Opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent the views of the congregation I joyfully serve. But my congregation loves me!

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Theological Diversity and Church Discipline



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Hi Bob,

Thanks for your last response. I am not sure if there is a great deal with which I disagree. I think you put things quite well. I think you have articulated election meaningfully. Being immersed in Barth at seminary, I found him both insightful and frustrating but always intelligent and hopeful. Yes, I did like his understanding of election that was based on the freedom of God.

Anyway, as far as other religions are concerned, yes, I agree that they make quite different claims and it disrespects all to deny that. That said, I do think we have to try and understand them from the inside so to speak. What are they saying, as well as Christianity, from inside its system? I think in the end, we find a great deal more in common between the faiths than different at the deepest levels.

I am willing to discuss the Bible with you, its authority, etc. I will let you lead!

I would like to take a moment to discuss the topic you brought up regarding discipline. I have personally never voted against any candidate for ministry (that doesn't mean I will never do so) largely because I feel if that they have gone through all the hoops we require of them, and still want to do it, then, go ahead! I trust that Committees on Preparation for Ministry have done their job. We are not calling them to serve me, or agree with my theology, but to serve the Church, ultimately, God. The Church has a pretty big umbrella. I think much can be done with mentoring and gentle suasion.

What I hope to see in our candidates for ministry (and what I hope to be myself) is a person who is familiar with our tradition and has developed critical faculties to evaluate it. Obviously, skills of compassion and leadership are essential. I hope they have grasped a sense of their own spiritual journey and have the humility to serve. I hope they would be willing to grow their whole lives. We require an educated clergy (college and three years of seminary). We don't send them to a Bible college, but to a place where they will be challenged. Theology is not simply studying the symbols of our tradition. Theology in its broadest sense is understanding wisdom and learning from the sciences, the humanities, the social sciences, and the arts. I would like to see a minister who truly seeks to be as Roy Hoover said, "An apostle for the truth rather than a defender of the faith." I discussed this in a sermon entitled, "Theology is Earth Science." I suspect you may have questions about that!

Back to discipline. Discipline (or extraordinary discipline) is supposed to be for officers (usually ministers, but not only ministers) who have done something wrong. The purpose is to (if possible) restore them to ministry. So we have extraordinary discipline for clergy who have affairs with their parishioners, habitually break confidences, are abusive to their congregations, or perhaps, actively seek to remove the congregations they presently serve out of our denomination. Sexual misconduct is a huge issue in the church. This comes in part when ministers do not understand transference in counseling situations or have repressed their shadows for so long that it explodes in inappropriate behavior. I have been in presbyteries in which we have been able to deal with this constructively (removed the minister temporarily until they received the treatment they needed) and in presbyteries that have swept the infraction under the carpet and sent the minister on without any help to some other congregation.

It appears that we have come to a time in which we are using the tools of extraordinary discipline to settle issues of theological diversity. We most certainly are a polarized church. I suppose in such an environment it is inevitable that this will happen. I certainly have no control or solution. But I will state my case. I certainly am not alone in my theological views, although I speak only for myself. My views change and are often inconsistent. We are talking about the Mystery of God after all! I am learning and growing. I have these views in large part because I have gone to university and to seminary where I was exposed (and delightfully so) to higher criticism. I continue to read and learn. I really have said nothing that others have not said before me.

I resist therefore, and I think on the whole, the church resists, using extraordinary discipline in regards to theological matters. I think that is why some in the church are so frustrated. Why aren't we disciplining these ministers? Why don't we have a list of essential tenets? I think a healthier approach, rather than use the church courts, is to converse. Why do we think the way we do? What are these symbols of faith and what do they mean to us? What is important? What do we share in common (and it is usually a lot), and how can we move forward in collegial relationship? How can we respect diversity and yet find areas of common mission and keep the conversation going? This is why I like what we are doing. Although I am not naive in thinking that I am simply speaking with you. It is the internet. Anything we post can and will be used against us! But the reason I am bold about theological freedom is because I genuinely am concerned that we could circle the wagons to such a degree that we not only discipline action but thought, and in so doing make our congregations and their clergy not better ministers, but more fearful ones.

I hope you won't think this unfair, but I did pick up a couple of sentences from your blog. You can do the same to me! You said here:

And yes, I will go out on the limb. The time has also come to say that teaching and preaching that homosexual sexual behavior is a gift from God and not a sin is a serious error and must be disciplined.

I quoted you out of context. You may be been speaking with hyperbole as I often do. At some point, I suppose we will need to talk about that issue, one that the church has decided to fight about more than any other these past 30 years. That did hit a bit of a nerve with me. I don't mind if you disagree and state your position clearly and act upon it. I do the same. But when the church is nearly divided half and half over this issue, is discipline (as in power over) the answer? Again, I am not sure what you mean by discipline in that instance.

Perhaps before we tackle that hot topic, we might try the Bible to get a sense of our bearings. Also, I think it is important to speak somewhat personally about our faith, rather than just theology, which is very difficult and requires vulnerability, especially on the internet! I do think that seeking to find the person under the symbols we argue about helps us to understand and appreciate one another and ourselves.

Now, this is very important. I think what we are doing is very valuable for the church. I appreciate your tone and approach. We may still find ourselves in different positions and with different convictions. However, I have already found myself in agreement with you on many issues that are of importance to me. I think these differences strengthen a body, as long as we negotiate them carefully!

Blessings,
John
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