Reflections on Debate1
Last week I had the privilege of attending the 46th meeting of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America. For those who haven't studied up on their Presbyterian polity, that means I was at a meeting of well over a thousand other elders from our denomination. We do this every year, and like most who attend, I have mixed feelings about it.
Everyone seems to agree that one of the best parts is seeing friends - college friends, seminary friends, pastors and elders you've served with in the past, people you've crossed paths with over the years. Another big encouragement is worshiping together throughout the week. Especially as a pastor of a small church, it is exciting to be in a room with over 3,000 people, singing praises together, hearing the word preached, praying for one another. To hear reports about what's happening around the nation and around the world through the different ministries of our denomination is a big highlight. Sometimes it's hard to remember that there is so much happening beyond the few congregations I see throughout the year. So it is nice to be reminded that we are a part of something much bigger. And to be pointed to the many resources available to help us in ministry always leaves me strengthened in my work.
Typically, though, for many people who attend General Assembly, the less exciting part is time spent debating and voting. Without going into detail on the specific issues, I want to share some reflections on the process:
The topics change from year to year - sometimes there are very contentious issues, and sometimes there are topics that wouldn't raise an eyebrow outside the room. But inevitably there will be a debate or two (or more), and there will be strongly held viewpoints on either side. And though at times I'm frustrated that my brothers in the Lord are not moving in the direction I would like... or perhaps are not moving as quickly I would like in a particular direction... there is in the midst of our disagreement something that gives me hope.
Every person in that room is seeking to apply the Word of God to the issues before us. We are not debating opinions, trends, cultural values or anything man-centered. The question always before us is - What says the Word of God? Admittedly, we will sometimes disagree on the answer to that; we are human and prone to error and misunderstanding. But I cannot say that my brother who disagrees with me is doing so in conscious violation of God's Word.
Admittedly, at times it's frustrating being a Presbyterian. Being committed to the connectiveness that defines our denomination means at times watching my brothers make choices that I believe are wrong. It means being associated with decisions that I voted against, decisions that I opposed. Some of those decisions are based on a different way of applying the same Word of God that we all confess, and I am left wondering, "How can you possibly not understand this the way that I do?"
And yet I wouldn't have it any other way. That commitment balances me and grounds me as a pastor. With every vote, I come back to the knowledge that, despite our differences, we are still united around the core truth of the gospel. Our days of debate are book-ended by worship services, times where we all lift our voices not in debate but in worship. We pray together, we sing together, we confess sin together, and we sit under the teaching of God's Word. Here, there are no enemies, no opponents, no sides. There are only the men and women of God working together to advance his kingdom in this world.
And so perhaps change comes slowly in our denomination. Perhaps sometimes it is sin that keeps us from acting more quickly. But I believe that more often, the reason we move slowly is because we would not take any action without being convinced it is in accord with God's Word to his church. And if that is the case, then I can be patient. It is worth it.