In last week’s news update, I wrote about the long history of conflict within the Presbyterian Church, particularly efforts to manage it in the mid- to late-1700’s. This article has a connection to that article by sharing an example of a situation involving “truths and forms with respect to which [persons] of good characters and principles may differ” and calls for all “to exercise mutual forbearance toward each other” (F-3.0105),
I remember one of the first conflicts I had a role in helping to address, back when I was serving my first congregation in the Lewistown, Pennsylvania, area. It was the early 1980’s, at the time of the military buildup orchestrated by the Reagan administration. At the same time, there was a movement that was picked up in some church circles advocating for the United States to implement a unilateral nuclear freeze.
The pastor of one of the Presbyterian churches in the Lewistown area preached a sermon supportive of the nuclear freeze option. Many members of the congregation objected to the sermon. The largest employer in the area was a steel mill that made products like wheels and axles for the railroad industry and steel for farm equipment, both industries that were struggling in the late 1970’s into the early 1980’s. The mill also received the occasional defense contract, including a significant one at that time to make rings to be used in the production of military missiles. In response to the sermon, the session considered a motion to direct the pastor not to preach on that topic again.
In addition to being an example of a situation involving “truths and forms with respect to which [persons] of good characters and principles may differ” and calling for all “to exercise mutual forbearance toward each other” (F-3.0105), It also illustrates the division of responsibilities between pastor and session when it comes to worship.
The session (which includes the pastor/moderator) has the responsibility of “providing a place where the congregation may regularly gather for worship, education, and spiritual nurture [and] providing for regular preaching of the Word” (G-3.0201a). But it is the sole discretion of the pastor as to “the selection of Scriptures to be read, the preparation of the sermon, the prayers to be offered, the selection of music to be sung, printed worship aids or media presentations for a given service, and the use of drama, dance, and other art forms in a particular service of worship” (W-2.0304). It was out of order for that session years ago to attempt to direct the pastor as to the content of any sermon.
That is the letter of the law according to Presbyterian polity, but what about the spirit of our polity that measures everything done against the following standard: “that the congregation is and becomes a community of faith, hope, love, and witness” (G-3.0201). The possibilities are many that a pastor may step on the toes of the congregation with all of the ways we communicate today, in a sermon, newsletter article, social media post, Bible study, or other venue. (The Constitutional protection noted above only covers preaching.) How do we maintain the unity of the Spirit and the peace, unity, and purity of the body of Christ, especially when we disagree?
In the three congregations I served, I always preached essentially the same sermon as the second one I delivered to the congregation. Titled alternately “The Foolishness of Preaching” or “Selling Shoes for a Living,” I tried to make the point that not every message I delivered would meet everybody’s needs or agreement. The message was like a shoe I was asking people to try on. If they found it met their needs and was reasonably comfortable, they might consider walking around in it for a while. If not, there was always next week. (Of course, preaching should not always (often?) make us too comfortable.)
Preaching (and some of the other activities mentioned above) is actually a shared responsibility. Proclamation by the pastor must always be met with active listening by the congregation. But listening does not necessarily mean agreement. As mentioned, there are truths and forms where we may disagree, because “’God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in anything contrary to his Word, or beside it, in matters of faith or worship.’ Therefore we consider the rights of private judgment, in all matters that respect religion, as universal and unalienable.” (F-3.0101). Whereas a pastor has the right to choose the Scripture and the interpretation to be proclaimed, the listener has the right to disagree, that is, to reach a differing private judgment.
I have been speaking as to what our polity requires, allows, and expects in the area of proclamation. Proclamation does not exist in a vacuum, but is shaped by our knowledge of and commitment to Jesus Christ and one another. There needs to be communication and give-and-take between pastor and congregation, in sermons and other communications, and a willingness to recognize that while we may disagree – sometimes significantly – we are still called to be that community of faith, hope, love, and witness.
Preaching can be a humbling occupation. I have had more than a few Sundays where sermon delivery felt like a running battle with the English language. There were Sundays when I thought I was being prophetic but wound up more likely being pathetic. Sundays where I thought the sermon bombed but was surprised when someone on the way out said how much the message spoke to her, and you could tell it was more than a polite platitude. And there were Sundays where what I was trying to convey was understood differently by some in a way they considered to be hurtful. The foolishness of preaching, indeed.
This is not foolish: we should be able to be open enough, honest enough, and committed enough to one another as pastor and parishioners that we can talk through our differences, whether we are disagreeing about a sermon, social media post, or something else, without breaking fellowship with one another. We should be able to engage in conversation where we understand where each other is coming from, knowing that we may have differing perspectives, but still the same Lord. We can be of the same mind about Jesus Christ, even when we are of differing minds on certain matters.
Maybe the key is what Paul said in Romans 12:18: “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (NIV). Because, it does depend on us.