Saturday, September 10, 2011

A letter from Sacramento Presbytery's Discernment Team to the Fremont congregation: my thoughts

Returning home after almost a week of vacation I was met by a letter from the Presbytery of Sacramento. It was actually written by a three member ‘discernment Team” intended to engage the pastors, session and congregation of my church, Fremont Presbyterian, concerning the Session’s unanimous vote to leave the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and join the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. Or, as the three members state it is to engage them, “In a time of prayer and conversation aimed at understanding the conflict and identifying the possible steps toward reconciliation.”

I must, as usual, state that I am remaining in the PCUSA because God has called me to stay. I will find another PCUSA church home. But I agree with the session’s reasons for leaving and feel they are right to follow the Lord where he leads them.

I will not attempt to engage the thoughts in the letter on such things as “By voting to initiate the dismissal process before a true discernment period with the Presbytery could start, the Fremont Session disabled the kind of free discussion and honest give and take that could have brought to light all reasonable alternatives.” (But I must point out that there is nothing in the Book of Order that prevents the session of a church from voting before engaging the Presbytery and opening the discussion to the congregation before the congregation itself does the final voting.)

Nor do I have many words to say about this:
The leadership of Fremont has suggested that a vote to leave the PC (U.S.A.) will in simple fashion disconnect Fremont Presbyterian Church but otherwise leave all that is amazing about Fremont the same. We want you to understand that it is possible for the congregation to leave but that the property and assets of Fremont may remain part of the PC (U.S.A)
Misconstrue is one word of the words I will use- I do believe the words ‘amazing’ have to do with the ministry and purpose of Fremont not their property.

The other word-well the same word—misconstrue—I believe that Fremont Session is aware that Sacramento Presbytery has in place a gracious departure policy. Perhaps someone is thinking of rescinding the policy. If so, I pray God’s mercy on all involved in such draconian efforts.

But what I most want to address is the theological thoughts of the three members of the discernment team about the session’s theological views of nFOG, that is, the new Presbyterian Book of Order. The team writes:
The Fremont Session’s written materials and in the “town hall” meetings concerns have been expressed that our new Form of Government calls into question deeply held beliefs about Jesus Christ and the authority of the Bible. Please be assured that is not the case. Our ordination vows have not changed. Our vows continue to affirm that Jesus Christ is our Savior, that the Scriptures are the unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ, and that we will obey Christ under the authority of the Scriptures. Yes, we do have conversations on understanding the Lordship of Christ in the 21st century; yes, we do discuss the meaning of Scripture passages in conversation with modern science; we have such conversations because we accept the authority of the Bible for our lives.
They go on to list the heresies that others believe are in the new Book of Order in particular ‘universalism.” They quote F-1.01.
The good news of the Gospel is that the triune God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—creates, redeems, sustains, rules, and transforms all things and all people.
They counter this being heresy by writing:
This sentence affirms the sovereignty of God and that our God is the only source of salvation. This so called “heresy” of the Form of Government is the same “heresy” that Jesus taught in John 3:16: ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only [begotten]Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.’ We invite you to take to heart the invitation from Jesus himself: ‘Come to me, all who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest ‘(Matthew 11:28), Jesus welcomes everyone. That is gospel, not heresy.
So, first, in order to answer this, one needs to look at why some, including myself, are calling portions of nFOG universalistic, and then one needs to look at the defense made by the three members of the discernment team.

The charge of universalism includes more than just F-1.01, although that is perhaps the clearest statement of the Book of Order’s theological universalism. Note that the statement, “The good news of the Gospel is that the triune God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—creates, redeems, sustains, rules, and transforms all things and all people” places God’s creating, sustaining, and ruling on the same level as God’s redeeming and transforming. But the Scripture does not show those activities of God as being the same. God does create, sustain and rule all things. But God only redeems and transforms that which is in subjection to him. He will eventually bring to judgment that which is not in subjection to his will.

In F-1.0205 the new Book of Order states, “In Christ all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through Christ God reconciles all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of the cross (Col. 1: 19-20). In Christ’s name, therefore, the Church is sent out to bear witness to the good news of reconciliation with God, with others, and with all creation.” There is an important part of the scripture text left out of the quote.

The missing portion is “reconcile all things to himself.” Now the leaving out of “to himself” may have been an attempt to use only inclusive language but it messes up the meaning of the text. Our reconciliation is to God. We were estranged and needed reconciliation. We are not reconciled to anything else until we are reconciled with God. And some are not reconciled with God due to their own self-will. And in fact the NRSV puts this text in more succinct words:
For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of the cross.
N.T. Wright in his Tyndale Commentary on Colossians and Philemon speaks to the meaning of the text and reconciliation by answering three questions. While his thoughts are quite lengthy they are helpful and it is worthwhile and sufficient to quote some of his thoughts:
God plans for eventual complete harmony, new heavens and new earth. All evil is to be destroyed through cosmic outworking of the crucifixion: all creation is to be transformed in the cosmic results of the resurrection

The process of reconciliation between God and man, however, does not simply happen by some automatic process. Paul clearly believed that it was possible for human beings to reject God’s offer of salvation, and that at the last judgment some, having done so, would thereby be rejected (See Rom 1:18-2:16; 14:10; 2 Cor. 5:10; 2 Thes. 1:5-10). … First, he is emphasizing the universal scope of God’s reconciling purposes; nothing less than a total new creation is envisaged. Secondly, ‘reconciliation’, the re-establishing of a mutual relationship, cannot occur ‘automatically’ in the world of human relations from which the metaphor is drawn. In theological terms, reconciliation occurs, ‘when someone is in Christ’ (2 Cor. 5:17), which elsewhere (e.g. Rom. 3:21-31; 6:1-11; Gal. 3:26-29) is correlated clearly with faith and baptism.
There are other places where universalism can be noted in nFOG, but I want to turn to the defense made by the members of the discernment team, which is to quote that verse of scripture that is the very essence of the gospel. “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” Yes, but Christ also stated, “For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him. He who believes in him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.”

The three team members have not explained why it is that F-1.01 does not make the distinctions that the scripture makes.

There is more on polity issues addressed in the letter but theologically the issue of universalism is, to me and I think others, one of the more troubling parts of the new Book of Order. I would suggest that the discernment team take the views of Fremont’s session about nFOG seriously; it is a theological issue troubling many in the PC (U.S.A).

The letter ends with references to the good things coming out of the Fellowship of Presbyterians. I have yet to write about my experience of being at the Fellowship gathering. I will do so soon and may ask the discernment team some questions at the end of my thoughts.

1 comment:

Craig said...

There are now decisions from 2 courts in Missouri that declare that the trust clause does not exist.

Heartland was so ticked after losing #2 that they filed the same suit in Kansas hoping for a different result (Colonial has a campus in each state).

Ultimately, it probably won't matter as Heartland will continue to drag things out and bleed resources from the congregations in question.

I hope you will write about your experience at the Gathering at some point.