Our Witness to Christian Love: A Call to the PC(USA)

Our Witness to Christian Love:  A Call to the PC(USA)

By the Faculty of Columbia Theological Seminary.

In 1861, a group of Presbyteries in the American south broke off from the denomination, primarily over the issue of slavery, in order to form the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America. In 1973, a group of Presbyterian churches in the American south broke off from the denomination, primarily over the ordination of women, in order to form the Presbyterian Church in America. Columbia Theological Seminary was at the center of both those schisms and it continues to carry institutional memories of deep pain over them. Today, the faculty of Columbia Theological Seminary watches with increasing alarm as new schisms in the church unfold. 

Though proudly a seminary of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), we are not only Presbyterians. We speak as one faculty composed of members of many communions and within hearing of the wider church, even though our primary audience is the PC(USA). Indeed, we believe that our diversity in denominational affiliation, theological conviction, and personal perspective, when joined to our commitment to work together, has helped us develop the resilience necessary to wrestle faithfully with the very questions of identity, unity, and mission that so trouble many contemporary American Christians and will so mark the future of the American church. This diversity also shapes our conviction that schism is a profound theological and pastoral problem. Remembering, therefore, the pain of former schisms and attentive to the pain that current schisms are causing for our students and the church we have taken vows to serve, we now issue the following statement.

Our Witness to Christian Love: A Call to the PC(USA)  

May 1, 2014—In the first century, Jesus told his disciples, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35). In the third century, Tertullian wrote that non-Christians looked at the church and said, “See how they love one another!” (Apology 39.7). In the twenty-first century, members of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) struggle with this command and its witness. As faculty members of Columbia Theological Seminary, we invite the denomination—and, indeed, the whole church—to attend to Jesus’ words again.

We note with growing sadness that upheavals in the PC(USA) are causing widespread pain and anxiety. Large demographic changes in society that have an impact on all churches are also creating new challenges for the denomination. Economic pressures that affect much of the population of the U.S. have magnified effects on nonprofit institutions, including individual churches’ abilities to cover the costs of their programs and staffs and the denomination’s ability to run successful programs and maintain effective denomination-wide support. Above all, political and theological debates within the denomination are shaping painful schisms that will continue to cause suffering into the future.

We note with building frustration that many arguments given by persons both within and outside the denomination lack integrity and charity. We attend and teach in churches across the U.S. where we hear “the other side” vilified. We observe claims made about theology, fidelity, and integrity that do not square with Reformed theology, Christian morality, or personal experience. We work with students whose churches are injuring them while they attempt to pursue ordination and graduates who are watching opportunities to pursue their callings dwindle.

We note with increasing alarm that the mission of the church is being undermined and that calls to “purity” and “inclusivity” are being used as weapons rather than invitations to pursue holiness and wholeness. We wonder at the church’s willingness to focus its attention on internal failings rather than outward witness. We struggle in teaching students to explore the relevance of the gospel for society when those students are watching a church whose most attention-getting actions seem malicious, passive, or vain.

Yet we also note that upheaval brings new life, that making arguments is better than taking up arms or avoiding conversations, and that the church, in its mission, is called to both purity and inclusivity. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has long brought life to dead places and hope to despondent ones. It has insisted that its members give reasons for their beliefs and actions so that they might display the ways that they are “being transformed by the renewing of their minds” (Rom 12:2). Even in the face of its most vociferous debates, it has always spent its time, energy, and money in missions that reached both next door and around the world. For many of us, it is the church that has cradled, nourished, trained, and supported us into active ministries of peace, unity, and purity, and we rejoice as we see it continue to do so in the lives of colleagues, students, and fellow Christians.

We therefore remind ourselves of our common task as theological educators for the building up of the church.

Where we have participated in or encouraged behaviors that tear down rather than build up the church, we repent and recommit ourselves to work that supports the one church and honors its Lord and Savior. We pledge to promote and model civility in our conversations with brothers and sisters from around the world, especially in our writing. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all (Ephesians 4:4-5).

Where we have focused on teaching students who were likely to agree with us, we repent and renew our desire to teach all students, no matter where they come from or which denomination supports them. We pledge to promote and model hospitality to those who come to our campus, no matter where they are from, especially in our teaching. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.  And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers (1 Corinthians 12:27-28).

Where we have stood by and listened silently to narratives about the PC(USA) that are malicious in their intent and injurious in their effect, we repent and reengage in telling narratives about the faithfulness, possibilities, and benefits of the denomination. We pledge to promote and model boldness in speaking out and honesty in the ways we talk about ourselves and others, especially in our congregations. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor (Exodus 20:16).

Where we have allowed polity debates to trump theological convictions and claims to righteousness to silence the call to unity, we repent and reaffirm our belief that the church is one and has an obligation to present itself in that way to a world that is increasingly riven by political divisions and driven by tribal loyalties. We pledge to promote and model imagination in pursuing a unity that is bigger than agreement, more complex than uniformity, and more mysterious than like-mindedness, especially in our meetings. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me (John 17:22-23).

Where we have downplayed our denominational connections or let the fear of negative repercussions divide us, we repent and remember that our past and the denomination’s present are as nothing when weighed against a hope that is greater than any church and a love that is stronger than any fear. We pledge to promote and model Christian love in all our work–writing, teaching, worshipping, administering, and living together–as we seek to become the beloved community. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us. Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen (1 John 4:18-20).

Finally, we invite our colleagues at our sister seminaries to give witness to their own convictions about the present wisdom and future significance of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Regardless of individual priorities or in-house debates, we know that standing together is better than falling apart. Beyond that, in times of reformation we know that we are all sustained by the grace of God who has given us the one church, the body of Christ, through which to respond in gratitude.

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