Task force adopts interim report, proposal for General Assembly
By John H. Adams, The Layman Online, February 23, 2004
DALLAS – At its eighth meeting in Dallas Feb. 18-20, the members of the Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity and Purity finally cast a vote.
In fact, they even voted by standing in a show of solidarity to approve the rough draft of an interim report they will make to the 216th General Assembly in June.
The unanimous vote was the first since the 213th General Assembly established the task force in 2001 to advise the Presbyterian Church (USA) on some of the denomination’s thorniest issues.
They also stood to approve a separate recommendation to call on the General Assembly to urge presbyteries and sessions to do as they have done – use the task force’s process and resources, including task force videos, to build community and talk about the issues.
But, while they stood tall with smiles on their faces, there were few hints in the report about how the task force will finally address the controversies over Jesus Christ, the authority of Scripture, the denomination’s ordination requirements and how power is allocated in its final report in 2006.
The preliminary report – complete except for some minor editing – includes:
- 1. A summary of the task force’s eight meetings.
- 2. A paragraph about task force members attending meetings of presbyteries and synods.
- 3. The resources developed by the task force.
- 4. A word about the task force having “grown into a strong Christian fellowship.”
- 5. “Preliminary affirmations about the Peace, Unity and Purity of the Church.”
Section is carefully worded
The fifth category, which includes subsections on peace, purity and unity, was carefully worded and avoided any definitive statements about how those might be achieved or the Biblical responsibilities of Presbyterians to make them a reality in a denomination marked by squabbles over all three.
In fact, the task force report says, peace, purity and unity “have already been given to us in Jesus Christ, and the task before the church is to live into the fullness of that gift.”
The report adds, “Although it is premature at this stage of the Task Force’s work to present a comprehensive vision about how the peace, unity and purity of the Church might take form in our day, the Task Force does feel led to make three preliminary affirmations that we believe must guide our work for the next two years – affirmations rooted in our convictions about the church’s perennial need for grace.”
With that introduction, the task force concluded that “Jesus Christ Himself” is the church’s peace, unity and purity – patterning its theological assertions under the rubric of neoorthodoxy that focuses on Jesus as the standard-bearer and the Spirit.
Scripture used selectively
Scripture, historically the standard that American Presbyterians had used to determine the framework for its doctrines and its understanding of the person and work of Jesus, is used selectively in the document.
For instance, in the subsection titled “Jesus Christ Himself is the Church’s Unity,” uses Ephesians 2:21-22 (” … the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord …, built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God”) to emphasize Christ-given unity.
Furthermore, the report adds, “There is rich diversity in the Body of Christ. The unity we seek cannot be reduced to either uniformity or unanimity. In particular, unity cannot be attained if the voices of some members are ignored. It is especially important, when the mind of the church is significantly divided and its decisions are unlikely to be unanimous, that all voices be respected and heard. Moreover, in Reformed tradition, the achievement of unity is complicated by a long-standing tension between the call to exercise mutual accountability and the affirmation that ‘God alone is Lord of the conscience’ [G-1.031 (1) (a)].”
The “conscience statement” put a period after the word “conscience” and omitted the rest of what the Book of Order and the Westminster Confession actually say: “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in anything contrary to his Word, or beside it, in matters of faith or worship.”
In other words, “conscience” applies to the “doctrines and commandments of men” but not the clear teaching of Scripture.
Theological diversity supported?
While not explicit in its direction, the task force’s statement can be interpreted by some as support for theological diversity and a continued hearing for activists for the ordination of practicing homosexuals. They are the one group that has persistently argued that their voices have not been “respected and heard” because they have failed in three churchwide referendums to convince the denomination to ordain practicing homosexuals.
The task force calls unity “a necessity: union with Christ means union with all other member of Christ’s body, including whom one would not ordinarily choose to associate. This New Testament understanding of the unity of the church undercuts attempts to pick and choose those to whom we are bound in Christ … The implication of the biblical teaching is clear: Christians cannot even entertain the notion of severing their ties with sisters and brothers without placing themselves in severe jeopardy of being severed from Christ himself.”
That statement may come as an indictment to nearly two million Presbyterians – including two whole denominations – who have broken away from the mainline denomination since 1967, when it adopted the Confession of 1967. That confession was the first time American Presbyterians – long regarded as “people of the Book” – began to view Jesus as separate from the written Word of God. It termed Scripture “the words of men.”
In its subsection on purity, the interim report quotes again from Ephesians (1:3-4) but uses an ellipse to eliminate a key verb. “Scripture tells us, and we believe, that God ‘has blessed us in Christ … to be holy and blameless before him in love.’” After the ellipse, and missing from the interim report, Ephesians says that “he chose us in Him before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love.”
The section on purity also quotes from Ephesians, particularly verses 1 and 2: “Any effort to achieve peace and unity at the expense of purity cannot succeed, nor can we live ‘a life worthy of the calling to which we have been called‘ unless ‘bearing with one another in love,’ we make ‘every effort to main the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace‘ It does not quote, from that same chapter of Ephesians, a verse that seems pertinent to the controversies in the PCUSA – a passage that calls for maturity and right doctrine: ” … that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting.”
The interim report terms the quest for purity “first and foremost a call to self-examination, repentance and mutual accountability. While those who fail to seek purity in any of its forms – truth, goodness and justice – imperil the faithfulness of the church, purity must not become a pretext for division. Those who break the body of Christ on the grounds that some members do not meet a particular conception of righteousness risk putting fallible human judgment in place of Christ. Living into our baptism, we must always regard disputes over devotion, doctrine or deeds as gracious invitations to further work together.”
By defining the forms of purity as “truth, goodness and justice,” the task force omits some of the standards suggested in Ephesians 4, particularly personal transformation of conduct, including “put[ting] off the old man which grows corrupt according to deceitful lusts.”
“Christian striving here and now for truth, justice and holiness matters – it matters greatly,” the report says. “The Task Force, which has a heavy assignment, feels keenly the pressure to teach truly, act justly and maintain respectful and loving relationships within and beyond the church. We hope that our work will meet high standards of purity and faithfulness, yet we know it cannot unless we acknowledge a basic truth: the best the church can do is live into what Jesus Christ has already accomplished for us.”
The final part of the task force report contains responses to Presbyterians who have expressed some concern about the direction of the task force’s work.
It includes four brief statements:
- Faithfulness. Some have warned against what they see as a lukewarm “compromise.” The Task Force is not seeking any solution that compromises the gospel of Jesus Christ, but rather faithful, truthful and just responses to the complex demands the gospel makes upon us.
- Theological grounding. Some have warned that resolutions of earlier conflicts in the church’s history, based chiefly on polity or legal precedents, have often proved unstable. We have spent a large portion of our time in the theological study of these past conflicts and intend that our report will not simply pose political solutions but a way of living together that has clear theological and scriptural integrity. The three affirmations grow out of our convictions that no differences among Reformed Christians can be settled without a firm theological basis.
- Clarity about the relationship of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the larger church of Jesus Christ. One of the basic issues before the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is whether it is a church that is called to reflect the full integrity of Christ’s body in a distinctive way or, is, rather, merely a denomination subdivision of the church whose peace, unity and purity are immaterial and whose reason or being is more pragmatic than essential. Any report or process that we set before the church must address this question: does the well-being and witness of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) really matter.
- Continuity with Presbyterian tradition. Although polity alone cannot confer the peace, unity and purity that the Church is seeking, we do believe that the principles and practices of governance that Presbyterians have been developing for centuries, limited though they may be, will continue to serve us as we move into the future. Any proposals that we set before the church must be the outgrowth of Presbyterian ways of ordering church life and giving it direction.