Recently I got into an email discussion with a good friend of mine, a friend who comes from a different Christian tradition from my own. We were talking about some of the potentially contentious issues that are likely to be discussed in upcoming meetings of Presbytery and General Assembly. Issues of the place and participation of people who identify as LGBTQ+ within the church have been raised. I expect to participate in those discussions both at Presbytery and at General Assembly as I am a commissioner this year.
Now, my friend and I don’t necessarily agree about how such questions should be answered. That’s fine; I think it’s a good thing to have friends who disagree with you. But in our discussion, my friend expressed some concern about my “agenda.” That made me think a little bit. What is my agenda going into these discussions? After a little while, this is what I wrote to my friend:
I don’t really see myself as having an agenda apart from seeking to live out the gospel as faithfully as I can in this world. I also feel that God has given me a call to challenge and give an alternative to what I call “toxic Christianity” – the kind of Christianity that leads to misogyny, hatred and stuff like this.
I am not trying to change my denomination but rather to help it navigate through some very difficult times when people are in disagreement…
This is actually something that is unique about Presbyterian theology (and will probably sound very strange to a Pentecostal) but we believe and teach that the Holy Spirit speaks through the courts of the church. When a Session or a Presbytery or a General Assembly gathers and is constituted in prayer and debates fully, we believe that God speaks. Within our polity, by bringing a controversial motion, I am seeking God’s will. I am totally fine with what the answer is and it doesn’t have to be what I put forward. I’m not driving the agenda but seeking the Spirit in the manner that a good Presbyterian is supposed to do.
I am very grateful for that conversation with my friend and that I am fortunate enough to have a friend who is willing to respectfully engage in disagreement like that. I think it is always a very good thing to take opportunities to explain your theology and church polity to someone who has absolutely no experience with it. It helps you to see your tradition through the eyes of an outsider.
Looking at the Presbyterian tradition of polity has reminded me of how Church courts are really supposed to function. They are not meant to be places for people to carry out their agendas. I know that happens sometimes, but that is not the purpose and function of a church court. The true function is to seek the will of God and to listen for the voice of the Holy Spirit and to do that with as much openness as we possibly can.
With all of that in mind, I have an expectation that I will be participating in some contentious discussions in the coming weeks both at my Presbytery and at General Assembly. I would like to take this opportunity to make my pledge that I will not go into those meetings with an agenda.
That does not mean that I will not make some provocative motions or that I will not put forward courses of action that some people will not like or agree with. But I will not do that because I have an agenda. I will do that because I recognize that what we have been doing hasn’t been working. We have basically been trying to ignore the issue and hope it goes away. That’s not working. We have been encouraging people not to talk about it –their orientation, their gender identity issues or their positions regarding such things. That has not been working and, in some cases, it has been causing a great deal of pain. I don’t know what the answers are, but I do know that we need some answers. Anything I put forward, it is my hope and prayer, will be something that fosters discussion in which we can all listen for the voice of the Holy Spirit.
Now that is the only kind of agenda that I can get behind. I hope that everyone else will make that same pledge, not because we agree but because we might disagree and because, now more than ever, we need to approach our church courts in the way that they were intended to be.