Consider this a post for “church geeks” which is unusual for me. But it’s part of my work-in-progress, and you can feel free to read or not, as you desire! This past week I heard a talk by Dr. Joseph Small, who has spent his career at the denominational offices of the Presbyterian Church (USA). Here’s my summary of his talk, which does not include my own thoughts or responses, which I may post later. I like a bit of time to digest his points first.
The fractures and divisions within the Christian church are a great tragedy. At present there are 1,000 Protestant denominations in the USA, 35,000 globally.
Our Presbyterian structure shows “the democratic captivity of the church,” meaning that we have imitated the US government, believing that we could settle disagreements by taking a vote.
However, votes inevitably create winners and losers. Our most recent 70 year history traces no less than 4 schisms:
- 1930s — Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OP)
- 1960s — Presbyterian Church of America (PCA)
- 1980s — Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC)
- current — Evangelical Covenant Order (ECO)
“It takes two to schism.” Schism shows our ecclesiological deficit. We should be in repentance. The gathered congregation is the basic form of church. But this is not a sufficient form of church. In order to be “one holy catholic and apostolic church” every congregation must be part of something larger. How do we handle this?
During the 16th century, in Bern, Switzerland, the reformers held 10 theses which said that the church is not its own, or something we construct or shape according to our own desires. “The church is a creature of Christ and listens not to the voice of the stranger.”
John Calvin said that the church exists “wherever the Word is purely preached and heard, and the sacraments are celebrated.” Dr. Small emphasized and heard as the language that shows the Word embedded in the life of believers. This is the presence of the Living Christ.
Presbyterians are proud of our “connectional church” but Dr. Small is not fond of this language, it reminds him of plumbing. It is an indirect connection. He prefers the early reformers’ model, which was more direct. He described the role of the Deacons in Geneva, Switzerland. There was a wall around Geneva, and through a gate came refugees from France. The Deacons helped the refugees with food, clothing, lodging, job placement, education and free healthcare. This is the presence of the Living Christ. This is a form of communion.
“Ruling Elders” (which is what elders are now called in contrast to “Teaching Elders” which are clergy) rule — in the meaning of “measure” as a ruler does. What do they measure? The health of the congregation.
What is the role of a Teaching Elder? It is to refuse to be a CEO. We need to create a different ecclesial culture.
Dr. Small reviewed the history around William Kenyon, a minister candidate who came up for examination (early 1980s?) but did not think women should be ordained. He was not accepted as a member of the denomination, and went on to be a founder in the PCA. In hindsight, Dr. Small calls his vote against Kenyon “his greatest mistake” which led to the “Kenyon-izing” of the church. By which he means: “the practice of imposing on a person a behavior that leads that person to violate his conscience.” (sic)
Yes, some would say, but aren’t all Protestants heirs of schism? Indeed, the Protestant Reformation was really “The Great Western Church Schism.” It was a necessary tragedy and calls into question the credibility of the gospel. The church has become a series of competing organizations asking for loyalty. No wonder we lose our ability to effectively bring the gospel to the world.
Q&A period followed, and here are a few nuggets:
Don’t assume we’re preaching to Christians. The church thrives when it is in a minority position. Proclaim the gospel and celebrate the sacraments.
“The Church Reformed and Always Being Reformed by the Word of God”
Dr. Small calls for an end to:
- 1. democratic proceduralism (Roberts’ Rules of Order)
- 2. simple majority votes
Both of the above lead to an “exchange of self-righteousness” in which each side (winners/losers) sees itself as the faithful remnant.
We must instead ask ourselves, “How am I responsible for every other minister? How am I accountable to every other minister?” Congeniality is not enough. We must move into true koinonia, which is created through patterns of responsibility and accountability.