Task Force probes polity
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.