This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Sunday, January 24, 2016


This piece is mainly about the third chapter of the Foundations section of the Presbyterian Book of Order (F-3).  This chapter presents the basic principles of Presbyterian polity, virtually intact from the late 18th century.  I relate it to the new first chapter (F-1), which is a call to move out as people sent by God in mission to the world.  F-3 is about how we organize ourselves, supposedly to do this.  I am reflecting on the tension and discontinuity between these two sections, and what we might do about it.

The heart of Presbyterian polity is the third chapter of the Foundations section of the Book of Order, what I am calling F-3.  Carl Wilton rightly and brilliantly bases his new book on demonstrating the way the principles in F-3 support and connect everything else in our polity.  F-3 expresses the heart and soul of American Presbyterianism.
And F-3 is magnificent.  In it we find principles that not only would we not want to lose, but which we may confidently carry into every ecumenical conversation as an example of what our branch of Christianity does well.
The basic and underlying genius of F-3 is the insight that power in the church has to be diffused and distributed, wielded only by gathered groups and never allowed to congeal in individuals.  We are allergic to concentrations of power, a sense that is a direct consequence of our sensitivity towards, and rejection of, idolatry.  Only Jesus Christ is the Head of the Church.
F-3 emerges out of the struggles and values of the 18th century and the American colonial experience.  This is its great strength, for it identifies with all who languish under persecution and the yoke of colonialism, and boldly proclaims the independence of the gospel of Jesus Christ and his people from all oppressive regimes.
But at the same time this context is its greatest weakness.  For the framers of F-3 were strangely both colonized in their relationship to Great Britain, and colonists in their relationship to the indigenous peoples and landscapes of the continent.  They were exploited, but also conquerors thoroughly permeated by the values of mercantilism, imperialism, and Christendom.  So while they did not want interference from the extractive superpower across the ocean, the framers of Presbyterian polity also did not identify with, felt no responsibility for, either the Native populations they were aggressively displacing (not to mention murdering wholesale) or the enslaved Africans they were importing and forcing to lives of degradation and hard labor.
So while F-3 expresses the genius of limiting power over and within the church, it remains largely blind to any missional concern for those outside of it.  This is a structural reality that has kept the Presbyterian church stuck in a modernist framework and mainly Anglo-Saxon in makeup.  F-3 has been mis-used to lock us into this status quo.  
Not only that, but we have spent a lot of time and energy undermining even the beneficial aspects of F-3, by finding ways to circumvent its restrictions on the accumulation of power by a few.  This happened when we started importing bureaucratic corporate categories like trustees, executives, and heads-of-staff into our polity.  A search of the Book of Order (to say nothing of the Book of Confessions or the Bible) has scant mention of the phenomenon of the paid “staff.”  It’s buried deep in chapter G-3, almost as a grudging concession.  But because it is so vague it has been exploited as a huge gap through which has been driven a truckload of corruption basically saddling the church with exactly the leadership structure F-3 vociferously militates against, with power lodged with a handful of bureaucrats and well-compensated pastors of large churches, not to mention wealthy donors.
One of the weaknesses of F-3 is that it talks a lot about power, and not at all about wealth.  This massive blind-spot reflects the status of the people who framed the basic principles of Presbyterianism as mainly middle-class merchants, bankers, and professionals.  They did not want “government,” in their case the King, meddling in their economic affairs.  Thus they developed a polity correctly resistant to State power, but completely unconscious of the economic power wielded by individuals and private institutions.  Were we to have read F-3 with a sensitivity towards money, perhaps we would not have ended up with a system in which, in practice, cash has way more authority than God.  A circumstance explicitly rejected by Jesus, who is supposedly the Head of the Church (Matthew 6:24).
My point is that we have undermined the heart of F-3 by finding several ways to centralize power, while at the same time allowing F-3’s liabilities to thrive as tools to maintain the ethnic and procedural status quo. 
The 2011 Form of Government takes a significant step in balancing and framing the liabilities of F-3 by placing it in the context of the robust missional affirmation of the new beginning to the Foundations section of the Book of Order, F-1.  This is really important and thoroughly underestimated.  What we need now is a way to infuse the corrective insights of F-1 into F-3 and the rest of the polity. 
The flexible, permission-giving character of the 2011 Form of Government is a great improvement over the 1983 polity, which was habitually used in a regulatory and legalistic manner.  But several unhelpful approaches to this are now congealing.  In the first place, we see the view that flexibility is now somehow mandatory, and that councils should be restricted from restricting just about anyone doing anything.  This violates the spirit of F-1 which at least grounds the church in the mission of God, which has specific content and direction.  Such a view sends us into the chaotic neverland of “each doing what is right in their own eyes,” (a situation frowned upon in Judges 21:25 and Jeremiah 18:12).  Secondly, there is the fact that many presbyteries used their new flexibility simply to codify locally the standards and practices of the 1983 polity.  Often this is introduced as a provisional and stopgap measure… which then persists year after year.  This approach then has a tendency to bleed into a third response to the 2011 Form of Government: the use of “flexibility” to entrench the power and advance the agendas of in-groups and leaders.  (This is exactly why a group like ACSWP opposed the new Form of Government in the first place.)  
What is not happening in any coherent and systematic way is the infusion into our whole system of the insights and affirmations of F-1.  Is the reason for this the fact  that we left F-3 basically intact, right down to the barely intelligible 18th century language of most of it?
If not a major rewrite, I suggest that we need to intentionally reinterpret F-3.  In this we would (a) lift up and preserve its shining insights about decentralizing, diffusing, and distributing power; (b) give it more teeth by explicitly addressing economic and bureaucratic power; (c) clarify the missional context by talking about how our principles of polity are not intended to close the church off from the world, especially the broken and disenfranchised, but showing us how best to gather in order to be sent out with the good news of God’s love. 

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