The Confession of 1967

Esther 4:14, II Corinthians 5:14-20, July 3, 2016


In one sense I am a child of the ‘60s, I was born in 1964.  But I am not a child of the ‘60s in the way people usually talk about that decade—with either nostalgia, or relief that that turbulent era has passed.  When I was in college, in 1984, I took a course called “The History of the ‘60s” which made my mother feel very old!  And now I know how she felt.  As I see it, if I lived through it—it’s “news” not “history.” 

One part of that decade that is very important to me is The Confession of 1967.  Next year is its 50th anniversary.  It was adopted by our denomination in 1967, obviously, but also in Portland, Oregon, the last time the General Assembly met there.  It was the first North American statement of faith to be included in what became the Book of Confessions.

 Each week there is an affirmation of faith in the worship service.  I get these statements from The Book of Confessions—and I usually start by looking to see what the Confession of 1967 has to say about that day’s sermon topic.  To me, the Confession of 1967 is the strongest, clearest and most timely of the statements in the Book of Confessions.  I’m going to share some of my enthusiasm about it this morning.

 Surprisingly, the history of it began in the placid ‘50s, 1956, to be exact, when the Presbytery of Amarillo in Texas overtured the General Assembly to draft an updated version of the Westminster Shorter Catechism.  The catechism had been used for generations, but modern English speakers found its 17 century English difficult to understand.

 Remember, this overture came to the Presbyterian General Assembly—they promptly sent it to a committee, which suggested in 1957, that a new theological statement be created.  This idea was timely because our branch of the Presbyterian church was preparing to merge with another branch the following year.  So in 1958, when the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. merged with the United Presbyterian Church of North America, forming the United  Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. one of the first tasks the new denomination assigned itself was to prepare a new confession.  This is a good way to build unity. 

By the way, our denomination merged again in 1983, this was more of a reunion than a merger.  In the 1840s & ‘50s Presbyterians split—not over the issue of slavery, per se--but over whether what we now call Presbyterian Ruling Elders should be allowed to own slaves. 

From 1958 until 1966 a committee worked on what the new denomination’s first theological statement should be.  The committee did some surprising things:  First of all, it started with Jesus.  Most confessions follow a Trinitarian structure, as the Apostles’ Creed does, and start with God, the Father, the Creator of all things.  The Confession of 1967 started with Jesus of Nazareth, “a Palestinian Jew.”

A more surprising move was to make reconciliation the theme of the confession.  There are other themes, for example grace, providence, forgiveness or sanctification that they could have used, but as the committee looked at the church’s place in the world, they decided reconciliation was the most challenging topic the church faced.   Here’s how the confession begins:

God’s reconciling work in Jesus Christ and the mission of reconciliation to which he has called the church are the heart of the gospel in any age.  Our generation stands in peculiar need of reconciliation in Christ. [9.06]

Reconciliation implies difficulty.  Imagine couples who have been estranged working to reconcile their marriage, or the tedious task of reconciling the church’s written membership roll with its computer membership roll.

The ultimate reconciliation project is the one Paul describes to the Corinthians in which God reconciles humanity to Godself.  This reconciliation was painful and it was life-changing—the ultimate reconciliation took place on the Cross.  The people who wrote the confession knew that the problems the church faced were deeply entrenched and would not be solved without difficulty.  They didn’t offer any simple answers to peace and harmony.  They offered us the Cross, Christianity’s most powerful symbol. 

What is the Cross but a vertical beam and a horizontal beam?  Together they remind us of our savior’s sacrificial death.  But the Cross is also a reminder of how reconciliation happens: vertically and horizontally.  What I mean is, it reminds us of our need to be reconciled, to be brought into harmony, both with God and with other people.  That’s what Paul was getting at in the epistle reading this morning.  Paul urges the Corinthian Christians to embrace the new life they have in Christ, “accept the reconciliation Christ obtained for us on the Cross,” he writes, “and be an ambassador of that reconciliation in the world.”  This reconciliation is God’s work and God’s supreme gift to humanity.

But the Bible also describes our need for reconciliation with other people, that is, horizontally.  Jesus told his followers to make peace with each other before making an offering to God.  As today’s followers of Christ, we must look to the Cross and face its challenge of being reconciled to God, as we work with other people toward the promise of reconciliation.

The committee focused on four problems in society where reconciliation was needed: enslaving poverty, racial discrimination, international conflict and sexual anarchy in male/female relationships.  If we took a survey today I expect these issues would still seem pressing today.  At General Assembly last month, we dealt with these issues.

The Confession of 1967 was timely and powerful; it was also controversial.  Here’s what it said about racial discrimination:

God created the peoples of the earth to be one universal family.  In reconciling love God overcomes the barriers between brothers and sisters and breaks down every form of discrimination based on racial or ethnic difference, real or imaginary.  The church is called to bring all people to receive and uphold one another as persons in all relationships of life: in employment, housing, education, leisure, marriage, family, church and the exercise of political rights.  Therefore, the church labors for the abolition of all racial discrimination and ministers to those injured by it. [9.44]

In 1965, when the committee was composing that paragraph, the chair of the committee, Edward Dowey, a professor of theology at Princeton, remembers bitter arguments both public and private over whether the church should uphold the right of people to marry whomever they choose, that is should the church publically endorse interracial marriage?  But two years later, that controversy had disappeared. 

Perhaps the most controversial part of the Confession was what it said about international conflict. 

The church in its life, is called to practice the forgiveness of enemies and to commend to the nations as practical politics the search for cooperation and peace.  This search requires that the nations pursue fresh and responsible relations across every line of conflict, even at the risk of national security, to reduce areas of strife and to broaden international understanding. [9.45]

That phrase “even at the risk of national security” came out just as opposition to the war in Vietnam was starting to organize.  Presbyterians wondered if their church was telling them not to fight.  The Presbytery of Washington DC asked the General Assembly to remove those words from the text, because so many of its ruling elders were employed at the Pentagon and State Department.  The Department of Defense said that it did not believe that the confession would prevent Presbyterians from serving in any capacity at all.

Today as we look back at that time of tension it’s good for us to remember that if we are to live our faith with integrity it forces us to make difficult choices.  As we get ready to celebrate 240 years of independence—these words from 50 years ago remind us that being an American is not necessarily the same thing as being a Christian.

Ready for the big finish?  “Anarchy in sexual relationships is a symptom of our alienation from God, our neighbors and ourselves.” [9.47]

The committee I served on a General Assembly, The Way Forward, was brand new and charged with looking at what the church should look like, and how it should be managed and governed in the years ahead.  We have a structure designed for a much larger denomination.  Throughout the assembly, people used the term “kairos moment” to describe the church’s status quo.  Kairos is one of the Greek words for time, the other “chronos” refers to sequential time.  Anyway, during of our lengthy and exhausting committee meetings, the co-chair of the committee said, “The kairos moment at this assembly is that we’re not talking about sex.”  I have often said of Presbyterians that the only time we make the news is when we talk about sex.  And I was right!  I checked every issue of the Northwestern published while GA was in session and there wasn’t a word of coverage!  That has not often been the case.  At the last General Assembly, in 2014, the question of same-sex marriage was resolved and Presbyterian ministers in places where same-sex marriage was permitted could preside at these ceremonies.  But that hardly resolved the issue.

At General Assembly there was an overture to apologize to all people who have been hurt by the church’s discussion of same-sex marriage and the ordination of homosexuals. 

As I reread the Confession of 1967 I see a spark of hope there.  Imagine what would happen if everyone who feels passionately about this issue were to confess his or her alienation from themselves, from their neighbors and from God.  Then picture what would happen if we were to work together, not toward some middle-ground compromise, but toward reconciliation.  What if we stopped on our way to the altar and before making our offering, we went and made peace with our brothers and sisters as Jesus instructs us to?  What if we stared at the Cross and felt in our bones the pain of our savior who hung there for us?  And then, looking through the Cross, what if we felt together with that same brother or sister we just made peace with, the relentless love of God which is right now!  Amen.