I have read, reflected and prayed over Scripture most every day of my adult life. This commitment, woven together with the experiences of my life’s journey – such as marriage, motherhood and my Christian education and service – has moved me closer to knowing God.
And yet, as a Presbyterian, I know that I alone could never fully discern God’s mind or will. Two foundational elements of our Presbyterian church life detailed in the Westminster Confession – discernment by groups (councils) and reaching a conclusion through majority rule – serve to remind us that only together can we come even close to knowing God (Book of Confessions, 6.173-5).
In my conservative-leaning presbytery I have been in the progressive minority for pretty much the entire thirty-five years of this being my place of membership in the Body of Christ. As a member of the minority, I have made reaching out to those I do not agree with in the majority a way of fulfilling my promise to be a friend among my colleagues in ministry (W-4.4003e).
Through this experience I have learned that many of these folks have come here from presbyteries where they had been in the minority. They have shared with me how they felt a disrespectful exclusion, a sense of disappearing, as the majority dominated the life of the presbytery. I saw my own experience here in Pittsburgh reflected in their words. It occurred to me through those conversations that no matter which “side” we may be on, the minority often feels that there is no room and no welcome for them in many presbyteries across the PCUSA.
If discerning the mind of God can become so divisive that some among us no longer feel welcome, why should we continue doing it? Because us being together and learning from each other, as difficult as it can be, is crucial to our knowing God. Each of us has our own blind spots. When we are one together, we can see with much more clarity.
So then, how can we who disagree live and work together in harmony?
For me, Gamaliel, the powerful Pharisee and mentor of the apostle Paul, offers an answer. In Acts 5, Gamaliel is speaking to a situation similar to ours. There were hardened sides in the Jewish community with the traditionalist majority opposing the innovation of the followers of Jesus, the minority. He counsels, “Keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God” (Acts 5:38-39).
What Gamaliel does here is leave open the possibility that the position of the minority may be of God. It gives to the minority the respect due to children created and loved by God. It keeps the minority in the community and contributing to it honorably. Paul echoes his teacher in his memorable words to the Corinthians: “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you’” (1 Corinthians 12:21).
Just as Gamaliel left space for the minority in the community, and Paul recognized there is room for hands and feet and eyes in the body, our presbyteries can be blessed with unity when we provide space for both the majority and the minority to contribute their gifts to the body of Christ. Being together joyfully in Christ, we will be the powerful witness to Jesus in word and deed that we all desire to be in the world.
What do you think? Where else in Scripture do you see the majority and the minority learning to work together?