Our friend Sam from a neighboring Presbytery raised some very helpful questions that we believe would benefit everyone in this discussion.
1. This is an awfully risky tactic. Is it too risky and bordering on irresponsible?
The "tactic" may be somewhat risky, as you observe. But, then life in the Gospel is inherently risky. Now, the reason we feel the risk is so fully justified is because of the level of constitutional crisis in which we now find ourselves. The risk in temporal terms may be grave, but if we continue to "box as though at the air" the risk in eternal terms is graver still. The denomination IS indeed in a constitutional crisis as we now move to using Authoritative Interpretations to legislate and the legislative process to overthrow our own ecclesiastical judiciary. The other observation that must be made is that while our approach may be risky, the damage already caused to our covenanted connectionalism are far riskier to our collective health than anything we have proposed.
2. Is the timing right for this kind of extreme tactic?
Let us grant for the moment that the tactic is extreme. That no one has tried such a thing yet in the PC USA indicates that this is the case. We will not argue that point. So let us then focus on the real question… is the timing right for this tactic? Of course this is debatable but here are the reasons why we believe this kind of proclamation could not have been made before this Assembly and needs to be made now.
Certainly there were upsetting, even disastrous, outcomes from previous Assemblies. The Re-imagining God conference was an issue that received great attention but the Assembly seemed to correct itself on that score with the report Hope in the Lord Jesus Christ. Several recommendations were made at previous Assemblies to remove previous AI’s but failed. Several recommendations to change our Constitution were never ratified by the Presbyteries. All previous Assemblies had one thing in common: while we might have disagreed with some of the recommendations coming from the Assembly, we could at least say that they had followed proper process and that their recommendations were subject to the ratification of the Presbyteries while honoring our judicial system or were innocuous enough to be endurable. This is one reason why our declaration would have been inappropriate before the 218th General Assembly.
Certainly the 217th Assembly was full of concerning outcomes. The reception of the Trinity paper was particularly disturbing to us but it was merely received and not adopted (certainly a careful political maneuver but a distinction that we were forced to grant them). Thus, while heresy appeared to be tolerated by some, it was not formally embraced by an act of the whole Assembly. The passage of the PUP Task Force recommendations concerned us greatly. However, during the two years of “lag time” between Assemblies, we found that the amendments on the floor to the PUP recommendations, particularly recommendation #5, actually made for judicial cases that supported the plain reading of the Constitution and the significance of the Trinity paper seemed to be waning. Frankly we were more concerned about the FOG task force and its potentially damaging effects on our communion than anything else at this Assembly, thinking that the constitutional, interpretive and judicial support given to our current covenant would prevail. It turns out that this trust was ill-placed. The 218th General Assembly was a completely different Assembly than any one Assembly prior to it, which is why this declaration has become necessary now.
The difference in the 218th Assembly is not only its lack of tactical and diplomatic savvy, not only its abandonment of responsible judicial review, not only its disregard for the plain meaning of Scripture, the Confessions, and the Constitution, but also its profound indifference toward our agreed upon process. It inaugurated wholesale changes to our Constitution by Authoritative Interpretation without Presbytery ratification. It formally embraced heresy by passing an overture whose recommendations were based on heterodoxy (regarding Muslims and Jews) and by approving a study guide for an errant paper that was never adopted by our denomination. It further demonstrated this slide into separation from the Church Universal by recommending a change to our confessions that amounts to a change in the Scriptures themselves. As if that weren’t enough, it then removed all supporting precedent for the plain meaning of our Constitution. While we could argue about whether or not previous Assemblies crossed the line from Christianity into something else or whether or not previous Assemblies may have conducted themselves decently and in order, in our opinion, the evidence is clear with this Assembly. The 218th Assembly made decisions that violated our covenant concerning process and violated our covenant with the Church Universal by affirming heresy. In our estimation, this is the first time our General Assembly has demonstrably and brazenly crossed this line on both counts. Previous Assemblies have simply toyed with the idea while coming dangerously close to doing so, carefully covering their tracks in political legalese. The 218th took unprecedented actions, above and beyond all previous Assemblies. This is another reason why this declaration must be made now whereas it would not have been appropriate before.
Because we believe these to be clear violations of our covenant, whatever trust we may have had left is broken. What we are also finding out since we wrote this document and released it is that we are not alone in that assessment. Because the Assembly saw fit to disregard our judicial system and was supported by the immediate affirmation of its actions by the Office of our Stated Clerk with Advisory Opinion #22, whatever trust we may have had of judicial cases ruling properly according to the plain reading of the Constitution is pragmatically irrelevant. It no longer matters what how our courts rule on any cases that may come their way. There is no longer any precedent for their decisions because the cases that set these precedents have all been overturned. The Assembly has now learned that it can overturn any case it wishes with or without grounds or even without considering written minority reports and it has demonstrated the will to do so. The Constitution itself has been changed by fiat with complete disregard for Godly discernment and process. Further, we now are forced to live in this kind of environment until the next Assembly, a state which we believe we have rightly referred to as constitutional anarchy. Everyone may now do whatever is right in his/her own eyes with no consequence for there are no longer legitimate judicial, constitutional, confessional, or even biblical means to pursue discipline thanks to the actions of this Assembly. That is why this declaration is appropriate now and must be made immediately. Otherwise we become guilty of the very sin we decry by failing to act.
Because of the nature of these sweeping changes in process and belief, what we have is a horribly broken system. This Assembly was brazen in its defiance of our covenant. In the face of this kind of determined, calculated, intentional sin, we can only stand firm, name the sin, and insist that this is not how we will conduct ourselves even if our highest level governing body insists that we do so. With judicial review now irrelevant, it is incumbent upon us to act immediately. Correcting the actions of this Assembly has become almost constitutionally impossible because of the extremity of its actions. The horse has escaped the barn and is already down the street. While we do not claim perfection in any other form than the righteousness of Jesus Christ applied to His people, we refuse to embrace clearly sinful behavior whether foisted upon us by the world or by our own General Assembly. This is why this declaration MUST be made now. If we fail to do so, we risk failing in the Church’s role as watchman and tying a millstone around our own necks by leading the least of these astray. In our estimation, we must act definitively and graciously and we must act now.
3. Are the Presbyters aware of the potential consequences? Do we even know what the consequences are?
This is an excellent question. The potential consequences of this action are truly steep; among them could be the filing of ecclesiastical judicial charges against those who subscribe to the Declaration. Such a move against us would come because we have already announced our intention not to submit to either corrective counsel from a higher governing body or to cease what we are doing. The potential danger to individual sessions and or presbyteries could come in the form of Administrative Commissions appointed by presbyteries and synods of jurisdiction. Theoretically, these bodies would be free to assume original jurisdiction and to depose sessions or presbyteries they deem as having stepped outside of the boundaries of the Book of Order.
Some presbyters may be unaware of the full range of possible consequences, but I suspect that most of them who have read the document in its entirety at least suspect strongly that this is one of the possible end-scenarios that must be considered. Beyond that, all of us are more likely to see, believe and anticipate this course of action because of the action taken by the Episcopal Church House of Bishops against Pittsburgh's now-defrocked Bishop Robert Duncan. Duncan made a similar stand against the Episcopal Church (or more accurately, his diocese threatened to do so -- the vote on that matter will take place on Sat., 4 October), and the House of Bishops declared by majority vote that he had stepped outside of their communion and violated the discipline by even suggesting that the Diocese of Pittsburgh make a theological stand and consider re-aligning itself with the Anglican Province of the Southern Cone.
Our polity is definitely not the same as that of the Episcopal Church, but our means of addressing conflict have been similar for several decades and the concerns raised and enumerated are the same.
4. Are the potential gains worth the consequences?
While Rusty is writing on potential consequences, I know we have discussed them at length. We understand that in a declaration of this magnitude, a clear declaration of Status Confessionis, the consequences are potentially great. If we are going to weigh any gains against these consequences, we had best be clear on both sides of the ledger. What are the potential gains from such a declaration?
This declaration clearly aligns us with the Church Universal. It makes it clear to our brothers and sisters throughout the world that our allegiance is to Christ and His Church worldwide and that we will not suffer departure from her for the sake of compromise here in the US.
This declaration clearly defines a place for us to faithfully stand without leaving the PC USA. When the world has so crept into the life of the Church that one is now asked by the Church to sin, faithful living requires a clear stand in the midst of the storm. This provides a place for us to stand together faithfully while the storm rages around us. It also allows us to be true to our ordination vows in a time when to keep those vows is to deny them at the same time.
This declaration provides clarity of conscience. Our conscience is captive to the Word of God. We say that in this declaration and can live that out through the boundaries we draw in it. Without it, we would be forced to compromise on essential matters of the Christian faith either actively or passively.
This declaration can unify the Church in spite of this denomination’s current state of division brought upon us by the extreme actions of the 218th General Assembly. We would love to see the Church unify behind this declaration and pray for this end.
This declaration sends a clearer message than any thus far of the Church’s necessary commitment to her covenant and theology. As the violations of trust have escalated, so have the calls to account within our communion. All of us knew that someone would eventually have to say these things in one form or another. We believe this to be the most faithful form and we will not equivocate.
We believe these benefits to outweigh the potential consequences. We affirm the following:
“But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ-- the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”
Philippians 3:7-14 (NIV)
If this means what it appears to mean, nothing compares to the greatness of Christ, His truth, and His fellowship. As we see it, the greatest risk is to value anything else as greater than the privilege of standing with Him. If this means that we get a small glimpse of what the fellowship of His sufferings is all about because of our stand with Him, then praise God for having made us like Him (even in a small way) in His death. We rejoice to make this stand.