John Vest and I really don’t agree on much theologically. We figured that out over crab cakes in the Baltimore Airport right after our first meeting of the then titled “Middle Governing Body Commission” on which both of us served. A recent post on John’s blog where he lays out his views on the atonement (and in the follow-up comments, the resurrection) only confirms what both of us know: we come from different “camps” within the PCUSA.
I’m a Fuller Seminary Ph.D. who has been greatly influenced by the historical and biblical work of N.T. Wright. John studied at the University of Chicago and McCormick Seminary and cites Dom Crossan and Marcus Borg as his biblical guides.
If you put us at a bar and forced us to drink bourbon and talk theology (ok, we did that too), we’d keep coming up with a few conclusions:
- Both of us enjoy our friendship.
- Both of us know that the other is a Christian.
- Both of us think that our respective theologies are right.
- Both of us are hopeful that the PCUSA has room for both of us.
- Both of us are pretty sure that we couldn’t work or would even be welcome to serve in the other’s PCUSA congregation.
I write this NOT as the usual “we are so blessed by the theological diversity and great conversation” apologetic for why “we should all stay together in our presbyteries and continue the dialogue”, because frankly, I’m not sure that accomplishes much beyond building friendships and affirming the kinds of things that John and I found out over crab cakes and bourbon (as beneficial as those are).
No, I write this as an explanation of why John and I both became convinced that a more flexible mid-council structure would ultimately lead to both more friendship and greatly enhanced MISSION.
Because mission, not theological discussion, is the primary purpose of our Presbyteries.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I believe in serious theological engagement. Indeed, I believe we don’t have enough. Theological discernment, especially around ordination and membership is a crucial task of a presbytery. Theological discourse is a necessary practice for a healthy, faithful presbytery. But many have insisted that theological diversity should be one of the goals and purposes of a presbytery.
Theological diversity for a discussion’s sake is a truly good use of bars, crab cakes and universities, but not Presbyteries. At least not as a primary function. A presbytery’s PRIMARY function is serving the churches that make up its “covenant communion” so those congregations can fulfill their missional calling to witness to Christ.
And while John and I may have deep disagreements about each other’s theological convictions and even the importance of theological consensus, point #5 above reminds us that there are communities of faith as theologically diverse as we are. Discerning the best way to serve the mission of those congregations is the primary task of a Presbytery.
Point #5 above is not a source of sadness for us, just acknowledging reality. It’s not about some kind of ‘bias’ or prejudice, but ‘fit’. John serves a church with a more progressive theology and missional convictions that flow naturally and well from that theology. I serve a church with a more evangelical theology and missional convictions that are expressed in some ways that are similar and in other ways very differently than John’s. While both of us appreciate, affirm and even argue that each other’s church is necessary in a world where many people are quickly leaving both church and faith behind, we know that neither one of us would be a good pastoral ‘fit’ for the other’s church.
And when there is not a good fit, (as any functional presbytery COM will tell you), the mission suffers.
If you put me as a teaching elder in John’s church, I would be a distraction from the mission of the church (all it would take would be one sermon where I explain my convictions about sexual ethics). And the same would be true for John in mine. Theology matters—as we have affirmed many times—and it especially matters most at the local level where there is need for some significant degree of shared theological consensus in order to keep focused on the mission. (Indeed, this is a crucial issue of discernment in developing new worshipping communities.)
And if that is true about churches, why wouldn’t it be true about Presbyteries too?
Presbyteries are where teaching elders ‘have’ their membership. Presbyteries are our ‘bishop’. And to be sure, it is up to a presbytery to determine the theological ‘fit’ and fidelity of a teaching elder. Presbyteries are where congregations and their teaching elders are called to ‘mutually submit to one another’, to exercise discipline and to give oversight and support to the mission of the congregations within its covenant communion. We imagine that this may take many forms and that it could include different theological ‘orders’ within a greater theological tradition.
In our report, we have called for a season of experimental permission-giving that would allow Presbyteries to test some flexible models that would best serve the mission of its member churches. The Presbytery would have the freedom (not requirement!) to discern and experiment with structure, alignment, agreements and membership requirements (within the larger constitution). A church that would ‘fit’ better in a neighboring presbytery would be free to request a transfer. A presbytery would be free to allow it even on a trial basis. And if presbyteries wanted to divide, re-align, or create new presbyteries within its bounds or in conjunction with other presbyteries in its region, it would have the permission to do so.
In many cases, we believe that the organizing principles will be a matter of shared calling (like a presbytery of churches called to urban ministry, or church planting, or a particular justice cause) or shared structural preferences (like a preference for a very small presbytery with minimal structures or a very large presbytery with lots of staff and shared program or some creative hybrids). But some may also want to experiment with a presbytery based around some particular shared theological convictions (like a kind of “order”) as a form of witness to the world.
That might mean that a church like John’s that is comfortable with a teaching elder who has written that “the historicity of the resurrection is pretty much a non-issue for me” may be best served in a different presbytery than a church like mine that absolutely would insist that its teaching elders believe that the historicity of the resurrection is about the biggest “issue” of all…or maybe not.
In our current structure there is no flexibility for discerning it. Geography is destiny. You may be able to go to a congregation that is a good fit for you, but you MUST be part of the local geographic presbytery whether you or your church share the same theological or missional convictions. The arbitrary contiguous geographical boundaries drawn up by some committee the last time we re-organized trumps the discernment of the churches and its ruling and teaching elders trying to adapt to a rapidly changing world.
And the unity of Christ, the peace of Christ and especially the mission of Christ suffers.
Our recommendations insist that in the larger unity that holds us together as the PCUSA--a unity that can include both John and me--we want to trust structural and theological discernment processes to presbyteries. We trust that if you let ruling and teaching elders of churches work out their own specific “covenants” they’ll organize in the manner that will best serve the mission of the congregations in a new expression of a presbytery in a changing world.
It may mean that we will disagree on some very important things. It may mean that we will allow each other to belong to different presbyteries with different missional convictions and theological nuances, but we’ll also be free to stop arguing, affirm each other’s faith, enjoy some crab cakes, and focus on the mission of Jesus.
And we might even become friends, too.
(For more on our report, including the report itself, links to a video series that is being produced and a short Powerpoint slide show click here. )