New Ideas #3: Agreeing to Agree

New Ideas #3: Agreeing to Agree

“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.

5 Responses

  1. Matt Johnson says:

    Jerry, you’ve given a helpful description of the issue of theological broadening, here. My own presbytery examination experiences resonate with your description. The people certified for candidacy in my presbytery are asked to expand on a line or two in their statement of faith, but we really don’t have *time* for an extended conversation, and most of us haven’t read the statements in advance anyway. The few people who do ask serious questions try to do so graciously, but the overall climate you describe pushes them toward a basically defensive posture in their questioning. It comes off seeming like an unwarranted attack (esp. given the already broad range of theology in our presbytery), or a foil for another political battle rather than a genuine question for theological dialogue. It’s not fun for anybody.

    Having outlined the problem in great detail, the second to last paragraph proposes a process for addressing the problem — but in three sweeping sentences. Could you expand on what a contemporary theological consensus would consist of and how it would come about? If the consensus is minimal, then what prevents the broadening process from continuing from a new reset point? If it’s more pronounced, then what prevents the Fellowship from feeling constrained and contentious in a new way (“I’m not sure this person really belongs in the Fellowship because she said, ‘_____’.)

    It’s this kind of dilemma that makes me wonder how many problems would actually be solved by functioning within a Fellowship framework. Do you have any other organizational/ecclesial examples that would function as exemplars of this kind of theological consensus for the Fellowship?

  2. A brilliant observation, Jerry: as theological consensus dissolves, so does all trust. If we don’t have the ABC in common, who cares about QRS?

  3. I have watched, listen to, and read much of what you have done and said. You have often disappointed me, and this piece does nothing to change this sad status. It is as though you are sitting with us in a room ablaze. We look to you for a way to escape because you seem to know the way. Instead of an exit, you begin to describe with eloquence the pattern of the wallpaper. We all agreed that your description is accurate but not helpful.

  4. Al Sandalow says:

    I’ve seen this effect on candidates, in ways that are not fair to them. I’ve watched candidates from theologically progressive churches and presbyteries examined on the floor of an more orthodox presbytery and get hammered. They seem utterly mystified, because the beliefs they are defining were perfectly acceptable to the CPM where they came from or even to the church they are going to.

    I’ve felt bad for a couple of them, even as I voted against them. Having no workable theological consensus isn’t just frustrating for evangelicals.

  5. John Erthein says:

    I wish evangelicals within Presbyteries would be willing to take this responsibility more seriously. At least in the Presbyteries I have served in, virtually no one, including self-identifying evangelicals, is willing to ask any questions on the floor of Presbytery about a candidate’s or transferring minister’s theology. That does not stop these same evangelicals from grumbling about the theological stance of these same candidates or ministers. They just don’t speak up.

    I was the ONLY minister in my entire Presbytery (which generally voted conservatively on matters that came before it, such as ordination standards) to ask even a single question of a candidate who referred to God as Father and Mother. After NO ONE followed up, I decided that was the last time I would stick my neck out in that Presbytery at least. Later, the Chair of the Committee on Ministry scolded me for asking a question at all. When other candidates or ministers came before the Presbytery that should have raised questions from evangelicals, no one spoke up. I WANTED to, but when I saw NO ONE ELSE was prepared to do so, I kept silent.

    I have not served on COMs so I do not know if evangelicals have shown more fortitude in those settings. I am not confident that is the case.

    You know, I really am beginning to think the real problem in our denomination is NOT with liberals or moderates, but with evangelicals who prefer to complain to one another while not using the tools given to us by our polity. Shame on us!

Comments are closed.