Living with Differences of Theological Opinion

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I have been doing some final preparation for a church history/historical theology class that I am teaching this semester for Fresno Pacific’s Biblical Seminary. It is part of a training sequence for those preparing for ministry in Presbyterian churches (you can read a bit more about it here). Last night I read through several accounts of the formation of the first Presbytery (a body of pastors and lay elders who guide and govern a group of churches) and first Synod (a body of representatives from a number of Presbyteries).

“Presbyterian” is sometimes defined by its polity or church government—the representative assemblies of Presbyteries and Synods. Often theological and other disputes get worked out in these formal bodies. As my friend and fellow church member, Doug Lowe has said, Presbyterians don’t claim to have invented church government or polity, but sometimes they think they have perfected it. This may be true but a look at the historical record does not show a pattern of perfection.

The first Presbytery in the US was founded just over 300 years ago in New York in 1706, and the first Synod not long after that. I read several accounts of the first major conflict that caused a split in the church from 1741-1758. The division was over the first Great Awakening of the early 18th century. One of the more prominent preachers was a Presbyterian pastor, Gilbert Tennent, a friend and sometimes partner of George Whitfield, an Anglican/Methodist of Calvinist leaning. The historical record of the split is not entirely clear, hence my reading of several accounts.

It appears that at the center of the conflict was a theological and spiritual question about the nature of the church, conversion, and how we grow in faith. Tennent was a revivalist who in his early preaching in his famous sermon “The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry” claimed that all pastors should go through a kind of radical conversion that led to a change in their lives and what we might today call lifestyle toward holy living. (By the way this is our FPU theme for the year, see our theme verse Romans 12:1-2—more on this in a future post.) He accused Presbyterian pastors who did not claim this experience as unqualified for the pastorate. Those who he aimed at were, shall we say, not pleased. They were sincere believers who understood that Christian growth to maturity and thus holy living occurred in the long process of life in the Church through fellowship, preaching, study of the Bible and theology, and reception of the sacraments, that is, through the ongoing institutional life of the church.

Well it appears that the more traditional side, called the “Old Side,” finally, after attempts at mediation, voted Tennent and his Presbytery and fellow revivalists, called the “New Side,” out of the Synod. The New Side subsequently formed a new Synod with other like minded pastors and Presbyteries. However, almost immediately the New Side began to feel a bit of guilt over their extreme positions. Tennant modified his preaching, corrected himself and rejected his earlier “censorious Judging…of those we know not.”  Moderates began to work for reunion, and the Old Side began to see the benefits and true character of the revivals (if not enthusiastically). As always personalities played a role. The Old and New Sides reunited in 1758 and by this time the majority of the early Presbyterian Church was decidedly New Side, but also committed to the ideals and regular churchly practices of the Old Side.

It’s a bit complicated, but it seemed to me that there might be a lesson for it for us at FPU. One of the lessons learned by the leaders of the first Presbyterian Synod was that they had to make room for legitimate theological differences and churchly practices. They had to learn to trust each other and recognize in each other the different ways in which God guided and worked within the church, sometimes in the very normal practices of weekly and yearly worship and teaching, and sometimes in outbursts of enthusiasm and radical conversion. Ever since these have been two poles in tension with each other within the Presbyterian church, and perhaps in many American church bodies which have had long standing institutional and cultural patterns and which have also experience revivals whether in the more distant past or more recently. We experience it today in our own region.

The Old Side and New Side finally returned to unity; they recognized each other as faithful followers of Christ in a common life and work. We at Fresno Pacific could, if we let ourselves, become a remix of this kind of conflict. If we claimed that one or another theological or churchly commitment was not worthy of membership in the community we might find ourselves impoverished. Fortunately the Mennonite Brethren Confession of Faith, which we use as a kind of touchstone in our hiring process, is both Evangelical and Anabaptist in character, and leaves room for a broader Ecumenical Christian presence. Our Fresno Pacific University Idea welcomes all Christian believers as faculty members and all students, both Christian and those who do not profess Christian faith, to join as we seek to be a unique Christian institution of higher learning.

It takes work, humility, patience, goodwill, trust, openness (need I go on?) to make it all work, but the results are a dynamic dialogue within the University and between and among professors and students. It is remarkable to hear Anabaptist theologians discussing Catholic spiritual practices, and Evangelical students learning how Jesus calls us to serve and to be in community with each other. It is remarkable to find at one institution Catholic students becoming better Catholics, Mennonites becoming more Anabaptist in character, and others deepening their ties to Evangelical witness. (Click to see the composition of our student body.)

I am profoundly grateful to have been a part of the FPU academic community with its ongoing discovery of how to live as a Christian academic community. I am also grateful that we have learned to make room for each other without suffering the division of the first American Presbytery.

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