Last week the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) met in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The General Assembly is the highest church governing body, and consists of Teaching (Minister) and Ruling (Lay) Elders. Each presbytery in the denomination sends a representative number of Elders to consider policies and recommendations from around the denomination.
Each time these bi-annual events occur, there is great anxiety and also hope. The anxiety comes from the fact that our denomination is both bold in its addressing of theological issues, as well as deeply divided on issues. The hope comes from the fact that while we are divided over much, we are also still united in Christ.
This year the Assembly considered many issues that most would say stir up controversy. Included in these issues were the definition of Marriage and the divestment of the denomination from companies that support Israel’s settlements in Palestine. These issues serve as a microcosm of the struggles the PC(USA) has. As is the case in our society, the differences we have within the denomination show the brokenness of our human life. Passionate people on both sides of the issues defend their beliefs with vigor. Unfortunately, you can also observe the negative nature of passion as people name call and personally attack each other.
We also see a parallel process with our nation’s political system when it comes to the aftermath of decisions. All sides work to put their own spin on the results of decisions. Some may even seek to use defeat as a way to gain more support for their cause.
I work very hard in my own pastoral life to maintain a relatively neutral political identity. This isn’t because I don’t have opinions or deep theological convictions. I believe that as a pastor I need to be the presence in the church that facilitates the mission of God to be achieved. If I make the Pulpit about my personal theological or political convictions, I most assuredly cut myself off from relationships with many in our congregation. The congregation of Christ Presbyterian Church is one that has great theological and political diversity. We have folks who are deeply invested in both political parties. We have members who would be labeled as theologically progressive and evangelical conservative. As the pastor of this diverse group, I believe it is my job to help these often oppositional stances find common ground and callings.
Some will say that this is a position that shouldn’t be taken. Some want their pastor to be out front leading the charge against the latest sinful behavior while others want him to be a champion for it. I believe that the church needs to find new places to focus their energy on. While some pastors are leading congregations on studies of Homosexuality in the Bible, I find it more important to get our members, both new and old, to have a basic understanding of the Bible. Can we truly have conversation about the deeper parts of Scripture if we can’t even find a verse without the page number?
This isn’t to minimize the need for deep conversation about meaningful issues. I do believe that we need to engage in the deep discussions. We need to wrestle with issues such as same-sex marriage and justice in the Middle East. That said, I also think we need to focus more of our attention on the basics of faith and practices of the church.
Each time the General Assembly meets, I wonder what it would be like to be an independent church. I dream of being freed from the weight of the differences we have. I think how wonderful it would be if I didn’t have to worry about cleaning up the latest mess the PC(USA) has gotten itself into. This feeling passes pretty quickly though. You see, I truly believe that within this mess, God is working. The discernment of God’s Spirit through the gathered community has helped our unique expression of the Body of Christ be faithful over time. Has it been roses and light throughout it’s existence? By no means has it been an easy venture. That doesn’t mean that it hasn’t been a blessed one.
Today I ask that you continue to pray for our congregation and denomination. Throughout the denomination there are many who are considering breaking away or divorcing it. I pray that we don’t loose the wonderfully diverse nature of the Body of Christ. I also pray that God’s Spirit will transform us into what God’s vision is for us.
Click this link to read the Churchwide pastoral letter from the 220th General Assembly (2012): http://www.pcusa.org/news/2012/7/9/churchwide-pastoral-letter-220th-general-assembly/
Well there are many issues that divide while not as many, it seems, unite congregations. Churches polarize over the most innocent of issues: one example I recall split a church in two over the issue of evolution: half for, and half against. Another church, which had a diverse grouping of conservative retired/active duty military and a more liberal active and retired State Department faction split down the middle over the PC(USA)’s leaning towards the support of its members withholding their portion of federal income tax dollars that went to Department of Defense. The liberals also endorsed the giving of PC(USA) funds to (‘hard core”) lobbyists who were advocating Peace by unilateral disarmament of the US military. So we had what I called: “War about Peace” in our congregation for a number of years and a portion of the members (including me) simply left that church with all its infighting and vituperative discussions.
So you are wise to not pick a side, because in so doing, you immediately alienate half your members. You are right to seek the common ground which unites us and to avoid no-win divisive ephemeral issues of the moment
I found myself overall feeling dismayed at the reports coming out of Pittsburgh. However, as I thought about it, my “big picture” attitude comes down to this: as much as it can be frustrating to be a member of a denomination which so frequently “wrestles with issues”, it also goes to the heart of why I enjoy being Presbyterian. Our approach to faith gives us the freedom to wrestle when many others don’t. I like being able to rely on my own faith by considering different views and not being told what to think. And, even with issues where I have a stronger opinion, with every heart-felt debate I feel the church as a whole grows closer to following the nature of its true call. I watch with anxiety and hope. I just don’t like the process – as you said – it’s messy. I do sometimes wish God could accomplish his plan without being so messy. And I appreciate that at CPC we keep things a bit cleaner than others.