In his “Why we are stronger together” workshop at the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s Big Tent 2015, Philip W. Butin, presented his 10 Biblical, theological and practical reasons to “Make every effort to maintain the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace (Eph. 4:3)”
During his presentation Butin, who co-pastors First United Presbyterian Church in Fayetteville, Ark. with his wife, told those attending the workshop that he was currently serving on a presbytery discernment team, and that the church his team was working with was really trying to discern God’s will, and they were listening to the presbytery. At this time, he said, the church had not made any moves toward leaving.
Butin said there were “a few churches thinking about if they should be in” in the PCUSA due to certain changes that had been made in the denomination. This has been happening since the 1960s, he added, over various issues.
Asking, “What are some important reasons for Presbyterians to stay together?” Butin’s list of ten included three Biblical reasons, four theological reasons and three practical reasons.
Biblical Reason #1: “The church is the body of Christ.”
Reading various verses from the fourth chapter of Ephesians, Butin said “obviously the author wants to emphasize unity.”
This is where unity “requires difference,” Butin stated. “If the Father, Son and Holy Spirit were all the same in the Trinity, there would not be a Trinity. If all are the same in the church, there would not be a body of Christ. … God’s strategy is ‘if you want to be one, you have to be different.’”
He read verse 7 “But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift.” That is pretty much overflowing, Butin said. “The point is that not everyone has the same grace, but each of us has different ways of reflecting God’s grace depending on the gifts given.”
Biblical Reason #2: “Jesus prayed that His followers would be one.”
In John 17:21-23, Jesus prayed that his followers would “be one,” said Butin. “Our unity is an important part of our witness.”
Biblical Reason #3: “Love is the most important mark of the church.”
“Look through the New Testament,” Butin said. “Love is the most important mark of the church – not being right … not everyone being on the same page.”
Reading John 13:34-35, what he called the Love Commandment, Butin said that “thinking about leaving a community because you are upset needs to be questioned if we love because He first loved us.”
He also read from John 15:12-17, saying that “if there is love in the church it is a true church. If there is not love in a church, it is not a true church.”
That confession, he said, comes from the Nicene Creed. Butin showed a list of the “Marks of the church” from the PCUSA’s Book of Order (F-1.0302). They include:
“For Presbyterians, each of these four marks are God’s gifts to the church in Jesus Christ,” he said. “We believe we are called to actively seek unity, holiness catholicity and apostolicity in order to fulfill Gods intention for the church.”
He mentioned the tension between unity, which is defined as staying together, and holiness which is defined as being set apart.
He encouraged those in the workshop that if they knew anyone or of any church that was leaving the PCUSA – “or if you are on a presbytery committee dealing with a church leaving” – ask these questions:
- How has God called us to be one?
- How has God called us to be holy?
- How has God called us to be catholic?
- How has God called us to be apostolic?
Theological Reason #5: “The church is our mother”
The answers Butin heard from those in the workshop included: nurturing, discipline, keeping us in line and teacher.
He then quoted John Calvin:
But as it is now our purpose to discourse of the visible Church, let us learn, from her single title of Mother, how useful, nay, how necessary the knowledge of her is, since there is no other means of entering into life unless she conceive us in the womb and give us birth, unless she nourish us at her breasts, and, in short, keep us under her charge and government, until, divested of mortal flesh, we become like the angels, (Matt. 22: 30.) For our weakness does not permit us to leave the school until we have spent our whole lives as scholars. Moreover, beyond the pale of the Church no forgiveness of sins, no salvation, can be hoped for, as Isaiah and Joel testify, (Isa. 37: 32; Joel 2: 32.) (1559 Institutes IV.1.4)
“Calvin didn’t make this up,” said Butin. “It goes back to Cyprian, who said that you can’t have God as a Father if the church is not your mother.”
“If your mother is aging … maybe even loses her memory and forgets who she is. I think you know where I am going with this,” he said. He then alleged that this is what some people who are leaving the denomination are saying about the PCUSA. So what do you do, he asked? “If your mother is aging do you leave her for another mother?”
Theological Reason #6 “The PCUSA still reflects the marks of the true church”
In addition to the universal ‘marks’ of the church from the Nicene Creed, Protestants acknowledge ‘notes’ of the visible church that help us to recognize the presence of Christ in the true church.
These are still reflected in the PCUSA, he said. “It is not confessional or Reformed to leave a church.”
Theological Reason #7: “We are always to be motivated by faith, hope and love”
Butin mentioned several Scripture texts when discussing reason #7.
What, he asked “are our motivations?”
He also asked “In your experience what are some of the feelings, reactions or attitudes that have motivated people to want to leave the PCUSA?”
The answers included frustration, discouragement and betrayal.
“If a congregation or individual were to seek to leave the PCUDSA, do you believe this could be a faithful response to God’s calling in scripture?,” Butin asked, and then indicated that he does not see it as faithful.
Practical Reason #8: “General assembly votes cannot reflect the whole church or the whole truth”
Butin said that the PCUSA’s General Assembly is “just 500-600 people delegated to pray and to vote. We are committed as Presbyterians to respect those decisions.”
He did admit that councils have erred at times but then affirmed that’s not evident in the current decisions. The recent General Assembly decisions related to homosexuality are carefully worded, said Butin. Those who don’t agree with the decisions are protected. “No one has to do anything,” he continued. “The traditional positions need to be respected.”
Seemingly contradicting himself, he added that, “Jesus didn’t say that the PCUSA is the way, the truth and the life. He said I am the way the truth and the life.”
Butin declared that the PCUSA was “between a rock and a hard place. Either we expand our boundaries as a Presbyterian church, so we continue to include people as the world changes, or we continue to split off and be bound by certain issues.”
“We have made lots of changes making a bigger tent instead of a smaller tent,” he said. “Let’s have a bigger tent and let’s all celebrate baptism, the Lord’s Supper and Biblical teaching, but have a broader sense of the breadth of who is welcome in our community. … Let’s invite people in and have less rigid boundaries.”
Practical Reason #10: “We need one another: conservative, liberal, and everything in between”
“We need each other because we are the body of Christ,” he said.
“If we can believe in something like the Apostle’s Creed … if we have the same basic core beliefs … Let’s stay together. Let’s minister together,” he said.