Saturday, July 3, 2010


Every time General Assembly happens in the PCUSA I spend the summer calming down irate church members.  A lot of members think all General Assembly talks about is sex (and homosexual sex at that) as that is what is usually reported in the secular media.  But every once in a while the General Assembly makes some proclamation or another that really gets people steamed, like the decision in 2004 about divestment and Israel.  That got church members so upset they forgot about homosexuals!  Well, not really.  So part of me is kind of grateful that we have General Assembly every other year now. 
And after most General Assembly meetings these days some person who calls him or herself an Evangelical get’s all upset and says they’ve had it, they are leaving the denomination.  Sometime in the next couple of years a few more congregations will leave the PCUSA either through making a quiet deal with their presbyteries or through loud newspaper stories and civil court actions.  Every time this happens I think “Donatist.”
I was almost a Church Historian but through the grace of God became a pastor instead.  But I love and find much instruction in Church history.  There is very little that happens in the Church that hasn’t happened before.
Anyway, remember the Donatists?[1]  During the last terrible persecution before Constantine came along and made Christianity the religion of the empire the Roman government got really smart and decided not to go after the little fish this time.  The soldiers went out and rounded up the priests and the bishops, figuring if they killed off the leadership the Church would fall apart.  They also tried to gather up all the Christian books and sacred vessels used in churches.  (If there were leaders there could be no teachers.  If there were no books there would be no way to recover the Good News.)  They didn’t catch all the leadership.  Some of the leaders that were caught went ahead and died, refusing to deny Jesus or to give up books or vessels or the names of other Christian leaders.  Some specifically refused to say that Caesar was Lord and not Jesus and offer incense to Caesar.  And some didn’t die because they did deny Jesus or gave up books or sacred vessels.
After the Church became legal in the midst of all the battles about Jesus’ divinity and humanity and the Trinity and Gnosticism there was an often forgotten heresy called Donatism.  It’s named after its one of its leading proponents Donatus (who may have been one Donatus or another depending on which history you read).  The Donatists looked at those who had been in prison and had denied Christ and lived or gave up books or sacred vessels and refused to accept their supervision or to receive the sacraments from them.  They said that those who had held onto life or gave up books or sacred vessels weren’t really Christians anymore.  So when those who had survived the persecution through giving up books, etc. anointed someone and ordained them the Donatists would say that person wasn’t really a bishop.  And when that person who had denied Jesus in jail presided over the Eucharist the Donatists would say that it really wasn’t the Lord’s Supper, that the bread and wine hadn’t become the Body and Blood of Jesus.  They also rebaptized people because they believed that the baptisms performed by those who had denied Jesus were invalid.
The Church back then (including many who were tortured and did not give up their faith) surprised the Donatists by saying that they were the heretics!  There is a terrible irony here.  Those defending the honor of Jesus were heretics?  The Donatists must have been shocked.  They got kicked out (and I suspect some of them left in a huff too) because they wouldn’t take communion from a sinner who had denied Jesus or gave the soldiers a copy of the Bible.  Of course it took over 100 years for the heresy to die down.  It was a big mess.  And we are much more polite these days than they were back then.  The Donatists and the Catholics killed each other while consecrating separate bishops for the same towns.
The Donatists forgot something very important.  Peter, the first Pope (the Donatists were in Western Africa) had denied Jesus.  He did it three times and he wasn’t even under arrest or being tortured.  He was looking for a way to avoid being arrested and tortured.  This is one of the most important stories in the Gospels.  Every time a leader in the Church gets to feeling all high and mighty he or she ought to be required to read the story about Peter denying Jesus.  After all, we are all like Peter.
One of my favorite stories of St. Francis tells of a time when a great and angry crowd met him on a road in the country.  They demanded to know if he was the one who had killed a certain person.  Francis replied that he didn’t remember killing that person but that he was a sinner and had done equally evil things and sometimes worse.  The crowd was preparing to hang Francis when a local dignitary rode by on his horse and asked what was going on.  The crowd said that Francis had said he had killed someone.  The dignitary said, “Oh that’s just Francis.  He didn’t kill anyone.  He’s crazy.”
I suspect that Francis was the only sane person that day.  Who indeed has not committed sin, equally evil or worse?  We enter and stay in the Church through the grace of God in Jesus not through our own holiness.
The core points here are:
  1. All are sinners both before and after we become Christians.  Who among us knows what they would do if threatened with death for not handing over a Bible or refusing to deny Christ?  We all hope we would stand strong but who knows until s/he is in such a position?  If Peter could be forgiven by Jesus should not all who fall be forgiven and received again with grace?  Those who pronounce the words of institution at the Lord’s Supper are sinners.  Those who lay on hands at ordinations are sinners.  Those who baptize are sinners.  Those who preach are sinners. The sins of the one who baptizes do not make the baptism invalid.  If it did no baptism would be valid. 
  2. This is not to encourage sin but rather to proclaim the grace of Christ.  Christians seek to be made more holy through the Holy Spirit.  We struggle and fail or sometimes struggle and are victorious.  But we can never claim the victory ourselves but only give glory to Christ. 
  3. The Church is one.  There is only one Body of Christ.  While we Protestants have gone out of our way to split into smaller and smaller factions over issues from infant and/or believers baptism to whether bishops should be allowed (we Presbyterians get really incensed at the idea of bishops) the Church of Christ is still one.
  4. The examples of Luther and Calvin provide great instruction.  They never sought to leave the Church (that is what we today might call the Roman Catholic Church).  They sought to teach the Truth.  They knew that the Church down throughout history had fallen again and again into sin and heresy but the Church was still the Church.  They didn’t leave the Church they were kicked out, excommunicated. 
  5. There is no holier Church outside the one Church. There is only the one Church. We together are sometimes more holy or less and more heretical or less.  But leaving and seeking a more holy Church will never produce the result sought. When one goes seeking a more holy denomination they only find new fights about new issues. 
So as General Assembly begins we already know from reading the overtures and the business brought before the assembly that there will again be controversies over sexuality, over Israel and Palestine and over a proposed new Form of Government.  It is more than likely, given our inability to see the future that there will be some issue unknown to us at this time that will create even greater controversy.  But leaving the denomination to find a more holy denomination or even to establish a more holy independent congregation will never succeed.  Every assembly that I enter receives sinners if it receives me. 

[1] Information about the Donatists can be found in the Catholic Encyclopedia at  All errors in use of and interpreting the information are mine.


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Kattie W. Coon said...

Nice post Bob.

So what do you think of items 04-03and 04-04 from Santa Barbara and Beaver Butler? More Donatism?

Pastor Bob said...

Actually? A waste of time and paper. It ain't gonna happen.

Seriously: I think we have a problem that we have not faced for years because few if any have been rejected. What I mean is that when a MWS transfers from one presbytery to another the new presbytery has no obligation to take that person as a member.

So let's look at it the other way around. A MWS who believes sex between two persons of the same gender is a sin receives a call from a congregation that believes the same in a presbytery that believes believing such and acting upon it is a basis for denying that MWS membership in said presbytery. MWS and congregation appeal decision by presbytery as a remedial case. What should GAPJC rule? Presbyteries get to define their membership? Or presbytery has overstepped its bounds?

Oh, and a historical note: we tried what Santa Barbara and B/B propose in the past. There was a time when there were Old School and New School Presbyteries in NYC and Philadelphia!

Seriously, I think presbytery should be a school in humility for all of us. If ya can't get along at presbytery how are you ever going to get along in the Kingdom of God? And surely boring reports ought to make us seek the spiritual fruit of patience. For that matter attending a GA meeting if done with the proper spiritual attitude should do the same, particularly when dealing with people who are two reports behind or who never read their material. (To be fair we expect a GA to cover too much.)

There is a much larger post here, like it or not: that is what is the difference between ordination trials and reception into a presbytery? If someone who is ordained by another presbytery is it incumbent on a new presbytery to receive that person as a member? If so why do we bother having a COM (and in many cases a presbytery) decide on whether to receive that person or not?

I guess I would say that Santa Barbara and B/B are seeking a form of semi Donatism (after all they aren't leaving completely) and one that will not ultimately meet their goals. If they just want to stay away from those gay folk what are they going to do when GA rolls around?

BTW the final result of having 2 presbyteries for different theological/polity groups was the denominational split in 1837/38. And then they all got back together in 1869, except for the southern presbyteries. (This after the Old School folks in the North played the slavery card in 1837 to win votes from Southern Presbyterians.) The southerners didn't join in probably because the northern GA wanted all the southern ministers to sign statements of allegiance to the Union! Result? no North/South reunion until 1983.

On the other hand it did provide an opportunity for African American Presbyteries in the south as part of the Northern Church. God does work in mysterious ways! If that hadn't happened we would have almost no African American Presbyterians!

Except here in Philadelphia where the 1st African Presbyterian Church was established more than 200 years ago.

Kattie W. Coon said...

Wow Bob!
I didn't expect a dissertation. Thanks for the response, your honesty and the history lesson.

I agree, presbytery should be a school in humility. This was one of the many problems I had with the New Wineskins proposed structure within the PCUSA. If your congregation didn't like its particular affinity group, or they didn't like your congregation, you just moved to a different one. It was very cliqueish, and I would say Donatist as well.

I guess GA agrees with your assesment of 04-03 and 04-04. They both crashed pretty hard in committee.

Alan said...

re: 04-03 and 04-04: I find it hilarious that the very same people who complain that we can't have justice and inclusion in ordination because of "connectionalism" attempt these sorts of end-runs around connectionalism.

Unfortunately this is yet more evidence to add to the mountain of evidence that they don't really believe what they say and that they'll do anything they can to seclude themselves from us dirty queers.

Glad to see that the GA isn't taking the bait in spite of the continued whining and threats.

Pastor Bob said...


I remember Jack Rogers said that Presbyterians do not believe congregations (and I would suggest denominations) are "voluntary organizations." God brought us together. We're like family. Ya don't get to choose your family. You don't get to choose who God puts you with. So I'm staying unless I get a Papal Bull like Luther did!

One other comment. Kattie and Alan thank you for coming and commenting. I write a magnum opus and you two showed up!

Kattie W. Coon said...


I have to agree with you that they don't believe what they say. The BFTS Classical Gasbags love to make up rules they can apply to their opposition, but when it comes to their own heresies and behaviors, anything goes. Here's a good example of what I mean:

I wonder, is it only so called Evangelicals who can be filled with the Spirit before arriving at GA? Or is it that we are to fend off the Spirit until we get to the GA? Whatever they're getting at, they seem to be pushing some strange holiness rules on the MLP sympathizers.


Keep the magnum opuses coming. You bring a very refreshing voice of reason to the Presbyterian Blogging arena. Like the new PCUSA web site originally said, "we don't leave our brains at the door".
Your friend Jack Rogers said a lot of good things. Maybe someday his view on GLBT issues will make sense to you too.

Pastor Bob said...

@ Kattie

I like the balance we Presbyterians have about decisions by governing bodies. On the one hand we believe that a group of sinners is more likely to make a decision guided by the Holy Spirit than one sinner. On the other had we also believe that "Synods and Councils do err." I think that last is from somewhere in the Westminster Confession.

This dialectic provides for much better decision making than saying the GA is always right or the Presbytery is always right.

The one sentence that I abhor coming from the mouth of a commissioner at GA, Synod or Presbytery meetings is "Let's trust the system." They usually mean that the plenary should just approve what the committee has recommended. But trusting the system actually means dedicated, open and loving debate.

Kattie W. Coon said...


I do agree that "Synods and Councils do err” and I've always found it a bit odd that we PCUSA folk amend our constitution by a mere simple majority. For instance, G6-106b. That one was voted in by I think only a 53% majority of the Presbyteries, and only overall carried by about 50.1% of the Presbytery Commissioner’s votes. If you ask me, that's not a Spirit led decision. Personally, I like the idea put forth by (believe it or not) the New Wineskins group. They decided it would be better to amend the constitution in non-essential matters by a vote margin of 2 to 1, and in essential matters by a vote margin of 3 to 1. If the PCUSA did things that way, G6-106b wouldn't have ever had a chance.

I think you're right about not having plenary sessions simply rely on committee recommendations. I just saw our GA plenary session vote down an almost unanimous committee recommendation by a very large margin. It had to do with establishing a new non-geographic Korean Presbytery. I agree with the plenary session decision. I work closely with a Korean PCUSA congregation and deal with the language issues regularly. The problems are there, but are not insurmountable.

Alan said...

"Kattie and Alan thank you for coming and commenting. I write a magnum opus and you two showed up!"

Well, we commented. You didn't expect the PCUSA BFTSs (aka Donatists) to comment did you? Either they have no idea what you've written (because in their eyes you couldn't *possibly* be talking about them) or they've just chalked you up as another EINO, ready for his own millstone.

Bob wrote, "I like the balance we Presbyterians have about decisions by governing bodies. On the one hand we believe that a group of sinners is more likely to make a decision guided by the Holy Spirit than one sinner. On the other had we also believe that "Synods and Councils do err."

Yup. By the time we change the book of order, an overture has been voted on by a Session, a Presbytery, a Committee, the GA, and a majority of Presbyteries. That offers many opportunities to get things wrong, which we do all the time, but it also offers opportunity after opportunity after opportunity for the Spirit to do her work and once in a great while, we actually listen to her.

@Kattie "I wonder, is it only so called Evangelicals who can be filled with the Spirit before arriving at GA? "

Yes, of course. Because the BFTSs like our "classical" brother, are without sin, and regardless of the multitude of posts on the subject, I feel confident he would consider a vote with no preconceived notions.


Or maybe he's sad off that he didn't get to wear a lovely hand-made rainbow stole.

Or more likely, once again he's just mad because people actually have an opinion different from his and refuse to shut up. Wearing a stole is simply too uppity.

Our Presbytery attempted to tell commissioners they couldn't wear such stoles during a vote on Amend-B last year. I wore one, of course. When these defenders of the BoO can point to an article in the BoO that shows that such displays are forbidden, then I'll take their whining seriously. Until then, I'll simply see it as more evidence that they do not believe what they say they believe.

(It's much like another BFTS who is complaining that our new Moderator's blog currently doesn't allow comments, yet the BFTSs do everything they can to stifle debate. Hypocrisy piled on hypocrisy. That anyone continues to take them seriously is the real mystery here.)

Alan said...
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Alan said...
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Alan said...

Blogger isn't feeling well, apparently. :)