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Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Easily-Forgotten Lessons of History

I posted the following text as an online comment to an article on the Presbyterian Outlook website. The editor chose to run it in the July 11, 2011 print edition as a letter to the editor.

(PHOTO: Distinguished Presbyterian William Jennings Bryan: U.S. Senator and frequent Presidential candidate, Moderator of the General Assembly and guest prosecutor at the Scopes Trial, where he promoted a fundamentalist, anti-evolution interpretation of scripture)

I'm dismayed to think that Frank Frieberg's assessment of the reason why some are considering leaving the denomination could be accurate: "What bothers them the most is the departure from viewing scripture as authoritative and instead viewing scripture as merely guidelines."

I hear this a lot. It sounds very satisfying to say, I'm sure. But it's not based on fact.

If it WERE as simple as that, then why are these people still in the PC(USA) after any one of a number of serious, careful reinterpretations of scripture that took place in the 20th Century:
- ordination of women as deacons, elders and ministers;
- toleration of remarriage after divorce; and
- acceptance of miscegenation, or interracial marriage?

(PHOTO: Margaret Towner, ordained in 1956 as the first constitutionally-approved woman minister in the UPCUSA or the PCUS)

At the beginning of the 20th Century, any one of these practices would have horrified most Presbyterians. They would have seen ample biblical reasons for proscribing them.

At the dawn of the 21st Century, few considered them to be any big deal.

(PHOTO: Richard and Mildred Loving, legally married in Washington, D.C. in 1958, but arrested after they moved to Virginia, where miscegenation, or inter-racial marriage, was still considered a crime. The U.S. Supreme Court, in the 1967 landmark case of Loving v. Virginia, unanimously ruled the Virginia state law unconstitutional.)

What happened in the meantime? Did the church cease "viewing scripture as authoritative and instead [start] viewing scripture as merely guidelines"?

No. The church prayed and agonized over the texts. Presbyterians engaged in protracted, strenuous debates, using all the the scholarly gifts and persuasive powers God had given them. Decorum was preserved, for the most part (we ARE Presbyterians, after all), but there were awkward periods of years when believers in the same city or even the same congregation feared they had little in common, and little to say, to one another.

In the end, the Holy Spirit had its way with the church. Presbyterians eventually came to believe God was doing a new thing in their midst. Change came - at first by only the barest majority, but eventually by much larger margins.

Change has never happened any other way, since the Day of Pentecost. Together we struggle to discern God's will in the scriptures. It's a slow, messy, agonizing process that takes a generation or more. Each time there's a major change, some Presbyterians split from the main body, seeking a more holy community, but inevitably most end up deeply disappointed. The wisest among them return, eventually - faithful to Christ's prayer "that they all be one." Many more, in time, give thanks that they didn't heed the call to schism when they were sorely tempted to do so.

I'd love to hear one of these aggrieved parties make a convincing argument why this historical change in biblical interpretation is different from any of the others that have preceded it. So far, I haven't heard any argument that has convinced me.

The argument that this change has been foisted on the church by unbiblical people, who care more for what society thinks than what the scriptures say, is as old as the hills. It has been trotted out, in turn, for each of the 20th Century changes mentioned above. The charge was false then, and it is false now.

Having said that, I can also say I understand how it happens. Change is hard. Very hard. I can sympathize with those who fear they no longer recognize the church of their youth.

This is a tender and vulnerable time for the Body of Christ. The faithful way to live through it is to try extra hard to think well of those on the opposite end of the theological spectrum from ourselves - not to demonize them as either libertine or prejudiced.

We can get through this, folks, if we just take a deep breath, try listening more than speaking, and practice the fine Christian art of mutual forbearance.

That's what's worked for us in the past. It will work for us again, if we but continue to trust Jesus Christ, the one head of the church, to be our guide.

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