Arlo Duba’s Forsaking of Smugness

I hope that the courageous statement on LGBT equality in the church by Rev. Dr. Arlo Duba in the January 24, 2011 issue of The Presbyterian Outlook is widely read and pondered upon. It has certainly provoked much reflection on my part.

For me, and perhaps for you as well, one of the many remarkable moments in Dr. Duba’s testimony is his admission near the beginning:

“I was so smug that I never explored God’s Word on the matter any further.”

And in the interview with Dr. Duba about the ad, he reflects more on this:

“I just never questioned that the church might have gotten it wrong.”

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) lives and dies by majority rule. Because we share the conviction that, “no one person knows the mind of God,” we know that decisions are best made by groups and getting things done requires majority rule. So, motions are made, debate ensues, the vote is taken, and the majority wins while the minority accepts the vote and works to revisit the matter another day.

At the same time, The Book of Order warns us, “Councils may err (G-1.0307).” Smugness – in the sense that Dr. Duba is using the word – gets to the heart of majority and minority life in the church. When there is smugness on the part of the majority, it disrespects the crucial on-going participation of the minority.

If Dr. Duba’s admission isn’t a wake up call for us all to look for ways to better respect the participation of the minority, I don’t know what is. It is time for us to confess our smugness with Arlo Duba and to pledge to stop with him.

As I see it, one instance of smugness in the church that continues to haunt the PCUSA came just before I was ordained. The GAPJC decision in the Kenyon Case, or Maxwell v Pittsburgh Presbytery, ruled that equality between men and women is an essential of Reformed faith and polity based on the creation of male and female in Genesis 1:27. The GAPJC asserted this as majority rule and required all officers of the church to join in ordaining women regardless of the minority view that read Scripture in a different way.

That smug dismissal of the dissenting minority has planted a suspicion deep in the hearts of those standing against LGBT equality. Many fear that when the day comes where pro-LGBT people are the majority, the smugness in the Kenyon case may translate to a smugness with regard to LGBT ordination. In other words, just as the minority was required to ordain women in the 1970’s, so these colleagues fear they will be required to ordain LGBT people, against their freedom of conscience.

We all need to examine our own hearts to find the smugness that lurks there and to turn it over to God. We each need to require this forswearing of smugness of ourselves and then reach out the hand of fellowship in Christ to everyone else in the church. And if we meet some who remain smug in their beliefs and morality, then we need to hold them to us in love even more firmly until they wake to this particular sin and to their need for us in the life of the church, just as we need them.

This spiritual commitment to forswear smugness will help to restore the comity between majority and minority and breathe Spirit-filled life back into the PCUSA.

For myself, I am following Arlo’s lead and forsaking smugness. I hope you join us.


Reverend Janet

11 Responses
  • Fred Anderson on February 4, 2011

    Nice piece, Janet. God save us from smugness about anything!

  • Janet Edwards on February 4, 2011

    Dear Fred,

    Thanks for your kind words!

    Yes, Arlo does invite us to consider all the areas of our lives where we bring a smug attitude.
    By being smug–usually without even realizing I am doing it–I block the moving of the Holy Spirit within me and with the other people or ideas involved that would lead to a new, better, unexpected thing to emerge.

    Giving up smugness is both God’s gift to us and our work to do. It is good to be committed to this spiritual discipline with you.

    Peace, Janet

  • Donna on February 4, 2011

    As a strong believer in education (for all), I think the miracle in Dr. Duba’s testimony is the willingness to learn. Smugness can mean complacence or self-righteousness and the willingness to be neither rests in education. How many learn enough to make an informed decision – whether in churches issues, buying a car, or other matters?

    As a seminary student, every class I take teaches me something new about God, about Jesus, the Bible and how it was written, and about the church (the body of Christ)…sometimes that new knowledge shakes the foundation of my faith, but after the dust settles that new information generally strengthens my faith.

    I don’t yet know enough about polity for all denominations, but perhaps a solution is to require continuing education requirements to retain a church office as other professions do.

  • Charles Hale on February 4, 2011

    Smug is just a word for “not listening.”
    It seems to me we read the Scriptures not because “the answer” is there, but because God’s Holy Spirit speaks to us through the words, the stories, the poems, the laws.
    Knowing just what God wants of us because the words “say so” is to say the Holy Spirit can’t speak in a new way through the same written words.
    Smug puts a barrier between us and the Holy Spirit.
    Dialog us where two speak and two listen. I would love to have dialog with those who disagree with me, because I want to hear what they hear through the Scriptures – but I can’t find people who want to both speak and listen – as I sincerely do.
    I am short of patience with those who say that God established HIS word for all time in the Bible – because that is so contradicted by the actual facts of how the Bible came into being and how it has been repeatedly revised by human individuals and committees. WHICH Bible has God’s revealed word?
    Knowing all frailties of the Scriptures with which we seek God’s will – I seek the Bible as one avenue through which God can speak to me.

  • Janet Edwards on February 6, 2011

    Dear Donna and Chuck,

    Thanks to you both for your helpful comments!

    As I reflect upon your thoughts, I am struck by how both of you are commending to us the spiritual discipline of being open to the moving of the Holy Spirit, especially in directions that we have not anticipated or desired. Cultivating this capacity of wonder, really, is the best inoculation against being smug. Education done well hones this discipline and is why most ministerial calls include provision for continuing education.

    Of course you both spoke to other important things as well. I hope other folks will be inspired to comment on them.

    Peace be with you both, Janet

  • Charles Hale on February 6, 2011

    Most students arrive (or used to arrive – I may be out of date) at Seminary with the faith given to them by their home church teachers. If they haven’t studied Bible in college then the “home church” faith was the end of their learning. In my experience, that was a pretty basic, Bible-devotional kind of learning.

    In this scenerio, students arriving at mainline seminaries report their faith shaken, even destroyed by these apparently heathen professors who are dealing openly with the Bible in a critical manner. How dare they?

    But there must be some seminaries that maintain what I have called the Bible-devotional format for their students. How they avoid critical scholarship and still maintain themselves as worthy of scholastic respect, boggles my mind. But the human mind has an amazing capacity to compartmentalize, and perhaps that is what is happening, here.

    I think there is a huge gulf between those who worship the Bible, and those who find inspiration in the Bible for their worship of God. How to bridge that gulf? Ah, that is the question, isn’t it?

  • Janet Edwards on February 7, 2011

    Dear Chuck,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us, Chuck! They alway give me something to chew on.

    You point to what I do find to be a crucial distinction that is at the heart of our troubles in the church right now. I mean the gulf between those who recognize that we all interpret Scripture–it is part of being human–and those with what you might call the “Bible-devotional” assumption that I take it to say is what it truly says.

    Presumably, all study of Scripture in college and seminary teaches the first position which knows that every contact with Scripture includes interpretation. For me, one good consequence of this learning is to stop us from being smug about our understanding of the Bible. And there is some tearing down and then some building up that usually happens when we learn about hermeneutics.

    At the same time, there are those in the church who ignore or do not know about this humbling step of interpretation. Arlo Duba offers a wonderful example of someone who was in this position (in one aspect of Scripture at least) and whose very study of Scripture healed him of the smugness which supported his insistence on what Scripture says.

    As I see it, one reason we need one another is that our varied Biblical interpretations help us see through the glass dimly toward what the Holy Spirit is saying to us. I am very interested in how you and others approach these things.

    Peace, Janet

  • Donna on February 7, 2011

    I guess I’d like to share two things told to me from a very wonderful, wise woman:

    You’ve reached the age of wisdom when

    – you know all that you don’t know.

    – you consider all of what you know, even the accumulation of all of humanity’s knowledge, and you understand that it is still just the tiniest fraction of what God knows.

    In seminary, my approach is: “I am here to learn.” The Holy Spirit will teach me to discern.


  • Janet Edwards on February 8, 2011

    Dear Donna,

    What you suggest here is, for me, the epitome of humility. You have prompted me to see that smugness is the opposite of humility, one of the Four Virtues of the Oxford Movement that I try to cultivate: honesty, humility, purity of motive and love.

    I hope your approach to seminary is my approach to each person I meet and to life in general. It is, certainly, an excellent way to approach seminary.

    Thank you so much, Donna, for sharing your experience with us all. Peace, Janet

  • Donna on February 8, 2011


    Agreed…and I failed to quote my mentor acurately…it is:

    “You’ve reached the age of wisdom when you know what it is you don’t know.”


    I’m sure since I don’t know you that I might be misinterpretting your tone (even humor perhaps), but wanted to say that I fully admire the strong faith and dedication to Christ my professors have, regardless of where they stand “politically” on issues. Perhaps someday we will all cling more tightly to our similarities as Christians than to our differences.


  • Janet Edwards on February 9, 2011

    Dear Donna,

    I am in full agreement with your mentor’s characterization of wisdom. Arlo Duba is a good example of it as he was about 80 years old when his study of the Bible grabbed him and would not let him go.

    I hope you have been able to read the interview where he describes his experience.

    And I am thrilled that you and Chuck are in dialogue!

    Thanks for your thoughts, Donna. Peace, Janet

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