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PC(USA) Task Force Discusses Roots of the Presbyterian Polity

''We must recover a vision of the church led by Christ rather than by bureaucracies and competing interest groups''
( [email protected] ) Oct 19, 2004 06:22 PM EDT

The Presbyterian Church (USA) Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity and Purity of the Church met at the PC(USA)’s headquarter in Louisville, KY, to address a “wide-ranging discussion on the relationship between theology, polity and power in the church,” on Oct. 14, 2004.

The Rev. Mark Achtemeier began the discussion with an observation that Presbyterians (and other Christians) are wont to say that Jesus Christ is the Head of the Church.

“This is a wonderfully pious thought,” noted Achtemeier. “But does it translate into anything meaningful? Does our polity (form of church government) actually bring us back to Christ’s Lordship?”

Achtemeier added that the role of the church leaders was “to recover a vision of the church led by Christ rather than by bureaucracies and competing interest groups.”

That vision, he continued, affirms that Jesus Christ rules his church through “the Word of Scripture . . . guided by the Holy Spirit. The Reformed tradition believes that the Holy Spirit leads the church in rightly hearing and obeying the voice of Christ in Scripture — we go to the author, not to local or global authorities.”

“Presbyterian polity sets up the church to be a listening, discerning community,” he said. “The Holy Spirit is given to the whole community — standing off by ourselves, we don’t have reliable access to the truth. We need our brothers and sisters to filter out personal distortions.”

The Rev. Jose Luis Torres-Milan of Aguadilla, PR, agreed. “We’re so concerned about our own spirit, that we lose awareness of THE Spirit,” he said. “We need to get away from the polity model that sets losers and winners.”

The Rev. Gary Demarest of Pasadena, CA, said he wishes the PC(USA) follow in the footsteps of a number of global ecumenical groups, such as the World Council of Churches and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, that have been moving away from the historic model parliamentary model to a consensus decision making model.

“We run into trouble — and it’s a systemic flaw — when we theologically search for the mind of Christ using Robert’s Rules of Order,” he said. “They simply were not designed to discern the mind of Christ. Robert’s Rules are not a discerning process.”

“Representing the mind of Christ is not always compatible with the commonly held perception that the PC(USA) polity model is ‘representative democracy,’ “ said the Rev. Martha Sadongei of Phoenix.

The Rev. John Wilkinson of Rochester, NY, agreed to Achtemeier’s original point that “When we teach polity, we too often say we’re a representative democracy. It’s worth parsing some more.”

The Rev. Jack Haberer of Houston, also agreed, saying that the Presbyterians must return to the original roots of Presbyterianism: making the church a place for the people, by the people

“The call to discernment means to test any individual claim,” he said. “We need to reinforce that — elders and presbyters don’t represent the congregation or presbytery — they represent Jesus Christ.”