“Agreeing to Agree: Theology in Presbyteries”
By Dr. Jerry Andrews, First Presbyterian Church, San Diego, CA
In his 1954 book, The Broadening Church, Lefferts Loetscher described how a church with a once tightly-held theological core significantly relaxed its theological commitments, especially in the first half of the last century. The approval of the broadening project was widely shared in the second half of the century among Presbyterians.
There were, of course, objections and dissenters along the way. Some found their own continuing commitment to a well articulated theological core – almost always the Westminster Standards – no longer welcome in the church and therefore formed their own fellowships, notably the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the Faith Presbyterian Church in the first half of the century, and the Presbyterian Church in America and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church in the second half of the century. These are rifts in the American Presbyterian family that remain unhealed and for which there has been little reconciliation.
While the PC (USA) continues to theologically broaden, there is concern about the wisdom of this project continuing. Expressed simply, the broadening church shows every sign of being the thinning church. Thinning may have been tolerable in Loetscher’s day when we could at least be comforted that if we were now no longer deepening at least we were widening. The generations living in the 1950s could live deeply in the reservoir of the work of previous generations. However, any comfort flowing from the enlarging of PC (USA) membership is now gone. Yet, in many parts of the church, the desire to drink from deep theological wells is leaving as well.
We see this most clearly in our Presbyteries. Presbyters have been unable to apply any rigor to the examination of their candidates and those entering the membership of the presbytery. The presbyters have not engaged in serious and sustained theological conversation among themselves, thus cannot engage candidates and others in the extension of that conversation. The presbyters act the role of governing body members without committing to the practice of theological deliberation. The reasons for the loss of this practice could be expressed perhaps only in a book like that of Loetscher’s but some suspicious causes are near the surface.
We have lost theological confidence. Perhaps fearing that confidence might look like arrogance, we do not work at again becoming able and articulate in our knowledge of the Faith.
We have lost theological accountability. Fearing accountability, we decline any mutual oversight for what our pastors preach, what they teach their confirmation disciples, and upon what basis they help their sessions to measure out the patterns of faithfulness in their congregations.
We have lost the desire to agree. Ambiguities and mysteries are real and many, and therefore to be humbly respected. Yet the gospel is good news in part for being wonderfully clear. The Faith of the Church, always debated and formed in the midst of disagreement, exists nonetheless, and is comprehensible. As a consequence we have despaired of the value of theological conversation and theology itself, considering it a rigor in excess of the value gained. As a consequence we do not offer our ordination candidates and ordained transfers the benefit of a theological welcome.
Often, when presbyteries attempt a theological examination of a candidate or transfer (remember this is required, and for good reasons), it does not effectively happen. The large number of examiners in the room, the absence of well established habits, and the keen sensibilities for the immediate emotional well-being of the one examined (and the friends and family present), all work against offering this theological welcome. But what, in our opinion, most debilitates the possibility is the wide range of theological convictions among the examiners. To whose theology will the one being examined give answer? Far from our best, we are too often silent. At our worst we attempt to score theological points at the expense of one another while the one examined is silent witness.
Further our system has rendered the ruling elders to be silenced in this enterprise. Since the mandatory rotation of elders a half century ago, very little theological investment has been made in them. They are half of the theological conversation in the life of the presbytery, yet feel ill equipped to enter into it confidently. This is a significant loss to the church. They are the presbyters called to establish the patterns of faithfulness in the life of the congregation. This is a significant and irreplaceable loss to our congregations.
We do not despair. We desire to live within presbyteries that attend to these things. Some theological consensus is necessary for the fullness of our life together. And where that is lacking, we desire a soon and serious renewed commitment to reforming a theological consensus. And where that is lacking, we desire some freedom to form and join those presbyteries that do and will. And if that should be prevented, we desire a fellowship that will permit it, and yet permit us all still to be in covenant with one another…somehow.
We yearn for presbytery life filled with theological conversation among theological friends. We want to make the necessary important decisions of our common life based on known and shared theological commitments. We believe that theological consensus aids missional effectiveness. We believe the Church has a Faith without which she cannot live faithfully.