Reformed reconciliation

Presbyterians are called to stay together, work for respectful disagreement, speaker tells Covenant Network

November 8, 2011

Durham, N.C.

With changed ordination standards and the adoption of a new Form of Government, 2011 has brought much change to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) — a fact that some bemoan and some celebrate.

“Is there any way to reconcile and live together with our differences, or are we destined to divorce and divide into like-minded fellowships?” asked the Rev. James C. Davis at the Covenant Network of Presbyterians’ annual gathering Nov. 3.

Founded in 1997, the Covenant Network is a national group “working for a church that is simultaneously faithful, just, and whole,” according to its website. The Covenant Network aims to “articulate and act on the church’s historic, progressive vision and to work for a fully inclusive church.”

Christians on both sides of an issue can argue their positions using scripture. For example, opponents of the recently changes in ordination standards can argue that the church is accepting sin by normalizing a part of the culture that is counter to scripture. Proponents can argue that the persistence of opponents is threatening the church’s witness and that the church is called to mimic Jesus’ actions of refusing to judge and extending love to those on the margins.

“We cannot pretend that Presbyterians do not remain deeply divided on this or other issues,” Davis said. “But there is a mandate in our tradition for staying together.”

Davis teaches ethics and American religious history at Middlebury College in Vermont.

Among the Reformed virtues that compel us to stay together, humility is chief, Davis said. Humility is an understanding of what it means to be human — created as a reflection of God’s goodness but marred by self-interest. Sin makes us myopic, distorting our vision of God’s will for us.

“There are real limits on what we can know is right or true,” Davis said. “Humility urges us to admit that we could be very wrong in matters small and significant.”

Another Reformed virtue is patience, which is rooted in humility and the affirmation of the sovereignty of God. Reformed theology assures us that God will make what is right and good known at the end of human history — and this demands patience.

“We live in the interim between the accomplishment of God’s reign and its realization,” Davis said.

A third virtue essential to our living together in disagreement is mutual respect.

“Respect for other human beings is a direct corollary to the doctrines of creation and grace,” Davis said.

Although sin distorts us, we remain reflections of something valuable, so we’re worthy of respect. And we must also show respect to others, especially those within the church. We should actually go beyond respect to kinship, which implies love, Davis said.

“We are commanded to love one another as Christ lives each one of us. Period,” he said.

A fourth virtue is Christian forbearance. We need to tolerate those who share our allegiance but understand it in very different ways. We must acknowledge that we’ll share fellowship with all those with whom we disagree, Davis said.

“There is one body and one Spirit … one faith, one baptism, one God who is above all and in all,” he said.

But this challenge doesn’t mean we should stop searching for the truth.

“Civility does not mean passivity,” Davis said.

We shouldn’t ignore our disagreements, but it’s possible to disagree with people without doubting their place at the table.

“We must find ways to live together in respectful disagreement,” Davis said. “The task of reconciliation is ours that we might offer the gospel of reconciliation to the world.”

  1. Mr. Howe (and I apologize profusely if you are female, I don't recognize your first name): You're contribution is quite thought provoking. Please tell me the author and the context so I can read more of this person's views. While I find his/her case for unity compelling, I'm not sure how any group of Christians can effectively bring others to Jesus by giving the the world opposing, contradictory views on foundational issues like the deity of Jesus, the resurrection and the veracity of Scripture. Similarly, I don't know how effective a civil rights organization could be advancing the cause of African Americans if half the members supported affirmative action and half the members opposed affirmative action. It's a bit of a conundrum.

    by Jim Caraher

    November 17, 2011

  2. F-3.0105 Mutual Forbearance That, while under the conviction of the above principle we think it necessary to make effectual provision that all who are admitted as teachers be sound in the faith, we also believe that there are truths and forms with respect to which men of good characters and principles may differ. And in all these we think it the duty both of private Christians and societies to exercise mutual forbearance toward each other. Mutual fobearance means accepting differences and continuing to work together. Unity is of paramount importance. Not Fear! The Bible is not constricting but liberating. Study of God's Word leads to the recognition that the WORD of God is larger and wider than any printed word. We should not, can not limit the power of God to bring love to all the world, to do less is to deny our basic Christianity.

    by Reuel L. Howe jr

    November 17, 2011

  3. Rev. Davis' message extolling the virtues of humility, patience, mutual respect and forebearance has a certain ethereal charm to it but I can't discern how Rev. Davis proposes that the PCUSA deal with its current realities: (1) since there is no longer theological or moral consensus on anything, too much time and energy is always being diverted from mission to contending with each other; (2) when the PCUSA does attempt to address the larger culture, its message is so garbled and contradictory as to be incoherent.

    by Jim Caraher

    November 16, 2011

  4. This is not the Presbyterian Doctrine I embraced, supported, and raised my children with. I can't believe the GA has been assimilated by the loud persistent voices of the few. PAY ATTENTION to the word of God. I am reminded of some old song lyrics...."If you don't stand for will fall for anything". GA...ARE YOU LISTENING......ARE YOU PAYING ATTENTION? I don't think so.....congregations are leaving the fold and rejecting your "modified" beliefs. The Bible is truth and has not changed. Why have you? All that is left to do is chose an new name for our church.

    by Rick Basler

    November 15, 2011

  5. Concur with the thrust of this treatise. However, the zealots that want to now go further at GA in 2012 have the potential of destroying what's left of the PC(USA) as many of us knew it. They will be there in force to redefine marriage while totally ignoring part I of our constitution as well as Scripture. That's sad. If the votes are even near close, the exit stampede will commence.

    by Dana Gilmour

    November 11, 2011