Renewal in the Mainline Churches PDF Print E-mail

By Susan A. Cyre
Reprinted with permission from Theology Matters, Volume 4, #1 - Jan/Feb 1998

There is the hint of desperation in the air among some evangelicals in the Presbyterian Church. Since the General Assembly approved that Amendment A be sent to the presbyteries, there has been a wringing of hands over the future of the church. In spite of a majority of the presbyteries approving "Amendment B" that is now part of the Constitution and sets the standard of chastity in singleness and fidelity in marriage for ordination; in spite of many of the liberal staff leaving their posts at denominational headquarters; in spite of the last General Assembly’s passing a resolution condemning partial birth abortions; in spite of the many "successes" for biblical Christian faith, many pastors and lay people feel a weariness at the battle and a desire for it all to be over. . . soon.

It’s time to pause and reflect. As the book of 1 John admonishes us, it is time for us to "test the spirits" that are filling us with weariness. It’s time for us to reflect on how we have gone about the work of renewal in the church.

The Paradigm for Renewal is the Plumbline

In the past, the argument can be made, that our strategy for renewal has been the seeking of fairness and justice. The assumption was that leadership in the church should be modeled after a table where all the various ideological positions are represented. Evangelicals were willing to concede that process theology, liberation theology, feminist theology, and the others, got a place at the table. Based on fairness and justice, however, biblical theology also deserved a place at the table. The strategy was that the orthodox "deserve" a place at the table; it’s only "fair" that the biblical position be represented.

The goal was to negotiate and argue for fairness until the biblical position received at least one place at the table. The long term strategy was that having negotiated one place, we would then set about negotiating a second place and a third until we had the number needed to usher in renewal.

Many of the representation requirements for national denominational committees were based on this fairness principle. While the objective of providing for representation of geographical, gender and other concerns was a legitimate goal, many of the groups chosen for balance came to the table representing their own theology.

In the language of today’s radical theologies—they came to give voice to their own experience of the divine. For example, some writers argue that radical feminism became entrenched in mainline denominations as a direct result of representation quotas. Women who supported radical feminist ideology were selected for leadership to fill representation quotas.

The language of the table paradigm is "consensus decision making," "common ground," and "win-win outcomes." Efforts are made to reach decisions which reflect everyone’s perspective of truth around the table. The 1994 General Assembly’s Response to the Re-Imagining conference used this table model where every view of the truth was affirmed. Its response affirmed that "conference presentations and rituals used language, including the term ‘sophia,’ in ways that imply worship of a divine manifestation distinctly different from ‘the one triune God.’" Then, in a win-win style, they also affirmed the conference saying, "some found the use of ‘sophia’ as a name for God to be liberating."

The paradigm of fairness and justice is especially suited to our American democratic model of government. It feels friendly and fair. However, what began in the church as a fairness movement, soon showed its inherent faults. Do principles of fairness mean that sophia is welcomed to the table? The Re-Imagining conference made it clear that there are a significant number of people in ordained and staff leadership who do not accept basic doctrines of the Christian faith: a monotheistic God, the Trinity, the fully-divine and fully-human Jesus, the authority of Scripture. Does everyone get a place at the table? Or are there boundaries and exclusionary principles which the church must recognize?

The table model is the wrong model for the church. It is based on postmodern assumptions about the nature of truth. The table, which is said to represent truth, is composed of everyone’s particular assumptions about truth. There is no absolute, divinely revealed truth. There is only a smorgasbord of personal perspectives about truth. No one theoretically can be excluded from the table. No one’s view can be judged right or wrong. Everyone must be welcomed at the table, according to postmodernism.

We are beginning to suspect something is wrong with the model of a table. Biblical truth, because of its exclusionary claims which reject opposing truth claims, is itself being denied a place at the table. You cannot have a harmonious, equally affirming table, when one person’s truth claims put all the rest under condemnation.

The paradigm for renewal in the church cannot be the table of relativism. The biblical model is the plumbline. God sets a standard and all are measured against it. It is an absolute measurement of Truth against falsehood. Every individual heart, every action, and every doctrine and teaching is judged by the same plumbline. The standard for the PCUSA is Scripture and the biblical truths expressed in our confessions.

If the language of the table is "win-win" outcomes, the language of the plumbline is "parliamentary procedure" where opposing truth claims are held up to the plumbline through the debate process. Then the vote is taken and if the process truly seeks to conform to the plumbline, truth—even given our propensity to sin—is likely to win and falsehood to lose.

A faithful church calls all of its members to live by the standard. The church must call those who fall short of the plumbline to repentance and if they refuse, the church must exercise discipline. A house whose walls are not straight as measured by the plumbline will not stand. The crooked must be made straight. The Westminster Confession says, "Church censures are necessary for the reclaiming and gaining of offending brethren; for deterring of others from like offenses; for purging out of that leaven which might infect the whole lump; for vindicating the honor of Christ, and the holy profession of the gospel; and for preventing the wrath of God, which must justly fall upon the Church, if they should suffer his covenant, and the seals thereof, to be profaned by notorious and obstinate offenders."

A Scriptural View of The Nature of Evil

In the midst of people’s weariness at the battle, there is often a desire to leave the "apostate" PCUSA and form a holier alliance elsewhere. But consider, first, the institution of the PCUSA is not apostate—our confessions, which are part of our Constitution, attest to the biblical Gospel. It is a few individuals in leadership who have sometimes fallen away from the Gospel. There are many people both in denominational headquarters and in congregations who are faithful servants of Jesus Christ as he is attested to by Scripture. True, there are some cracks in the walls, maybe many cracks in the walls, but the foundation is solid.

Second, to flee from a few sinful individuals who have influence in the denomination, denies the nature of sin and it denies our participation in sin. Evil hates the light for it exposes its evil deeds (John 3:20). As long as there exists one person anywhere, who challenges evil with the Gospel, evil will attempt to silence that voice. If those who reject the ordination of homosexuals as unbiblical, leave the denomination to find peace and piety somewhere else, it will not work. It is an unworkable strategy because of the nature of evil. Evil will seek you out. Oh, there may be 2-3 or 5 years while evil concentrates its efforts elsewhere but you cannot run from evil. In the end, it will find you and the battle will begin again.

Spiritual battles have their parallels in physical battles. In the 1930’s the world was tired from fighting in WWI and wanted only peace. It was willing to compromise and retreat in the path of Hitler. The world soon found, however, that evil would not be satisfied until it destroyed all good and gained the whole world. Evil will not stay within boundaries we establish. Its agenda is to destroy the Gospel wherever it is proclaimed—no place is safe.

The other aspect of sin that we have to acknowledge is our own affinity for it. Like a virus, we carry the germ with us. The holier church will not exist for long before someone’s son or daughter decides that they are homosexual and the desire to vindicate one’s self and one’s family will begin again. Or, as past PCUSA moderator, David Dobler, said in his presentation at the Gathering II in Dallas, when we finally destroy the idol of sexuality, we will latch onto another idol; its our nature.

We are to confront sin with the Gospel and allow the Gospel to transform it. It is our calling as Christians.

We Stand in Need of Repentance

We evangelicals also need to examine our own hearts, if we want to look for reasons why we have not been as successful as we hoped in the struggle.

* We must see spiritual warfare as the norm, not the exception.

The spiritual battle has been going on since the Garden of Eden ("I will put enmity between . . . .your seed and her seed") and it will go on until Christ returns and He inaugurates the New Heaven and Earth. This is not a battle which is distracting the church from its real ministry. The battle over truth and falsehood is the real ministry of the church. Everywhere the church goes, it is to proclaim the truth of the Gospel but it is always against a backdrop of some false beliefs. Whether the church goes to a remote village on some other continent or the mission district of one of our cities or General Assembly meetings, it is always to proclaim the Gospel against the false belief system that is gripping people’s lives. And, people often don’t let go of their false beliefs easily or quickly—Scripture attests to that. Calvin expressed the long-term nature of spiritual warfare when he said, "peace is not the norm, the battle is."

* We need to love our neighbor enough to struggle for them

Dobler told the group in Dallas that we’re like a family whose house is on fire and we can’t leave our sister or brother in the burning house; we have to rescue them. After Dobler’s presentation, one pastor privately asked, "yes, but what if that brother is a pyromaniac, bent on burning the house down?" Yes, indeed, some of the folks in the PCUSA almost seem to have a pyromaniac streak—they are bent on destroying themselves and the church. Yet, isn’t that the nature of sin? Doesn’t it mean death and destruction—to ourselves, our relationships and everything we touch. If Jesus Christ is patient and long-suffering with us, shouldn’t we be with others? Isn’t Jesus Christ the only one who says when enough is enough? Christ is the judge; we are not.

Like Ezekiel, all Christians and especially ordained officers, are charged as watchmen. If we do not call people back, their blood is on our head for we have allowed them to trample the blood of the covenant. And, Ezekiel does not say that we can give our admonition once and shake the dust off our feet. Ezekiel spent his life being a watchmen and so must we.

* We need to trust God and not just fight "winnable battles."

Too often we have fought only "winnable" battles. Our strategies are based on outcomes more than on what it means to give a faithful witness to Jesus Christ. How often have we been silent because in our appraisal of the situation we concluded that we could not win the day? How often have we been silent because we strategized that if we did not let folks know where we really stood on an issue, we might be more effective later on? Do we compromise the truth, compromise our witness to Jesus Christ in order to do his will more effectively later? Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego knew that that was an unacceptable strategy. Even though they had risen to be governors of Babylon and were certainly in a position to help their fellow Hebrew slaves, they knew they could not do God’s will by bowing their knees to another god.

God delights in taking the weakest people in the most hopeless of situations and bringing the victory. Imagine a poor shepherd telling the Pharaoh of Egypt to free the Hebrew people. Imagine a young shepherd boy telling a Giant, "You come to me with a sword, a spear, and a javelin, but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts." Imagine Nehemiah rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem in fifty-two days. Imagine a child born in a stable that redeemed the world.

We should be more concerned about being faithful to our calling and less concerned about winnable outcomes. Our calling is to proclaim the truth of Jesus Christ, the outcomes are his.

* We need to give a consistent witness to Jesus Christ

How can we say that the issue of homosexual ordination is an issue of upholding the Gospel when we are silent on abortion? How can we deny that people can have sexual relations with whomever they want, or worship sophia if they want, acts which to a non-believer appear benign, and then be silent when a women kills her own child in abortion. Where is the outrage in the evangelical community over abortion? Why have we allowed our mandatory health and pension dues to pay for abortions during all nine months of pregnancy for any reason including sex selection.

Either human beings are autonomous and free to make their own choices to worship whom they want, have sexual relations with whom they want, and kill their unborn child if they want, or, we belong to God and every area of our lives must conform to his will. Either we are not our own or we are—we cannot have it both ways. We cannot pick and choose our issues according to what is popular or winnable. We must stand up for the whole Gospel wherever it is attacked or denied.

* We must be concerned to vindicate the name of Christ.

When we entertain talk of splitting the church and dividing the assets, we have a mistaken view of the church. The church has a responsibility to vindicate the honor of Christ. That admonition should not be taken lightly by us. If we try to leave the church and form a holier church, we leave those who deny the Gospel free rein to trample the name of Christ. If the issues we are facing in the church are not issues that deny the Gospel then we should in fairness respect one another’s personal preferences. If the issues, however, are an attack on the name and work of Jesus Christ, then how dare we walk away in silence to let the false gospel be proclaimed in the name of the "PCUSA: the church of Jesus Christ." Do we care so little about the honor of that sacred name?

* We must give God thanks for all his blessings.

We must be careful to see the victories that God has won and give him the praise and thanksgiving. When we despair, we are not giving God his honor. We are worshiping other gods. The Book of Confessions lists "despair" as a violation of the first commandment: to have no other gods. Loving and serving the true God means that we simply are not in the business of despairing. Also listed as sins under the first commandment are: carnal security, tempting of God (setting time limits on renewal), and discontent and impatience at his dispensations.

Honoring the living God, means we are able to see the small and great victories he brings. It means we wait patiently under his dispensations and do not despair. Have we given thanks for the passage of Amendment B?

If we are his church, then as faithless as some people are at times, we are in covenant relationship with God and with his people. And, we cannot walk away from that anymore than we can walk away from a troubled marriage. It is not that we have blinders on to the troubled situation we face, but rather we have unyielding hope in the one who is head of the Church and Lord of all creation. And, we cannot tempt God by imposing our time limit on restoration. God is God. His timing is perfect. We need to humble ourselves, willingly and obediently wage the battle for the Gospel, and rest in God’s power.

God is doing a great work in our denomination. God has called us to be on the front line of a battle that is raging not only in our denomination but in the world. He called us to be on the front line not to destroy us but to edify us; not to shame us but to purify us; not to hurt us but to glorify us. We should not shrink from our calling. We should see these days as a privilege in which the world might come to see our devotion to the living God.

Susan Cyre is executive director of Presbyterians for Faith, Family and Ministry, Editor of Theology Matters and pastor of Dublin Presbyterian Church, Dublin, VA

Theology Matters is a publication of Presbyterians for Faith, Family and Ministry.



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