Wednesday, March 2, 2011

We're only as presbyterian as we want to be, part 3

In part one of this series on how "we're only as presbyterian as we want to be" I considered the fruit of the problem; and in part two I discussed some of the root of the problem. Now I'd like to look at the rooting out of the problem.

So, how do we root out the suspicion, mistrust, and haughtiness that I named as a significant part of the problem? We take them in reverse, and their antidotes are humility, relationships, and benefit of the doubt.

One of the manifestations of these root problems, as I mentioned in my last post on the topic, is that we look at others with the assumption that their sin-nature and fallenness is preying on their capacity to think and act with integrity. I pointed out that this stands as a major obstacle to presbyterianism, and represents a posture contrary to being presbyterian. So how do I overcome my mistrust of others, and extend hospitality to them (and their perspectives) instead of suspicion?

Christ, helpfully, spoke of how this might be accomplished: the one I am to trust the least, it seems, is myself! Remember how he required accountability (for ideas, actions, attitudes, and the rest) to be exercised:
“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.
Matthew 7:3-5

The reason why I am only as presbyterian as I want to be-- why suspicion and mistrust reign in my heart with regard to others-- is because I fail to understand Christ here. I must suspect myself first and foremost. I must trust myself, and my own understanding, less than I trust others whom I seek to hold accountable. Only when I recognize my own susceptibility to error will I see clearly the errors that others are fallible to.

This leads to a surprising humility. Instead of a haughtiness toward others, looking at my own sin first is humbling and honest business. That humility tempers my approach to others, and causes me to deal with them gently, charitably, lovingly.

Of course, we don't have so much trouble in acting gentle and loving toward those we already know well and care about. It is the stranger, the one we don't know (or that we know only through peculiar circumstances, such as hearing their name associated with an idea that we are reticent to embrace, or reading words from their blog that we consider abrasive or caustic). This is a second rooting out that needs to occur: we need to build real relationships with others, especially those with whom we disagree.

I will testify to my own struggles with this. There have been several times at General Assembly when someone will rise to speak, and I will recognize them as someone whose blog I have read. I know nothing of them but what I read on their blog-- but the words and tone of their blog led me to conclude that they knew little of the grace and love of Christ, because so little of their words (and especially their tone) reflected anything like Christ's love or His grace. Thus, I immediately regard them with mistrust and suspicion in what they bring to the floor of the Assembly, even though both their words and tone in the Assembly are gentle, humble, and deferential. Which is the real voice of this person? I do not know, because I do not know them at all.

I'll also testify to the other side of this struggle. Through a series of providential circumstances, I have begun building a friendship with someone whose blog I have read, and whose tone and attitude has occasionally struck me in the past (and even in the present!) as being inappropriate for an elder in the church. Like the men mentioned above, my inclination might be to be cautious with my trust, except that my growing relationship with this man brings moderation and even benefit of the doubt into my understanding of his words.

This should be the easy part. We Presbyterians love to present our polity and system as "connectional" and all about the relationships inherent to our mutual union with Christ. Yet many presbyteries are notable for how quickly and efficiently they can dispose of the work of their meetings in a business-like manner; no attention is given to corporate worship, little time is allotted for fellowship, and there is no effort to create opportunities for relationships to build and grow.

Likewise, I've heard from several fellow elders that one way to cut administrative costs at the Assembly level would be to reduce General Assembly to a 2-day meeting where all we do is the mandatory business, and put aside all of the seminars, meals, prayer and fellowship times, etc. This would certainly cut costs; it would also drastically reduce any hope of relationships growing between those who disagree. I'm not a prophet, but in my estimation it would be only a matter of a few years under such an approach before the divisions in the PCA would become fractures, and the denomination would certainly split into several pieces.

General Assembly meetings need to be times where fellowship, mutual growth, and new relationships are fostered. Presbyteries must be giving time to worshiping together, ministering to one another, and fostering the growth of friendships new and old. Even Sessions must give time and attention to doing more as a body than just the "business" of the church, but should share in regular fellowship, times of prayer, and building of real friendships among the elders.

Finally, our faith AND our presbyterianism requires that we extend a great measure of benefit of the doubt toward our brothers. Rather than taking a default posture of suspicion, we must take a posture that is hopeful and even expectant of their motives, thoughts, and actions being godly and righteous.

I appealed to Martin Luther in my last post with regard to our inclination to sin. Yet, Luther himself (later in the same introduction to his commentary on Romans) exposes why we must persist in functioning with such benefit of doubt:
That is why faith alone makes someone just and fulfills the law; faith it is that brings the Holy Spirit through the merits of Christ. The Spirit, in turn, renders the heart glad and free, as the law demands. Then good works proceed from faith itself...

Christ's righteousness reigns in the believer! Consequently, believing faith results in thoughts, attitudes, and actions that are beautiful in their reflection of God's glory-- not mired in sin and fallenness.

Thought of another way, our demeanor toward one another as Christians should be the very model of love. This isn't simply for Presbyterians-- but it certainly should include Presbyterians! How does Paul tell us love looks? "Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things" (1 Corinthians 13:7).

Probably the best description I've read of this is from Walter Chantry's wonderful little book, The Shadow of the Cross: studies in self-denial, in which Chantry is discussing the tendency to be strict with others yet lenient with ourselves. To make his point, Chantry brings up the example of the food issues discussed in the book of Romans (chapter 14); this this he says:
Your brother desires to glorify God in his practice. That should keep the meat-eaters from sneering at the vegetarians. And it should prevent vegetarians from censoriously judging meat-eaters and declaring them unspiritual.
Now you do not really know that such a conclusion is true of your brother; for you cannot look into his heart and read his motives. But both of you bow your heads before a meal and give thanks to God. Both are professing to eat unto the Lord. Therefore you are bound to assume that all his actions are for the glory of God. He is not serving self or lust but the Lord.
In our society there may be a Christian who cannot go to the beach without lusting after women dressed immodestly. So he denies himself the right to enjoy surf and sand. If he loves the ocean, it may be like plucking out a right eye of personal enjoyment in order to keep his conscience clear. But he is tempted to measure all men by his own experience. He is inclined to suspect that a brother goes to the beach in order to indulge lustful thoughts. He is tempted to legislate that no Christian is to go to a public beach. Paul is saying in effect, 'You have no right to pluck out your brother's eye!' You are taught to deny yourself, but not to deny your brother. You must assume that his heart is pure, foreign as that may be to your experience. You must conclude, 'Just as I stay away from the beach out of devotion to Christ, he goes to the beach as unto the Lord, with a pure heart of thanksgiving to God. I am pleased that he can enjoy a part of God's creation that I cannot.'
But while you may in charity assume that a Christian brother acts from pure motives, you dare not assume that your own heart is upright. You must be more charitable to others than you are to yourself. You have no access to a fellow Christian's heart, no ability to test his inward devotion to the Lord, which is the all-important matter in using things indifferent. But you can scrutinize your own heart. You can examine your inner man to detect your own motives and aims for every act. Paul brings you back to this point. 'None of us liveth to himself.' All is 'unto the Lord.'
Walter J. Chantry, The Shadow of the Cross: studies in self-denial (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1989) pp. 39-41.

Chantry's principles apply to our presbyterianism. Whereas we cannot know our brother's heart, yet we are always tempted to be more strict with him and more lenient with ourselves.

The solution is to reverse the matter. We should be more strict with ourselves, more lenient with our brothers. We need to focus first on the plank in our own eye before addressing the speck in our brother's eye. We must take up humility instead of hubris, relational trust instead of indifferent mistrust, benefit of the doubt instead of suspicion.

Our presbyterianism must be real in its connectional nature if it is to be real at all. And while this is truly the hardest part of our polity, it is also the one that has the most grounding in Scripture, and the closest identification with our Christianity.

Let's stop being only as presbyterian as we want to be, and start being as presbyterian as we can possibly be! Surely God, in His mercy to us, will continue to increase the measure of our presbyterianism as we are more and more conformed to His image.

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