A Mote in Minerva’s Eye

Seeing without categorizing


Anita ColemanHeaven’s tent
The boundaries of the Presbyterian family are determined by the Holy Spirit, not us.

by Anita Coleman

I’ve known a Heaven, like a Tent—
To wrap its shining Yards—  
Pluck up its stakes, and disappear—
Without the sound of Boards

Or Rip of Nail—Or Carpenter—

But just the miles of Stare—

That signalize a Show’s Retreat—

In North America
—Emily Dickinson (comparing heaven to traveling circuses)

Brandon Gaide recently asked on this blog, “How big is the tent?” He wanted to know when we as a church, as a denomination, have gone too far. “I want the denomination for which I work to be clear about who we are . . . to have the courage to define the point at which our beliefs or practices transgress the boundaries of the big tent,” he wrote.

I too have grappled with this question. Neither a teaching nor a ruling elder, I care deeply about church unity and the unintentional marginalization of ordinary people’s voices in traditional Presbyterian governance.¹ Brandon is concerned, I gather, that denominational leaders have rushed ahead in their policy making, leaving behind a lot of the Presbyterians in the pews. I don’t know if he has particular examples in mind, such as same-sex marriage or our relationship with Israel and Palestine. He doesn’t detail those concerns. But at its core, I believe his article is not just asking about the existence of boundaries; it’s asking who gets to define those boundaries. And, though our answers might differ, that’s a question I can get behind.

Taken another way, it’s a question of identity. Who are we as Presbyterians? Who calls the shots?

The challenge for a lot of people, I think, is that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is actually a lot of different things all at once.

The PC(USA) is simultaneously a nonprofit organization, an enterprise, and a church. As a nonprofit organization, the PC(USA) is a legal structure, defined and bound by rules, roles, and responsibilities. It hires and fires people, has insurance, fundraises, uses Robert’s Rules of Order, and calculates decisions according to communication strategies and business models. Spread internationally in obedience to the missio dei (Latin for the “mission/sending of God”), the PC(USA) is also a social enterprise, defined and bound by vision, values, relationships, affiliations, and mutual commitments—or in the parlance of the Presbyterian Mission Agency: people, partnerships, and covenants. Finally, local congregations, presbyteries, synods, and the General Assembly all together make up the visible united family of God, the global church.  

One can imagine any number of scenarios where these identities conflict. While the part that’s a church might counsel risking everything for the gospel, the social enterprise might want to consider the impact on relationships before it jumps in, while the organization reminds the church that there are salaries to be paid, without which families could be on the street. What matters, in scenarios like these, is that the three parts understand one another’s functions and reach a faithful balance or ordering.²

Trying to locate in a website the overall identity of this organization, enterprise, and church of approximately 2 million people with a centuries’ old heritage is like looking for a mausoleum in a traveling circus! Still I thought the section “Get to know the Presbyterian Church” on the home page captured our distinctive Presbyterian identity without separating me from other Christians. Bravo!

Just as the PC(USA)’s identity is complex (and in the words of Whitman, contains multitudes), so is my own. My Presbyterian identity, important as it is, is only a part of me. What defines my core spiritual identity is not Presbyterianism but my allegiance to Jesus Christ. Everything else about me—woman, born in India, first generation immigrant, American citizen, professor, living in Southern California, Presbyterian, blogger, passionate about justice, impatient, and so on—are social, cultural, national, professional, religious, personal, and online markers that contribute to the unique me. Thus, my identity—who I am—is not a single set of features cast in stone. The Spirit is continuously transforming me, remaking me in Christ’s image (Rom. 12:2).  

I also find it useful to distinguish identity from roles and relationships. The core characteristic of my identity, my being in Christ, defines and binds me; I am a wife (my role) in an exclusive Christian marriage (relationship) with my husband (his role). Even though nobody in the church likes to talk about this, we’re fully conscious that our marriage is in this world a temporal state that does not go beyond the grave (Mark 12:18–27). The way we conceive of our relationships and roles (and their boundaries) is incomplete compared to the knowledge of God. Jesus saying this, for me, is a reminder of the lovely invitation in the Old Testament that discloses a self-revealed characteristic of God.

See, you shall call nations that you do not know,
and nations that do not know you shall run to you,
because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel,
for he has glorified you. . . .

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
(Isaiah 55:5, 8–9)

God is not really knowable by us. And as heirs of the Reformation, why do we expect that our Presbyterian identity should have “clear boundaries”? How do you set boundaries for the unknown? The only boundary that matters is the sameness of God’s faithfulness and covenant love. This covenantal, sacrificial love is the enduring “unknowing” characteristic God modeled for us in Jesus Christ. In other words, Brandon’s right: a subset of leaders in the denomination should not be calling the shots (if indeed they are). But neither should Brandon. The only one who should be calling the shots is God, and that God is largely unknowable.

So, how big is the tent? Journeying with the “unknowing” means the size of God’s family tent is determined by the Holy Spirit, and if I had to choose, I’d say the more the merrier. The critical questions are: How do denominational boundaries help or limit us from being the children of God who causes the sun to rise on diverse peoples, good and evil (Matt. 5:45)? What does our tendency to differentiate over issues and desire to split into never-ending “like-minded tribes” reveal about our human sinfulness?

Brandon also asks, “What are the actual parameters of our denomination’s mission?” Jesus crossed many boundaries—social, cultural, geographic—to minister to the Samaritan woman at the well about the God who is Spirit and truth. He did not judge, condemn, or exclude. Can we afford to do less?

Conversation starters
What are the categories and labels that you have heard others use to describe you?
2) What are the labels that you used to describe yourself 10 years ago?
3) What is your role in the PC(USA)? Do you have multiple roles? What are some of the joys and conflicts that you’ve experienced in your role (s)?
4) Describe your relationship with the PC(USA). List some of the benefits that you have gained because of your relationship.
5) “My identity is in Christ. My culture is the culture of Jesus.” Could you claim these statements as an integral part of your own personal identity? Why or why not?  

Anita Coleman is a wife, mother, and writer who enjoys electronics, gardens, and books.

References & Footnotes
Resources on Christian social entrepreneurship (Faith and Leadership)
Morgan, Gareth. Images of Organizations. Newbury Park: Sage Publications, 1986.
A Brief Statement of Faith (Presbyterian Church [U.S.A.] Book of Confessions) — Go to page 349

1. I came to a Presbyterian church after having given up on church for more than 10 years (story here). I appreciated the democratic form of government, dissenting tradition, and the confession of the grace, sovereignty, and life under the reign of God, but it is the freedom of conscience that most resonates with me: “They would speak out even against their own interests if conscience told them they must.” (An Independent People, BBC Documentary, 2013.)

2. Who we are is reflected not only in what we are doing, but also how others interpret who we are and what we are doing. Thus, an organization’s culture, identity, and image are closely interdependent, determined by insiders (members of the organization) as well as outsiders, as well as the multiple roles of the insider members (e.g., special interests). In recent years, identity has been further challenged by the democratization, access, and increasing speed that new communication and social media technologies facilitate between top officers and staff of the organization, member insiders, and outsiders.