Thursday, July 24, 2014

Notes on PC (USA) Theology (By Tom Erickson)

I am honored to share two recent pieces, written after GA 221, by a writer new to us, The Rev. Tom Erickson. 1) Why I'm Staying in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and 2) Another Reason to Stay in the PC(USA): Presbyterians believe in overwhelming numbers that God's Work in Jesus Christ is Sufficient for Salvation. They are an easy and compelling read. They correct the pervasive flood of mis-informed conclusions that are often made quite inadvertently after reading the Listening to Presbyterians panel surveys that the PC (USA) does regularly of its pastors and other leadership. In this case, Tom Erickson in the second note is addressing a theological rationale used by the Presbyterian Church of the Master (PCOM), Mission Viejo.

Why I’m Staying in the Presbyterian Church (USA)

Tom Erickson, Honorably Retired
Interim Pastor, Tustin Presbyterian Church

When I became a Presbyterian pastor, I responded affirmatively to the vow every Presbyterian officer (deacon, ruling elder, teaching elder) is required to answer: Will you be governed by our church’s polity, and will you abide by its discipline? Will you be a friend among your colleagues in ministry, working with them, subject to the ordering of God’s Word and Spirit? I still affirm that vow, and will do so until I die. Yet many of my friends and colleagues are disavowing the Presbyterian Church (USA). You will have to ask them why they are leaving; I want to tell you why I’m staying.

I chose to be a Presbyterian because the PC(USA) believes in, and proclaims, the saving acts of the Triune God. The first paragraph in the Book of Order (part of our Constitution) states, The good news of the Gospel is that the triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—creates, redeems, sustains, rules, and transforms all things and all people. By the power of the Holy Spirit, this one living God is incarnate in Jesus Christ, who came to live in the world, die for the world, and be raised again to new life. I testify to the triune God’s saving grace in my own life, and I choose to stay in a denomination that gladly and faithfully proclaims this Good News.

I will stay in the Presbyterian Church (USA) because it stands under the authority of the Bible. The one sufficient revelation of God is Jesus Christ, the Word of God incarnate, to whom the Holy Spirit bears unique and authoritative witness through the Holy Scriptures, which are received and obeyed as the word of God written. (The Confession of 1967) Do all Presbyterians interpret the Bible in exactly the same way? Of course not, any more than any family agrees on every issue in culture, politics, or international affairs. Absolute uniformity of belief is the mark of cults, not of churches. The bedrock of the Presbyterian Church does not consist of one’s position on homosexuality, abortion, or capital punishment, but in one’s confession that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior.

I will stay in the PC(USA) because it is avowedly missional. The second paragraph in the Book of Order reads, In Christ, the Church participates in God’s mission for the transformation of creation and humanity by proclaiming to all people the good news of God’s love, offering all people the grace of God at font and table, and calling all people to discipleship in Christ. I start every morning with The Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer and Study. The Yearbook contains inspiring examples of outreach by PC(USA) churches and mission co-workers all over the world. As I pray for the people involved in each day’s featured mission, I thank God for my partnership with two million Presbyterians, here and abroad.

I will stay in the PC(USA) because, though imperfect, we strive always to hear the voice of the Spirit under the Word. I have lived long enough to know that no human institution, least of all the church, is perfect. One need only read 1 Corinthians to know how sinful a church can be, yet in spite of the Corinthians’ woefully inadequate faith, Paul did not hesitate to address them as those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints. Those who leave us in search of a perfect fellowship are, I fear, deluding themselves. Billy Graham was right when he said that if you are seeking to join the perfect Christian church, the moment you join it, it will be imperfect. Moreover, church splits tend to result in ever more splits, as the history of the church will amply demonstrate. Will it happen to those who are leaving us to form a new denomination? Not right away perhaps, but at some future time someone may find fault and provoke yet another division in the Body of Christ.

Finally, I choose to remain in the PC(USA) in answer to our Lord’s prayer in John 17: 20-21: I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one…so that the world may believe that you have sent me. How many have turned away from Christ because of our manifold divisions? I choose not to perpetuate those divisions in order not to damage further our witness to the world. Rather, as a faithful member of the Presbyterian Church (USA), I will reach out in love and cooperation to all who believe in the one whom God sent, Jesus Christ our Lord, including those who are leaving our denomination. I will miss them when they leave, but I will not join them. In obedience to our Lord’s prayer for unity, I choose to stay in the Presbyterian Church (USA).


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To: The Session of the Presbyterian Church of the Master (PCOM)

From: Tom Erickson, former Interim Pastor at PCOM and Interim at Tustin Presbyterian

Re: Another Reason to Stay in the PC(USA): Presbyterians believe in overwhelming numbers that God’s Work in Jesus Christ is Sufficient for Salvation

Date: July 22, 2014

Friends, I greet you in the name of Jesus Christ, Savior and Lord of the church. I appreciate your pastor’s invitation to join you tonight. You have a weighty matter to consider. Your time is precious, and I hope to be a considerate guest.

I respectfully ask you to reconsider your theological rationale for considering a departure from the PC(USA). For example, the rationale cites a survey in which 45% of our pastors disagreed with the statement, “Following Christ is necessary for salvation.” I would be one of the 45%, for while I have been following Christ since the age of 12, I hold to the Biblical truth that I am saved, not by my efforts to follow Christ, but by the saving acts of the Triune God: God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…gave him over to death on the cross and raised him from the dead so that the Spirit might bear witness with our spirits that we are children of God. There are times when I don’t follow Christ well or at all, times when I detour from the path, when I ignore the teachings of the Scriptures, or forget to pray, or walk by the wounded on the Jericho road, but those failures do not jeopardize my salvation, for nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. I hold to the Reformed belief that salvation is the gift of God, not a work by humans. I know you do too.

The rationale cites isolated incidents and the remarks of one individual. I would hope that you would put over against those issues the official teaching of the PC(USA) found, not only in The Book of Confessions, but in the latest articulation of our faith: Hope in the Lord Jesus Christ. The following statements are apropos of your concerns about the Lordship of Jesus.
From time to time…questions arise in the church that call for a careful articulation of a particular aspect of Christian faith, drawing upon the testimony of the confessions in a way that illuminates the unique and authoritative witness of the Scriptures.  Such occasions do not require a new confession, but rather a faithful expression of the consistent teaching of Scripture and the confessions.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ.
It pleased God to come to us in Jesus Christ, Emmanuel, God with us. God did not simply show us a path to follow, but lived among us as the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Although we have done nothing to deserve the free gift of God, in Jesus Christ we receive new life, know the truth about God and ourselves, and are set upon God’s way in the world. Jesus Christ was and is path, for Jesus Christ was and is:
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God, begotten, not made,
one in being with the Father. (Nicene Creed, 1.2)
Jesus Christ is the only Savior and Lord, and all people everywhere are called to place their faith, hope, and love in him. No one is saved by virtue of inherent goodness or admirable living, for ‘by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God’ (Ephesians 2:8).’ No one is saved apart from God’s gracious redemption in Jesus Christ.
Because the church is founded and enlivened by the presence of Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit, we can be confident that it is Christ who works through the imperfect and sinful fellowship of the church. Even in our brokenness we testify that we belong solely to Jesus Christ. In the power of the Holy Spirit, we proclaim Christ’s love, in word and deed, to all the world.
Let us join together, brothers and sisters, to proclaim the gospel of God’s saving love in Jesus Christ. 
This statement was approved by the General Assembly in 2002 by a vote of 497-11-5 (99.96%). It is available for $1 per copy for orders of 10 or more, and contains a study guide for sessions and congregations. In contrast to statements made by individuals, this represents the most current official teaching of the PC(USA) regarding the Lord Jesus Christ.

I retired twelve years ago, so were I to be convinced that the PC(USA) is apostate, it would be easy to take my ordination and my pension elsewhere. But I celebrate the official teachings of the church, and will honor the ordination vow we all took to be a “friend among my colleagues in ministry,” using whatever influence I may still have to lift up and proclaim Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.

Photo credits: I took the picture of the black panther, the mascot of Chapman University, Orange.

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