“What place do confessional documents have in the modern Presbyterian church?” –@ASecludedHour
I read this question, and red lights went off in my brain. A small voice told me, Don’t get involved in talking about confessions! Why wouldn’t I want to talk about confessional documents? Honestly, because arguments over confessions have been raging pretty much since people started hanging out and calling themselves Presbyterian. (Actually, since way before that; but we’ll stick with the Presbyterian thing or this will be the longest post ever.) These fights are epic, legendary. Old Light/New Light, Old School/New School, PCA/PCUSA, PCUSA/ECOP. Of course these arguments and splits involve a lot more than confessions, but one recurring theme throughout these fights is one group wants a stricter adherence to or more defined theology from a certain confession. This usually involves a certain behavior that one group is supporting (revivals, ordination of women, etc.) that the other group thinks would stop if we stuck closer to the confession.
I really am trying to explain this evenly and fairly, but it’s hard. If you really want the viewpoint of someone who wants stricter adherence to confessions there are plenty other blogs and resources. This is my blog. I’m not saying this to be mean but to be authentic and honest. My beliefs and feelings on the decisive issues are well known. I’m unapologetically pro-female ordination, pro-revivals based on the Holy Spirit, pro-new interpretations, and pro-LGBTQ ordination. That doesn’t mean I don’t listen to, worship with, or hang around people who don’t believe the same things. I like hanging out with people who believe and think differently than I do. That’s why I hold many of the beliefs I do.
In every Presbyterian church I’ve been in language from the Book of Confessions pops up in everyday conversation. People say “In life and in death I belong to God” without even registering that phrase is from one of our confessions. That’s pretty cool. It’s a part of our everyday life.
On the other hand, often there is a tip of the hat to the confessions without really studying them or registering what they actually say. The confessions are hard. They don’t speak with one voice. How can they? These are documents from very specific communities to express their faith for their time, and understandings of what each confession means for theology and living a faithful life has changed. Not everyone thinks these confessions matter to our lives today. Some of them use funny language and loaded words. They’re not easy to decode or to see how they apply not just in the snippets we use offhandedly but also in the continuing journey of our faith communities.
The Confessions are a mixed bag. They can be powerful inspirations or anchors weighing us down. In the Presbyterian church we’re not floating in a void of “oh, no one’s thought of this before in our tradition.” We can look at the ways people have handled things in the past and need to evaluate not only their methods but also their conclusions in light of new understandings and new contexts. When I read in the confessions that women aren’t allowed to be leaders, I don’t get angry or upset. I thank God that my church re-evaluated that idea and how proclaims that God calls women and men to all ministries of the church–an idea which is also is the confessions. These documents are put together in dialogue with one another and with us. We need to read them, understand them within their own context, struggle with them, and let some things stand and let some things go.
The only thing that never changes is God. Putting a single confession and a single interpretation of that confession on a pedestal and declaring they can’t be changed is undermining the Spirit’s movement, but also dropping the confessions and acting like they don’t matter is undermining the Spirit’s movement. God has moved in the past, God is moving in the present, and God will move in the future.
My view of how the confessions function in the modern Presbyterian church is that they function like a family heirloom pearl necklace. You can look at them and think they’re pretty, but once they’re passed on to you if they don’t mean anything you’re going to put the pearls into a drawer and let them gather dust. They’re irrelevant. But if you recognize the story behind the pearl necklace, why it’s so important that someone wants to pass it on, and you find new meaning for that heirloom in your life you’re going to wear them. Maybe not all the time. Maybe they don’t belong on every outfit and maybe the necklace needs to be shortened or lengthened; but the story of the pearl necklace becomes part of your story. It becomes part of who you are because you are part of a much broader narrative that the pearls symbolize. Hopefully once we own our family’s pearl necklace and recognize the baggage and hope it brings we’ll be slower to criticize someone else’s family heirloom that they are struggling to carry with authenticity.
A Prayer Before Reading the Book of Confessions
Help us to honor the people of faith who have come before us.
Even though they were flawed they were trying to follow you.
Help us to respect the people of faith who are living now.
Even though we are flawed we are trying to follow you.
Help us shape the people of faith who will live someday.
Even though they will be flawed we want to help them to follow you.
As we read these confessions give us empathy and insight into the world they were written in,
and give us the wisdom to see where they apply to our own lives,
where they call us to responsibility,
where they call us to faithfulness,
and what they call us to change.
Above all, lead us to follow Jesus in everything we do and say.
Jesus is the Head of the Church,
and we are part of the Body of Christ.
We know we do not read these documents alone
but with the Cloud of Witnesses’ witness
and with the Spirit guiding us.
Guide us now as we read, discuss, and struggle. Amen.