Thursday, February 08, 2007

Answering Questions #2: "hot topics"

Another question I anticipate getting, at least in some interviews, is regarding current "hot topic" issues.  Every denomination has it's controversies and conflicts (if they aren't theological, as they often are in the PCA, they may be ecclesiological or even just matters of pragmatism).  I've posted about how to understand the relative importance of these issues (see here and here), and early on I posted some thoughts about how to think about them (see here and here).  Now I'll talk about how I would approach answering questions about them.

First and foremost, candidates should deal with issues honestly.  By this I mean two things: be honest about what you believe, and be honest about what you know.

Do you have a position on topic X?  Then state it concisely.  If you believe in the practice of paedo-communion, struggle with accepting infant baptism, or consider yourself a strict reconstructionist, say so.  If you think that Pastors must wear robes in the pulpit or that worship should include only Psalms in singing, be upfront about it.  Don't try to hide or mask your beliefs in complex, esoteric, or misleading language, but put it in plain terms.  Why would you want to imply that you don't believe what you do?  If you've reached conclusions about these or other issues, you should see it as your obligation to profess those conclusions at this time.

On the other hand, if you haven't reached conclusions about an issue-- or if you simply don't know enough about it to say-- then admit this plainly, as well.  It is perfectly acceptable to acknowledge that you are undecided or uninformed about them.  No one can keep up with all of the issues and discussions and still be attentive to study, ministry, or family.  If they happen to ask about something you know about, great-- but if you don't know, just say, "I don't know."

The folks interviewing you are listening as much to how you answer as they are to what you answer.  You may be utterly convinced that your position is true; thus, Ephesians 4 requires that you speak that truth "in love." 

Said another way: when you are asked about a hot topic, the chances are that it is because the committee or even the whole church has encountered it in some way.  Do you know what way that is?  Are you confident that every member of the committee-- and the church-- will agree with your perspective on the matter?  Would you be comfortable if the most outspoken opponent of your position were in the room?  If you cannot answer these questions with a confident "yes" then you should re-think how you state your position. 

The candidacy interview is not an inherent opportunity to instruct and correct the committee or team interviewing you.  It is not your job (yet!) to shepherd them to a new level of understanding about difficult issues.  You will demonstrate a respect for the dignity of their role as members of the search team if you deal with them charitably.

Even if you are convinced of your position, take care to hold loosely onto it loosely enough that you don't put ideas before people.  (the singular exception is, of course, if you are asked about one of those "Primary Issues"-- but of course that shouldn't fall under the category of "hot topics.")

I was recently confronted with the reality of this in my own life.  A dear friend mentioned that, at times, it seems like I don't care about what other people think of me.  This may be because I regard truth highly enough that I would rather be in accordance with the truth than compromise but keep the esteem of others.  But my friend remarked how this sometimes made her feel rejected, as if I didn't appreciate being loved.  When it comes to that, I've sinned pridefully, even though my intentions were the opposite.

Along similar lines, my friend and hero Joe Novenson commented about one of the current discussions in the PCA, sometimes known as Auburn Avenue Theology-- so called because it centers around ideas first introduced at a theological conference held at Auburn Avenue Presbyterian Church.  Joe reminded me of the humility needed when he said, "Before Auburn Avenue was a theology, it was a church."  That church is not essentially the ideas behind that theology, but the people of her membership.

Approaching these questions with honesty, charity, and humility, here is how I might answer a difficult question:

Q:  What is your perspective on Federal Vision?

I believe that the questions raised by the proponents of a Federal Vision view are important, valuable concerns about our understanding and practice of the sacraments.  In some ways, I applaud the men who have raised these questions, and I do not believe that they have always been dealt with in a loving, brotherly manner-- which has prevented fruitful, productive discussion from taking place.  To be perfectly candid, I have not studied the writings of those who promote the Federal Vision view in depth, nor am I familiar with the historical writings that they appeal to with a level of confidence to comment.  I have read several summaries of the issue, including some that are sympathetic, if not supportive, of Federal Vision theology, and from what I have read of these I cannot say that I fully agree with any of the main points of discussion.  I am not comfortable claiming a decided position, however, nor am I convinced in any way that those who hold a Federal Vision perspective should be seen as unorthodox or unbiblical in their convictions.

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