Category Archives: nFOG

The Holiness of the Church

F-1.0302b address the Holiness of the Church.

Holiness is God’s gift to the Church in Jesus Christ. Through the love of Christ, by the power of the Spirit, God takes away the sin of the world. The holiness of the Church comes from Christ who sets it apart to bear witness to his love, and not from the purity of its doctrine or the righteousness of its actions.

Regardless of anything else we can, may, or do say about “holiness,” this the most important concept is this: The Church has no holiness apart from Christ. We are holy only because Christ is holy. The Body is holy because the head is holy. We have no holiness in and of ourselves. It is because of the love of Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, that our sins are taken away. End of discussion.

And what does it mean for us to “be holy”? It is not the connotations that we usually drum up about being “better than thou.” Rather, when Christians talk of “holiness” they are speaking of being set apart, specifically, being “set apart to bear witness to [Christ's] love.” To be holy is to be different. To be holy means we get caught up in the ways that Christ directs us, not the ways of the world (false dichotomy accepted). When Jesus is instructing his disciples in Mark 10:35-35 about servant leadership and says “But it is not so among you,” he is talking about their holiness.

Our holiness does not come from our ability to believe or act correctly. To be sure, we should still give care to our beliefs and actions, but all too often we are concerned to build a “firewall fo orthodoxy” as if that is the reason God has set us apart. If we have been set apart to bear witness to love, then our doctrines and actions should flow from that calling. However, we typically based our understanding of the Church’s calling on whatever doctrines seem to reflect the actions we have already taken.

Because in Christ the Church is holy, the Church, its members, and those in its ordered ministries strive to lead lives worthy of the Gospel we proclaim. In gratitude for Christ’s work of redemption, we rely upon the work of God’s Spirit through Scripture and the means of grace (W-5.5001) to form every believer and every community for this holy living. We confess the persistence of sin in our corporate and individual lives. At the same time, we also confess that we are forgiven by Christ and called again and yet again to strive for the purity, righteousness, and truth revealed to us in Jesus Christ and prom- ised to all people in God’s new creation.

To be set apart is to be formed, but formed how? We know for what – we are formed to bear witness to Christ’s love. Yet, how is this accomplished? This paragraph references “The Directory  for Worship” (DFW) and the “means of grace” listed there. These means are:

  1. participation in public worship
  2. acts of service, witness, and compassion
  3. rest and re-creation
These, the DFW says, should be what gives shape to the life of the believer. We should come together with other disciples, proclaim that it is Christ’s love who sets us free from our bondage, service and minister to those yearning to be set free from bondage, and then (this is my favorite) practice being free by taking sabbath. This truth is so convicting to me.
We do not demonstrate the freedom of Christ’s love by mouthing off about our “more true” beliefs or actions. We demonstrate the freedom of Christ’s love by not getting caught up in all the crap that the rest of the world gets caught up in.
We have not changed since the days of the People being led out of Egypt. They were so used to being slaves that God had to mandate a new way of being and behaving that allowed them to practice their freedom. We still have the problem of being held captive to all sorts of issues that do not encourage us to (as Philippians says) “treat others as better than ourselves.”
The “pursuit” is not what God is about. “Rest” is what God is about. We we rest, we acknowledge that there is nothing requiring our striving. As the Psalmist says, “Why do you get up early and stay up late? Why do you eat the bread of anxious toil?” (Psalm 127)
To be holy is to be set apart and bear witness to the fact that Christ’s love does not require anxious toil. Christ requires that we rest and ensure the rest of others.

The Unity of the Church

The section on “The Unity of the Church” explores the first of the four “Marks of the Church”: oneness (the other marks are holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity – say those three times fast).

Because in Christ the Church is one, it strives to be one.

Although this should be evident, the BOO makes clear that the Church as the Body of Christ cannot be separately related to the Christ, its head. The Body is one, the church is one.

To be one with Christ is to be joined with all those whom Christ calls into relationship with him. To be thus joined with one another is to become priests for one another, praying for the world and for one another and sharing the various gifts God has given to each Christian for the benefit of the whole community.

Echoing Paul’s exposition of the Body of Christ, the BOO reminds us that we are knit together with those we may not otherwise want to be in relationship with. Christ calls all into a relationship, so we are called to serve one another as Christ serves us.

Division into different denominations obscures but does not destroy unity in Christ. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), affirming its historical continuity with the whole Church of Jesus Christ, is committed to the reduction of that obscurity, and is willing to seek and to deepen communion with all other churches within the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.

This is the meat of the section, in my opinion, for this is the question everyone is asking themselves. Especially in the PC(USA), where roughly every decade a group arises which threatens to split the numbers of our denomination, this is an important statement to make. We are not able to do anything to destroy the unity of the people whom God has called, but we do obscure it. When we separate, we make it harder to see the fact that Christ has called us all. Therefore, Presbyterians are called to reduce the obscurity. We have affirmed that we are the people who are committed to making it easier to see that Christ has called us all. We should not allow ourselves to consciously do anything which would communicate the opposite.

Implicit in this is the reality that we may profess with our lips that others are called to Christ, but we do not functionally believe it. We try to justify splitting ourselves off from others, but, truly, we have no ground to stand upon. As we try to make the case that we are having a “crisis of conscience” and are simply “looking for a place to stand” what we are really saying is that we do not trust Christ enough to be willing to stand next to others. It’s not a “crisis of conscience” that plagues us, but a gag reflex at the thought that we are called to be priests for those other people. May God have mercy on our unbelief.

The Church, the Body of Christ

Following on the heels of the last section, where it is made clear that Christ is the Head of the Church, section F-1.03 elucidates the “Calling of the Church” beginning with a discussion of the Church as “the Body of Christ” (F-1.0301). The logic is clear here: If Christ is the Head, which directs the activity of the Body, what is the direction the body is given? If the Body serves to carry out the intentions of the head, then what are those intentions?

One thing is made clear in this subsection: Everything the Church has is a gift from Christ. We do not have to figure out how to be the Body, we are the Body and we have what we need. Our only job is to be faithful and intentional about the ways we demonstrate these gifts – faith, hope, love, witness.*

Before we look at each of the gifts, I am struck by the truth the BOO offers us here. Frankly, it is insulting to my self-centered, modern, western mind that we do not have to do anything to be the Church. We already are the Church. We already have the gifts to be the Church Christ intended. Our only job is one of demonstrating it. In my mind, this realization is similar to the argument we have over “Ecclesia reformata semper reformanda.” Some of us love to remind the rest of us that the most faithful translation is “the church reformed, and always being reformed” (these folks are correct, they’re just usually a little arrogant about it is all). The action is not ours, but God’s. We are passive, not active. We are not a reforming people, but a people constantly and continually being reformed.

In the same way, we have these gifts from God that we must be faithful to demonstrate. Truly, these gifts are who we are. These gifts are the “true self” of the Church. As such, our first job might to be similar to what we we do in therapy – get in touch with our “true self” and learn to let the world see that self, not the false one we have created.

So what are the gifts from God that constitute our true self?

Faith

The Church is to be a community of faith, entrusting itself to God alone, even at the risk of losing its life.

To be a community of faith means that we entrust ourselves to God alone. This is one of those truths that we reflexively acknowledge, but rarely live. We entrust ourselves to many, many things other than God. However, I like Paul Tillich’s statement about who it is that Christians should worship: We should only worship the one who determines our existence. No one else deserves worship.

We trust a good many things other than our God, amen? (It’s okay to respond to that out loud.) You and I could both offer the typical laundry list, and we would be correct, if not predictable. But it would be a predictable list because it is a true list, yes?

When it comes down to it, the ultimate question is Do you truly believe that God is the one who holds you in life and death? I’m going to give us the benefit of the doubt and say that, yes, we do believe that. Then a secondary question is How do we demonstrate this faith? It is, of course, pursuing the mission of God even at risk of losing life (my favorite phrase in the BOO).

What does it mean for the Church to lose its life? Christ’s “first body” lost its life. Are we as obedient?

Hope

The Church lives in the present on the strength of that promised new creation.

From the outset, let us affirm that there is a counter-narrative in the Scripture that makes clear that life is not all sunshine and butterflies. I think the writer of Ecclesiastes would agree that, sometimes, life just sucks. I know this to be true. A few years ago, I officiated the Service of Witness to the Resurrection for my father-in-law who took his own life. If I ever believed life was sunshine and butterflies, I stopped that day. And yet…

And yet… To me, this is what “hope” means. We can affirm that life is often not all that we want it to be, and that it is actually quite bad for a good many of God’s children, but, once we have acknowledged that, we turn and say and yet God is still up to something. God will not let this be the last word.

I have little patience for self-professed faithful Christian leaders who believe their present situation to be beyond God’s redemption. The Scripture is clear that we will appear as fools for trusting in redemption. Holding out hope that God is creating all things new makes us look like head in the sand Ostriches. We need to make peace with that.

What does it mean for the Church to believe the truth of “resurrection”?

Love

The Church is to be a community of love, where sin is forgiven, reconciliation is accomplished, and the dividing walls of hostility are torn down.

And another “Well, duh” statement, yes? Again, this is something we know, but the challenge the BOO sets before us is whether we actually live it.

The phrase that jumps at me is “reconciliation is accomplished.” We are to accomplish reconciliation. We are to be the people where it is unacceptable to say, “I’m done with you.” To be sure, there is something to say for healthy boundaries, etc., but I don’t think the BOO specifically has abusive relationships in mind here. Even so, the establishment of healthy boundaries – teaching people how to treat you – is a way that right relationships are restored.

We could spin this a dozen different ways, but how is the Church accomplishing reconciliation?

Witness

The Church is to be a community of witness, pointing beyond itself through word and work to the good news of God’s transforming grace in Christ Jesus its Lord.

It is not enough to acknowledge to ourselves that God is the one who is transforming us, but we are to make it clear to all of creation. We are to live in a way that says, “We worship only our God, because it is only through the grace of our God that we can look forward to wholeness and reconciliation.”

In my opinion, this is evangelism. To not publicly proclaim Christ as the one who redeems our lives is to claim the credit. Evangelism is not about “winning” but being humble about our place before God.

How can the Church make clear to the world that it is God who is doing this amazing work?

*The Bible geek in me loves the fact that these are the characteristics that Paul lists in his first letter to the Thessalonians, the oldest book of the New Testament. Once, I tried in earnest to read 1 Thessalonians as if I had never read the Gospels, just to see what it might have been like to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ before the “Gospels.” I have been deeply affected ever since, that the first proclamations of the Gospel consisted of faith, hope, and love. Truly, this is what it means to be a Christian people.

Christ is the Head, We are the Body

F-1.02 Jesus Christ is Head of the Church

God has put all things under the Lordship of Jesus Christ and has made Christ Head of the Church, which is his body…Christ calls the Church into being, giving it all that is necessary for its mission in the world, for its sanctification, and for its service to God…Scripture teaches us of Christ’s will for the Church, which is to be obeyed. In the worship and service of God and the government of the church, matters are to be ordered according to the Word by reason and sound judgment, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit…In affirming with the earliest Christians that Jesus is Lord, the Church confesses that he is its hope, and that the Church, as Christ’s body, is bound to his authority and thus free to live in the lively, joyous reality of the grace of God…In Christ the Church receives its truth and appeal, its holiness ̧ and its unity.

I have never met anyone who has disputed (effectively) that when the Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians that we are the “Body of Christ” he named our relationship to one another and Christ in a way that cannot be bested. No other way of describing who it is we are has stood the test of scrutiny. No other designation even comes close.

Explicit in Paul’s writing is the way we are in relationship to one another. The passage is famous for its rhetorical questions of who can or cannot be a part of the Body. I love how the passage from 1 Corinthians attacks both the assumptions we make of ourselves as well as the ones we make about others. I’m sure you have heard countless sermons or Sunday School lessons about this passage.

But how many have you heard about Christ as the Head of this Body called the Church? I can’t think of a one myself. Those of you that can probably counted the instances on one hand.

The quotes above from the Book of Order are true, and I doubt any of us need to defend or even explain them. We all affirm that everything is under the Lordship of Christ (“Jesus is Lord” is the ultimate and only necessary confession of faith). It makes sense to us that, if Christ is Lord, we are given all we need to accomplish the mission we have been given. It also makes sense that if we are bound to Christ we will experience the freedom of God and will be reconciled to God through Christ.

But what has recently become startlingly clear to me is not just that Christ is the head of the Church, but how.

I don’t know why it took me so long to read Edwin Friedman’s A Failure of Nerve, but since I did a couple months ago, I have had my entire perspective on the world changed. Friedman says many good and true things, but the one that affected me the most was his brief explanation of the relationship between the head and the body. On pages 16-17, he writes:

Recent findings about the brain-body connection have potential to revolutionize our concept of hierarchy. For they suggest that to a large extent we have a liquid nervous system. The brain turns out to function like a gland. It is the largest organ of secretion, communicating simultaneously with various parts of the body, both near and far, through reciprocal transmission of substances known as neurotransmitters. In other words, the head is present in the body!

So, too, the connection between a “head” and its body in any family or institution is not necessarily a function of proximity. The functioning of a “head” can systematically influence all parts of a body, and totally bypass linear, “head-bone-connected-to-the-neck-bone” thinking. What counts is the leader’s presence and being, not technique and know-how. (emphasis mine)

When I read that, my jaw dropped, and I immediately thought of how God “has made Christ Head of the Church, which is his body.” Friedman claims that the connection is not based on physical proximity. It doesn’t matter that we can’t see a physical Jesus standing before us. What counts is that Christ has risen – He is risen, indeed. :)  – and that his being is in our consciousness. This is why the BOO makes it clear that it is Scripture which provides the connection to Christ. It is through Scripture that we know of the being of Christ and are reminded of his presence with us.

And does anyone else see some parallels between the “brain communicating with various parts of the body, both near and far, through secretions” and “Christ communing with various parts of the body, both near and far, through the Holy Spirit which has proceeded from the Father and the Son”?

No? Just me?

Oh. Okay. :)

God’s Mission is Our Mission

F-1.01 God’s Mission

The good news of the Gospel is that the triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit— creates, redeems, sustains, rules, and transforms all things and all people…The mission of God in Christ gives shape and substance to the life and work of the Church…Human beings have no higher goal in life than to glorify and enjoy God now and forever, living in covenant fellowship with God and participating in God’s mission.

One of the more beautiful changes to the Form of Government (FOG) – in my opinion – is the creation of a new section, titled, “Foundations of Presbyterian Polity.” While one would never want to accuse the previous FOG of not being theological (that would be a foolish claim), the new “Foundations” section does the church a service by separating the more explicitly theological and ideological claims made in the FOG, making even more clear that the community we are called to be a part of is one which has a center to which we are true.

When ever I have taught an introduction to Reformed theology, I use the analogy that our Western alphabet begins with A and ends with Z. Likewise, I tell my students, our “theological alphabets” also have an A and a Z. Yes, the letter L is just as important as A is, but when going through the alphabet, everyone must begin with the letter A. Everything is seen through the lens of the letter A.

In our Reformed Confessional tradition, I maintain that “God’s Sovereign Grace” is the A of our theological alphabet – the lens through which all other theological claims are seen. Similarly, in our Presbyterian political tradition, I want to claim that the Mission of this God of Sovereign Grace is the A of our Form of Government. We cannot understand anything we do as a church apart from what God is already doing.

The FOG begins with the claim that what God is up to is creating, redeeming, sustaining, ruling, and transforming everything. At whatever point of creation’s existence, God is making all things new and whole. This, the FOG says, is “the good news of the Gospel”, and it is is this good news that gives the church both shape and substance – form and function.

When considering the polity of a gathered community, it is not possible to ascertain whether it is the form of the community or the function of the community that “comes first,” for that is a false choice. One does not determine the other. They both are determined by the Gospel. Not only is the church a body which seeks to participate in God’s mission, the church is the place where God’s mission is made actual.

As a foundation of our polity, the FOG asserts that there is nothing more significant than the covenant that God established with us. God has said “I will be your God, and you will be my people,” and the ultimate goal of our lives should be to live this reality and all that it implies. This should guide the life of our congregations, presbyteries, synods, and general assembly. One SoMA congregation, First Presbyterian Church in Liberty, MO (where I was privileged to serve for 4.5 years) proclaims it this way:

This church does not exist for itself, but for the sake of the world for which Christ lived, loved, and died. Everything we do in worship, study, and fellowship is for the sake of serving the world in all it’s brokenness and need.

I can think of nothing more to say to that than “Amen.”

New FOG, New Clerk

As of July 10, 2011, the Presbyterian Church (USA) began operating under the provisions laid out in an almost completely new form of government (commonly referred to as nFOG). As of August 1, 2011, I assumed the role of “Stated Clerk” for the SoMA. A new FOG. A new clerk. Sounds like a perfect opportunity for a blog series, doesn’t it?

As I have traveled around the denomination as the Vice Moderator of your General Assembly, one thing I have heard consistently is that Presbyteries and congregations are anxious as they consider how to live into the new reality that our Book of Order presents us with. These anxieties are as complex as developing a manual of operations (many councils of the church have simply relied on the processes and procedures laid out in the BOO) to simple taks such as developing a sexual misconduct policy (“We’ve never had one. What does a template look like?”). Just yesterday, I was with Kendall Presbytery as they took action similar to one that the SoMA took: For the time being, let’s continue to operate under the old FOG whenever the nFOG leaves us hanging.

To be sure, the nFOG doesn’t “leave anyone hanging” (and those are my words, btw), but many are just not ready for the dramatic shift towards the freedom offered by nFOG.

In light of all of this, I believe it would be helpful for us to work our way through the nFOG, bit by bit. Yes, there are webinars you can take advantage of (the Presbyterian Outlook has already done one, and Dubuque Seminary will host a course beginning tomorrow), but, as the SoMA’s Clerk, I’m not sure that there is a better use of my time than leading our synod through a reflection of the document.

My hope is that this series will become a couple of things. First, I pray that it is a conversation between Presbyterians. This Form of Government belongs to all of us. While the reality of being “Clerk” means that it is my job to know this document intimately, as Presbyterians it remains the responsibility of all of us.  Secondly, I intend for this to be more than a dry examination of how the pieces and parts fit together. The Book of Order is a document which expresses a “theology in practice.” I want us to help each other know why we do what we do theologically.

So please join me as we make our way through our constitution. Perhaps you will find that you too consider yourself a “church geek.” There are worse things, you know? :)