May 13, 2014
Faith Presbyterian Church Envisioning a World as Generous and Just as God’s Grace
The Faculty of Austin Seminary
c/o Rev. Dr. Theodore J. Wardlaw, President Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary 100 E. 27th Street
Austin, Texas 78705
As a commissioner from Mission Presbytery to this year’s General Assembly, I am grateful that Austin Seminary has joined with my alma mater, Columbia Theological Seminary, in conversation about the opportunities before us as a church at General Assembly. I’ve taken the weekend to consider carefully the words of Austin Seminary and share both seminary statements with our session at Faith Presbyterian Church. I hope you will allow me to accept the invitation to constructive dialogue and to share my concerns with you.
I realize the future of institutions and many of our careers are held in the balance should the church split further. Many have already lost their livelihoods to downsizing and many more are likely even with a General Assembly void of conflict. In addition to these losses, let us remember also the loss of those who have been denied admission to our leadership and denied participation in our sacred rites simply because they are born lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer. Make no mistake that I’m mindful of the price all people suffer psychologically, emotionally, spiritually and physically during times of such institutional instability, contraction, and anxiety. All are in need our solidarity and not our shame.
I am convinced that young people of strong faith are looking for churches that speak boldly, love deeply, and walk clearly in the way of Jesus Christ. We know that nothing stays the same forever and the gaps of years between rapid and pervasive change are smaller and smaller. Simply put, we must respond to the questions of our age with courage, competence, and in a timely manner. We simply can’t let our society down by failing to speak truth lovingly to power even as we welcome dissent and disagreement.
Looking the statement over further, though, I did find particular phrases problematic. If the paragraph beginning with “The issues we are facing are complex.” were to be removed as well as the last two sentences of the previous paragraph and one phrase from the next paragraph, “…pressing too quickly for changes not widely supported across the church and from…”, the statement would eliminate most of its patronizing, presumptuous and discouraging tone. I also think it worth removing the sentence, “Along with promoting justice, however, we believe we are also called to “love kindness, and walk humbly with God.” This sentence sets up a false dichotomy as if love and justice are somehow a tradeoff. They are not.
I know marriage is only one issue before us as an assembly and not the only issue to which your statement speaks. It is noteworthy, however, that a review of the PCUSA social witness policy shows that we have been dealing with marriage equality since 1976. To evaluate a resolution which might be arrived at in 2014 as “premature” sounds as if 38 years is too soon without giving an indicator as to what constitutes a reasonable time to speak on these questions that are very relevant to our times as evidenced by 304 corporations, 17 states, the courts, and perhaps soon the NFL officially embracing marriage equality.
1314 E. Oltorf Austin, Texas 78758 512-444-1314
These times are not dissimilar to the time when MLK, Jr. spoke from a Birmingham jail to those eight white Alabama clergy or when Nelson Mandela called for truth to be spoken so vehemently that it landed him at Robben Island and imprisoned for 27 years before he called for reconciliation. It has always been the church that has been slowest to stand for justice during movements for equality and justice. It was the mainline church in the southern U.S. that gave reinforcement to racism. For this reason, what we say and how we say it is very important paying careful attention, especially as Southerners, to who is being asked to “wait.”
It must be said as well that the church has also been a key catalyst toward greater justice and greater peace when the wisdom of the church has caught up with the wisdom of Jesus Christ whom we follow.
Proudly, many Presbyterian churches, including the one in Canyon, Texas that nurtured my call, were among those that marched in the streets to end segregation in both church and culture. We see this as well when the World Alliance of Reformed Churches pressured the Dutch Reformed Church of South Africa to abandon apartheid. Where will we, the Austin Presbyterian community, choose to be during this moment? A catalyst? Or reinforcer of the status quo?
You need to know that this statement is heard, rightly or wrongly, as a call from our local seminary to make doubly certain that those who are halfway out the door feel as if they are not cut off from the body of Christ while those who have been longsuffering and committed to the church can wait a little longer. This presumes that those leaving are not being accommodated or are being asked to leave. Nothing could be further from the truth. An aborted sense of justice while calling for a biased peace in order to “play it safe,” is not a way to bear witness to Jesus Christ who sacrificed credibility with the powerful to reach out in love to the powerless.
Remember these words of scripture from 2 Timothy, “…for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control. Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord…”
If I were to have hoped for the best word from our theological institutions at this time, it would have rather been to encourage all of us to act without fear, to deal with each other with charity, and remember these words of the Belhar Confession (with apologies for the language) that we are called upon to study this year as well. I have attached it in hopes that you will join me in reflecting upon them as we travel together to General Assembly in Detroit.
With Gratitude and Respect,
Rev. Dr. Kyle M. Walker, Transitional Pastor
cc: The session of Faith Presbyterian Church Queer Alliance
Confession of Belhar September 1986
1. We believe in the triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who gathers, protects and cares for the church through Word and Spirit. This, God has done since the beginning of the world and will do to the end.
2. We believe in one holy, universal Christian church, the communion of saints called from the entire human family.
- that Christ’s work of reconciliation is made manifest in the church as the community of believers who have been reconciled with God and with one another (Eph. 2:11-22);
- that unity is, therefore, both a gift and an obligation for the church of Jesus Christ; that through the working of God’s Spirit it is a binding force, yet simultaneously a reality which must be earnestly pursued and sought: one which the people of God must continually be built up to attain (Eph. 4:1-16);
- that this unity must become visible so that the world may believe that separation, enmity and hatred between people and groups is sin which Christ has already conquered, and accordingly that anything which threatens this unity may have no place in the church and must be resisted (John 17:20-23);
- that this unity of the people of God must be manifested and be active in a variety of ways: in that we love one another; that we experience, practice and pursue community with one another; that we are obligated to give ourselves willingly and joyfully to be of benefit and blessing to one another; that we share one faith, have one calling, are of one soul and one mind; have one God and Father, are filled with one Spirit, are baptized with one baptism, eat of one bread and drink of one cup, confess one name, are obedient to one Lord, work for one cause, and share one hope; together come to know the height and the breadth and the depth of the love of Christ; together are built up to the stature of Christ, to the new humanity; together know and bear one another’s burdens, thereby fulfilling the law of Christ that we need one another and upbuild one another, admonishing and comforting one another; that we suffer with one another for the sake of righteousness; pray together; together serve God in this world; and together fight against all which may threaten or hinder this unity (Phil. 2:1-5; 1 Cor. 12:4-31; John 13:1-17; 1 Cor. 1:10-13; Eph. 4:1-6; Eph. 3:14-20; 1 Cor. 10:16-17; 1 Cor. 11:17-34; Gal. 6:2; 2 Cor. 1:3-4);
- that this unity can be established only in freedom and not under constraint; that the variety of spiritual gifts, opportunities, backgrounds, convictions, as well as the various languages and cultures, are by virtue of the reconciliation in Christ, opportunities for mutual service and enrichment within the one visible people of God (Rom. 12:3-8; 1 Cor. 12:1-11; Eph. 4:7-13; Gal. 3:27-28; James 2:1-13);
- that true faith in Jesus Christ is the only condition for membership of this church.
Therefore, we reject any doctrine
- which absolutizes either natural diversity or the sinful separation of people in such a way that this absolutization hinders or breaks the visible and active unity of the church, or even leads to the establishment of a separate church formation;
- which professes that this spiritual unity is truly being maintained in the bond of peace while believers of the same confession are in effect alienated from one another for the sake of diversity and in despair of reconciliation;
- which denies that a refusal earnestly to pursue this visible unity as a priceless gift is sin;
- which explicitly or implicitly maintains that descent or any other human or social factor should be a consideration in determining membership of the church.
3. We believe
- that God has entrusted the church with the message of reconciliation in and through Jesus Christ, that the church is called to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world, that the church is called blessed because it is a peacemaker, that the church is witness both by word and by deed to the new heaven and the new earth in which righteousness dwells (2 Cor. 5:17-21; Matt. 5:13-16; Matt. 5:9; 2 Peter 3:13; Rev. 21-22).
- that God’s lifegiving Word and Spirit has conquered the powers of sin and death, and therefore also of irreconciliation and hatred, bitterness and enmity, that God’s lifegiving Word and Spirit will enable the church to live in a new obedience which can open new possibilities of life for society and the world (Eph. 4:17–6:23, Rom. 6; Col. 1:9-14; Col. 2:13-19; Col. 3:1–4:6);
- that the credibility of this message is seriously affected and its beneficial work obstructed when it is proclaimed in a land which professes to be Christian, but in which the enforced separation of people on a racial basis promotes and perpetuates alienation, hatred and enmity;
- that any teaching which attempts to legitimate such forced separation by appeal to the gospel, and is not prepared to venture on the road of obedience and reconciliation, but rather, out of prejudice, fear, selfishness and unbelief, denies in advance the reconciling power of the gospel, must be considered ideology and false doctrine.
Therefore, we reject any doctrine
• which, in such a situation, sanctions in the name of the gospel or of the will of God the forced separation of people on the grounds of race and color and thereby in advance obstructs and weakens the ministry and experience of reconciliation in Christ.
4. We believe
- that God has revealed himself as the one who wishes to bring about justice and true peace among people;
- that God, in a world full of injustice and enmity, is in a special way the God of the destitute, the poor and the wronged;
- that God calls the church to follow him in this, for God brings justice to the oppressed and gives bread to the hungry;
- that God frees the prisoner and restores sight to the blind;
- that God supports the downtrodden, protects the stranger, helps orphans and widows and blocks the path of the ungodly;
- that for God pure and undefiled religion is to visit the orphans and the widows in their suffering;
- that God wishes to teach the church to do what is good and to seek the right (Deut. 32:4; Luke 2:14; John 14:27; Eph. 2:14; Isa. 1:16-17; James 1:27; James 5:1-6; Luke 1:46-55; Luke 6:20-26; Luke 7:22; Luke 16:19-31; Ps. 146; Luke 4:16-19; Rom. 6:13-18; Amos 5);
- that the church must therefore stand by people in any form of suffering and need, which implies, among other things, that the church must witness against and strive against any form of injustice, so that justice may roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream;
- that the church as the possession of God must stand where the Lord stands, namely against injustice and with the wronged; that in following Christ the church must witness against all the powerful and privileged who selfishly seek their own interests and thus control and harm others.
Therefore, we reject any ideology
• which would legitimate forms of injustice and any doctrine which is unwilling to resist such an ideology in the name of the gospel.
5. We believe that, in obedience to Jesus Christ, its only head, the church is called to confess and to do all these things, even though the authorities and human laws might forbid them and punishment and suffering be the consequence (Eph. 4:15-16; Acts 5:29-33; 1 Peter 2:18-25; 1 Peter 3:15-18).
Jesus is Lord.
To the one and only God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, be the honor and the glory for ever and ever.
Note: This is a translation of the original Afrikaans text of the confession as it was adopted by the synod of the Dutch Reformed Mission Church in South Africa in 1986. In 1994 the Dutch Reformed Mission Church and the Dutch Reformed Church in Africa united to form the Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa (URCSA). This inclusive language text was prepared by the Office of Theology and Worship, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).