Summer Sermon Series: Say It Like You Mean It – Confessing Our Faith
2nd Corinthians 5:16-21 and Galatians 3:23-29
Today we continue our summer sermon series, “Say it like you mean it” on our Book of Confessions. We are quite a ways in now, having discussed the ancient creeds, the Reformation creeds, and the Theological Declaration of Barmen from WWII. This week we continue with a look at a confession written specifically by our denomination, the Confession of 1967.
Our story begins back in 1910 when the General Assembly adopted a five point declaration that was essential for all candidates for ordination. All men wanting to serve as ministers in the denomination needed to believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, the virgin birth of Christ, substitutionary atonement, Christ’s bodily resurrection, and the authenticity of Christ’s miracles. These five points of belief were upheld by the GA in 1916 and again in 1923.
With the rise of Darwinism, the development of Biblical criticism, and the movement of industrialism in the nation; the church found itself in theological turmoil. Some began to argue that the five points were not a valid test of faith, and that fundamentalism was not the only path. By the 1920s there were three different groups within the church: the theological liberals who wanted an inclusive church, the doctrinal fundamentalists who wanted only those who fully adopted the five points, and the moderates who were theologically conservative but valued a united church. It actually sounds a lot like the church today, 100 years later!
The famous Scopes trial of 1925 drew negative attention for the church as William Jennings Bryan a famous Presbyterian argued in favor of Biblical literalism. Although Bryan’s view prevailed at the trial, public opinion was turned against the church. By the late 1920s the General Assembly had dropped the 5 points of belief in favor of a view of “Christian toleration”. By the 1930s the fundamentalist arm of the church left the denomination and began calling themselves Orthodox Presbyterians.
In the 1940s and 1950s a new view of the Bible was emerging in America and around the world. Called neo-orthodox, this new school of thought centered around the work of Niebuhr and Barth. The major insight of this movement was that God was not revealed through the infallible words in a book. Rather, God was revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. The Bible was a witness of God’s work and the story of God’s people, but it was written by humans and was understood to be fallible. As the world around them continued to change, this view was heartily embraced by Presbyterian pastors.
In 1958 the Presbyterian Church in the USA and the United Presbyterian Church of North America merged to form the United Presbyterian Church in the USA. At the time, the only accepted confessional doctrine of the church was the Westminster Standards. The uniting GA formed a committee and assigned them two major tasks: to gather together a Book of Confessions for use within the church, and to compose a new modern confession for the denomination.
It was a huge undertaking but finally in 1965 the committee came back to the assembly with a Book of Confessions much like the one we have today, and a new confession for a modern era. Immediately there was controversy. The new confession spoke broadly on social issues and called the church to take a stand on such things as discrimination and war. The Presbyterian Lay Committee was formed in opposition to the confession. They argued that the church should not discuss social ethics or participate in social issues. They fought very hard against the confession but they lost, and in 1967 the General Assembly adopted both the Book of Confessions and the new Confession of 1967.
The Confession of 1967 is a wonderful document and I highly recommend it to you for reading. In fact, I have placed several copies of it in the back if you are interested in taking one home after worship today. Of all the documents we have studied this summer, this confession is a breath of fresh air in its timeliness and its readability.
Drawing inspiration from Paul’s writing in 2nd Corinthians, the confession centers around the theme of reconciliation. Those who are in Jesus Christ are a new creation and it is through the work of Jesus Christ that God was trying to reconcile us with God. Christ is that reconciliation between God and humanity. We are called then as the church to work for reconciliation in our world. In the world of 1967, broken by war in Vietnam and the strife of the civil rights movement these were powerful words of peace as well as strong declarations of who the church is called to be in the world.
As I mentioned, there were those in the church who opposed the confession because it took a stand on social issues of the time. The issues the confession addresses are still points of conflict in our world today.
The first is racism. Drawing inspiration from Paul’s letter to the church in Galatia where he declares that all people are one in Christ, the Confession of 1967 states that God created all people equally. It calls the church to overcome barriers and to break down any form of discrimination. The confession declares that any congregations or individuals who exclude or demean their fellow citizens are resisting the Spirit of God and will bring contempt upon the faith.
The second social issue addressed is peace. The confession calls for peace and justice between the nations and governments of the world. One controversial sentence requests that “nations pursue fresh and responsible relations across every line of conflict, even at risk to national security, to reduce areas of strife and to broaden international understanding.” The confession warns against the rise of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, and laments the use of resources spent in procuring such items of war.
The third issue addressed is poverty. The confession states that “the reconciliation of man through Jesus Christ makes it plain that enslaving poverty in a world of abundance is an intolerable violation of God’s good creation.” The confession calls all churches and believers to work toward the alleviation of poverty in all of its forms around the globe. In very strong language the confession declares that “a church that is indifferent to poverty, or evades responsibility in economic affairs, or is open to one social class only, or expects gratitude for its beneficence makes a mockery of reconciliation and offers no acceptable worship to God.”
The fourth major social issue addressed by the confession is that of sex. The confession calls for the church to lead men and women into healthy sexual relationships in marriage. Written in the time of the sexual revolution the confession calls for respect and joy in relationships between women and men.
Many women, like me, might be wondering why the confession does not address the issue of sexism more clearly. Unfortunately the church had been quite slow on that issue and some would argue that it continues to be. In 1930 the church ordained its first women elders but it wasn’t until 1956 that women were allowed to be ordained as ministers. While the Confession of 1967 declared the equality of all persons, it did not directly address the need to correct the inequalities between men and women in the church. That is evidenced by the exclusively male language of the confession, which I find to be its biggest drawback.
So why do I care? Well, of all that we have looked at so far, the issues in the Confession of 1967 are extremely relevant and timely in our own world. It was from this point in time that the Presbyterian Church became a church focused on social justice and working to preach a new vision of the kingdom of God in our world. There were still barriers to overcome, like sexism and the struggle with homosexuality, but on the whole the church was taking a stand out front of the social issues of its’ time. The language in the document on racism and the call to end nuclear proliferation are still very contemporary and needed in our world today. It was this confession that began our denomination’s identity focused on social justice, and that I believe has become what draws many people to the Presbyterian denomination today.
I will be out of the pulpit for the next few Sundays for some much needed vacation time. You too, will get a break, as we leave this sermon series behind for a while. When I return, we will look at the last confession in this Book of Confessions, the Brief Statement of Faith which was written in the 80s.
Once again, we will close this sermon by declaring our faith. I chose the section from the Confession of 1967 that addresses racism as that seemed most relevant in our nation at this time. Let us stand together, and “say it like you mean it!”