Shuck and Jive

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Why Amendment A Will Be a Bigger Deal than B

Of the amendments before the presbyteries in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), amendment B is getting the attention. But the amendment that will eventually determine the future of the church is amendment A.

No one is keeping a tally. No one is publicly advocating or organizing for or against it as far as I can tell. This little amendment if passed is the one that will take us down the road to heresy charges, the expulsion of churches and clergy, and eventually toward fundamentalism.

It began in Texas. A church in Mission Presbytery, St. Andrew's Presbyterian, was taken to church court because it admitted into its membership a freethinker. You can read Robert Jensen's story here, Finding My Way Back to Church--and Getting Kicked Out: The Struggle Over What It Means to Be a Christian Today.

I wrote about it here and here.

Those who don't think freethinkers belong sent an overture to the General Assembly to make sure they aren't welcome and that if a church does welcome them as members, there will be hell to pay. The General Assembly modified it somewhat but still approved and sent to the presbyteries the following:

2. Membership Vows
After new members are examined, affirming their faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and are received by the session, whether by profession of faith, certificate of transfer, or reaffirmation of faith, they shall be presented to and welcomed by the congregation during a service of worship where they shall make a public profession of their faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, as do confirmands (W-4.2003a, b, and c).
You can read the texts of all the amendments including the rationale behind this one (p. vi) here.

We already have requirements for membership in the Book of Order.

G-5.0101 a. The incarnation of God in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ gives to the church not only its mission but also its understanding of membership. One becomes an active member of the church through faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and acceptance of his Lordship in all of life. Baptism and a public profession of faith in Jesus as Lord are the visible signs of entrance into the active membership of the church.
But we don't treat people like five-year-olds by forcing them to make public vows. This amendment is about creating a culture of sheep.

It doesn't matter if you have ever read a book. It doesn't matter what you do or how you live. It doesn't matter how you articulate the mysteries of faith. What matters is whether or not you can get up in front of a group of people and mouth a formula. Just say the magic words.

Forcing people to make public vows is how inquisitions begin. The fundies will be watching. If you don't do this, your session or clergy will be taken to church court for disobeying the Book of Order.

On one level, it may seem like a small thing. In the scope of all the challenges we face in life, it certainly is. Yet it reflects a trend. In response to progressive Christianity that is a searching, questioning approach to spirituality, fundamentalism insists on rules, requirements, slogans, formulas, vows, and hassles.

People are asking questions about Jesus, the canon, spirituality, faith, other faiths, science, and ethics. They are looking for communities that nurture and encourage this questioning spirit. This amendment and others that likely will follow are about silencing this spirit of questioning.

The things we force people to say do matter. This is offensive to people of conscience. This amendment is a direct slap in the face to St. Andrew's Presbyterian and progressive congregations and Christians. This is the no welcome mat for those with a questioning faith.

You can bet it will be used against churches who "misbehave."

We might as well put a sign over our churches that reads:

Don't enter here with any questions for which we do not have answers.


  1. all other potential issues aside, i am not sure why such an amendment was even presented. it is different working for essentially the same thing. seems redundant, but will also confuse how we understand membership as the visible sign of the body of christ.

  2. Thanks Drew. I would love to see an argument for why we need this amendment. I have heard no debate about it.

  3. It seems to me Amendment A is just giving people the freedom to lie out of convenience. If you want to belong to a community, lie your way in. If you want increased membership, lie about how much you know about them as individuals. Great idea.

  4. I was thinking that if this silly thing passes, that we would welcome new members as we normally do. Then when it comes time for them to "make a public profession of their faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior" we have a moment of silence.

    Like Jesus before Pilate who never said a mumbalin' word.

  5. am i the newest member of a pcusa church posting here? i guess it's not a big deal to me.. i mean, it seems redundant to the BOO. paul asked me questions in front of the entire congregation and i answered them truthfully.. one i answered "i'll do my best".. i guess i'm just not getting the big deal you are making of this. compared to the LDS church, this is nothing. you should have heard the questions i was asked by these young missionary men in order to be baptized into their church. one question i DID lie about, but it had nothing to do with my belief system at all. it was a bogus question. anyhow, it's all perspective, and being the the mormons are my perspective, i just don't think i can get all up in arms.

  6. Hey Brooke,

    i guess i'm just not getting the big deal you are making of this.

    Fair enough. I also make a big deal of amendment b. Why should I care? It doesn't affect me. I'm not gay. I care because even though it doesn't affect me, it affects my friends. I don't want them kept out.

    This isn't just an abstraction. This came from a situation in which a church was taken to church court (a bizarre notion in itself) for welcoming a member they thought was just fine.

    It is about, in a large part, the freedom of congregations to receive members. Similarly, amendment b is the freedom of ordaining bodies to choose their leaders. In both cases, the move as in the current 'b' was to force subscription on the entire church.

    Like you, many people don't think this is a big deal. This is a big deal for progressive churches, like St. Andrew's who had the ecclesiastical machinery moved against them.

    It is progressive churches who really reach out to those who are looking for a community that respects their freedom of conscience and doesn't require a slogan-based or subscriptionist faith.

    If you haven't already, do read Robert Jensen's statement I linked to above, and see if you think he should be prevented from membership at a church who wants him as a member.

    This amendment arose from that situation in which those who wanted to punish this congregation sent this amendment so it would be easier for them to do so.

    This is not about faith, Jesus, commitment, discipleship or any of that. It is about control.

  7. i can respect the control part. i don't know enough about the situation. i'm not a big fan of control either. and somehow i don't think i'm in a progressive congregation, like you speak of st. andrews. but, if / when paul decides to ordain someone who is glbt, they may try to come down on him. so yeah, i get it better now, thanks.

  8. Hoo boy. John, mind if I blow the dust off of my old Machen rant?

    This is the story of a church schism. The Presbyterian Church in this country, a fractious bunch, split just before the American Civil War and didn't reunite until 1983. The old Northern church (the one in which John was ordained) was confusingly known as the Presbyterian Church USA while the old Southern church (the one in which my pastor was ordained) was known as the Presbyterian Church in the United States.

    In the 1920s, the Northerners were in a tizz about some ordained ministers who said they didn't necessarily believe in the Virgin Birth (or didn't consider it essential to their ministry). An arch-conservative named J. Gresham Machen became a champion of a document known as the Five Fundamentals (from whence we get the term "fundamentalist"), and pushed for its being required of all ministers and officers of the church. They would be required to swear that they believed in:

    1. The inerrancy of Scripture
    2. The Virgin Birth
    3. Substitutionary atonement
    4. The bodily resurrection
    5. The historical reality of the miracles

    ...else they would be barred from the ministry. It got to the point where Machen was kicked out of his faculty position of Princeton Seminary, then he founded his own seminary and refused to recognize any graduate of Princeton (calling them "apostates"). He was finally stripped of his minister title, and he left to form the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (a small, ultra-conservative church where they practice closed communion--you must be OPC and have the permission of the pastor to participate in the Lord's Supper--and sing nothing in church that is not a Psalm--no "Amazing Grace").

    In response to Machen and the Fundamentals, a large group of pastors wrote and signed the Auburn Affirmation, which reaffirms the traditional Presbyterian notion that "God alone is Lord of the conscience" (from the 1649 Westminster Confession, at the time the church's only confession of faith) and the protection of ministers (and members) from arbitrary standards of orthodoxy sent down by the General Assembly.

    With both the spirit of the Auburn Affirmation, and the neo-orthodox reinterpretations of Calvin and Luther by Karl Barth, the mainline American Presbyterian church flourished in the postwar years. It was due to the principles of the Affirmation as well as the Biblical hermeneutics taught by Barth that the mainline church reassessed its historical ban on the ordination of women and its views on African-Americans. These same currents ran through the Southern church, which helped in part lead to the reunification as the PC(USA) in 1983. As a sidebar, the PCUS (the southerners) experienced their own split in 1973, when the PCA formed from conservatives who left the church over the issue of the ordination of women and the church's support of the Civil Rights Movement. The Northern church had its own schismatic faction (again over Biblical interpretation and ordination of women) that formed its own denomination, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, rather than join the stoic OPC.


    All this to say that historically (and this goes back further than Machen to pre-Revolution America), Presbyterians in America place a high value on freedom of conscience and Westminster's admission that "the synods and councils do err", since they are man-made institutions. The confessions are "subordinate standards, but standards nonetheless"; HOWEVER, we have to have the humility to know that they may be wrong and that God may be acting to reform the church again.

    When people start bandying about litmus tests of belief, particularly for membership (never mind ordination), a lot of Presbyterians get nervous.

  9. It seems to me Amendment A is just giving people the freedom to lie out of convenience. If you want to belong to a community, lie your way in. If you want increased membership, lie about how much you know about them as individuals.


    Nicely put, and not nearly as long winded as yours truly!

  10. i have always thought that a "public profession of faith" is useless and unbiblical anyway. it's lip service. if we place greater demands on our people and then have clarity with the greater rewards we offer in terms of the love of Christ, things happen. this means more working people, and fewer free riders. like it or not, it's what the data tells us from one very convincing view.

  11. Fly,

    Long winded, no. An excellent executive summary.

  12. I've been reading "Middlemarch" by George Eliot (written @1871). This is the heroine, Dorothea, speaking about a pastor who augments his income by gambling at cards:

    I have always been thinking of the different ways in which Christianity is taught, and whenever I find one way that makes it a wider blessing than any other, I cling to that as the truest - I mean, that which takes in the most good of all kinds, and brings in the most people as sharers in it. It is surely better to pardon too much than to condemn too much."

    Sweet words.

  13. "It is surely better to pardon too much than to condemn too much."


  14. Flycandler--thanks for the polity lesson. Need to be reminded of that!

    Tatuskos--lip service. Aye, yes sir!

    Snad--beautiful. Thanks for that.

  15. all right, so i'm a little late responding. Eastern Oregon Presbytery already voted in the affirmative, with hardly a ripple, saying "well, that's what we already do." and i didn't notice.

    I support the right of churches who so desire to include "freethinkers" as members, as long as they are contributing somehow to the church community.
    but the whole system is built up that way. Amendment A just tightens one screw. If you really want to say that membership is about association or commitment to community (as opposed to assent to beliefs) there are many other bits that would need to be taken out of the Book of Order.

    As I see it: membership is a matter of profession of faith. The role of Session, G-10.0102, is:
    b. to receive members into the church upon profession of
    faith, upon reaffirmation of faith in Jesus Christ, or upon
    satisfactory certification of transfer of church membership,
    provided that membership shall not be denied any person
    because of race, economic or social circumstances, or any
    other reason not related to profession of faith;

    The job of session is to hear a person's profession of faith and then decide to receive that person or not receive them. Some sessions may clamp down hard on assent to doctrine, and some may just welcome a doubter or whoever to make their OWN statement of faith, publically.

  16. Hey Jairus,

    Thanks for the thoughts.

    Frankly, I would be in favor of redefining the whole apparatus as part of a discussion of what it means to be a Christian today.

    However, my real issue is that this amendment came from a context of a church being taken to church court for those it admitted into membership. This amendment is about making it easier to prosecute churches. Plain and simple. It serves no other purpose except that.

    Yes, it tightens one screw.

    But I was around when G-6.0106b was added. The argument for its inclusion then was the same. "Throughout our constitution we say this. G-6.0106b is just clarifying what we already believe" or as you put it tightening one screw.

    Screws are easy to tighten and much more difficult to loosen. Tighten enough of them and you have a metal cage.

  17. This is the first I've heard of A (I just found your blog); we never discussed it at our session meetings.

    I agree this is moving in the wrong direction. Membership is a step in the faith journey, not the final destination.

  18. Glad you found the blog! Yes, I think it is the wrong direction.