A few years ago the travel section of one of the newspapers did a lighthearted feature on some of the funniest English-language signs people had seen in cities around the world where English was not the first language. The only one I remember was a notice on the window of a tailor shop in an Asian city: “Alterations Made by the Latest Methodists.”
Whatever alterations the Methodists may be making these days have not been getting nearly as much attention as those happening among a couple of other groups. Anglicans are certainly making alterations on both ends of the theological spectrum. But as a Presbyterian of the PCUSA variety, I am in the midst of much controversy over changes made at our recent General Assembly. Some folks are trying to exegete those alterations–most of them focusing on sexual orientation and ordination standards–to minimize the damage. But there is no question about the way the changes have been received. Conservatives feel like they lost a battle in which the liberals operated with a take-no-prisoners strategy. And the liberal groups have been gleeful in their declarations of having achieved something of historic proportions.
I spent a day a few weeks ago at the Presbyterian General Assembly in San Jose, and found my fellow evangelicals deeply discouraged. In a luncheon speech that I gave to Fuller alums who were at the Assembly, I reflected a bit on two voices from the past who offer perspectives for what we are presently experiencing in our denomination. The first voice is one whose views on the subject I firmly reject. In 1835 the great revivalist Charles Finney commented on the Presbyterianism of his own day with this assessment: “No doubt there is a jubilee in hell every year, about the time of the meeting of the General Assembly.”
That is much too harsh. Official denominational gatherings may not be the most important thing that God cares about, but they do serve significant purposes. And sometimes they actually make helpful decisions.
That seems like a much too modest endorsement of the role of official ecclesiastical assemblies, but I am convinced that it is exactly the right tone from a Presbyterian perspective. Those early Calvinists who got the whole Presbyterian thing going were certainly convinced of the frailty of their effort, and they regularly cautioned against putting too much stock in what goes on in official gatherings. Here is a nicely nuanced teaching on the subject in the declaration of the 1560 Scots Confession on “General Councils, their Power, Authority and the Cause of their Summoning”:
“As we do not rashly condemn what good men assembled together in general councils set before us; so do we do not receive uncritically what has been declared to men under the name of the general councils, for it is plain that, being human, some of them have manifestly erred, and that in matters of great work, weight and importance. So far then as the council confirms its decrees by the plain Word of God, so far do we reverence and embrace them.”
That is very sensible advice to Presbyterians in local churches who want to be faithful to their heritage. Good Calvinists do not look for consistent wisdom from any other source than the sovereign God who has revealed his will for us in the infallible Scriptures. All other sources of guidance will often fail and disappoint us. Our assignment is to get on with the work of the Kingdom in obedience to “the plain Word of God.”