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

Monday, January 4, 2016

Polity Class, Lecture One.

I toyed with the idea of calling this class, “Defense Against the Dark Arts.”  Those of you who have read the Harry Potter books will know that as a class at Hogwarts concerned with combatting the destructive power and forces of evil in the magical world.  
Ecclesiastical polity is also about combatting evil… not in the form of Lord Voldemort, but the evil that creeps into our communities when we fail to order our lives according to the Word of God, Jesus Christ, the only Head of the Church.  For polity is not a dry exercise in which we throw the book at, or run parliamentary rings around, each other.  It is not about getting our own way through calculated manipulation of procedures.  It is not about politics, in the sense of arm-twisting to nail down the votes in an adversarial process of compromise and horse-trading, with winners and losers.  
The fact that polity has become that and worse for some is an indication that it is a field ripe for the flourishing of what we might indeed call the Dark Arts.  No one knows better than I that polity can be twisted, abused, misused, and distorted.  It can be pressed into service of ego-centric, personality-driven, fearful, angry, hateful agendas.  It can be wielded by leaders to preserve their own power and salaries.  It can be the most potent weapon of the status quo.  It can indeed be a tool of the darkness to shut out the light.
The church, because it deals with fundamental truths and powers, tends to attract people with all kinds of spiritual, psychological, and political pathologies.  It is a hospital for sinners; a place where the broken come to be made whole.  The church is full of humans.  And humans are inherently problematic.     
I am reminded of a friend of mine, who happens to be Lutheran.  After rocky and difficult experiences in several churches he went to the bishop for reassignment.  When the bishop asked him what kind of church he would like to serve next, he replied, “I would like a church with some Christians in it.”  To which the bishop replied that he wasn’t sure he could promise that.     
In reality, ecclesiastical polity is about how we live together in community according to principles of justice, peace, inclusion, openness, honesty, humility, and love.  It is about how we make wise decisions.  It is about how we gather to have meaningful, purposeful conversations.  It is about how we listen for the Spirit among us.  Polity is about how we form a community that receives, witnesses to, and is sent out into the world by, Jesus Christ.
The words of a slogan from AA may be applied to polity: “It works if you work it.” 
When you get out into ministry, you will find that the common joke is about “what they didn’t teach us in seminary.”  Usually, this has to do with figuring out the church thermostat, emergency repair of manse plumbing, or even how to hit people up for money at stewardship time.  And it is a veiled reference to the fact that perhaps we are not finding ourselves actually using this or that piece of arcane, esoteric, theological knowledge.  
But in this class we are going to be talking about stuff you will use every, single day.  Because as disciples of the Lord Jesus, our first job is learning to live in and as the beloved community.  Polity gives us the format, the guidelines, the framework of relationships, and the organizational structure by which this happens.
Our understanding of polity begins, really, in Exodus.  God liberates the Israelites from Egypt.  How does this bunch of unorganized people become a unified, coherent nation… without falling into the depravity, inequality, injustice, and violence they knew in Egypt.  How do they avoid the “meet the new boss, same as the old boss” trap?  In order to prevent the Israelites from becoming just another ancient near eastern fiefdom, with a king and a ruling class getting richer at everyone else’s expense, God gives them a law.  God gives them polity.  And the law says, basically, “You’re not going to be organized like other nations, by elevating whoever has the most power and applies the most violence, ending up with a pyramidal, command-and-control system in which the many work hard to support the privileged few.  No.  You are going to recognize one God over all, making you all equals.  And you will apply this law equally to all.”
The Torah describes an egalitarian polity based on families, clans, and tribes.  There is a priesthood, but it is landless, to prevent even them from becoming a ruling class.  The polity of the Torah is not just against any kind of survival-of-the-fittest structure, it is just the opposite.  It is explicitly about lifting up the ones at the bottom: widows, orphans, aliens, and the poor.  Nothing epitomizes the polity of the Torah more than the sabbatical and jubilee laws of Leviticus 25, which is a periodic redistribution of wealth downward, to prevent the rise of a ruling class based on wealth.  
In order to prevent this radical egalitarian polity from collapsing into a kind of libertarianism in which the strong take over and begin again to oppress everyone else, God gives the community the institution of the “elders.”  The elders serve as a brake on the accruing and congealing of power in a few.  Their vocation is to uphold and maintain the vision and principles of egalitarian polity.  The danger of course is that the elders themselves degenerate into a ruling class, which is what in fact happens by the time of the New Testament.
When the Messiah comes and states his intention to proclaim “the acceptable year of the Lord,” it is this egalitarian, redistributive polity he wants to enact.  And he does enact it in the communities of those who follow him.  The early church embodies Jesus’ vision of a beloved community of acceptance, welcome, equality, and non-violence, in which barriers and divisions based on race, wealth, and gender are wiped away, as we see in Paul’s great statement in Galatians 3:28.
It is therefore in the creation of exemplary communities of justice and peace that God seeks to redeem the world.  First Israel, then in the new Israel, the church, the good news is not just a message, but it has always been a Way — which is what the early church called itself — of living together equality, acceptance, forgiveness, and love.  At its heart, this is what ecclesiastical polity is for: to give the people of God a format and framework for living together.

With this in mind, let’s look at the very first words of the Book of Order(Read together the first paragraph of F-1.01, sentence by sentence.)  This first paragraph describes God’s mission in creation.
1.  The Triune God.  (No modalism.)
2.  The liberation of Israel
3.  The Incarnation of Jesus Christ
4.  Christ’s ministry of reversal
God’s mission, then, is about liberation from oppression.
(Read together the second paragraph of F-1.01, sentence by sentence.)
1.  God’s mission is what the church is about.
2.  The church is formatted, structured, ordered to accomplish this in Christ.
3.  This is in fact the whole point of human life generally.
The church, then, is an exemplary, representative community, a vanguard embodying the purpose and destiny of all humanity and all creation, which is liberation from oppression.
(Read together F-1.0201.)  Christ is the Head of the Church, which is his body.  His life and work determine and define our life and work.  Be reminded of the first affirmation of the Theological Declaration of Barmen: “Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death” (8.11).  We are a Christocentric community; everything we do and say needs to express and reflect our relationship to Jesus Christ.
(Read together F-1.0202.)  Christ is present.  He is not a mere historical figure.
(Read together F-1.0203.)  Discerning Christ’s will is the church’s job.
(Read together F-1.0204.)  Hope in Christ is freedom.
(Read together F-1.0205.)  The church is sent into the world with the good news of reconciliation/liberation.
(Read together F-1.0301.)
The Book of Order then proceeds to describe the church as a community of faith, hope, love, and witness.  The self-description of the church seems to get increasingly aspirational, as the F section continues.  One has to wonder how well this will all be embodied when we get to the G section with specific structures and rules.
F-1.0302 is about the traditional “marks of the church” as “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.”
a.  Unity.  Story about doing my brother’s wedding and having to explain to the Catholic seminarian that I was witnessing to a unity that exists in Christ, but which his church fails to recognize.
The fact is that our context is denominationalism, something the New Testament has no knowledge of.  In Acts, for instance, the Antioch church assumed it needed the approval of the Jerusalem church for its radical ministry of including Gentiles.  So it is not just a product of the church’s melding into the Empire when we see that the first canon of the Council of Nicaea was to establish the practice of one ecclesiastical jurisdiction in each geographical area.
These days, in America and most of the world, there are multiple ecclesiastical jurisdictions in any geographical area.  The Presbyterian Church does not claim to be the only true church; we do not anathematize all other denominations.  Yet at the same time, and most of the time, our Book of Order more or less assumes we are the only Christians around.    
Denominationalism means that something that is not Jesus Christ becomes the organizing principle of the church: theology, ethnicity, polity, language, history, liturgy, etc.  Even the Orthodox, for whom it is a much bigger deal, are beset with multiple ecclesiastical jurisdictions in this country.  Denominationalism is a product of ego-centricity and a scandal.  It cannot be spun into a good thing, and the Book of Order doesn’t try to do this, to its credit.  At the same time, denominationalism does show us that unity does not have to be based on geography.


b.  Holiness is interpreted as being “set apart.”  This means responding to, reflecting, and expressing values and practices different from the rest of the world.  
c.  Catholicity.  We are interpreting catholicity as being mainly about diversity, which is a continuing issue in the church.
d.  Apostolicity.  The church is sent.  This is the quality that the current edition of the Book of Order wants to emphasize.  This is because of the collapse of Christendom.  The Book of Confessions rarely understands this sentness of the church.  I mean, when I was a kid, “mission” was something that happened in Africa and Asia.  The idea that the church had a mission here, that America could be a mission field, was not considered.  Christendom meant that we, the Empire, the Western World, were already converted.  There was nothing left to do here except maintain things (we’ll see this a little later in the Great Ends of the Church); and send missionaries elsewhere so they could also eventually become part of Christendom.  That’s why none of the Reformation era confessions and catechisms address mission or evangelism.  They were just trying to get Catholics to come over.  There was no sense of reaching out to non-Christians at all; there weren’t any “unchurched” people (except for Jews).  They had to add a chapter to the Westminster Confession in 1903 to talk about mission.
The sentness of the church relates to polity.  Look at the evangelistic strategy of the Irish monks in the 6th-12th centuries.  Their approach was incarnation.  They would be sent into a community of Saxons or Franks or whatever group had immigrated from the east into what was left of the Roman Empire.  They would set up a household, a community, which is what Jesus says to do when he sends missionaries into Judea.  And they would simply live with the people, modeling Christian values of acceptance, simplicity, justice, non-violence, and love.  They evangelized by the way they lived, by dwelling together as the beloved community.  To the extent that they had a rule governing their community, they had a form of polity.  Therefore, their polity was their mission.  How they lived together was a large part of the attraction to their neighbors.  Irish monks also evangelized Scotland, by the way, which makes them pre-proto-Presbyterians.  Their polity was notably less monarchical and bishop-centric than the Roman mission.
My point is that Presbyterian polity is not incidental to mission.  Still less is it a barrier to or a drag on mission.  Understood well, our polity is our mission.  “And they’ll know we are Christians by our love,” the song says.  Polity is supposed to be what this love looks like.
So when we get to F-1.0303, the traditional “notes of the Reformed church,” we see them slightly reimagined in terms of apostolicity.  Preaching is now seen as “invitation.”  The sacraments are about “welcoming,” and expressing “solidarity with the marginalized and the hungry.”  And the upright administration of ecclesiastical discipline is completely reframed as “nurturing a covenant community of disciples.”  Polity, then, which is ecclesiastical discipline, has to do with a community that lives “in the strength of God’s promise” and gives “itself in service to God’s mission.”
F-1.0304 is the list of The Great Ends of the Church.  Written in 1910, I find these statements to be too static to fit into the dynamic, “sent” emphasis the Book of Order is trying to get across.  Words like “shelter,” “maintenance,” “preservation,” “promotion,” and even “exhibition” seem to me to be geared for a Christendom, if-we-build-it-they-will-come church that sits in a fortress on the corner and waits for customers, rather than knows itself to be sent into the world.  But the Great Ends are popular, and I know people who have interpreted them in a way that supports mission.  Taken in the context of this F section, that is possible, though I think it is important to remember that what we are maintaining, preserving, and exhibiting is the very active and outgoing love of God.  God’s love is only “kept” when we give it away.
In F-1.04 the Book of Order turns to the work of the Spirit.  Presbyterians have always had an ambivalent relationship with the Holy Spirit.  The original Westminster Confession did not think the Spirit significant enough to warrant a chapter; one was added in 1903 when they added the chapter on mission, significantly enough.  I suspect that the Spirit threatened to put at risk too much of the decency and order we Presbyterians had come to cherish, not to mention our privilege and security.  Yet, being God, the Spirit is not so easily or comprehensively relegated to a theological back-burner.  Some argue that we are entering the Age of the Spirit; and the fasting growing branch of the church today is Pentecostalism.  
The Spirit brings conformity to God’s mission in Christ, and is located in three areas: ecumenicity, unity in diversity, and openness.  
In the first, we find the Spirit bringing us to acknowledge again that we are but a small part of a larger family.  We are not the one true Church, and our polity is not the one true way of organizing and governing the Church.  
When we talk about unity in diversity we hear the Spirit calling us to reject all kinds of exclusivity and discrimination, something urgently necessary for a denomination that is still over 90% white in a nation becoming increasingly diverse.  This is a big problem that overshadows the whole book.
And one of the big crises we have to weather now has to do with whether our polity is so bound to the privileged, Modern, Anglo-Saxon people who developed it as to be useless and irrelevant to others, or whether it, at its heart, is designed to make room.  I think the latter is true, but it’s not going to happen easily. 
Story of a church rejecting a member for not being DAR.  Stuff like this is what led to term limits imposed on ruling elders (but not pastors).
But even though we have stressed diversity for two generations now, it nevertheless remains the case that almost all Presbyterian churches are at least 95% of the same ethnic group.  The challenge of witnessing to a gospel that includes Galatians 3:28 remains.  Our approach is to make a rule prohibiting discrimination.  Now we need to build communities that embody that aspiration.
Finally, there is a call to a new “openness” to God’s mission in the world.  Openness, then, is not a simple entertainment and allowance of everything and anything.  Openness has a form and structure determined by the community.  Openness has a filter.  We are to identify with God’s mission in the world and bring the good news of God’s love in Christ to a suffering planet and people.  Solidarity with the poor and broken is what the Spirit is pushing us to.  It is part of God’s mission of reversal, liberation, and reconciliation.  That is what we are more open to.
This openness happens in three ways.  First, we are challenged to a more effective discipleship and obedience.  Second, we are challenged to be more inclusive as a community, reforming our institutional forms to make them more reflective of the gospel.  And the third mode of openness is towards God’s ecumenical action, reforming the whole Church.      
The emphasis on openness reminds us that Presbyterian polity is actually “open-source.”  Open-source process is kind of a trend right now in business circles.  In a book like Wikinomics, we see that companies are moving away from over-specialized and tightly controlled silos, and learning to bring together the wisdom and insight of a wider population.  The best-known example of this is the open-source information web-site,     
But even wikipedia is not radically open; it does have this aspect of self-policing and self-regulation which ensures that the information on the site is not overly biased, spurious, or pure fantasies and lies.  Open source processes do have boundaries; there is some stewardship involved to ensure that, for example, a group working on producing a piece of software does not include members who either don’t have the technical knowledge, or are opposed to the task.  Openness does not include saboteurs, in other words.
An example of this is Ernesto Cardenal’s book, The Gospel in Solentiname, which is his account of open-source conversations on the gospels by a group of poor, Nicaraguan campesinos.  Some shared experience of oppression was required to participate; representatives of the landowners or their death-squads were not invited.
  Openness does not mean inclusion of those who would move us against God’s mission.  Hence, from the beginning, there has been a regulatory influence in our open-source processes, someone to ensure that the group stays on topic with God’s mission and will.  The protectors of the process and mission of the people of God are called “elders.”
We Presbyterians get our very name from this principle.  As you know, the word “Presbyterian” refers to the practice of locating authority with “elders.”  Our branch, brand, or flavor of Christianity is elder-based.  Our name refers to the way we order ourselves as a community, around elders.  We are a gathering of disciples in which the elders take some kind of precedence.  
This is in contrast with two other ways of organizing Christian gatherings, the episcopal, in which precedence is given to episcopoi, with literally means “overseers,” but for some reason is translated as bishops, and the congregational, in which the congregation of all the members is the focus.  We did not get here as a compromise or splitting-of-the-difference between episcopal and congregational systems.  We are not a hybrid in that sense.  Rather, the Reformers came up with Presbyterian polity because that’s what they found in Scripture.  They noticed that, at least from the Exodus on, the people of God appear to govern themselves by means of the institution of elders.
Literally, of course, the word refers to people who have lived longer than others.  More practically, it must have meant those whose greater years gave them greater wisdom, which was recognized by the community.
I am reminded of those trivia games like Scene It, in which it is a great advantage to have simply lived long enough to have seen and experienced things.  In the days before VHS, Nick at Night and TVLand, and now the dizzying array of access to information and culture we have today, we relied more on the experience of people… mainly older people.  The point was never simply chronological longevity; it was more about commitment, wisdom, leadership qualities, and being farther along on the journey of faith, witness, and discipleship.

Exercise on the use of the word “elders” in Scripture.

Moving on to F-2, which is mainly about the church’s confessions.  The Constitution of our church has two volumes: The Book of Confessions and The Book of OrderThe Book of Confessions has 11 documents, soon to be 12, when we add the Confession of Belhar in June.  The Book of Order has 4 documents, The Foundations of Presbyterian Polity, the Form of Government, the Directory for Worship, and the Rules of Discipline.  
The Book of Confessions includes statements approved by the church from three different historical periods.  From the early church we have the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, which represent the faith of the whole church (more or less), Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant.  There are 6 documents from the Reformation era, 3 of which were put together at the Westminster Assembly, in 1647, and which were, for over 4 centuries, the only official confessional documents of the church.  The final 3 documents are from the 20th century, reflecting the huge changes in Christianity and culture that happened in that century, and are still happening.
The church does not come up with statements like this arbitrarily.  They are all composed in response to some major historical controversy which the church feels demands a new clarification of the faith.  I am pretty sure we’re not done with writing new confessions in the current time of cultural tectonic shifting, and won’t be until the shape of the emerging consensus becomes clear.
The authority of the Book of Confessions is something the church is struggling with.  It was a lot easier when we only had one — Westminster.  But the church began to find Westminster insufficient early in the 20th century, finally developing a collection of statements in 1967.  But even that was not adequate because statements from the 16th and 17th centuries simply didn’t give the church the guidance it needed in the 20th.  The crises we have been facing for the past century or more have required ever new reflections.  The church continues to struggle to keep up.
Historically, there have been 2 camps on the authority of confessions.  On the conservative side we have had subscriptionists, who demanded that everyone literally sign on to the confessions as a condition of ordination.  This still appears in somewhat unintelligible form in our ordination questions.  On the liberal or progressive side they talk more about being generally “guided by” the confessions, as opposed to subscribing to them.  
These two streams in Presbyterianism were historically associated with the two ethnic groups making up the church in colonial America, the Scotch-Irish, and the New Englanders, respectively.  The same fault-line is currently making itself apparent today in the current split-off of conservative groups like the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians, which attempts to be both post-modern and subscriptionist, a project that I predict is doomed to failure because of its inherent contradiction.
We saw the ambivalence about the authority of the Book of Confessions a few years ago when the General Assembly simply redefined or overrode its provisions regarding marriage.  This upset conservatives, but the General Assembly does have the ultimate power to interpret the Constitution.
Anyway, one crisis in the church has to do with the role and purpose of the confessions and of specific parts of them.  To some it seems very arbitrary and selective to adhere to some things but not others.  And, frankly, the confessions do not get much attention at all in the lives of local church members, or even elders, who technically promise to be guided by them.  That’s why I make a point of including some pieces of the confessions in the liturgical life of churches I serve, so at least I know the elders are familiar with some of it.


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