Monthly Archives: February 2014

Reprint: “Stuck on the PC(USA)”

(Over two years ago, on Jan. 22, 2012, I published the following post about my relationship with the PC(USA). I reprint it now because it remains true to me.)

This past week a new reformed body was launched in Orlando, Florida called the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians (ECO). It’s comprised of Presbyterians whose relationship to the PC(USA) has been strained by theological shifts within the denomination, most prominently the relaxing of ordination standards about sexuality.

It’s understandable that PC(USA) leadership isn’t thrilled about the ECO, and is concerned about its supporters. At first Moderator Cynthia Bolbach wasn’t going to attend the ECO’s Covenanting Conference in Orlando. According to the current Presbyterian Outlook:

“In an interview this week, Bolbach said she had changed her mind, in part because ‘they’re expecting lots of folks who want to stay in the PC(USA) and want to figure out how to do that’ while not violating their sense of conscience. ‘If there are people there who are still engaged in the PC(USA), I want to be in dialogue with them,’ Bolbach said. ‘I want to have conversation with them to say, “We want you to stay. We don’t want you to go.” ‘ “

Although I haven’t heard whether Cynthia Bolbach actually went to the conference or not, I’m glad she affirms the presence of evangelicals in the denomination. Theologically I’m in general agreement with the ECO, and I’ve tended to apply the category “evangelical” to myself over the years. My family and I want to stay in the PC(USA), and we want to continue to work as mission co-workers. Hopefully evangelical believers always will be valued and respected not only in local congregations, but at every level and area of the PC(USA), including mission assignments overseas.

Some Presbyterians seem to feel stuck in the PC(USA). They’re faced with the challenge of extricating their churches from the PC(USA), which has become an unpleasant place for them. I seem to be stuck too, but instead of stuck in, I’m stuck on the PC(USA). To be stuck in something, such as a rut, means you’re struggling to get yourself out from an undesirable place. To be stuck on somebody means you have an uncontrollable attachment, an affection that won’t let go.

Yes, I’m stuck on this denomination. I’ve discovered that my attachment to it is beyond my control. Sure, there are other denominations where my theological positions are more widely held, but God didn’t put me in such a denomination. In God’s infinite wisdom, God put me in this one. I was baptized in it, received my first Bible in it, had my first mission experience in it, and people prayed for me in it when I wouldn’t pray for myself. For a number of years I moved in a different direction, and I struggled spiritually and vocationally. Then God called me back into the PC(USA). Doors opened for me to use my talents and to participate with my family in the fulfillment of God’s divine plans. I’m stuck on the PC(USA) because God’s stuck on it. How gracious God is! He doesn’t let go, even when conflict rages in our churches and many of us worry about losing our way.

The Guatemalan Presbyterian Church (IENPG), to which my wife and I are assigned, has an impressive record of stick-together-ness. The church functions within an environment of stark poverty, devastating natural disasters, and bloody social turmoil, including the lingering effects of a 36-year civil war with a death toll of 250,000. Over the years and with few resources, the IENPG has contended with unsavory personality conflicts and a few corrupt leaders, as well as divisive religious currents like Pentecostalism and liberation theology. Guatemala’s divergent social classes are reflected in the Presbyterian churches here, along with the full range of political and ideological persuasions. Half of the members are westernized Ladinos, while the rest belong to socially-marginalized indigenous groups that speak different languages. With these challenges and so much diversity, the IENPG has for the most part held together. Indeed, while the PC(USA) seems to be at risk of falling apart, the IENPG has expanded into more areas of Guatemala. In recent years they’ve achieved reconciliation with four schismatic presbyteries, reintegrating them back into their denomination. They’ve opened up two new high schools, and are forming a Presbyterian university. The IENPG has stuck to this pattern, praise God, ever since a predecessor of the PC(USA) started it over 130 years ago.

At their last Synod meeting, Guatemalan Presbyterians expressed their disagreement with the PC(USA) over changes in ordination standards. At the same time, they expressed their desire to remain in covenant partnership with the PC(USA). Here’s the reason one Guatemalan gave for wanting the partnership to continue: “When we’ve struggled and didn’t get along, they never left us. Now the PC(USA) is struggling. How can we leave them?”

It’s a blessing to work at building partnerships between Christian bodies like the PC(USA) and the IENPG, partnerships that figure out how to face differences and accept some significant disagreements. It’s also a blessing to be a part of building partnership within Christian bodies like the PC(USA), where we also face differences and even accept some significant disagreements.

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The IENPG and the PC(USA)—A Changing Narrative (Hopefully!)

After several years of development by the IENPG’s International Relations Committee (one of the committee’s with which I work), a revision of the covenant between the PC(USA) and the IENPG is expected to be ratified soon. Actually, this can’t happen soon enough, for changes have been sorely needed.

The current covenant, approved in 2006, contains an inexplicably harsh take on the partnership’s background, and of the IENPG in particular. It begins by describing a “failure in the relationship between the mother church and daughter church” that existed from early on. Jabs are taken at early missionaries, who are accusing of “a lack of understanding of contextual reality” which produced “errors, misunderstandings and lack of foresight.”

The Guatemalan church is denigrated in the current covenant. According to covenant, the theological controversies of prior years prompted new understandings within the U.S. “mother church.” The “daughter church,” however, didn’t benefit from these new changes. The covenant says that Guatemalans “did not aspire to develop in the light of the Reformed tradition (confessionally open). The mother church changed and the daughter did not. The daughter church stayed in the first mile, concerning theological formation, training its leadership in an evangelical style and nothing else.”

This historical interpretation contends that the “daughter Presbyterian church struggled to find its identity within the Reformed tradition.” According to the document, “Large contradictions and internal struggles exist between one current within the church that wanted to continue according to the classic principle, “The Church Reformed, always reforming,” and the conservative, inherited current, which continued to dream of the past and the mission epoch.”

When I first read this document over three years ago, it puzzled and disturbed me. I wondered about the fairness of the portrayal of the IENPG and its missionary origins. Subsequently I read about the amazing hardships and achievements of missionaries like Edward Haymaker, Paul and Nora Burgess, Dorothy and Dudley Peck, and others. It became clear to me that the view expressed in the covenant was excessively negative, to say the least.

I also wondered about the even-handedness of the portrayal of the IENPG as a divided church that will not reform. My subsequent visits around the country revealed a church that, for the most part, actively searches for the right balance between the preservation of traditions and the acceptance of change. The church did not seem, however, to be stuck in the past. On the contrary, I found a diverse church that is holding together, and a dynamic church that is expanding and growing. My conclusion was that the covenant’s historical overview was inaccurate, even deplorable.

Then I wondered why such an account would even be included in the covenant in the first place, even if it was true. Why would such disparaging language be used in a document whose aim is to express mutual appreciation and respect, and to set a framework for shared mission?  It occurred to me to check out whose signatures were on the document. It turns out that all four of the IENPG officers that signed it have since been charged with corruption and mismanagement of funds. Two left Guatemala, one was expelled from the IENPG, and the remaining pastor is under discipline by the Synod, prohibited from serving in any national capacity. Sadly, this suggests that the signees of the covenant didn’t necessarily have the best interests of the IENPG at heart.

Why did the PC(USA) endorse this humiliating interpretation of the partnership’s history? It suggests a lingering paternalistic inclination toward churches of the Global South, particularly those that choose to determine their own independent theological path. It evinces a tendency to look down on churches like the IENPG whose priorities are considered passé by some segments of the PC(USA).

Now, thankfully, the PC(USA) and the IENPG are on the verge of renewing their historic partnership with a new outlook toward the past and the future. A wave of forward-looking IENPG leaders has replaced the old, and the Synod has agreed to some many changes in the written covenant. At the same time, the PC(USA)’s Area Coordinator for Latin American and the Caribbean, one of the signers of the current covenant, has agreed to support the changes. The covenant no longer speaks disparagingly of “mother” and “daughter” churches. Instead, it offers gratitude for the opportunities to learn from each other, to serve and grow together. The revised document recognizes the vision and sacrifices of both PC(USA) mission workers and Guatemalan church leaders. It asks God’s forgiveness for mistaken actions and attitudes, along with the lack of respect for theological and moral differences. It also expresses the desire of both denominations to seek God’s blessing while addressing “the challenges that we face in our own national and cultural contexts.” As long as it truly reflects the heart-felt intent of both churches, and unless it’s obstructed by those who continue to hold the old outlook, this new covenant bodes well for our partnership’s future.

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