Reflection: Defective Faithfulness
Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us.”
In the last couple of weeks I have had conversations with two people in our presbytery who have experienced other Christian faith traditions. In one case, the person grew up Catholic, but has been Presbyterian for some 40 years. The other person is ordained Presbyterian but has been serving ecumenically in another Reformed denomination for 10 years. During these years of declining membership in all Christian churches in the United States, it has been somewhat comforting to know that people have chosen (or been led to) the PC(USA) to live out their faith. I remember several years ago, then-Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons informing a national gathering that over half of our membership did not grow up Presbyterian. We received this news with a sense of the vitality we gain from members new to the tradition, and also a responsibility to be more intentional about explaining why we believe and do the things that we believe and do. One of the fallacies of the PC(USA) is that we learn how to be Presbyterian by growing up Presbyterian—and even if we did, another fallacy is to assume that all Presbyterian churches are the same!
As a cradle Presbyterian, I understood that ecumenism was an integral part of our faith tradition. And yet, I realized that our ministry formation ensures that we focus rather intensely on our little Calvinist branch of the Christian family tree. This realization came a dozen years after my ordination. I was in a Doctor of Ministry program and was talking with my dissertation project advisor (the project which I never actually got going). My topic was a book of worship resources that could be useful to the PC(USA) because they would have been vetted as suitable in Reformed worship; they would welcome and celebrate the Holy Spirit (which, in my mind, is almost ignored in Reformed worship); and they would be rooted in different cultures, and would honor the cultures that contributed them. I once bemoaned the way churches misappropriate the gifts of the Black church while disrespecting the people; one friend who knows this from personal experience responded with “they love the fruit but hate the tree.”
My advisor approved of my dissertation project topic, and like a good advisor, he asked me two challenging questions. The first was whether such a book could also help to lift up the sense of belonging for non-European Presbyterians (he shared how Black Presbyterians like him struggle with this—they are considered not Black enough because they are Presbyterian, and not Presbyterian enough because they are not White).
But it was his second question that has stayed with me: “Could there be a defect in the [Reformed] tradition?”
My first internal response was that this was some kind of heresy! But quickly I realized how my training had led me to believe that John Calvin had an answer for any situation we were to face in ministry, if we just dug deep enough—but perhaps that wasn’t true. I was working for a seminary at the time, and I thought of this student who was a member of a PC(USA) church, but who was also attending another church and trying to get us to acknowledge the teachings of that church as properly Reformed, which they were decidedly not. This student was intellectually brilliant, African-American, a veteran with severe PTSD, and who had struggled with drug addiction and homelessness—and he was not getting a healing word from Calvinist theology.
Now even if we conclude that there may be some defects in our tradition, I’m not suggesting we reject it out of hand—one of my pet peeves is when we church folk take an “all or nothing” approach to evaluating something—or some people. I don’t believe that any one church institution completely reflects or teaches about the Kingdom of God. I do believe that every institution has a vulnerability towards idolatry and self-preservation, and it is dangerous when any church claims to be the one true church. Just as we had four gospels in the New Testament, humanity is too diverse to know faith through any one expression. This is also true in the Jewish, Islamic, and Buddhist traditions—and even Jesus said that in his Father’s house there are many dwelling places. But this diversity does not have to be a barrier to faithfulness, and our imperfections are not an excuse to stop serving our more than perfect God.
So we continue to be faithful, and trust the wisdom of those who have gone before us, while also being humble enough to know that in every generation we are called to renew and reform our tradition—and also to accept the fact that neither we nor any other church is the comprehensive manifestation of Christ’s mission in the world. We strive for unity, but not by suppressing our varied gifts and perspectives. And until we can find unity without someone feeling the winner or the loser, we will have to settle for—and continue to work through—our defective faithfulness.
As individuals and as church and presbytery, we acknowledge that we are imperfect, yet as we seek to be faithful to God and give ourselves to be servants in Christ’s mission, God can do wondrous things through us.