Varieties of order

July 8, 2011

The Book of Order is part of my Presby­terian denomination's constitution. It includes rules, regulations and procedures for any situation that could happen in the life of our ecclesiastical family. We spend a fair amount of time amending, deleting, interpreting and rewriting the Order. Sometimes it gets in the way.

During a trip to Argentina I visited sister churches there and listened to stories about robust, growing and not very orderly Pentecostal churches. Then, in Buenos Aires, I received a phone call from a Pentecostal minister, the president of a theological seminary. Noting that my denomination has a deep historical commitment to theological education, he asked if I would meet with him and some of his colleagues. I said I'd be honored.

All the participants had day jobs, so it was 9 p.m. when he picked up my companions and me at the hotel and drove through the city into a grimy working-class neighborhood, then down a dark alley to an automobile repair garage. He ushered us past the equipment and upstairs to a small room with two bare lightbulbs. Six men, all pastors and seminary professors, sat around a table. After introductions, I asked, "Where is the seminary?" With a sweep of his hand, the president pointed to a wall of shelves filled with cassette-recording equipment and tapes. "This is it. This is our seminary."

The cassettes were for brother pastors in rural Argentina who could not read or write. The pedagogical methodology was to record a Bible study and sermon on a cassette, then mail the cassettes to the rural pastors. The city pastors wondered if we had any advice or suggestions for them. All they had, they said, was the Spirit, but they had plenty of that.

I asked how many pastors they were trying to reach. We're not exactly sure, they answered. No one has ever counted them. "Surely you have some idea of how many there are," I persisted, thinking there were maybe a hundred or so.

"We think there are about 3,500," the president finally said. I was stunned. Over 3,000 pastors and no one counting them or their congregations—no rules, guidelines, processes or procedures, no structure, no accountability, no recognized authority, no academic credentials. Just 3,500 faithful Christians and the Holy Spirit. I was humbled.

I said I would refer their inquiry to my denomination's Office on Theological Education and mumbled something about adding a section of biblical studies, church history and theology to each weekly tape. In light of the work they were doing, I didn't have much to add other than my affirmation that they and the Holy Spirit seemed to be doing fine.

It was late. They knew that Amer­icans loved pizza, so one of them had picked up a few pizzas and cans of Pepsi. After eating and drinking with my new friends, I returned to the hotel grateful for the orderliness of my tradition, but also grateful that the Spirit can use a variety of traditions, some orderly and some wonderfully disorderly, for the growth of the kingdom.


Not sure I "get it."

John, I read this when first published and have pondered it ever since. Perhaps I am incorrect in my assumption that you are drawing the positive connection between the new Book of Order and the freedom it supposedly will give to those of us who wish to be a little more disorderly in our worship, our glorification, our business with and of God. Perhaps that will be the case. But an imaginative congregation led by an imaginative pastor and infused with the guidance, the dancing of the Holy Spirit could do all of those things under the old Book of Order. Sure, we tested the endurance of the "governing bodies" above us, but we have not been deterred. Now we are in a state of limbo as Presbyteries seek to sort out the "truth" of the new order and as they continue to do business even while the way they do it is at odds with one another.  In the long run, perhaps there will be a newfound freedom in the new rules. But without turning ourselves over to the Holy Spirit and letting him/her have his/her way with us, abbreviating the Book of Order won't have an impact at all.  The pastors in rural Argentina obviously were not constrained by the old rules.  In America, we have spent too much time agonizing over them and allowing them to constain us rather than motivate us.  Old rules. New rules. It won't make a hill of beans worth of difference if we are afraid to step out and step up to a culture and denomination that judges us for being different.  Business done decently and in order is, after all, a matter of perspective.