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Are we speaking the same language? | Denominational Updates from First Presbyterian Church of Dunellen

Are we speaking the same language?

Joseph Small, former director of theology, worship, and education ministries of the Presbyterian Church (USA) wrote an “open letter” to the church regarding the theology paper from the Fellowship of Presbyterians and divisions in the church. Pastor Wildrick wrote a brief response to two of the points in his letter. You can read both below.

An open letter PDF Print
Written by Joseph D. Small
Monday, 12 December 2011 01:51
The Presbyterian Fellowship recently released “Draft Theology Proposals” prepared by a “Theology Task Force” in which I participated together with two friends and colleagues. My participation in the task force has led a number of people to infer that I am affiliated with the Fellowship and that I support the formation of a “New Reformed Body.”    Neither of these is accurate. I am not affiliated with the Fellowship, I have no intention of leaving the PC(USA), and I do not endorse the formation of yet another Presbyterian denomination. 

If a New Reformed Body is established, it will be the fourth schism in the PC(USA) in less than a hundred years, preceded by the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in the 1930s, the Presbyterian Church in America in the 1960s and 1970s, and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church in the 1980s and beyond. All of these divisions have resulted in the multiplication of weakened churches and the diminution of credible Reformed witness to the gospel in America.

N.T. Wright says that schism occurs when one part of the church goes its own way without regard for the whole (thus denying the Nicene mark of the church catholic – kat’ holos – in accord with the whole). I believe it is also the case that schism occurs when two parts of the church go their own way without regard for the whole. Too often in schisms, one part of the church is happy to go its own way while the other part is just as happy to see it go. Both imagine that purity can be found in separation. Calvin knew better.

When I was asked by a friend to help propose theological grounding for the Fellowship, I accepted. It seemed to me then, and seems to me now, that the current differentiation within the church is a hardening of group distinctions that have been with us for decades. I believed, and continue to believe, that it was faithful to do what I could to hold contending groups as close to one another as possible. Could shared theological foundations, even though differently understood, encourage the possibility of continuing contact, dialogue, and relationship? Perhaps. Perhaps not. In either case, I believed the effort would be preferable to ignoring the problem or engaging in mutual demonization.

My chief contribution to the Draft Theology Proposals is the first proposal – that the confessional basis be The Book of Confessions. There have been a number of suggestions for different confessional standards, and so the draft proposal makes an argument for the creeds, confessions, and catechisms of the BOC, while acknowledging that they have been too often ignored and misused by the whole church. The confessional standards section of the Draft Theology Proposals is an abbreviation of the case I made six years ago inConversations with the Confessions.

In the same book I argued against identifying “essential tenets of the Reformed faith.” However, I recognize that essential tenets will now be named by someone, and so the only question is what they will be. My colleagues and I determined that the best option was to use the items in “The Confessions as Statements of . . .” found in the PC(USA)’s Foundations of Presbyterian Polity (F-2.03 – .05). There are obvious dangers in identifying and explicating essential tenets; there are also evident problems in assuming that we all know what they are without naming them, or that they can be whatever we want them to be.

Shared confessional resources are only one small way of holding us all close as Presbyterians. Some form of differentiation seems inevitable, and continuing denominational separation may be unavoidable. The question before us all is whether we acknowledge one another as parts of a larger whole, or whether we go separate ways with no continuing relationship.

The third part of the Draft Theology Proposal sets out the pressing need for serious, sustained theological work in a number of critical areas, and identifies possible areas of inquiry. This need is not restricted to one part of the church. “A Pastoral Rule,” developed by the Office of Theology and Worship’s “Re-Forming Ministry” initiative, is suggested as a way to translate need into commitment, a commitment that could also be shared.

I believe that the current differentiation and likely separation is a tragedy. Could it have been avoided? Maybe . . . but only if decades ago we had found more faithful ways of expressing and living out our differences in conviction. In any event, I hope the tragedy can be mitigated by avoiding the bitterness that has characterized previous schisms. I continue to believe that one way to preserve a form of continuing relationship is by holding foundational affirmations in common, even when we disagree on how these affirmations are understood and employed. At a minimum, shared foundational affirmations provide common ground for mutual affirmation and admonition.

I realize that many think my involvement in all of this is naïve at best, more likely quixotic, and perhaps damaging. However, I know that historically, theologically, and ecclesially, it takes two to schism, and I do not want to accede to a wide separation if a narrower divide is possible. I know that others are working hard to imagine ways that all can remain with integrity in the PC(USA). I pray they will succeed and that what now seems inevitable can be avoided, in whole or in degree.

For my part, I will surely remain a part of the church that brought me to faith. Long ago I learned from John Calvin that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is my mother in the Faith, and that I must remain under her care and guidance. As a child of the church I do not always agree with my parent; I am embarrassed from time to time, and occasionally angry. But the church remains my nurturing parent and I remain its thankful child. I grieve estrangement from any of my sisters and brothers. I will try to remain as close to all of them as possible, and I will hope for the day of family reunion.

Grace to you all, and peace.

Joseph D. Small is a church relations liaison for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Previously he was director of theology, worship and education ministries for the church’s General Assembly Mission Council.


Pastor Wildrick wrote his response on the website Presbyweb:

Dear Editor,

Joseph Small, in his open letter, asks “Could shared theological foundations, even though differently understood, encourage the possibility of continuing contact, dialogue, and relationship?” Later he says, ” I continue to believe that one way to preserve a form of continuing relationship is by holding foundational affirmations in common, even when we disagree on how these affirmations are understood and employed.”

While I have great respect for Small as a theologian and a brother in Christ, I have to say that these two statements demonstrate exactly the kind of muddled thinking that have gotten the PCUSA into the mess we are in. If our “shared theological foundations” are “differently understood,” then they are not shared at all. We are using the same words but meaning different things. Likewise, affirming the same words while disagreeing as to how we understand them and put them into practice, is in effect to make completely different affirmations.

James says “Let your yes be yes, and your no, no.” But if by “yes” you mean “maybe,” while by “yes” I mean “without any doubt,” we have a facade of unity without substance, and the appearance of agreement without understanding.

I do hope pray that the New Reformed Body and the PCUSA will continue “contact, dialogue, and relationship.” But let’s not have a relationship that is intentionally based on mutual misunderstanding!

Grace and Peace,
Jeff Wildrick
Dunellen, NJ


One Response to “Are we speaking the same language?”

  1. Captain_DG January 25, 2012 at 7:42 pm #

    The schism exists and it is only how and when it will be recognized. Clearly, the PCUSA is more comfortable accommodating the current culture than standing as an example of the better culture in Christ. It need not be exclusionary to be exemplary. Accept those who come, but stand as an example of what they can become.