What happened in the year 1787 here in the great state of Pennsylvania? In Philadelphia, elected delegates from the states convened a Constitutional Convention intended to amend the Articles of Confederation. George Washington was selected to preside over the Convention. However, instead of simply writing some amendments to the Articles of Confederation a whole, new Constitution was produced. On September 17, 1787 the Constitution was adopted by the Convention and sent to the states for their approval.
Maybe there was something magical in the air or in the water of Philadelphia at that time. More likely it was simply the revolutionary ethos of that era which inspired the writing of such magnificent documents. The very next year, in 1788, the Presbyterians gathered in Philadelphia to consider revisions to the Westminster Confession of Faith. They went much farther than that. They wrote a uniquely American and Presbyterian Form of Government. At the beginning of that first Book of Order, the founders of the American Presbyterian Church included an important section titled “The Principles of Church Order.” These principles have been handed down to us.
One of the things I really like about the recent revisions to our Book of Order is the creation of the special section at the beginning called Foundations, now referred to as section F. What were the first four chapters of the Form of Government were pulled out, slighted reorganized and now listed as section F – Foundations. The Foundations section of our Book or Order includes, The Historic Principles of Church Order. These are exactly the principles that were written in Philadelphia in 1788. They have been directly handed down to us. I ask today whether we are worthy of them?
One of the Historic Principles of Church Order, and there are eight of them, is called Mutual Forbearance. It is a stunning principle, an amazing idea, and a doctrine that we sorely need in the Church today. It is a doctrine that shakes us to the core still today. It is a doctrine that challenges us and confronts us on many different levels. The historical authenticity of these words is so important that we have not changed the exclusive, original language from 1788. I quote from our Book of Order, section F – 3.0105: “We also believe that there are truths and forms with respect to which men of good characters and principles may differ. And in all these we think it the duty both of private Christians and societies to exercise mutual forbearance toward each other.”
Let me name three theological issues around which we have created robust expressions of mutual forbearance: baptism, the Lord’s Supper and speaking in tongues. The doctrine of adult baptism which is practiced in all Baptist churches and the doctrine of infant baptism which is practiced in Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant churches are theologically opposite. You cannot reconcile the doctrine of infant baptism with the doctrine of adult baptism. They have completely different theological foundations. These are different truths.
The Roman Catholic Church believes in a doctrine of transubstantiation which proclaims that in the Lord’s Supper the actual substance of the bread and the wine are transformed into the real body and blood of Christ. In Presbyterian Churches, we believe that the bread and juice remain always bread and juice, but the real presence of Christ is known in the gathering and in the memory of the people. These are different truths.
For many Pentecostal Churches all around the world today speaking in tongues is an immediate and present spiritual gift which the people are encouraged to express in every service of worship. For us speaking in tongues is a historically contextual spiritual gift from an earlier era of the church which we neither seek nor invite into our worship services today. These are different truths.
Historically, we have often expressed mutual forbearance in and through different churches: mainline Protestant versus Baptist versus Roman Catholic versus Pentecostal. Now in our church, with the recent approval of an amendment to the Directory of Worship in our Book of Order, concerning the definition of marriage, we are trying to do something profoundly different. We are trying now to express a full and robust mutual forbearance within our church. I believe these different definitions of marriage are both theologically grounded and biblical; I also believe they are irreconcilable. These are different truths.
The challenge we face today may be one of the greatest challenges to this doctrine of mutual forbearance since the hot, muggy summer in 1788 when it was first inspired and articulated. This doctrine of mutual forbearance, this historic principle of church order has been passed down to us now. Are we worthy to receive this this gift? May it be so.