Thursday, October 14, 2004

Task Force probes polity

CHICAGO – The Theological Task Force considered two more papers Thursday, this time on the subject of Presbyterian polity. “Considered” is definitely the word to use, because they did not adopt them or receive them or approve them or amend them or implement them. But they did consider them and discuss them and note them, the first paper to a greater extent than the second.

Dubuque professor Mark Achtemeier presented the first paper, titled “Polity and Power: Proposals for Discussion,” about foundations of Presbyterian polity. It is a strong and vital paper, beginning with “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Christ.”

It continues on to explain that the way we know Jesus Christ is through Scripture. “The holy Christian Church, whose only Head is Christ, is born of the Word of God, and abides in the same, and listens not to the voice of a stranger,” he quotes from “The Ten Theses of Bern” (1528). “Presbyterians do not believe that Christ is known to us reliably, except as he comes to us clothed in his Word,” Achtemeier writes. Amen!

How do we rightly hear and obey the voice of Christ in Scripture? It is through the Holy Spirit’s leading, who will “teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you,” Jesus said (John 14:26). “The interpretation of Scripture … pertains to the Spirit of God by whom the Scriptures were written,” according to the Scots Confession (3.18).

And finally, “Presbyterian polity orders the church to be a listening, discerning community attending to God’s Word and Spirit.” Achtemeier states that “Presbyterian polity … [is] a system designed to create the best and most reliable circumstances possible for attending to the Spirit of Christ speaking through the Scriptures, in accordance with its confession that Jesus Christ is head of the church.”

It was aspects of this final point that caused the most commentary by other task force members. Most were ready to affirm the other points, but several had some comments or suggested edits to this fourth section, where the rubber meets the road. The greatest concern seemed to be over the apparent sticky point between majority rule, on the one hand, and discerning the will of God, on the other.

The strength of Achtemeier’s paper is its firm reliance on not a nebulous “Jesus factor” and a fuzzy “Spirit leading,” but on the revealed Jesus of Scriptures, and the Spirit inevitably pointing to this Jesus of Scriptures. But this is also, perhaps, the sticking point for some task force members. The fact that God’s will is revealed through Scripture and not by vague feelings ascribed to the Spirit may have elicited some of the polite uneasiness with the paper. This paper may possibly emerge somewhat intact at a later time, although like everything so far, it was just added to the mix today.

Later in the day, Union Seminary faculty member Joe Coalter very briefly introduced a paper titled: “Principles of Polity: Their Contribution to the Peace, Unity and Purity of the Presbyterian Church.” This is a 15-pager, co-written by Coalter, Auburn Seminary President Barbara Wheeler, and Rochester pastor John Wilkinson. It attempts to summarize much of the historical teaching the task force has heard over their series of meetings.

It presents four “points of balance” that are “based on principles,” yet “press those who would adhere to them to strive for a measure of equilibrium rather than simple logical consistency.” In other words, they’re more a conundrum than a road map—like real-life, messy history often is.

Here are the four points of balance:
1) “Honoring discernment in community of the will of God and the Spirit’s leading” balances against “Recognition that God alone is the Lord of the conscience under the authority of Scripture.”
2) “Adherence to essential and necessary beliefs and practices that bind the faithful into the body of Christ” balances against “Respect for freedom in non-essential matters of belief, worship, piety, witness and service.”
3) “Distinctive Presbyterian and Reformed witness to the world” balances against “Mission with other Christians with whom we share a Catholic identity.”
4) “The rights and responsibilities of governing bodies that have original jurisdiction in church governance” balances against “The rights and responsibilities of governing bodies that have the power of oversight and review.”

The task force didn’t really interact with this paper. About three minor wording suggestions were quietly offered, and that was that. Obviously there remains much serious noodling to be done on this weighty paper full of historical insight and polity implications. We’ll probably see it again.

On a quick read, the paper seems to me to lean toward forbearance (there’s that word again!), latitude, freedom to choose one’s essentials, the value of divergent voices in the same organization, and presbytery autonomy, for the most part. But I may be feeling suspicious tonight.


Blogger jm said...

By Kevin McDonald and Jeff McDonald

We are writing in response to comments made by task force member Rev. Dr. Mike Loudon in his article "Differing Views Around One Table." Loudon is known to be a committed evangelical pastor and on issues of theology and evangelism Loudon appears to be within the evangelical camp. Despite this, we would like to express our concern about Louden's understanding of Presbyterian history.

In his article, "Differing Views Around One Table", Loudon argues that the 1925 Special Commission decision in 1927 allowed the church to "maintain purity." In addition, he writes that "unity" and "peace" were restored to the church in 1927 by the Special Commission. These comments are a serious departure from evangelical historiography and are in fact views promoted by liberal Protestant church historians and scholars. The decisions of the 1925 Special Commission led to increased controversy within the Presbyterian Church and ultimately to the exclusion of various evangelical pastors and scholars.

It is important to note that Loudon's historical views are identical to many within the denominational hierarchy. Loudon and Clifton Kirkpatrick have different theological views, but they both have the same understanding of the 1925 Special Commission. At the 2001 General Assembly Kirkpatrick stated that the assembly needed to create a theological task force based on the one the church had in 1925. Kirkpatrick said that the 1925 Special Commission was successful in helping the church find a better way to deal with the controversies it was then facing.

Why would an evangelical like Loudon support the task force report? Perhaps Loudon was influenced by the progressive historical views of Barbra Wheeler, Milton J. Coalter, and John Wilkinson. All of these scholars believe that the 1925 Special Commission helped calm controversy in the church by giving power to presbyteries. The commission adopted the positions of the Auburn Affirmationists and was able to minimize the influence of conservatives. The 1925 Special Commission was successful in moving the leadership of the church from the center-right to the center-left in the late 1920s.

We believe that the current task force used the 1925 Special Commission as a model for how to move the church to the left. The evidence for this assertion can be found in a draft report titled "Principles of Polity" written by Wheeler, Coalter, and Wilkinson. The "Principles of Polity" report served as a discussion resource for the drafting of the final report.

Wheeler, Coalter, and Wilkinson wrote that the 1925 Special Commission prevented schism within the church. While the 1925 Special Commission did prevent immediate schism its policies ultimately led to the ejection of several evangelical ministers and the founding of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in 1936. We object to the one dimentional approach to Presbyterian history that the task force used.

As far as we can tell all of the task force members hold to a progressive understanding of Presbyterian history. For a more comprehensive and balanced understanding of the Presbyterian controversies of the 1920s and 30s we recommend D.G. Hart's Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism in Modern America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994). Hart's book explains why Machen and other evangelicals were opposed to the 1925 commission. If Loudon voted for the report because he thought the Special Commission decision in 1927 brought "peace" and "unity" to the church then he is sadly mistaken. The 1925 Special Commission brought theological and ecclesiastical disunity to the church and the church continues to suffer because of its decisions.

11:08 AM, November 15, 2005  

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