Sunday, June 14, 2015

We get Letters ... on forbearance

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


Joe Duffus said...


I found that letter on forbearance that you referenced. It is here:

Note the writer's name is "James Calvin Davis," rather than "James Calvin."

Viola Larson said...

Thanks Joe. I knew that and then forgot, not sure how.

Craig said...

I thought it was bad when our AC sent out a congregational survey in which it lied multiple times in an attempt to sway peoples votes.

I'm glad our journey in the PCUSA is over.

Twin Cities, MN

Jodie said...

Viola, you are back!

The problem with the charge of “heresy” in the Reformed Protestant tradition, is that it is nearly impossible to sustain. The Roman Catholic Church bases its teachings on its own internally authoritative doctrines. Disobedience to those doctrines is disobedience to the Church.

But in the Protestant Church we claim to base our doctrines on the Scriptures alone.

The doctrines from which one could deviate and be charged of “heresy” are therefore based on numerous unsustainable claims: 1) that God’s laws are knowable and 2) revealed in Scripture in modern day language, 3) without the need for interpretation, or 4) that all prior interpretation is trustworthy and correct.

But history and science have shown those claims to be false: 1) because the scriptures themselves as we have them have been altered and pieced together from damaged fragments and copies, often of untraceable origins, 2) translated and interpreted into modern languages 3) subjected to further layers of interpretation in their reading, often taken out of historical or literary context, and 4) since humans are in the loop, the layers of interpretation are by necessity deeply flawed.

The fact is that the Church often changes its mind about what obedience to God really means. What is heresy at one time and place, is orthodoxy at another, and vice-versa.

The issue today, as I see it, is the error of basing faith on doctrine rather than method. Looking at the founders of our Faith we see by example after example that their faith was not based on doctrine at all, but on method. The most common of these being prayer. That was certainly the method preferred by Jesus. The only recorded thing the disciples ever asked Jesus to teach them was how to pray. It was the method of John the Baptist. Jesus, in the Garden, only asked of his disciples that they pray with him. And it was the method of all the post resurrection Apostles.

The “danger” of course is that in prayer, we can change our minds. Or we might even change the mind of God.

This method has been found to always be true regardless of time or place or language or culture. It is through prayer that we adhere to the Spirit of the Gospel.

There may a spirit calling churches to leave our denomination, but whether it is God’s Spirit doing the calling, that remains to be demonstrated.

And if anyone is interested in the ethics and orthodoxy of changing our minds, I recommend leading Evangelical ethicist David Gushee’s book “Changing our Minds”.

Jodie Gallo
Los Angeles, CA

Andy Vloedman said...

Viola Thank you for your scholarship, discernment and the clarity of your posts. At a time when the Westar's God seminar has through the casting of colored beads determined that the subject matter of theology is not God and is now ready to take on the fundamental and first question: Is God necessary for the Kingdom of God, one has to wonder if we haven't reached the point Muggeridge described of having "educated ourselves into imbecility". I thank God for your voice which is sorely needed at such a time as this.


Jodie said...

That's funny: "Is God necessary for the Kingdom of God?" Sometimes you hear the dumbest things in church...But if you have no idea what either of them are,... I take comments like that as an opportunity.

Like when a woman friend of mine (MS from MIT no less) visited a cathedral in Europe and came out horrified at this statue she saw of a woman being served a plate with a man's head on it. "What is up with that???!!" she asked.


Viola Larson said...

Sometimes I wonder where your ideas come from. Jesus taught what we today call doctrine. He taught scriptural truth because the word is His truth. "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through me." That is truth and it is doctrine and it is what the true church has always taught. It has not changed.

"I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die." That is truth and it is doctrine and it is what the true church has always taught. It has not changed.

There are no essential doctrines of Christianity that have ever been changed because of a scribes error in copying the text-any problems have been simple and un-profound. Almost all of the New Testament text can be found in the writings of the early church fathers. You simply have read misinformation. I wonder what you have been reading?

Prayer is a wonderful gift that God gives and Jesus certainly teaches us to pray but this is not the sum total of Christianity.

Viola Larson said...

Andy thank you and I love the Muggeridge quote.

Jodie said...


I have been >reading< the Bible. "My" ideas are not mine, they come from the Bible. Do you really not recognize them? Perhaps I read it through lenses you do not. But it is still the Bible that I am reading.

You quoted John twice. What do those quotes mean? When you answer that question you will have uttered interpretation and doctrine. For example, the Evangelical reading of "no one comes to the Father but through me" is "no one comes to the Father [unless he chooses and says] but through me". A more accurate - contextual - interpretation is probably "no one comes to the Father [unless I say so]"

After all, from the opening verses in John, isn't the Gospel of John telling us that Jesus is the ultimate "I say so"? I sometimes think that gets lost in translation.

Your third paragraph is a statement of doctrine starting with the word "essential", loosely paraphrasing my point number 4. I think also that you will find that the Church fathers were writing more years after Jesus than we are after the Civil War. A lot happened in that time period. A whole splitting of the ways between Christianity and Judaism. The Temple was utterly destroyed, and Jerusalem was burned to the ground not once but twice. A whole apocalypse.

But if you want to make it a doctrine, prayer is the topic of the Text nearly 50 times in the Gospels and about 150 times in the whole New Testament. As prominently a role as it plays in Scripture, you would think that it would be at the top of the list of doctrines that the orthodox champion. Why isn't it? I suppose it doesn't get the mention it deserves because it's a method more than a doctrine. Orthodoxy doesn't dwell on method.

And that is where it is fundamentally flawed.

I wonder though, since you have never really spoken of it, what kind of a gift, as you put it, would you say prayer is? What does it do for you? No rhetorical agenda in asking, just curious.

I would reflect back to you your last paragraph and say that Jesus certainly teaches doctrine, but doctrine is not the sum total of Christianity. Not by a long shot.


Dr. James C. Goodloe IV said...


Thank you for this. You might be interested in the tensions between the unity of the church and the holiness of the church in the writings of John Calvin as explored in this paper:

Dr. James C. Goodloe IV

Viola Larson said...

Thank you James, I read a little and will read the whole. There is that tension in Calvin and it is important for the whole church.