One of the worst things that can happen to you is to be asked to give a testimony of grace at a Guilt & Shame conference. Anyone looking at your name on the schedule should know immediately that somewhere you have royally messed up. Yes, I was the one giving such a testimony. The only good thing, well the beginning actually of many good things, is that your sins are no longer hidden. Let me just take a moment to shout a little bit about the cross, the mighty cross, the blessed blood of Jesus, for the expiation of sin, for being dressed in the righteousness of Christ. OK, thanks for the moment, now back to my subject.
The reason I connect the two events, one the guilt & shame conference and a Presbytery gathering, is that I realize how difficult it really is for Teaching Elders to live out our ideal of accountability. I am speaking of the dynamic Teaching Elders experience as they seek to stay faithful to Jesus and their vows, primarily of holiness, and the dogged persistence of the sins that so easily entangle them. It is difficult because by conscience we are to be sensitive to our own sins, and not just condemn those in others. In doing so we also are faced with the reality that the Presbyterian system is a system of courts in which discipline is exercised, or is supposed to be.
With all this current Gospel celebration going on, by which I mean constantly using the word Gospel in our sermons, and proclaiming that this now means we can be transparent and vulnerable with each other, I am wondering if we really trust each other in our Presbyteries to own up to our sins? Unfortunately I have been at several Presbytery trials, sometimes public confessions of sin, and seen discipline exercised where brothers have been stripped of their ministerial credentials, sat down from their pulpits. It was not unfortunate that the Presbytery was acting, only that it had to act. I don't think I have ever been at one where the guilty party wasn't truly guilty, and the Presbytery wasn't earnestly trying to help the individuals concerned. Nevertheless, it was painful to experience, and there was a certain amount of godly fear involved, as in "there but for the grace of God go I."
I have been close to some who were disciplined, I have been close to some who should have been disciplined, I have even been a prosecutor at one of those trials. Sometimes I have heard from such individuals that they would rather step down, and they did, without ever owning up publicly to their sin because the experience of a Presbytery trial was something they could not face. Whether that was because of the humiliation, or because they felt Presbytery was too harsh, or that they could not trust the brothers with the care of their soul I do not know.
That is of course part of the problem. Presbyteries are not simply charged with caring for the souls of Presbyters, they are also charged with protecting the name of Jesus and the purity of the Church. It is what makes the position of Pastor (Teaching Elders for those PCA purists) so special and so precarious.
One of the issues in the dynamic of Pastors being accountable is the relationship they have first with their own Sessions. This can be a wonderful relationship, or it can be one of conflict and discord. My realization is that there is a danger when our Ruling Elders love us too much, and forgive our sins too readily, because they don't want to lose us. Yet, it is important I think for a Presbytery to not dissolve that relationship, or interfere in it, too quickly. I am saying that some Pastors can be salvaged and not simply booted out. If they have a loving but strong Session I think Pastors can be rehabilitated and wonderfully continued in ministry.
I also think it is so important that Presbyteries work on building trust between the brothers. Our system almost seems to take pleasure in not trusting anyone. We have committees to check on committees. We teach and believe in our own total depravity. Yet, if we don't trust each other with our souls, and are too careful about our jobs (this is what we do and how we pay our bills and feed our families and experience esteem and status) then we will hold on to our secret sins and not open up so we can get help. Our system cannot be reduced to a system of "gotcha." We have to put love to work. I was so happy to be at that Reformation service because I happen to like the guys in my Presbytery. Some of them scare me to death because I am not as holy as they are, as theologically astute, or as strict in the BOCO, but I believe I love them, and I think they love me. I don't like having sins to confess, but I would be dead if that were the case. I do like having the joy of forgiveness, and brothers who understand the struggle.