We get Letters! Well if you are an ordained member of Journey Presbyterian Church in Folsom, California you got a letter inviting you to a meeting. The invite came by way of what was the Sacramento presbytery’s discernment team but is now the engagement team. This is a requirement of the new dismissal policy. According to the letter this will be a consultation “with the leadership of the church.” The letter states the consultation will be:
· To explore the possibility of reconciliation
· To discuss the practical consequences of dismissal of the congregation
· To discuss issues of disharmony and possible mitigation
· To discuss how members whom hold deeply held differing convictions can work with members of differing views
The letter also requests that we read an article which is attached to the new dismissal policy. The paper is Theology of Forbearance by James Calvin Davis(1). I have read it twice now and intend to read it again. The paper has some helpful points in it, but also is problematic. One problem is that it wanders back and forth between thoughts about people leaving a denomination for various reasons and people leaving the church universal. This is of course not the author’s intent but it happens unless the writer clearly defines the meaning of “the Church.”
In the paper the early Massachusetts Bay church is one example. A distinction is made between the church, which wanted to stay a part of the English Anglican Church while reforming it, and Roger Williams who thought they should leave because of the corruption in the Anglican Church. However the fact that the Anglican Church left the Roman Catholic Church over the desire for King Henry the VIII to divorce his wife is not mentioned in the paper.
And while the church was a leading example of a reformed congregation the officials of Massachusetts Bay not only exiled Roger Williams, they also hung one of the first Quakers to preach in the colony, a woman named Mary Dyer. This is not a good example of a group of people seeking renewal without splitting off from the mother denomination. Of course it was, after all, the 1700s.
But the biggest problem with the paper is that no distinction is made between those issues that divide the church of God from those in apostasy and those issues that although divisive are still not worthy of broken unity. Instead forbearance seems to cover all issues—that is, no matter what, according to this article, one always must practice forbearance rather than leave.
Now, quickly I want to insist that there are those who are called to stay in such a denomination as the PC (U.S.A.), but there are many who are called to leave. After all the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has left the faithful behind—it is they who have broken the unity, first with the Lord of the Church and his word and then with those who are seeking to be faithful to that word.
What would John Calvin have to say about forbearance and unity? What was his description of the visible church? The visible church is not sinless, not without impurities but:
“Wherever we see the word of God sincerely preached and heard, wherever we see the sacraments administered according to the institution of Christ, there we cannot have any doubt that the Church of God has some existence, since his promise cannot fail, ‘Where two or three are gathered together in my name there am I in the midst of them.’ (Matth. Xviii. 20). (Italics mine.)
And Calvin, in this chapter, (Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book Fourth. Of the Holy Catholic Church. Chapter 1), lays out a strong case for not leaving a church which has these characteristics. As he states, “… let us learn from her single title of Mother, how useful, nay, how necessary the knowledge of her is, since, there is no other means of entering into life unless she conceive us in the womb and give us birth, unless she nourish us at her breasts, and, in short, keep us under her charge and government, until divested of mortal flesh, we become like angels (Matth. Xxii 30.).
One would do well to read the whole chapter and take it to heart. But Calvin goes on in chapter 2 of the fourth Book to explain the difference between the false church and the true. Calvin was forced to do this because the Catholic Church, insisted that the reformation churches, formed outside of the Roman Catholic Church, were both false and schismatic. Calvin referring to Augustine shows the difference between schismatics and heretics. And in this is shown the difference between the true and false church:
“The name of heretics and schismatics is applied to those who by dissenting from the Church destroy its communion. This communion is held together by two chains—viz. consent in sound doctrine and brotherly charity. Hence the distinction which Augustine makes between heretics and schismatics is, that the former corrupt the purity of the faith by false dogmas, whereas the latter sometimes, even while holding the same faith, break the bond of union (August, Lib. Quaest. In Evang. Matth.). But the thing to be observed is that this union of charity so depends on unity of faith, as to have in it its beginning, its end, in fine, its only rule.”
Calvin goes on to state:
“Accordingly Paul, when he exhorts us to it, takes for his fundamental principle that there is ‘one God, one faith, one baptism’ (Eph. iv. 5). Nay when he tells us to be ‘of one accord, of one mind,’ he immediately adds, ‘Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus’ (Phil. Ii. 2, 5); intimating, that where the word of the Lord is not, it is not a union of believers, but a faction of the ungodly.”
When “two persons” is added to the PC (U.S.A.) Book of Order as a definition of marriage, when a person is ordained who does not believe in a personal God, when many in leadership insist that God’s truth is still unfolding or that not all of the Bible is the word of God there is the false church which denies God’s word. There is where there may be prophetic proclamation of God’s call to repentance, but not forbearance.
(1) A Theology of Forbearance - James Calvin Davis
(1) A Theology of Forbearance - James Calvin Davis