Internal Injuries

On January 26, 2013, the Rev. Dr. Joe Small led a workshop at the Presbytery of San Diego Leadership Connection Day on “Internal Injuries: Living in a morally divided denomination”. He talked about the democratic captivity of the church. We are being held captive by the mistaken notion that we can solve moral problems through a democratic process of voting where the majority rules. This has not worked and it will not work. Both conservatives and liberals are upset with how “stuck” we have become.

Vaclav Havel, former president of the Czech Republic, once wrote an essay on The Power of the Powerless. He wrote about how people survived in Czechoslavakia under the former Soviet Union. Havel asked, how can people live the truth where the lie is taken to be the way things are? He told the story of the Green Grocer. All of the stores in the country were required to place a sign in their window each day with the communist slogan “Workers of the World Unite”. This was part of the lie that everyone was required to “buy in to”. But, one day, the green grocer decided he was not going to put the sign up in his window. He takes it down and throws it away. He doesn’t want to live in that lie anymore. If he was the only one who did that, probably not much would have happened. And if he did nothing else, probably not much would have happened. But, what if he talked to others about what he had done? And what if the others would also take down their signs and they all decided to live differently? If they would, they would begin to create a second culture. They would live the truth within the lie, and slowly, over time, the culture would begin to change.

The suggestion of the workshop was that we need to do something similar in the Presbyterian Church (USA). The current system is not faithful, effective, or healthy. What if we said like the news anchor on the old movie “Network”: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.” We live as a different culture within the church. We do it for the whole. We don’t have to live this way anymore, so we don’t. We are called to bear witness to the truth in season and out of season. We are called to preach the gospel all the time.

Our current denominational system has believed that unity equals uniformity. This is not so. Unity actually gathers some very diverse elements into a whole. We have assumed institutional unity and tried to enforce diversity. However, the Bible assumes diversity and urges us towards unity. Differences can lead to divisions, but they don’t have to.

One of the questions for us today is whether we can live with people who share very different opinions on moral issues. Theoretically, yes, this is possible. And sometimes we experience where this actually happens. But, if we attempt to compel people to accept our moral positions, or force them to act against their own moral convictions, then we are wrong.

Our General Assembly week, that meets once every two years, actually increases the divisions in the church rather than decreasing them. About a month before the Assembly, the committee chairpersons and resource people gather for about three and a half days of training. Only about two hours of that time is spent discussing the actual substance and content of the issues coming before the Assembly. All of the rest of the time is spent on process and Robert’s Rules of Order. There is no prayerful discernment and no communal study of scripture. There is no sense of needing to wait and listen for issues that may take us decades to decide. The sexuality debates that we have been having for the last forty years are changing positions the church has taken for the last 2000 years. These positions won’t realistically change that fast. Rather than forcing decisions prematurely, we need to focus on our relationships and our life together, discerning the mind of Christ together. We keep trying to solve these differences with polity solutions, but they don’t have polity solutions. They have theological solutions, and we need to spend more time in theological conversation together to arrive at those conclusions.

We mistakenly think that when a vote is taken at the General Assembly, that God has spoken, and that we know God’s will for the church on that matter. But, the problem is that out of 1.9 million members, we have about 700 people voting, which is less than one percent of our membership. Some of our moral issues get decided on votes of 52% – 48%. Do we really think that such a close division among so few voting members lets us know the will of God on that matter? These 700 commissioners are asked to vote on over 300 issues in a week’s time with strangers they have only known for a few days. At the congregational and presbytery level, we spend more time in prayer, Bible study, discussion, and building relationships, before attempting to make decisions on such important matters. This does not happen much at the General Assembly. Much of the debate time is also taken up with process motions and Robert’s Rules, and very little time is given to the actual substance of the matter. Commissioners are given only three minutes, or two minutes, or one minute to make their case. So, there is no time to delve into the depths of the issues and really consider their ramifications. People “back home” mistakenly assume that the Assembly has spent a lot of time reviewing the substance of the issues themselves. This is often not true. This is part of our democratic captivity. This kind of practice results in deepening the divisions within the denomination, rather than lessening them.

Some of our members wonder how the Assembly can take certain positions which seem to contradict the teachings of the scriptures. One answer is that we really don’t know the scriptures that well. The Office of Theology and Worship conducted the same survey twice – ten years apart. In answering the survey, a majority of Presbyterians said that they receive the only Bible they get during the week during the weekly worship service. This means that most of our members are not reading and studying the Bible at all. The only thing they know about the Bible is what they hear in worship. That is inadequate. In the survey, a majority of pastors said that the only time they spend in the scriptures is for the preparation of sermons, teachings, and Bible studies. This means that they are not reading it for their own spiritual growth and development.

We have major moral divisions in the church. We are causing internal injuries to ourselves. At some point, we have to start living like the Green Grocer. We have to start living differently. We have to stop participating in an unhealthy system. We have to create a new kind of culture. Regardless of what others might think, say, or do, we must begin to live differently. Because we won’t think our way into a new kind of living, we must live our way into a new kind of thinking.

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4 Responses to “Internal Injuries”

  1. garrettanderson67 Says:

    Our system reflects the “double-mindedness” that James warns against. (1:8) We are attempt to claim God’s truth (all sides lay claim to it!) but we also want to maintain a non-spiritual way of seeing reality. The reliance on voting, democratic majority rule, and power is non-spiritual view of reality.

    God will give us wisdom on how to apply the word of truth which gives birth to us (note the emphasis on the Word not the Church as the source of our birth). But it necessitates giving ourselves to the word and pray and one another. This would truly be living differently as Clark writes.

    James also warns us against being “mad as hell” though. We should be slow to speak, quick to listen, and slow to become angry. Anger will not produce the righteousness Jesus wants his church to exhibit and which the world desperately needs for us to exhibit. Instead let us count these trials as complete joy. In them if we persevere we will become mature. Complete joy? That too would be living differently.

  2. Arnold B. Lovell Says:

    Clark

    Thanks so much for sharing these insights with us all. It is surely time for us to live differently, and I join Joe and you in this lifestyle moving forward. But, only with God’s help is so possible at all.

    Arnold B. Lovell, Ed.D. Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen. Ephesians 3:20 – 21 Teaching Elder, PCUSA First Presbyterian Church, 203 Hawkins Street, Sanford, NC 27330

    Phone: 919.775.5216 Cell: 919.895.2615 Email: arnold@fpcsanford.org

  3. Arlin Talley Says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful insight. As far as ‘living differently’ as member of the church, I’ve done that for most of my career, and I, too object to the idea that majority rule has any meaning for our theological and moral differences. What conservatives did for centuries, liberals do now; a mistake in both cases.

    Let’s have more theological conversations!

  4. Joni Wallman Says:

    Amen Clark. The Father is truly waiting for the prodigal PCUSA to come to her senses and return to her First Love. When that time comes that she begins craving God’s Word as her “Daily Bread” instead of her weekly snack; when she draws near to the Holy Spirit to listen…then Christ will get a Word in edgewise; then will He thaw out His “frozen chosen bride” and once more set her ablaze with His power, Love and Truth and redemption! O Lord fan into flame our hunger and thirst for you that you might fill us once again!

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