WhaWhat's Good About Denominations? Denominations. Mission. Church and Denominations
What's Good About Denominations?
by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts
Copyright © 2006 by Mark D. Roberts
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What's Good About Denominations?
Part 1 of series: What's Good About Denominations?
Posted for Monday, July 10, 2006
If you've been following my blog recently, you know that I've been commenting on the affairs of two denominations, the Presbyterian Church USA (my denomination) and the Southern Baptist Convention. In both cases I've been talking about disagreements and conflicts within these religious bodies. The Southern Baptist debate has been about technology and mission, and blogging in particular. The PCUSA problems are far more serious, and may, as I've suggested be the beginning of the end of this denomination. How I wish we were arguing about blogging and baptisms instead of the Trinity and gay ordination!
Of course I haven't even commented recently on the most volatile of denominational squabbles, that within the Episcopal Church USA. The theological liberalism of the majority of the ECUSA bishops, and, in particular, their endorsement of active gays and lesbians, has brought the ECUSA to the point of schism. Just a couple of days ago the largest congregation in the denomination, Christ Church of Plano, Texas, announced that is was parting ways with the ECUSA over theological issues. The official church statement explained:
The mission of Christ Church is to make disciples and teach them to obey the commands of Christ. The direction of the leadership of the Episcopal Church is different and we regret their departure from biblical truth and the historic faith of the Anglican Communion.
Christ Church, Plano, Texas
As the vestry of Christ Church, we declare our intention to disassociate from ECUSA as soon as possible. We are thankful for the shepherd role of the Right Rev. James Stanton and his standing in the Anglican Communion, and we regard him as our apostolic leader.
No doubt many Episcopal churches will follow Christ Church, even as others have previously left the ECUSA.
Of course the Presbyterians and the Episcopalians aren't the only ones facing serious disagreements and potential division. Many of the mainstream denominations, including Methodists and Lutherans, seem also to be continually fighting, usually over issues rather like the ones plaguing the Episcopal and Presbyterian churches. Most denominations these days seem preoccupied about sex, in one form or another. We Presbyterians have been arguing about it for almost three decades!
For obvious reasons, it has become increasingly common for people to denounce denominations in general. They're institutional lame horses, we're told, and ought to be put out of their misery. This makes intuitive sense in a time when non-denominational (or independent) churches are flourishing and major denominations are fighting and floundering. One must surely wonder whether we'd be better off without denominations.
From another quarter comes a different critique and suggestion. Just last night a friend of mine, one who is a Presbyterian with strong leanings toward the (Eastern) Orthodox Church, wondered out loud if, rather than leaving the PCUSA and going out on our own or joining some other Presbyterian denomination, we should instead "return to the true church." By this she meant the Orthodox Church, which traces its history back to the first disciples of Jesus. Of course the Roman Catholics might not quite agree with her about which church is the true church. In recent years a number of notable evangelicals have joined the Roman Catholic Church, believing that they have finally come home denominationally. (For a fascinating and insightful look at why evangelicals become Roman Catholic, check out this piece by Scot McKnight.)
I'm not prepared to take on the "return to the true church" suggestion at this time, though I think it's one that deserves a serious response. For the record, I'm also not ready to become either Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox, though I can think of many worse options. If you've been following my recent writings, you know that I remain committed to the PCUSA, though concerned about the direction of my denomination and open to the possibility that my time as a PCUSA member may not be as long as I had hoped it would be.
One of the reasons I'm staying in the PCUSA is that I believe there are, in fact, many good things about denominations. In a time when it's so easy to point out denominational faults, I thought it might be good to reflect upon denominational benefits. So in this series I'm going to suggest a number of positive qualities about denominations. Some of these will be theological; others will be practical; most all of them will be personal in that they will reflect my convictions and experiences.
How You Can Participate in the Conversation
Of course you can just sit back and read what I'll put up over the next couple of weeks. But I'd invite you to contribute your own wisdom on this matter, if you'd like to. In your opinion, what is good about denominations?
E-mail me your answers, and I will make sure your opinions are included in this series. I can't promise to use every e-mail, of course. If I get twenty e-mails with more or less the same idea, I'll use one or two of the twenty. The best way to communicate, by the way, is in two or three succinct paragraphs, adding up to no more than 200 words. If you have multiple ideas about why denominations are good, send one per e-mail. I will assume, by the way, that I can use your name if you e-mail me. If you'd like me to use only your initials, please tell me. And if you have a website, feel free to include the URL so I can send people to your site.
What is a Denomination?
Part 2 of series: What's Good About Denominations?
Posted for Tuesday, July 11, 2006
This is the sort of question that can lead to a long, long answer. I expect there are church historians and theologians who have written whole books on this subject. If you've spent much time thinking about this question, no doubt you'll find my musings to be rather superficial. But it does seem like I should attempt to define "denomination" before trying to speak of what's good about denominations.
I quickly found three dictionary definitions online:
A large group of religious congregations united under a common faith and name and organized under a single administrative and legal hierarchy.
The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Copyright © 2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company. At Dictionary.com.
A group of religious congregations having its own organization and a distinctive faith
WordNet ® 2.0, © 2003 Princeton University. At Dictionary.com.
Religious organization whose congregations are united in their adherence to its beliefs and practices
What's common to all of these definitions is that a denomination is a group of religious congregations that are organized together in some common institutional structure. This seems like a good start of a definition of "denomination."
A Common Set of Beliefs?
All three definitions state that the congregations in a denomination share a common set of beliefs. This is surely true in principle. In practice, however, many denominations are struggling precisely because what different congregations believe does not necessarily overlap neatly. I have found that I often feel a greater theological affinity with non-Presbyterians than with some in my own denomination. Strange as it may seem, my views of Scripture, salvation, and evangelism seem closer to those of my Southern Baptist friends than to those of some Presbyterians I know. One of the great problems plaguing most mainline denominations is precisely the lack of a common set of core beliefs.
The logo of the PCUSA
A Common History?
What many denominations seems to have, rather than a set of core beliefs, is a common history. All congregations in the PCUSA, no matter what they might believe, can trace their history back to the same root.
In this sense, a denomination is more like a family than anything else. Many families couldn't begin to forge a common life together, but they are bound together by their common roots. Family members might disagree on almost anything -- religion, politics, key values – but they are still connected through common parentage. I think of one PCUSA church not far from mine. In many, many ways we are different, including in many matters of core theology and sense of mission. But we share a common history in that we were both planted by the Presbyterian church in this region.
A Lasting Partnership?
One of the things characteristic of denominations is a lasting partnership among participating churches. Consider, for example, the situation when churches come together for a particular purpose. They may organize themselves to support an evangelistic crusade or to build a Habitat for Humanity house. Yet these organizations are not meant to be lasting. Once the mission is over, the organization dissolves.
Denominations, on the contrary, are meant to be lasting, even indefinitely. This is one reason why the division of denominations seems so painful and difficult. (I wonder if denominational charters should have built-in re-evaluation clauses, whereby all member churches could review their involvement in the denomination every decade or so. Who said denominations have to be like marriages, with new alignments like divorces?)
Common Sense of Mission?
Denominations are, or should be, at any rate, united in a common sense of mission. Missional activity is one of the main reasons for having denominations, as we'll see later in this series. But, here again, main current denominations seem to lack this aspect of denominational character. I know PCUSA churches that define mission almost entirely in terms of evangelism. And I know PCUSA churches that define mission almost entirely in terms of social justice (almost always of a liberal variety). One of the deep divisions in the PCUSA has to do with the nature of our mission.
Mutual Commitment and Accountability?
Churches can come together for a missional purpose without becoming one denomination, of course. So when a church is a part of a denomination, this implies a deeper kind of commitment and accountability. My church, as part of the PCUSA, is saying that we are committed to the overall ministry of our denomination. We are committed to uphold our denominational rules. And we are willing to be held accountable in these commitments.
Once again, one of the main reasons that the PCUSA is in such a mess is the demise of mutual commitment and accountability. Increasingly, individual churches and presbyteries (regional groups of churches) are disobeying denominational rules. They are not being held accountable for their independence. Moreover, if I understand rightly what happened at our recent General Assembly, the delegates voted to allow for a breakdown in mutual commitment and accountability. This is part of the reason I suggested that we've seen the beginning of the end of the PCUSA.
In Conclusion: What is a Denomination?
So then, what is a denomination? Well, it is surely an organization of churches that have come together for some common purpose, and who have agreed (in principle, at least) to be governed by common rules, and who intend to be committed to each other over a long period of time. I think it's essential for a healthy denomination to share core theological beliefs, a common sense of mission, and mutual accountability. It seems to me, however, that many mainstream denominations, not the least my own, have replaced these essentials with a minimal, common history. We are like a family that is bound together by common roots even though we can't live together in harmony because we have so many profound differences and disagreements.
With this rough and ready definition in mind, tomorrow I'll begin to suggest some things that are good about denominations. Part of what will be tricky, however, is deciding whether I'm talking about ideal denominations or real ones. I'll have to sort this out as I go.
Denominations Establish Hospitals and Schools
Part 3 of series: What's Good About Denominations?
Posted for Wednesday, July 12, 2006
I hadn't planned to start with this point, but then I received the latest issue of U.S. News & World Report. The cover story: "American's Best Hospitals: Exclusive Rankings of the Finest Healthcare in 16 Specialties." As I perused the list of the best hospitals in disciples such as cancer treatment and endocrinology, I kept seeing denominational labels. For example, here are some of the hospitals I picked out of the lists:
Riverside Methodist Hospital-Ohio Health, Columbus, Ohio
St. Luke's Episcopal Hospital, Houston, Texas
Advocate Lutheran General Hospital, Park Ridge, Illinois
Wake Forest Univ. Baptist Medical Center, Winston-Salem, NC
Methodist Hospital, Houston, Texas
New England Baptist Hospital, Boston, Mass.
Methodist Hospital, Omaha, Nebraska
Central Baptist Hospital, Lexington, Kentucky
One hospital with a denominational name made it into the U.S. News Honor Roll, comprising the top fourteen hospitals in the country. This was New York-Presbyterian University Hospital of Columbia and Cornell.
I'm sure there are many more denominationally-related hospitals on the list. Catholic hospitals, for example, tend to be named after saints, but don't include "Catholic" in the title (St. Joseph's Hospital, for example). (Yes, I realize that Catholics don't like to be considered a denomination. But they are for the purposes of this blog series.)
Now I'm not suggesting that all hospitals with denominational markings are actually administered by or under the authority of a denomination. In some cases, I expect the connection between hospital and denomination is minimal at best. In most if not all cases, a denomination had something to do with the founding of the hospital.
I'm most familiar with Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian in Newport Beach, California, where both of my children were born. This hospital was founded over fifty years ago with considerable participation by Presbyterian Churches in Orange County. The hospital features a Pastoral Care Department directed by a Presbyterian pastor, the Rev. Dr. Donald Oliver. His staff includes a Catholic priest and Jewish volunteers.
Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian in Newport Beach. Now that's what I call a hospital room with a view!
Denominations have also taken the lead in the founding of colleges and universities. The United Methodist Church, for example, claims among dozens of college the following prominent schools: Boston University, Duke University, Emory University, Southern Methodist University, and Syracuse University. Many universities have become independent of their founding denominations (U.S.C. from the Methodists and Occidental College from the Presbyterians). Others are denominational in name only. But, still, denominations have founded and maintained hundreds of fine colleges and universities throughout the country. I should add that denominational bodies have also taken a leading role in the establishing and maintaining of hospitals and schools throughout the world. This work continues today. For example, there is Bibanga Presbyterian Hospital in the Republic of the Congo, which was founded in 1917 and continues to receive support from the PCUSA. You can find many other hospitals like this one at the PCUSA website.
Why, you might wonder, would denominations get into the hospital- and school-founding business anyway? The answer is that these religious bodies have seen their mission broadly, not only in terms of evangelism and church-planting, but also in terms of being salt and light in the world. The founding of hospitals also reflects a commitment to be healers, not only through prayer, but also through the application of medical science. And the founding of schools often is the result of a commitment to doing justice. Educating people who might otherwise not be educated is a way of empowering them and improving both their personal condition and their societies.
Are denominations necessary for the founding of hospitals and schools. No, one can imagine other ways for Christians to be involved in these works. But, although it would be possible for groups of Christians or groups of churches to found hospitals and schools without denominational attachments, it's unlikely that this would happen very often. The financial scope of such projects and the years upon years of planning and execution required to complete them are the business of denominations, with their broad resources and long-term commitments.
Denominations Plant Churches
Part 4 of series: What's Good About Denominations?
Posted for Thursday, July 13, 2006
This may turn out to be the best thing about denominations. Throughout the centuries, denominations have planted hundreds of thousands if not millions of churches, and this work continues to this day. (As I've noted previously, I'm including as denominations both the Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox churches, though they would tend to see themselves more as the one true church and less as a denomination. Yet they are organized groups of churches with a common faith and mission, not to mention a common name, which is the root meaning of "denomination.")
Now one might object that denominations aren't the only source of new churches. Indeed, in my city there are a number of independent churches that have begun in living rooms, schools, and community centers. Some of these have become quite successful in terms of longevity, size, and mission. But it seems to me that the majority of non-denominational church plants soon dry up and whither away. It's extremely hard to plant a church without the resources of a denomination. Good intentions and even a sense of calling only take one so far. (Some very large independent churches have planted new churches with success. In this case, the relationship between planting church and planted church is rather like a small denomination.)
|My own church, Irvine Presbyterian Church, is the result of denominational vision and effort. In the early 1970s there was no church in Irvine. There wasn't much of Irvine back then, either, for that matter. The Presbytery of Los Ranchos, a regional governing body of the PCUSA, sensed God's call to get a church going in Irvine. Gathering together leaders from other churches, the Presbytery oversaw the process of calling a new pastor (Ben Patterson, now at Westmont College) to plant what would become Irvine Presbyterian Church. The Presbytery also provided funding for this church "start up." Now, over thirty years later, Irvine Presbyterian Church is thriving and growing. Moreover, we're now providing financial support for other church planting efforts of Los Ranchos Presbytery. (To see what's going on in one of our church plants, in Ladera Ranch, California, check out the pastor's website.)
Irvine Presbyerian Church began in 1975, meeting in a school. In 1984 we built our first building, which was meant to be a fellowship hall, but served as a sanctuary for 12 years. I came to this church in 1991, following founding pastor Ben Patterson.
One who is disinclined to appreciate denominations might object: "Okay. But what you've described isn't really the work of a denomination so much as a local organization of churches. If the PCUSA disappeared but the churches in Los Ranchos Presbytery decided to remain together in common ministry, wouldn't the church-planting ministry continue?" Yes, perhaps, though I think some churches might be less inclined to remain committed to a local organization. At the same time, other churches might be more excited about having strong local ties without the downside of a national denomination. The current direction of the PCUSA seems to be heading towards much more local attachment and much less national connectionalism.
A critic of denominations might also want to see just how much church planting is being done by existing denominations, and how effective their efforts are. My guess is, for example, that the PCUSA (and its denominational ancestors) used to do much more church planting than we do today. Usually, healthy and focused denominations are able to plant more churches, while unhealthy and confused ones are not. In my part of the world, the denominations that are most actively engaged in church planting are some of the newest ones, like Calvary Chapel and the Vineyard. (I recognize that leaders of these organizations shun the term "denomination," but they are surely denominations by just about any objective measure. I'd argue that they are healthier and more ideal denominations than my own in many ways. Perhaps denominations are better when they are newer.)
No matter how ineffective some denominations might be at church planting, they surely deserve credit for this ministry, especially if one takes a historical perspective. Denominational church planting has done more to advance the kingdom of God in the world than anything else denominations have accomplished. If only the struggling denominations like my own would stop fighting about theology and how to fix the world, and would instead focus on planting healthy churches, maybe we'd become healthier and stronger ourselves. Then again, maybe we're like human beings, who lose the ability to be fruitful and multiply after they've been around for a few decades.
Denominations Provide Accountability for Churches and Church Leaders
Part 5 of series: What's Good About Denominations?
Posted for Friday, July 14, 2006
Several years ago my friend, I'll call him Ron, was pastoring a mid-size independent church. He had been called there by the elders of that church. He had moved his family into town, purchased a home, and had been serving as senior pastor for about three years. From Ron's point of view, the ministry was thriving, and he was doing what he had been called to do, mainly to preach and to provide pastoral care for the congregation.
One evening at the meeting of the board of elders for his church, Ron heard a startling announcement: "Ron," one of the elders said, "we're not happy with your leadership here. Yes, you're a good preacher. And, yes, you're good at caring for the people. But we need leadership. We need a visionary pastor who can move us forward."
Ron, trying not to be defensive, answered, "I'm shocked to hear this. I thought I was doing a good job as your pastor. But if there are places I need to grow, I'm glad to work on them. Tell me what you'd like me to do."
After an awkward silence, the spokesman for the elders continued, "Ron, I don't think that's the course we're going to take. We have voted to release you from your service here so you can find another call. Tonight we're giving you two weeks' notice."
"I'm being fired?" Ron said, aghast.
"Well," the elder answered, "you could call it that. We call it moving forward in God's will for our church and for your ministry."
And that was that. There was no place for Ron to turn for help, other than to the courts, which he believed, as a Christian, he shouldn't do. There was no body that could hold the elders accountable to do the right thing. Ron was gone in two weeks. The elders gave him a month of severance pay, as if that would help him make a transition to a new ministry. (It actually took him about two years to find a new church.)
This sort of thing happens often in independent churches. I know of several other stories similar to this one. Of course not all independent churches do this sort of thing. But when they do, the victims of injustice are pretty much stuck.
What happened to Ron couldn't happen legally in a Presbyterian church. Oh, I'm sure it's been tried. And I'm sure sometimes the elders have managed to get away with it. But the rules in the PCUSA are clear: the board of elders does not have the authority to fire a pastor. Even the congregation cannot fire a pastor without the support of the presbytery (local governing body). Now if the board of elders is very displeased with the pastor, this usually ends up with the pastor leaving (but not always). Yet the process is one that guards against gross injustice. It protects the pastor and the pastor's family. It protects the church from the whims of a few elders. The denomination holds the leaders of the church accountable, thus ensuring a relatively fair process of "firing," if you will.
Sometimes, of course, the elders aren't the problem . . . the pastor is. I know of a church where the pastor was causing serious damage to the congregation. His poor leadership had chased away many capable staff and lay leaders, and his terrible financial management had cost the church tons of money. Yet, for some reason, his board of elders was not willing or able to hold him accountable for his manifold misdeeds. The church was at risk of failing financially, not to mention in the ways of the kingdom of God.
A few leaders from that church, fearing what lay ahead, went to the presbytery with their concerns. The presbytery investigated, and found that the church was in crisis. After a long, involved process, the presbytery "helped the pastor see" that his resignation would be the best for all parties. And, even though they held him responsible for the dire state of the church, they also made sure he was treated graciously in his severance package.
Now this church, which was going down quickly, is on the mend. The damage from this pastor's poor leadership is still in evidence, but the ship is righted and is slowly moving forward. Were it not for denominational accountability, I'm quite sure this pastor would still be in place, and I'm quite sure the church would be far, far worse off than it is today.
I know of situations when a presbytery has, in the name of holding a pastor accountable, done unfair and unwise things to that pastor. I'm not suggesting that denominational accountability is flawless. Quite to the contrary! But I have seen many situations in which denominational connections helped churches and church leaders do the right thing.
|Some of these situations are not nearly as contentious as my first two examples. Let me offer a much happier instance of denominational accountability. Since I've been pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church, we've built a sanctuary and an administration building. In both projects, we've been held accountable by our local presbytery. In the most recent project, a leader from the presbytery actually joined our building committee. In both projects we had to submit our plans and our financial arrangements for presbytery approval. But this has not been an adversarial relationship. On the contrary, we've received lots of help from our presbytery. They've been able to gather the wisdom that comes from dozens of building projects and share that wisdom with us. So, in addition to holding us accountable, the presbytery has offered valuable guidance and insight.
The sanctuary of Irvine Presbyerian Church,
built in 1996.
In closing, let me say that I'm deeply concerned about the extent to which pastors, in particular, are often accountable to no one. Clever pastors can sometimes manipulate even a denominational church system to suit their megalomania. They seem to live "above the law," as it were, in their preaching, leadership, and personal lives. Denominations don't necessarily solve this problem, as we've seen so painfully in the Roman Catholic molestation scandal. But they can provide the sort of accountability that helps pastors live and lead righteously. And they often step in when pastors, and other church leaders, wander off the path.
The most difficult situation in my ministry happened ten years ago. It concerned an associate pastor in my church. The issues were not moral or theological, but they were very difficult personnel and relationship matters. There were times during this crisis when I seriously considered leaving the ministry. What saved me, and the health of my church, was above all, God's grace. But this grace was delivered through the form of presbytery intervention. I found ample personal support and well-deserved correction for mistakes I had made. The other party was also coached by presbytery leaders, and ultimately resigned from our church staff, thank God! Sometimes I wonder if I'd still be in ministry, were it not for my connection to a denomination.
Again, I'm sure there are plenty of horror stories that illustrate the other side of my arguments, stories of governing bodies treating leaders and churches poorly. I know many of these stories, and have written extensively on one of them. I am also aware of many instances when the governing body did not hold leaders accountable. Recently, my own denomination has had a devil of a time making sure its leaders follow the rules of church government that we have agreed to obey. But I would still argue that in many, many cases, denominations provide accountability for pastors and other church leaders, thus helping churches to be healthier, fairer, and more effective in God's work.
Denominations Provide Guidance for Congregational Worship
Part 6 of series: What's Good About Denominations?
Posted for Sunday, July 16, 2006
I grew up in a Presbyterian church without having much idea of what was Presbyterian and what was not. I knew we had elders, and I knew we didn't baptize people more than once, but otherwise I was relatively unaware of what made our beliefs and our common life distinctively Presbyterian.
In college and grad school I was active in a Pentecostal church, then a Roman Catholic church, and finally a Mennonite church. I came to experience many of the differences among denominational approaches to discipleship and fellowship. I also found a profound commonality in the things that mattered most: the nature of God; the identity and mission of Jesus; the call to community and ministry; the centrality of worship in the Christian life. In light of my diverse Christian experiences during my late teens and twenties, I began to see more clearly what was distinctive about my Presbyterian upbringing.
The First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood, where I grew up and where I first served as an associate pastor.
When I sensed God's call to become a Presbyterian minister, I took a course in polity (church leadership) at Fuller Theological Seminary. For the first time I actually sat down and read the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church USA: The Book of Order and The Book of Confessions. It was during this first read that I realized how profoundly Presbyterian I really was, and also how much my upbringing in church had been Presbyterian.
One of the sections of The Book of Order that I most appreciated was the "Directory for the Service of God." This title was somewhat confusing, since the subject of this section was worship. (Not long after my first reading of this Directory, the PCUSA replaced this whole section with a similar one that was more aptly named, "Directory for Worship.") When I began reading the "Directory for the Service of God" I expected to find dry rules for Presbyterian worship. What I found, instead, was a vibrant vision of worship and lots of practical wisdom based on years of corporate worship in the Reformed tradition. Sure, there were rules. But most of these seemed sensible to me, especially when they were set in a compelling theological context.
Consider, for example, the first two paragraphs of the current "Directory for Worship."
Christian worship joyfully ascribes all praise and honor, glory and power to the triune God. In worship the people of God acknowledge God present in the world and in their lives. As they respond to God’s claim and redemptive action in Jesus Christ, believers are transformed and renewed. In worship the faithful offer themselves to God and are equipped for God’s service in the world.
The Spirit of God quickens people to an awareness of God’s grace and claim upon their lives. The Spirit moves them to respond by naming and calling upon God, by remembering and proclaiming God’s acts of self-revelation in word and deed, and by committing their lives to God’s reign in the world. (W-1.1001 to 1.1002)
It's hard to imagine a more truthful and dynamic introduction to a guidebook for worship.
Most denominations provide similar guidance for congregational worship, though the content would vary according to denominational distinctives. In addition to official wisdom in documents like the Book of Order, denominations also produce a wide array of materials for worship, including hymnals, songbooks, books of common worship and prayer, and plenty of resource material. Some of this is, no doubt, not terribly helpful. For example, I've never found reason to use the worship materials produced by the PCUSA for Wills Emphasis Sunday (no joke!). But I have found rich resources in the PCUSA hymnal, in the Book of Common Worship, and in other publications in addition to the "Directory for Worship."
As you can tell, and you would no doubt be able to guess, the PCUSA worship materials tend toward the traditional. Though the "Directory for Worship" gives lots of room for contemporary expressions of worship, the PCUSA isn't exactly a leader in band-led music, for example. Other denominations, like the Vineyard, fill in this blank quite nicely.
You may be surprised how much freedom the PUCSA "Directory for Worship" gives to individual churches and their leaders. This is both good news and bad news. It's good news when the leaders have solid, biblical theology and a right understanding of worship. It's bad news when leaders have wandered off the path of orthodoxy.
There are some "must be followed" rules in the "Directory for Worship." Some might seem overly rigid to those who are not acquainted with our polity. For example, in a Presbyterian church, all celebrations of Communion must be approved by the session (board of elders; W-2.4012). This rule means that, as a pastor, I can't decide on my own when and where I want to serve Communion. (In an emergency I can make this decision and then report it to my session for their approval.) Why this limitation? It ensures that Communion is celebrated appropriately, with the proper theological understanding and suitable practices. (Individual Presbyterians are free, by the way, to celebrate Communion in private or in unofficial settings or in other churches.)
Now of course denominations aren't the only place one can find guidance for worship. There are lots of parachurch ministries committed to helping the church in its worship. But, in my experience, it has been helpful to have available the collective, biblically-based wisdom of people whose understanding of God and worship is similar to my own.
Denominations Provide a Context for Submission
Part 7 of series: What's Good About Denominations?
Posted for Friday, July 28, 2006
After a break in the action, I'm now back to blogging about denominations for a while. I'll have more to say about the reliability of the gospels later on.
When I began my series What's Good About Denominations?, I asked for input from my blog readers. I heard from many people. Some ideas were ones I had thought of on my own, others were unexpected. In the unexpected category as the notion that denominations provide a context for submission. Let me quote from the e-mails I was sent, and then add a few comments of my own.
Before I joined the PCUSA in 2002, my wife and I were members of the United Methodist Church, the second largest denomination in the country, and one that seems to be turning the tide against the force of heterodoxy. God called us there (much to our surprise) and it was the first time I had belonged to a denominational community since growing up in the Catholic Church . . . . What really frustrated me was that at the time individual churches and regions were sticking their tongues out at the Book of Order and ordaining homosexuals and blessing gay marriages. Now, I happen to be opposed to both of these actions (on scriptural grounds, and that said with a certain sadness because it has come between me and gay friends at times who were frustrated by my lack of willingness to fully embrace their “rights”). But the issue was not, in my mind, that these church did something unscriptural, it was that they essentially said “we don’t care what the community of churches says, we want to do this and we will do this.” This blatant display of disobedience, the unwillingness to live within the bounds of community (mind you, while still reaping the benefits of community such as pastoral pensions, advertising, training opportunities and the like). Submission has become a dirty word in our culture (and I say this as one who is rabidly egalitarian on gender issues), and because of this my post might sound quite old fashioned.
But it is one of the chief costs of community. Sometimes the community decides (be it forever or for a season) that some things are not acceptable. Community (and with it discipleship) calls us to either submit to that in the community, or if we believe it to be of such great moral reason, to leave the community (in sadness) and thus suffer the great costs of separation and loss of identity with that community. Denominations act as a community for churches, reminding them of the call to submit to authorities, to live and love one another, and when necessary, to pay the costs of either being part of the community or of losing that community. . . . So, denominations are a form of community that, if not essential, is very helpful in our calling to be conformed to the image of Christ.
Excerpted from a blog post by Christopher Morton, Colorado Springs, The Roving Theologian
Being connected to others through agreed upon standards/confessions/constitutions/apostolic servants helps to keep all of us centered on the faith catholic. Particularly as independent Americans, we need, above many in Jesus' global church- the grace of a place to practice submission. Denom's are great places for the imperial self, even in its communal expression, to pick up its cross and follow Jesus.
Dave Moody, Sparta, IL , blog 137
Christopher Morton is surely right: submission has become a dirty word in our culture. To claim that denominations are good because they give us a chance to practice submission sounds a little like arguing that children should be spanked in public school.
Nevertheless, submission is a biblical virtue. Before even getting to marriage, Paul says that we are to submit (or be subject) to each other out of reverence for Christ (Ephesians 5:21). I don't especially like this verse. But I don't reserve the right to dismiss it as suitable only for old fashioned people. Submission is part of Christian discipleship. And, I must confess, submission to a denomination has been good for my soul.
My first experience of such submission was when I began seeking ordination as a Presbyterian minister. I had to jump through innumerable hoops: filling out forms, being examined by a psychologist, being grilled by a committee, etc. etc. This wasn't fun, and I rather resented it at first. But, by God's grace, I realized that if I submitted to the process rather than fighting it, there might be benefit, not only for my vocational future, but even for my soul. Somehow, submitting to Presbyterian Church provided an opportunity for me to learn something new about submitting to the Lord.
It's important to remember that we're talking about voluntary submission. Even God doesn't force us to our knees before Him. At any moment, I could leave the Presbyterian Church USA, thus ending any need to submit to its rules and its people. Nevertheless, by remaining in a context where I submit to others out of reverence for Christ, I'm able to grow in godliness.
I will not forget my first meeting with what was then called the Candidates' Committee of Pacific Presbytery. We met at the First Presbyterian Church of Inglewood, California. Couldn't you see this church building in almost any midwestern town in America?
So, thanks Christopher and Dave for bringing up this subject. I doubt I'd have thought of it on my own.