Part 4 of series: Why Not Just Leave the PC(USA)?
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To this point I’ve given four answers to the question: Why don’t you just leave the PC(USA)? They are:
1. I’m not leaving the PC(USA) because my church is part of the PC(USA).
2. I’m not leaving the PC(USA) because I have dear friends and partners in ministry in this denomination.
3. I’m not leaving the PC(USA) because, as of this moment, I have not been required by the denomination to do something that is contrary to my conscience.
4. I’m not leaving the PC(USA) because there is no perfect denomination or church.
My next reason is biblical and theological.
5. Scripture calls us to make “every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4:3).
The New Testament letter known as Ephesians begins by revealing God’s grand plan for the cosmos: “to gather up all things in [Christ], things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph 1:10). This bringing together of all things happens through Christ, whose death leads not only to individual salvation, but also to the unifying of divided people (Eph 2:1-22). The church, through its unity, becomes a demonstration to the cosmos that God’s plan has been implemented and has begun to work (Eph 3:7-13). Thus, when Ephesians gets to practical matters of how to live out this theological vision, it’s no surprise to read Paul’s appeal:
I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all (Eph 4:1-6).
Since the unity of the church is grounded, not only in the gospel, but also in the very nature of God, it is essential that Christians make every effort to maintain that unity. The English phrase “making every effort” translates the Greek participle spoudazontes, which means “being eager or zealous, exerting great effort, or acting with haste.” Unity is not something to be taken for granted or ignored. It is to be sought with eagerness and effort.
One of the main reasons I remain a member of the PC(USA) in spite of years of unhappiness with many of our decisions and actions is that I believe I need to “make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” I will confess that I am not always eager to preserve Presbyterian unity. But even when my zeal lags, I still exert effort in the cause of unity.
The NRSV translation “making every effort” seems to imply that there would never be a time to step back from unity, since there would be no end to possible efforts on could make. This implication, however, does not capture the precise sense of the Greek verb spoudazein. Paul is not saying that there never is a time to back away from Christian unity. But such a time should be very unusual, and should come only after a significant effort to preserve unity.
One of Paul’s letters to the Corinthians provides an example of a time when unity in Christ should be broken, at least for a season. In 1 Corinthians 5, we learn of a believer who is engaging in sexual relations with his stepmother (5:1). The Corinthians, probably misconstruing what freedom in Christ is all about, have been boasting about this man’s actions. Paul is incensed: “Should you not rather have mourned, so that he who has done this would have been removed from among you?” (5:2). The Corinthians are not to maintain the appearance of unity by tolerating the sinful behavior of the fornicating man. His persistent sin and unwillingness to repent has, in fact, fractured the unity of the Spirit. Breaking fellowship with the man is required, though with the hope that, in the end, he will be saved (5:5).
The second letter of John provides another scenario in which Christians are not to remain in fellowship together. The context is one of false teaching. Specifically, “many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh” (v. 7). John counsels his church to respond in this way:
Everyone who does not abide in the teaching of Christ, but goes beyond it, does not have God; whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. Do not receive into the house or welcome anyone who comes to you and does not bring this teaching; for to welcome is to participate in the evil deeds of such a person (vv. 9-11).
So, if a supposedly Christian teacher denies the incarnation of Christ, this person is not to be welcomed or received into the house (church). The church is not to tolerate heretical teaching on the central issues of faith. Heresy can lead to the breaking of tangible unity because, in a way, heresy itself shatters the unity of the Spirit.
So how does all of this relate to the PC(USA)? There have been a few in the PC(USA) who have denied such basics as the deity of Christ. I heard one pastor do this very thing in a Presbytery meeting where he was involved in examining a candidate for ordination. This pastor was upset that the candidate has said so plainly that Jesus was God incarnate. At the time, I thought the examination was going in the wrong direction, and the candidate should have been examining the pastor! But the vast majority of Presbyterians, including those who are more liberal in their theology, profess such central doctrines as the deity and humanity of Christ and salvation through him alone. Moreover, the PC(USA)’s Constitution is very clear about the basic doctrines of the Christian faith, and these are not being denied or debated by most people in the denomination. Thus, the “making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit” command prevails over the “do not receive into the house command” at this time, at least in my opinion.
If, however, the PC(USA) were to vote in the next year to approve of the ordination of active gays and lesbians, or if our top judicial body endorses that which allow for such ordinations even without a change in the Book of Order, then we who are seeking to be faithful to Scripture may find ourselves in situation analogous to 1 Corinthians 5. We may end up in a church that approves of what Scripture identifies as sin. And if the denomination fails to exercise appropriate discipline with a person who sins and intends to continue, then we’ll have to consider whether it’s right for us to remain the denomination. In this case, the call to make every effort to maintain unity is in tension with the call to uphold biblical standards of righteousness. We’re caught between our commitment to unity and our commitment to purity.
Some have argued that if the PC(USA) officially endorses what Scripture reveals as sinful, then the PC(USA) itself has broken the unity of the Spirit. There is no more unity to be maintained, or so the argument goes. I’m not quite sure I buy this argument, though I do believe that it’s possible for the denomination to do that which effectively severs our covenantal bonds. Some have argued that the actions of the 2008 General Assembly did, in fact, severely damage or even break our covenantal unity. (See, for example, a declaration that is being presented to the Beaver-Butler Presbytery for a vote later this month. Thanks to Presbyweb for publishing this declaration.)
Returning to Ephesians 4, we see that part of preserving the unity of the Spirit involves “bearing with one another in love” (Eph 4:2). One might just as well translate the original Greek as “putting up with one another in love.” This “putting up” does not have to do with our response to those who sin against us. This requires the response of forgiveness. Rather, we put up with each other when they do things that bother us, things that get on our nerves, things that make us want to run in the other direction.
One of the recent commentators on my blog made a helpful distinction, one he learned from Richard Lovelace. It’s the distinction between “tolerable stupidities” and “intolerable stupidities.” (Thanks, Paul.) I rather like that difference. Much of what has bugged me about the PC(USA) over the years has fallen into the “tolerable stupidities” category. But, increasingly, the tolerable seems to be morphing into the intolerable. So when a General Assembly votes to allow for the ordination of active gays, and when it votes to endorse lawsuits against a sister denomination, and when it encourages us to worship alongside Muslims as if our theological differences were minor, and when it votes to approve of those who reject our accepted church rules, I begin to wonder whether I should continue to “bear with the PC(USA) in love.” I wonder if the unity of the Spirit I am seeking to preserve still exists.