Wednesday, February 16, 2011

God Is No Respecter of Persons

Just another day in the PC(USA)
Over the last week or so, there was a small tempest in the increasingly shrinking Presbyterian teapot.   A group of forty-five pastors pitched out an open letter in which they 1) lamented the decline of the denomination and 2) suggested that perhaps things are so broken that it's time to pack up the saddlebags and mosey on.

No sentient being could look at the Presbyterian church as a broader entity and say, "Gosh'n'golly, things are just peachy."  We're a mess.  Why?  Because like all dying things, we're focused inwardly.  We fight amongst ourselves, and what little energy that remains gets spent on internal processes and procedures that are so stranglingly byzantine that they'd break the will of even the most hardened apparatchik.  So when this cadre of pastors says things are bad, they're not blowing smoke.

While I fundamentally disagree with their the idea that walking away makes sense, or that property has a single thing to do with our dilemma, I find myself equally disagreeing with the character of the hue and cry that's gone up around certain quarters of the denomination in response to their letter.  Much of the response that I've read and encountered seems to be fixated on the fact that the letter was written by men, and that those men are all pastors of large congregations.  They are most certainly all men, biiiiiiig men, all Boones and a-doers and a dream a come-a-truers are they.  

Sorry.  I can't imagine why that popped into my head. 

Whichever way, significant portions of the blowback seemed to focus less on the substance of what they were saying...which merits some debate and some gracious rebuttal...and more on who they were.

Among the Presbyterian left, this may seem acceptable.  Being the compulsively overeducated bunch we are, we're deeply steeped in the ethos of contemporary academe, where discourse is focused intensely on gender and ethnicity and social context.  

But while understanding the influence of culture and ethnicity and gender is essential, discounting someone's perspective because of their gender, their race, or their social location is fundamentally antithetical to the message of liberation that lies at the heart of the Gospel.   We hear in our sacred texts that the Creator of the Universe couldn't care less about such things.   God does not favor a partner in Goldman Sachs over a young Congolese girl forced into the sex trade.  Or the other way around. 

The ferocious demands of God's love and justice are unaffected by those categories, which is precisely and exactly why the Gospel is Good News to the oppressed and a bit of a pisser for those who think their worth can be measured by the size of their stock portfolio.  Or the height of

These.  Things.  Don't.  Matter.   To us?  Perhaps they do.  We are human.  Putting other human beings into neat little boxes as a way of controlling or dismissing them is what we do. 

But the radically egalitarian spirit that wells up from the Gospels and the authentic letters of Paul...the same Spirit that empowers women and anyone from across the spectrum of sexual orientation to proclaim and rejoice in the Gospel...that Spirit would seem to demand that we focus on the essence, that we try not to let difference and disagreement color our efforts to both discern grace and manifest it.


  1. Somehow I think that no matter how much we agree on the underlying principle - and I firmly believe you speak one big truth boldly in this post - we will continue to have some serious disagreements about numerous implications. The remarkable thing is that I think we would both attribute that to the residual sinfulness of the other; good people of good will led astray by the flesh or something like that. It's really quite a shame.

  2. And yet the measure, as the Master teaches it, is not whether we disagree about things that are serious. It is whether we are able to manifest the grace of the Spirit even in the face of those disagreements, understanding that the right to make that final assessment does not lie with us.

  3. I wish they hadn't focused on how to ignore the PCUSA, have a separate synod or leave. I won't leave unless I get kicked out. If they had focused on the real problems - not sexuality - like denial of the connection between the death of Christ and forgiveness, Nicene Creed and the Chalcedon Creed I would be more supportive.

    But I suspect you are correct: those who disagree with them attacked not on the issues but on the makeup of the group. How sad.

  4. "Our divisions revolve around differing understandings of Scripture, authority, Christology, the extent of salvation amidst creeping universalism, and a broader set of moral issues."


    Our divisions revolve around our divisions!

    As the apostle Paul warned us in Galatians, "For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, "YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF." But if you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another."

    Any congregation that heeds this warning is growing.

    The other kind of congregation that is growing is the cannibalistic tall steeple church with the Rock Star preachers.

    There is something to learn from that, from the energy of the Alpha Male preachers who can play the role that church-as-theater demands. But they are not growing in a legitimate way. They are only growing temporarily while there are carcasses to feed on.

    At the root of our issue are two factors:

    1) we come from a broken world and broken families and broken lives. If Church is just another place to experience brokenness, alienation, and strife, then F___k it! Better to spend Sunday mornings grocery shopping or reading the Sunday comics.

    2) The Fundamentalist have hijacked the Story. While they have failed to convince the world at large that their view of God is correct, they have convinced the world at large that their view of the Bible is correct, and that Christianity in general supports their view of God. So - and I say this only as the example du jour - while they have failed to convince the world at large that homosexuality is an evil sin, they have convinced the world at large that the Bible says that homosexuality is an evil sin and that God says what they say the Bible says.

    So in (rightly) rejecting Fundamentalism, the world at large has also rejected the Bible and Christianity and even God him(her)self.

    Our task is daunting.

    But clear.

    The future of the Church is not in the past, just as Jesus Christ is not in the past. He is risen. Today. He lives. Today. The future of the Church is in the future.


    The future lies in leadership by example. Not in ideologies preached from pulpits carved in stone, but in transparently lived lives of trust and faith. Not in conflict over rules, but in kindness born in love. In the faith of Abraham who prayed for Sodom and Gomorrah, who not finding their sin worthy of universal condemnation, interceded on their behalf.

    Somebody once thought that was so important that they wrote it in a letter to future generations. Generation they knew would struggle to find the essence of the Gospel in troubled times.

    Nobody gives a flyin F--- what some dead philosopher had to say about the Gospel 1500 years ago. They want the healing power of the Gospel today. After all, 1500 years ago, that is what motivated their philosophising in the first place. The God who Is. The eternally in the present I AM.

    Our Faith always starts in the Spirit. Always has. So why do we then revert to the rules and regulations of the flesh??? That is the Death of the Church.

    As it says in the Scriptures.

    So A) we must reject brokenness as a means to resolve our differences, and B) we must adopt the role of intercessors rather than that of condemners of the human condition.

    We may not know the mind of God, but we know the mind of humanity. The World looks at the Church for comfort and for diplomatic relations with God.

    That is the calling of the Church in the 21st Century. Everything else is a waste of time and energy.

  5. @ Jodie: Given where church architecture is lately, I tend to think of them more as "big parking lot churches." I actually kinda preferred the steeples....

    I concur with much of what you're saying, but would note that the meat of it does involve "...differing understandings of Scripture, authority, Christology, the extent of salvation..." Your assessment of the character of the struggle lays that out.

    As a minor aside, while it is likely because I'm a mutant, I do care about what folks said about Jesus 1,500 years ago. Not because I want to go back there. I like antibiotics and not being hungry. I like being in a place where the voices of women can be raised, and where human beings don't own one another.

    When I look at those writings through the lens of Christ's grace, I find that I don't see incomprehensible antiquity. I don't see a vast unbridgeable chasm of cultural and linguistic difference. I see human beings, who struggle with the same things I struggle with, and who were in their own context clearly moved by the same Spirit that moves me. Were they flawed? Sure. They got a bunch of things wrong. But so, undoubtedly, do I.

    Oh...and thanks for the self-editing!

  6. Dave,

    I should perhaps have been more explicit. I don't think the reasons people are leaving the Church revolve around the subject of our different views, but rather around the fact of our divisiveness over those views.

    The loss of the high ground when it comes to the content and meaning of the Scriptures has made the Church incompetent to manage conflict. We enter into conflict badly, we engage in conflict worse, and we resolve conflict in manners that are wholly unsatisfactory to all.

    Walking out the door and slamming it behind you is nothing more than childish petulance. But constantly rolling around the floor in a screeching ball of fur is no better.

    I like reading what the ancients have written for exactly the reasons you outline. What we learn from them are not the answers they found, so much, but their courage and methods for searching for answers.

    And it is in that Spirit that we must now re-invent the Church.