The Church at 499: What will we permit?


This week, some of my friends and colleagues are at a Polity Conference in Louisville, KY. You may think it takes a special kind of geek to attend Comic-Con or a national event for an overly specific fandom. In a different vein, I promise you that a bunch of Presbyterians pondering rules, policies, and cultures for church governance are an especially specialized bunch. But they’re also wonderful people.

They’re trying to ponder the best practices for the 21st century Church to be faithful, just, creative, and connectional, and they’re doing this on a worthy day for such considerations. Today is not only Halloween. It is the 499th anniversary of Martin Luther hanging the 95 Theses on the doors of the Wittenberg Cathedral, boldly articulating the need for reform of the Christian Church.

Nearly five hundred years later, we are entering another period of reform.

As a Presbyterian, I belong to a tradition that often says we are a “Church reformed, always reforming.” This axiom and commitment is much more than slogan. It involves a deep understanding that God is always reforming the Church and indeed reforming our own lives, so that we will live more faithfully toward our neighbors and work for the healing of the world.

This has been on my mind quite a bit lately. As we’re experiencing rapid changes in this nation and in our world, we need a renewed effort to consider what it means to be Church in the 21st century. What forms can Church take? What commitments will be embedded in its identity, and how will those be expressed?

And we might ask another question: Where will our permissiveness lie?

That’s kind of an odd question, I admit. At least, it feels that way to me, but it keeps popping into my mind these days. By permissiveness, I mean, what sorts of things will we allow?

This question arrived fervently in my mind a few days ago when a colleague shared a tweet to Facebook, calling out pastors for their cynicism, sharing that this cynicism is hurting current seminarians. It’s rare for a shared tweet to receive 53 comments, but it ignited quite a firestorm of thoughts.

In response, pastors became quite honest that their experiences working for the Church have often been immensely painful. Some have felt remarkably mistreated as they have experienced abuses of power; some have encountered entrenched forms of racism and sexism. These themes have impacted their employment and have hurt their spiritual hopes.

In the midst of these responses, others were quite honest about the ways these realities impact seminarians. Seminarians don’t want any of these experiences to be normalized, nor do they want to be burdened by them. Many are dreaming of new visions for the Church, including how to address these sinful realities and transform them. We need to put our energies in their direction and learn from their leadership and dreaming.

So both realities bring that question toward the forefront of reformation:

Where will our permissiveness lie?

  • Will we normalize abuses of power in the Church?
  • Will we look the other way when we know that racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia are embedded in our common life?
  • Will we allow greed in some congregations to fester, while others struggle to survive?
  • Will we become a Church that values innovation?
  • Will we be a nimble Church that lives incarnationally in a variety of contexts?
  • Will we be a Church of Spirit-filled dreamers?

We need reformation. As we ponder all of these things, we wonder what will be allowed — what will be tolerated, yes, for that is a crucial question. And we also wonder what is possible.

My hopes and prayers are with the people who ask those questions, including the people who sit in nerdy, polity conferences.

Renee Roederer



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