Krin Vantatenhove has issued “An Open Love Letter to My Presbyterian Family” (read it here). Since I’m a member of the family, and since what Krin names in his post is something I’m observing too, I’d like to respond.

Krin’s central point is that the real fault line within the Presbyterian Church (USA) isn’t between those who support or oppose the redefinition of marriage or the ordination of non-celibate people who identify as homosexual. The fault line is between those who hold “orthodox Christian creeds and doctrine” and those for whom that expression of faith has become empty or irrelevant: “…there’s a far deeper, more organic challenge for our denomination. Many of its leaders at both the local and national level are no longer in synch with any semblance of orthodox Christian creeds and doctrine.” 

It’s important to note that just as this blog post expresses my opinion–and mine alone–Krin’s post expresses his opinion alone. He is no more a representative of our denomination than I am. What he is expressing–and what I agree with him on–is that the words we use in our corner of the Christian church mean very different things to different people. What he is describing is also far from uncommon in our church. In other words, he’s not describing the fringe left but some very respectable leaders in our churches and our denomination.

The progressive position is something that is rarely explicitly expressed. It’s typically hinted at or implied by things that pastors fail to say rather than what is actually stated, as he notes:

What I’m about to lovingly share is not something I’ve kept “in the closet” during my career. It has been a part of my teaching for years. Further, I base it on discussions with many elders and clergy – women and men I respect. And I know it is only one aspect of our national discernment process.

Krin refers to himself and many of his colleagues as “universalists,” for lack of a better term and goes on to say:

We have not abandoned Jesus’ teachings. We are not neglecting the Good News of grace. We have not given up our pursuits of peace and justice. But we acknowledge that our Christian tradition – stories we tell based on one set of scriptures – are not the sole pathway to God. We respect the sanctity of other faiths. We recognize that human minds can only approach God’s presence through limited faculties. The innate human desire to experience the Divine finds expression in a richness of myths and cultures. Humanity, not religion, is our focus…

From my point of view, I take Krin at his word when he states that he hasn’t abandoned things like “Jesus’ teaching,” “the Good News of grace” or “the pursuit of peace and justice.”

From my point of view he hasn’t abandoned them; he has allowed these concepts or beliefs to evolve beyond the scope of what is recognized as the classical Christianity expressed in our Creeds and Confessions.

He provides an example:

We might say, “[Assent to essential tenets], on many levels, but let’s discuss what we now believe about the Trinity, Jesus’ divinity, virgin birth, atonement, the literal resurrection, salvation, or the authority of scripture. Let’s discuss the meaning of ecclesiastical power in a denomination where only ‘pastors’ can currently administer sacraments.”

Without wishing to put words in another’s mouth, the claim to “sincerely receive and adopt” something “on many levels” is a warning sign. I’ve taken other vows–one’s to my wife–and I didn’t assent to them “on many levels,” which is typically code for some deviation from classic Christian belief. Instead, I simply said “I do.” I assented to these vows in a manner consistent with the received tradition of Christian marriage.

Our church allows ministers to “scruple” parts of our Confessions. A scruple is simply a stated point of departure from a doctrinal formulation. One might scruple the observation of the Lord’s Day believing that it’s fine to eat out after church.

The thing about scruples is, however, as Krin admits, pastors don’t typically scruple of their own accord despite the fact that our Book of Order places an affirmative duty on pastors to do just thatThey keep their non-traditional views to themselves, perhaps for a variety of reasons some of which are understandable.

The existence of such a broad range of views in a single organization means that it is incredibly difficult for that organization to have focus or to collaborate on common projects. He notes,

…Why are these scruples critical at this juncture in our history? Because many of our members, clergy, and national leaders seem more attuned theologically to a Unitarian or Quaker perspective. If this is true at a deeper, fundamental level, it will continue to cause conflict. There’s no way around it.

It’s true. When I was in campus ministry I was significantly more likely to partner with Catholic Campus Ministries than with either my own denominational ministry or one of the other mainline groups. The reason? A profound variance in essential belief.

I recall going to presbytery meetings (I was in North Carolina at the time) and being asked to share bright spots of ministry. To a person, every bright spot was some service project or another. We celebrated hikers’ ministry, renting out a fellowship hall to a church youth group, food banks, you name it. There wasn’t a single example of someone having a saving encounter with the Lord Jesus Christ and being converted. There wasn’t a single example even of a new Bible study or some new evangelistic discussion group. The reason we didn’t celebrate these thing is that for many of the people at that meeting the idea of a saving encounter with Jesus was a totally foreign concept. People don’t get saved in presbyterian churches–if you want that, try the baptists.

If we, as a denomination, are going to move forward then it is necessary that we have the integrity to name what we believe and to stop hiding behind ambiguous language. If you’re a universalist then be one, openly. If you believe in definite redemption–say so. Trust cannot exist where there is always some suspicion that we’re not telling the truth or that we’re playing games with our theology to suite the crowd we’re in front of.

In the words of our Lord, “let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ For whatever is more than these is from the evil one” (Mt. 5:37).