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Reflections on the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) General Assembly & How Gracious Debate Can Lead to Action

At the 221st Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) General Assembly, something wondrous happened. We passed historic measures to recognize the love and commitment of all couples and to make sure that ministers can provide pastoral care around marriage to all couples in their congregations. This was an important milestone for our church, and a humbling one in my own faith journey.

As I reflect on my time as a commissioner at General Assembly (GA), what I’ve been most struck by is how we actually did it. What I learned—and saw with my own eyes—is that debate doesn’t have to be a battle, but that it can actually be a gracious engagement. We all experienced respectful debate that led us to action. During the General Assembly, I felt the Holy Spirit of God—flowing among us and in us—and it gives me such joy and hope for the PCUSA and for the world.

I wasn’t alone in this feeling. Many other veteran participants shared that this was their experience as well, and that the spirit of our assembly was markedly different from most. There was an earnest willingness to listen respectfully to every voice. There was a consistent commitment to accept the responsibility of taking action, rather than passing it on by “kicking the can down the road” to some other time and group.

Another commissioner stopped me during a break in the plenary to exclaim how great it was that every amendment, question, and point of order was actually perfecting the motion before us rather than trying to sidetrack or manipulate it in some way.

This collection of about 650 commissioners was ready to do the hard work of discerning God’s will and setting the PCUSA on a course to carry that out. It was a thing of beauty to witness parliamentary procedure used in its purest way—not to obstruct action but to facilitate it. This was Roberts’ Rules as they are meant to be used: graciously.

If one of America’s historic mainline churches can respectfully and prayerfully debate important issues like marriage, justice, or geopolitical conflicts—and reach a conclusion graciously—might this be a turning point in our national debates? I have hope that this is so.

As the GA came to a close, Moderator Heath Rada charged all present—most of all the commissioners—to return to our churches ready to interpret the serious outcomes of this assembly to our brothers and sisters in Christ. In addition to reporting back and explaining the votes at GA, I would encourage all of us to also carry back the spirit of prayerful speaking and listening where we honored the full dignity of each person participating, whether they agreed with us or not.

This challenge is especially critical for those of us in support of the positions that carried the day. I am part of that because the GA freed me, as a pastor, from fear of discipline for presiding at the wedding of two men (together 18 years) on the day after I returned home from Detroit. And the GA took the additional step to make such marriages possible for all PCUSA pastors and congregations by recommending amendment to our church constitution now to be voted on by the 172 presbyteries across the country.

If we can tenderly nurture the flicker of trusting good will that flamed at GA into a fire of common joy in the potential of our PCUSA church family to fulfill Jesus’ prayer that we may be one through gracious engagement, then we have a chance of the world knowing we are Christian by our love.

Then, surely, the world will be inspired to follow us. May it be so.


42 Responses
  • Mike Fazzini on July 10, 2014

    Janet, I am interested that you think this GA was unique in terms of the “gracious engagement” that you and other commissioners were a part of and witness to. Why do you think that is? Was it that way only around the marriage issue or was it that way straight down the line?

    My experience (indirectly) from the last two GA’s is that people staked turf out and worked hard to build coalitions to support their point of view and then fought very vigorously to win votes.

    The only reason I can think of that this might be missing when contentious issues were brought to the floor (like this year) is that the outcome was a foregone conclusion. It allows for “gracious debate” because one side has prevailed before the vote has taken place. It is more of a cathartic exercise for the disadvantaged side than a fight, hence “gracious engagement”. Would that a sea change in dialogue and listening were so. It could be transforming for the church. I am interested to know what you think about this.

  • Janet Edwards on July 11, 2014

    Dear Mike,

    Thanks for these really good questions! Let me try to respond.

    The spirit of gracious debate (normally an oxymoron, I grant you) was marked throughout the assembly. One keen observer did share with me his view that the effort at respect between opposing people on the marriage overtures did set that tone for other controversial issues of which there were many–Israel/Palestine, divestment in fossil fuel companies, use of drones to mention a few. I would like to think that, of course.

    My experience of past assemblies is the same as yours of turf and vigorous parliamentary maneuvering which is why I found this year so surprising and delightful.

    The outcome for me was not a foregone conclusion though there were dynamics (for one the absence of voices departed to more conservative presbyterian folds) that were making folks hopeful. I do believe in the working of the Holy Spirit at GA so the conclusions are never predictable, in my opinion.

    One other factor I see that I trust will not surprise you is the way this assembly went far beyond the usual enjoyment of the YAADs–their energy and general perkiness–to actual honoring of their contribution in the debates and their advisory votes. By my eyeball estimate, the assembly voted at least 98% of the time with the YAADs and every time on the most controversial actions. This was really important to me and not what every assembly does. Could that be an important dynamic in this being a more gracious GA?

    Thanks again for your joining in here. Peace, Janet

  • L William Yolton on July 12, 2014

    I attended the GA for almost thirty years. We were almost always defending against the organizations of the far right. I appears that they have departed us to take the Presbyterian name into the South for the culture of ignorance and hatred. The Civil War has not ended.

  • Joe Duffus on July 15, 2014

    Hello Rev. Edwards!

    It’s been a long time since we engaged on this topic, you and I.

    I re-read some of our exchanges on the Layman’s letters pages recently, and was struck again that yours is one of the more conciliatory voices in the late struggle. As you know, I disagree with this action, the PCUSA’s direction in this and several other matters, and with you. I am normally used to reading the uninformed, ungracious and stereotypical insults such as those of the previous commenter above.

    You’re different though. Engaging and respectful. I thank you for that.

    Some think 20 years is the safe bet, but I believe PC(USA) will be gone within 10 years because of both accelerating attrition and dismissals to other more conservative Presbyterian denominations, and also from a dry-up of funding from remnant congregations that cannot or will not pay their per capita.

    Giving in to cynicism briefly, I read your description of the tone at GA as the really describing the “peace of the vanquished,” not the forbearance of a thriving, engaged minority. We’re leaving you, sooner or later, and I think you know it. I know that’s not what you want, not what any conciliatory voice wants to hear.

    So I’m asking your help in a new cause. I would like you to bring your powers to bear on that thing you don’t want to see: helping the churches that wish and believe they are compelled to leave PCUSA to do so. The conflict has shifted from a theological one to a financial one, which must grieve Our Lord. These wretched fights, already in progress, will have presbyteries trying to squeeze churches for every last dollar in order to grant them “gracious” dismissal to ECO or EPC.

    This is a terrible, ugly fate. But rather than jealously clinging to these churches and trying to put obstacles in their paths, I really believe that it is the obligation, even the privilege, of those who pressed so hard, long and successfully to remake the denomination to make these dismissals a display of God’s grace. Having these cases end up in courts, as we know will continue to happen, is very bad for the Body of Christ, the PC(USA) and the souls of those who turn from liturgy to litigation. I cringe every time I read of the bitter fights among the remaining Episcopal churches. I don’t want us to follow their craven example any more than I expect you do.

    You’ve won a victory. Now I think the influence that you and so many others have over the church hierarchy should be used to help those followers who can’t live into this new reality to take their leave in peace.

    Best,

    Joe Duffus

  • Bill on July 15, 2014

    L William Yolton, we do NOT hate anyone. “culture of ignorance and hatred. ” Christians should be “people of the book”. We believe in the authority and accuracy of scripture. Its that simple really.

  • Mike Fazzini on July 15, 2014

    Dear Joe, I am beyond simply sad to read your post. The actions of which you speak, splintering and re-affiliating, leave me hopeless in a world that is desperate for a glimmer of light.

    This is only different than the struggle between the Israelis and Palestinians in terms of degree. I sit back in disbelief of the unwillingness of either side to bend or forgive but even more astounding, like in the case of PCUSA, each would prefer the other would just disappear because coexistence is just that painful.

    The tension between opposing views are meant to be held together through the democratic process of the PCUSA, not fractured. I have lived with this tension, not in my favor, as it pertains to GLBT participation in the full life of the Church for over 25 years. I have shepherded a gay son through the minefield of carefully worded “Christian messages” and good intentions.
    Carefully parsed words and actions meant to invite him to the table on the one hand but a quick read between the lines finds them striking at his heart condemning him for being fully who he is as a sexual human person, on the other. And yet I stayed. So did Janet and countless others.

    So many of us have been willing to take what we hold so viscerally dear and lay it aside for the sake of something bigger than any single person. Should we not expect our brothers and sisters in faith to do the same in kind?

    I do not presume to understand anyone else’s faith journey. Each of us has been given opportunities to experience differently. We cannot help but, and I believe we are intended to, read Scripture in the light of our journeys.

    For me, Scripture occurs most powerfully when it is a springboard to deepening my understanding of the lives of those about whom it was written and about their relationship with God; a springboard to deepening my relationships with family members, friends, co-workers and even those I have never met; a springboard to becoming a more compassionate person and on in this vein. The key word here for me is springboard.

    When I hear about the congregations gearing up to leave the church almost entirely over the issue of ordination standards or same sex unions, my faith journey has it show up as using scripture as a straight jacket and not a springboard.

    If two groups of so called Christians cannot lock arms in the face of contentious disagreement over same sex life vis-a vis the Church, what hope is there for the rest of the world where the fractures are over issues far more weighty and have lasted for centuries?

    So here I am, left as hopeless.

  • Joe Duffus on July 15, 2014

    Mike,

    I don’t blame you for feeling that way. And I’ve no wish to renew the debate, which is now, for denominational purposes, settled.

    To me the questions now are these:

    * How many will stay?
    * Will the ECO and EPC denominations flourish or similarly wither?
    * Will those who do stay be persecuted for their conscience?

    As to the first, I have no idea, apart from speculation based on the rate of dismissals and membership declines that spiked after 10-A passed two years ago. I believe the pace will quicken because of this, divestment in Israel, authority of Scripture, and in general a seeming unwillingness to submit to the will of the Lord. I doubt anyone who celebrates these latest changes would seriously argue that it will mean a flood of new congregants to PCUSA churches. Certainly no one will be darkening church doors for the first time because GA voted to divest $21 million bucks out of Caterpillar, Hewlett Packard and Motorola. If they did, I don’t think you’d WANT the people so inspired, frankly.

    As to the second, I think faithful people who are hurt by these changes nevertheless would rather stay than flee from PCUSA, but if they go, it will be TO something, not FROM. For them. ECO in particular needs help to become an attractive destination, and not just a refuge. How will that play out in the coming year or so when the deciding presbytery approves the changes to the Book of Order?

    This, to my third question, is why I’m concerned that the path of bitterness that is so appalling in the Episcopal Church not be repeated. As someone who endured for 25 years a church that did not approve of same-sex marriages or openly gay clergy, you know better than I do how to live in an “apostate” denomination. But honestly, the GA just codified what had been more or less already going on for several years. And you’ll forgive me for wondering if “approval” will morph into “requirement” in the coming years. As I’ve read, the “Kenyon” case may turn into the next big cause as ministry candidates are quizzed about their willingness to perform a same-sex marriage as a condition of acceptance into a presbytery. You may think that’s alarmist, but I know it’s on the minds of conservatives who have watched the government trample Americans’ conscience objections in civil society. Again, I don’t want to debate this, only to raise it as an issue that will be on the minds of those already glancing at the door.

  • Janet Edwards on July 16, 2014

    Dear Bill, Joe and Mike,

    Thanks to you all for your honest, deeply felt comments. I think all of us are veterans of way the PCUSA did church in the 20th century that was set in what Bradley Longfield calls The Presbyterian Controversy, a wonderful history of Presbyterianism in the first half of the last century.

    Perhaps we can all agree that this way of being church has to end. Its finish line is the hopelessness Mike expresses and which you and many of your friends share in their own way, Joe, I expect. Perhaps your comments also come from a similar feeling.

    I trust you also see that one reason this GA was so hopeful for me is a different way of doing church is emerging in the PCUSA. I am calling it gracious engagement. I try to model it in what I write. I thank you all who share here that you are also following this 21st century way. We can change the world by our example, I think.

    I want to answer your question, Joe: Can I join with those seeking what’s called “gracious separation,” simply taking a congregation with all it is and has out of the PCUSA? This is not a financial consideration for me. It is a theological one.

    As I concluded in my post, Jesus prays in the Gospel of John that we may be one. I cannot participate in any activity that intentionally breaks the body of Christ, robbing Jesus of His desire.

    My presbytery has struggled for years with congregations wanting to leave the PCUSA. My experience here is that no one is interested in my voice or participation in this, Joe. My observation is that the serious struggle is between the “center-right” and the “right,” with people like me on the “left” (thanks for letting me use these categories just for this analysis) being by-standers. The deep emotional energy is between those on the “right” who feel called to stay and those compelled to go. Honestly, I feel powerless in this.

    My presbytery has come to different arrangements with different congregations depending on all kinds of factors. I am pretty sure that congregations have been the ones who have taken the situation to civil court, not my presbytery. In every case, I’d say, the terrible pain and sadness over the break has been horrendous and lingering.

    My question to you, Joe, is this: can those leaving take responsibility for the choice to leave and answer to it before Jesus? This is based on my experience of feeling blamed for their going. My impression is (and perhaps you will correct me) that those who have left, or are again considering going , basically say, “You are making me do this.” How? I am staying right here.

    As Bill Yolton suggests, I feel that what I believe and do is grounded in Scripture and in Reformed theological tradition. I am being and have been a good Presbyterian.

    The thing is, I think you and your friends have been too. And I think our ancestors faced similar moments—worse really because heads could literally role and fires for burning be lit. They gave us freedom of conscience on matters that are non-essential. Can we agree that who a person loves or claims to be in sexual orientation or gender identity is a non-essential? Could that hold us together?

    I look forward to all your further thoughts and those of others.

    Peace be with you all, Janet

  • Joe Duffus on July 17, 2014

    Dear Rev. Edwards,

    Fair enough. I see your point about not wanting to break the body of Christ. Don’t forget, though, that as a group it was your idea to wage these fights.

    That’s an inflammatory statement, but I believe a fair one. Marriage was unquestioned for 2,000 years in the Christian church and throughout the world. It is only in the last 35 or so years that it has been contested, at least publicly.

    Your remarkable political victory owes itself as much to a decline in overall numbers as to changed minds. Liberals have to own this, not just in Presbyterian but in Lutheran, Methodist and Episcopal churches too, all of which rival us in membership losses.

    To your last question first, I agree with Paul that marriage is a good but not an “essential thing” for followers of Jesus. But he had very definite ideas on love and marriage too. And it wasn’t this.

    The “non-essential” things that you name — same-sex unions and (I guess here’s the next thing) “gender identity” — are terrible distractions for the church. No one seriously believes the AI or the Amendment will win souls to Christ, any more than divestment, climate change activism, harangues about the minimum wage or a thousand other political postures that liberal Presbyterians seem to spend their time on.

    If they really are the non-essentials you call them, then why have you devoted so much time and attention to the task of changing minds or at least votes on ordination and marriage, knowing as you must have that these changes would shrink the church?

    In that same spirit, I believe it is disingenuous for you to question “How?” you are responsible for those who are leaving or want to. At the moment of your ultimate success, to shrug off any responsibility for the carnage of disappointed, disaffected traditionalists who can’t in good conscience stay in the denomination you made is absurd. It’s not all your fault, of course. But yes, you’re right to feel some blame.

    I like your description of the coming dismissal fights being between the center and the right. It would be so in my church, I’m sure. The problem is that the presbyteries hold all the cards. That property trust (which ECO does not have, by the way!) is what forces the litigation. Whether it’s a big historic steeple downtown on prime real estate, or a small but financially healthier church in the country, what’s really, really needed now is for dismissal fees to be negotiated humbly and with Christ’s spirit foremost, so as not to damage the departing church’s mission and worship ministries in the process. I’d rather a church leave with its property and its mission dollars intact than to saddle it with 5 years of paying off a tribute to a denomination they don’t want to belong to. Those huge payoffs out in Menlo Park and the ongoing fights in Houston are, I think you’ll agree, appalling and a terrible waste of money that could have been spent in mission and outreach for Christ, instead of legal fees and egos.

    You feel powerless? I call on you to get off the sidelines in these situations… and stand with the conservative churches that want for conscience reasons to be dismissed to another Presbyterian denomination.

    Now, that would REALLY be something, wouldn’t it?

  • Mike Fazzini on July 18, 2014

    “….Don’t forget, though, that as a group it was your idea to wage these fights. That’s an inflammatory statement, but I believe a fair one….”

    Joe, I have been willing to hang in and struggle against the tide not because I, or I daresay anyone, including Janet although I do not speak for her, enjoys a fight and I certainly didn’t want a fight. I am a gentle person by nature.

    I was/am in this because people are hurting. Because I feel as if every Tyler Clementi or Matthew Shepherd might have been my kid. I see a change in the Churches’ attitudes and practices toward GLBT people as literally a matter of life and death, if not actual death then certainly death of the spirit for thousands of people.

    I have been going to PFLAG meetings for nearly 10 years and have had the opportunity to listen to literally dozens and dozens of stories of hurt to GLBT people and their families at the hands of faith groups. At church is the last place a GLBT person or their family members will typically come out, if they ever do. Why do you think that is?

    I lay the overt and latent homophobia that exists in America and in the rest of the world at the foot of the churches. It is an intrinsic evil the fruit of which is the decimation of people and families. If you sat in with me in support group after support group listening to families and GLBT individuals tell their stories I cannot believe you would reach a different conclusion.

    Scriptural authority provides neither permission nor absolution for this.
    Love the sinner but hate the sin is nothing but a veiled conceit. Who gets to judge what a sin is? It is a way to dominate and hold power over people and it is a non starter position when dealing with GLBT people and their families because they see this.

    If a church feels as if there will be people, families and relationships that will be recognized and given standing by governing bodies but chooses to give no standing or limited standing to these same people what does that say about the church? That the church is special? That they are taking a principled stand or that they know better? I am not so sure about this.

    If we must start over as a denomination, so be it. It won’t be the first time. Better that than to continue forward with GLBT people and their families left feeling as outsiders looking in or worse. They only want to be held accountable in same way and enjoy the same privileges of church as you and I but according to their gender orientation. It doesn’t seem like that big a deal to me but apparently it is.

    I am sorry for the money being lost on lawsuits over property and divestment. I am sorry for the “distraction” that this conversation causes church wide. But it is the mission of the church to be in service and there is at least one group that has not been well served. It is my duty to shout this from the rooftops as the church has taught me to do. The consequences are whatever they are.

    I have empathy for allowing churches to leave the denomination so as not to damage the departing church’s mission and worship ministries in the process. That is not to say presbyteries do not have standing and concerns that may need to be satisfied. But force has never been a good tool for garnering respect or expressing a loving spirit.

    While I am no longer a voting elder of my presbytery I would support the effort locally to allow departure under the best terms possible for the congregations that feel compelled to leave. It seems that generosity of spirit is what is needed all around.

  • Janet Edwards on July 18, 2014

    Dear Joe and Mike,

    My heart is full as I try to speak here in a way that will build up the body of Christ. Thank you both for your honest words.

    Joe, I confess I feel like I am in a time warp taking us back to our exchanges on The Presbyterian Layman as if God has not been working in the intervening years and we have learned nothing. As then, I feel like you and I are passing like ships in the night, speaking on different levels from one another.

    Echoing Paul, let me speak for a few moments on what I see to be your level with your terms. Can you not see that the decline in the PCUSA also comes from segments in the church with very different beliefs and perceptions from yours, in fact, leaving because the PCUSA is “too conservative?”

    Mike reflects church loss of LGBT people, their families and friends who felt our hypocrisy with regard to truly loving our neighbor. Mike referred to only two publicized gay men who killed themselves on account of harassment undergirded by messages presented as “Christian.” The church, including the PCUSA, has inflicted grievous harm on many people. There are many unknown casualties of this we bear responsibility for.

    I know you feel harm is being inflicted on you and those who agree with you. Here is what I want to ask you: When did anyone kill himself or herself because a presbytery asserted its historic, traditional place of ownership of PCUSA congregation property or the PCUSA–by process given to us by our Reformed ancestors–places decisions on ordination in the hands of presbyteries and congregations or decisions on presiding at or housing weddings in the hands of pastors and sessions, both the traditional places for these in Reformed tradition?

    Getting it right with LGBT people is not a distraction; how we treat LGBT people is at the heart of how we choose to follow Christ. I know you don’t agree but more and more Christians are agreeing with this. I trust you are aware of the decline beginning to be experienced in the American evangelical church. Well-documented research attributes some of this to younger evangelicals concluding that sexual orientation and gender identity (we diminish ourselves when we dismiss this human complexity experienced by many) are non-essentials to faith in Christ. How we treat people is essential.

    I could go on in this way picking up on other points you have made. Thank you in advance, Joe, for joining me in the way I prefer to talk, on the level important to me.

    And thank you for acknowledging that my wanting to help fulfill Jesus’ prayer that we may be one is “fair enough.” I need your help on your contention that people like me “started it” and so you dismiss further consideration of our common commitment before God to the unity of the PCUSA. Regardless of whether I agree or disagree with your view on who started it, my question to you is, “So what?”

    Forty years later here we are. I choose to stay; you choose to go. You have not explained to me how I am responsible for the choices you and your colleagues make and I do not.

    I am glad my presbytery has treated on an individual basis every instance of congregations wanting to leave, as Mike suggests. What still perplexes me, Joe, is why you think my voice on the matter of property can help. Why can’t you simply accept that fulfilling Jesus prayer in the here and now is sufficient ground for me to leave this to others. Can it be okay to let those who care so much about property do what they do and answer to Christ for it? That is what I see myself doing here. What do you see that I do not?

    I hope you both continue to share your hearts here. Peace, Janet

  • Joe Duffus on July 18, 2014

    Mike:

    I’m past rehashing the debate on the recent GA actions, as I’ve said. So I decline to engage on your points in that area other than to say that you shouldn’t assume that people who believe as I do are afraid of gay people or hate gay people. To the extent that some people of my opinion probably do hate and fear gay people, I understand the suspicion. One thing that gets lost in these conversations is the recognition that sins come in many forms, and when we focus on one it seems as though we excuse or minimize others. I’m as guilty as anyone.

    I focus instead on your last part, that “force has never been a good tool for garnering respect or expressing a loving spirit.” Agreed.

    Janet: yes I can see that there are those who may have left PCUSA for that reason. People leave churches for lots of reasons. But I’m referring to the statistics tracking the decline of mainline denominations since the 70’s and accelerating. The only churches showing growth of any kind are conservative evangelical churches. So it seems obvious to me that the leavers must primarily be what is swelling those other ranks. Ross Douthat’s book, “Bad Religion” and others have noted this, too. The point about younger evangelicals is interesting, as it’s unquestionably true that they have been raised in a world that has not shunned gay people as earlier generations did. That’s a good thing even if they don’t agree with me.

    The “started it” thing. I knew that would torque you both off, and couldn’t resist it. The point of it, really, is just to place your movement in context as a long-term campaign that very slowly, steadily built support from a standing start by agitating for change.

    “When did anyone kill himself…” Many evangelicals believe that the theological denials I spoke of earlier constitute rejection of Christ’s divinity, uniqueness and atonement. Leaving the specific question of sexuality aside, they are more generally upset with the heterodoxy that is common among church liberals. They view it as a denial of the truth of the Gospel, and a conscious refusal to submit to the will of the Lord. “Man did what was right in his own eyes” in a paraphrase of Judges 21:25.

    There is among these discouraged people simultaneous fear and joy, and a sense that Christianity and their traditional exercise of it is under assault by the culture. It’s not uncommon to hear them speak of being in exile, and of paradoxically feeling joy that this may cause a clarifying for people as Christianity ceases its historic place as the common framework of our nation’s moral values in several ways. I’m not talking about birth control, but about things like self-control, modesty and thrift. Reactionary, you may call it, but they see it differently and see a world and a popular more adrift without this.

    I don’t ask you to agree with this, only to respect that it comes from an honest desire to honor God’s will.

    Here’s the news you’ve been waiting for. I’m going to go soak my head! 🙂
    Leave tomorrow for a week of scuba diving in the Bahamas with my son’s boy scout troop, exploring the glory of God’s creation at a depth of 60 feet.

    Peace be with you.

  • Mike Fazzini on July 19, 2014

    Joe, Have a great time with the kids. Peace back at you.

  • Janet Edwards on July 21, 2014

    Dear Joe and Mike,

    Welcome back, Joe, from your Bahamas adventure! Echoing Mike, I hope it was a great time.

    Joe, my great wish is that you would just simply answer my questions.

    What is the value you see in my supporting a policy of just letting congregations leave the PCUSA with all their church assets?

    Did anyone kill themselves (as LGBT people grievously do under the stigma placed on them partly through Christian judgment) over church property?

    And of course my next question following your answer to that is “How important is the difference between concern over PCUSA treatment of LGBT people and PCUSA treatment of congregations desiring to separate from us?

    That I feel I am answering your questions and you are avoiding mine is a reminder of our Layman exchanges. In light of this, you might find this article on the different ways of being between conservative and liberal people might be relevant: http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2014/07/biology-ideology-john-hibbing-negativity-bias.

    Perhaps you and I and our like-minded friends in the PCUSA are just wired differently. Does that have some relevance to the value of our staying together in the body of Christ? Could God have made us this way because it is important for us to find a way to live together–that we both have gifts to bring to living into the Kingdom of God?

    More questions. Thank you in advance for answering them directly.

    Peace be with you both, Janet

  • Bill on July 21, 2014

    Hi Janet. This is an interesting statement you made considering you wont answer my question on the other blog… ”
    Joe, my great wish is that you would just simply answer my questions. “

  • Joe Duffus on July 28, 2014

    Janet,

    Swimming with sharks and barracuda focuses one’s priorities a bit. 😉 For the record, sharks are too busy swimming about on their own chores to pay much attention to a bubble-spouting scuba diver, which we divers appreciate.

    Barracuda are another story: they hang nearly still in mid-water, mouth open, jagged teeth exposed, tracking you with their eyes. Being around them is like stumbling into a bad neighborhood. Nevertheless, God’s handiwork and the majesty of His creation are doubly apparent and awe-inspiring down there.

    Here are my answers to your questions…

    Q: “What is the value you see in my supporting a policy of just letting congregations leave the PCUSA with all their church assets?”

    A: Because you have status and credibility with the denominational authorities and they would listen if you were vocal about presbyteries taking a gracious and generous policy of allowing these churches to leave with their buildings and budgets unencumbered. At the extreme, this would mean waiving the property trust clause completely. More realistically, a standard per capita pay-out that would smooth the presbytery’s budgetary concerns.

    And I don’t mean just you, of course. I mean the entire leadership of those from Covenant Network, More Light Presbyterians and others whose voices were so prominent in pressing these changes upon the denomination. Whether these departing churches become ECO, EPC or PCA, they will still be part of our Presbyterian, Reformed tradition and likely still be mission partners with PCUSA in some ways. Indirectly, they may help PCUSA stay in connection with other international Presbyterian bodies that are similarly angered by the changes made to ordination and marriage standards.

    I really doubt that the bitter feelings and resentment between the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church that many congregations affiliated with will heal for many years. That’s a disgrace in my view, and not one I’m eager to see Presbyterians repeat. Your voices, representing the side whose views have carried the day, would I think help this not to occur in our church.

    Q: Did anyone kill themselves (as LGBT people grievously do under the stigma placed on them partly through Christian judgment) over church property?”

    A: Probably not. But I take issue with your posing the question that way. Traditionalists are no more to blame for someone’s deciding to kill themselves because of a church “stigma” over homosexual activity than they are for someone drinking himself to death. That some have condemned, or even just seemed to condemn, both sin and sinner is hardly unique to traditionalists, wouldn’t you agree?

    Q: “How important is the difference between concern over PCUSA treatment of LGBT people and PCUSA treatment of congregations desiring to separate from us?

    A: Well, I ask anyone who was in favor of these various changes to the Book of Order, especially as they conflict (in my view) with our Confessions and Scripture, why they did not simply decamp from PCUSA for UCC, the Unitarians or one of the other denominations that had previously approved of these things, instead of spending the considerable time, effort and turmoil of changing the official doctrine and practices of the PCUSA? No doubt some did, as we agreed above. Might be interesting to research whether there were congregations that left PCUSA for another denomination completely and how graciously they were dismissed to find such a precedent.

    Lastly, I glanced at that Mother Jones write-up you linked to, but to me that says more about scientific group-think than it does about anything else. It was completely unsurprising that the other scientific peers simply accepted at face value the premise that conservatives are “scared and disgusted,” only questioning the degree to which they could tar us all with that brush. Academia, particularly the social sciences, is not known as a hospitable place for conservatives. Makes me doubt that C.S. Lewis could have survived more than a few semesters at Cambridge if he were there today.

  • Joe Duffus on August 15, 2014

    Not sure if our thread has run dry, but this story about a church in Delaware leaving struck me as a heartening model for the sort of compromise and forebearance I’m looking for.

    http://www.layman.org/white-clay-creek-reaches-property-settlement-presbytery/

    Granted, the presbytery and session faced off and wrangled for more than 18 months before cooler heads prevailed, but the terms allow the church to join ECO and not be bled dry in the process. I especially love this quote from the civil judge in urging the parties to settle the dispute amicably themselves:

    “Positive institutions like churches are not in the world to fight internally or with each other. You are in the world to do good works and help people. I think it would be much more beneficial if there were some way you could devote your resources to doing good works in the world,” Laster said.”

    What say you, Janet?

  • Janet Edwards on August 15, 2014

    Dear Bill and Joe,

    Thank you both for your comments. I just have not been checking for comments here on the blog until today and so missed what you shared here in July. There is no meaning to be read into this pause as far as I know myself.

    Yes, Bill, I have asked you both to answer my questions in a more direct fashion and I am grateful when you do. For me this facilitates a conversation, which is what I want to have.

    Deepest thanks, Joe, for sharing your responses to my questions.

    With regard to gracious separation, a few thoughts arise for me from your answers. I think I said somewhere along the line already here that, in my presbytery at least, the tension is between the people on the “right” who choose to stay and those on the “right” who want to leave at no cost. Separation is most important to these presbyters and, for the most part, these are the ones engaging in a debate over the terms.

    I trust you can accept that there is more than one mind on the “left”. I do have my own opinion about it. Nothing in my presbytery indicates that anyone here cares what that is. My experience so far is that you are the only one who sees the views of the “left” on this to be especially meaningful on the national level. My own read is that, on the whole, property is not a crucial concern among my friends on the “left.”

    Perhaps we just agree to disagree on our read of the situation. Is that where we are on this? Is there more to be said?

    To my simple question, “Did anyone kill themselves over church property?” thank you for the simple answer, “Probably not.” I trust you, Bill, would answer the same thing though you certainly can correct me if I am wrong.

    I am not sure what you are referring to, Joe, when you say you take issue with the way I pose the question. I assume you mean the parentheses. I trust we can agree that even one grievous situation of a person killing themselves in connection with being LGBT is too much. And these continue to happen everyday.

    In my presbytery in 2008, a beloved pastor faced being outed as gay by a local TV station seeking to beat out the competitors during sweeps week. He drove to a far-away motel and killed himself with pills after writing a long letter to us in the presbytery. To this day we have never discussed his words to us, or our contribution to the situation he faced.

    I confess, I do not understand your further comment. I need you to break your sentence down for me or simplify it. And I don’t understand your question back to me. I am familiar with the comparison between being LGBT and alcoholism. My mother was an alcoholic who died way too young of neck and throat cancer related to drinking and smoking. There is no correlation between her disease and my experience as bisexual or the LGBT people I know. Of course, there are LGBT people who suffer from addictive disease.

    In answer to your question about why Presbyterians on the “left” have stayed in the PCUSA, I can only speak for myself. Two parts of the foundation of our Reformed tradition are these: “Councils err” and “always reforming.” To my reading of Scripture and understanding of our tradition, the 1978 Definitive Guidance, G-6.0106b and the 2010 Spahr GAPJC decision were errors. Proper procedure of overture to GA and ratification by the presbyteries is the way to correct them.

    My friends and I have participated in that very Presbyterian process, which is just as available to you as it is to us. I choose to do this for the reason I have already expressed here: I will not disappoint Jesus’ prayer that we be one. The only progressive congregation I am aware of that has left to join the UCC, I believe, is the West Hollywood Presbyterian Church, a pioneer in welcome to LGBT people, and a grievous loss to the PCUSA.

    Can I trust that this gives us enough to be getting on with? I hope so and await your response.

    Peace be with you both, Janet

  • Joe Duffus on August 15, 2014

    Hi Janet,

    actually you said the “center-right” and the right before, but that’s splitting hairs. I do think there are centrists and right-leaning but pragmatic people out there in the PCUSA who will remain in the denomination despite their disagreements with the issues that have led others to seek gracious dismissal. They don’t want the headaches of stirring up their local congregations into a battle that might be avoided by ignoring these issues as much as possible. As Americans, we all share a pretty strong desire to be left alone.

    Since you believe that your friends on the left are not motivated by property issues, though, why NOT articulate that to the wider denomination? If you agree with me that we ought not to stand in the way of those who are called to leave the PCUSA because they can’t abide the changes, then why not say so? If you disagree and think we should make it purposely hard for these churches to leave PCUSA for another Presbyterian denomination, then I’d ask why you think so.

    On the next point, what I took exception to was what I saw as your implied blaming of traditionalists for gay people killing themselves because of the church’s erstwhile official position on the ordination of openly gay people, or of its official position against performing marriages of gay people. That’s how I read that parenthetical statement. If you didn’t intend that, I’m sorry for misinterpreting. But to be clear, I hate it when anyone takes his or her own life. It’s a tragedy.

    That said, your friend’s tragic decision is not to be blamed on those who opposed changes to ordination standards. I would never presume to “blame” liberal Christians as a group for the existence of adulterous ministers, alcoholic ministers or even closet-atheist ministers, all of which we know to exist within our and every other denomination. We are each and all individually accountable to God for our actions.

    On your last point, thank you. It was indeed that church in Hollywood I was thinking of. I wonder what the terms of their dismissal from PCUSA were? I would be very surprised if they had to pay through the nose, despite the fact that they dismissed to a non-Presbyterian denomination. In the present crisis, the desire is to leave for another branch of Presbyterianism, one that shares and accepts the same Book of Confessions that PCUSA does, which really should make it less objectionable, not more.

    I think I know the answer to that one, though. The fear is institutional and not theological. The PCUSA understands only too well that its councils and official policies are farther to the left politically and theologically than the beliefs of the pew dwellers whose tithes support it.

    I completely agree with you that the processes were available to the conservatives. Without digressing into an argument about the moderator’s ruling during GA2014 as to the constitutionality of the same-sex marriage motion, PCUSA was organizationally set up to blunt “innovations” through its long, drawn-out procedures requiring ratifications by individual presbyteries. That served conservatives for 30 years but was ultimately overcome. It was, I believe, because liberals successfully came to control positions within the church councils and by the steady reduction in total membership. The closeness of the 10-A vote in 2012 versus the much wider margin for same-sex marriage in 2014 attests to this last cause.

    I’ve said before that I find it ironic that it’s the conservatives who would rather “switch than fight.” But there it is.

  • Janet Edwards on August 21, 2014

    Dear Joe,

    Thanks for your reply. I have a few thoughts in response that, I hope, continues our conversation.

    With regard to property, you are right. Property issues do not motivate me. If they did I would speak up as I do have opinions about congregations going with all the “property.” I think my not speaking does express this lack of motivation and so I participate in this way. I understand this is insufficient for you. I would say it is a form of participation. Staying silent can be a statement that is not agreement.

    You have misunderstood me if you think I “agree that we should not stand in the way of those who are called to leave the PCUSA.” I guess I do think we should “stand in the way” some though I have no interest in simply making “it purposely hard for these churches to leave.”

    What I want is a conversation about those important places where we disagree. I do not think where we disagree on property is the central, important thing. It is not what I want the conversation to be about.

    And I get, Joe, from what you say, that you and your friends feel that the conversation on interpretation of Scripture, Reformed theology and history and the place of LGBT people in the heart of God we see arising from these to be “standing in the way” and “making things purposely hard.” I understand that you do not want the conversation. Some avoid it by leaving, others by going off into their enclave within the PCUSA, having as little to do with Presbyterians like me as possible.

    I would not want the conversation either if I expected it to be all about “blame,” “fight,” and “winning/losing.” “Implication” is in the mind of the listener and does need to be checked with the speaker. Thank you for doing that.

    It was not in my mind or in any intention, as far as I know myself, to talk about blame in a conversation about the connection between Christian stance toward LGBT people and the suicide rate among them with the situation in my presbytery as one example of this.

    I would approach this conversation with “contribution” and “responsibility” in mind. I am responsible for my contribution to the troubles of this pastor. His suicide was a few weeks before the second disciplinary trial against me in my presbytery for presiding at the wedding of two women in 2005. He knew that I had received a great deal of media attention at the first trial and this was likely to happen again. He could very well have felt that this placed a glaring spotlight on him as a closeted gay pastor, something he had avoided for decades. I expect all pro-LGBT activity in the PCUSA must have made him anxious. I stand before God with this contribution to his pain.

    And I think the church bears responsibility for planting in him from the first time (whenever that was) that he heard the condemnations of “homosexuals” based upon Scripture and was left alone to grapple with his being a gay man and inspired from an early age to serve Christ in ministry. God sees this. It does us no good—and I would say, makes us soul sick—to stay silent about this in connection with him, as well as the children who are shunned by their parents or their beloved congregations when they waken to their sexuality. This is important. This is life and death. Ignoring this is not choosing life.

    Yes, these conversations are hard. For us all.

    Some of us have engaged in these conversations through the years every now and then. The outcome of most is a reaffirmation of “freedom of conscience” as the participants from the different “sides” see that those who disagree are faithful Christians and Presbyterians. I know you may not trust it but both G-2.0104b, the ordination standard, and the W-4.9000 recommended to the presbyteries for ratification on marriage, reflect the Reformed essential of “freedom of conscience.”

    That is the outcome of these conversations for many. Is that impossible to live with for you or your friends who have left the PCUSA? Why? And can “freedom of conscience” mean something other that retreating into “gated communities” within the PCUSA?

    Thanks for your thoughtful consideration of what I share here. I look forward to your response.

    Peace, Janet

  • Joe Duffus on August 21, 2014

    Dear Janet,

    news this morning comes that I believe sharpens our discussion, and YOU’RE even mentioned in the story. Have a read: http://www.layman.org/new-beginning-new-life-virginia-congregation/

    There are several interesting — some hopeful — things to highlight. The first is how Peaks Presbytery came from an initial, hardline monetary demand down to something reasonable that the church could afford, after seeing the prayerful commitment of the local church to leave. That’s God at work, and praise be!

    Then, the part that mentions you: They cited a letter from you, following the passage of 10A, specifically as a cause for their decision to begin a period of discernment to leave the PCUSA. Yet, they described the cause generally in these terms (quoting the article): “If it had just been over sexuality, then I don’t think this church would have decided to leave,” Smith said. “That is serious, but when you look at other issues, there was so much more. The presenting issue was over ordination and marriage, but that was only the tip of the iceberg. That showed us something was amiss, and when we looked deeper we determined the beliefs of the PCUSA were not ours.”

    The final hopeful thing for this local church, now gone from PCUSA and part of EPC, is that they go forward with a renewed sense of commitment to the Gospel, free from the misgivings they had over the overall shift in core beliefs they saw in PCUSA. If this really does result in a growing, enlivened, more committed congregation that will more faithfully pursue Bible study, mission and Christian growth, then that is a blessing to all Christians, and even to the PCUSA. I hope you can agree that for churches that have had all the discussion on these issues they can take, there is relief in being away from it.

    ECO’s meeting this week, from what I have read of it, has focused a lot on the topic of churches being so institutional. In becoming more missional, they are acknowledging several things, like:

    1. It it ever really was, the US is now not a “Christian country.”
    2. Denominations have become institutional constructs, more than they are about shared beliefs and norms.
    3. Young Christians intuitively distrust big denominations and see their use as anachronistic.

    In other words, they are focusing their attention on matters of church growth, not doctrinal disputes. ECO is very small, and they’re comprised entirely of refugees from PCUSA. But notice that they’re not wasting time on the kinds of issues that have dogged and divided PCUSA, including political stances, environmental activism and of course, LGBT issues.

    It’s certainly possible they may run into similar squabbles as the PCUSA did, once they grow larger. But in a world where Christians are being slaughtered in Africa and the Middle East, and in a nation where fewer Americans now identify themselves as “churched” and at a time when missional work is needed in more places, their focus strikes me as far more productive than having yet more dialog about sanctioning gay marriage and selling off stock in John Deere and Motorola.

    What I’m arguing here is that while we can and should continue to engage in these discussions as Christians, we don’t need to do it under the PCUSA banner, and for churches like the one in the article that feel hampered in their ministry by that banner, the benefit of their leaving for a more hospitable home and (we hope) thriving there is greater than the cost of a few thousand dollars to their former presbytery paid on the installment plan.

    I realize you don’t control the many executive presbyters that are making leaving harder than it should be. I ask only that you think about whether it’s really productive and builds God’s church universal not to speak to them (perhaps the same way you spoke after the passage of 10-A) as someone who has been so central to the drive to change things in the PCUSA?

  • Janet Edwards on August 23, 2014

    Dear Joe,

    I sit down to reply with a sigh of dismay. As far as I can see I have not been sharing my views on property and congregations leaving the PCUSA. Your speaking again to that lays fully bare the gulf between us as Presbyterians, if you are still in the PCUSA, and certainly as Christians. I want to talk of one thing that I consider crucial to Christian faithfulness and you about another.

    Bridging this abyss is an imperative from Christ for me for He desires that we be one. This seems to be nothing to you. In fact, just the opposite—you seem to want to get as far away as possible from me, and people like me. Or have I misunderstood?

    It strikes me that there is a lot we agree upon. Our country is not a “Christian” one. All institutions are suspect including the remnant of the bureaucratic model of the church. Young people have little interest in the institutional church. And perhaps we can agree that they do have a great interest in God and what God expects of us.

    And still you and the session at the Virginia church featured in The Layman story have no interest in talking with me. This is the saddest part of their journey for me. The letter I sent, as a member of the board of More Light Presbyterians, to every session in the PCUSA (all personally signed, folded, sealed and stamped) did speak of what some call “the new normal” in the PCUSA. And I invited the church to explore with the other Presbyterians around them how God was active in this.

    It seems that they talked among themselves. They did not respond to me (only a few congregations replied and I can’t remember if that church was one). Apparently, they did not reach out to discern with others, including particularly Presbyterians who see things differently from their point of view. And they chose to join those who think as they do. How is God going to speak a prophetic word to them?

    The world around them and within them has not changed. There are LGBT people among them and around them. These people may be quiet now in the face of the spoken or tacit judgment of the congregation but they will not always be silent. This is a conversation that will happen. There is no fleeing from it.

    And, Joe, it is not separate from mission. It is all about mission.

    If mission is proclamation, then the polling that shows a huge percentage of young people (including evangelical youth) see the church, first and foremost, as “anti-gay” is all about our proclamation. The place of LGBT people in God’s heart and among us is a central, not a side, concern.

    If mission is service, then a large percentage of homeless youth are LGBT children, driven from their families often because of “Christian” teaching. Harassment and assault of LGBT people happen regularly; some are reported, most are not. Yes, there are other troubles in the world. Our contribution to these particular troubles is worthy of our consideration and ministering to this suffering crucial.

    I want you and churches like New Hope/New Life to stay in the PCUSA because I know I see only through a glass dimly. I want to hear God’s prophetic word to me and I know it does not come through the echo chamber of like minds. No one person and no like-minded group knows the mind of God.

    I grieve over the fact that it did not seem even to occur to that church to accept the invitation to a conversation. I am glad this does occur to you. I am not arguing with you though you seem to intend that with me. I am sharing my thoughts with you.

    I hope you share yours with me. Peace, Janet

  • Joe Duffus on August 24, 2014

    Dear Janet,

    I have been talking about this exodus for this entire exchange. In fact, I’ve specifically declined to engage on the topic of the scriptural argument about gay marriage by Presbyterian churches because I AM past that. It’s a fact now in the PCUSA that this is so. This is your victory. After thirty years of trying, you succeeded. But as many have pointed out, this victory, this re-interpretation of two thousand years of Christian teaching, comes at a price.

    You seem to think that now the victory’s won, it’s all about how you can help those many, many congregations that feel betrayed by this, that feel like strangers in the denomination, to come to grips with it and continue on. Perhaps with enough conversation, they will come to believe differently.

    And what I’m telling you is that they don’t want to do that. They want to leave you to your victory and join another denomination that will more faithfully uphold Scripture. They don’t believe that’s possible in PCUSA any more. This, for them, was the last straw, the deal-breaker.

    You don’t know any better than I do what discussions and conversations have gone on at the churches that have formally voted to leave, have already left, or are now contemplating it, so I wouldn’t presume as you did that they simply “talked among themselves.”

    Yet, even if they had done only that, though, that too is part of our system.

    The future I am trying to address is for that break-up (“schism,” if you prefer) to be as gracious as possible, and not to repeat the bitterness of the Episcopalians.

    I learned an interesting thing this week. When the reunification happened in 1983, one of the terms written into the agreement (Appendix 1, Article 13) allowed churches to leave the new denomination with their property for a period of nine years. Just by congregational vote. This was put in as a compromise measure by the more liberal northern wing in order to give the southern churches an “out” if they felt they were not happy in the new combined denomination. In essence, they made “schism” a part of the founding agreement!

    In short, I believe it may be the perfect time to offer that again. The changes that have been made to the faith practiced by Presbyterians has become large enough that maybe it’s time to offer a “last call” to churches that can’t abide them, instead of the protracted fights over property that have tarnished us so far?

    I believe as I said above that it is the obligation of those who pressed so long and so tirelessly for these changes to stand up for the churches that will otherwise either wither away or will see no other course than to seek dismissal from PCUSA and fight the property fights that don’t motivate you. I told you why I think you are the perfect person to make this case to the mass of presbyters who would otherwise see their duty as to fight to retain or at least make as difficult as possible the separation of these churches. I truly believe that you are.

  • Janet Edwards on August 25, 2014

    Dear Joe,

    So, I have said in different ways that I am not interested in participating in the discussion around congregations who want to leave the PCUSA. If that’s what you want to talk about then, please, stop.

    I want to share a few thoughts on your recent response.

    First, as far as I know myself, I have not brought up interpretation of Scripture nor have I asked you to engage in some kind of debate with me. I have asked you to share your perspective on the way the church has treated (and is perceived to have treated) LGBT people through the years. I continue to wish that you would do this.

    If you think this requires you to bring up Scripture, then why not bring it up? Perhaps it is because you feel that my interpretation of the Bible regarding God’s love for LGBT people has “won,” so there is no place for your views in the PCUSA. Please correct me if I am wrong about this.

    This is not how I see the present situation in the church. What G-2.0104b did, and the recommended W-4.9000 does, is reestablish freedom of conscience on ordination and pastoral work around marriage in the PCUSA. Historically, discernment was expected of the ordaining body with regard to ordination, and the pastor (session for the use of property) with regard to marriage. In other words, these have historically been non-essentials in the Reformed Church where liberty prevails. That is what we are reestablishing.

    On these matters, you have the liberty to vote, speak and act the way your study of Scripture leads you. I do, too. Freedom of conscience, a fundamental of Reformed faith, won, not me or my point of view.

    One more thought comes to mind. If churches joining ECO or EPC think that this settles the matter regarding LGBT people in the heart of God and in the church, I do think they will be disappointed. All of their missional effort will face the same thing the whole American church faces: the prevailing, entrenched assumption that the church is “anti-gay.” Sooner or later, it will be resolved in Jesus’ basic message: God is love.

    Staying together in the PCUSA may be tough but it is living out the spiritual discipline of accepting and showing that God is love. That’s another way of explaining why I want you to stay. It’s why I stand with God’s LGBT children.

    Thank you in advance for your response. Peace, Janet

  • Joe Duffus on August 25, 2014

    Janet,

    well, I guess I’m barking up the wrong tree. But I hope you understand why I have been trying to bend your ear on this matter. As I see it, the question of separation is a “when?” and not a “whether?” question for a large number of congregations. It’s happening all around you.

    My purpose is to seek ways of making those separations less bitter than I see them being concluded, at least thus far. I had hoped to convince you that this is a less messy way to retain good will with the congregations that are departing or likely to do so. Alas, you don’t want to participate in that, so I won’t press it further upon you. I do hope others don’t share your view, however. I think it’s unrealistic.

    You believe that the principle of “Unity in Essentials, and Liberty on non-Essentials” leads to your conclusion that the GA’s recent Authoritative Interpretation and proposed amendment to the Book of Order therefore simply restore freedom of conscience in this area. I do not. I draw a distinction between what Paul had to say about marriage not being “essential” to a Christian and his fairly specific descriptions of sin and a “right” marriage. The larger issue for conservative Presbyterians is the willingness of the dominant liberal majority in its councils to ignore that distinction, or rule it historically and culturally obsolete. This is what they are describing when they refer to marriage being just the “presenting issue” that displays this wider, deeper gulf in understanding that they point to.

    The Fellowship of Presbyterians Covenant statement mentions marriage not at all, but is focused on upholding Scripture as the highest authority and, where it is clear, the sole authority. You may call that a “marketing gimmick” but it’s a legitimate criticism of what has been happening by steps in PCUSA for many years.

    I wonder how you would respond if the presenting issue had been not marriage between two of the same sex but instead marriage of more than two people? Would the same standing on “freedom of conscience” apply to that, too?

    Next, I absolutely agree with you that the ECO and EPC will necessarily confront how they welcome and treat gay people. I’m sure they do now. But their perspective is anchored to their belief in what Scripture actually says, and responding to gay people as we respond to all of us sinners — with love, compassion, gentle correction and the truth of Scripture. The real difference I see in the movement that spawned the Fellowship and also ECO is that they honor essential tenets and seek hold members accountable for doing likewise, whereas in PCUSA this is increasingly seen as restricting “free choice.”

    Staying in the PCUSA is tough, to be sure. But the discipline you refer to is for them a command to forebear declaring sin as sin. And a reduction of the primacy of the Bible beneath discernment in importance.

    I believe the conversation you want to keep having over this one issue continues within the church universal. But I also believe that it is not a sufficient reason to oppose the separation of churches from PCUSA who cannot live under these new rules.

  • Janet Edwards on August 26, 2014

    Dear Joe,

    Thank you, Joe, for your reply.

    I am pondering your comment that the primary question is “When to separate?” I can see that for you and your friends. The central thing is, as I see it, an underlying tension at the heart of reformed Christianity. In my opinion, it will always be there so “When?” becomes “Why now—given that this tension is always there?” and that means the question is really, “Whether to go or not?”

    Let me try to explain. What I am calling the underlying tension is the dynamic set up by placing reading of the Bible at the center of our understanding of God. Not the edicts of one man, not the statements of a council of elders, no, the Holy Spirit’s inspiration of the mind and heart of each prayerful reader. Interpretation is inherent in our relationship with God and therefore to our reading of Scripture. What do we do when our interpretations differ?

    I trust you agree that this is the heart of our present situation: our interpretations of Scripture differ.

    You place the emphasis on Paul’s treatment of marriage clearly being between a man and a woman (I would not dispute at all that this is Paul’s view). I place the emphasis on Paul’s lack of emphasis on marriage and find central to the thought that love in marriage reflects the love between God and the church (treating gender imagery for both as helpful for us to understand but not central truth about God, who is mystery beyond creaturely gender, or the church, which obviously has men and women in it).

    What are we to do when we disagree in our interpretation of Scripture? Our ancestors gave us this wisdom from their violent experience: In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity. But the tension follows us here. Now our difference is over marriage being an essential or a non-essential. How do we determine what is an essential and what is a non-essential? What do we do when we disagree on this (as we do)? My answer: we talk.

    Very early on in my ministry, on the floor of a presbytery meeting, there was a contentious debate going on. My hand was recognized. Out of my mouth came the idea that holy ground is where opposites are true at the same time. God holds them together in ways very difficult for us, humans. The pastor who had been my care counselor leading to ordination directed this question to me: How does that work? I had no answer then. This insight has guided me from that moment and my answer to Fran Tennies question is this: We stay together and talk. A fresh way—a unity–comes when we who differ talk together. And it does not entail “winning/losing” or capitulation by anyone.

    What you call “these new rules” allow us to live with integrity in our disagreement and to talk together. Where is this holy ground in ECO or the EPC when all are in agreement on LGBT people being sinners (which we are but not on account of our sexual or gender identities or, inherently our sexual practice)?

    On the other hand, I would say, this tension created by interpretation is also within ECO and EPC as reformed Christian entities. What will happen when inevitable disagreements arise? Walk away again? Correct me if I am wrong but my understanding is the EPC, which left the PCUSA because interpretation of Scripture supporting only ordination of men was an essential, now considers this a non-essential. If this could happen on their stance on LGBT people then why leave the PCUSA?

    I look forward to your response. Peace, Janet

  • Joe Duffus on September 3, 2014

    Janet,

    I’ve stepped away from this discussion to reflect on the impasse that we both acknowledge: interpretation (through discernment) versus the clear teachings of the Word. You make it a question of simply talking through the issues as they occur, as though that would itself answer that question.

    You believe that, in the matter of same-sex marriage, these new rules allow a diversity of opinion, which you believe to be a good thing.

    You believe that homosexual behavior is not (inherently) sinful.

    You believe that because Scripture through Paul was equivocal about whether a Christian *needs* to be married, that this throws the entire subject into the realm of the non-essential.

    In summary of these beliefs, you believe that the Holy Spirit works by majority vote.

    The truth of the statement that liberal Presbyterians are simply refusing to submit to the will of the Lord in these regards is evident to me.

    There really is no question from the Scriptures that homosexual behavior is sinful. You realize this, and it is why you have never argued the point using the texts themselves. You instead minimize the various verses that do directly address this topic as being “of the time period in which they were written and without modern psychological insight,” and so forth. In that way, you make the philosophical move to questioning them and call on us to ignore those verses and instead rely on group discernment to settle these “modern” questions and, surprise, the Holy Spirit looks a lot like the wider opinion held by the secular culture here in 21st Century America.

    Still others have tried grappling with the text, by parsing the meaning of the words used in the original Greek that Paul employed to claim that he was in fact being subtle in his description and knowledge of different sorts of homosexual conduct, which is ironic in light of the whole “of their time” line of argument used elsewhere.

    I reject that the Bible is not clear. I reject that we can through group discernment decide to allow that which the Bible itself does not allow. That is not interpretation. It is nullification.

    How easily you move from Paul’s equivocation on marriage being necessary, to marriage being whatever we decide in our conscience it is. Paul would not do that, did not do that, and neither did the Lord himself. And yet you and your colleagues have argued it so long and so hard that you ultimately won this political, not theological, victory within the denomination’s balloting system.

    The dialog you want is on your terms, for those of us who reject these ethical changes to continue to engage with you until we see it your way. We, rather than resume the battle to convince you of the opposite, wish to retreat, reform and rebuild. Elsewhere and on more solid ground.

    The question then for us is not “What do we do when our interpretations differ?” so much as “What do we do when our shared covenant to submit ourselves to the will of the Lord is not understood the same way?”

    Many smarter, more erudite and energetic evangelicals than I have fought this rift for years. The growing desire to be rid of PCUSA, and to be joined with those who do understand the covenant the same way, is not a rejection of the Holy Spirit’s ability to change our approaches to people who need our help and our prayers. It is about the truly Presbyterian idea that being connectional is about holding each other accountable?

    This is no longer possible within the tattered remnant of PCUSA. Actually, it’s positively discouraged. This is why it is said to be withering. This is why it is dying. And this is why other expressions of the Presbyterian system are preferable to yours.

    The Lord did not mean for his Church to be so split and denominated. We do still, all of us, speak of One Holy and Apostolic Church. And yet, being fallen humans we can’t get past our desire to be organized and to feel a group identity based on something other than a simple name. This is, I believe, the strength of the Fellowship of Presbyterians’ emphasis on the Essential Tenets. By contrast, PCUSA can’t even bring itself to agree on whether there ARE any essential tenets.

    I’m afraid I’m despairing worse than before.

  • Janet Edwards on September 5, 2014

    Dear Joe,

    On my part, Joe, you may have noticed that I almost always let some time go by as I find my initial response is usually not my kindest or wisest.

    A few things struck me in your comments here.

    Perhaps you are as sensitive as I am to being told what you think and believe. The number of “You” statements in your words suggests to me that you are confident you know what I believe. I hope you have attended to my practice of qualifying my comments with “It seems to me” or “Correct me if I am wrong,” things like that.

    Some of the things you claim about me are right, many not. This is one reason dialogue is crucial to any fellowship, including the PCUSA: we need to work constantly at understanding others, especially those who have a different perspective than ourselves. When we do not have that active conversation, we are in danger of engaging with an idea (an inaccurate one) rather than with who the other actually is.

    I tell you, Joe, not all you claim about me is accurate. I hope you can see that my questions to you throughout are meant to get to know you better.

    For example, you chose to stop at what you call “Paul’s equivocation on marriage being necessary” (not what I think I said at all when I spoke of: “Paul’s lack of emphasis on marriage”). That difference in understanding of what I said is worthy of discussion.

    And you neglected altogether to respond to my view that marriage is an earthy reflection of the love between God and the people or Christ and the church. That aspect of marriage is very serious and theological and worthy of discussion. Everything in church is theological, for me, Joe. As far as I know myself, I don’t live by the distinction you make between the political and the theological.

    Given that decisions have to be made in a group like a church and we in the PCUSA choose to do that by majority rule then, yes, in any one moment, we do trust that the Holy Spirit inspires that vote. Of course the minority does not agree with the outcome as God’s will and councils do err which is why concerns can be brought up again and we keep talking with one another.

    The fact is, I feel abandoned and forsaken by those who leave the PCUSA. If you are convinced that the Holy Spirit inspires you then it seems to me imperative upon you to stay in relationship with me and bring me to your point of view. In that sense you are right that ultimately, I think you will join my point of view as it does reflect my understanding of God’s will. I do think it is imperative upon me to be in relationship with you for reasons I have shared throughout our exchange here including presenting to you what I consider to be God’s will. I pray you take it; you can leave it. But, if you are my brother in the PCUSA who promised in ordination vows to be a colleague in ministry, then I don’t understand how you can leave me.

    Why can’t we live by Gamaliel’s wisdom in Acts? If my or your position is of God, then, it will prevail. As that unfolds, the whole thrust of Scripture and Jesus’ teachings suggest to me that we are to love, and learn from, one another. That’s what I am seeking to do.

    Thanks in advance for your response. Peace, Janet

  • Joe Duffus on September 7, 2014

    Dear Janet,

    I’m not ordained. I’m a pew-dwelling, burger-flipping, mission-going committee member at my local church but have not been called to serve as a deacon or an elder.

    This may explain for you my apparent ease — no, eagerness — to cast off the yoke of PCUSA. It owes me no health insurance or pension funds, it controls me not at all in terms of my career, tasks or obligations. Moreover, our church ignores most of its published programs, curricula and hymnal revisions. Our church is in good standing with the presbytery and still pays our per capita. But many in the church want that to stop.

    The conversation on matters of deeper theological problems and fundamental disagreements that you seek will continue to occur among Christians generally and even between denominations calling themselves Presbyterian in constitution. Yet, you don’t seem to concede that there are many, many churches like mine that can’t stand it any more and want out.

    Why do they, and I, want out? At bottom it’s because they sense church is not really supposed to be a debating society. It’s a commitment to try to live as Jesus wants us to, to study the Bible and learn its teachings again and again, to worship God and care for our members and community, to foster and encourage those who don’t know Jesus to come and join us.

    We feel hampered in these missions by our connection to a denomination that seems to be focused on the wrong things, misstating and ignoring the written Word in favor of a political process of activism and “movement” dynamics instead of mission. A denomination more focused on marketing itself to non-believers than encouraging those non-believers to see the rightness of Jesus’ teachings and God’s ability to change their lives.

    When I said earlier that people don’t want to flee FROM something, they want to flee TO something, it was this same motivation. It is for us to decide whether by joining ECO or EPC we can make that a place churches want to belong to, instead of simply a haven from the political and social enthusiasms that have helped grind PCUSA into a pulp.

    That ECO and the co-ordinate organization called the Fellowship of Presbyterians understand what has led to the crack-up of PCUSA is a good first step. That they pledge to one another to uphold standards of belief, adherence to the Word and a core set of essential tenets is in stark contrast to the situation in PCUSA. All good starting points. They have learned what has led to the failure of PCUSA to thrive. Whether they can continue to learn — and grow through that discipline and that reforming spirit — is the question that will likely decide how soon they overtake the PCUSA in membership.

  • Janet Edwards on September 8, 2014

    Dear Joe,

    I trust you and I will live long enough in this world or the next to see whether you are right about God’s will for the PCUSA.

    You and I are in full agreement: Church is not really supposed to be a debating society. And the solution to that is clear, in my opinion: don’t treat the fellowship as such.

    Joe, I trust you and I have agreed that concerns always arise in any community, requiring deliberation and action. Every church has important things people will see differently and talk about in order to choose how to proceed. You insist on seeing this as an irritating debating society in which one side wins and the other loses in a political struggle.

    I invite you to see the fellowship of the church, instead, as prayerful discernment of God’s will for us in the only means available to us: prayerful study of Scripture, drawing upon tradition and experience to come to a decision that is the best we can do in that moment. Then the next moment comes and what was chosen is good, or needs to be perfected or, sometimes, set aside. See this as the process of loving God and our neighbor.

    In the end, it seems to me that all you see in me is “political and social enthusiasms.” To you, it seems, I have forsaken “standard of belief, adherence to the Word and a core set of essential tenets.” No wonder you want to shake the dust off your sandals. I would too if I saw the other in the church as that.

    This fact is, I don’t see you that way. And I do not understand myself in those ways but I don’t know how to proceed if you do.

    The peace of Christ be always with you, Janet

  • Joe Duffus on September 15, 2014

    Dear Janet,

    the problem with your last point is that I see nothing for it but to agree with you.

    Discussion and group discernment presuppose common agreement on the limits of discernment. Its place, I learned in my New Members class, is subordinate to and limited by, first, the authority of the Scriptures, then by the Book of Confessions, and then still by the Book of Order.

    Yet, that didn’t stop some of the very same people who now celebrate the changes wrought upon the PCUSA from practicing “ecclesiastical disobedience” against the authority of either of those higher authorities before these changes had been approved. Even now, the parliamentary argument that the denomination can’t proceed as it is doing before actually ratifying the BoO amendment is completely ignored. Where is the “good order” in this? Parse or explain it how you like, the fact remains that you were not dissuaded by these considerations before.

    I believe that you were confident you would not be seriously disciplined when you did so, because you knew the leaders of the PCUSA were — if not completely with you — at least unwilling to discipline you for your decision to ignore your ordination vows.

    So, yes, I see very little grounds for hope that PCUSA will even in this new era impose any real discipline on anyone for anything. Except, of course, on the churches that want to shake off the dust and leave.

    If you really want to read something incredibly telling, compare the public reactions of Highland Park Presbyterian Church and their former (YAY!) presbytery, the ironically named Grace Presbytery.

    Here’s how the grasping hands of “Grace” Presbytery announced the 7.8 million settlement:
    http://www.pcusa.org/news/2014/9/10/grace-presbytery-highland-park-presbyterian-church/

    And, for contrast, here’s how Highland Park Presbyterian Church did so: http://www.hppc.org/default.aspx?p=89155&naid=18041

    Notice how Grace’s press release is focused on the legal aspects? Notice how the only thanks to God they offer is for… upholding the legality of the trust clause?!? There is no mention whatsoever of good wishes to the departing church, for its mission, its service to the presbytery, its willingness to reach an amicable settlement, or for anything. Instead, the thing closes with an implied THREAT to any other churches under their thumb that might try to take them on… “Grace Presbytery believes that the resolution of this lawsuit has accomplished this goal, and fervently hopes that it can avoid all legal disputes with congregations in the future.”

    This, Janet, is YOUR denomination. You can have it.

  • Janet Edwards on September 17, 2014

    Dear Joe,

    As often seems to be God’s way, even as you and I agree that we are at an impasse, a way seems to open.

    One of the ways that happens is by realizing an assumption has been incorrect.

    I was confident that I would be acquitted of charges that I had violated Scripture and the Constitution of the PCUSA because I knew that there was no prohibition against presiding at the marriage of two men or two women in them. If there were, I would have been convicted.

    Joe, my presbytery has never voted more that 37% in favor of any action related to LGBT concerns. I tell you, the Pittsburgh Presbytery PJC would have found me guilty if they had any grounds to do so. There is no prohibition in our church documents, including Scripture.

    I really hope you have the grace to calm your belief about my sense that I would be acquitted and accept my knowledge of myself. And you might ponder whether that makes any difference. I don’t know whether it does for you or not.

    I don’t think you have ever trusted that my questions are meant to get to know you better (to not live by my assumptions) and to give me a chance to test my point of view by yours (with the real possibility of reforming it). Perhaps that is why you have not answered my main question to you. Answering it may be a way to continue our conversation.

    When Jesus prays that we be one, how can you desire so deeply that we separate?

    I honestly desire your honest answer, Joe. I think it will help us love God and one another better. I hope you are willing to give it.

    Peace, Janet

  • Joe Duffus on September 17, 2014

    Dear Janet,

    not to labor the point since it’s old history anyway, but you were acquitted by the PJC because of a tautology: the PJC ruled that what you did in 2005 could not be called a “marriage ceremony” because, obviously, marriage according to our Book of Order is the union of one man and one woman, so they found you innocent on that basis.

    That’s sophistry, a hair-splitting difference that pretty much makes my point that no one in the upper councils had any stomach to discipline you. And, I must note, you just referred to the services you performed back then as “marriages.” I think you believed back then and still now that what you did was perform a “marriage.” I’ve no doubt of your sincerity. But I have lots of doubts about the people on the PJC who could reach that kind of decision. I have seen a lot of slick lawyers and politicians in my career, and I know a backwards-reasoned verdict when I see one.

    Back to your question, though, which has many answers. I’ve said already that I don’t value PCUSA as a structure or organization. It’s failing, dying, useless and in my judgment an impediment to the spread of the Gospel. I didn’t choose it; the church I belong to happens to belong to it, for now. It’s a conscience problem for me today that my membership in my own church counts as membership in PCUSA. I love my own church, but I am ashamed of that affiliation.

    The larger answer, though, is that denominations don’t really matter the way they used to. The so-called “mainline” denominations are all in dissolution, consumed by sexual arguments and the distractions created and fanned into fire by political activists. When these subside on occasion, they then fight each other over church property, as the benighted Episcopalians and now the Presbyterians are doing. It’s disgraceful, but that’s what the mainline “brand” has come to mean in our society, and why non-denominational churches are the only ones growing.

    Jesus wants us to be one in him and I have no doubt he’s grieved by this state of affairs. But he knows our sinful nature, and he knows that this kind of entropy is part of our brokenness. I truly believe that it is better to separate from this kind of strife than it is to stay and be permanently scarred by it. To be direct, I feel no more or less united with you in the church than I do with a Methodist, UCC member, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Baptist or, even a Catholic. So long as they share our faith in Jesus and our Christian concepts, they and you and I are part of the holy catholic church.

    But Presbyterianism is about two things to me, organizational structure and shared commitment to the Scriptures and Confessions. But where the latter is not assured, not shared and not understood similarly, the former doesn’t matter. If we are not accountable to each other through a common understanding of Scripture, the Confessions, the real purpose of being a church, then all the organizational safeguards in the world won’t fix that. My church, I believe, would be more effective at spreading the Good News and in turn better equipped to do so with ECO or EPC.

    Did you read those links I provided above? Are you not horrified by the priorities “Grace” Presbytery reveals in that? It perfectly captures the pathetic, property-obsessed caricature of the rotting mainline. The Episcopalians couldn’t have done better. And notice, there’s not a single word about what they might actually do with the $7.8 million spoils of their victory. Just threats to do it again.

    I’ve gone on too long already, but also on my mind is to ask how St. Paul tried to keep his far-flung churches from descending into bad doctrine, disagreements and distractions from the work of declaring the glory of the Lord. I wonder if there might have been other, unknown churches that he started but had to give up on?

  • Janet Edwards on September 19, 2014

    Dear Joe,

    I don’t find your response on my court case belaboring the point, Joe. It makes an important point, I think.

    I think both of us are right in our views on the Pittsburgh Presbytery PJC decision in my second trial in 2008. If there were a prohibition in Scripture or our Constitution then they would have found me guilty. When they could not find one and they could not say outright that there is none, they resorted to what you and I can agree at least borders on sophistry.

    Is it possible for you that we could both be right, not only on my church court case, but also on other matters? Or, to put it another way, is it possible for your views and my views on marriage between two men and two women (e.g. interpretation of Scripture) to live together in the church? Is that a way for us to get on together with the work of the church, proclaiming the Gospel in word and deed?

    I understand that you find grave fault in the PNS report on the settlement between Grace Presbytery and Highland Church. But wasn’t this a situation of a negotiated agreement that avoided the civil courts? Isn’t freedom of conscience a good way to avoid even such negotiations?

    I understand, Joe, your judgment of the mainline denomination. I would just say that Jesus did not pray for us to be one except when we disagree or disapprove or the church disappoints us. We can water down the association to the universal church and swim within it and many do. You say this is what you do but you stay where you are.

    For me, Jesus’ prayer that we be one requires me to work at it. It means I take as God’s gift the place where I am planted and the people there (both those I agree with and those I do not).

    Perhaps there is no reference in Paul’s letter to letting go of any churches because he didn’t. He chose to keep working with them. This is what accountability looks like: being in serious dialogue with one another.

    Our long conversation here, Joe, seems to me to be a good example of the gracious debate I participated in at GA and that I hope for in the PCUSA. It is not a distraction. It is one form of the Gospel in action and the only road forward.

    I get that you see no road forward for the PCUSA but perhaps God does.

    Peace, Janet

  • Joe Duffus on September 19, 2014

    Dear Janet,

    Well, it was a tendentious ruling for the PJC to say that they “could find no prohibition” in Scripture. But that’s part of what makes this issue, and indeed the entire approach of liberal revisionism of Scripture, so frustrating to me.

    Usually it’s conservatives who get accused of Biblical “literalism,” and yet the liberal interpretation of Christian sexual ethics seems to rest on the idea that because Jesus never explicitly, foresquare, said homosexual behavior and the joining of one man or woman to another of the same sex are sinful acts, that we must therefore assume he meant not to do so. That’s a tax lawyer’s argument. I won’t treat Scripture like tax code.

    Now, you ask why don’t I simply continue to grit my teeth and ruefully stay in the denomination, as some conservatives are doing? The answer, for me, is that to do so is to condone the heresy that I believe the denomination has fallen into.

    There are important differences between voluntary and involuntary memberships. As a US citizen and resident of Virginia, I have no choice (jail is not a choice) to ignore the laws of the United States, or of Virginia. And because of that, the laws of those governments must be written in ways that respect “diversity,” however defined, and maintain the greatest degree of liberty.

    Church membership, and the denominational alignment they choose, however, are voluntary associations. Anyone who is not in agreement with their teachings, policies, confessions and practices should not be compelled to stay there. At the same time, those who remain in the voluntary association have the greater obligation to adhere to the organization’s principles. Short version: Presbyterians have a duty to UPHOLD the Confessions, rather than parse, dilute or ignore them.

    Why not just say, “we’re a voluntary organization that celebrates and fosters diversity of opinion and doesn’t mind arguing among ourselves?”

    My answer is, because a voluntary organization that is healthy should not constantly be at war with itself. It should be united on its core understandings and cohesive in its mission. PCUSA is none of these things. I’m not even convinced it will become so, even after the last conservative has fled. Perhaps I’m wrong.

    Also, I think if you polled all of the ordinary pew-dwellers like me, you’d find they see very little evidence of this “diversity” in the denomination’s staff, web site content, or its various commission/committee compositions.

    About Paul’s ministry, I hoped you would answer that way. That was a hard sentence for me to write, questioning as I did whether Paul failed anywhere. But the Lord certainly understood that his disciples would fail here and there. (Luke 9:5)

  • Janet Edwards on September 28, 2014

    Dear Joe,

    Each time we exchange views, I am reminded anew of how important dialogue between us is, as our ability to understand each other seems so weak. Let me speak briefly to each of your points and you can choose which is most important to pursue.

    With regard to the Pittsburgh PJC decision in my case back in 2008, they did not say explicitly that there is no prohibition against marriage of two men or two women and I tried to be careful here not to claim that. What I am certain of is this: if there were a prohibition, then they would have found me guilty as charged. Their decision was not a case of “liberal revisionism” as you suggest.

    You point out the interesting truth that both conservatives and liberals treat the Bible literally in some places and not in others. That Jesus said nothing about lesbian and gay people (though there are some interpretations of passages that see His positive interaction with LGBT people) is not the foundation from Scripture for my embrace LGBT people so please do not assume that.

    Perhaps you will agree with me that there are topics with which conservative Christians do break from literal interpretation of Scripture. Divorce comes to mind.

    I do not agree with you that staying in the church is necessarily “condoning” its policies, of course. If that were necessarily the case then I would have left when the policy of the PCUSA was blanket judgment of LGBT people. I think this brings us back to the discussion of what is essential and non-essential, which, for you (I think), is clear and for me is a matter of constant faithful discussion among us.

    With you, I am against “arguing” and being “at war” in the church. However, for me the community of faith does, necessarily, have a component of constant, on-going discernment about God’s will for us that requires discussion. This is a vibrant part of church life, not a drain, in my view. I propose that the PCUSA will be fine if we agree to reform ourselves away from “war” imagery for our conversation and toward “gracious debate.” We just saw at GA that this can be done.

    With regard to the Confessions, I understand that they stand for you as timeless rules that Presbyterians need to follow. I love what the preface to The Book of Confessions calls “the tension between the confessions’ historical and contemporary natures” partly because that tension necessitates dialogue between us and our ancestors, as well as among us, about the way the Confessions serve us in our effort to follow Jesus now which surely is their purpose.

    And I have found the nature of church membership as voluntary provocative since seminary. If we are responding to God’s hand upon us, then how can it be voluntary? I am not compelled by the church to stay; I am compelled by Jesus, as I have said before. I get that this doesn’t make much sense to you.

    I trust there is food for further dialogue here, Joe. Peace, Janet

  • Joe Duffus on September 29, 2014

    Janet,

    The theme I will pick up, since you gave me the choice, is on your reply to my statement that the PCUSA is a voluntary organization, and that, “a voluntary organization that is healthy should not constantly be at war with itself. It should be united on its core understandings and cohesive in its mission.”

    I see the choice of a denominational affiliation to be entirely a matter of comfort. You don’t, and this allowed you to remain in the denomination despite what you termed its “blanket judgment” of gay people. I’ll challenge that in two ways.

    First, it’s important to remember that for Christianity’s entire history, up until the sexual revolution of the 1960s, the question of marriage and of the sinful nature of homosexual relations was unknown. You view that accumulated teaching of Christianity up until that time as wrong, and interpose your very recent view in its place. So, what changed? Was it the Bible? Or was it the culture? Are there other areas where you feel the culture has gotten ahead of the Bible, and if so, where is the Scriptural error?

    Second, why are you generalizing my point about choosing between different denominations into “church membership?” Surely those in PCA, EPC or ECO are also church members. There are no denominations in the Bible. These are creations of man, based on doctrinal disputes, practical differences or cultural tastes. PCUSA-ism is not my faith; Christianity is. So, the question of God’s calling me to church is about coming to a place to worship God, learn his word and beg forgiveness and help through his son. It’s not to salute a denominational flag. That I prefer the Presbyterian system (at least its theory, anyway) is not a matter of faith but of personal comfort and probably my American sensibility. I say this to dispute directly any implication that you may have meant that I should consider myself called to PCUSA. I do not feel that way, and never have.

    This is not to disparage denominations, but to place them in their context. They should serve to help grow the church of God by spreading a consistent message in every local church. Their activities should be constantly undertaken with this goal as the way to grow discipleship across our land. But to do that, the denomination must stand for something solid. Otherwise, as we see in the present case, the denomination’s apparent openness is really seen as confusion, a liquid randomness and a lack of Biblical rigor.

    The one thing you cannot say is that your way grows the church. From a practical standpoint, this is clearly not so. Argue if you must that you are bringing gay people to Presbyterian churches, but the statistics don’t lie and the trends are ever more sharply downward.

    Bottom line, if you really cared for the health of this denomination, you would have either abandoned your attempts to change these things or left for UCC. That you have persisted all these years, in the face of overwhelming evidence that this dispute has helped kill the denomination, testifies to that not being your highest priority, I’m afraid.

    In our society these days, there is little tolerance extended to those who don’t approve of same-sex marriage. Even though I happen to hold different views on the matter between what a state may choose to recognize as a marriage from what God does, I would still be considered a bigot, full stop. I hope you know that I am not so, but the culture has no time for subtlety. “Haters gonna hate,” goes the idiotic phrase.

    This is why I began this very long effort to persuade you to stand up for the conservative churches who want to leave — because this is as you know a matter of conscience for them. It is not something they are comfortable condoning. And, they are deeply uncomfortable with the kind of Scriptural looseness that allows the PCUSA in its highest councils to see these as matters that can be put to a vote, politicked like a tax increase and agitated through Alinsky-inspired tactics.

    Honestly, I don’t know how you can read the stories of the churches that are being fleeced in order to be allowed to leave and not be ashamed. Not be embarrassed. Not be moved by the faithful forthrightness of these congregations that would and in some cases have given up their church buildings to leave with their flock and their consciences intact.

    Where is the grace in the denominational legal teams that would allow that to happen? It just has to disgust you on some level.

  • Janet Edwards on October 1, 2014

    Dear Joe,

    Three things strike me in your comments, Joe.

    First, you mis-speak when you claim that I “ view that accumulated teaching of Christianity up until that time as wrong.” What I view as wrong is an interpretation of Scripture that overlooks Jesus’ clear message to love your neighbor” and to “judge not” and, instead, applies a few verses taken out of context to marginalize a small group of people. I understand that this is not how you understand your position. I guess what I need you to do is explain how my view of it is incorrect.

    Second, while I agree completely that “church denominations” are not a concept named as such in Scripture, they certainly are a human dynamic that is very present in Scripture and the early church. A lot of Paul’s letters deal with the different “denominations” emerging through different leaders church planting with different styles and emphases and how they can be one in Christ. The Revelation of John is a very different style from Paul or Luke and suggests a community of Christians that we would recognize as a different “denomination.”

    What mystifies me is this: for all your complaining, you stay in the PCUSA. I understand you see this rooted in your commitment to your congregation. Still, you say, as I do, that your are devoted to “Presbyterianism.” What do you mean by this?

    For me, Presbyterianism is the best, albeit imperfect, living out of the communal life of the early church portrayed in the New Testament. Discernment of the will of God in Christ comes through connected councils of elders or wise ones of the church. That, for me, is the heart of my commitment to the Presbyterian Church. If this pattern for church dies, then it will just have to be established again by the Holy Spirit, in my view. I don’t think this is your view though. What is it you are committed to as “Presbyterian?”

    Finally, I am struck by your repeated use of the grammatical structure of “should” primarily because this is a verb mood that I am careful to avoid most of the time. You are very direct in telling me what I should do and what I should feel. As I see it, what I do is lay out what I see and invite you to agree or disagree. If you disagree I am eager to know why. Sometimes your explanation changes my view and, certainly, grasping better what the other thinks is valuable.

    In this moment, the views on LGBT people in God’s eyes and the church that you hold are becoming the minority position in the PCUSA. It seems to me the first thing to do is to articulate your position so that people will come to agree with you. If you are right then God is with you and your view will take hold. Why don’t you do that?

    Thanks in advance for your response. Peace, Janet

  • Joe Duffus on October 1, 2014

    Hi Janet,

    thanks for the reply. This will be a quick one, I hope…

    To your first, I am not satisfied by your blanket appeals to the Lord’s commandments to love our neighbors nor your reliance on “judge not….” My mind will not accept that as a suitable explanation for overturning centuries of contrary Christian discernment and clear Scriptural references. Yours is just a broad-stroke appeal that asks us not to consider the whole of the Scriptures. The Scriptures speak to sin and to sinners. They identify many different sins. The Lord says to the adulteress, “go and sin no more.” He does not say, “don’t get caught again!”

    What do I like about presbyterianism (lowercase)? I like it as an organizing set of principles. I like the diffused authority structure, the bottom-up manner in which changes are proposed and debated. I like the descending hierarchy of Scripture -> Confessions -> Order -> Discernment as a model for how we are supposed to resolve differences. But these are failing now in PCUSA as we’ve seen.

    Paul’s letters are far more concerned with replacing false teachings with right teachings and gentle corrections than they are about recognizing proto-denominations. He warned against false teachers. He knew the Gospel would be distorted by bad men as well as by time and distance. The promise of a denomination that we may create and ally to is that it serves to keep our understandings common, by mutual accountability and by written standards. ECO stresses this in its founding documents and tenets. PCUSA has no interest in even trying.

    So, I guess I agree with your statement that “If this pattern for church dies, then it will just have to be established again by the Holy Spirit, in my view.” Behold! This is EXACTLY what is happening.

    Finally, none of my “should’s” in the previous comment were directed at you. I checked them myself. But I have plenty of them for the organization called PCUSA. “Should” is a word of correction, and they need it. Yet, I say this with the heart of one who has already resigned in place. Why do I stay? I have no choice if I am to be a member of my local church. But I am committed to changing that, and will work toward the day my church is not affiliated with PCUSA. The recent news out of the Synod of Southern California is yet another example that there’s nothing left but to pursue dismissal.

    Why don’t I explain my position and try to change minds in PCUSA? I have tried. Many, many smarter people than I have tried. They tried for 30 years. But it is done. At this point, it makes no sense to try to spin the rudder on a sinking ship.

    The future of lowercase presbyterianism, it seems to me, is elsewhere. Much like the once-great Episcopal Church, PCUSA is headed for oblivion with nothing but its real estate holdings of empty, echoing sanctuaries, and its monetary endowment swelled by settlements paid to be free of it.

  • Janet Edwards on October 3, 2014

    Dear Joe,

    On the whole, Joe, I think our exchange here is complete. We come back to the same place without really being together and I expect we both have better things to do than go round and round.

    I do still have comments and questions and you may have them of me, as well. At this point, I don’t think asking them will bring responses that will create connection between us which is my goal. If you disagree, let me know. But, if you agree with me, I wish you well and end this present correspondence between us.

    Do let me know if you see some beneficial way to continue when I don’t.

    Peace, Janet

  • Joe Duffus on October 3, 2014

    I have to agree. We have very different goals. Incompatible goals, I’d say.

    I will continue to pray for you, as I hope you will for me. If I see something on your blog that I feel I should respond to, I might jump on to that. But in closing this epically long exchange, I would ask a final time that you consider and pray also upon the plight of your disaffected brethren in churches that wish to leave. As Christians, they, you and I are one body. But as fallen humans all, we do better to separate and throw off divisive social arguments in favor of spreading the Gospel.

    Yours truly,

    Joe

  • Ashok on March 2, 2016

    I have been blessed in the crnuert congregation where I have served for nearly 12 years. They held a celebration honoring my five and ten years of service as their pastor, including a beautiful gift from the session and a large fund established from our ministry in Haiti. The session is planning to recognize this year the 25th anniversary of my ordination. Among other things they will invite colleagues and friends and former congregations to contribute $25 to Haiti mission fund in honor of 25 years of ministry. Quite amazing.Early on, I asked particular people in the congregation to hold me accountable for healthy living, and they have been faithful to that invitation. That has included their saying to me at random times, how are you doing? Are you taking care of yourself? You need some rest and so on. This accountability has been very helpful and gracious. Last week, when a member of the church died with whom I was particularly close, a deacon wrote me a note asking about my own grief and wondering if there was anything that he could do to help. That was the church at its best; and not the first time either. In all honesty, I will say that in the early days I was open with them about the need for support, encouragement and appreciation for the pastor. They moved into that with some skill. (Not everyone, of course, but enough that it has created a good positive, encouraging ethos.) The personnel ministry has also stepped more into this role in the last few years.


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