Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Witherspoon Establishment vs. The Presbyterian Establishment

I thank the Witherspoon Society, the Presbyterian Church (USA)'s venerable liberal activist group, for posting a critique of my Rebuilding the Presbyterian Establishment. A distinguished group of professors, lions of the Sixties struggles that created the current affirmative-action model of church authority, defend the status quo. In so doing they bring out several misconceptions about my argument. As one young blogger wrote, "I'm not sure what the 'Witherspoon Society' is, but I can only hope that one day I write something that gets that many teachers cranky enough to sign something like that..."

They want to fight the old war; I am ready to move on to the new one.

The "PCUSA Professors' Response" reads my argument as nostalgia for sacramental authority of the clergy. They cite the stirring Biblical claim that in Christ "there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither bond nor free, neither male nor female" (Gal. 3:28) as proof of the need for structures in the church to represent different demographic groups. The cite Neibuhr to argue that we are prone to distort all human structures with our pride and sin, including structures that were meant for good. Most importantly, they believe that “The challenge for the PCUSA in the 21st century is to figure out how to further the work of reconciliation in a world with different social realities and challenges than the world of the 20th century.”

My point exactly. The affirmative action model championed by these activist professors in their youth is outdated now. Demographic representation rules were meant to foster a consciousness that diversity is good. They worked. Now those required structures perpetuate judging people's fitness for church leadership by their race, sex, and age. Galatians 3:28 is a call for the church to get beyond the world's obsessions with ethnicity, class, and sex -- not permanently institutionalize them in the church. What we need is not nostalgia for the structures of two generations ago, but a clear focus on spiritual service to Jesus Christ and his Great Commission. We should make every effort to try to draw into the burdens of church leadership people from all backgrounds who love and competently serve the church.

The church will always face internal competition, sometimes even conflict. What has gotten us through as a supernatural institution is our commitment to Christ and Scripture, and generous help from the Holy Spirit. What has gotten us through as a human institution is a body of leaders, both Teaching Elders and Ruling Elders, who have learned great practical wisdom about how to run Presbyterian institutions. When those leaders work together for the good of the church, we honor them as the Establishment who can be relied on in crisis. The church faces crises today, as we did in the past, and we will have to rely on our leaders in the future as much as we had to in the past.


Reyes-Chow said...

Beau - Thanks for staying in the conversation as always. I still would raise issue with the idea that "it worked" in terms of diversity. Could you flesh out what you mean by that and what you think that. I have been in far too many meetings this year with far too little divesity to think that this is the case.

So . . . while I agree with you about ways of being church need to change, I am not sure about the assumptions that guide your idea of change.

Good stuff . . . lets keep it coming.


Adam Copeland said...

Thanks, Beau. I've been watching the conversation re the paper with interest from my vantage point at Columbia Seminary.

I'll echo Bruce's point with a brief example. A friend of mine graduated from Columbia a few years ago and took a solo pastor call at a small church in the south. In a racially-diverse town, this congregation is 100% white. As the head of staff, my friend oversaw the hiring of a music director who is african american. All hell broke loose. Church members started spreading rumor's re my friend's sexual orientation. Eventually, he was asked to leave.

I don't know what to say except, it doesn't seem like our measures of the past years have worked at that congregation. And, in its presbytery, I don't think it is particularly unusual.

Mac said...

Ooooooh, I love a good academic cat fight. And this one's a doozy.

First a professor at a liberal denominational college has the gall to make some concrete suggestions for turning a large banking and real estate consortium which has been holding itself out as "The One True Church" back into a means of carrying out the Great Commission in the 21st Century.

Then a bunch of even more liberal academics, all of whom are "Rev. Dr.s" and Profs at seminaries and colleges/universities offer "destructive" criticism to their colleague. Their complaints: not enough data and crunched numbers, cause we all know that Jesus is all about numbers!

Then, it's an oppressive, unbiblical model, one that takes the power out of the hands of the bureaucrats and academics who are, as I recall, clearly made the sole custodians of the Church in Jude, Chapters 2 and 3. Instead, this radical seeks to put the authority and responsibility back into the hands of the elders who are mentioned only a few dozen times (or more, depending on the translation) in Scripture. OK, well, if you're gonna rely on THAT, (dismissive sniff). But they are right--Scriptural authority has been rejected by the current PC(USA).

I'll skip number 3 for a minute and note that 4 and 5 both represent their recognition that the proposal removes from consideration as an essential tenet of the Reformed faith the very quotas and set asides that they want and demand.

The one that really caught my eye was number 3. "I won't work in a post-Christian 21st Century America. (Sub silentio: "Please don't let it work in 21st Century America, because our interests are best served by the failed status quo.")

I mean diversity was such a big deal with Jesus. Of the 12, he had, well, 12 male Jewish working class followers. It played the dickens with the Scriptural mandate (I refer again to Jude, Chapter 4) that each group of apostles must have 6 men, 6 women, 6 Greeks, 6 Romans, 6 Jews, 6 Samaritans, 6 pagans (who will be hurt if they can't play), 6 rabbi's, 6 rabbits, 6 informants, 6maids a-milking.....

And then we got to their counter-suggestions.....didn't we? Hmmmm, they are strangely missing.

I am reminded of a maxim that was popular at Illinois State University when I was an undergrad in what was still primarily a teacher's college: "Them that can, do. Them that can't, teach. Them that can't teach, teach others to preach, er, teach."

Ultimately, dear Professor, you've been borked. You put out a well-written piece of work, with some concrete suggestions. Now I may take issue (from an intellectual point of view, anyway. I really no longer have a dog in the fight.) with your paper, but I will at least try to point out counter-suggestions.

You are in good company. When I was in my first semester of law school, we had a surprise opportunity to have a last-minute brown bagger with a young United States Senator.

He explored with us the issues that we might have to face between 1977 annd 2007. He mentioned that he was on Judiciary and the Intelligence committees. A couple of traitors had just compromised some really good spy satellite technology, but the defense counsel were threatening to expose even more if their clients were taken to trial.

What to do asked our guest. Maybe we should trot out the Court of Star Chamber. At the very least it would be our responsibility, said Joe Biden, to think of these issues and to bring to the table counter-proposals.

When he and his buds were borking Bork for what he had written in a purely academic environment, I suggested to minority counsel that he ought to ask Biden if he was still in favor of Star Chamber for suspected spies. Nah. Too timid--and it would have been unfair. His comment had been an effort to get conversation and debate over concrete proposals moving.

All the clowns that have brightened your day have done is say, "will not!"

In the next few days, I hope to have time to really look at your proposal--which in so many ways mirrors much of what New Wineskins has been saying about Ministry Networks and bottom up mission. (Sorry, kiss of death there.) I'll try to do you the courtesy of offering counter-proposals.

While we may be in different parts of the vineyard, the Master of the vineyard wants all parts to be productive. It is probably a good idea to listen to Him, doncha think?

Gruntled said...

I agree with the PC(USA) policy to seek greater racial and ethnic diversity. I believe that most members, and an even higher percentage of church leaders, see the value of this effort.

If the meetings that you have in mind are not diverse because the church is not diverse, then we agree that this is a goal worth pursuing vigorously. My experience of church committees is that they are more ethnically diverse than the church as a whole is, not less.

There are, no doubt, still instances of people being discriminated against in the church due solely to their race or sex. Any one of us would have to know a great deal about a particular case to be sure that was the reason. And a few cases does not establish a general pattern. All that I have seen makes me think that this kind of case -- individual discrimination based solely on race or sex -- is now rare in the Presbyterian Church.

SPWeston said...

Our denomination has hearts to win, spirits to nourish, minds to equip, and a world to serve.

As long as our first focus is fear of one another, we will do that work too weakly.

We're burying talents in the ground, when we are called to turn them outward as blessings to a wider world. That's wrong, and it's time to stop.