By Rev. Chris Warren

Like many in our denomination, I am grieving the division that is threatening our very existence. I have not always been Cumberland Presbyterian. I was called as a musician to serve a Cumberland Presbyterian church when I was 19. I had no expectation of being called to ministry in that same church years later.

I start here because I deeply love the Confession of Faith. I read that document, and it is the reason I became Cumberland Presbyterian. At that time, I was just developing my faith, my understanding of scripture, and my place in God’s world. The beauty of the language in our Confession– the ability we have as Cumberland Presbyterians to be a part of the same church even though we may understand some things about scripture differently–was one of the most important reasons I had for choosing this church as my home.

I have never wavered from my commitment to the Confession of Faith. I imagine any of us can look at any written word and see something a little different from each other. I may read those words the same way you do, or I may read them in a different way than you do, but I want to be clear that I revere the words in the Confession.

In many ways I feel that the division in our church has been created intentionally. I have read recently that this division has only been revealed, not created, and it seems natural that as a diverse group, we may experience some differences in understanding of scripture and the meaning of at least some parts of the Confession of Faith.

But I don’t think the division needs to be as gaping as some claim. In fact, I think that whatever crack existed has been widened by those who intended to drive a wedge between groups in our church. I don’t know why this was so important to some, but clearly some have developed a narrative of good against evil among siblings in the faith. I know my own name has been demonized because of my understanding of scripture and my firm belief that through my understanding of scripture I am adhering to the meaning of our Confession of Faith.

This wedge is an existential threat to our denomination. There are some who continue to pound that wedge deeper and deeper, regardless of the consequences. It seems the downfall of the church itself is preferable to fellowship with those like me who understand our faith differently.

Exclusion is at the root of this entire controversy. I recognize now that theological arguments, regardless of the soundness of their scholarship, will not make a difference. I had naively expected that those who differ from me in theological understanding would at least have enough respect for me as a person, and in my education as a student of theology, to recognize that I and others who think of things in the way I do did not come up with some haphazard construction of theology because I am trying to destroy the bedrocks of our faith. But I know that has been the way my support for inclusion has been framed by many.

I want to stress that it has been important to me and others who support inclusion to be careful not to demonize those who oppose inclusion. Frankly, when we have seen people we love and deeply respect called horrible names or literally called “evil” in the public squares of our denomination, that has sometimes been very difficult. I myself was accused of being a “false prophet” on the floor of General Assembly. Surely we could have better decorum and love for one another than this.

Recently I have read a shared document by a vocal advocate of the proposed amendments to the constitution who talked about establishing rule over the rest of us, claiming that those who believe as the writer does enjoy majority status in our denomination and arguing that this gives the right to make all the rules of proper belief, proper interpretation, proper calling, and proper membership in the denomination we share.

This proposal represents a graver threat to our denomination than the actions that preceded it—and they were pretty difficult for me. We have a process for making changes to our Constitution. The church is following that process — a process that requires three-quarters approval of presbyteries. Yet one faction of our church, apparently organizing as a party anticipating to rule over the rest of us, has discovered that they may not be able to change the Constitution through voting and have instead are considering a scheme to create the church in its own image no matter what any other group, whether majority, minority, or otherwise might say.

Our differences in understanding scripture or the Confession of Faith aside, this is a threat to our church. No one who takes time to know me would ever doubt the sincerity of my love for  the Cumberland Presbyterian Church or the Confession of Faith. Yet it is stated regularly among those seeking to divide the church and remake it in their own image that someone like me isn’t living up to my vows in the church. The voice of damnation in the church is loud, and sometimes seems unopposed, but it isn’t the entire church.  Frankly, I don’t believe it is the majority of the church. The recent closely split votes in meetings of presbyteries bear this out. By summarily dismissing an understanding of scripture held by a significant number of our Cumberland Presbyterian siblings as being outside the bounds of our faith, especially on non-essential doctrine, we risk serious damage to the church.

This is especially true in a system like ours where our polity is intended to serve the preferences of the majority while still respecting and protecting the rights and privileges of the minority. We have already seen the rhetoric surrounding the proposed amendments turning to questions about whether those who have been divorced should be allowed to be ordained or continue serving. Some have even begun to question ordination and service of women, while many of us take great pride in being the first Reformed denomination to ordain a woman.

Some claim that this is a needed correction for a denomination that has moved too far in one direction. From my vantage point at least some of these claims are from sources that originated from outside our denomination—not surprising, given the ease with which we have recognized ordinations from other denominations that don’t believe in ordination of women or of those who have been divorced. While some may welcome such influences from those who have transferred from another denomination, the unfortunate truth is that if those influences are unchecked, many of us who have been serving for a long time in the Cumberland Presbyterian Church will in time be found no longer worthy of ordination. Those who fear that some like me are trying to move the church into a certain direction should also recognize the planned, organized efforts of some to take over committees, Ministry Teams, and agencies of the  General Assembly, and to change the Constitution in order to move the church that direction. It is curious to me that those who profess to love the constitution so well are the ones who are so keen to alter it.

To my friends and fellow Cumberland Presbyterians, please do not accept the rhetoric of division, exclusion, and polarization. We are all part of the same church trying to offer the gifts of the Gospel to the world. Even those with whom I disagree on many issues share the core values of Christ-centered devotion to God. We don’t have to let this issue destroy the church. Don’t demonize those who disagree with you on a theological issue. Remember the first presbytery of our denomination was created by those who disagreed on the Confession of Faith. I fear the division we’re dealing with will be difficult to repair, but I am hopeful that we can serve together in love again. For that to happen, we need to put an end to the hateful discourse about one another and allow freedom of conscience in all but the essential doctrines of our faith.

I continue to pray for our denomination.

Rev. Chris Warren


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