Monday, August 27, 2007

Renouncing sin is nothing new for church membership

My previous posting has been a magnet for comments. It has also been treated by some almost as a unique point of contention, as if our Presbyterian policy and polity haven't been saying all along exactly what I was explaining in the posting. But my key point was simple: Presbyterian policy names homosexual practice as sin.

Most Presbyterians--including me--think such a policy is entirely appropriate and biblical, while neither easy nor particularly popular in this age. Some theological innovators wish our policy weren't that homosexual practice is sin, for a number of reasons. But with homosexual practice definitely considered sin, then logically, not just the act of ordination of practicing homosexual persons as deacons, elders, and pastors is considered wrong by the Presbyterian Church; it is the homosexual practice that is wrong, which is what makes any such ordinations innately flawed.

And that led to the subject of church membership, and I contended that it would not be lovingly pastoral to admit to church membership anyone bent on publicly flouting Christian morality, anyone unwilling to acknowledge sinfulness and begin to bend one's will to God's gracious purposes instead. Certainly there are no perfect church members; the church is a hospital for sinners. But a key prerequisite for admission needs to be the admission of sin and a desire for healing. Confession is agreeing with God, and that's a necessary starting place for healing to begin.

I referred to a part of the Authoritative Interpretation (AI) of 1978, which read: "Homosexual persons who sincerely affirm 'Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior' and 'I intend to be his disciple, to obey his word, and to show his love' should not be excluded from membership" (at the end of PDF page 57). That led a friend to ask where the AI got that specific language about members needing to affirm Jesus as Lord and to obey his Word.

Is this some new requirement the AI cooked up? Is it an ancient requirement now repudiated? Good questions, but neither is the case.

As best I can discern, the AI quotations come either from the Book of Order of the UPCUSA at the time (1978) or from The Worshipbook (copyright 1970 for use in both the northern and southern churches). Most likely, they came from both. They were nothing new in 1978, in other words.

I don't have the 1970 Book of Order, to see if the phrases are directly from that, but the service for commissioning baptized members in The Worshipbook (page 49) includes four questions:

____________, who is your Lord and Savior?

Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior.

Do you trust in him?

I do.

Do you intend to be his disciple, to obey his word and to show his love?

I do.

Will you be a faithful member of this congregation, giving of yourself in every way, and will you seek the fellowship of the church wherever you may be?

I will.

As you can see, those questions asked of prospective members contain the wording used in the 1978 AI. Those who couldn't honestly respond in the affirmative could not join a church.

But now since 1983, we have a new constitution, some might argue. Yes, but our constitution retains similar statements (emphasis added):

G-5.0103 states in part, "The congregation shall welcome all persons who respond in trust and obedience to God's grace in Jesus Christ and desire to become part of the membership and ministry of his Church...."

W-4.0203 is even stronger. Of new members, it says, in part: "They shall reaffirm the vows taken at Baptism by:

a. professing their faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior,

b. renouncing evil and affirming their reliance on God's grace,

c. declaring their intention to participate actively and responsibly in the worship and mission of the church....

G-5.0202 talks about what is expected of an active member, including voluntary submission to the government of the church. It also permits churches to be more stringent if they believe it necessary:

Other conditions of active membership that meet the needs of the particular church and are consistent with the order and confessions of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) may be adopted by the session after careful study and discussion with the congregation.

Further, in 1985, a book referred to as the "Supplemental Liturgical Resource 2" was published by the Office of Worship of the PCUSA. Note that this is after reunification in 1983. The resource is titled "Holy Baptism and Services for the Renewal of Baptism." This book recommends appropriate liturgy for various worship occasions.

There is a service for "Renewal of Baptism for Those Who Have Been Estranged from the Church" (pp. 78ff). Here is a powerful part of the service, meant for those who are being presented to join the church by reaffirmation of faith:

Now, as you publicly declare your faith, I ask you to reject sin, to profess your faith in Christ Jesus, and to confess the faith of the church, the faith in which you were baptized.

Do you renounce evil, and its power in the world, which defies God's righteousness and love?

I renounce them.

Do you renounce the ways of sin that separate you from the love of God?

I renounce them.

Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Lord and Savior?

I do.

Do you intend to be Christ's faithful disciple, obeying his word, and showing his love, to your life's end?

I do.

[And so on. This same wording for the questions is used for baptisms and for confirmations.]

Obviously, renunciation of sin plays an important role in church membership, as well it should! We become new creations in Christ, and our lives ought to show it and our lips proclaim it. Imperfect we will be. Mistakes we will make, and we will make them again and again. But renouncing sin is necessary, rather than embracing it or declaring it of no consequence.

No. Asking for the renunciation of sin is no new requirement for membership, sprung as a "deeply pernicious heresy." Seeking metanoia--repentance, the turning from sin toward God--is a deeply loving act of nurture.

Heresy would be the Gnostic notion that one's practice is not a part of one's profession of faith! The intention to obey Christ through obeying his Word is part and parcel of genuine faith. And the profession of genuine faith is a requirement for church membership.


Blogger Aric Clark said...

You're right about renunciation of sin playing a role in discipleship, but it seems to me that it is taking sin far to lightly to imagine that it is even possible to make a meaningful renunciation as a one-time event responding to questions in a mechanical fashion at membership. Repentance it seems to me is a life-long endeavor or it is nothing and thus setting artificial boundaries treats sin as an artificial reality.

9:24 PM, August 28, 2007  
Blogger Debbie said...

Aric, if you think that way, then you must think that all the membership vows are meaningless. After all, they are said as a one-time event in, according to you, a mechanical fashion. Would you feel the same about baptismal or marriage vows?

On the contrary, I doubt that anyone believes that renouncing sin in membership vows is a one-time event; certainly it would be surprising if anyone expected it to be a mechanical procedure. Instead, it is a declaration that one is involved in that lifelong endeavor of repentance that you mention, and which I agree with, which is something that is expected of church members. That is what Jim is saying: renunciation of sin is expected of church members, and that includes those practices that are defined as sin by the PCUSA.

12:47 AM, August 29, 2007  
Blogger PJ said...

Your point is accurate -- so far as it goes. Renouncing sin has been an historic Presbyterian standard at least as long as the property trust clause. It's in the Book of Common Worship (the successor to the supplimental liturgical resources you mentioned), the Directory for Worship, the Directory for the Service of God, the Form of Government. I'm certain it's spread through the documents in the Book of Confessions. But unless the sin in question is something like eating at Taco Bell, renouncing sin is like a plug-in for your browser: you don't actually need it, but it will produce added functionality and ease of use.

Renouncing sin as an essential part of being a Christian is clearly part of the formal standards of the Presbyterian Church specifically and of the reformed tradition generally. In principle, that is a standard for the PCUSA, but in practice it is not. The moderator's letter represents the reality of the PCUSA today.

The standards of the PCUSA have been amended, even as the language on paper has not changed. The de jure policy is unchanged, but de facto the policy has been changed. And the distinction is far more than just an obscure point of Latin usage.

What does this mean for evangelicals who insist that as long as the formal standards are unchanged the PCUSA still a faithful institution that deserves loyalty? What does this mean for those who insist as long as the formal standards are unchanged the PCUSA is still a place we can trust to teach the children well, no matter where the leaders may be working to lead the church? What does it mean for those who claim the PCUSA still faithfully proclaims the gospel as long as the formal standards are solid, no matter what the leaders actually say?

I guess the bottom line in this comment is the point of these posts is true -- but I'm not sure you've really faced the truth of the posts.

7:55 AM, August 29, 2007  
Blogger PJ said...

May I post an amplification to my previous comment? I left out a phrase which resulted in a sentence that means something quite different from what I intended.

In the last sentence of the first paragraph, I should have made sure I included the phrase "PCUSA teachers and leaders proclaim" between "Taco Bell" and "renouncing". The resulting sentence would then read, "But unless the sin in question is something like eating at Taco Bell, PCUSA teachers and leaders proclaim renouncing sin is like a plug-in for your browser: you don't actually need it, but it will produce added functionality and ease of use."

I apologize for my sloppy editing.

8:00 AM, August 30, 2007  
Blogger LC said...

Is Membership a biblical concept? LC

7:52 AM, September 06, 2007  

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