Free To Be Faithful: Covenant Community After the 217th General Assembly
Written by Michael R. Walker   
Wednesday, 05 July 2006 00:00
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The following is the text of an address responding to the 217th General Assembly, given by Michael Walker at the PFR Christian Life Conference in Montreat, NC, on July 3, 2006. Coming right in the wake of G.A, this was the 37th Annual conference and was attended by roughly 1,100 evangelical Presbyterians. Special thanks to the Presbyterian Outlook for giving permission to include portions of an article that is forthcoming in their publication.

 

walker-michael2.gif Well, I am just bursting at the seams to be able to talk some more about the General Assembly! Seriously, though, last night, it was mentioned that people often complain to their church leaders. And as a church leader myself, I am happy to say that I just cannot identify with that experience, especially after the General Assembly.

Here are some quotes that have been uttered here at Montreat in the last few days, and these are not complaints but heartfelt expressions of where we find ourselves in these days:

One person said: “Our congregation has begun the process of pulling out of the PC(USA). And yet we are scheduled to have a PFR renewal event in our congregation in the fall. If we pull out, will you still do the renewal event?”

As a side note, two of the most active elders from my own congregation resigned last week, and we’re a fairly small congregation and the impact of this will be significant.

Also here in Montreat, someone admonished me: “You know, we spend a lot of time criticizing others in the denomination. If we spent half that time praying for them, our denomination would be different. Before we march on with the criticisms, let us pray.”

And so the truth is that there is much unrest in our church. And we are not all of one mind at the moment about how we might best respond to it. Certainly we need to pray. Certainly we need to continue to proclaim the Gospel. Certainly we need to continue to lift up the name of Jesus. But regardless of our perspective we can’t deny that something is different this week than it was three weeks ago about the context in which we do those things. And we’re not sure how much different it is, and we’re not sure what ought to be different about how and where we, together, pray, proclaim the Gospel and lift up the name of Jesus.

And so we need to talk about the General Assembly, openly and honestly. The General Assembly met two weeks ago. It is the highest governing body of the Presbyterian Church, and its decisions have an impact on all of us.

Now, I don’t want to start with the debate over the ordination to church leadership of persons who are sexually active outside of marriage, though we should just state the obvious up front and name it, because it was the Assembly’s action on that issue that has, I think rightly, provoked a good deal of soul searching and consternation after the Assembly. We will get there, and I will address the whole question of whether at this point I think we ought to stay in or leave the denomination.

But I want to begin with a few other items, some of which are actually much closer to the theological center of who we are as Christians than the ordination debate itself is. And I think what we’ll realize is that, in the end, this Assembly was a mixed bag. They made some surprisingly good decisions as well as deeply troubling errors.

I would like to give you an overview of three major decisions that I think were positive at the Assembly, and then three major decisions that were disappointing. And then I will share some more extended thoughts about where I think we are as a denomination right now.


1. Good Decision on “Abrahamic Heritage”

The General Assembly received an overture on “Abrahamic Heritage,” recommending that the Assembly make some strong and highly questionable statements about the relationship between Christianity Judaism, and Islam. The presbytery that sent the overture was hoping to provide what they thought would be a good basis for peaceful dialogue between Christians, Jews, and Muslims. To that end, they requested that the Assembly assert “unity and harmony” between the three religions and say that we all “worship the same God.”

PFR had published advice opposed to this recommendation, and I had posted on my blog site some extended correspondence with one of the writers of this proposal. So, it was something we were watching very carefully.

In the end, the General Assembly chose to reiterate our commitment to work for peace and righteousness with Muslims and Jews, but wisely declined to assert “unity and harmony” among the three religions or that we all “worship the same God.” This was a very good outcome for the “Abrahamic Heritage” proposal, because it avoided making statements that would be offensive to members of each of the three religions, and it stated again our commitment to working for peace.

We should be grateful for this outcome. Not only was it faithful, but you can be sure that, if it had passed, it would have been at the very top of the list of concerns and topics of controversy after the Assembly, ordination standards notwithstanding, as it touched directly upon the very heart of who we are as Christians, namely the centrality of Jesus Christ.


2. Good Decision on Abortion Policy: Protecting Viable Babies

Prior to this General Assembly, the PC(USA) was the only mainline denomination that had not taken a stand against partial birth abortion.

Yet our abortion policy was changed at this Assembly and our denomination now officially respects viable babies in the womb as persons whose lives ought to be protected. PFR has worked for years with Presbyterians Pro-Life, and together we are grateful for this shift in our church’s policies, moving in the direction of the preservation of life.

 

3. Good Decision on Divestment

The PC(USA) frankly has a history of rushing into complex geo-political matters without thinking things through very carefully, and the last Assembly’s decision to initiate a process of selective divestment from corporations doing business with Israel is one such example. This has been a huge controversy over the last two years, and our relationship with the Jewish community has been seriously strained.

Yet the 217th General Assembly replaced the previous divestment policy with a new policy that does not single out Israel but also lists Gaza and the West Bank, for instance. And instead of calling for divestment the new policy calls for investment only in activities that are consistent with promoting peace in the region, so the whole thing is framed more positively as well. This new policy gives the PC(USA) a more consistent and consistently moral approach in its investment strategies. And hopefully this balanced decision by the Assembly will begin a process of healing some of our strained relationships.

Having shared three positive decisions by the Assembly, I will now turn to three decisions that were disappointing.[1]

 

4. Disappointing Decision on Montreat Historical Society

The General Assembly voted to approve a recommendation to close the Montreat Historical Society. This facility houses many of the memories of the southern Presbyterian Church, and over twenty presbyteries had requested that the Assembly find some alternative to closing the facility. But those efforts, which PFR had come alongside, were to no avail. And we can pray that these resources will be redistributed in a respectful manner that will make them available for the study of our church’s mission and history.

 

5. Disappointing Decision on the “Trinity Paper”

Our next topic is one that’s gotten much, if not altogether accurate attention in the press. The General Assembly voted to receive the paper entitled: "The Trinity: God's Love Overflowing." This paper has been the subject of controversy, because of its effort to move beyond the Trinitarian name of God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) and employ other "triads" like "Rainbow, Ark, and Dove," or “Mother, Child and Womb,” as new and creative ways of referring to God.

PFR would have liked for this to paper to have been referred to the Office of Theology and Worship for revision (it was not originally written by that office but rather by a committee of seminary professors). We worked together with others, such as Prof. Andrew Purves, to help the church understand the paper’s deficiencies. A recording of Prof. Purves’ remarks about the paper, along with PFR’s advice to the Assembly, are available on PFR’s website.

Though the paper was not referred as we had hoped, two things are important to note about the Assembly’s decision:

1) The Assembly did not vote to approve the paper. Rather, they voted to "receive" the paper from the committee that had been commissioned to write it, a move that does not give the paper official standing as policy of the PC(USA).

2) The paper was amended prior to being "received" by the G.A. Though the paper is still clearly deficient, the amendments were improvements. In particular, references to "naming the Trinity" were changed to "speaking of the Trinity," and other references to various "names" of God were removed. Another positive change was made to the paper, stating that the name into which we are baptized is the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The purpose of these amendments was to clarify that the various “triadic metaphors” employed by the paper, e.g. Rainbow, Ark, and Dove, are not intended to be names that are alternatives to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Rather, they are just metaphorical descriptions that on the order of saying what God is like – God is like a Rainbow, or an Ark, or a Dove. Yet God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Granted, this distinction might be lost on many. The paper’s major remaining deficiency is its failure to distinguish, in sufficiently clear terms, the different character of God’s Triune name on the one hand, and on the other hand these creative metaphorical references to God that happen to be strung together in threes, like Mother, Child, and Womb. The impression the paper gives to many has been reflected in newspaper articles, where one cartoon suggests that, if we’re just stringing words together in threes, we might as well call God “Rock, Paper, Scissors.”[2]

Hopefully since this paper was only received rather than approved its damage will be limited to the press articles already written. So much for the Trinity Paper.

 

6. Disappointing Decision on Ordination Policies

(Note to the reader: if you are familiar with the basic history of the PC(USA)’s debate and with the basics of what happened at the Assembly regarding ordination policies, you may want to skip to the next section, entitled “So What Do We Do Now?”)

And finally we come to the topic that has caused the most controversy since the Assembly, indeed the subject of controversy with which our denomination has been captivated for decades, and that is the church’s standards for its ordained leaders, that is our pastors, elders, and deacons.

Most of the controversy has surrounded the “manner of life” of our leaders, and in particular what it means for our leaders to have sexual lives that are a demonstration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Much of the debate has surrounded homosexual practice in particular, because that has been the interest of liberal activists for the last thirty years. But in reality it has as much to do with fidelity in heterosexual marriage or pre-marital sex as it does with homosex. Having debated the issue for over thirty years, the church has not, until this last assembly, made any real changes in our standards or our policies for applying those standards.

In order to understand what happened at this General Assembly it is important to explain a few of the different pieces of our church’s policies on ordination.

To do so, we have to pay attention both to our standards, and to the “force” or binding character of those standards. In other words, we first have to see what the standards are, and then we have to assess whether or not those standards are “optional.” I know, an “optional standard” is an oxymoron, but that’s the state of debate about ordination in the PC(USA).

So, there are two constitutional items that are important in the debate over the sexual practices of our ordained leaders. First, there is an “Authoritative Interpretation” of the Constitution (hereafter “1993 AI”) that states the following: “unrepentant homosexual practice does not accord with the requirements for ordination set forth in Form of Government.” As an AI, it has “constitutional force,” i.e. it tells us what the standards in the Constitution of the church do and do not mean. But because it is only an AI and not actually a part of the Constitution, it could be removed by one vote of one General Assembly. The G.A. has the power to “authoritatively interpret” the Constitution on its own – so it can add or remove such an interpretation with one vote – whereas to change the Constitution would require an amendment to the Constitution, which can only happen through both GA approval and ratification by a majority of our 173 presbyteries. Anyway, that’s the first piece: the 1993 AI proscribing homosexual practice.

The second important constitutional item is the “Fidelity and Chastity Standard” in G-6.0106b in the PC(USA)’s Book of Order, a part of our Constitution. G-6.0106b is often called the “Fidelity and Chastity” standard, because it states that those who are called to ordained office in the church must abide by the requirement “to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness.” Two things should be mentioned about this standard: (a) because it does not mention homosexuality explicitly, some have claimed that this standard, when read in their own clever and disingenuous way, does not actually prohibit homosexual sex acts. However, at present, the 1993 AI makes such a reading more than clever and disingenuous: it makes it legally out of bounds, without question. It is therefore important for the church to maintain both the standard and the AI. (b) Because this standard is a part of the Constitution, changing or removing it would require an amendment to the Constitution, which means any change would need not only the approval of the General Assembly but also ratification by a majority of the 173 presbyteries of the PC(USA).

In the last decade, the 1993 AI has been narrowly maintained by the G.A. The General Assembly has voted twice to amend the Constitution to change the Fidelity and Chastity standard, but that standard has been maintained through successive votes of all the presbyteries (and this by increasing margins). The General Assembly has been known for having a far more liberal bent than the presbyteries. When the GA has wanted to change the standard in the Constitution, the presbyteries have rejected the changes. So, the two critical pieces of our ordination standards, as they relate to the sexual practices of our ordained officers, have been maintained.

And yet we now have to ask the second question: given that the church has set these standards, are these standards binding or optional? Can local governing bodies choose to ordain or install someone even if they live in open violation of the standards? This is actually a pretty new question. The obvious answer would be “no,” because the church has, through its Constitution, which governs the whole church, set standards for the whole church.

But there has been a shift in the agenda of the gay lobby in several denominations. Because the liberal activists have not been able to get the church-wide votes to go their way, i.e. because they have not been able to get the standards changed, they have begun to seek some interim alternatives that will at least get the ball rolling in their direction and begin opening the door for the ordination of practicing homosexuals. One such alternative they conceived was to weaken the standard or make it “optional,” which would achieve a favorable interim result.

What’s more, the activists have known that in order to make the standards optional they must avoid a church-wide vote, because the church-wide votes have made and maintained the standard as a standard, not as an optional suggestion.[3]

You may recall that I mentioned a moment ago that the General Assembly can, on its own, pass an “authoritative interpretation” of the Constitution, without a church-wide vote. And this is precisely what has happened at our recent General Assembly. What we call “standards,” that is what is written in our church’s Constitution, have not changed. The “Fidelity and Chastity” standard is still there. But the G.A. passed a new “authoritative interpretation” of the Constitution that really does change what it means to have standards. The intent of the new “authoritative interpretation” is to make it okay for sessions or presbyteries to ordain and install individuals who live in open violation of the church’s standards, i.e. to turn standards into suggestions or to make them optional or however you'd prefer to put it.

In other words, it would seem that one vote of one General Assembly has made it constitutional to violate the Constitution. There are all kinds of interesting names one might be tempted to call this kind of maneuver and its consequences.

The basic point of the Assembly’s action is to let the local governing bodies decide if a person “adheres to the essentials” required for ordination, those essentials now being determined by that local governing body. Apparently there are requirements, and then there are “essential” requirements. And, to quote the Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church: “Certainly, there will be differing judgments in different locations and different mission situations as to what is essential for the ordination of people in ministry."[4]

This is what I have been calling "Local License."

The actual “legal” effect of the Assembly’s action, in terms of church law, will not be known until we have a couple precedent-setting decisions by the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission. That means we have burdensome and distracting court battles ahead of us. In a moment I will mention how PFR will help those seeking to uphold biblical and constitutional standards.

 

So what do we do now?

Well, in the wake of the Assembly’s decision to localize the determination of essential requirements for ordination, I have been receiving lots of advice. Many conservatives feel pressed with the question of whether or not we should be staying in or leaving the PC(USA). This inner turmoil results from the fact that after debating for over thirty years about whether to ordain persons who are sexually active outside of marriage, the recent Assembly’s action was the first time our denomination’s policies have actually changed. By passing a new authoritative interpretation of our church’s Constitution, it would appear that we have given local governing bodies the license to ordain and install individuals who live in open violation of the church’s standards.

Given this shift in our policy, some would like me to come out and say we have a mandate to leave the PC(USA). On this view, the Assembly’s unprecedented accommodation to secular American culture represents a fatal compromise from which we as a denomination cannot recover. It is also believed that we as church members and officers are implicated in the grievous sin of the denomination, such that choosing continued participation in this church is choosing participation in sin, which is unconscionable.

On the other hand, some have insisted that I declare as schismatic any attempt to leave the PC(USA), asking instead that I lift up the biblical exhortations to bear with one another patiently as we maintain the visible unity so vital to a faithful witness to Christ in the world. Those who hold this view insist that we must take the unity of the church seriously, and they believe that leaving over the Assembly’s action on ordination would be tantamount to cutting a limb off of Christ’s Body.

So what to do? Both approaches have some truth. Yet ultimately I find both unconvincing and overly simplistic.

One of the biggest barriers to clear thinking in the PC(USA) is that nobody really agrees what the PC(USA) is. One of the great unasked and unanswered questions in our denomination is also one of the most foundational for the topic at hand: what is the PC(USA) anyway? In what would we stay? What would we leave? We need to be explicit about what we are talking about before we can faithfully assess our respective commitments to it!

 

What is the PC(USA)?

There are two main different assumptions about what the PC(USA) is, and because these assumptions have not been faced head on, so much of the national conversation in the church is just people talking right past each other about who we are, where we are as a church, and where we need to go in the future. Allow me to contrast the two most typical ways of identifying what the PC(USA) is, ways that I have picked up in various denominational conversations.

First, there are some, especially liberals, who tend to equate the PC(USA) with the universal Church of Jesus Christ, at least rhetorically. The Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church, though theologically diverse, was particularly fond of this approach. The title of the Task Force itself conflated the PC(USA) with the universal Church. Of course, the Task Force was talking about the peace of the PC(USA), not that of Christ’s Body as such. And yet during the Task Force’s work, all of God’s promises about the peace, unity, and purity of the Church in the New Testament were arrogated to the PC(USA) as a denomination, thereby providing the foundational principles for the whole work of the Task Force.

The best example of this way of thinking is the statement of the Task Force in its mid-term report, when they implied that anyone who even considers leaving the PC(USA) is in danger of severing his or her relationship to Jesus Christ! In other words, if you leave the PC(USA), you would be leaving Christ’s Body and so Christ himself.

Yet we know this is theological silliness. We share ministers with other denominations, and when our ministers go to serve with the Lutherans, we don’t say they are leaving the Body of Christ.

The truth is that the broken western church is a complicated mess. It is shattered into thousands of pieces, and the most we can say is that parts of the PC(USA) participate in the Body of Christ. We cannot say that we are the Body of Christ. Leaving the PC(USA) would not in itself sever my relationship to Christ or necessarily mean I have left the Church (capital “C”). The stakes are not that high, and accusations of “schism” are typically overblown. Calvin says “it is always disastrous to leave the Church,” which is true, but you cannot just flip out the words and now say “it is always disastrous to leave the PC(USA).” The point here is that the PC(USA) is not the Church; we need to get over that way of thinking.

The other, equally unhelpful approach to identifying the PC(USA) is preferred by many conservatives, and that is to equate the PC(USA) with its institutional structure or its non-profit status. On this view, the PC(USA) is an entity that has existed only since the 1980s and commands no particular loyalty. As long as the institutional structure is helpful, we should stay and use it. When it becomes an impediment to life as an individual Christian or as a congregation, then we should go elsewhere to find a more helpful institutional framework. If we take this approach, there are very few spiritual implications of leaving the PC(USA). There are only legal complications, such as trying to figure out how to take our church property with us.

So what are we? What is the PC(USA) and how does the answer to this question inform my relative commit to it?

There isn’t an easy answer, and asking professional theologians doesn’t help either. I’ve tried that, and they don’t agree with each other. Part of the difficulty is that a “denomination” is not a biblical category, so however we chart a way forward we will be drawing on related biblical principles and then trying to make the contextual adjustments to an era radically different from that of the New Testament Church.

In any case, here is my best attempt at defining what we are: The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is a covenant community of congregations that since the 18th century has been called to embody particular charisms as a witness to Christ and in service to the larger Church as it participates in God’s mission.

By calling us a “covenant community” I mean that we are bound together by a common faith and mission, with congregations in relationships that ultimately extend back to the first half of the 18th century. It means that we are more than our non-profit status, more than our bureaucratic structure. There are deep relationships, covenantal memories, and a spiritual legacy that continue to shape who we are. We are a community of roughly 11,000 congregations who share a history of ruptures and reunions, joys and trials. Our bond contributes to the unified witness of the Gospel: we are 11,000 congregations together.

And yet we cannot consider the foundation of our covenantal relationship to be a landmark of redemptive-history. Though we are in covenant relationship with one another, the “covenant” that gives us our distinct denominational identity is not the New Covenant in Christ. To claim we are the community of the New Covenant would be to drift back into claiming we are the universal Church. Rather, the covenant that gives shape to the PC(USA) is much more humble.

Our denominational identity is shaped by our agreement that the Reformed doctrines of sovereign grace give us a biblical description of our relationship with God in Christ, and by our commitment to live together according to Presbyterian principles of church order. These are the things that brought our congregations together and through which God built up our denomination. These are the particular “charisms” – spiritual gifts – that God has blessed us with and through which we can be a blessing to the Church universal and to the world.

These two aspects of our covenant – our confessional foundation and the ordered nature of our life together – have been expressed respectively in our Book of Confessions and our Book of Order, which together with the Bible make up our “Constitution.” They are intended to be an expression of our denominational identity and an instrument for maintaining it.

 

Staring Reality in the Face: Free to Be Faithful

Yet for awhile now the meaningfulness of the PC(USA)’s Constitution has been eroding. Theologically, we have lost our rootedness in the Reformed doctrines of sovereign grace both to pan-denominational evangelicalism and to theological liberalism. And with respect to our polity, bureaucratic relations have often replaced the spiritual rule of elders, and our “connectionalism” has been eaten away by various forces: from the steep decline of denominational loyalty to the recent Assembly’s decision to allow something as central as sexual morality to be a matter for local determination. The Reformed confessions were relegated to a secondary status long ago (in practice). And now our Book of Order is following suit.

And so here we are. There is no sense in covering up reality.

Let me suggest something that may sound a bit dangerous: there is a certain freedom in our present circumstance, a freedom out of which God might end up bringing some good. In some ways the Assembly’s decision on ordination finally admits in theory where we have been in practice for quite some time. And staring reality in the face can be a revelatory experience.

One thing revealed is that we are free to no longer look to our constitutional documents or our higher governing bodies as the primary means of giving expression to the unity and identity of our covenant community. We might recover their ability to serve that role, but in the meantime we ought to admit what some on the P.U.P. Task Force knew well, namely that the higher you go in our governing bodies the less representative those bodies become. (Honestly, it is hard to get past the fact that the P.U.P. Task Force was careful to make their recommendation to change our ordination policies in a form that could be passed by one vote of the G.A., without requiring votes of the 173 presbyteries!) If the higher governing bodies of the church do not re-present us then we need to find alternative ways to make manifest who and whose we are.

Indeed, the substance of the Assembly’s action on ordination itself encourages greater local control and admits the weakness of our national identity. Maybe that in itself should diminish the sense of being morally compromised by the Assembly’s decision (a concern of many evangelicals). We can express our identity locally with confidence and integrity and need not feel defined by the unrepresentative actions of the Assembly.

And we can do much more. Having been encouraged to assert ourselves locally, we can do so in ways that will give alternative and ultimately more unified expression to our covenant community. It is about the relationships – congregation to congregation, and gatherings of elders and pastors. We find ourselves in a time where the institutional modes of maintaining these relationships are failing, and we need to develop new patterns. For instance, even if some use their new local license to shrink from the global church by considering confession of the Lordship of Jesus Christ or a sexually moral life non-essential requirements for ordaining officers, we are free as an evangelical movement to expand into rather than shrink from global Presbyterianism.

While we work to restore proper order in our own denomination – which we will do – we are free to be faithful. We are free to be faithful in building new relationships and expanding the covenant community. We are free to be faithful by proclaiming the Gospel, training missional leaders, doing good theology and fostering healthy congregations whose public witness to Jesus is at the heart of God’s plan for the expansion of his Kingdom. We are free to address the underlying disease of the church’s problems rather than simply being entrenched in battles over its symptoms. We are free to be faithful by banding together as those who confess the Lordship of Jesus Christ over all of life, and together building ministries that do not depend on a failing denominational structure, ministries that do equip our leaders, nourish our congregations and offer a faithful witness to Christ in the world – friends these are the things our ministries together as Presbyterians For Renewal are all about, and we are free to pursue them with passion while we seek the will of Christ for our future together.

If we discover that there is no future for basic biblical faithfulness in the PC(USA), we will see to it that we can sing a new song in a new land, and I would be the first to lead the charge. And yet as of this day this has not been revealed to us, and as we seek the mind of Christ together, we must stay together as an evangelical movement and we must trust more in the Spirit that rose Christ from the dead than we do in the powers of darkness whose day will soon come to an end. We must not stop engaging in the work of the Kingdom or allow ourselves to be so captivated by the agendas that the devil has thrust upon the church that we fail to proclaim together the Gospel of the living and reigning Lord Jesus Christ!

And brothers and sisters, we are free to be faithful in building relationships with Presbyterians all over the world and to begin seeing ourselves as we are – a small part of what God is doing to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ to peoples around the globe. We can begin to understand ourselves more as people participating in the flourishing of the Gospel around the world – and it is flourishing around the world – and less narrowly as people who feel buried amidst the ails of a declining mainline North American denomination. This is one of the main thrusts of the new Presbyterian Global Fellowship, an initiative I have been working on with a cluster of evangelical congregations in the PC(USA). And I invite you to come and join us for its first gathering in Atlanta on August 17-19 at Peachtree Presbyterian Church. We don’t know where God will take this nascent movement, but I hope you will come and seek God’s will with us and help shape its future.

Choosing to emphasize that we as a Presbyterian Church can and should pursue our identity and unity through means not defined by our governing bodies does, in my mind, represent a step further than where PFR and most of the evangelical movement has been in the past. PFR has always been an alternative of sorts, some have even called us a “shadow denomination.” Whatever we call it, I believe the time has come for the whole evangelical movement to go to the next level: more distinct identity within the PC(USA); reconsidering our stewardship of financial resources and questioning the wisdom of paying per capita and undesignated mission giving – this will vary by presbytery but we do need to ask the questions; and a public, open-ended, theologically informed discussion about where God may be leading us together in the future.

In our agenda for the next two to four years, this approach of getting on with the mission of the church together as an evangelical movement and not waiting on the reform of the hierarchy is one of two main thrusts.

The other main thrust is the faithful engagement of the church’s governing bodies – from sessions to the General Assembly – doing all we can to ensure that biblical and constitutional standards for church leadership will be upheld at the local level, working to restore order at the national level at the next General Assembly, and exploring several specific ideas for our future, including non-geographic governing bodies.

We must be careful that this effort does not consume us so much that we fail to get on with the church’s mission; but I believe it would be unfaithful for us to merely abandon the structures of the church. Indeed, we have good, tangible reasons to engage them with confidence. We should remember that, after all the campaigning and all the anticipation and all the deference given to the PUP Task Force, their recommendation on ordination standards that has provoked our reaction has received only 57% approval of the one most disproportionately liberal governing body in the church. And the GA voted by over 80% to keep our standards in place. In other words, we don't know what may happen at the next General Assembly. I do not believe the further liberalization of the church is inevitable. Nor do I believe a more faithful course is inevitable. They are both in question.

Another important thing to remember about the recent Assembly’s decision on ordination, which granted license to local governing bodies, is that you are not required to use the license they have granted. You are free to be faithful in your congregations and in your presbyteries to uphold the biblical and constitutional standards of the church. And PFR is ready to help you do that.

I encourage you to read the written piece we have on our website called “Speak Now or Forever Hold Your Peace.” It interprets the Assembly’s actions, and gives you some practical advice about what you can do now – how you can speak now to help ensure faithfulness in your sessions and presbyteries. There is also information available on the website of a new group called the Constitutional Presbyterians.

In addition, PFR has established a legal team consisting of five former members of the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission. This team stands ready to answer any questions you may have about what has happened and what you can do to uphold the Constitution, including pursuing remedial cases against an ordaining body that does not uphold the Constitution, or disciplinary cases against leaders who live openly in violation of the Constitution.

What is the PC(USA)? We are a covenant community of congregations called to live out of the distinctives of our Reformed heritage, in and for the 21st century. We can now see that enforcing our national “Constitution” will not in the short term be a primary means of enabling our community to live out of its own ideals. Perhaps the Spirit will breathe on our congregations and presbyteries to enable authentic Reformed life to emerge from the grassroots. We are living such a life in many places. Let’s build new patterns of relationships to nourish and support each other and provide new modes for the unified witness of our covenant community.

At the same time let us work together to restore order and faithfulness at the national level, calling the whole church to live out of its own recognized biblical and constitutional standards.

If you leave the PC(USA), I won’t call you schismatic, you can still be part of the Church, that is the Body of Christ, and your relationship with Christ will likely still be intact. But we will miss you, and our covenant community will be the weaker for it. So, for the sake of the covenant community, I urge you not just to stay, but to become a part of the expanding movement.[5]



Footnotes:
[1] I feel compelled to point out that it does feel a bit odd to hold these up as “good decisions.” In one sense, for the reasons stated above, they were good decisions. In another sense, I admit that they are not exactly cause for unrestrained rejoicing, given that they were basically decisions to undo damage and help prevent further damage or unfaithfulness. Evangelicals often feel like that at General Assembly: like we’re working for damage control. The things we rejoice about as evangelicals are typically things that happen in our congregations, where God changes peoples’ lives. What we most desire cannot be accomplished by a General Assembly, and using the Assembly to make this or that prophetic statement or espouse this or that national church policy, or even getting evangelicals elected commissioners to General Assembly, is not what we see as our primary task in the church, whereas for many liberals the situation is reversed. And so the Assembly is flooded with liberal proposals for action, which its unrepresentative set of voting commissioners often find appealing, and for the sake of what matters most to us – our congregational ministries – we often find ourselves trying to limit the damage that might be done by the Assembly. There is much more to be said here, but this is a general description of what I see happening.
[2] Cartoons are not meant to be fair, of course. The paper does not lead to that conclusion, but it needed to have more clearly avoided that conclusion.
[3] I should point out that the decision to frame the Assembly’s action in terms of the agenda of the gay lobby is to indicate that the Assembly’s action, whether intentionally or not, fits the agenda of that special interest group. I am here paying primary attention to who is pleased with this outcome and why, not with the origins of the proposed authoritative interpretation (i.e. the Theological Task Force on P.U.P.).
[4] Los Angeles Times, “Episcopal, Presbyterian Leaders Rule on Gay Clergy,” June 21, 2006.
[5] Given some questions that were asked after this speech was given, it seems appropriate for me to note that the future of the “expanding movement” is, of course, open-ended. How could it be anything else?