Can you relate? I have worked in 6 different Presbyterian churches as a lay pers...
It seems as if there is an ever-increasing number of statements being made by organizations, denominations and associations. I am not sure if I am simply more aware of what is happening because of the nature of my denominational role, or if there is truly is an increase in these statements. Most recently was the outcry over the policy for the separation of families at the border. During this situation, we received a few e-mails asking or encouraging ECO to make a statement against the policy. As time passed, the policy got reversed, perhaps due to the outcry. While there are still families that need to be reunited, the immediacy that was felt to make a statement has passed.
We now have an opportunity to reflect on when and how ECO should engage in conversations like these. As I reflect upon this topic, I realize that our staff and the Executive Council are faced with two competing values.
First, we face a myriad of challenges when denominations make statements. I will expand on these challenges below, but many of us have visceral reactions because of past experiences with statements, political and otherwise (even if we agreed with them). Therefore, our default in ECO has always been that we don’t make statements. Many people have been appreciative of that. At the same time, a competing value that we have is Martin Luther King Jr’s profound and challenging quote, “In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
At our last Synod meeting when we were confirming our confessional documents, we elected to keep the Theological Declaration of Barmen. This declaration was a document that brought together evangelical churches to speak against atrocity. Those of us in the Reformed tradition are used to making an impact on culture, as we used to do it from the mainstream of society. The question has now shifted to one of how we make an impact from the margins. How do we, or how should we, influence culture?
In the end, we chose not to make a statement on the situation at the border for a couple of reasons. First, I will personally always err on the side of not speaking for the entire denomination. The denomination speaks theologically, and that is through the Synod process. While the Synod process doesn’t allow for an agile response to a situation, it ensures that when the denomination speaks, it is truly the denomination and not simply the Synod Executive. I could imagine a time in the future when the Executive Council might want to make statement about something, but I would never want to make a statement unilaterally by myself.
Second, do statements make a difference? Perhaps the statements about families at the border made a difference in influencing a change to the policy. But again, as the church moves to the margins, I believe statements by churches become less and less effective. Someone said to me, “but you have a bully pulpit because of your position.” Bully pulpits really only work when people listen to the preacher, and as much as we may disagree with the sentiment, I am not sure society listens or cares to what a denomination has to say.
Finally, I think statements encourage polarizing conversations rather than promoting helpful dialogue. This is especially true when organizations cover a wide geographical area. I would rather pose questions that could stimulate dialogue at the local level. I have experienced churches engage with their people brilliantly, where people can listen, engage, and dialogue, rather than be told what to think. I do not want to disengage from these issues, but I would rather throw out questions that can be discussed locally, and stimulate individual action, rather than assuming a blanket statement makes a difference. For example, I think it is fair to say that ECO is pro-family, as a pro-family stance is abundantly clear from the scriptures as well as our essentials and confessional statements. So how do we, as individuals and congregations, be faithful to fulfilling our mission there?
These, and many others, are extremely tough issues. The recent situation created an opportunity to think about how we, as God’s people, prayerfully wrestle with such divisive issues. In the months and years ahead, we will continue to think through how we as a denomination, local congregations, and individual disciples engage our world as the salt and light God has created us to be. I am grateful to be on this journey with you, in the rocky times and the easy times. I will continue to pray for our churches, leaders, and covenant partners, that we would love our neighbors well, and continue to point each other towards Christ, His grace, mercy, mission in our world.