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

Friday, January 29, 2016

Jesus Is Lord!

The affirmation that “Jesus Is Lord!” is perhaps the oldest of Christian confessions.  

To the original users and hearers of the phrase, the proclamation of Jesus as Lord has a very specific, pointed, and weighty meaning.  It asserts that 

a Palestinian Jew 
who had been crucified by the Romans for sedition 
is not only still alive 
but is God.  

It says to Rome, “You killed Jesus, but he didn’t stay dead; now he is coming to destroy you, thank God.”  
In other words, this confession is an only slightly veiled way to thumb one’s nose at Rome.  For to dedicate yourself to following a person whom Rome executed says that Rome’s  violence didn’t work and doesn’t scare you like it’s supposed to.  Indeed, it enthusiastically asserts that Rome is doomed.  

Furthermore, the proclamation that “Jesus Is Lord!” is a deliberate and intentional twisting of a common propaganda slogan of the Empire: “Caesar Is Lord!”  Anyone hearing someone say, “Jesus Is Lord!” immediately understood it to also mean, “and Caesar isn’t!”  To say that “Jesus Is Lord!” is to participate in the sedition for which Jesus himself was executed.  It is an essentially subversive, revolutionary, insurgent, and radical statement, and Rome took it to be so.  

To join in this new movement centered on Jesus is an explicit act of resistance to empire.
In addition, since “Lord” is the name for God in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, “Jesus Is Lord!” is also a theological proclamation.  When Caesar claimed to be “Lord” it was not just as supreme leader of the Roman Empire, but a claim to be a god.  “Jesus Is Lord!” means that not only is Jesus now alive, but he is also in some sense identical with the one Jewish God who created heaven and earth, and therefore far more powerful than Caesar could ever dream of being.
The God of the Jews is the One who liberates a band of Israelite slaves from Egypt, delivers the defeated Jews from exile in Babylon, and is always siding with the rejected, the defeated, the broken, and the lost.  

This God is thus a threat to all empires and entrenched human powers.  

First century people who assert that “Jesus Is Lord!” are basically saying that what this God did to Egypt and Babylon is about to happen to Rome.
The entire ministry of Jesus has to do with the establishment of the Kingdom of God, which is God’s reign of peace and justice.  It involves a wall-to-wall reversal of social orders: the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the poor are blessed, the possessed are freed,  the hungry are fed, the rich and powerful are sent away empty-handed, and even the dead are raised.  Jesus rejects secular power, fame, and wealth when the devil offers it to him.  He empties himself in identification with the broken, even to the point of dying on a cross, which was even itself cursed!
His new community thus rejects earthly power, fame, wealth, and privilege, and gathers in oneness and equality, all qualitative differences having been wiped away.  Paul talks about the members of the church having different gifts; but all the gifts are of equal value.  It is the empire that imposes social strata, in-groups and out-groups, superiors and subordinates, and divides people by race, ethnicity, gender, age, wealth, education, class, religion, and philosophy.  This radical leveling is the basis for and expression of the love God has for the world.  

Thus the followers of Jesus’ Way are known by the divine love they share for one another and for all.
So: “Jesus Is Lord!” does not identify Jesus with the lords who manage this world by violence for their own profit.  Jesus is not a lord like the foolish and pathetic lords who wield power in our own lives, the owners and bosses and executives and leaders and investors and generals and presidents and chair-persons and trustees and judges and representatives and managers and so forth.  Just the opposite is the case.  His Lordship, because it is the Lordship of the One the world’s leaders crucified because of his resistance to them, and yet who is risen to reign, is an absolute contradiction of the lordship they maintain by lies, fear, and violence.  

Jesus’ Lordship is an indictment and condemnation of all human lords.

So let’s remember what we are saying when we say “Jesus Is Lord!” even today.  We are saying that we will follow and obey Jesus Christ alone.  We are saying that the system of domination and privilege, in which the wealth and power of a few is preserved and extended over everyone else, is evil, false, and doomed.  And that in anticipation of the inevitable Day when truth and goodness finally triumph, we choose to gather with others in communities of peace, shaping our lives by the Word of God, Jesus Christ, and his commandments. 
+++++++              

Sunday, January 24, 2016

F-3.

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. 
+++++++   




Thursday, January 21, 2016

Why Fellowships?

It has been the practice in many presbyteries to institute an interim period where a new worshiping community is listed as a “fellowship” for a period of time before being officially chartered as a full-fledged congregation.  The Book of Order does not require this, nor even mention the possibility.  Maybe it was, or even still is, the advice of some New Church Development handbook.  Or maybe presbyteries came up with it on their own.
On the surface it seems to make prudent sense.  Start a congregation off with the training wheels of presbytery oversight until they meet certain minimum standards and can take care of themselves.  Then bring them in when they are ready.
Unfortunately, if this provisional period stretches out too long, and the requirements for chartering are too unrealistic, groups can stay in fellowship status for a long time.  Decades, even.
 
Fellowships have several drawbacks.  First, it is under the watchful eye of the presbytery.  In theory this is supposed to be a good thing.  The fellowship would benefit from the wisdom of the larger body, and receive guidance and support.  In reality, though, it can also mean the the fellowship is subject to the various phobias, agendas, competencies/incompetencies, politics, personalities, and so forth, that swirl at the presbytery level.  If the fellowship is being funded by the presbytery, the toxicity of this oversight may be compounded.  Money changes everything, usually not for the better.  Funded fellowships may have to be constantly defending themselves, and be subject to arbitrary quantitative criteria for “sustainability,” or whatever.  It may mean that fellowship leadership have to add to their skill-set the schmoozing of presbyters, like forming a new church isn't difficult enough. 
 
Second, the participants in a fellowship are not technically considered members of a local church.  They are not counted in the statistics, they may not be ordained, and they are not represented at presbytery.  In other words, they are second- or third-class citizens with no power over their own future.  This leaves them subject to other’s power in ways that may undercut their own vision and diminish their missional effectiveness.
Many presbyteries have horror stories of malignant interference in the life of a fellowship under its care.  Fellowships have to navigate a mine-field of expectations on the part of  steering committee members, spending valuable time and energy placating the sentimentality, nostalgia, or fear of competition on the part of people selected to serve, or presbytery leaders.  Many of these folks may have no clue about what it takes to plant and grow a new church, but may desire mainly to bask in the glory of a success in an area in which Presbyterians have been chronically deficient.  (One presbytery assigned the planting of a new church to the same Administrative Commission that closed a former church.  This is like having a funeral director as your midwife.)  When a fellowship fails, it can discourage a presbytery from trying another one any time soon, which is just fine with many because then there is more money and energy to continue to drain into life support for continuing, and failing, congregations.
Plus, it is not uncommon for a new worshiping community to be made up of immigrants and members of various ethnic, generational, theological, or sexual communities that are not the traditional Presbyterian European majority.  Relegating these folks to extended status as participants in a second-class fellowship disenfranchises them, robbing the presbytery of their gifts, restricting their ministry, and putting the worshiping community itself at risk.  Hindering the development of new worshiping communities like this only calcifies the generational and ethnic homogeneity that is dooming us in an America that is becoming more diverse by the day. 
For there are some not-so-good, and probably unconscious, reasons why presbyteries establish the fellowship stage:  

1) They want to retain control, ensuring that the fellowship is not a threat to the status quo of the presbytery.  When money is involved this falls under the notorious “responsible stewardship” argument, whereby the presbytery supports only the most safe and conventional kinds of ministries.  

2)  There may be unacknowledged racism that assumes that people of minority groups need special care and “nurturing” before they can be trusted to establish a congregation that is recognizably one of “ours.”  

3)  Presbyteries, especially in the present context of general shrinkage, fear change, are suspicious of new people, don’t want the balance of power upset, and suspect that the new worshiping community will "become a burden on the presbytery" if chartered too quickly. 
People in fellowships must feel all this paranoia, suspicion, and caution.  I can’t imagine that it helps either the fellowship’s growth or its relationship with the presbytery.
What if we had a more fluid and flexible approach to planting churches and new worshiping communities?  What if we let groups form, dissolve, and reform more organically, chartering them as soon as they meet some low minimum membership number, like a single cell of 7 to 12 people willing to sign on to the responsibilities membership listed in G-1.0304?  This would give them representation at presbytery and a voice in their own ministry and future.  There would be no requirements for money, staffing, or property-ownership, and no demand to show a credible path and timeline to “sustainability”.
Look: changing existing congregations so they are more inclusive and diverse is very difficult.  The road ahead will feature more new worshiping communities.  We have to make it easier to form and support these groups, and incorporate them much quicker into presbyteries, where they can have influence to see that more new groups are planted.  It is part of the shift to a “belonging-to-believing” mindset, replacing the obsolete approach that required high standards of belief prior to being fully accepted.  
Ditching, or at least severely limiting, the “fellowship” stage is one way to move in this direction.
+++++++ 

           

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.

Break

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, wikipedia.com.     
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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