Playing at Presbyterianism

Here Is Its SteepleCarmen Fowler LaBerge of the Layman recently posted a reflection titled “Commentary on a Comment: ‘People are Going to Hell While You’re Playing at Presbyterianism.” She wrote it after attending the Covenant Network conference on marriage a few weeks ago and last week’s World Outreach Encounter of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church.

Here is how she sets up her commentary:

The headline is a quote from a Presbyterian frustrated with what feels like an interminable elitist obsession with sex and an equally grievous lack of passion for the proclamation of the saving Gospel to a lost and dying world. … “Carmen, people are going to hell while you’re playing around in ivory-tower Presbyterian politics.”

Carmen and I stand at opposite ends of the theological spectrum and have completely different views of LGBTQ issues in the church we both serve. In her commentary she maintains a line of argument that suggests conservatives and progressives are not simply different expressions of faith with different emphases but are in fact different faiths altogether. She’s a leader in the political games of “playing Presbyterianism.”

Unless I missed something, I don’t think Carmen ever provides a response to the challenge of her evangelical friend. She never defends her political crusade against the charge that it misses the point of the gospel. Instead, she uses it as a jumping off point to dismiss progressive Christianity—“You cannot reach people with a love you have not experienced and you cannot invite people into a relationship with a God you do not really know.”—and play more political games.

There is no doubt that Carmen’s friend and I have very different understandings of salvation. But I agree with him that “playing Presbyterian” is a waste of time when the world desperately needs the good news of God’s love. Heaven, hell, and the afterlife are not central to my understanding of the gospel, but I am no less passionate about salvation in the way of Jesus Christ. I wouldn’t say that “people are going to hell while you’re playing at Presbyterianism,” but I would say that “people are suffering, people are dying, and the world is burning while you’re playing at Presbyterianism.”

Bitterly fighting over theology and polity is the obsession of Christendom. In the post-Christendom church we don’t have time for such distractions.

Comments

  1. Ann Philbrick says:

    I think that the fight over sexuality is, paradoxically, both a deeply important fight over different understandings of God AND a distraction from the important work of offering hope and help and healing to a broken world. (I am a life-long presbyterian and a 30 year-long ordained minister in the PC(USA) ).

    • I agree with you about the paradox, Ann. It is clearly important or else we wouldn’t be so passionate about it. Still, it seems to me that we ought to be able to find ways to agree to disagree—which is a major departure from Christendom’s insistence on uniformity—and be more focused on God’s mission in the world, however we understand it. (We will, of course, disagree on how to understand mission, but I think I’m okay with that, too.)

  2. Thank you for this thoughtful response to Carmen’s article. We are indeed in trouble when one would say, “You cannot reach people with a love you have not experienced and you cannot invite people into a relationship with a God you do not really know.” when speaking about someone else’s faith and devotion.
    I believe we are “lost.” However, not in the way that Carmen would use that word. I believe we are lost when we spend millions a year on propping ourselves up while much of the world, including those in our neighborhoods, experience hell every day. I believe we are lost when our commitment to credal statements trump our faith in the God to which those very statements attempt to point. I believe we are lost when we would rather speak of the people and things we are convinced God is against (which interestingly enough are mirror images of the things with which we find ourselves uncomfortable) rather than pointing the way toward the people and things for which God speaks. I believe we are lost when we conveniently forget the unsettling nature of the words of Jesus, to which you pointed in your other post today, in exchange for American democratic values.
    If that was all I believed I would be in deep despair. However it is not. I believe in a God who has acted and continues to act. I believe in a God who calls us to follow. And I believe that there are faithful representatives of the Good News of the Gospel, like you, who are leading us all faithfully into our post-Christendom world.
    Thank you, John for your powerful response and your faithful witness. May we all find hope in these upcoming days of Advent in a God who takes action is present with us.

  3. Larry McCracken says:

    John, I’ve been a fairly consistent reader of you blog. I have some understanding of your frustrations and hopes for the church universal. I just wish you could find a term different than “post-Christendom.” I am sorry that I am inadequate to suggest a different one, but to me it just connotes too much negativity. And maybe that’s just me. Please keep pushing for change and expressing your ideas in such a thought manner.

    • Hi Larry. What do you find negative about the term? I love it! (Mostly because I despise the Christianity of Christendom and am eager for a new way.) Douglas John Hall tackles the term well in his book, “Waiting for Gospel,” but it’s used widely now. I’m curious what doesn’t work about it for you?

      • Larry McCracken says:

        Adam — Sorry I didn’t reply sooner. But by waiting to read further comments and additional post by John, I now have a better understanding of what “Christendom” means. Not being a student of current theology trends I was unfamiliar with the term and should have at least Googled it before commenting in the negative. I thought the term referred more to the worldwide community of Christians rather than Christian majority countries, which is the more contemporary definition. And yes, we in the US and many sections of the globe are definitely in a post-Christendom era.

    • This is interesting, Larry, because you’re the second person in a week to make a comment about not liking the term post-Christendom. The first was after I preached on Sunday and the reasons were similar to yours.

      I need to do a little more exploration of how people respond to the term and the concepts behind it. My sense is that it only carries a negative connotation if you are committed to the Christendom form of church. For me, it’s a liberating and energizing concept. But now I wonder how many people have the same reaction as you do.

      • Amy Pagliarella says:

        I can certainly understand why people find this term negative, John, but I hope you will clarify it rather than give up on it. My guess is that people hear “post Christian,” and don’t actually know what Christendom means. For me, post-Christendom (in America) implies that Christianity is no longer the assumed religion. This is such a gift because it frees us from a watered-down Christianity that is blandly acceptable to most people and instead demands that we are passionate about our faith. It’s a chance to recapture some of the fervor of the early Jesus followers before Constantine and others had used Christianity for their own purposes.

  4. Henry Chamberlain says:

    Do you really believe that we, in the post-Christendom church, have no time “for such distractions,” as talking about different understandings of what the Gospel is? If we don’t have time for it, why do you spend time writing a blog like this? It seems so contradictory.
    Methinks it is not a matter of time but of something else: differences are deemed unimportant and inconsequential by many people today, and talking about is seen as a waste of time — and people who disagree with that basic philosophy, should be silenced and ignored. And for attempts to silence people, you seem to have more time than for ignoring them…

    • I’m not trying to silence anyone. And I think theological discussion and debate is critical—that’s the only way we grow. What I think is a waste of time—and destructive to the body of Christ—is winner-takes-all denominational politics. I’m happy for us to debate, but I don’t presume that either one of us needs to convince the other. The church—and I believe even a denomination like the PC(USA)—is big enough for Christians with even profound differences to coexist.

  5. Thank you. You prompted me to write this:
    http://marciglass.com/2013/11/24/more-lines-in-the-sand/

Trackbacks

  1. […] Laberge,  commented on the Covenant Network Conference I was a part of last month. His article is here. And he says it […]

  2. […] on the difference between unity and uniformity in the church. Last week’s post about “Playing at Presbyterianism” helped me frame this reflection in terms of the shift from Christendom to post-Christendom. As it […]

Speak Your Mind

*