The Fellowship Gathering: Second Thoughts

“Weigh the pros/the cons come first/I’ve got a black belt in doubt.”

Cold War Kids

The Rev. Dr. David Swanson of First Presbyterian Church, Orlando, said during his address to the Fellowship gathering something to the effect of: the world badly needs to know what the church believes.

That was the moment of epiphany for me.

I’ve recounted my first thoughts about last week’s Fellowship of Presbyterians gathering in Minneapolis here and here, and I’ve commented on my perception of that movement’s overall aims here. Now it’s probably time to deal with some of the substance of my disagreement with it.

Swanson’s pivotal assertion was made breathlessly and in the context of deploring the lack of theological clarity that evangelicals in the PC (USA) are certain has been introduced by Amendment 10-A and the removal of standards of “fidelity” and “chastity” from the church’s ordained officers. To many, that change represents a departure from a traditional understanding of sexual ethics and Biblical authority. That departure is intolerable for lots of reasons, and prominent among them is a perceived ambiguity about sexual morals that will hurt the church’s witness and evangelism.

“The culture needs to know where the church stands. It doesn’t need the church to bless its sin but to call it what it is, unequivocally and without compromise. The mission of the church requires a clear stand on sex.”

[excursis: ceasing to condemn same-gender romantic orientation as such is clearly a moral move that pronounces the church’s conviction and conscience. I threw that gauntlet down some time ago]

The epiphany for me is that evangelicals have a very different perception of peoples’ needs than I do. As I read the gospels, I don’t detect an overwhelming concern on Jesus’ part to impart conviction to people. I can’t recall a single time when Jesus instructed his disciples to share their conscience with the world by pronouncing on ethical matters. The driving concern of Jesus’ ministry seemed to be accompanying people (“sinners”) who the religious establishment had cast out, feeding them, healing them, and sharing the good news of God’s judgment and mercy with them.

Surely a clear moral stake-in-the-ground is required, and Jesus drove that stake down as far as it would go. The problem for evangelicals is that Jesus repeatedly dodged peoples’ attempts to force an articulation of his moral position out of him. He was much more interested in making friends with the people that religious leaders made their living condemning.

Of course, that reveals a clear moral conviction. And while I’m never going to claim to get that conviction, pursuing it and living it out is, to me, the driving force behind Christian faith, ethics, mission, and ministry. It’s what I understand the church to be driving at.

That seems to be a different orientation from the evangelical pursuit of moral clarity. If Swanson is correct and the world’s most pressing need is to know the content of the church’s convictions about moral and ethical issues like sex, then I’m not sure the church I’m after can meet that need.

9 thoughts on “The Fellowship Gathering: Second Thoughts

  1. A good post, Rocky.

    I’ve been thinking through this difference in “evangelical” and “non-evangelical” mindset mainly through competing ecclesiologies. What is the church really for? Is it to embody a moral community of like-minded, uniform witness to the world? Or is it to be a community of individual growth where each of us, around a common cause that binds us together, grow in our faith from where we are now to where we are going in the future? Those competing ecclesiologies don’t really co-exist very well, if the former requires such like-minded-ness as to reject the latter.

  2. Chad, thanks. That ecclesiology competition goes all the way back, doesn’t it, to the Pietist movements and the Great Awakenings they inspired. Not that the churches opposing those movements were right, but what they were concerned about was ecclesiology: if everyone can make their own decision for or against Christ, what does that do to an ecclesiology based in a Calvinist doctrine of election?

    Another note in all of this is the absolute embarrassment evangelicals in the PC (USA) profess to have about their affiliation with it. Something about that embarrassment is about branding and not wanting to be associated with something as “institutional” as a denomination.

    1. Although I feel like I am ‘moderate’ in a lot of ways and even ‘progressive’ in many ways politically, I think of myself as evangelical. For me – and many of my colleagues who think and feel similarly – the ’embarrassment’ doesn’t have anything to do with the institution. It is best explained by what happened to me at the last wedding I officiated. One of the family members of the bride, upon hearing that I was Presbyterian made a line for me with this question on the tip of his tongue, ‘So, do you do same sex marriages too?’
      Now, he probably had an ‘agenda’ or something to that effect, but the point is. Many of us are ’embarrassed’ that that is what people first or primarily think of when they hear we are Presbyterians.

      1. Chip, all of the mainline denominations are struggling with this, not just Presbyterians. And this “embarrassment” is all about context, isn’t it? If that wedding you officiated had been in San Francisco or some other progressive metropolis, then that bride’s family member may have asked you, “Do you do same sex marriages too?” and you would have been embarrassed to say “no.”
        Most importantly, why do evangelicals cede the high ground to traditionalists in this matter? Pastorally, I think we can hold people to higher standards of maturity than this. What that guy at the wedding did was rude and kind of immature. Who corners and tries to embarrass the minister at a wedding? You shouldn’t have been embarrassed; he should have.
        A colleague of mine speaks with a resigned shrug of the shoulders about a couple that was attending her church , participating in Bible studies, getting connected, learning, but who, when they learned in a new members’ class about the ordination standards debate, apologized to the pastor and said they couldn’t worship at such a church. My colleague chalks this as another casualty of the church’s changing standards, but I don’t buy it. It’s immaturity, and that pastor has a responsibility to pursue a relationship with that couple on behalf of the church to help them grow in their faith to the point that it isn’t entirely oriented around one issue. Why won’t evangelicals in the PC (USA) push back against these cultural critics? I suspect it’s because the evangelicals themselves orient much of their own faith and ministry around a single issue. That’s more embarrassing to me.

  3. Jesus spent his time with sinners (including the Apostles), and with anyone who would listen. He cared for the needy. He helped the helpless. WE need to do that also. Personally, I volunteer over 10 hours a week to the poorest in town. Not following Christ in this area, and desiring to spend time only with those who believe as we do is obviously in violation of what Jesus has commanded us.

    However, when Jesus states “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.”, the Bible doesn’t record any of His disciples disagreeing with Him, calling him too biased, encouraging Him to understand that the other God’s of his time were equally right.

    This is the core issue with the disgruntled evangelicals. It’s not about disagreeing over the politics. It’s not about disagreeing over the views of social justice. It’s not about disagreeing over means of worship. It’s about disagreeing with what the evangelicals hold to be most true: One God. Trinity. Condemnation of mankind. Salvation only thru Christ Jesus. Scripture as God’s Word (irrespective of how you interpret it.)

    If you believe the bible doesn’t condemn homosexual acts (NOT homosexual orientation), but desire to follow the bible, then I am fine. If you tell me that the bible is no longer relevant because we know more now, or that we can’t follow that because society would condemn us, or that you simply choose not to follow certain areas of the bible, then we have a significant disagreement.

    I can not belong in a denomination that readily ordains ministers who say that Jesus is only one of the ways to God. The other stuff is side discussions.

    Again, thank you for the continuing dialog.

    1. John, you seem to have come into lots of contact with people in the PC (USA) who deny those core doctrines you list. I’ve, of course, come across those loose interpretations, but not with the force or frequency that you have.

      I appreciate your singular focus on work and identity of Jesus as the real issue here. You and I probably don’t disagree on that, but rather on how we ought to relate to those in the denomination–and, thus, the denomination itself–when disagreement becomes apparent. I’m less compelled to disassociate myself from them, because there’s a kernel of common faith and purpose we share. I think. And if we don’t, then there’s still far more value in the connection I share with them than harm in keeping it.

  4. Rocky,
    I really appreciate this, as well as the other posts and tweets about the fellowship gathering. I have gained a lot of insight from your perspective.
    I like your point about what Jesus did and didn’t call his disciples to do. It is critical that Jesus be our guide and goal not anything else. I agree that Jesus didn’t call on the disciples to make pronouncements on morality/ethics, etc. I think the (lack of) relationship is a huge and critical critique of not just the fellowship, but much of the thinking, talking and standing of the ‘right’ on this and many other issues.
    With that said, I this it does lead to another observation. While Jesus didn’t make these big pronouncements and didn’t call for his followers to either, his ethic was always clear. It was born out of a relationship always, but he never had a problem (it would seem) with calling out sin. On issues like divorce (pretty relevant to this discussion in my mind) and other areas he didn’t lessen the interpretation of what was good but actually intensified the expectation. But he did this in the context of having first built/restored relationship – then making a pronouncement to the effect of ‘go and sin no more’.
    So for me the issue is about how we go about making our moral clear and how we relate to the world, not the importance of having a clarity on these issues.
    Thanks again.

    1. Chip, Jesus didn’t backpedal, no. He actually intensified popular ethical expectations (“You have heard it said . . . But I say to you . . . “). When he did that in connection with adultery, he seemed to make the issue less about external observable actions and more about internal dispositions. I’m 100% with you when you say that Jesus called out people’s sin on the basis of a relationship he’d built with them because only on the basis of that relationship do you really see the complex range of what’s going on. I suspect that most of us pastors who don’t consider any and every expression of same-gender sex to be “sin” (much less homosexual orientation itself) would not hesitate to call promiscuity or exploitative sex a “sin” when practiced by a gay friend or church member.

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