Friday, July 21, 2006

The Sad Smell of Fear

Twenty years ago I attended a conference with pastors from many denominations. One pastor was from a denomination that believed only they were true Christians. Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, and any others were unlikely to go to heaven. This pastor made each of us assure him that we would tell no one that he attended. If his denomination found out, he said, he would be immediately fired and defrocked. I could hardly believe the atmosphere of fear his denomination inspired.

Tonight I sensed the same kind of atmosphere, and it was my denomination inspiring the fear. New Wineskins’ board (of which I am a member) proposed forming a group of nine people to, among other things, prepare strategies for any church considering separation from the PCUSA. As we debated the proposition, many came forward to say that, if we made such an overt statement, their home presbyteries would punish them—just for attending our conference.

I am in a presbytery that, while not sympathetic to our struggle with the PCUSA, has not been hostile to us. But these folk are truly in a scary place. How sad it is that some Presbyterians are afraid even to speak out for fear of retribution. Their primary fears are two: that pastors’ ordination will be removed and that church property will be confiscated. For some, sadly, these are rational fears.

Contrast this with a discussion I had with the leaders of another Presbyterian denomination who told me that pastors and congregations may freely move in or out of their organization without prejudice. It seems clear that people in this denomination are united by belief, not fear of what they might lose. In contrast, the PCUSA, while completely tolerant of theological deviation, is rigid about finances, property, and polity.

We passed the motion for this group to form. They will be appointed by our board and do their research over the next couple of months, reporting back at another convocation to be held in February, in Orlando, Florida (I suggested that, since they spent the hottest time of summer in Tulsa, we should at least schedule our winter meeting in Minneapolis). I expect that many, but not all, New Wineskin churches will make a decision to withdraw from the PCUSA at that time. Some will leave before that time, and others we don’t know now will join in years to come.

How sad it is that ANYONE should have to make such a decision in an atmosphere of fear instead of Christian love.

Keep praying—keep the faith.
Tom

12 comments:

Richard L. Jones said...
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Richard L. Jones said...

Dr. Gray,
I want to thank you for your candid update of the convocation. I truly wished I could have been there to observe things first hand.

What I find most distressing and sad is the spirit of fear and manipulation that has pervaded the PCUSA. This is actually a primary form of witchcraft. Instead of manipulation through fear, there should be an atmosphere of love toward God and love toward one another.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. This implies a deep desire to please and love God with all our heart, soul, and strength because of His intense love for us. What is seriously lacking at the highest levels of the PCUSA is a reverential fear of the Lord, and thus Godly wisdom is in short supply. The desire to please Him has been given over to a desire to please the physical and psycological senses.

It is obvious to me that the NWI posesses a reverential fear of God. And if God be for you, who can be against you? You do not have to please men, but God. For no man will stand in your stead before God when that fateful time comes.

My wife and I are not Presbyterian, our ministry and background are charismatic. However, our hearts are poured-out in love for you, the Kirk, the NWI, and the PCUSA. We have put out a call for prayer around the world, to perhaps hundreds of thousands of brothers and sisters in Christ, to pray dilligently concerning the situation. We fully belive that God will make his will known and that His wisdom will be at hand.

God bless you all,
Your brother in Christ.

John Haley said...

By Saturday morning a lot of the fear seems to have dissipated, but it is still present. The NWI delegates took some courageous steps to take stands, to take action and to make plans to go forward.

One of the worship leaders said "Courage is fear that has said its prayers." There were lots of prayers that bolstered the courage of many.

Most important was the sense of support for one another. One pastor said that his Presbytery might take away his salary, his health insurance and his manse. Another man stood up and said that if that happened he could bring his family and come live with him. It was encouraging to see that level of support and caring. There were many other examples - too numerous to mention here.

Blessings,

John R. Haley

Anonymous said...

David Bryant delivered a very powerful sermon Friday night using a text from Rev. 13 & 14. This passage describes John's vision of the beast who deceives the people of the world and marks them with his name-666. Just as things seem their darkest and bleakest, John turns around and sees the Lamb (Jesus Christ) who is surrounded by 144,000 faithful who bear the mark of His name on them.

Even more powerful than David's sermon was the time of prayer which followed. Those of us in the congregation were invited to the front of the sanctuary. There we kneeled to pray and sing in the presence of our Lord.

As we sang "Crown Him with Many Crowns" it seemed as if He were actually physically present there; tears were streaming down my face and I truly felt I was on holy ground.

David prayed and we prayed. There was a sense of oneness of unity in that place. We knew what it meant to have one Lord, one faith, and one baptism. We had a glimpse and a taste of what it will be like in heaven when we gather as the church, the bride of Christ, at that great celebration of the marriage of the Lamb.

David's sermon was one of hope and expectancy--how God has and will continue to intervene in human history bringing spiritual revival and renewal.

Chances are that things will get worse before they get better; but Jesus left us the Holy Spirit to comfort, help, and empower us in difficult times like these.

Our allegiance is not to an institutional church or a denomination but to Jesus Christ who is our Savior and the Lord of our lives.

We have a great cloud of witnesses who have come before us and have kept the faith. Our own Protestant reformation arose from a time such as this. Just as Calvin, Knox, and Luther stood firm in and for the faith, so should we. We stand on the sovereignty of God and the authority of Scripture. We can do no other!

God's grace and peace,
Peggy Alexander

Bill Diggs said...

I did not attend the New Wineskin convocation. However, I have read everything I could find on the net both pro and con about NWI and still do not think it is in the best interest of the Kirk to follow this path. We Kirk members were told in sermons a few weeks ago to "take a stand". Before taking my stand I am cautioned by G. K. Chesterton in his quote from "Heretics":

"...while the eye that can perceive what are the wrong things increases in an uncanny and devouring clarity, the eye which sees what things are right is growing mistier and mistier every moment, till it goes almost blind with doubt."

For the past two years there has been an obvious campaign of negative comments from pastors and staff concerning anything and everything Presbyterian including our seminaries, missionaries, books, teaching material, etc... I asked you in my letter a year ago "are we really that bad?" and your silence indicates you think we are. Now some of the lessons being taught in Sunday school and in sermons and the qualifications of those doing the teaching or preaching has only deepened by concern. Presbyterians adhere to the doctrinal interpretations of Holy Scripture as generally expressed in the works of John Calvin, certainly not Cyrus I. Scofield. We use to require an educated clergy and normally do not turn our pulpits over to anyone other than ordained Presbyterian clergy. That requirement seems to have been dropped somewhere along the wayside.

Assuming this last paragraph represents the current attitude of the Pastors and staff and I might add what appears to be the majority of the congregation isn't it time we drop the charade and declare the Kirk to be a stand alone "congregational" institution? This business of having "loose associations of like minded churches" as proposed by NWI to replace our current Eastern Oklahoma Prebytery is folly and will not work. Furthermore, NWI has not made any attempt to cover replacement of the Presbyterian Church, USA Book of Order. If we are going to jump ship and leave the Presbyterian fold we need to do a lot more work than just worry about the title to the property. In closing, I would like to point out that our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ never left the Jewish faith and He had a bunch of misbehaving scribes and pharasees to put up with.

Regarding fear, rest assured neither you nor the Kirk have anything to fear from me other than my honest opinion.

TomGray said...

Bill,
I wish you had attended the NWI convocation. You can learn much more attending an event than by just reading about it.

I’m a bit confused by some of your complaints. Certainly, we have clergy at the Kirk who were not ordained in the PCUSA. That does not mean that they are not Reformed in their theology. I’d put Dan and Jeff up against any other Presbyterian and expect them both to shine in comparison.

As to educated clergy, that’s what you already have. Wayne, Jeff, and I all have M.Div. degrees from accredited seminaries, acceptable to the PCUSA. Additionally, each of us has a doctorate from those seminaries. I have an additional honorary doctorate from a Presbyterian (PCUSA) college. Dan has his M.Div. and will complete his doctorate next year.

Also, as to how bad things are. I feel that I have been accurate and fair. The fact that news is bad doesn’t mean that it’s false. While I didn’t answer your letter directly, you certainly know what I believe from the many congregational meetings and informational meetings we’ve had, and from the two sermons in which I’ve addressed our problems.

Finally, we are not closet-congregationalists. Frustration with the PCUSA and even separation from it do not mean that one is not Presbyterian. Our argument is that the PCUSA itself has ceased to be Presbyterian and is now recommending atomistic polity regarding ordination standards.

The NWI is a "loose association" because it is not a denomination. If we leave the PCUSA, it will be to a Reformed or Presbyterian denomination.

Tom

Bill Diggs said...

Tom,

You missed my point regarding educated clergy. I am not qualified to replace the Presbytery Committee on Ministry and question the theological expertise of either Jeff or Dan. Personally, I regard them both as good men. However, certain specific courses in Presbyterian polity and governance are required for anyone to become qualified for a call and ordination. To date I do not know whether either Jeff or Dan has received a call or been ordained by any denomination. When we become slipshod in the way we bring pastors into our pulpit are we not being guilty of the same overbearing practice we find so offensive in Louisville? Our actions should be "decently and in order" regardless of whether we act for a local congregation, a presbytery or the GA.

The New Wineskin Initiative is undoubtably made up of devout clergy and laity interested primarily in Christ's body, the Church. Probably, the same can be said for the Christian Coalition, Presbyterians for Renewal, Constitutional Presbyterians and maybe other active groups unknown to me. This fragmentation is the main problem our church faces and explains why we stand to lose up to 85,000 from the PCUSA next year. Wouldn't it be much better if we could combine time, work and resources of all these groups in order to make a concerted effort to renew and revitalize our Presbyterian Denomination. However, that would require relinquishing our prima donna halos, getting on our knees, listening to God and to each other, and ultimately compromising. Maybe God does not care if the Presbyterian Church is fragmented into dust - but, He hasn't told me yet! Until He lets me know I will continue to support what has served me well for the past 65 years.

God bless you,

Bill Diggs

TomGray said...

Bill,
We were not slipshod bringing Dan and Jeff in. The Presbytery was apprised of their hiring and approved, just so long as neither was allowed to celebrate communion (a polity issue of depth, for sure). Dan received a call to the Christ for the City mission agency prior to coming to us, and Jeff was ordained in the Evangelical Free denomination.

The PCUSA regularly welcomes in pastors from Methodist, Lutheran, and General Baptist churches as pastors of congregations, even allow them to do communion (neither Jeff nor Dan come from denominations with such prior approval). Nor do they require polity courses from any of these people. I believe that our (the Kirk’s) practice has been thoughtful, not overbearing, even though it has not been through “the system.”

Regarding working together, that’s just what we’ve been doing for 30 years. I started my ministry working within not only our PCUSA system (then UPCUSA), but also with renewal groups. In recent years I’ve served in leadership of the groups you have mentioned (except the Constitutional group, which is new).

We continue to combine effort. This August, we are all meeting together in Atlanta. Representatives and officers of these groups were present at the Kirk this last week. We are not losing members because of these groups. These groups came into being because we were losing members, and no one in the head office seemed concerned.

I don’t own a halo. I’ve been praying for years and even more so in these last few years. I am a prideful human being, but I don’t think I’m a prima don. I do think that God IS telling thousands of us that the PCUSA—unless it rapidly changes (and it’s heard petitions for such for 30 years)—is fragmenting into dust.
God bless you,
Tom

Anonymous said...

Tom,

I hope the reason you have a public blog is to invite comment without taking offense. I grew up as a Presbyterian PK and MK, and both of my grandparents were Presbyterian pastors as well. I am not unfamiliar with church politics. However I am not ordained and my adult life has been as a member of the church, not of the clergy. So I am bicultural even when it comes to the church itself. There is a huge chasm between the church you attend and the church we attend - the members of churches such as yours. You live in a completely different universe than we do. I give you this feedback in the knowledge that as with Plato's parable of the men in the cave, it is almost impossible to communicate across this chasm, but I must. For your sake and ours.

In your universe it is important to you who my congregation and presbytery ordains and how, and whether you get along with the commissioners of the GA and whether they are conservative, or liberal or other. In ours, it is not. I am a member of a big church. It makes no difference to my fellow church members and me whether your presbytery ordains fat people, skinny people, gay people, divorced people, liberals, fundamentalists, or neither. When we hire a pastor, the fact that they are ordained only means they get to apply for the job. After that, it is a matter of who they are, whether their skills and gifts match our needs, whether they like us and the opportunity we offer, and their own priorities.

Their priorities, your priorities, should be your own congregation.

Our lives are not filled with church polity but they are full nevertheless. There is scarcely any room in our lives to add to them the problems the clergy have with each other. In fact, one measure of a good pastor is how well he or she protects the congregation from whatever nonsense may be going on with the church at large. I think this may be what Bill is at least in part trying to tell you. What we need from our pastors is the word of God for our lives, fresh air - the breath of God - for our lives, teaching for our lives, prayers for our lives. The Gospel for our lives. If we then interact with the world and the world changes for the better because our lives are filled with the Spirit of God, that is when your ministry is fulfilled. Not when you go around trying to spear the windmills of the whole denomination. Whatever evil happens with the denomination only affects us if you drag it in. Please do not. As my mother used to say, before you come in the house wipe the mud off your shoes.

Church politics serves only to distract you (and us) from our primary purpose. It will always be there, like the devil, pretending to be important; telling you if you only do this one thing for him, he will let you save the world. Silly. If it's not one thing it's another. If you want to leave the PCUSA and find another church to pay attention to, you only need to look out over your own congregation.

In my humble opinion,
Jodie

Anonymous said...

This isn't even close to spearing windmills. If you really think that, you've got your head in the sand.

How can we say we're part of an institution that is actively going against what we, as biblical presbyterians, believe? How is it ethical to contribute funds to an organization that spends them in ways that go against what we, the Kirk, stand for?

It is our pastors' moral and religious responsibility to let us know about these issues, and it is our moral and religious responsibility to stand up for the biblical values that we claim to believe.

Ray Schroeder said...

I found Bill Diggs comments interesting where he wrote "For the past two years there has been an obvious campaign of negative comments from pastors and staff concerning anything and everything Presbyterian including our seminaries, missionaries, books, teaching material, etc..." I have found that to be true of much of the literature coming out of all the renewal organizations. It takes a lot of energy to maintain an attitude of "being against" something. I wonder when these congregations that are in New Wineskins finally leave the PC(USA) if they will miss their identity of "being against" the denomination. If the experience of Gresham Machen is any indicator, there will be further splits among themselves. After founding the Orthodox Presbyterian Church some members of the new denomination couldn't give up their attitude of criticism and finding issues over which they disagreed. Their energies couldn't be channeld to working for the good of the new denomination and soon another split occurred. The Bible Presbyterian Church was formed. Further different groups and parties have formed within each of those denominations and continue to contend against whatever is the prevailing sin as they see it. There are many good and holy and loving people in the Orthodox and Bible Presbyterian Churches just as there are in the New Wineskins, the EPC, the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, et. al. And there are good and holy and righteous people within the PC(USA). It's too bad the good couldn't have been emphasized a little more and a little more energy expended at healing and strengthening Christ's body than tearing and rending it. Of course, "there is none righteous, no not one."

Anonymous said...

Ray Shroeder's observations cannot be emphasized enough. It is not just a church thing; it's a sociological thing. Virtually every revolutionary movement in the world has seen this effect. When a revolutionary movement overthrows a government, for example, it immediately goes into "house cleaning " mode. If the overthrow was violent, then the house cleaning process remains violent. We saw it all throughout the 20th century. As Jesus once said, if you live by the sword you die by the sword. It would be astonishing if a group of churches split off from the PCUSA and did not continue splitting.

Eventually people will get tired of it and move on.

Conflicts have a life cycle. Like hurricanes, once they spin up, they churn until they run their course. Some of us have a morbid fascination for them. We like to fly into the eye of the storm just to see what is going on... We channel the fascination into weather forecasting... Others of us are just lying in its path wishing it would go away.

Others, they are the storm.