I woke up the second day of Holy Week to my usual routine of prayer, coffee, and scanning the news. In this modern day of news reading, I have learned how to custom tailor which news to receive. This for me includes anything about New Orleans, Louisiana, international news, various sports teams, the Air Force, the Air National Guard, Christianity, and, specifically, the PC(USA). It was the last one that generated the following headline, “Is the PC(USA) Even Christian Anymore?” I took a deep breath and dove in.
It was a blog entry on Patheos (a website that generates all sorts of reflections on faith). Not being familiar at all with the person who just “excommunicated” me, my parishioners, and hundreds of faithful Christians I love and know well, and some 1,760,200 of my fellow Presbyterians across the country, I looked him up. Dr. Reynolds is the Chief Academic Officer of Houston Baptist University. This explains, perhaps, why Patheos would give him a forum, but his assertion is profoundly disturbing and shows the theological myopia that is not, unfortunately, uncommon in Christ’s Church. Why is this brother willing to show us the door of the Church and declare that if Christians are talking to us, it is not an ecumenical dialogue but an interfaith one? It is, of course, because of the recent ruling by the Presbyterian Churches (USA) that in states where it is legal, where a same sex couple wants to get married, where they come to a Presbyterian Church expressing that desire, and where that particular church board and pastor agree that said congregation can marry said couple, it is now possible to do so. The number of congregations in which this can and will occur in the PC(USA) is remarkably limited. The Baptist denomination is not normally a connectional church. They are not well known for their interdenominational dialog. The PC(USA) is a far more connectional denomination, almost by definition, and very involved in interdenominational ties and discussions. We are not, though, very interested in excommunication and calling each other anathema (any more). But this leader of a Baptist University is willing the excommunicate the lot of us over this solitary issue and declare us members of some other religion.
I refuse and refute this idea. The crux of his argument rests upon the fact that we now celebrate something that he feels the Church traditionally has called sin. But I would contend to my brother in Christ that churches around our country politely ignore or even celebrate scores of activities that are listed as sins in the Bible. I will just list a few. When is the last time churches called people in their communities to task for usury (the immoral practice of lending money at high rates of interest)? I would suggest that John walk out from his university, or his church wherever it is, for just a few blocks and see if he sees any places which charges high rates of interest (usually to the poor), and then reflect how often this is raised from the pulpit in his church. I would suggest that he consider how many adults, even adults in Baptist churches, are cohabiting prior to marriage. I am sure Dr. Reynolds may object and say his university and his church would call that sin. But I don’t read about Baptist churches rescinding membership of Christians who live together prior to marriage – something the church traditionally has called sin – and declaring that they are now practicing some other religion. They may hear talk about these being sins, they may even be kicked out of worship in some traditions, but they are not called non-Christians or members of some other religion. I would even raise up simply that most Christians, in every branch of the Church in our society, live a lifestyle much more akin to the Romans in biblical times than that of Jesus and his followers. Jesus remarked that he often did not have a place to lay his head. He also had little to no material possessions. He and his followers spent most of their time with the poor and the reprobate in his society. I do not think that describes many of us today: Baptist, Presbyterian, or other Christians. It would be easy to go on.
But the core of our disagreement concerns what it means to be Christian. A Christian is someone who professes faith in Jesus Christ and who lives out that belief in actions that reflect that Jesus is our Lord. A Christian is someone who believes that God has saved us through the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. A Christian is one who believes he or she is saved by grace through faith. A Christian is one who believes that we have been treated with tremendous grace and that our God is a just God and,therefore,we, as followers of Christ, should treat everyone with the same grace, We should then structure our lives with justice, as it has been offered to us. Being a Christian, therefore, is not dependent upon which particular denomination we join or which particular social practices congregations decide to uphold in order to show justice and grace to all.
Dr. Reynolds may be trying to show us the door, but we aren’t going anywhere. No matter his thoughts on the matter, we still are very much followers of Jesus, who depend upon him to guide us. Scripture tells us that through Christ God is calling all people to himself. “All people” is a pretty inclusive term. The One who chose to make us Christians is God. We share the pews with people who can and will differ with us. All of us are flawed. We accept that we can be wrong sometimes, along with everyone else. But blessedly being right or wrong is not what makes any of us Christian.
God has brought us together. We are called to go out and bless the world. He may not think my sisters and brothers Presbyterians and I are Christian,but I share no illusion that he is not one. It is on that basis that I call Dr. Reynolds to task and hold him accountable. His essay did not build up the Body of Christ. His essay just foments conflict within the body.
Dr. Reynolds essay does nothing to proclaim the coming Kingdom and shows little grace. I hope that the day will come when Christians stop trying to decide who is in and who is out. This seems to be what got the religious leaders in trouble in Jesus’ time, yet here we are again. It simply isn’t our call, and who is in Christ’s Church might just be more than we imagine.
Tom Paine, Pastor
Parkway Presbyterian Church