Richard Mouw

New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, Washington, DC
Keynote Address- Friday Afternoon, November 7, 2003

Strangers: a Dialogue about the Church

Richard J. Mouw
President, Fuller Theological Seminary

(Barbara Wheeler and Richard Mouw presented prepared remarks and then responded to each other’s remarks and questions from the audience.)


I accepted the assignment to be here today because of the urgings of my good friend Barbara Wheeler. But when I saw the program, I was pleased to see that another good friend, Patrick Henry, was also going to be speaking here. I have spent many weeks during many summers at the Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, where Patrick has provided such excellent leadership. I co-chaired a variety of ecumenical discussions in Collegeville, and I also served for a number of years on the Institute Board. Since the Institute is a place where I have learned many important lessons about how strangers can draw closer together in the Body of Jesus Christ, let me begin with a Collegeville story.

My first visit to Collegeville occurred when I was on the faculty at Calvin College and also very active in Christian Reformed denominational functions. One of my assignments had been to serve for five years on the Faith and Order Commission of the National Council of Churches, as one of the representatives of non-member denominations. I approached that involvement with some cynicism, and my experience on the Commission did not completely cure me of that attitude. So it was with some trepidation that I journeyed to Collegeville for a weeklong discussion of “The Meaning of Ecumenism.”

I was pleasantly surprised by the tone of the Collegeville discussion, but I also experienced some initial discomfort. Two people in particular frustrated me. One was a very serious Catholic theologian who regularly expressed her amazement—even her shock—at some of my theological formulations. The other was a Russian Orthodox layman, later to become a priest, who seemed to be coming from a totally different religious universe than the one that I inhabited. I can still remember feeling eager to get back to Grand Rapids where I could tell my fellow Dutch Calvinists about all of the strange things I had heard from these two individuals.

A funny thing happened to me over the next several months, however. From time to time, one of my fellow Calvinists—a faculty colleague, or a preacher—would refer to something related to either Catholicism or Orthodoxy that I knew was not a fair representation of the views I had heard from these two individuals in Collegeville. When I agreed to return to the Institute the next summer for another round of discussions, it was with a new kind of eagerness: I could not wait to tell my two new-found friends about the misinformed things I had heard some Grand Rapids people say about their two traditions. Those two Collegeville participants, Margaret O’Gara and Anthony Ugolnik, were to become, along with Patrick Henry, close Christian friends from whom I have learned much. No longer strangers, but fellow citizens together in God’s household. Over the years I have been able to build on this and other Collegeville experiences, engaging very freely and extensively in both intra-Christian and inter-religious dialogues.

All of which has caused me to puzzle much about the fact that I have been unusually apprehensive about the invitation to speak to you today. Barbara and I have done this kind of dialogue before, on Fuller’s campus, in front of fairly large groups of Presbyterians, and our discussions together have been well-received. Indeed, she has made more than a few friends among evangelicals as a result of those presentations. I have searched diligently for a way of capturing the quality that Barbara exhibits in those settings that I worried that I would be lacking here. I have not yet found what I have been looking for, although I have ruled out a few characteristics. I think it is fair to say, for example, that among all of Barbara’s many virtues, charm is not one with which she has been especially gifted by her Creator.

Seriously, though, I have wondered a lot about my apprehension over this particular assignment. I have spent a number of years now actively engaged in Jewish-Christian dialogue, and more recently in extensive exchanges with Muslim scholars, even hosting a dozen Koran experts from as many nations on our campus for a week last year. I regularly visit Utah for off-the-record discussions with LDS leaders about deep disagreements between Mormons and evangelicals. And just last week I spent several hours with government officials in China, talking about sensitive church-state matters. I go at all of these things with great enthusiasm. And yet I have found myself regularly breaking into a cold sweat at the thought of engaging in dialogue with fellow Presbyterians here about some important topics being debated presently in our denomination. Why the anxiety in this particular case?—this is a question I have asked myself many times over the past several weeks as I have tried to prepare for this occasion.

The basic problem, I think, is that there is so little room for genuine give-and-take in our Presbyterian discussions these days, while at the same time so much hangs on how our conversations go. It is increasingly apparent that the issues that we are discussing are not simply topics about which we happen to disagree. They are matters that are vitally connected to the question of whether we can stay together as a denomination. In that sense, our present Presbyterian debates do not feel like friendly arguments over the breakfast table, or even the more heated kinds of exchanges that might take place in the presence of a marriage counselor. Rather, it often feels like we are already getting ready for the divorce court, under pressure to measure every word that we say with an eye toward the briefs that our lawyers will be presenting as we move toward a final settlement.

Those are not the kinds of exchanges that I relish. More importantly, I hope with all my heart that we can avoid the divorce court. I want us to stay together. Barbara Wheeler and I have argued much about the issues that threaten to divide us. I presently do not have a clear sense of what it would take to avoid what many of our fellow Presbyterians apparently are convinced is an inevitable separation. I do sense, however,—as I know Barbara does—a strong need to keep talking. It helps much that she and I are friends, and that we know how to talk with each other. But we both know that many of her friends do not like to talk to many of my friends, and vice versa. And I am not sure how we can remedy that problem. All I can do today, then, is to talk—in the hope that some of you will also be willing to continue the conversation with people like me.

Barbara regularly makes her case by appealing to a high ecclesiology. The church, she insists, is not some mere voluntary arrangement that we can abandon just because we do not happen to like some of the other people in the group. God calls us to the church, and that means that God requires that we hang in there with each other, even if that goes against our natural inclinations. I agree with that formulation. And I sense that many of my fellow evangelicals in the PCUSA would also endorse it. The question that many evangelicals are asking these days, though, is whether we are expected by God to hang in there at all costs. I think that this is an important question. So in my own efforts to make the case for sticking together, I feel the need to explore additional considerations.

One such consideration, for me at least, has to do with the history of the seminary over which I preside. Let me explain that by reviewing briefly a little Fuller Seminary history with you. In the fall of 1949 Dr. Bela Vassady joined the Fuller faculty as Professor of Biblical Theology and Ecumenics. Vassady was a distinguished Hungarian Reformed theologian who had been instrumental in introducing the theology of Karl Barth to his homeland,. He had only recently completed an American lecture tour under the sponsorship of the World Council of Churches—he had been one of the founders of the WCC. Upon his arrival in Pasadena, Vassady met with a committee of the local presbytery of what was then the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. in order to facilitate the process of transferring his ministerial credentials from the Hungarian Reformed Church to the Los Angeles Presbytery. Vassady assumed that the process would be virtually automatic—an assumption that had been reinforced by the encouragement of his good friend Eugene Carson Blake, the pastor of the Pasadena Presbyterian Church.

Much to Vassady’s shock, his request was denied. In informal discussions with the committee that had made the decision, he was told that while the presbytery would indeed be honored to have him as a member, they did not want to establish a precedent for admitting other members of the Fuller faculty, several of whom had already expressed an interest in being admitted to the presbytery.

While the earliest generation of Fuller Presbyterians were obviously strong proponents of a conservative Calvinist theology, they had refused to identify with the separatism of J. Gresham Machen and his followers. In fact, one of them, the Old Testament professor William LaSor, had previously served in the Presbytery of West Jersey as a member of the commission of that had suspended Carl McIntyre from the denomination’s ministry. He and several other early leaders at Fuller were deeply distressed by the divisive spirit of much of the evangelicalism of their day, and they placed a commitment to working within the structures of mainline denominations high among their priorities for the kind of theological education they meant to be fostering.

Eventually, of course, many Fuller faculty members were welcomed by local presbyteries. And as things developed, Fuller attracted many women and men who desired to study for Presbyterian ministries. Jack Rogers has taken much heat from our evangelical ranks in the past for years for the positions he has come to defend in our denominational debates—and understandably so. But I want to say here that Fuller is deeply indebted to Jack for his marvelous role for many years in serving as an important mentor to several generations of Presbyterian students at Fuller. Our strong relationship to the PCUSA would not be what it is today without his pioneering efforts. I greatly admire those earlier generations of evangelicals who worked patiently to provide an alternative to the more divisive patterns within their own ranks, and I have a strong desire to honor their labors. 

But my reasons for wanting to see us all stick together in the PCUSA have to do with more than a mere streak of institutional nostalgia. I genuinely believe that a Presbyterian split would be a serious setback for the cause that I care deeply about, namely, the cause of Reformed orthodoxy. I spend a lot of time thinking about how people with my kind of theology have acted in the past, and I am convinced that splits inevitably diminish the influence of the kind of orthodoxy that I cherish, for at least two reasons—ones that I set forth in an Outlook article a year or so ago.

First, the denomination from which the dissidents depart is typically left without strong voices who are defending their understanding of orthodoxy. This is what happened in the early decades of the twentieth century when J. Gresham Machen and his colleagues broke away from the Northern church. I know that this is not a very popular thing to say in this setting, but I happen to be a strong admirer of Machen. I think that he pretty much had things right on questions of biblical authority, the nature of Christ’s atoning work, and other key items on the theological agenda. But I have strong reservations about his ecclesiology, and I regret that his views about the unity of the church led him to abandon mainline Presbyterianism. As long as he remained within the Northern church, he had a forum for demonstrating to the denomination’s liberals that Calvinist orthodoxy could be articulated with intellectual rigor. When he and his friends departed, this kind of witness departed with them. The evangelicals who stayed on in the northern church generally did so because they were not as polemical as the Machen group; they were not nearly as inclined as the Machenites to engage in sustained theological discussion. This meant that the quality of theological argumentation suffered for several decades—some would even say up to our present time—in mainline Presbyterianism.

The second way in which the cause of Reformed orthodoxy was diminished has to do with what happened to the conservatives themselves after they left the mainline denomination. They quickly began to argue among themselves, and it was not long before new splits occurred in their ranks. The result was that conservative Calvinism itself increasingly became a fractured movement.

I worry much about what would happen to Presbyterian evangelicals ourselves if we were to leave the PCUSA. When we evangelical types don’t have more liberal people to argue with, we tend to start arguing with each other. And I can testify to the fact that intra-evangelical theological arguments are not always pleasant affairs. I would much rather see us continue to focus on the major issues of Reformed thought in an admittedly pluralistic denomination than to deal with the tensions that often arise among ourselves when evangelicals get into the debates that seem inevitably to arise when we have established their own “pure” denominations.

I believe that it is a good thing for Presbyterians to engage in passionate theological debates about important theological topics. These are exciting times to be discussing together the relevance of the great themes of the Reformation for our present situation. Like other evangelicals, I find it discouraging when prominent folks in our denomination seem bent on denying these important teachings. But at least it is possible to have a good theological argument with people who take seriously their departures from Reformation distinctives. I worry much more about those in our denomination who don’t seem to have strong views about these matters. They have not been convinced of the importance of theology as such, to say nothing of a theology grounded in Reformed orthodoxy. In their voting patterns on major issues, sometimes they lean one way and sometimes another way. I would hate to think that they would no longer have to listen to strong Reformed voices when mainline Presbyterians debate crucial topics.

In the 1970s and 1980s I spent considerable time in dialogue with Mennonite scholars about the differences between the Reformed and Anabaptist traditions on political and ethical questions. One of the most interesting encounters of this sort happened one Sunday evening in 1980, at the Mount Joy Mennonite Church in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, where Myron Augsburger and I debated the issues of just war doctrine and pacifism in the presence of a large Mennonite audience. I had come prepared to launch immediately into a critic of pacifism from my Calvinist perspective, but when Augsburger and I met in the afternoon to talk over the format for the evening, he proposed a somewhat different approach. He recalled how the Calvinist-versus-Anabaptist public disputations of the 16th century were typically angry exchanges in which each side spoke harshly about the other’s positions. “Let’s do it differently tonight,” he urged. “Let’s each of us begin by talking in very personal terms about the things we respect in the other person’s position.”

That is what we did, and it was a profoundly moving experience for me—setting a very different tone for the airing of our disagreements than I had experienced in previous dialogues. I thought about that encounter as I was preparing for this discussion here, and it occurred to me that this is the approach that Barbara Wheeler has taken on her several visits to Fuller Seminary. She has typically prefaced her explanation of any serious differences she has with evangelicals with some comments about what she has come to appreciate in our perspective. I want now to follow that pattern.

I have learned much in my life from people who my fellow evangelicals are quick to label as liberal Protestants. For example, in the environs in which I was nurtured spiritually and theologically Harry Emerson Fosdick was considered an arch-villain. As a college student I decided to form my own assessment of Fosdick’s thought, and I read extensively in his writings. There was much in his theology that I found disturbing. But I also was deeply moved by many of his sermons. His articulate address to issues of war and peace, and his profound commitment to the betterment of the human condition, left a strong impression on me.

Indeed it was Fosdick’s influence, along with that of Walter Rauschenbusch and other “social Gospel” advocates, that led me to experience considerable alienation from the evangelical community during my years of graduate study on secular campuses in the 1960s, as I joined protests against racial injustice, and marched against the Vietnam war. And even though I continued to search for a more traditionally orthodox basis for my political commitments, I drew much inspiration and solace from the witness of Christian people of more liberal theological convictions who modeled for me a courageous commitment to the biblical vision of justice and peace. I was—and I continue to be—ashamed of the failure of evangelicals to take up these causes in the 1960s. And I was—and I continue to be—deeply grateful to God for the social witness of liberal Protestantism during those days.

I take my common history and shared commitments with folks like you very seriously. And it is precisely because of this that I want so much to stay together in our denomination. A friend of mine, also a Presbyterian evangelical with a similar history to my own, put it well to me recently. “It hurts like heck to be labeled a homophobe by the folks we are presently arguing with,” he said. “When it was the issues of race and militarism and gender, we were all in it together. and folks like us were out of step with much of the rest of evangelicalism. The homosexuality questions, though, are different ones for us. Here we feel we have no other choice but to draw the line and stay with what we take to be the clear teachings of the Bible. We simply have to live with the accusations of being the mean-spirited ones. I do wish, though, they would give us a little bit of credit for having some integrity on this matter! I would like to get beyond the name-calling and really wrestle together with the underlying theological issues.”

That is my wish also. I believe the real issues have to do with the great themes of the Reformation. Indeed, these are the themes that I kept returning to in the earlier debates, within evangelicalism, on matters of justice and peace. I first got an inkling about the connection between historic Calvinism and social justice issuest when in 1962, as a student at Western Seminary in Holland, Michigan, I was sent on a weekend preaching assignment to a congregation in a Dutch-American community in a neighboring state. I arrived on Saturday, and was an overnight guest in the home of a church elder and his wife. At the dinner table after the evening meal, the husband read a chapter from the Scriptures —as was the custom in that subculture. I don’t remember the passage, but I do know that when he finished reading he told me that the verses reminded him of Heidelberg One, adding that it is wonderful for a person to be able to say, “My only comfort in life and in death is that I am not my own.”

We soon left the table and sat in the living room, where he turned on the evening news. The main news story that day was about Martin Luther King leading a march against housing discrimination. My host grew agitated and he walked over to turn off the TV set, telling me that he could not stand to hear “all of this stuff about the colored people and their complaints.” I immediately let him know that my sympathies were with Dr. King, and we soon were engaged in a heated argument. At one point he pounded his fist on the coffee table and shouted: “I don’t want those people moving into my neighborhood! What I have I got on my own, and no one is going to take it away from me!”

I realized that it was pointless to keep the argument going, and things soon calmed down. Later, when I lay in bed, the irony hit me: the person who had shouted that what he possessed he had gotten on his own and no one could take it away from him had only minutes before told me that his only comfort in life and in death was that he was not his own, but that he belonged to a faithful Savior. That lesson stayed with me. The more I thought about this, the more I came to realize that the concluding words of the answer to Question One contains all the basics necessary for a Calvinist activism: God’s Spirit “makes me heartily willing and ready henceforth to live unto him.” As sinners who cannot save ourselves from our depraved condition, our only hope is the sovereign grace made available to us by the sacrificial death of the heaven-sent Savior. To know the wonders of those saving mercies is to be called to participate in the life of a covenant community whose mission it is to demonstrate to the larger world what it means to glorify God and to enjoy God forever—calling others to join us in doing the will of the Savior who is also a Lord who alone is worthy of our full obedience.

I have spoken often to evangelical audiences about sexuality issues. And I have always made it very clear to them—and I must to you today—that my views on same-sex relations are very traditional. I am convinced that genital intimacy between persons of the same gender is not compatible with God’s creating or redeeming purposes. But that kind of clarification of my understanding of biblical teaching for evangelical groups has usually been a preface to a plea for sexual humility. I have often told the story of hearing a conservative spokesman express his views in this way: “We normal people should tell these homosexuals that what they are doing is simply an abomination in the eyes of God.” When I heard that, I tell my audiences, I wanted to get up a cry out, “Normal? You are normal? Let’s all applaud for the one sexually normal person in the room!”

The fact is that none of us—or at least very few of us—can honestly claim to be normal sexual beings in the eyes of God. The truth of the matter is that the labels we typically use in describing sexual orientation are blatant examples of false advertising. My homosexual friends are not very “gay.” They have experienced much pain and loss in their lives. And the rest of us are not very “straight.” We are crooked people, often bruised and confused in our sexuality.

None of this should be shocking to Calvinists We are living in the time of our abnormality. We are all sinners who have been deeply wounded by the stain of our depravity, and we are nowhere more vulnerable and given to temptation than in the sexual dimensions of our being. In our sexual lives, as in all others areas, we know that while we may be on a journey toward wholeness, we are a long way from our destination. We are already the redeemed sons and daughters of God, but“it doth not yet appear what we shall be.” So in our brokeness we journey on, knowing that “when he shall appear”—and only then—“we will be like him, and we will see him as he is” (I John 3: 2).

This is an important time for each of us to be honest about our sexual condition. We evangelicals have nothing to brag about in this area. It is not enough for us to tell those of you with whom we disagree strongly about sexual orientation questions how wrong we think you are. Nor is it very helpful for you folks to keep insisting that we can solve most of our theological problems in this area by focusing on a Jesus who cares deeply about a generic, unnuanced “inclusivity.” If that is all we have to say to each other, there is no hope for the continuing unity of our denomination.

When I was on the faculty of Calvin College, I helped to arrange a special evening lecture on campus by my friend Virginia Mollenkott, who had recently come out publicly about her lesbian orientation. Many of the things she said to a packed auditorium that evening were off the theological charts for most of us, including myself. But I will never forget how she concluded her talk. This is how I remember her words: “You may disagree with everything I have said thus far, but I hope we can at least agree on this,” she said. “Whatever your sexual orientation, there is nothing—absolutely nothing—that you have to do or agree to before coming to the foot of the Cross of Jesus. The only thing any of us has to say as we come to Calvary is this:

Just as I am without one plea, but that thy blood was shed for me,
and that thou bidst me come to thee, O Lamb of God, I come.”

I believe that in that plea she was expressing good Reformed doctrine. We do not have to have either our theology or our ethics well worked out before we can come together to Calvary. All we need to know is that we are lost apart from the sovereign grace that was made available to us though the atoning work of Jesus Christ.

Lloyd Ogilvie told me a month ago about a recent visit he paid, while in Scotland, to his theological mentor, Thomas Torrance. Lloyd went to the theologian’s bedside, knowing that Torrance does not have long to live. Just before they bade each other farewell, Professor Torrance gave him a parting word of advice: “Lloyd,” he said, “never tiptoe around Golgotha.”

I am convinced that that is a good word from the Lord for us Presbyterians today. It has never been more important for us not to tiptoe around Golgotha. Indeed, our only hope for moving on together as partners in the cause of the Gospel is to bow together at the Cross of Calvary, aknowledging to each other and to our Lord that we all need to plead for mercy to the One who is, in the Heidelberger’s wonderful words, our “only comfort in life and in death,” and who “at the cost of his own blood… fully paid for all [our] sins” at Calvary. And then, having experienced together the healing mercy that comes from the one who alone is mighty to save, we can journey on as friends—no long strangers to each other—who are eager to talk to each other, and even to argue passionately with each other about crucial issues of Christology, atonement and discipleship, as servants who are “wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.”

I want with all my heart for this to happen to us in the Presbyterian church—that we take up our arguments about the issues that divide only after we have knelt and laid our individual and collective burdens of sin at the foot of the Cross. Needless to say, if it did happen, I would be surprised. But then, the God whom we worship and serve is nothing if not a God of surprises.

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