In my Presbyterian (PC(USA)) polity class on Tuesday, we spent nearly the full hour and a half discussing what is now Book of Order G-2.0104b, “Gifts and Qualifications” (that is, qualifications for ordered ministries, a.k.a. our deacons, elders, and ministers of Word and Sacrament). (I’m doing my best not to go deep geek on you here, really!)
We weren’t discussing the words on the current page. We were stepping through the bitter fights of what? the past forty years?, centering on the clause that for fifteen years we referred to as G-6.0106b. Our struggle to grapple with what discussion of sexuality (if any) was properly included in our governing documents routinely made the national news. I was never quite sure why they paid attention—the intersection of the words “church” and “sex,” perhaps?—but that’s not what I want to dig into, anyway.
Our prof went through the history because my much younger classmates, who know only what’s now the tail-end, will encounter folk for whom these struggles are still fresh and current. As one of my high school teachers said to me in 1984 about the Vietnam conflict, “That’s not history. That’s news.”
And also because, I think, a part of the deep tensions in those struggles is still alive and well.
My classmates all seemed outraged and flabbergasted that anyone within a generation (or two) of them could so profoundly defend what to them seems unloving and unlovely behavior, unsuitable for the open and progressive Presbyterian Christians they see themselves—and the rest of their denominational siblings—as. Blessedly, my professor paused to flesh out the worldviews:
progressive, or what I’m going to call social-justice.
I say “blessedly,” because as a 49-year-old PC(USA) Presbyterian these struggles have been the fabric of regional and national church life for essentially all of mine. And I have lived inside both worldviews.
Let me see if I can paraphrase him.
“Evangelical” here doesn’t mean what you probably think—it’s a technical term meaning, “Go talk to people about Jesus Christ.” Presbyterian congregations who are evangelical put their focus and their heart into the joy of Jesus Christ’s saving grace… and spilling that joy everywhere they are. It is a relational focus, because sharing joyful news happens in conversation—and intimacy, because one doesn’t usually walk up to someone cold on the street and say joyful things like, “I have a grandbaby!” (Even I don’t do that.) An evangelical (see the small “E”? 😉 ) congregation is a locally-focused congregation. If you ask the question from the parable of the Good Samaritan, “Who’s your neighbor?” they will tell you, in detail. But they are much less interested in activities beyond their neighborhood, or their relational work, because those activities get abstract in a hurry. And abstract rarely connects hearts to Christ.
Congregations with a social justice focus put their focus and heart into not only “Who’s your neighbor?” but into Christ’s assertion that the kingdom of God (God’s world as God wants it to be) is not only in the future but is now. Understanding our responsibility to, as in our shorthand, the least and the lost, these congregations march, and write letters, hold symposia, and draft legislation. Like evangelical congregations, they feed the hungry who come, and care for the weak nearby and far away. But unlike evangelical congregations, they see the thrust of their efforts needing to push from the neighborhood to the city to the county, the state, the nation, the globe. They work to implement God’s shalom* through all the human tools they can find, including abstractions like policy, and law.
Friends, I see these both imperatives as I read Scripture.
And I see through my experience how it ends up being hard for a congregation to both at once. Think of yourself: are you both close and expansive all the time? I bet you have a bent, a default: you are usually more close, you are usually more expansive.
What I don’t see, as the small-e evangelical daughter of social-justice parents, is a larger reconciled realization that our collective responsibility for sharing the shalom of God/Creator, God/Christ, God/Holy Spirit not only can hold both these focuses, but demands both these imperatives.
If we, both of us we’s, are slaves to the God of love, how about we open that love to all the humans sharing that shalom?
Why can’t we all… not just get along, but actively support each other? Or at least hold our judgements of each other in abeyance, waiting for the Just Judge to handle the responsibility which God has always claimed for God’s-self?
May it be so.
PS: If you hoped I was going to talk about “big E” and social justice, do I have the writer for you! D. L. Mayfield is a terrific writer and engaging thinker who is Evangelical and completely—jumped-in-the-deep-end—into social justice. You can find her occasional blogging as well as her books at her website.
*shalom: generally translated as “peace,” but I like the way my lead pastor phrases it—”When God gets what God wants.”