The Fellowship Gathering in Minneapolis last month has elicited much deserved praise. What a joy to be among 2000 like-minded Christians certain that they were worshiping the same God together! How uplifting to join voices in unfettered honor of our Lord and King! I deeply appreciated the leadership given to thoughtful, inspirational and Christ-centered worship.
Also praiseworthy was the radically profound teaching from Scripture presented by Ken Bailey — for me, it was the highlight of a tightly-packed two days. I wish we had had more opportunity for wisely chosen, biblical input in pursuit of divine guidance.
I’m grateful as well for the carefully crafted structures to involve all participants in small group discussions, which resulted in some new insights and some promising friendships.
And of course, running into old friends and fellow evangelicals proved to be a spiritual oasis in a denomination which for me appears increasingly as a desert.
I am grateful for all these blessings — indeed the emotional and spiritual enthusiasm I experienced along with many others was so powerful that I fear it may have short-circuited our critical faculties. While the experience of being together in worship and fellowship was so exquisite and profound, I wonder if our assessments of the options offered by the Fellowship may be inordinately colored by those positive emotions.
At this point, I am not enamored with the “tiered” approach offered by the Fellowship for four reasons:
1) Although there has been much talk of seeking the mind of Christ, I found little evidence that we were gathered in Minneapolis for that reason. Instead, our admittedly limited time was crammed with the best of human plans, all geared to offer as much help as possible to people and churches in a wide variety of settings. The watchwords of the meeting were “context” and “situation.” The four major tiers were presented as options among which we could choose depending on what was best for us in our context. By the standards of wordly reason and human logic this made good sense. We, however, are Christians who claim that our desire is to walk according to the will of our Master. Not once was the question addressed: “What does Jesus Christ will us to do as an evangelical community in response to the direction of the PCUSA?” It seems to me that since the mind of Christ is not divided, He must have one intention for us. Yet we were not willing to wrestle with that question. Instead, we were given a number of options sanctioned by our unofficial leaders, and told that we could rightly choose among them depending on “what worked best for us in our context.” Wouldn’t the more biblical approach be to decide what Christ is calling us together to do, and then figure out from our own individual contexts what it is going to take for us to get where he is calling us to go? I fear we have been listening more in this process to the Zeitgeist of American entrepreneurial individualism than to the Spirit of Jesus Christ.
2) The Fellowship leadership has offered these options as if they are achievable goals. Yet much is outside our control as far as denominational approval of alternate structures. If such approval is given, whether to form overlay presbyteries or parallel ordaining and installing structures within presbyteries or even to recognize a “New Reformed Body” so that churches so wishing could be transfered out of the PCUSA into it, all of this will take time. And time is precisely what those most aggrieved with the present realities of this denomination feel they do not have. Given the lack of graciousness in the actions of many presbyteries to date, I wonder why we should believe that future decisions from those bodies and upcoming General Assemblies would approve Fellowship-inspired structures that could undermine or derail the present trajectories of the liberal wing of the church. Despite what the Fellowship is presently saying, even after a New Reformed Body is constitutionally created in January no PCUSA congregation would be able to transfer out of the PCUSA into the NRB, if I read my polity correctly. That New Reformed Body (NRB) would first have to be recognized officially by the PCUSA, something which could only be done by a legally convened GA. Since the denomination is not going to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to call a special meeting of the last GA, the earliest this could be taken up would be next summer at the 2012 GA in Pittsburgh. My guess is the most likely outcome would be to refer the motion to a task force for a report and decision at the 2014 GA. Since churches can only be dismissed to other recognized Reformed bodies (I’m assuming this is still the case in our new Form of Government), the NRB would remain essentially an empty warehouse at least till then. No PCUSA churches could be dismissed to it — to the EPC, CRC, RCA, etc., yes; to the NRB, no. Who among the disenfranchised is going to wait around so long to sunder ties with a denomination they have lost faith in?
3) The Fellowship movement has put the cart before the horse ecclesiologically. According to our Reformed understanding, it is a serious sin to bring division into the body of Christ. It is wrong to create one more denomination unless one can argue persuasively that the body to which we presently belong has become apostate. Yet at the August Gathering, the Fellowship leaders almost tripped over themselves to get to the microphone first to declare that “Louisville is not the problem”, that “we have established good friendships with members of Covenant Network,” that “we are not here to denigrate the denomination….” If we are not willing to declare the PCUSA apostate, then we have no business planning a new denomination, no matter how many friendly ties we say we want to maintain with the PCUSA. Either we remain and seek to reform, because the PCUSA is still part of the true church, or we shake the dust off our feet and leave, because it has become apostate. But we cannot affirm the legitimacy of the PCUSA and affirm the rightness of a decision to create a new denomination at the same time.
4) It seems to me that all of the tiered options end up “damning the PCUSA with faint praise.” In the process we demonstrate that we are not all that committed to the unity of the body. In option 1, we argue that since the stench of the larger denomination has not yet invaded the relatively evangelical presbytery to which we happen to belong, we are content to stay and minister in our own little sandbox. Who cares about the health of the whole body as long as things still work fine in the little finger of which we are a part? In option 2, we argue that if we evangelical churches can band together regionally to form our own presbyteries so that we can sweep clean the stench from our geographical region, then again we can pretend that all is well, even as the rest of the body to which we are attached continues to rot away. In option 3 we look for an intervention which will give us some say in how our little body part will function, while sharing that function with an alien mind which will sometimes have it do the opposite of what we want. In option 4, we say the whole body is basically okay, but we would rather be grafted on to a new body. We’re awfully sorry that the old body will have to do without its big toe on one foot, but we would like to start fresh on a new foot. The problem with each of these tiers is that we demonstrate that we really do not love our denomination enough to fight for its return to health — we are only concerned with preserving our contentment or agenda as long as we can. What kind of ecclesiology is that? We are not being honest with the rest of the church. Either we are committed to the whole denomination, or we are not. If we are not, we must ask why, and if the reasons are not good enough we must deal with our sinfulness before the Lord in not committing our full support to His church. But let’s end the game-playing of saying we have no axe to grind with the denomination while at the same time sharpening our axes to sever ties.
My biggest disappointment with the Gathering’s tiers is that there was no consideration of the possibility that Jesus’ purpose for us might be that we band together and use the formidable resources He has given us to reclaim the denomination for its original biblical and Christ-centered mandate. I’ve made no secret of my conclusion that the PCUSA as an institution is presently apostate. Departure to a faithful wing of the true church is a legitimate option. But staying to wrest the denomination back from those who are tearing it from its moorings is also a faithful option, and the one which I believe Jesus calls us to follow.
I wish the Gathering had been called to debate and decide this fundamental issue, and that as an evangelical body we had fused our minds and hearts around one unified purpose, convinced that this was Jesus’ command for us with regard to the PCUSA. If the consensus was to pick up and leave en masse, I would have joined obediently. If the consensus was to stay and reclaim, I would have joined with joyful obedience. But instead we got tiers — tiers so we could pursue whatever “works best in our own context.”
I’m consoled by the truth that the Lord Jesus remains head of His church, and that in the end all will be well. There will be no more tiers in heaven. Till then, let’s continue to pray and engage in the daily battle.