The Fellowship Theology Draft

Yesterday I posted my response to the Fellowship of Presbyterians’ Polity Draft. This post will briefly summarize and respond to the companion Theology Draft released at the same time on the groups’ website.

The Theology Draft does three things: it addresses the question of a theological standard (namely, confessional statements) for the New Reformed Body, articulates some Essential Tenets, and then asks some critical questions about the theological practices that will shape the group’s life together. I don’t consider myself a participant in the Fellowship, but I’m taking them at their word that they want public input.

I’m most interested in the Essential Tenets. The current Book of Confessions of the PC (USA) is the proposed answer to the question about standards and statements, which is sure to please many and rankle others. The third section of the Theology Draft sketches out the “theological friendships” that the Fellowship hopes will become a normative part of the life of pastors and elders in their new denomination. But, to me, the Essential Tenets are what deserve the closest attention.

And not really the tenets themselves. I have plenty to say about them, but I think the most significant fact is that they’re offered at all and that they’re given such weight  in the Polity Draft. The Fellowship clearly expects adherence to these tenets to create a kind of theological cohesion that they are disappointed does not presently exist in the PC (USA). I have serious doubts about that expectation, both in its intent and likelihood.

As to their intent, the authors of the Theological Draft write in its foreward:

a collection of confessions lends itself to the wisdom of identifying what is essential within them. our theological ideas and inclinations as a church are far too diffuse to unite us. we reject the proposition that theology divides. instead, we affirm the proposition that truth tends toward unity, yet we are the first generation of presbyterian officers who do not have in the same ordination question the words truth and unity. identifying essentials necessarily and rightly focuses our theological conversation and our life together.

That “a collection of confessions lends itself to the wisdom of identifying what is essential within them” is a questionable assertion. The move to name essentials within the Reformed theological heritage strikes me less as an imperative driven by wisdom as one driven by efficiency. An agreed upon list of essentials is a useful rubric for determining membership in a body and for establishing the boundaries of its teaching. But I don’t think it follows that wisdom dictates such a move.

Wisdom compels people toward what is good, right, true, just, and honorable–not necessarily what is essential. There’s a lot in the Book of Confessions that is good, right, and true, and our life as confessional Christians ought largely to be taken up with mining that gold for Christian formation and mission. But the essentialist project wants instead to select a few confessional gems and convert them into plastic rulers for measuring fidelity to the covenant of church membership and ordination. To do so cheapens them.

Here, then, is my greatest objection to the Theology Draft: it’s inelegant. It’s a rude instrument for assessing (or even coercing) the “rightness” of faith. It’s full of the language of Reformed theological tradition (see the wordle below) and sentences like, “In his essence, God is infinite, eternal, immutable, impassible, and ineffable.” But it reads like an ordination exam. It reads like something written by someone who’s hand shakes as they write because their disapproving teacher is lurking behind them and peering over their shoulder.

This is how Essential Tenets must read, like traffic citations. And that’s why I don’t like them and don’t want them. But to those in the Fellowship who seek in them a ground of covenantal unity and who will press them into the service of concentrating a self-selected group of Christians into a theological corps bound together by its agreement in faith’s fundamentals essentials, may you find what you seek.

The Fellowship Theology Draft as a wordle

The entire Book of Confessions as a wordle

The Fellowship Polity Draft

The Fellowship of Presbyterians (about whom I’ve written here and here) released drafts yesterday of the polity and theology documents that will guide their January gathering in Orlando. This post will lift up the most prominent characteristics of the polity draft.

I tweeted my highlights of the document on my first read-thru, and you can see those quotes here.

Here’s what the document looks like as a wordle:

Clearly the local congregation is the most important entity in the polity that will shape the Fellowship’s New Reformed Body. Fellowship leaders have said as much, and they’ve been accused of being Congregationalist in their polity. They’re rebutted that claim. At the very least, it’s fair to say that this polity draft establishes that its most important function is to serve the mission and ministry of local congregations.

For comparison’s sake, here’s what the PC (USA)’s Form of Government looks like as a wordle:

Congregation is one of the most prominent polity element there too.

Some of the highlights of what congregations do in this polity:

  • receive, hold, encumber, manage, and hold property: 4.0101(a)
  • prepare required annual review and mission narrative documents for the presbytery: 3.0103(m)
  • request transfer or dismissal from their presbytery or from the New Reformed Body at a called congregational meeting: 1.0503(d)

The other big element in this polity is the presbytery. It defines a presbytery not as a “corporate expression of the church” as in the nFOG of the PC (USA), but as a “covenant community” of congregations. That may seem a pedantic distinction, but I think its significance lies in the fact that, as it does with members of congregations, the Fellowship polity makes voluntary participation in a covenant the substance of participation in a church body.

The presbytery also has a much more active role to play for the Fellowship in the coaching and encouraging of its pastors. The mechanism for this is a peer review process (2.0402) that must be completed at least annually by every installed pastor. The substance of the review is pastors’ health and  future ministry goals, as well as the sharing of best practices and insights.

The controversial stuff about church denominational affiliation pops up in the fifth chapter, titled “Ecumenicity And Union.” What’s described there is a process by which congregations or presbyteries may affiliate with the Fellowship’s New Reformed Body through a union arrangement or by joining a new entity called an Affinity Network. The process laid out requires a 2/3 majority vote of either the congregation or the presbytery respectively, as well as the consenting judgment of the PC(USA) body to which it is currently subject. And in the case where PC(USA) and Fellowship rules butt heads, “the less permissive rules shall govern”(5.0202 and 5.0203).

A few other interesting tidbits:

  1. There’s no General Assembly. The Synod is the highest council in the NRB
  2. Pastors “ordinarily” shall hold an MDiv. degree from an accredited seminary
  3. No CPM: presbyteries come up with their own credentialing and calling mechanism for pastors
  4. Members of congregations are called “Covenant Partners” (see note about presbytery membership above)
  5. Honorably Retired pastors can’t vote at presbytery

Finally, a word about the Essential Tenets. I’ll review those next, but they appear in the polity draft often and they clearly play a unifying role. The Fellowship clearly expects members of churches, congregations, elders, deacons, and pastors to adopt the Essential Tenets they’re laying out, and even to do so “without hesitation” (2.0103c). The lack of a uniform theological standard has been a constant critique of this group, and this polity draft clearly intends to establish the Essential Tenets document as the norm to which everyone must subscribe in order to belong.

The Fellowship Gathering: Third Thoughts

“It’s a mad mission/Under difficult conditions”

Patty Griffin (for Casey Wait)

My first thought was, “I’m not one of these evangelicals anymore.”

My second thought was, “We see the world’s needs very differently.”

My third thought is, “We see mission very differently.”

Uses of the term “missional” were more prevalent at the Fellowship Gathering in Minneapolis than the little butter discs that came with the bread basket. I suspect definitions of that term were just as abundant.

I’m not a progressive mainline despiser of missional-speak. I’ve read everything the Gospel and Our Culture Network has published. In seminary I chased Darrell Guder around like a puppy dog. I’ve served the church as a volunteer in mission twice. My current call has “mission” right in the title. What I notice, though, is that “missional” has become for evangelicals an orienting idea, the ramifications of which are not being fully grasped.

The big idea behind the missional turn is that North America is itself now a mission field. Indeed it always has been, but decades of a single-minded focus on foreign missions efforts obscured that reality. Today, people like Alan Roxburgh and Alan Hirsch are becoming household names in evangelical circles by forcing that issue, and even by asking, “Can The West be converted?”

All of this is a good thing. A very good thing.

Yet to hear the term “missional” employed in Minneapolis, one would think its application is limited to practices of evangelism and to a congregational polity. I noted that in almost every instance where a speaker urged a more “missional” church, they did so in connection with affirmations about unchurched people in an unchurched culture. And they did so with a clear and repeated application to congregations and not to presbyteries or the PC (USA).

[excursis: the irony of the polity observation is that, while many evangelicals in the PC (USA) express an earnest desire to be more missional than the denomination seemingly allows them to be, many of them have used the withholding of shared support for the denomination’s mission efforts as a means of protest against it.]

This equation of mission with evangelism and congregations troubles me because I owe much of my own sense of call to ordained ministry to an experience with a PC (USA) mission program, one that didn’t involve me in explicit evangelism, and one that can’t be sustained by a single congregation but depends on shared mission support.

Also, I belong to a presbytery that is being profoundly impacted by an experiment in shared mission.

[another excursis: The Presbytery of San Diego has intentionally started to call itself a “relational community” that strives to become a “mission agency.” That would seem to indicate a belief in the presbytery as a locus of Christian mission]

The mission of the church in a North American 21st Century context will probably be driven primarily by congregations, but those congregations will depend upon the support of larger networks of congregations called presbyteries and denominations. In that light, it will be interesting to see the extent to which the Fellowship of Presbyterians proposes sharing mission support with the PC (USA).

That mission will also require witness and action that includes explicit evangelism but is not limited to it. The church will need to speak in its common life and in written statements to the “powers and principalities” of our culture. That is as much mission as preaching the gospel.

In Minneapolis, that didn’t seem to be part of the “missional” emphasis.

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.

The Fellowship Gathering: First Thoughts

“I remember when we shared a vision, you and I”

The Mountain Goats

I’ve just returned from The Fellowship of Presbyterians gathering in Minneapolis. The event was organized by a group of evangelical pastors within the PC (USA) who called like-minded pastors and elders to join with them in creating a New Reformed Body connected to the current denomination and yet separate from it. Though I’m not one of those like-minded pastors (as evidenced by this post), I attended on behalf of my presbytery to listen to The Fellowship’s proposals and to work with local colleagues around them.

Better bloggers than I have summarized the gathering’s accomplishments. Here’s a summary from a sympathetic participant and one from an unsympathetic not-participant. Rather than summarize, I need to process. Thank you.

[update: I contributed to a roundup of reactions over at Two Friars and A Fool that gets more into the mechanics of the event]

I’m troubled by a couple of things. This post will process one.

I’ve been underestimating the distinct theological, methodological, and sociological DNA of evangelicalism and its expression within mainline denominations like the PC (USA). Which surprises me, given my evangelical breeding. I was baptized in a charismatic church and went to college at an evangelical Presbyterian school. I fumbled a job interview at a progressive church with an uncritical recitation of the reasons why gays shouldn’t be ordained, and the first chance I had to vote on the issue, I stood for the status quo (the “fidelity and chastity” standards).

The Fellowship is an expression of the core convictions of American evangelicalism: that the church exists to seek and save lost sinners (read: everyone), that the Bible is the only admissible guide to faith and life, and that Christians stand in a position of loving opposition to the wider culture in which they’re situated. My time in Minneapolis illuminated how differently I relate to those convictions now than I did even five years ago. It’s not that I don’t believe them, it’s that words like “sin,” “save,” and “guide” (not to mention “sex“) have acquired meanings for me that they didn’t have before. The old meanings haven’t been replaced so much as nuanced, complemented, and, pray God, enriched.

I have to believe that God has been in this process, while I still acknowledge that I could be wrong.

This unsettling realization has sent me running to historians of the evangelical movement to help me better understand the ways in which The Fellowship movement is replaying an oppose-and-separate movie the church has seen before (I’m starting here and here). Every Christian denomination has evangelicals in it, even though the vast majority of evangelical Christians belong to church expressions that aren’t affiliated with anything like an organized denomination. For mainline protestants in the U.S., that has always been the case, and it has always been a source of tension, if not all-out conflict (see the First and Second Great Awakenings). Since coming into mainline protestantism in my early 20’s, I’ve understood myself to be an heir of the evangelicals in those conflicts.

I don’t anymore.

My gut reaction to the things happening in Minneapolis showed me that I’m now standing somewhere else. I’m not sure what to make of that.

Presbyterian Death Match: NEXT Church vs. The Fellowship

“so what’s the difference (other than theological perspective) between #nextchurchindy and the fellowship/whitepaper? any takers? #pcusa

I’m fool enough to take that bait, laid out by @gspcrobert yesterday amidst the waning reaction to the NEXT Church gathering in Indianapolis earlier this week. I quickly tweeted:

“@gspcrobert I’ll take that. #nextchurchindy is a gathering looking for answers. The Fellowship is an argument looking for a gathering.”

That answer generated a couple of responses that I want to get into here. @Suzemb replied:

@yorocko @gspcrobert do the answers being sought exploring ways for both sides to find common ground so the denom isn’t torn apart?

And @charlesawiley added:

@yorocko Wonder about your distinction between Next and Fellowship. Next had irenic tone-but with a pretty like-minded group #nextchurchindy

First, the basic background for the uninitiated. Several months ago, a group of Presbyterian pastors, many representing what you call “Tall Steeple” churches from the progressive/liberal regions of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), were invited to Kansas City to start a conversation about the future of the denomination. The invitation came from Tom Are, Pastor at Village Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village, Kansas, and it went out, as best I know, to people he trusts and who’s insight he values. Specific areas of concern had to do with mission and the need for a different way to engage the denomination’s areas of conflict that aren’t dependent on a political winner-take-all model.

The NEXT Church Indianapolis gathering was an outgrowth of that Kansas City conversation (and, I think, another conversation or two). The organizers invited all interested parties to come to Indy and explore different ways of doing mission, vocation, and governance in the PC (U.S.A.).

Meanwhile, last month another group of Presbyterian pastors, also representing mostly “Tall Steeple” churches but from the  church’s conservative regions–and calling themselves The Fellowship of Presbyterian Pastors–distributed a letter and an accompanying white paper that asserted that the denomination is “deathly ill” and that invited folks to an August event  that would explore the formation of a parallel Reformed body separate from but related to the PC (U.S.A.). That letter and white paper were followed by a brief video posted online in which Jim Singleton, Pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Colorado Springs, that further laid out the strategic vision of this Fellowship.

So what’s the difference between NEXT and The Fellowhip?

One difference is very clear.  NEXT organizers want a conversation among like-minded Presbyterians. That conversation is about very specific things, and the way it’s been structured so far, it could plausibly produce a number of varying–even competing–results. It is a conversation looking for answers–and new ways of engaging the denomination’s problems.

The Fellowship, on the other hand, is proposing the answer at the outset. It is inviting like-minded Presbyterians to join in a process that has clearly articulated outcomes. The organizers have set in motion a process, and people will gather in August to join in that process.

@charlesawiley’s observation that both efforts appeal to like-mindedness is apt, as is @suzemb’s concern that NEXT transcend that like-mindedness in search of common ground. But I don’t think like-mindedness is a problem. Shared convictions and common ways of viewing problems are the fuel of effective movements for change. Both The Fellowship and NEXT are appealing to people who think like the organizers and who like and trust one another. There’s nothing wrong with that.

(Try to get people to join a gathering populated by people they know they don’t agree with and whom they don’t like–I believe that’s called a presbytery meeting.)

And, practically speaking, both efforts are intentionally trying to get beyond the tired effort of finding common ground among liberals and conservatives that leaves both feeling ignored and wronged.

In the end, the biggest difference is how NEXT and Fellowship are using like-mindedness, the former as food for an open-ended (but topically delimited) conversation, and the latter as a vehicle for accomplishing precisely defined aims.