Comings and Goings is a blog written by Theology, Formation, and Evangelism Director Charles B. "Chip" Hardwick as he travels throughout the church. God is on the move out and about in the world, working to redeem all things in Jesus Christ. As we join this mission, by the power of the Spirit we see God on the move. This blog contains glimpses of how Chip finds this to be true in his comings and goings.
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As I write I am flying home from an extremely thought-provoking conference at Montreat called “The Church in Purple.” It brought together speakers from the so-called progressive and conservative wings of the church, and asked them to think together about how we can be one church which lives in unity despite our blue/red differences. I was grateful to have a chance to talk about the state of the denomination in a presentation called “Being Presbyterian in a Theological Whirlwind.”
The most inspiring session at the conference was this morning. It featured presentations by Barbara Wheeler, former president of Auburn Seminary (a non-degree granting seminary of the PCUSA in New York City), and Richard Mouw, former president of Fuller Theological Seminary (a non-denominational seminary in Pasadena, California, with a large body of PCUSA students and faculty). Barbara and her school hail from the progressive side of the church, while Richard and Fuller are more conservative. Their friendship with each other seems genuine, warm, and, perhaps, unexpected, given their theological convictions.
It was fascinating to hear each of them talk about what they have learned through their relationships with colleagues from the other side of the church. Barbara spoke about work she did as a researcher, looking into an evangelical seminary from the Reformed tradition. She entered that research thinking that she would find proof-texting, intellectual vapidity (my word, not hers), and poor scholarship. Instead, by and large what she found were thoughtful, scholarly Christians who searched the scriptures and came to different conclusions from her own. She remarked that by examining another Christian tradition so closely she learned about the strengths and weaknesses of both that tradition as well as her own. More importantly, she said, she learned how much the two sides of the church have in common.
Two parts of Richard’s presentation were particularly interesting to me. First, he warned us against taking the best arguments of our own side, and comparing them to the worst arguments of the other side. This intellectually-dishonest practice does not strengthen our own thinking, and only serves to demean the other side. From time to time I see this in churches which are re-examining their relationship to the PC(USA), and it is not nearly as powerful as those churches which help their members see the best of the denomination as well as other options they are considering. (See this blog post for how one church is doing this particularly well.) The second part of his presentation which was particularly compelling was his call to all of us to stand up for the other side when you hear colleagues from your side of the aisle demeaning it.
Throughout the conference I was convicted that the “church in purple” does not mean finding a mushy place in the middle, where we give up our red and blue convictions in order to come to some kind of generic Reformed theology which abandons any specificity. This approach would be something like mixing red and blue fingerpaints together, until a murky swirl is all that is left.
Instead, at its best the church in purple in more like the old lightbright toy, with red pegs and blue pegs scattered together, right next to each other, so that from a distance we see purple—but without any of the pegs losing their own distinctiveness.
It is both harder and better to be a purple church, than to be holed away in our own all-blue or all-red slice of Presbyterianism. As congregations decide to leave the denomination, those of us who stay are impoverished by their absence, and, I believe, those who leave are impoverished by our absence.