From the Worldwide Faith News archives

[PCUSANEWS] Not a task assigned to us

Date Thu, 7 Aug 2003 15:47:24 -0500

Note #7872 from PCUSA NEWS to PRESBYNEWS:

Not a task assigned to us
August 7, 2003

Not a task assigned to us

Task force says God alone can (and will) bring peace, unity, purity

By John Filiatreau

CHICAGO - The story was all over the newspapers and networks: A bitter,
scandalous quarrel about homosexuality in the ministry was threatening the
peace, unity and purity of the church.


In a contentious Assembly in Minneapolis, amid threats of schism and
allegations of misconduct, the American branch of the Anglican Communion
approved the election of an openly gay cleric as a bishop.

Meanwhile, blissfully under the radar, the Task Force on Peace, Unity and
Purity of the Presbyterian Church (USA) went about its quiet business in a
conference center here, exploring the terms of its name and of its charge -
the theological meaning of unity, peace and purity.


"This is God's church, not ours," Barbara Wheeler told her fellow task force
members. "It is not in our power to make it more peaceful, more unified, more
pure. ... These are qualities that are not our own doing, that we cannot
confer on ourselves."

And while Presbyterians may live in a consumer society and compete for
"market share," she added, they don't get to choose to be part of the Body of
Christ. "We believe in election," she pointed out. "We are in this Church by
God's gracious choice. We don't choose the Church; and we don't get to choose
each other, either. The church ... is not like our affinity groups. ...

"What this says, friends, is that unity is not optional. It is integral to
being the church. We are knit together spiritually."

And the good news is that God can do what we cannot.

"This work is already done for us by Jesus Christ, whose Body we are,"
Wheeler said. "We are seeking, celebrating, living what is already ours."

Wheeler, the president of Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City, based
her address on a passage from Ephesians: "God, who is rich in mercy, out of
the great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead through our
trespasses, made us alive together in Christ ... and raised us up with Him.
... For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own
doing; it is the gift of God - not the result of works, so that no one may

In the Reformed tradition, Wheeler said, unity is taken seriously.

"Christians may not break fellowship with other Christians who offend them by
their behavior or opinions," she said, "because Christ did not break with us
while we were still sinners. ... Because Christ is not divided, to break
fellowship with other members of the body is to break fellowship with Christ

Splitting the church out of "self-righteous anger or contempt," she said, "is
a crucifying act ... a body blow to Christ."

Again, she quoted Ephesians: "Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and
anger and wrangling and malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted,
forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be
imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us
and gave himself up for us."

Nonetheless, John Wilkinson, the pastor of Third Presbyterian Church in
Rochester, NY, observed, a chart of the schisms and unions and reunions of
Presbyterianism has as many twists and turns and forks as "a Chicago train

Presbyterians don't even agree as to what unity is.

A previous PC(USA) task force wrote in 1925: "Is the Presbyterian Church a
unity or is it a more or less loose association of separate and independent
units? The answer is that the alternatives suggested represent two opposite
extremes, and that neither of these extremes is accurately and fully
descriptive of the organization of our Church."


In the midst of chronic discord, Wilkinson said, there is comfort in knowing
"that it's not the first time we've been here."

In fact, he said, "Conflict and compromise have been the very warp and woof
of Presbyterianism from the beginning." Given the Presbyterian style of
polity, he argued, "conflict is almost guaranteed to happen."

Wilkinson, describing himself as "an amateur church historian," spoke to the
group about the 1729 Adopting Act, the "Magna Charta of the church's
theological history" and "a key moment" that gave rise to "a maze of
different interpretations" of Presbyterian belief.

The Act, approved by the General Synod in Philadelphia, declared: "All the
ministers of this Synod, or that shall hereafter be admitted into this Synod,
shall declare their agreement in, and approbation of, the Confession of
Faith, with the Larger and Shorter Catechisms of the Assembly of Divines at
Westminster, as being in all the essential and necessary articles" of

The Act provided that a candidate for the ministry could express "scruples"
about one or another provision of the Westminster Confession, and yet his
ordination could be upheld "if the Synod or Presbytery shall judge his
scruple or mistake to be only about articles not essential and necessary in
doctrine, worship, or government."

The problem, Wilkinson said, was that the Act did not say what was meant by
"essential" or by "necessary."

Without such definitions, said Mark Achtemeier, a professor of systematic
theology at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary in Iowa, the
phrase was "utterly vacuous," as was the Act's implication that the church
was open, in "non-essential" matters, to broad diversity of opinion and

"How do you decide what is essential and necessary?" he asked. "(Necessary)
for what?"

His question echoed those asked in 1925 by the 15-member Swearingen
Commission, a Roaring '20s version of the present-day task force:

"The question arises, essential to what? Necessary to what?" the commission
said in one of its reports. "Is it essential and necessary to salvation? ...
Essential and necessary to the leading of Christian life and to citizenship
in the Kingdom of God? ... Essential and necessary to the existence of the

The commission, named for its chairman, Henry C. Swearingen, noted that the
use of the phrase "essential and necessary" in the 1729 measure "was a
conciliatory measure designed to bridge a chasm between minds which otherwise
could not meet," and that the expression was not used again in an official
church document for nearly 170 years.

Meanwhile, the church embraced theological diversity and proved itself
capable of tolerating a great deal of dissent.

In a document titled, "Historic Principles, Conscience and Church
Government," the 1983 General Assembly pointed out that conflict had long
been a hallmark of the church.

"The polity of Presbyterianism ... is itself a product of dissent, diversity,
compromise, and the creative resolution of bitter conflict," it said. "...
Presbyterianism, with its insistence on individual responsibility ... has
always known controversy, conflict and rigorous dissent. ... The three
different values that must always be before us - peace, purity, and unity -
will always be in tension. Those who seek a church free of conflict are
seeking something that cannot be had in this world."

Referring to conflict, the commission said, "The history of Presbyterian
polity in this country shows the imminence of this issue at all times."

The church's constitution frankly embraces diversity and accepts dissent. The
Book of Order notes, "There are truths and forms with respect to which men of
good characters and principles may differ." The Confession of 1967 says, "The
unity of the church is compatible with a wide variety of forms."


Achtemeier, in a lecture about purity in the Presbyterian church, cited the
story from the Gospel of Luke about the Pharisee and the publican. The
Pharisee, he noted, is righteous and faithful, and is honestly trying to be
good, while the tax-collector, who is none of those things, merely asks Jesus
from his heart, "Have mercy on me, a sinner."

"It's the tax collector who goes home justified," he said.

Then he spoke about "the woman with a flow of blood," in another story from
Luke, who tried to sneak up on Jesus and touch his garment, thinking she
would thereby be healed. "Confused and mixed-up as she was," he said, "Jesus
told her, 'Daughter, your faith has saved you.'"

"Almost anything goes," he observed, "as long as it brings people to Jesus

Achtemeier noted that "the New Testament is very, very cautious about my
attitude about my neighbor's sin." He cited Paul's condemnation of
homosexuality in Romans, noting, as he has elsewhere, that the apostle's
comment is "part and parcel of a larger argument that condemns not only
homosexuality, but also: 'wickedness of every kind, evil, greed, depravity,
envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice, gossip, slander, impiety, insolence,
arrogance, boastfulness, disobedience to parents, senselessness,
faithlessness, heartlessness, ruthlessness.'

"And Paul goes on to say in chapter two that if you pick one particular item
out of this list (like homosexuality) and use it to condemn a brother or
sister, in doing this you bring God's wrath and condemnation upon yourself."

"The church is a church of forgiven sinners," Achtemeier said. "Its truth and
righteousness, given by grace through faith, are Christ's possession, and not
its own. ... Faithful, just and peaceful life together is the work of Jesus
Christ - who kept company with sinners."

Echoing Wheeler, he said, "The church's peace, unity and purity are not
created by us, but given in Christ."

Good works, he said - righteousness, obedience, purity - "are not
unimportant," but "are not what makes the church." A Christian's works, he
said, "are all like hymns of praise."

Again he quoted Ephesians: "For we are what He has made us, created in Christ
Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life."

Achtemeier contrasted a fourth-century group of "Pharisees," called
Donatists, whom he described as "champions of a pure church," with followers
of St. Augustine of Hippo.

To Augustine, he said, "the church is a hospital for sinners, constituted by
the grace of Christ," while Donatists believe the church to be "a society of
the moral elite, constituted by its own righteousness." To Augustine, sin is
a power broken to pieces by Christ, who heals the church's corruption; to the
Donatists, sin is powerful, frightening - and contagious. To Augustinians, he
said, impurity in the church is a challenge to practice charity - "a big
opportunity to be Christ" - while, to a Donatist, impurity in the church
creates an obligation to separate oneself from the impure. In the Augustinian
vision, the church extends Christ's healing power to all the nations of the
world; to the Donatists, the church must withdraw from the world to avoid

(Augustine reportedly said of the Donatists: "The clouds roll with thunder,
that the House of the Lord shall be built throughout the earth; and these
frogs sit in their marsh and croak - 'We are the only Christians.'")

"There are sinners in church," Achtemeier concluded. "We need more of them."
He added, parenthetically, "Jesus was an Augustinian, apparently."

John "Mike" Loudon, the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Lakeland, FL,
asked Achtemeier whether repentance isn't important to one redemption.
Achtemeier replied that the tax-collector in Jesus's story showed no sign of
having repented, yet he was saved. Repentance is one of the fruits of grace,
he said, not a qualification for it.

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