PC(USA) – if we don’t divide, how do we stop fighting?

November 18, 2008 by · 9 Comments
Filed under: Religion 

A few weeks ago, I wrote this post about the pre-requisites for an orderly schism in the PC(USA).  I personally don’t favor dividing, but I’m just as weary as most others with the fighting that goes on because we don’t divide.

I got 5 comments in response.  Four of them were against dividing and one was in favor.

So the question for today is this – if we don’t divide, how do we stop the disagreements from tearing apart the church, and losing whole generations?

There are two hot-button issues today:  homosexuality and property rights.  A case can be made that the latter follows the former – that churches only care who has title to their property because they are considering breaking away from the denomination.  But both cases really boil down to one issue – rules and whether or not to follow them.

I believe in rules.  Rules make it possible for our society to function without decaying into a battle of the strongest and triumph of our basest emotions.  For the most part, I try to follow the rules most of the time.  This has occasionally confused people, particularly in the area of interpersonal communication where by following the rules and NOT having a hidden agenda I confuse them because they expect a hidden agenda.  Rules are generally a good thing.

Sometimes rules are a bad thing.  Sometimes rules are created or enforced in a way that gives one person or a group of people special power over others, without their consent.  This is when breaking the rules makes sense.  However, at all times you must be prepared to suffer the consequences of breaking the rule.  The privilege of being able to determine when to break the rules comes with the responsibility to accept the consequences of failing to prevail.  From a Reformed (and particularly Presbyterian) point of view – because our conception of the rules is determined by a consensus of what the Holy Spirit is telling us (through Scripture, Jesus and the working of the Spirit today) – there will be cases where faithful people will end up on the wrong side of the determination of consensus.  Some of us will believe that the Spirit is calling us to discern rule Z, and others to discern rule not-Z.  We decide by the quasi-democratic process whether Z or not-Z is right.  Those who are on the “losing” side are expected to follow the rule, or peacefully and individually separate from the communion.

Our troubles today come because people at the extremes are not following the rules.  It’s a problem on both sides.

On the progressive side, the failure to follow the rules comes when a person makes a public statement that they are or intend to have sex outside of a marriage of a man and a woman and still expect to be ordained.  That’s the rule (today, it may not be in a few months).  Ordination is limited to those who are determined by their local governing body to not be in a state of unrepentant sin.  The whole sex thing is codified specifically.  If you fail, by self-acknowledging that you are having sex with somebody other than your opposite-gender spouse, then you are not eligible.  It’s there in black and white.  I disagree, I hate the rule, and I’ll do all in my power to overturn it but it is there.  If you (progressives) are going to have any credibility with others in the church, you need to stick with the rules.  Besides, there are many ways for a gay or lesbian person to be ordained.  You can keep your mouth shut, and therefore not self-acknowledge.  You can not be asked the question in the first place.  What you can’t do is make a statement that “I’m gay, and I’m now or in the future going to act on it” and expect to be ordained.  And making statements that you have no intention of following the rules isn’t kosher either.  As I’ll say in a minute, you do have the option of going elsewhere.

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On the conservative side, the failure to follow the rules comes when a minister or session chooses to lead their church out of the PC(USA) without first following the proper procedure of working with the presbytery and being patient.  That’s the rule, and it has been since reunion.  (Note – those churches who have voted not to accept the Chapter 8 property restrictions by voting annually since reunion ARE exempt.)  Almost all of you have been ordained since reunion.  Others of you have chosen to remain in the PC(USA) since reunion – you’ve had 25 years to decide to leave.  I understand that you are concerned with the people who are not following the sex rules.  I disagree that it gives you the right to leave, but if you are that uncomfortable then so be it.  We have adequate scripture to back up your right to individually leave.  What isn’t in scripture, or the Book of Order, or the Book of Confessions is the right to expect to take your property with you.  Chapter 8 is there.  It’s the rule.  If you really can’t stand being in the PC(USA) and aren’t willing to negotiate with your presbytery and pay whatever penalty they come up with (and presbyteries – some of you aren’t playing nice either), then your recourse is to leave the church and walk down the road to whatever space you can rent/borrow/own and start a new church.  That’s the rule.  If you follow the procedure, history shows that you will eventually get to keep your building (though you might have to pay something for it).  Otherwise you have a way out – leave without the property.  But filing civil cases in order to assert property rights isn’t Christian, and it isn’t right.  And it’s not following the rules that you agreed to when you became a part of this community (the denomination) that makes its rules by communally discerning God’s will.  Don’t like it?  Overture General Assembly to remove Chapter 8.  Until now, you’ve won every vote in the presbyteries related to sex and ordination – why do you think you’d lose now?

So both sides aren’t following the rules, and they are pointing fingers at EACH OTHER yelling “He’s breaking the rules!  He’s breaking the rules!”  This in turn is attracting the attention of not just those involved in clearing up the playground fight, but the kids in the circle around them, and the kids not in the circle at all.  We’re losing people because we can’t play nice.  We’re losing people because we can’t fight respectfully and they don’t want to associate with us.  The perception is that Christians (and again – Presbyterians) spend all of their time fighting and arguing about the rules, and that Christians are judgmental and discriminatory (at least when it comes to gay people).  That’s keeping people out of the church, and a large part of a generation or two are calling themselves “spiritual but not religious”* and opting out of the church.

So the question is this:  What can we, who do not want a division, do to stop the voices that are calling for a division?  How do we stop the fighting that creates the appearance of a need for division?

I think the place to start is for those who are in the middle, those who do not want a split, to start holding those who ARE fighting to a higher standard.  We need to point out when people don’t fight fair.  We need to do the fact-checking that was done during our recent Presidential election, and counter arguments (most often from our own side) that are false.  We need to require respect for the opponent as a pre-requisite for debate.  In short – we need to make taking the high road an expectation in others.

And we also need to model humility.  When WE are called out by someone for behaving badly, we need to agree, apologize, and move on.  When OUR facts are wrong and we are correctly refuted, we need to admit that and move on (though sometimes we will be correct and defending that is the right thing to do).  In short, we need to take the high road even when others are taking the low road.

Can we do that?  I don’t know.  It’s a very high standard – one that I admit that I don’t meet 100% of the time.  But I believe that it’s what God expects us to do and what we need to do.

* I disagree with Mercadante’s conclusion that this problem is not the church’s fault.  Failure to recognize a shift and move with it is fault.  Our job is to preach the Gospel to all people in all times, and we have to be flexible about how we do that so that it (the Gospel) is received.  One key principle of communication is to use the style of the listener rather than the speaker in order for the message to be received successfully with regularity.  We in the church have too long insisted on OUR way, sometimes calling it God’s way.  I think we’ve been in the wrong on that.  Otherwise we’d be speaking Greek or Latin.

What I needed to hear

September 6, 2007 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Religion 

Sometimes, you go to church on Sunday and hear the sermon that you needed to hear, on the day that you needed to hear it.

That happened to me two weeks ago.  Our new Associate Pastor, Mary Alice Lyman, preached a sermon called Where the Heart Is.

One quote:

Religion should incorporate principles, not constrictive rules and regulations.  Many people, in the time of Jesus, were committed to God, but they failed in how to maintain the commitment.  Many people, now, are committed to God, but we fail in how this commitment is maintained.  I think commitment to God is determined by many factors but one that I feel is key is the renewal of the human heart.  And the
renewal of the human heart is something that comes from inside us. Social reforms or education cannot renew the heart.  Armed conflict cannot enact it.  Initially, it is the human mind that makes the
decision to accept Christ; but it is the heart that will make the decision to follow Christ to the end of one’s life.

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Our religion should not kill our compassion.  When people are in need and love is called upon we should act with a human heart.  God prefers love to law, and hearts over habits.  Our first priority should be our
devotion to God not the fear getting in trouble for breaking Sabbath law.  We should be living from the heart and not under the constraintsof habit.  If our religion is standing in the way of doing a good deed
then it might be time to examine our beliefs.  They might be killing our compassion.

In her verbal delivery (but not in the written sermon), she actually said that she’s worried that this is exactly the problem that the Presbyterian Church faces.  Sound familiar?

Side note:  The Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville has a new website at pclawrenceville.org  It’s pretty nice.