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June 16, 2008: What Do We Lose If We Move Into The nFoG?

When you move from one house to another, there are some good things that you leave behind. Whether it is an appliance or a special room or a particular view, there are just some things that are unique to the place you are -- and those are lost when you make a change.

For the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to move to the nFoG, there are a number of valuable things that would be left behind. Two major pieces that would be left behind would be the clarity provided by Authoritative Interpretations and a good understanding of who is responsible for what in the new order.

1. We lose the clarity of the Authoritative Interpretations.

Authoritative interpretations are interpretations of the specific language of specific provisions of the Book of Order made either by the General Assembly or the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission. When the words of the Book of Order change, the interpretations are no longer valid. If the nFoG is approved, all the GA approved AI's and all the GA PJC cases that do not deal with ordination and sexuality will be voided. What are some of the topics? How about AI's dealing with things like per capita, renunciation of jurisdiction, validated ministries, Board of Pensions, session control of money, checks and balances, as just a few examples. Do you know what else? It is a dangerous thing to give something up if you do not know what it is -- how many of us want to see something we sold in a garage sale show up on Antiques Roadshow? Actually, here, it is worse. It is more like throwing away your medical records and then taking medicaiton without knowing whether you are allergic.

Authoritative Interpretations are important because they represent the discerned wisdom of Presbyterians who have prayerfully considered the issue. Now, true, I have complained about some of those decisions, but the fact remains that time, energy, prayer, and resources went into resolving those issues. Broadly wiping away the Authoritative Interpretations without knowing what they are says that we do not care what the church has gone through to pass along the faith once received.

2. We lose the certainty of process.

The great criticism of the current Form of Government is that the process is too difficult. The language is too legal. Things are too precise. What we are actually lamenting is that there are disagreements that require resolution. That is the reason for that precision and clarity. Disagreements need resolutions, resolutions require clarity, clarity comes at a cost.

If we give up clarity in the whim of seeking flexibility, all sorts of problems are going to arise as we try to learn to live together without clarity. Let me use just one real life example that makes the point: The move to "presbyters" is defined in nFoG 2-0102 "Ordered Minstries" section. A comparison of language highlights a major substantive change that would result:

Current (G-6.0107):

The government of this church is representative, and the right of God’s people to elect their officers is inalienable. Therefore, no person can be placed in any permanent office in a congregation or governing body of the church except by election of that body.

Proposed (nFoG 2-0102):

The government of this church is representative, and the right of God's people to elect presbyters and deacons is inalienable. Therefore, no person can be placed in any ordered ministry in a congregation or council of the church except by election of that body.

The change is subtle but the impact is huge. The language of nFoG is absolutely clear, "no person can be placed in any ordered ministry in a congregation or council of the church except by election of that body." This means that there will never be another administrative commission. For instance, let's say a presbytery wants to establish an adminstrative commission to take original jurisdiction of the session of a congregation that is about to vote to go with property to the EPC via the New Wineskins. No can do. Oh, the authority may be found elsewhere in the nFoG, but when it says here that "no person can be placed in any ordered ministry," it does not make any exceptions. None.

How can they do it now? In the current language of the Book of Order, presbyteries have the authority to appoint administrative commissions because they are not intended to fill permanent offices. Administrative commissions are, by their very commissioning, temporary and limited in scope and purpose. However, under the new proposed language, administrative commissions are impermissible because the congregation or council of the church would not have elected them -- not even temporarily. It is an absolute bar. Oops.

Couldn't we just amend the nFoG back to "permanent office?" Nope. The language has changed, so just going back won't work, either. So, this or another paragraph is meaningless.

If there are conflicts, how will they get resolved? Do you think that this could require a PJC case to decide? Well, guess what: we're back in the regulatory mindset.

Do you want to read many more examples like this? There is a real question about how PJC's would function throughout the 173 presbyteries. There is a real question about what, if anything, a PJC would actually be able to review. And so on...Simply put: adopting the nFoG would bring chaos to the process.

To Recap:

The nFoG does not match our needs. It presumes trust where trust and accountability are lacking. It seeks a polity solution to a covenantal problem. It wrongly identifies polity as the reason we are not acting missionally.

Adopting the nFoG would cause us to lose some things we value. We lose clarity in constitutional authority, order, and interpretation. We lose clarity of our history gained through previously handled controversies. We lose confidence and certainty of defined responsibilities for resolving new controversies.

Tomorrow: unintended consequences.

Why would you spend money and time fixing up a house you will not buy?