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Presbyterians at the Crossroads: Part Two

By April 1, 2012 No Comments

by David L. Stubbs

Editors’ note: In the March 2012 issue of Perspectives, David Stubbs explored recent developments within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), particularly the emergence of the Fellowship of Presbyterians and the Evangelical Covenant Order, focusing primarily on their positive role as “Spirit-filled movements of reform.” Stubbs continues this month in the second part of his analysis by raising some concerns and questions about these movements and their stated tenets.

I do not doubt the good intentions and hearts of those who are proposing that some Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregations not simply affiliate with the Fellowship of Presbyterians and the Evangelical Covenant Order (ECO) but actually leave the PC(USA). I do, however, disagree with both the necessity and the wisdom of doing so, and I would suggest that the witness of both the Old Testament and the New Testament weighs heavily against their leaving—a point that should not be missed by groups dedicated to recovering biblical authority in the church’s life. Thinking back to the Protestant Reformation, it is important to remember that the reformers’ first intentions were not to break away from Rome, but rather to heal the church from within. Even after visible breaks were occurring, Calvin still argued quite strongly that any kind of a separation or schism within the church was a grave and dangerous matter: “But how dangerous—nay, how deadly—a temptation is it, when one is prompted to withdraw from that congregation wherein are seen the signs and tokens with which the Lord thought his church sufficiently marked?” (Institutes IV.1.11). By “sufficiently marked” Calvin means churches where “the preaching of the gospel is reverently heard and the sacraments are not neglected” (IV.1.10). Just in case people argue too quickly that the Word is not reverently heard or that the sacraments are neglected—as some might say about the PC(USA)—Calvin goes on to say that purity is never fully achieved in doctrine and worship (“some fault may creep into the administration of either doctrine or sacraments”). Accordingly, one should stay even if the church “otherwise swarms with many faults” (IV.1.12).

Calvin quotes from Augustine and other church Fathers and draws from scripture, both Old and New Testament, including the words and parables of Jesus, to argue that the unity of the church is more important than the many issues of doctrine, worship practice, or morality that many “evil persons” (IV.1.16) would consider are worthy of schism. I am fairly certain issues of property and building ownership would count even less for Calvin. Commenting on the Old Testament prophets, Calvin writes, “Nothing, consequently, kept them from creating a schism save their zeal to maintain unity. But if the holy prophets had scruples against separating themselves from the church because of many great misdeeds, not of one man or another but of almost all the people, we claim too much for ourselves if we dare withdraw at once from the communion of the church just because the morals of all do not meet our standard or even square with the profession of Christian faith” (IV.1.18).

I side firmly with Calvin on these issues of unity and schism. This means that I also disagree with Jim Singleton’s implied argument in the eighth of his “Ten Theological Challenges Facing the PCUSA,” in which he contends that concern for unity can be dismissed as a sell-out to secular “tolerance” and theological liberalism.1 Calvin would call this into question.

I hope that the leaders of the Fellowship, the ECO, and the PC(USA) congregations contemplating their own future will continue their good work of reform and encouraging renewal in doctrine, worship, and practice. But I also hope that they, out of fear of God and concern for the greater witness of the church as a whole, and Protestantism in particular, turn back from separation and schism. The recent decision by the Mid-Council Commission to recommend nongeographic presbyteries shows that the PC(USA) as a whole is not hardening itself against the Fellowship or the ECO, nor is it thrusting them out. Rather, the decision suggests a desire to maintain fellowship. A concern for the unity of the church should motivate members of these movements to stay.

I am currently leading a group of high school students and adults through a two-year walk through the Bible on Sunday mornings. We recently encountered the rather terrifying story in 2 Samuel, where Uzzah, with probably the best of intentions, reaches out his hand to steady the Ark of the Covenant. “The anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah; and God struck him there because he reached out his hand to the ark; and he died there beside the ark of God” (2 Samuel 6:7). Uzzah had crossed some line between a proper and an improper caretaking of the ark. There are parallels to be drawn between the ark and the church. The ark contained the Law, the manna, and Aaron’s rod, while the church contains the Word, the sacraments, and the mark of discipline. The church is a holy thing. As “household managers for God’s mysteries” (1 Corinthians 4:1, Kingdom New Testament), we must guard the church well and protect its purity, but also be quite cautious to do so without tearing it apart.


In the nine core values of the Fellowship, there is a helpful interplay between the values of “biblical integrity,” “thoughtful theology,” and “center-focused spirituality.”2 “Center-focused spirituality” is explained in this way: “We believe in calling people to the core of what it means to be followers of Jesus—what ‘mere Christianity’ is and does—and not fixate on the boundaries.” A strong center, without fixating on the boundaries. I agree with this goal, but I do not see it being played out as well as it could be in the essential tenets document.

Naming essential tenets and naming them so fully is a large and important shift within the PC(USA). Part of me is glad for such a shift. The search for and naming of essential tenets is not in itself wrong-headed. It is common to recognize there are some Christian truths that are more important and essential than others.3The move toward naming and requiring adherence to a set of essential tenets provides clarity about what is central and what is peripheral. Such clarity is needed in the PC(USA). Perhaps counterintuitively for some, it might bring a certain kind of freedom to discussions about who is or is not qualified to serve as an officer in the church. In my own service on my local presbytery’s Committee for Preparation for Ministry, I witnessed under the PC(USA)’s current system how almost unthinkable it was to disqualify any candidate for any theological view. Oddly, what seemed to be more important was something called “Presbyterian ethos”—a way of talking about who was “one of us” and who was not. This “ethos” often functioned as a kind of trump card that could be used to slow down or even disqualify a candidate for ministry. “Ah, but does she really understand what it means to be a Presbyterian? She doesn’t seem to embody the Presbyterian ethos. She has only had a history with the Presbyterian church for x years.” Such statements seemed to carry more weight than any discussion of Nicene-Chalcedonian Christology or biblical authority. This was not a calculated desire to upend traditional theology; it was just a practice that was presumed and so not discussed. Perhaps it was also part of a desire to avoid talking through difficult theological issues. Either way, such an ethos is unacceptable and a sign of deeper problems. These concerns are precisely backwards. A clear statement of essential tenets could help reverse this.

Yet history warns us that naming essential tenets is a tricky business. This trickiness is evidenced in the considerable ambiguity that exists in the ECO about what the word essential means. On the one hand, the ECO’s church polity documents state that all officers of the church—all elders, ministers, and deacons—must “adhere to the Essential Tenets of the ECO. Failure of officers to continue to adhere to these standards is grounds for a session or presbytery to remove an officer from service” (Polity 2.0101). Apparently, all the statements in this document are in fact essential. However, in Laura Smit’s introduction to the document, she refers to it as a “working document,” a “curriculum,” which is meant to be “used and explored.”4Obviously and understandably, there are details that still need to be worked out.

I could see these details being worked out in three ways. The first way, which is apparently the way the ECO is heading, is simply to continue to work so that everyone could agree that every sentence in it points to something “essential” to faith and practice. This could be quite a difficult process. As Joseph Small points out in “Essential Tenets?” in Conversations with the Confessions, there have been several experiments with naming lists of essential tenets in American Presbyterianism, none of which have ultimately been successful in the past. And even if the members of the ECO could come to agreement on such a document of this length, I have a hard time seeing how it would not become a confession in itself. In spite of claims to the contrary, this larger statement, because of the requirement of tight subscription to it, would become a de facto confession that trumps the other confessions.

A second strategy would be to cling tightly to the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds and to name little beyond them as “essential.” One could then utilize the Book of Confessions in the way that Joseph Small outlines in his essay “The Church’s Conversation with the Confessions,” in which he points out the centrality of the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds, the special place of the Confession of 1967, and the way the voices of all the confessions inform and have a secondary authority over us.5 An example of this strategy is the statement of faith of Christ Presbyterian Church in Edina, Minnesota, whose senior pastor, John Crosby, is interim president of the ECO.6 It affirms the Apostles’ Creed and adds short statements about the uniqueness of Christ and the authority of scripture. Such a statement could easily be incorporated into the ordination vows of all officers.

A third, longer-term strategy, which might be used in combination with the second, would be to follow the example of the Roman Catholic Church’s Catechism of the Catholic Church. Developed in the wake of Vatican II in response to a similar need for theological clarity, this 688-page document states the current position of the Roman Catholic Church on issues of faith and morals, incorporating references to scripture, the Church Fathers, and authoritative church teaching.

A similar document within the Reformed tradition could be used in conjunction with a shorter list of essential tenets. The things that are truly essential and central to Christianity as a whole would be seen in the essential tenets (which might simply be the Nicene Creed), while this larger document could guide us to the center of the Reformed tradition—where it has stood over time on a wide range of issues both theological and practical. The document could reference earlier confessions and statements about Christian life and practice in a way similar to the Catholic catechism’s references to earlier church teaching. It would give good guidance about the Reformed tradition, or at least the PC(USA), while not claiming the same status as the essential tenets. Such a document would require a greater and more sustained effort than the ECO’s current essential tenets document. It would also need to be titled differently. Its function would be similar to, though not exactly the same as, the way that the Westminster Confession and catechisms functioned for some before 1967, or the way that the Heidelberg Catechism has functioned for other Reformed traditions.

In conjunction with this larger document, there could and should be some room for a person to publicly state areas of discomfort or disagreement with this central document, to give their rationale for such disagreement, and then to let a governing body decide whether or not such disagreement is too extreme to be allowed within that denomination or communion. Within Presbyterianism, such a procedure historically has been called “declaring a scruple.” Such a procedure allows the norm to stand while also showing some humility about those norms, especially if a person can give a reasonable scriptural rationale for their disagreement or discomfort. Such a procedure is commensurate with our understanding of confessions as of secondary authority to scripture. Furthermore, the spirit behind such a procedure seems necessary in order to progress toward ecumenical unity and promote genuine theological discussion rather than a spirit of fearfully policing boundaries.7

In sum, I would reserve the word essential for only the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, with perhaps one or two more central points, while calling for the creation of a larger work that would more fully describe a normative center. This document could be used in conjunction with some practice such as “naming a scruple” that allows appropriate flexibility and humility about such a confession or catechism. For the sake of both doctrinal clarity and ecumenical openness, it seems time for something new—perhaps with a process similar to that of Westminster and with an ecumenical spirit and “center-focused spirituality” like that of Heidelberg, not losing sight of what we can continue to learn from the early church and from our ecumenical brothers and sisters around the globe.


As for the specific content of the essential tenets document, most of it is a wonderful statement of theology, but it does not play the role it is called to play. Four words in particular—indispensable, infallible, irresistibly, and reticent—move the document away from a “center-focused spirituality.”

The first, indispensable, occurs in one of the opening paragraphs: “The essential tenets call out for explication, not as another confession, but as indispensable indicators of confessional convictions about what Scripture leads us to believe and do.” While I affirm the vast majority of what is said in this document, it is one thing to agree with it and quite another to argue that all of it is “indispensable.” That claim goes too far.

In the section on biblical authority, the word infallible was inserted into the phrase “both in the infallible Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments” between the December draft and the January 17 version of the document. I can affirm the infallibility of scripture, provided I define in what way I understand the term. Most statements that use this word are more specific about how the scriptures are infallible. The word infallible is not central in the confessions’ description of scripture, nor do I find it to be the most helpful word to point to the way that scripture is authoritative. It is a word that causes more confusion and contention than it is worth. In the recently published Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, John Webster, who is definitely on the side of those seeking to recover biblical authority, finds no need to even mention the word infallible in his article on the authority of scripture, preferring claims about the inspiration, clarity, and sufficiency of scripture—words that are also used much more frequently in the Second Helvetic Confession, the Scots Confession, and the Westminster Confession, for example. I think it is a poor decision to include it, especially without specification, in that important sentence.

In the section on election, the word irresistibly occurs. “We who receive Him and believe in His name do so not by our own will or wisdom, but because His glory compels us irresistibly to turn toward Him.” If I were to choose between the framers of the Canons of Dort and the followers of Arminius, I would choose the former, but I wonder why there is a need to insert irresistibly here, especially given that the Canons of Dort are not in the PC(USA) Book of Confessions. Westminster itself prefers the term effectual calling, and states that God, by Word and Spirit, “effectually draw[s] them to Jesus Christ; yet so as they come most freely, being made willing by his grace” (6.064). Such a statement more effectively helps us navigate this difficult and contentious issue in theology and better makes clear the very different ways God and creatures cause things to happen. I certainly do not believe that irresistibly best captures our confessions, nor do I find it to be an “indispensable” or “essential” word, but rather a needlessly combative one.

In the section on obedient living, where the Ten Commandments are nicely used as ordering principle, the wording of the interpretation of the second commandment is confusing and perhaps problematic: “worship God in humility, being reticent in either describing or picturing God . . .” The full statement seems first to lean on the Reformed reticence about visual images, but then implies we should also be reticent about describing God verbally, and further implies that the solution to these problems is worship centered on pulpit and table, rather than innovative practices. I’m not sure I understand all the links. That being said, I find reticence about visual representation to be a problematic aspect of our Reformed heritage, albeit quite understandable in its historical context. Idolatry is not best guarded against by doing less or nothing, but rather by doing what we do as Christians better, more deeply, and more thoughtfully. Even more seriously, emphasis on “sparse” worship experiences may distract us from combating even more important forms of idolatry in our day, visual or otherwise.8 Yes, we should be quite humble and thoughtful in our depictions of the Trinity—God the Father, Christ, and the Holy Spirit—through visual media. The same care should attend our words and verbal images and theological constructions. However, the attitude of a mature, astute, and passionate Christian liturgical artist, or preacher for that matter, is best summed up here as “reticent.” I do not find this statement to be either “indispensable” or “essential.”

Overall, I find this theological statement to be a wonderful expression of much of the best of the Reformed tradition. As such, it serves the good purpose of increasing clarity about what is at the center of our faith. However, I find great difficulty in claiming all of it as “indispensable” or “essential.” That sets the bar too high for a statement of this sort. Perhaps the idea of “essential tenets” should be rethought and other strategies considered for clarifying a strong center. It is possible to point to and talk about key elements of our shared commitments (for example, the authority of scripture and the rejection of idolatry) in other ways and by using words that create a sense of hospitality to ecumenical discussion rather than closing into a hardened position.


In general, the Fellowship and the ECO are asking the right questions and pointing in many promising directions. My greatest hope is that these groups might be a force for renewal, not schism, within the PC(USA) and wider Reformed tradition, and that they might be an impetus for defining a strong theological center in a way that opens up rather than closes down ecumenical discussion. This would require the Fellowship and the ECO to recommit to the difficult journey with those they disagree with rather than being satisfied with forming yet another splinter group that tears the church apart instead of building it up. The PC(USA) has signaled an openness to this path, one that might involve nongeographic presbyteries. As a reform movement, these groups have already made a contribution to the discussion within the PC(USA) and the larger Reformed communion about our theological center and about a renewed vision of the church. They have set an example of commitment to practices that can help us reclaim a richer and more disciplined life as a church. May God help us all, both those inside and those outside these groups, to be able to hear clearly and see perceptively the best next steps in our journey as Reformed Christians—steps that will bring greater glory to God.

David L. Stubbs teaches ethics and theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan, and is a contributing editor of Perspectives.




3. Joe Small quotes the working group between the World Council of Churches and the Roman Catholic Church in support of this idea, citing instances when, for example, John Calvin lists three central “tenets” of belief. Joseph D. Small, “Essential Tenets?” in Conversations with the Confessions: Dialogue in the Reformed Tradition, ed. Joseph D. Small (Louisville: Geneva, 2005), 232.


5. Joseph D. Small, “The Church’s Conversation with the Confessions,” in Conversations with the Confessions, 7–11. Note in particular his statement that “distrust of a single confession, coupled with freedom to express the truth of the gospel in various ways, focused in the particular needs of churches in different contexts, leads to the continuing Reformed practice of confession making” (9).


7. Joe Small makes similar arguments for this provision in “Essential Tenets?” (235). I also find it instructive that the last paragraph of the prologue of the Catechism of the Catholic Church is entitled, “Above all—Charity.” It concerns the pastoral heart and intention of doctrine, and nicely balances and frames the following hundreds of pages.

8. For one exemplary treatment of the concern about idolatry in worship and life from a Reformed perspective, see John Witvliet, “Isaiah in Christian Liturgy,” in Touching the Altar: The Old Testament for Christian Worship, ed. Carol Bechtel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 63–94.