The Church We Are Called to Be

The Church We Are Called to Be

Jack Rogers
Moderator, 213th General Assembly
Professor of Theology Emeritus, San Francisco Theological Seminary

 Address delivered to the 2001 Covenant Conference
November 2, 2001

I was in Louisville, at the Presbyterian Center on September 11. If I had to be anywhere at that time of tragedy, except at home, I was glad I was there. I want to tell you how very, very proud I was of the national staff and the volunteers in the building on that day of crisis. They immediately went to work to provide resources for our congregations and governing bodies. I became a spokesperson for the church in a way that I would not have been had I not been there.

Within minutes, the media people asked me to write a prayer which they put out on the internet. The Theology and Worship staff put together a service of hymns, prayers, and Scripture readings. I was there with two former Moderators working on the Task Force on the peace, unity, and purity of the church that has recently been announced. Together, the three of us, with others, led a service of worship in the Chapel at the Presbyterian Center. It was full. Wall to wall people, and spilling out into the hall. When Freda Gardner began to read the 23rd Psalm, everyone began to recite it aloud from memory. There was a sense of solidarity.

Afterwards I met the TV and print media who were there. An AP reporter asked me: “Why did you do this?” I replied that two things seemed clear: “We knew we needed God. And we needed each other.” It seemed the most natural thing to want to be together to share our shock and grief. We worshipped and witnessed. Then everyone went back to work. People were on the phones, and email, and fax, contacting the congregations in the hardest hit areas, offering assistance. Presbyterian Disaster Assistance was immediately brought into action. World Wide Ministries was in touch with our mission personnel overseas. Theology and Worship was responding to requests from pastors about how to interpret these events to their congregations and to parents about how to interpret them to their children. Before the day was over, Cliff Kirkpatrick, who was in Geneva, Switzerland, and John Detterick, and I, had issued a pastoral letter that went out to all of our presbyteries to be distributed to our congregations.

In a time of crisis we reach down deep inside ourselves to find the resources to meet the challenge. For me, and for many in our church, those resources are found in the wisdom of our Confessions. The Heidelberg Catechism, Question 1: “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” Answer: “That I belong – body and soul, in life and in death – not to myself, but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.” We drew on that resource when we wrote A Brief Statement of Faith, the newest statement in our Book of Confessions, “In life and in death we belong to God.”

We have a strong, vital denomination, with committed and compassionate leaders. The first lesson of September 11 is that we must stand united. I preached for Joanna Adams at Trinity Presbyterian in Atlanta. She told that in those first days when we were all transfixed in front of our TV sets, there was a strip of announcements of canceled events running across the bottom of the screen. One from the law courts said: “Arguments canceled, today and tomorrow.” Would that it applied to the church as well.

I don’t know how the vote on Amendment A will come out. I have seen no running tallies of early votes in presbyteries. I wish that we would all take a September 11 pledge — not to put forth any more legislation nor initiate any more judicial action regarding ordination standards until the Task Force on the peace, unity, and purity of the church presents its final report in 2005. We need to give this representative group time to consult with the church and to help us understand the way forward into the 21st century. We need more education, not legislation.

I couldn’t leave Louisville, as planned, on September 11. I was there until Friday, the 15th when planes started flying again. I couldn’t get to Spokane, Washington, where I was supposed to be preaching. I couldn’t get back home to Los Angeles. But I could get to Omaha. I was to be there the following week, meeting with three presbyteries. My wife Sharon’s mother lives in the village of Bennington, just outside of Omaha, and she took me in. She is the matriarch of that town. At 93, she still drives her car and goes to two or three events a day. In Bennington, Nebraska, ecumenism is having the option to choose between being Evangelical Lutheran and Missouri Synod Lutheran. In deference to my limitations we went to Fremont to the first Presbyterian Church where I brought greetings. Then we attended a family gathering. When we got home, a neighbor was standing on the doorstep. She said: “Come over for pie and coffee.”

There were three couples, and Gretchen and I. We were talking about the tragic events of September 11. One of the women said: “What I don’t understand is how some of those terrorists could have been in this country four or five years and not realized that our way of life is better and changed their minds.” That is the second, painful lesson of September 11. There are people in every country and every religion that only see the dark side. America has many faults, and we have made many mistakes in our foreign policy. We know these things and we try to correct them, but we move on knowing the positive as well. When people only see the negative about others and then cast their attitude in religious term, they are called “fundamentalists.”

About 10 years ago Martin Marty, now retired Professor of Church History at the University of Chicago, got the American Academy of Sciences to authorize a “Fundamentalism Project.” Most people thought it was a waste of time. Who cares about fundamentalists? Now Marty looks like a genius! His team has compiled about 10 volumes of research on fundamentalisms worldwide. Recently in an article in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, Marty listed four common characteristics of all fundamentalisms. First, they grow on soil that has been conservative, traditional, orthodox. Second, they imagine that there was once an ideal community in the past and that the modern world is a defection, a falling away, a perversion of that ideal community. Many conservative people might share those first two attitudes of fundamentalism.

To be evangelical, or conservative, is not to be a fundamentalist. What distinguishes a fundamentalist is militancy. George Marsden, in his book, Fundamentalism in American Culture, defines fundamentalism as “militant anti-modernism.” Fundamentalists believe that they must react. They must fight a holy war against change. Those, of their own community, who do not support this holy war are called apostate. Their opponents are described as minions of Satan. Fourth, these militant fundamentalists usually select a few features of their imagined perfect past and make them absolute. This often is set forth as the necessity to believe a few precisely worded doctrinal statements.

What is most painful to say is that we have a militant fundamentalist group within the Presbyterian Church. The common fundamentalist themes can be found in the attitudes of the Presbyterian Lay Committee. It was founded 36 years ago to try to change the Presbyterian Church into a body that would not deal with social issues and that would interpret the Bible with a surface literalism. Growing on the soil of a denomination that is conservative and theologically orthodox, the Lay Committee idealizes the era in the 1920s when a fundamentalist party ruled the church. In that period, candidates for ministry were forced to conform to five precisely worded doctrines called the five essential and necessary articles. The Lay Committee has 3 doctrines to which everyone must adhere in their particular wording. They want their statements to become the basis for hiring and firing people in the church. They declared our 213th General Assembly “apostate,” unchristian.

Many other Moderators have had to struggle with issues that the Layman have blown out of all proportion to reality. Moderators have tried to bring about reconciliation with the Lay Committee. General Assembly committees have held hearings and issued reports indicating that the Layman is unwilling to work constructively within the denominational structures. This year the Lay Committee has gone further in their destructive course than ever before.

I went to Orlando, Florida, for the last day of a three-day meeting sponsored by the Coalition, an umbrella organization encompassing about 15 conservative groups in the denomination. The last morning session was to be an “open mike” at which anyone could say anything they wanted to. Without announcement, suddenly, the Chairman of The Lay Committee, Bob Howard, appeared on the platform and gave a half-hour power-point presentation on a strategy for making war on the denomination. “War” was his word, and he asserted that it was appropriate.

He outlined the strategy by which the Lay Committee plans to take over the Presbyterian Church. First, Howard announced that the Confessing Church Movement, a group of churches that have pledged adherence to the 3 statements of the Layman’s creed, is now the agency of connectionalism in the denomination. Howard described the Confessing Church Movement as a “shadow church.” The Lay Committee wants to radically downsize the denominational agencies. They hope to take the vote away from retired persons like me, anyone who is not an active pastor in a congregation, or elder. If they got control of the denomination, they would invite churches that do not agree with their version of “biblical ordination standards” to leave the denomination with their property. If these churches will not leave, the Lay Committee would threaten them with being disciplined. Howard encouraged congregations to withhold both per capita and mission funds and divert them to causes more to their liking.

Just as we must be very careful not to stereotype all Arabs, or all Muslims, as terrorists, so we must not characterize all conservatives, or evangelicals, as militant fundamentalists. There is a significant difference between evangelicals who want to change the church in a more conservative direction, and fundamentalists who want to tear down the church and refuse to work within it. I believe that most evangelicals and members of the Confessing Church movement want to affirm their faith and remain within the denomination. Why then align themselves with a potentially schismatic group?

What does the Confessing Church Movement have to offer? A hastily drawn up, rigidly worded, 3-point creed tied to a political agenda. We have as a denomination something far better: A Book of Confessions, representing centuries of wisdom from our forbears in the faith who have lived and died for the faith that they have bequeathed to us. We have something more: A democratic process, involving the whole church, by which we prepare and choose the creeds by which we will live. I had the privilege of serving on the Committee that prepared A Brief Statement of Faith. A representative committee, chaired by Jack Stotts, took six years developing a draft. Then 3 General Assemblies and a special revision committee had a part in shaping it. The whole church was given opportunity for input which the committees took very seriously. The result is a creed for our time that was approved by almost all of our presbyteries. Do we want to toss aside the wisdom of the church, and a democratic process, for the dictatorship of a special interest group with a self-serving political agenda?

People signing on to the Confessing Church Movement say that Jesus Christ alone is Lord of all and the way of salvation. The statement about Jesus Christ, “fully human, fully God,” is much richer in “A Brief Statement.” Jesus “proclaimed the reign of God,” followed by those wonderful gospel verbs– preaching, teaching, healing, eating with outcasts, forgiving sinners, and calling all to repent and believe the gospel. “Jesus was crucified, suffering the depths of human pain and giving his life for the sins of the world. God raised this Jesus from the dead, delivering us from death to life eternal.” Contrast that gracious statement with one whose primary purpose is to say that some people are excluded from God’s grace. Scripture says that “God our Savior desires everyone to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth” (I Tim. 2:4). The Theology and Worship paper, and the Assembly, wisely say that “we neither restrict the grace of God to those who profess explicit faith in Christ nor assume that all people are saved regardless of faith.” We are not God and should not play God. Our task is to introduce people to the gracious Jesus of the Bible and the Confessions so that their lives will be transformed as they come into relationship to God.

The second article of faith proposed by the Confessing Church Movement is “That Holy Scripture is the triune God’s revealed Word, the Church’s only infallible rule of faith and life.” That only tells part of the story. A Brief statement draws on the language of many confessions in our Book of Confessions saying, “The same Spirit who inspired the prophets and apostles rules our faith and life in Christ through Scripture, engages us through the Word proclaimed.”

I’ve been reading the Bible every day since I was a small boy. Most of my study and writing during my adult life has been regarding biblical and confessional interpretation. I even wrote a five hundred printed page dissertation on the first chapter of the Westminster Confession on Holy Scripture. I can tell you with complete confidence that the real Bible is much deeper and richer and more challenging than the superficial literalism that passes for believing in Scripture in some quarters.

I try to read some of the Gospels every day, along with other Old and New Testament passages. I find no evidence that Jesus spent his time leading a moral crusade to support the status quo in society. I find no evidence that he was busy seeking out people who should be excluded from the church because they were different from the majority. The only people that Jesus continually was in conflict with were the people who were determined to uphold the law, as their culture defined the law. Jesus continually defied the norms of his culture. He interpreted the Old Testament to accept and include those who the religious leaders rejected as unclean — Samaritans, women, tax collectors, people with leprosy. The list goes on and on. That accepting Jesus is the Jesus of the Bible. We need to read it, and preach it, and share it with everyone that feels excluded by our self-righteous, religious culture.

Ah, yes. The 3rd and final point in this new abbreviated creed: “That God’s people are called to holiness in all aspects of life. This includes honoring the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman, the only relationship within which sexual activity is appropriate.” I care about holiness. I believe that every person in this room does. If we didn’t believe that being a Christian made a difference in people’s lives, we wouldn’t be here. You know that line in A Brief Statement of Faith, “we strive to serve Christ in our daily tasks and to live holy and joyful lives.” “Holy” That’s my word. I suggested it late one hot August afternoon and the Brief Statement committee gladly accepted it. The church is called to holiness. It is not the private property of just people who use it to exclude others as unholy.

I care a lot about marriage. I’ve been married to the same wonderful woman for 44 years. We all ought to care deeply about marriage. Marriage is in trouble in this country. In the last one hundred years, the United States has gone from being the most marrying society in the world to the one with the most divorces and unwed mothers. The divorce rate has risen from 7% in the 1860s to 50% today. As recently as the 1960s, the rate of out-of-wedlock births was 5%. Today the overall rate of out-of-wedlock births is near 30%. Cohabiting, living together without being married, rose from 430,000 couples in 1960 to 4.1 million couples in 1997. We live in an era of family disruption that leads to talk of an emerging culture of “‘serial marriage’ and ‘nonmarriage.'”

None of these alarming trends has been caused by homosexuals who want to marry. None of these trends will be solved by denying same-sex couples the right to legal and church sanction for publicly committing to a life-long relationship. In a culture of non-marriage, it is very ironic that we are spending great amounts of money and energy in trying to prevent people from marrying who want to do so in a way that would contribute to the stability of society and the enrichment of the church.

Why are the sides so far apart on matters of human sexuality? We are still talking past one another. Everyone thinks that we are debating matters of principle, but underneath all the arguments from Scripture and tradition we are really differing on matters of fact. A recent book, being touted as the definitive study of what the Bible says on homosexuality, is actually not based on revelation, but on natural law. The author declares that we don’t need biblical revelation because the Old Testament writers and Paul said what they did because they could see that women and men were “anatomically complementary sexual beings.” So we are making assumptions based on our human evaluation. Another prevailing assumption among those opposed to full inclusion of homosexuals is that all persons are born heterosexual. To be homosexual is to have had bad childhood experiences. But to behave as a homosexual is to willfully, sinfully act against ones God-given nature. The cure is to repent and to submit one life to Jesus and thus to be changed. Persons supporting full inclusion of gay and lesbians people predominantly believe that affection for persons of ones own sex is for some people a given of their nature. Many homosexual people are deeply devout Christians who cannot and should not change to be heterosexuals but are living their lives in a faithful committed relationship to a partner just as heterosexuals are called to do. We are not really arguing about the Bible or the Confessions, but about prevailing assumptions in contemporary culture. How can we get past this impasse?

Sharon told me that she had read that in the week after September 11, in Houston, Texas, 400 couples that had applied for divorce, withdrew their petitions and decided to try again. If that was just to grin and bear it in a loveless marriage, that would not be a good model. But, if those couples try to discover again the love that brought them together in the first place, it holds great promise and hope. That is our task as the church. We need to remember that it was the love of Jesus Christ that brought us together in the first place. We didn’t chose each other because we agreed on every issue. God chose us and made us a part of God’s family, the body of Christ. Let us acknowledge and rejoice in our common commitment to Jesus Christ and find therein a basis for continued relationship.

You see, there is another, related, doctrine that the Layman’s creed doesn’t mention. I believe in the Holy Catholic Church. That is a doctrine we need to believe, and preach, and teach. There is a genuine danger of schism if the Layman cannot achieve its objective of tearing down the present church and putting its own fundamentalist church in its place. Calvin wrote: “There could not be two or three churches unless Christ be torn asunder.” My favorite seminary professor used to ask us, “If Christ is divided, who bleeds?”

I called my friend, Bill Pannell, one night from Atlanta. Bill and I taught together at Fuller, where he was professor of evangelism and preaching. His wife, Hazel, had had a back operation and I wanted to see how she was doing. Bill came on the phone and said: “Jack, people want to get back to normal. It is your job to tell them what is normal in the church.” What a good insight. Normal doesn’t mean the way we’ve always done it. A norm is a standard. I always told my students that the norm in our class was A+. The average was usually something less, but the norm was what we all had to work toward.

What is the Church that we are called to be? John Calvin had two marks of the church — where the word is truly preached and the sacraments are rightly administered. I see that happening all over the country in Presbyterian churches large and small. John Knox was a kind of radical student of Calvin, who went back to Scotland and added a third mark to the authentic church, “discipline.” We would call it spiritual nurture. It meant that during the week before communion, the pastor and/or elders went to the homes of members of the congregation to inquire about the health of their souls. If they were deemed in spiritual health, they got a token, wood or metal, the size of a nickel or quarter, that admitted them to communion. I see spiritual nurture going on as well, in congregations across the country, where pastoral work is being done to support people in their spiritual growth.

At the reunion in 1983 of the northern and southern streams of Presbyterianism, we got a new Book of Order. It has four new chapters at the beginning that give the theological underpinnings of our governmental practices. It begins with Christ as the head of the church, and gives the preliminary principles by which we function. Second is a wonderful chapter on “The Church and Its Confessions.” Then, there is a third chapter on “The Church and Its Mission.” It contains what I regard as two further marks of the church. The first mark of the authentic church is to be in mission in the world. The second is to be a community of diversity. By including women and men of all ages, races, conditions, and abilities the church is “providing for inclusiveness as a visible sign of the new humanity.”

These marks of the church are what make the church normal, up to standard: Preaching the Gospel; administering the sacraments; spiritual nurture; mission in the world; and, being a community of diversity. It is these last two: mission in the world, and diversity, that are hard to accept for some who are quite certain about the first three marks. As contemporary Presbyterians we need to affirm all of them to be true to what we have learned from Scripture under the leading of the Holy Spirit. When Jesus prayed in John 17:20 that “all may be one,” it was not just an interesting option. The purpose is evangelism, “that the world may believe.”

I was at Columbia Seminary a few weeks ago. After an hour and a half discussion with students and faculty in which we had dealt with a wide range of problems in the church, their new president, my friend, Laura Mendenhall made the most helpful comment. She said: “I read through the Book of Acts last summer. They had problems greater than ours. But the Holy Spirit was at work and created a church that now is spread over the whole world.”

That is what I need to remember. This is God’s church. The Holy Spirit is not done with us. Isaiah 43:19 depicts God as saying, “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” I want, this year, to be open to discern what God’s Spirit is doing in this great church .

Amen.

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