Tuesday, June 17, 2014

ECO: "Filtering the Toxins"

"Who exactly are the toxins they are referring to? Would they consider someone like me toxin?" Andrew asked.

On May 18th, our session announced to the congregation that they were recommending leaving the PC (USA). They outlined a process of ~ 30 days at the end of which the congregation would vote - a non-binding non straw poll -  for IPC to enter into the formal discernment process with our Presbytery. Our pleas for prayer and true discernment BEFORE any kind of a poll have fallen on deaf ears so far (see Open Letter dated June 6 and Open Response to Session and Open Letter to Pastor/Head of Staff June 13th).

Today, I share the question that was asked at the May 28th Town Hall after we had watched a movie on ECO (Evangelical Covenant Order). [ECO, formed in 2012, is the "tribe" that our two pastors feel they belong to and Session is recommending IPC join.] Anyway, after the presentation, during the Q&A, feeling a pressing of the Spirit, I got up and shared from my heart. "I've never spoken at a town hall before. I am an immigrant to this country and IPC is my family. All this talk of leaving the denomination without prayer and congregational discernment first is breaking my heart. I want to respect your rules and so I will just ask the question. Last year, I joined the SCT in our presbytery, the group charged with developing the Open Season of Discernment process. I brought this appointment and news of discernment to Session's attention. Since then I've felt marginalized by the leadership. For example, I was dropped from the all-church wide email distribution list.* I didn't even get the e-blast about IPC going into discernment. If session has been studying this for 4 years why is the congregation being given only a month to decide? " Session's answer was a disingenuous: "This is just the first step in the process. There will be plenty of time for discernment later." I was followed by a young man, who said, "Like Anita, I've been feeling marginalized. I could not help but notice that a statement was made in the ECO movie about "filtering the toxins out." He asked, "Who exactly are the toxins they are referring to? Would they consider someone like me toxin?"

Session reassured the young man, Andrew, that he was not toxin, but, IMHO,  neither were they able to answer the question satisfactorily. "We wondered about that too," one venerable said. A quick Google search showed me that the author of this statement is John Ortberg.

"Every organism lives in a larger system. A healthy ecosystem filters out toxins so that organisms can thrive," Ortberg said at a conference of The Fellowship of Presbyterians – the group launching ECO. [See Kwon, Lilian. Disaffected Presbyterians Announce New Evangelical Body. Christian Post, Jan. 12, 2012, URL: http://global.christianpost.com/news/disaffected-presbyterians-announce-new-evangelical-body-67638/] Ortberg's ecosystem analogy is not only in keeping with the latest trend by some churches to get on the eco-conscious (attractional while being missional) bandwagon. It is also deceptive. The comparison of church/denomination to an eco-system would be more persuasive to me if there were not one major, perhaps two logical, and several scientific flaws in Ortberg's arguments. Can you spot them? I will give you a few of the scientific clues. They have to do with the origins, definition, and major characteristics of eco-systems: living, complex interactions with the environment, open, integration of the whole, amorphous boundaries, competition or predation modes of interaction, symbiosis, etcetera.

Furthermore, I could find no Scriptural mandate for such a comparison. Acts 2: 42-47, The Fellowship of the Believers is often used by those subscribing to the church (local, national or global) as eco-system analogy: And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.  

But if even you read the Acts verses only cursorily you will see the discrepancies all too quickly; we, disciples today, don't live like the passage describes. Like the Pharisees we already focus way too exclusively on our own fellowship and homogenous groups; in fact a recent survey of Americans reported that 1 out of 5 non-Christians in the US and Canada don't know a Christian! [Stocker, Abby. The Craziest Statistic You'll Read About North American Missions" Christianity Today, August 9, 2013, URL: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2013/august-web-only/non-christians-who-dont-know-christians.html]

Scripture offers other rich analogies and descriptions of and for the church. The church is the "body of Christ," and "a new society"  a place of no fear, shame or despair, the place whose values and ways reveal God's kingdom to a watching world.  A place where there is unconditional love and truth in love and acceptance, not rejection. I could go on but I won't.  Instead, I'd like to share one final thought that we, when we get hung up on the Bible "legalisms," often forget. It is not the whole Bible that is our final authority it is Jesus, the Word Incarnate. If it were the whole Bible we should be following the purity laws that Paul went head to head with Peter and documented in his Letter to the Galatians. Jesus hung out not in the "healthy ecosystem" of the Pharisees and rulers of Jerusalem but with the sinners and the tax-collectors, on the margins of society. He built his church on a fallen sinner, a man who denied him three times, Peter. He grew the church through another man who persecuted his followers, Saul who became Paul. Jesus and these apostles engaged with the political spiritual and political powers of the day. However difficult it is, we as disciples of Jesus, the local church, and denominations cannot withdraw into closed, safe like-minded groups. We are in the world and have to engage with the culture openly and transparently, like Jesus did, with justice and grace. My favorite grand-Uncle, a criminal attorney, often quoted Jesus from Mark 7: 15: "There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him." Might this be what Ortberg/ECO meant by filtering out the toxins?

Note: This post was edited on 19th June. I removed a couple of sentences from the 3rd para that were not critical to the main point here.

*Note added August 1, 2014: Shortly after I spoke at the Town Hall, IPC leadership/communications staff got me reinstated on the email list. Apparently, their database sometimes drops people/emails and I might have been one such. 

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