Monday, February 21, 2011

We're only as Presbyterian as we want to be: part 2

In part one of this series, I considered the "fruit of the problem". Today I want to look at the ROOT of the problem-- or at least a major part of it. (Like most three-part series-- think Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, etc.-- the second part will be the darker, scarier cliffhanger.)

When we look at the kind of inconsistent presbyterianism I spoke of in my first post, it seems that the presenting issue is suspicion: in these situations we are simply suspicious of one another, and unwilling to grant any charitable or gracious benefit of the doubt toward each other.

This is most evident in situations where a body acts according to its polity, yet others (either outside or within that body) refuse to accept the actions as legitimate. Accusations are made: "they must not see what I/we see" or "if they were focused on the heart of the issue they wouldn't have reached such a conclusion" or "they don't understand the importance of what is at stake." Or doubt is cast: "I'm not sure I can rely on them to handle matter of importance" or "maybe we cannot remain affiliated with them any longer."

There is a good reason why suspicion arises: it is often cloaked in the biblical truth of the sinfulness of man. We know the extent of our own sin, the deceptiveness of our own hearts, and we (rightly) assume that anyone else is as capable of sin as we are. Martin Luther, in the preface to his commentary on the book of Romans, observed that all men will do whatever we believe we might get away with. Here is what he said:

Outwardly you keep the law with works out of fear of punishment or love of gain. Likewise you do everything without free desire and love of the law; you act out of aversion and force. You'd rather act otherwise if the law didn't exist. It follows, then, that you, in the depths of your heart, are an enemy of the law. What do you mean, therefore, by teaching another not to steal, when you, in the depths of your heart, are a thief and would be one outwardly too, if you dared.

This is indeed a troublesome factor, and it's true: our hearts are not trustworthy in our sinful condition. Which leads to the more underlying issue: mistrust.

When people-- even Christians-- interact with one another, the only hope of advancement toward cooperation and community is based on trust. This is why we so often affiliate only with those who are like us: they are the only ones we know we can trust. We otherwise succumb to doubt, suspicion, and eventually mistrust in those around us.

In presbyterianism, this can (and apparently does) lead to congregations, presbyteries, and entire denominations that are surprisingly uniform. People who think and act differently than I do are not easily welcomed by me! And if I can muster a façade of hospitality toward those who are other than me, I still have to overcome my lack of trust in them in order to function in a manner that is presbyterian.

As a result, the tendency among us is to begin to identify with those who are with us, and to suspect and mistrust those who appear to be against us. Even when those who say or act in a manner against what we believe to be wrong are in the majority! Or when they act as a unified body, following proper procedure and polity.

The sister-issue to mistrust then become haughtiness. We look with disdain on those whose ideas, actions, or decisions we don't understand or agree with. We cast disparagement on others because they hold to things we do not hold. And we hold the courts and bodies of the church in contempt when things don't go our way.

This is how we get to a point where individuals, and even groups of individuals, can conclude that an entire presbytery (or even an entire assembly) should be dismissed out-of-hand. Our contempt for their actions leads to contempt for the very nature of them as bodies, and we refuse to recognize them in that nature.

And while this is certainly within our right to question-- after all, as Scripture and our own experience teaches us, we are all fallible, even en masse-- it is simply not very presbyterian to do so in a manner that is out of accord with the very standards and polity that we have taken vows to uphold. But our suspicion, mistrust, and haughtiness stand in the way of our adherence to these vows.

All of this leads us to be only as presbyterian as we want to be. In part three, I'll consider what might be done about the rooting out of the problem.

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