Trusting the whole people of God
January 1, 1998
Presbyterian polity insists on parity between clergy and lay leaders. Our Reformed forbears understood that no human being and no institution is free of hubris. Thus they distributed the power to rule among interlocking governing bodies, preventing any individual, or any group of individuals, from exercising total control.
Over the past four decades – a relatively short span considering the history of the Reformed tradition – Presbyterian parity has been undermined by the development of church boards and agencies. Although ultimately accountable to governing bodies, these entities – particularly at the national level – operate with a high degree of independence, and predominately under the leadership of non-parish clergy.
Fueled by utopian aspirations, these groups often show disdain for lay people who object to their agenda. They assume that the wisdom of their policies should be obvious to intelligent Presbyterians. Opposition, therefore, is interpreted as ignorance.
That elitist attitude surfaced when the Albuquerque General Assembly proposed an amendment to the Constitution specifying biblical standards for the sexual behavior of ordained leaders. Fearing that the measure might be adopted by his presbytery, an executive predicted, “It will pass if the rubes come out to vote.”
Those ordination standards did pass, and elitists struggled to interpret what had gone wrong. In an Internet web site called “Hesed,” Virginia Lewis explained the vote by suggesting that most Presbyterians are theologically
ignorant. Lewis wrote, “We have churches full of highly-educated and highly-motivated individuals whose theological education is at the equivalent of a fourth- or fifth-grade level …”
When Amendment A’s attempt to repeal the standards appeared lost, Charles Forbes, stated clerk of Baltimore Presbytery, identified opponents as people who “conform to some ignorant conception of biblical sexuality.”
Clearly, we are witnessing the re-emerging voice of the laity in the Presbyterian Church (USA). But we see no evidence that this denomination is suffering invasion by barbarians, rule by rubes or inquisitions by the ignorant. What we do see is a return to a very wise system that invests the power to govern among representatives of the whole people of God.