“For I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it” (Matthew 8:9).
“Will you be governed by our church’s polity, and will you abide by its order?” (Book of Order, W-4.4003e).
About a month ago I joined La Habra Hills PC for Sunday worship. The congregation’s relationship with Los Ranchos is complicated. The Presbytery voted in March 2016 to dismiss them to ECO, but a long judicial process with legal and procedural tangles has slowed the outcome. The case finally came before the Synod’s Permanent Judicial Commission in late March, only to be delayed once again.
One of the elders that Sunday mentioned that my name came up at their last Session meeting. Those who were present at the PJC hearing, she said, appreciated my testimony. The Presbytery’s Committee of Counsel had made its best argument that the dismissal process and outcome were constitutional. The congregation’s observers thought my testimony helped.
I believe that’s how things ought to work. The Presbytery takes a vote. If someone finds the action objectionable, they can seek remedy through the church’s judicial process. Then it is my responsibility as the Stated Clerk to work with a team to represent the Presbytery’s decision. Ultimately a PJC decides.
But the fact that things ought to work a certain way does not mean they will. I could have personally objected to the Presbytery’s vote. I could have halfheartedly supported the action before the PJC. I could have chosen even to sabotage the case. And I could have justified my actions on the grounds that I was acting in the interest of the Presbytery.
Perhaps that is why the congregation’s observers appreciated my testimony. Perhaps they saw that I could have undermined the case for dismissal, and didn’t.
An onlooker might suppose that I agreed with the Presbytery’s vote. But if I carry out my office faithfully, my actions in such moments do not reveal my personal opinions. Instead, they reveal my fundamental trust in and submission to the way that Presbyterians make decisions and resolve conflicts.
If a Committee of Counsel, with my help, makes the clearest and plainest case it can on behalf of a decision of Presbytery, and if a complainant does likewise, I believe a Permanent Judicial Commission will have the best chance of ruling well. And if a Permanent Judicial Commission rules well, I believe its work will best help Los Ranchos and our congregations to embody the Presbyterian way in this place.
The same is true of votes on the Presbytery floor. If I carry out my office well, you will see repeatedly that I support the Presbytery’s votes. But you will never see whether I like those votes. If people on all sides of an issue bring all their “energy, intelligence, imagination and love” (Book of Order, W-4.4003h) to bear on a floor debate, the body will be best equipped to sift through the partisanship and salesmanship in order to choose well.
And if it chooses well, Los Ranchos has the best chance of fulfilling its part in God’s mission. I may think a particular action is wrong. But as one “under authority,” I trust God’s will for us to emerge through the process.
And if in our human frailty, at some point we should fail to live up to our best calling, I believe that God will nevertheless eventually “grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night” (Luke 18:7).
It is not easy to submit, of course. But it’s much better than the alternative. Far better to “wait upon the Lord” (Isaiah 40:31) than to force my sense of right upon the body. Scripture teems with the sorrows of people who took matters into their own hands.
Good pastors exercise a similar impartiality. They do not grind axes from the pulpit, but let the weight and range of Scripture shape their preaching across the years. They do not follow their own musical tastes, but let the proclaimed Word steer the use of “hymns, psalms and spiritual songs” (Ephesians 5:19) in the worship service. They do not dictate to Session, but moderate the discussion so that all voices will be heard. They do not make the church into what they want. They make it into what will best serve God’s purpose in that place.
Such is leadership as “one under authority.” It is to serve and honor the work of the body. And when the body errs, it is to place high confidence in God to make things right.