Unity in Repentance and Commitment to God

Robert L. Brawley, McCormick TheologicaI Seminary

Paper prepared for the Covenant Network of Presbyterians

September 1997

Two cultures clash in the Presbyterian debate on ethics and ordination. We split over the heritage of the liberal arts and the challenge of liberal individualism. The liberal arts cultivate the social values of western philosophy, history, literature, and theology. Liberal individualism recognizes the global variety of cultures without prejudice and cultivates the values of individual rights. (In preserving values, both can be conservative.) So social norms clash with individual rights. But the clash of cultures notwithstanding, the two sides share kinship ( 1) in initial presumptions about the problem of evil, which the Bible challenges, but (2) also in commitment to God, which the Bible affirms.

The liberal arts and liberal individualism share the conventional premise that moral accountability depends on our autonomy. Good or bad actions derive from our free choice. Repentance is likewise a matter of freely choosing to alter our behavior. But what if, as Paul says, we are deceived by the power of evil (Rom 7: 11)? We easily recognize an obvious side of evil in such things as an adult beating a child. But we do not recognize a subtle and diabolic side of evil because sin deceives. In short, sin is so devious that it makes us think we are serving God when we are actually serving the power of evil. Our free choice does not control sin. Rather, sin seduces us and conscripts us into its service, even and especially unknowingly. This is part of what it means for all of us to live in a broken and fallen world.

Thus, rather than a refusal to participate in individual acts of sin--the presumption underlying Amendment B--repentance means casting ourselves entirely on the mercy of God. The only way anyone is ever ordained is as a part of the broken and fallen world. We all engage in practices that the confessions and scripture call sin, not only inadvertently, but also tragically--like Peter denying Jesus even when he had vowed not to. Repentance is casting ourselves entirely on the mercy of God with the (sometimes shaky) confidence that God is able to work through the vessels of clay that we are. The Bible challenges the conventional notion of repentance, and in the matter of repentance, both the liberal arts and liberal individualism should come on board the same new boat together. Amendment A is in harmony with this kind of repentance.

But both cultures are likewise in the same boat in relation to God's dominion over us. I Corinthians 6 exhibits some close analogies to our situation: "When any of you has a grievance against another" (6:1). Though somewhat different, the economic and sexual abuses in Corinth also resonate with our modern issues of "fidelity and integrity in marriage or singleness, and in all relationships of life." Further, the Corinthians split over social norms and individual behavior. At the heart of Paul's response stands Lordship from which the unity of the community derives. Paul speaks about Lordship in a triadic form, not to say trinitarian, as he addresses the community (using only plural forms): "Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ?" (6:15). "Do you not know that your body [communal] is a temple of the Holy Spirit?" (6:19). "You were bought with a price" (6:20, the passive verb conceals the name of God). Paul reminds the Corinthians of their relationships with Christ, with the Spirit, and with God.

Our two cultures are not so antithetical as they may appear. Most of us value both social norms and individual rights. Both the liberal arts and liberal individualism have it wrong when it comes to repentance. Both need to be in the same boat, which stays afloat not because we are rowing, but because God's mercy upholds it. Finally, as we face how our church orders its life, both cultures are members of Christ, both (and both together) are a temple of the Holy Spirit, and God bought all of us with a price, so that we do not belong to ourselves but to God.

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