Several years ago the Presbyterian Church did a deep dive into scruples. If you missed it, the gist of the nationwide discussion was how to provide clergy an opportunity to declare if they had scruples regarding the Constitution of the PCUSA. The idea was that they would be able to state their scruples up front when being examined by the Presbytery. This would provide transparency as well as the ability for a pastor to attend to their own conscience.
You’ve got to love a denomination that provides an opportunity for someone to say, “I disagree with this” and still be accepted by the larger body. Bonus points for us deciding to use a word like “scruples”.
Part of the discussion regarding scruples was to determine if there were some lines that could not be crossed. What were the essential tenets that were, well, essential? As a church we are encouraged to practice mutual forbearance in those areas that are “scruplely” (my word), understanding that “there are truths and forms with respect to which men of good characters and principles may differ.” (F-3.0105). You’ve also got to love a denomination that uses a phrase like “mutual forbearance”.
This moment in our nation feels like a battle over essential tenets without the benefits of a bonus word.
I’ve seen friendships fall apart over the last few months, and the conversation goes like this:
“You can’t vote for A and say you love me”
“I can vote for A and love you because I’m capable of doing both”
“No, you can’t vote for A, because what A stands for threatens my existence”
“Friends can have a difference of opinion… right?”
What’s happening here is that one person believes this is a conversation about scruples, whereas the other individual believes this is about essential tenets. For one individual this is about philosophy (or theology) for the other it is about the direct impact this will have on their lives. It’s hard to have a conversation about something when we can’t even agree what the conversation is actually about. One party walks away from the friendship shaking their head at how narrow-minded the other is, and the other walks away wondering if they were ever actually seen by this person in the first place.
By this time next week the election will be over and the waiting for results will have begun. Regardless of what the result is, we’ve changed as a nation and there are things we can’t unsee. We have work to do as the church, not in pretending the divisions don’t exist and worshipping (again) at the idol of niceness, but in building the kin-dom.
Here’s the thing… you’ll be hard-pressed to find a list of essential tenets on the denominational website. There’s no checklist, but we do have the Book of Confessions which is a witness to the Reformed faith. We may not be able to walk around with a list, but we can agree to how we will talk about difficult topics together.
My suggestion? Listen deeply enough to understand if what you are disagreeing about is a scruple or essential. Listen deeply enough to hear not only WHAT is that line in the sand for the other, but WHY it is a “bridge too far”. You may not find agreement, but do not fall into the trap of discounting the other’s belief as non-essential (only they know what is essential for them). Finally, do not ask them to lay aside something that is essential in order for you to be more comfortable. Understand that your essentials deserve the same level of care, but know that you may need to model that behavior first.
These next few weeks and months (and years) require us to be the folks God has called us to be, and to serve not just the church but also the world with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love.