believe that we are doing God’s will.
I find I can deeply love those who disagree with me about this. We can talk about other things and agree. We can even get together on other issues in the denomination and work together disagreeing with other Progressives and Evangelicals. But how do we have peace, unity and purity when we dare to say, “Look what they are doing to God’s Church!” Sometimes we accuse people of meaning their church not God’s church but to be fair to all, on our better days we believe that the other is hurting God’s Church.
So the 218th General Assembly is over. My side lost. It hurts a lot. The statement made in 1978 that homosex behavior is not God’s intention for humanity is gone. A curious and rather confusing Authoritative Interpretation of G-6.0108 in the Form of Government that is meant to overturn a GAPJC decision was passed. Personally I think that the GAPJC will overturn the Authoritative Interpretation. Won’t that be interesting? And then a replacement for G-6.0106b passed as well and is coming to the presbyteries for a vote. Then the Book of Order will no longer say you have to be married and faithful or single and chaste to be ordained. Oh, and sooner or later, (I think after 2010), we get to vote on whether we will change the Heidelberg Catechism.
One of the reasons it hurts is that when I was in seminary we Evangelicals were a minority that almost always lost. Since then we have become equal in power with the Progressives at least at the presbytery level. It’s easier to lose when you know you always lose. It’s different when you know if presbyteries would just send people to General Assembly who represented the presbytery’s point of view none of this would have passed. And it must be difficult for Progressives who can be pretty sure that the amendment to G-6.0106b won’t pass.
I hate the battle. I don’t want to vote on the amendment to G-6.0106b. But it does bring to the fore that we don’t have peace, unity or purity. And both sides fight as hard as we can to make sure we have more peace, unity and purity from their perspective.
I know deep in my heart that the 218th General Assembly took a pick axe to the peace, unity and purity of the PCUSA. I know deep in my heart that more congregations will give up and leave the PCUSA for what seem to be greener and less conflicted pastures. How can the denomination have more peace, unity and purity when more congregations feel pushed out?
There is no peace, unity and purity and I might as well just get used to it.
Ken Medema says in one of his songs:
If this is not a place where my heart cries can be heard
Where can I go to cry?
I don’t need another place for always wearing smiles
Even when that’s not the way I feel.
I have no smiles. My heart cries are only heard by those who agree with me and a few close friends who love me and disagree with me. Seemingly nice letters from people at the GA that condemn me in not so subtle ways don’t give me any comfort at all.
There is no peace, no unity, no purity.
May Jesus return soon and make what is spiritually real, (the best and truest kind of real) real in all ways.
In the meantime, where shall I go to cry?