West Tennessee Presbytery met Saturday, March 5, 2022 in Memphis, Tennessee. Presbytery approved petitioning the Synod of Great Rivers to divide West Tennessee Presbytery along “orthodox” and “progressive” theological lines.
As Welcoming Cumberland Presbyterians envisions a reconciled church, we grieve this proposed division and ask each reader to join in prayer for the unity of the whole church and for the people of West Tennessee presbytery including all our vulnerable and marginalized LGBTQ+ folks.
Presbytery also added a (constitutionally questionable) standing rule allowing congregations to leave the presbytery and retain their property if they disagree with the body over issues of “conscience.” Presbytery rescinded previously elected delegates to the Synod of Great Rivers and elected a new slate in order to eliminate opposition to the proposal.
Presbytery received the following memorial calling for unity despite theological differences. The memorial failed to pass.
Resolution to Not to Divide the Presbytery
Resolution to the March 5, 2022, meeting of West Tennessee Presbytery
We live in a time of great division. Reports in news media, as well as experiences in many of our lives, speak of hostility prompted by differing political and religious views. No doubt aggravated by pressures accompanying a world wide pandemic, many people are angry. Those who work in professions that serve the public (such as servers in restaurants, flight attendants, and even nurses and doctors) relate stories of angry and sometimes even physically hostile patrons.
Unfortunately Cumberland Presbyterians of West Tennessee Presbytery are not immune to such division. In fact, if there is one reality about our presbytery with which most of us agree it is that we are divided. But not about the centrality of our faith in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. Rather we are divided about how we are to live out that faith, particularly in regard to whether or not to accept the callings of LGBT+ people to leadership in the church.
As is the case with many divisions, our temptation is to demonize one another — for one side to refer to the other side as prejudiced and hateful, refusing to love one another as Jesus has loved us (John 13:34), and the other side to claim that those who differ with them, particularly with regard to homosexual involvement in the church, are captivated by the values of our culture and reject the authority of scripture and the teachings of our Confession of Faith.
Clearly, regardless of what side we are on, we believe that those who disagree with us are wrong. They are either misinterpreting scripture or, worse, have chosen to ignore the authority and relevance of scripture for individual Christians and the church.
Those of us who present this Resolution to this meeting of presbytery are under no illusions that these divisions can simply be ignored and swept under the rug. If we stay together as one presbytery, they will likely remain with us into the foreseeable future. But what we can do is to resist the temptation to demonize each other. We can resist the temptation to say things about each other that are patently false. And we can discipline ourselves to listen to one another and learn the truth behind our motivations. In this divided nation and world where people look for ways to belittle and demean those with whom they disagree, is the church not called to witness to an alternative way of living?
As the New Testament reveals, from the beginning the church has dealt with the challenges of diversity and the division that it sometimes prompts. In I Corinthians 12 we witness Paul addressing the divisions in the Corinthian church prompted by differing gifts and callings of those within the community. In Romans 14 Paul addresses scruples that some had about appropriate food and drink, as well as religious observances, that were evidently causing some conflict (or at least confusion) within the church at Rome. In Acts 10-11 we see early Christians dealing with the controversial issue of whether or not Gentiles could know the power of the Holy Spirit in their lives and become followers of Jesus like those who were believers from a Jewish background.
Diversity has been a reality within the church from the beginning. And this diversity has often prompted division, as scripture testifies with regard to the early church and as the history of the church testifies up until this very day in this very place where we are gathering as a presbytery.
For this reason, perhaps we need to hear Jesus praying of us today as he did for his first disciples: “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:20-23).
Perhaps this oneness comes in knowing that we have a common Lord, Jesus. Every pastor here, whether considered progressive, orthodox, or evangelical, spends much of her or his week studying and meditating and praying over the same Bible to have a Word to share with her or his church during Sunday worship. Every one of us here pray to the same God and seek the guidance of the same Spirit. Every lay person here will likely gather on Sundays to study and seek guidance from the same Bible. Even many of us here who affirm the calling to Ministry and service within the church of people with homosexual orientations have studied the same scriptures that others here find opposed to such Ministry and service. And no doubt most of us here have studied the Confession of Faith for Cumberland Presbyterians and have led members of our churches in a study of that Confession. Is there any elder or minister here today who does not “receive and adopt the Confession of Faith as containing the essential doctrines taught in the holy scriptures”? Probably not.
So it is our faith that leads us to the positions that we have about the most controversial issue in the church of our time. Yes, we have different ways of interpreting scripture. Yes, we have different understandings about what our Confession of Faith teaches. But let us be clear that each of us comes to our positions by way of our faith, a faith that we hold in common.
Therefore, be it resolved that West Tennessee Presbytery not seek Synodic approval for its division, an effort that will surely be costly, time consuming, and damaging to our witness in this divisive time. Further, be it resolved that members of this presbytery be called to listen to one another and respect the faith of one another even when we disagree.
Of course the approval of this Resolution by West Tennessee Presbytery will mean our churches will be in a presbytery with those with whom we disagree on a controversial issue such as the inclusion of LGBT+ persons in Ministry when such persons exhibit a calling by God. It will mean that the presbytery will sometimes make decisions with which we disagree.
But it will also mean that maybe we can listen to one another more openly as people whose opinions and actions have been shaped by their faith. And perhaps by such listening we can be changed by the working of the Holy Spirit in each of us.
“But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,” Paul said, “from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love” (Ephesians 4:15-16). So may it be with us, the churches of West Tennessee Presbytery.