Sad News

I learned recently of yet another congregation of the Presbyterian Church (USA) that has voted to leave the denomination.  This congregation is in nearby Thomasville, Georgia.  First Presbyterian Church of Thomasville has a special place in my heart because it was one of two spiritual homes during a sabbatical several years ago.

On Sunday mornings during my sabbatical I’d drive 30 miles north to Thomasville.  I’d join the congregation at St. Thomas Episcopal Church for their early service and then meander over to First Presbyterian for their eleven o’clock service.  I struck up a strong friendship with Bill Seel, who was pastor at First Presbyterian at the time.

Both graduates of Union Theological Seminary in Virginia, Bill and I were not always in agreement theologically, but we shared a love of books and ideas.  Bill became a valued colleague and friend.  We shared the Reformed commitment to “the life of the mind in service to God,” but more importantly, we broke bread together and we prayed together.

It saddens me to learn that 83% of Bill’s former congregation have voted to leave the PC(USA).  I’ve always admired this congregation’s strong commitment to mission in far-away places.  I am not privy to the conversations and meetings that led to the decision, but I’m guessing the issues were the same ones Presbyterians have been wrestling with for decades – the ordination of homosexuals, gay marriage, and the “lordship of Christ,” – all grouped under the category of “Biblical authority.”

Along with all of the “mainline” denominations, the PC(USA) is declining in membership and contributions.  That decline has much more to do with cultural shifts, the loss of de facto establishment, and the failure of the church to retain and engage its own children than it has to do with squabbles over how to read Leviticus and Romans.

Despite the efforts of some brothers and sisters to frame the sexuality debate as one between those who accept “Biblical authority” and those who reject it, the issue is not, and has never been, “Biblical authority.”   The struggle is over how to read and interpret the Scriptures as they bear witness to the living Word of God, Jesus Christ.  By and large, Reformed Christians have grounded the Scripture’s authority not in the words of the Bible per se, but in the Bible’s reliable witness to God’s Word made flesh in Jesus Christ.

So-called “liberals” do not reject the Bible’s authority.  They simply read and interpret the Biblical texts differently from so-called “conservatives.”  Just like conservatives, liberals seek to live under the Lord Jesus Christ whom they meet in the words of Scripture.  Until Presbyterians are able to accept one another as sincere followers of the Living Word, they will continue to squander precious gifts of time, talent, and money on an unwinnable debate.

Schism is hardly ever the answer.  The answer lies in loving one another, hearing one another, and working together in mission – and, of course, “in the breaking of bread and the prayers.”

SNAP Goes Justice

SNAP, the nation’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, is administered by the United States Department of Agriculture.  Popularly known as “food stamps,” SNAP is the primary vehicle by which Americans express their solidarity and compassion for hungry neighbors.  Without a doubt, SNAP is the nation’s premier tool to fight hunger.

Now that it has reconvened, the U. S. House of Representatives is considering cutting SNAP by a breathtaking $169 billion.  In a stance that I hope is naïve, but I fear is callous, some representatives are suggesting that the faith communities of our nation can take up the slack should Congress enact this massive cut.  This expectation is so far from reality, it strains credulity.

Do the math.  In order to meet this reduction in food stamps, every congregation in the country would have to come up with roughly $50,000.00 per year for the next ten years.  Here are the figures for Florida’s faith communities, complied for Florida Impact:

Religious Community

Number of Congregations in Florida

Total Adherents

Ten-Year Contribution Needed to Subsidize Proposed SNAP Cuts

United Methodist Church




Africa Methodist Episcopal Church




Presbyterian Church




Evangelical Lutheran Church of America




Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, Florida/Georgia District




Roman Catholic Church




Episcopal Church




Jewish congregations (including Reform, Conservative, etc.)




Half of the congregations of the Presbyterian Church (USA), my denomination, are composed of fewer than 100 members.  Most of these congregations cannot afford the minimum salary for a full-time pastor.  Does Congress really think that every congregation can chip in $50,000.00 per year?

In these difficult financial times, food pantries across the nation – many of them run by faith communities — are reporting 100% increase in demand for their services.  Even with food stamps at their current level, families are struggling to put food on the table.  Cuts of the magnitude proposed are, to put it mildly, unconscionable.

Although they go hand in hand, there is a difference between justice and charity.  Food pantries are an expression of charity.  The SNAP program is an expression of justice.  There is no just reason why people in this land of plenty should go hungry.  It’s up to all of us – not just those of us in the faith community – to see that justice is done.

I Don’t Believe in (that) God, Either

Tallahassee Democrat writer Gerald Ensley wrote a report on some billboards that have sprouted up around Tallahassee. (Local Atheists State Their Case, Sept. 7, 2012). The billboards proclaim, “Don’t believe in God?  You’re not alone.”  As he was writing his piece, Gerald phoned and asked me for a comment.  Specifically, he asked if I found the billboards offensive.

I didn’t get the message before Gerald had to meet his deadline (I’m hard to reach on Fridays.) but if I had been able to respond, I would have said that I certainly am not offended by such a billboard.  On the other hand, I’d like to find out more about the God the sponsors don’t believe in.  It’s very likely that I don’t believe in that God, either.

On Wednesday evenings the Adult Enrichment Series at First Presbyterian Church of Tallahassee is looking at Marcus Borg’s book Speaking Christian.  Borg maintains that there are at least three paradigms for thinking about the character of God.

Photo from Tallahassee Democrat

The first is “God as Indifferent.”  This is the clockmaker God of the Deists and rationalists who takes no interest the affairs of human beings.  This concept of God produces a kind of “practical atheism.”  It doesn’t matter whether you believe in this God or not.  Basically, this God doesn’t care.

The second paradigm sees God as loving, but also as punitive and threatening.  God is seen as the enforcer of requirements, whether of belief or behavior or both.  Borg thinks that, although this idea of God is certainly based in some passages of scripture, it is not consistent with the God we know in Jesus.  It is consistent, however, with what he calls “heaven-and-hell” Christianity – the Christianity that he rejects as a distortion of the Christian faith.

The third paradigm is that of a loving, gracious, and compassionate God.  Life under this God is not about meeting requirements, but about a deepening relationship.  This God is not to be feared and appeased, but embraced and loved.

I find Borg’s categories helpful, but theologically inadequate.  He seems to miss that law in the Bible is a function of God’s love and fails to convey the richness of the gospel.  On the whole, however, I’d rather serve Borg’s “loving, gracious, and compassionate God” than the alternatives he proposes.

Some people say they believe in God, but live lives that belie that belief.  Some people say they don’t believe in God, but live loving, gracious, and compassionate lives.  The latter are closer to the kingdom of God than the former, whether they acknowledge God or not.