Austin Seminary backs Columbia Seminary statement on schism

Southern schools call the PC(USA) to ‘maintain faithful relationships’

May 22, 2014


With the seemingly contentious 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) approaching, the faculty of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary has issued a statement stating: “We believe, especially in these troubled times, that it is crucial to maintain faithful relationships with one another as members of the body of Christ.”

The Austin seminary statement echoes a similar statement issued by the faculty of Columbia Theological Seminary earlier this month which declared that schism is “a profound theological and pastoral problem.” 

Noting that “agreat many controversial questions will be raised at this Assembly,” the Austin teachers warned, “It will be tempting to retreat into camps of the like-minded and to disparage our opponents.” 

However, their letter states, “Our hope is that we, as disciples of Jesus Christ, might show forbearance toward one another in the conversations and debates that take place.” 

With such controversial issues as same-sex marriage and divestment from U.S. companies doing non-peaceful business in support of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories on the docket, some are predicting that actions taken by this Assembly could hasten the departure of more congregations from the PC(USA). Several dozen have left in recent years, most to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church and the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians (ECO).

The full text of the Austin faculty’s statement, dated May 8:

The faculty of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary is grateful for the invitation “to give witness to our convictions” extended by our sibling school, Columbia Theological Seminary. 

Located in the heart of Texas, we serve a community comprised of students, staff, and faculty who come from a variety of backgrounds and hold a broad range of commitments.  As is true of our church at large, our challenge and joy is to open our arms wide to the increasing diversity that marks our cultural context while at the same time honoring our common identity.

Our Witness to Christian Love:  A Call to Mutual Forbearance

We agree with our colleagues at Columbia Seminary that schism is “a profound theological and pastoral problem.”  We believe, especially in these troubled times, that it is crucial to maintain faithful relationships with one another as members of the body of Christ.  Along these lines, the biblical witness charges us 

To lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace  (Ephesians 4:2). 

To “bear with one another,” it seems, is to be patient with each other even as God is patient with us. To put up with each other, waiting for consensus and for “yet more light to break forth.” To find ways to live together.  To study Scripture, pray, and argue fairly with one another.  Never to give up on our hope for unity and peace, believing the Spirit is present and working in our midst.

The Presbyterian Church (USA) has a long history of encouraging forbearance as essential to our life together.  The Book of Order explains, for example, “there are truths and forms with respect to which people of good character and principles may differ.”  Because this is the case, it is “the duty of both private Christians and societies to exercise mutual forbearance toward each other” (F-3.0105). 

Where there is forbearance, there is a table set around which we can pray, study, listen, share, debate, and mutually form one another, subjecting ourselves to the work of the Spirit as we pass the common loaf.  

Mutual Forbearance and the 221st General Assembly

Our hope is that we, as disciples of Jesus Christ, might show forbearance toward one another in the conversations and debates that take place surrounding the June 2014 meeting of the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s 221st General Assembly. 

A great many controversial questions will be raised at this Assembly. It will be tempting to retreat into camps of the like-minded and to disparage our opponents. It might seem easyfor those of us who disagree with the Assembly’s actions to seek dismissal from the church’s fellowship in order to find a more sympathetic communion.  Again, we urge our brothers and sisters not to act in haste.

The issues we are facing are complex.  We believe a premature resolution will serve no one well. We know and love many people in our seminary’s constituency who deeply disagree and yet sit on the same pews with each other week after week. Perhaps the one thing worse than those in disagreement sitting on the same pew is those in disagreement NOT sitting on the same pew. As Ephesians teaches, unity in the Spirit means living lovingly, peacefully, gently, and humbly with one another.  The “life worthy of the life to which we have been called” looks likeworshipping next to those with whom we in some matters disagree.

We suggest that “mutual forbearance” means endeavoring to hear and take seriously the convictions of others even while we hold our own (sometimes differing) convictions at full strength. To exercise “mutual forbearance” does not mean being timid about that to which we are committed, but it does mean being circumspect about how we present, share, implement, and protect our commitments.  We think that “bearing with one another in love” should discourage us both from pressing too quickly for changes not widely supported across the church and from opting too readily for actions that would further the schism already taking place in our fellowship.  Rather, let us be drawn together to the table to which we are all invited by our Lord—to pray and converse, to listen and argue, to reflect and grow into what we are becoming as an historic communion in a new day.

Some may register the important concern that a call to forbearance can function to delay justice, and that justice delayed is justice denied. To deny justice is in no way our intent or our desire; we are, after all, called by God to “do justice” in the world (Micah 6:8).  Along with promoting justice, however, we believe we are also called to “love kindness, and walk humbly with God.” Kindness toward others and humility of perspective before the mysteries of God are, we believe, pathways to preserving the unity of the church.  As Paul reminded the Christians of Corinth - themselves caught in a potentially schismatic fight over the behavior of believers - we are together the body of Christ, and individually members of it. “The eye cannot say to the hand, I have no need of you, nor the head to the feet, I have no need of you” (1 Cor 12:21). We need to hold onto each other as we together discover what the Spirit holds in store for the church.

Mutual Forbearance and a Hopeful Church

The Church is the body of Christ. The Book of Order describes what this means for us, in part:

“The Church is to be a community of hope, rejoicing in the sure and certain knowledge that God is making a new creation. This new creation is a new beginning for human life and for all things. The Church lives in the present on the strength of that promised new creation” (F-1.0301).

We are committed to building a church that is a community of hope. We are committed to living lives that are worthy of our calling—lives that manifest humility, gentleness, patience, love, unity, and peace.  Our hope is that, in us, the world may see the vision of God’s intent and be drawn toward God’s promised future.

We live in the hope that we can, as the Scripture teaches, “maintain the unity of Spirit in the bond of peace,” exercising forbearance toward one another as together we engage in the hard work of discerning the shape of God’s steadfast Word for these new days.  This is the work we love, and it is the work to which we are called as faculty members at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

  1. When, in the course of church life, someone or some group does something that is un-biblical, destructive or even a waste of time & resources, it should merit attention. And, if that something is being foisted off as "OK" or even good when it in fact is not either, then it is time to actively oppose instead of merely offering forbearance. When Christ came upon the profitable scam selling mite-ridden birds in Jewish currency for sacrifices, He didn't forbear or even debate them; he overturned their tables and drove them out. When an influential minority enacts an unbiblical practice or policy within our church, don't trot out 'forbearance' as a cure-all for differences. Some differences are 'don't cares' but a lot of differences are the real meat & potatoes of the Gospel.

    by Bruce Woods

    June 1, 2014

  2. A good look at the 12 diverse persons Jesus called to his disciples could be one way to understand the vast diversity He chose. Add the experience he had with the woman at the well, hardly an example of grace-filled life, and yet with His grace flowing in her life she became a very effective evangelist. With what "eyes" do we see who Jesus was and whom he chose to lead and be effective in reaching others with his re-claiming love.

    by Bud Frimoth

    May 29, 2014

  3. Last one, promise... If we don’t have the courage to follow our own constitution or socially responsible investing policies, we are breaking our ordination vows and have rejected the reconciliation of Christ. Likewise, we have a calling to preserve the earth – which is at great risk to rapid change, including droughts, flooding, sea rise and mass emigration of peoples looking for habitable regions with food security and enough fresh water for human life. 9.53 God’s redeeming work in Jesus Christ embraces the whole of human133 life: social and cultural, economic and political, scientific and technological, individual and corporate. It includes the134 natural environment as exploited and despoiled by sin. It is the will of God that the divine135 purpose for human life shall be fulfilled under the rule of Christ and all evil be banished from creation.136 9.55 With an urgency born of this hope, the church applies itself to present tasks and strives for a better world. It does not identify limited progress with the kingdom of God on earth, nor does it despair in the face of disappointment and defeat. In steadfast hope, the church looks beyond all partial achievement to the final triumph of God. If we ignore these issues now – in the name of unity, forbearance or any other portion lifted out of the Book of Order as if that is the main issue before this General Assembly, we risk continuing a scandal to the good news of Jesus Christ, and his call to reconcile the world.

    by Rev. Will McGarvey

    May 24, 2014

  4. 9.44 a. God has created the peoples of the earth to be one universal family. In his reconciling love, God96 overcomes the barriers between sisters and brothers97 and breaks down every form of discrimination based on racial or ethnic difference, real or imaginary. The church is called to bring all people98 to receive and uphold one another as persons in all relationships of life: in employment, housing, education, leisure, marriage, family, church, and the exercise of political rights. Therefore, the church labors for the abolition of all racial discrimination and ministers to those injured by it. Congregations, individuals, or groups of Christians who exclude, dominate, or patronize others,99 however subtly, resist the Spirit of God and bring contempt on the faith which they profess. 9.45 b. God’s reconciliation in Jesus Christ is the ground of the peace, justice, and freedom among nations which all powers of government are called to serve and defend. The church, in its own life, is called to practice the forgiveness of enemies and to commend to the nations as practical politics the search for cooperation and peace. This search requires that the nations pursue fresh and responsible relations across every line of conflict, even at risk to national security, to reduce areas of strife and to broaden international understanding. Reconciliation among nations becomes peculiarly urgent as countries develop nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, diverting human power100 and resources from constructive uses and risking the annihilation of humankind.101 Although nations may serve God’s purposes in history, the church which identifies the sovereignty of any one nation or any one way of life with the cause of God denies the Lordship of Christ and betrays its calling. 9.46 c. The reconciliation of humankind102 through Jesus Christ makes it plain that enslaving poverty in a world of abundance is an intolerable violation of God’s good creation. Because Jesus identified himself with the needy and exploited, the cause of the world’s poor is the cause of his disciples. The church cannot condone poverty, whether it is the product of unjust social structures, exploitation of the defenseless, lack of national resources, absence of technological understanding, or rapid expansion of populations. The church calls all people to use their103 abilities, their104 possessions, and the fruits of technology as gifts entrusted to them105 by God for the maintenance of their families106 and the advancement of the common welfare. It encourages those forces in human society that raise107 hopes for better conditions and provide people108 with opportunity for a decent living. A church that is indifferent to poverty, or evades responsibility in economic affairs, or is open to one social class only, or expects gratitude for its beneficence makes a mockery of reconciliation and offers no acceptable worship to God. to be continued...

    by Rev. Will McGarvey

    May 24, 2014

  5. I appreciate this call to civility and mutual forbearance – something each of us has vowed to hold dear as we became ruling or teaching elders. But aren’t we also called to much more? The Confession of 1967 reminds us that the work of the Gospel is the work of reconciliation – both inside and outside of the church. We have reached another time of crisis in the church where some are being turned away from the church for something other than their profession of faith – their gender expression or sexual orientation. Some of these baptized members of the church are not offered all of the pastoral care their ministers have to offer when they bring their children for baptism or wish to have the same pre marital counseling offered to others or to have their marriages solemnized in their own church. In fact, the church has reinterpreted the language of our constitution in an attempt to punish those teaching elders who choose to follow their ordination vows in serving all members of their church. In those situations when LGBTQ people aren’t even allowed to join their local church – a breach of our constitution occurs: G-1.0302 Welcome and Openness A congregation shall welcome all persons who trust in God’s grace in Jesus Christ and desire to become part of the fellowship and ministry of his Church (F-1.0403). No person shall be denied membership for any reason not related to profession of faith. The Gospel leads members to extend the fellowship of Christ to all persons. Failure to do so constitutes a rejection of Christ himself and causes a scandal to the Gospel. There are also multiple crises going on outside the church. For years we have heard the pleas for solidarity from Palestinian Christians whose land has been stolen from them, who have a lack of freedom of movement to practice their faith by attending services in Jerusalem and Israeli settlements have increased exponentially since the Oslo Accords – effectively disenfranchising all of those who live in the West Bank, Gaza or the Golan Heights. It’s been ten years of study and corporate engagement. These siblings in Christ are not a political problem – their pleas to us Christians is not to profit from the occupation. C67 is still a part of our Constitution: 9.25 The members of the church are emissaries of peace and seek the good of all64 in cooperation with powers and authorities in politics, culture, and economics. But they have to fight against pretensions and injustices when these same powers endanger human welfare. Their strength is in their confidence that God’s purpose rather than human65 schemes will finally prevail. to be continued...

    by Rev. Will McGarvey

    May 24, 2014

  6. As a life-long member and pastor of the Presbyterian Church, I am greatly encouraged by the important messages shared by Columbia, and now Austin Theological Seminary. If anything, we are called to build up the body of Christ -- not to fracture it.

    by Rev. James A. Schumacher, Th.D.

    May 24, 2014

  7. What is basically happening is the the denomination is imploding, the seminaries will shortly go bankrupt. there will be no need for their services. God is shutting them and the denomination down. To Him be all the glory.

    by Carolyn George

    May 23, 2014

  8. I applaud and endorse the courageous and forthright statement of the faculty of Austin Seminary. The Presbyterian Church (USA) has engaged many controversial issues over the centuries and, hopefully, will continue to do so in the decades ahead. The 214th General Assembly, indeed will debate a multitude of issues. Is that the challenge and opportunity to which we have been called? May our living Lord CONTINUE to guide and bless the multitudes who have been summoned to be the light of the world.

    by George O.Mehaffey,D.Min. Columbus, Ohio

    May 23, 2014

  9. Thanks to Austin and Columbia for saying well what many of us as pastors and parish people think and feel.

    by Frank Hare

    May 22, 2014

  10. Would that we truly trust the Spirit… Would that all sides shut down their war rooms, vote and microphone domination strategies. Would that all commissioners (and dare I say staff and other elected officials) to not use cell phone texting, messaging or other methods of non-commissioner mobilization and strategies to affect the committees and floor. Would that we would trust the system and the representatives we've elected to tune in the Spirit and tune out the static. Would that bloggers and agitators of all kinds of media would wait until after the GA is done in it's sacred work of spiritual service. Would that we truly trust the Spirit…

    by David Moon-Wainwright

    May 22, 2014