Friday, October 28, 2011

Reformation or descending darkness-a leadership letter to congregations

The king went up to the house of the Lord and all the men of Judah and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem with him, and the priests and the prophets and all the people, both small and great; and he read in their hearing all the words of the book of the covenant which was found in the house of the Lord. The King stood by the pillar and made a covenant before the Lord, to walk after the Lord, and to keep his commandments and his testimonies and his statutes with all his heart and all his soul, to carry out the words of this covenant that were written in this book. And all the people entered into the covenant. (2 Kings 23:2-3)

The Presbyterian News Service recently posted a news article about a letter sent to congregations by “Cindy Bolbach and Landon Whitsitt, Moderator and Vice Moderator of the 219th General Assembly (2010), Gradye Parsons, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly, and Linda Valentine, Executive Director of the General Assembly Mission Council.” The letter was meant to uphold Reformation Day which occurs October 31st. The news article included the letter. I was troubled by several affirmations in the letter.

The affirmation I found the most troubling is the leadership’s belief that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is in the midst of a “new reformation.” Another similar affirmation is that this is a time of another “great” reformation. The author’s of the letter did not base their affirmations of the “new reformation” on a return to the Holy Scriptures, nor an emphasis on justification by faith, nor did they write about the denominations return to Christ as the only Savior.

Instead they emphasized works, change, organization and visioning. And they wrote this at a time when some Presbyteries are simply falling apart as churches scatter looking for a denomination that will uphold the Holy Scriptures and the Lordship of Christ.

The other affirmation is that God is doing a new thing, that God is “creating a new church in and through us.”They use Isaiah 43:19 to support their affirmation. But they are misinterpreting the verse. And they also misunderstand how God has and does create his Church. The verse is speaking of how God will bring the Israelites out of exile in Babylon and rebuild the nation. This was new because it was different than bringing them out of captivity as in Egypt. Instead this was a time of redemption from exile caused by sin. The new thing also had implications for the future; it pointed to the coming Messiah. And it is in the Messiah that God, not us, builds the Church.

There are several stages that lead to reformation but if one looks at Church history it always begins with a return to the word of God. Of course that return occurs when the old institutions have become corrupt and turn toward all kinds of innovations to bolster diminishing fervor and growth. Both in monasticism and churches the cycle is almost always the same. Lack of faith, greed and sexual immorality destroy the integrity of Christian institutions, and then both leaders and laity turn toward politics, programs, power and even redefinitions of the essentials of faith in order to avoid a return to the clarity of God's word.

But the Church will not remain the Church if she does not return to the word of God. In the early years of America a group of men in Congregational churches, which had grown weak in faith, disregarded some Scripture texts. Their early beginnings included universalism but moved on to discarding the atonement and the Trinity. They became the Unitarian Church.

In the twentieth century they became the Universalist/Unitarian Church allowing any religious belief to be a part of their denomination. By the end of the twentieth century their adherents included both pagans, mainly wiccans, and atheist. Casting aside parts of the Bible was not the beginning of reformation; instead it was the beginning of darkness. In my library I have a study book used by some women, and men, in the Universalist/Unitarian Church, entitled Cakes for the Queen of Heaven. In the book a pagan goddess, Asherah and her son Baal, are honored; Jeremiah, the prophet, becomes the enemy.

We, likewise, have not entered a time of great reformation but a time of turning against those who call for reformation. Whether it is a teaching elder in Tennessee who calls the faithful, right-wing and superstitious, another who suggests that a devout pastor's letter should be read with a barf bag, or the Vice Moderator, tweeting that, those pursuing biblical morality standards in a church court appeals case are whining and costing the church money, the denomination is drifting toward rough seas. A subtle persecution of those who wish to bring the denomination back to the authority of the word is emerging rather than reformation.

One can repeat the words “Great Reformation” in the same manner that a new age devotee repeats a mantra, it will mean nothing. But like the ancient Israelites who found the lost book of the law in the temple we must find again the word of God and, as they did, submit to its authority. It is the word of the Lord of the Church. As we submit to him, we will submit to his word. We pray that in mercy through Father, Son and Holy Spirit, our denomination will turn back to the word, repent and be truly reformed.

[2]Conrad Wright, The Beginnings of Unitarianism in America, (Boston: Starr King Press 1955).

[3]See Jeremiah 7 and 44.


Todd Bensel said...

I thought that this was one of your finest works - this is NOT anything close to a reformation work of either God or the body of Christ. This is a departure from that. I took this article to others in my presbytery, but they truly do not seem interested. I must confess that the signatories to this document seem to be full of themselves, although I could be wrong.

Viola Larson said...

Thank you Todd. I don't know about full of themselves, but they certainly do not have a clue about what is happening in the denomination. And there is one who is just on the wrong road. It is all very sad.