One slightly humorous occurrence at the 220th GA surfaced during the ecumenical worship service as we were invited to join in reciting the printed words of the Nicene Creed. All went smoothly as we spoke the words “…On the third day he rose again from the dead in accordance with the Scriptures,” but then most all of us were disoriented by a typo in the next line: “he descended into heaven….” I kid you not — most unfortunate. The more I thought about this, the more appropriate it seemed as an unintended display of what is wrong in our denomination — up is down and down is up. It’s a topsy-turvy world in the PCUSA.
The first sign of this should have been apparent in GA’s theme. It was paraphrased from Isaiah 40:31 as “Walking, Running, Soaring into Hope.” Interestingly, this phrasing reverses the flow of the text in the Bible, which reads, “Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength; they will soar on wings like eagles, they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not faint.” In the context of Isaiah 40, Israel is a tired, beleaguered nation because of her spiritual infidelity, and God is calling her away from trust in idols to hope instead in Him alone. He promises that even in her exhaustion He will be with His chosen people and carry them through their hard times. To hope in Him means to trust in His unfailing Word; it is here in Isaiah 40 that we first read the this statement picked up again in the NT (1 Peter 1:24-25): “All flesh is grass….Surely the people is grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever” (Isa 40:6-8). Why the reversal of order in our GA theme? Who knows? My personal opinion is that the intent of the rewording was to encourage optimism for an ever brightening future, from walking to running to soaring. This is a belief in optimism for optimism’s sake. If we just speak what we want to see happen, it will happen — a new form of “name it, claim it” theology. Instead of calling us back to a renewed hope in the Lord, based on the promise of His unchanging Word, we take a portion of Scripture and reword it to stir up a pollyannish optimism, because we want so badly to soar into the bright future of our own making. It’s not enough to trust that God will give sufficient strength for increasing trials to those who actively wait upon Him, and will bring us through. Instead, we need to boost our sagging spirits by reframing Scripture for psychological reasons. Instead of true hope in the Lord we settle for humanly concocted optimism in a future we have promised for ourselves. Ironically, where the Word of God warns us not to trust in our human efforts but to trust in the Lord, we instead take that same Word and change its order to foster optimism by our human efforts rather than to rest by faith in what God has declared He will do. It’s a topsy-turvy world in the PCUSA.
Though as many have commented, the final decisions coming out of this General Assembly basically maintained the status quo, my assessment is that even the right decisions were in most cases made for the wrong reasons. The most obvious instance of this was the vote to retain our “traditional definition” of marriage. Notice that we are not willing to acknowledge that this “traditional definition” is the biblical tradition; we want to leave open that perhaps we can redefine God’s truth and still have it be acceptable to God, or at least to the church. By a razor-thin margin (if 16 commissioners out of 668 had changed their votes, GA would have approved same-sex marriage), marriage as the Bible and our Confessions have unequivocally defined it was spared from perversion for another two years, until our next GA. Why did the vote go this way? Because the scant majority was convinced by biblical and confessional evidence? Hardly. The primary argument was that a redefinition of marriage at this point in time would decimate the PCUSA, perhaps even eviscerate it. Many presbytery executives were privately whispering predictions that the move to redefine marriage might mean the departure of 30-40 per cent of our congregations from the PCUSA. This would tear the heart and soul of the denomination from the remaining skeletal structure. “We can’t do this now. Give us time to live into these new realities. Perhaps in two years, Presbyterians will be ready for this progressive change,” was the advice we were hearing from moderate liberals. Why support traditional marriage? Not because it is God’s design and biblically faithful to do so, but because to support redefinition might destroy our denomination as an institution, and we must not let that happen. The foundations of our biblical and Reformed theology may be allowed to crumble, but we must not let the foundations of our ecclesiastical institution fall apart. It’s a topsy-turvy world in the PCUSA.
This same breathtaking blindness was seen in a ruling by our denominational constitutional “scholars”, upheld in turn by our Stated Clerk and the new Moderator of the denomination. When the motion to approve same-sex marriage was brought to the floor of GA, it was challenged as out of order because Roberts’ Rules does not permit a motion to be considered that stands in contradiction to an organization’s constitution. Since the first part of our PCUSA Constituion is our Book of Confessions, and the confessions speak with one voice on the definition of marriage, the motion to redefine marriage must be out of order. Sure makes sense to the neutral observer. But our constitutional “scholars” advised that the Confessions in general are capable of many interpretations on many subjects (though they failed to note that on marriage they are eminently clear) and so we cannot be shackled to their statements as we make decisions about how we govern ourselves with our polity. The Stated Clerk happily announced his agreement with this ruling, and the Moderator quickly voiced his support as well. As a result the motion was placed before the body for debate. The stunning consequence of this decision is that we now have a ruling from the highest advisory parties in the PCUSA which declares that how we decide to order our lives as a denomination has no necessary relationship to our theology. The Book of Confessions, though the primary part of our Constitution (as recognized by our Book of Order, which is the secondary part of our Constitution) no longer stands over the Book of Order, but rather holds the position of a quaint museum piece of what our forebears once believed. The will of mostly theologically unschooled commissioners by majority vote now trumps the carefully crafted, deep and weighty theology of our confessional documents. Instead of submitting ourselves in humility to the wisdom of the church down the ages, we have cavalierly decided that we, who are lightweights in terms of biblical knowledge and wisdom, nonetheless should be free to decide whatever we want. It’s a topsy-turvy world in the PCUSA.
One last example, out of the all too many provided by this GA. I’ve been asked by friends how our GA could have strayed so far from the gospel in pursuing a left-leaning political agenda and ignoring the time-honored, clear teachings of Jesus to go into the world and make disciples of all nations, preaching a gospel of forgiveness of sins and eternal life for all who believe. The answer, it turns out, is deceptively simple. Most well-meaning liberals believe with all their hearts that they are indeed pursuing the gospel. It’s just that they have redefined the gospel. Instead of a full-bodied message of good news that addresses salvation at all levels, they have truncated the message to be this-worldly only. The gospel is the announcement of the Kingdom of God come here and now. The Kingdom is seen where justice, peace, diversity, redistribution and ecological harmony are advanced. God is no longer really needed except as the source of this vision; Jesus is irrelevant (certainly his atoning death is) except insofar as his serves as an exemplar to “energize the base;” the Holy Spirit serves not as the One who sanctifies us increasingly into the image of Christ, but as the One to whom we can appeal subjectively to baptize our vision and to empower us to work for peace and justice. The Kingdom of God is no longer our personal and corporate surrender to the reign of God, but the utopia where our personal definitions of what is just and peaceable and equitable and ecofriendly will ultimately come true. It is up to us to make this utopia come to fruition. Liberals believe that by zealously pursuing these social policy alterations they are bringing the gospel to the world, thereby honoring Jesus’ vision of life.
That may sound wild to many, but here’s one quote from Luciano Kovacs, a young “progressive” who was the keynote speaker at GA’s Ecumenical Breakfast on July 4th: “We are addicted to economic models that are the antithesis of God’s justice, which is not a political system or a social gospel but THE gospel — the good news for the hungry is a piece of bread….A church that is not committed to God’s justice is not really a church of Jesus Christ.” The fullness of the gospel addressing the totality of our human predicament has been reduced to a plan for make sure everyone has enough to eat (and no one has too much). “God’s justice is THE gospel!” So why did Jesus come, and suffer crucifixion and death? Apparently so that no one would go to bed hungry. Full bellies for everyone! Unfortunately, such a gospel is no gospel at all. The apostle Paul has harsh words for those who make the gospel a utopian enterprise: “Many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is the belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. But our commonwealth is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ…” (Phil 3:18-20). Godly love must entail addressing the full range of human need, not just the physical, this-worldly concerns of those in need. In light of eternity, the good news is first and foremost the offer of forgiveness, reconciliation and eternal life with God. If we crusade to wipe out poverty, hunger, oppression, pollution, prejudice, economic disparity, etc., but we fail to urge people to faith in Christ, we will have cared for their bodies and surroundings at the expense of their eternal destruction. But the liberals don’t seem to believe in the reality of hell and the need for saving faith in Jesus. Their god, it seems increasingly clear, is the belly. It’s a topsy-turvy world in PCUSAville.