The End of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)?
by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts
Copyright © 2006 by Mark D. Roberts and Patheos.com
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The Beginning of the End of the PCUSA?
This is a blog post I was hoping and praying I wouldn’t have to write.
It looks like my denomination, the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., felt envious over the recent attention given to the Episcopal Church as it faces the possibility of schism. Thus we decided to get our fair share of the spotlight by acting rather like the Episcopalians. Even as recent actions by the national leadership of the Episcopal Church has brought that denomination to the brink of division, so have recent actions of the General Assembly of the PCUSA.
Today’s General Assembly cast two historic votes. The combination of these votes looks bizarre to anyone not familiar with the peculiar dysfunctionality of the PCUSA. On the one hand, the General Assembly voted by a strong majority (405-92) to leave the so-called “fidelity and chastity” section of our constitution intact. In plain language, the Book of Order of the PCUSA states that all ordained officers in the church must practice “fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness” (G-6.0106b). This is a standard that, until today, every leadership body in the church was expected to apply without exception to every leader and potential leader. Period. This is what the General Assembly reaffirmed with a resoundingly favorable vote.
Then there’s the other vote. The same General Assembly voted by a 298-221 margin to accept a portion of the Peace, Unity, and Purity Report (PUP Report) that allows governing bodies certain leeway in how they apply the standards of the Constitution. To put it in a nutshell, the rules state clearly that persons who engage in sex outside of marriage may not be ordained. But, according to today’s action of the General Assembly, leadership bodies are now free to decide whether they must follow the rules or not. So, on the same day we Presbyterians reaffirmed the rules with a strong positive vote, and then voted to allow people not to follow the rules. See what I mean? It’s as if the PCUSA has multiple personality disorder.
Lest you think I’m not being fair to the PUP Report, let me quote from the relevant section:
The task force recommends that the 217th General Assembly adopt the following authoritative interpretation of section G-6.0108 of the Book of Order:
(1) The Book of Confessions and the Form of Government of the Book of Order set forth the scriptural and constitutional standards for ordination and installation . . .
(3) Ordaining and installing bodies, acting as corporate expressions of the church, have the responsibility to determine their membership by applying these standards to those elected to office. These determinations include:
a. Whether a candidate being examined for ordination and/or installation as elder, deacon, or ministry of Word and Sacrament has departed from scriptural and constitutional standards for fitness for office,
b. Whether any departure constitutes a failure to adhere to the essentials of Reformed faith and polity under G-6.0108 of the Book of Order, thus barring the candidate from ordination and/or installation. (PUP Report, Recommendation #5)
The controversial part of this is the last paragraph. It says that ordaining bodies have the responsibility and freedom to determine whether any departure from scriptural and constitutional standards for fitness for office “constitutes a failure to adhere to the essentials of Reformed faith and polity.” In other words, a candidate might not live up to the standards, and might admit that he or she has no intention to living up the standards, and yet a governing body might decide that this candidate still adheres to the essentials, and is thus ordainable even though he or she doesn’t live up to the standards for ordination.
Let me put all of this in simple terms:
1. The PCUSA has authoritative standards for ordination.
2. Until today, candidates are expected to follow these standards if they are to be ordained.
3. But, as of today’s vote, when it comes “fidelity and chastity,” an ordaining body has the freedom to decide that a candidate’s departure from a constitutional standard, namely fidelity and chastity, is not a failure to adhere to the essentials of Reformed faith and polity.
4. Thus, if any governing body believes that “fidelity and chastity” are not essential, then that governing body has the freedom to ordain candidates who are not and do not intend to practice fidelity in heterosexual marriage or chastity in singleness. Persons both straight and gay who engage in sex outside of marriage would thus be ordainable.
I know this sounds strange if you’re new to the Presbyterian soap opera. But the fact is that the General Assembly has strongly reaffirmed the standard of fidelity and chastity, and in the same day has granted freedom to governing bodies to decide whether this standard is essential or not. If they decide it’s not essential, then they are free to ordain people who intend to engage in sexual intimacy outside of marriage.
I’m sad to say I believe this vote is the beginning of the end of the PCUSA. I’m not saying this only because I believe that ordaining people who intend not to practice fidelity and chastity is wrong, but also because any institution that says “Here are the rules but you can decide whether the rules have to be followed or not” is doomed. Consider what would happen if the United States acted like the PCUSA. Under the Constitution, people are guaranteed the freedom of speech. But what would be left of our national union if states had the authority to decide whether or not to allow their residents to speak freely, and in what circumstances. We’d soon find ourselves in unending conflicts and general anarchy. This is where the PCUSA is heading, I fear. Of course some would say, given what has happened today, we’re already there.
Today’s vote to approve the Peace, Unity, and Purity Report has begun to rupture the fragile peace of the PCUSA. It has begun to shatter our institutional unity. It has given tacit approval to the tarnishing of our purity. I’m not suggesting that the people who voted in favor of the PUP Report believe what I just said. On the contrary, they believe that their vote will further the Peace, Unity, and Purity of the PCUSA. I wish I agreed. But I don’t. Even though people I deeply respect have supported the PUP Report, I fear they’ve made a grave mistake.
So, in light of the General Assembly vote to accept the PUP Report, is it time for biblically-committed Christians to leave the PCUSA? I’ll pick up this question tomorrow.
Should Biblically-Committed Christians Leave the PCUSA?
In Wednesday’s post I suggested that the recent vote of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA, one that makes a bit of room for the ordination of people who have sexual relations outside of marriage, may be the beginning of the end of this denomination (my denomination, by the way). Throughout the day on Wednesday I received more e-mails in response to this post than I have on one day in response to anything I’ve ever put up on my blog.
Among these 75+ e-mails there were a number of common themes. Some objected to my notion that the General Assembly vote is the beginning of the end of the PCUSA. From their point of view, the end had its beginning long ago, when the denomination stopped being clear about biblical truth and its governance over our church. What I call “the beginning of the end” they might call “the last nail in the coffin” or “the straw that finally broke the camel’s back.” I can see their point. Perhaps I should have entitled my post, “The Beginning of the Last Act of the Play: The End of the PCUSA.”
A couple dozen e-mails came from members of the PCUSA who, like me, are deeply distressed by the General Assembly vote, not only because it allows for the ordination of people who intend to do what the Bible calls sin, but also because the process by which this happened so utterly disregards the way we Presbyterians do business. For the first time, a General Assembly has voted to allow church members to disobey the clear direction of the PCUSA constitution. This is shocking and profoundly sad, especially when so many people who voted for it believe they did the right thing.
I received five or six e-mails from members of Presbyterian churches who are now leaving the denomination. The latest vote was, for them, the last straw. At least two of these people will remain active in their Presbyterian churches, however, because these churches are vital and biblically-sound. Withdrawing their membership is meant to be a symbolic gesture for the larger church.
One of my readers sent along a carefully crafted statement that someone might use to leave the PCUSA. This statement puts the reasons this way:
[The recent vote by the General Assembly has accomplished] the alteration of the PCUSA from a presbyterian to a congregational form of government in that each Presbytery is now able to do what is right in its own sight with respect to, among other things, the ordination of persons who engage in sexual activity outside the covenant of marriage between one man and one woman.
[The member leaving the denomination has] been driven from this PCUSA denomination which clearly no longer holds either to its own Constitution or to a traditional Reformed understanding of the Faith once given to the Saints.
Many who wrote to me today asked what I think about leaving the PCUSA. Is now the time to do so?
Before I begin to answer this question, let me admit that my answer will not be a simple one. No quick sound bite here. I realize this will frustrate some of you who want me to cut to the chase. But I believe that an issue such as this one deserves careful attention and analysis. Now is not a time for quick, unreflective responses.
For some Presbyterians, however, now is the time to separate from the PCUSA. When a General Assembly votes to allow, however indirectly, the ordination of people who intend to do what the Bible calls sin, and when it does so in a way that violates the constitutional and well-ordered nature of the PCUSA, then some members understandably can no longer be a part of the denomination. As they stand before God, they believe it is time for them to leave.
I respect those who have come to this decision carefully and prayerfully. I agree that they need to follow their conscience in this matter. Since they believe that God is directing them to leave the PCUSA, then they must do it.
I do not share their conviction, however, at least not today. Even though I’m deeply grieved by the action of the General Assembly, and even though I’m angered by the way our constitutional fellowship has been violated, I’m not ready to throw in the towel. I do confess, however, that a part of me wants to do just that. But this desire has mostly to do with my strong emotions at this time and my exhaustion over PCUSA squabbles about homosexuality. In 1978, when the General Assembly first dealt with the problem of homosexual ordination, I helped to write a portion of a book that strongly influenced that vote. The book was The Bond that Breaks: Will Homosexuality Split the Church? by Don Williams. Don wrote this book, though I did the final edit and added a few key paragraphs. I was 21 at the time. How tragically ironic that, after 28 years of arguing in the PCUSA, the answer to Don’s question might turn out to be “Yes, homosexuality will split the church.” I’ve spent well over half my life fighting to keep my denomination together and committed to biblical obedience, and I’m tired of the battle.
But I’m not ready to leave today, and let me explain why.
God Cares About Church Unity
First, and most importantly, I believe that God calls the church to unity. The theological basis for this unity is the work of Christ on the cross and the work of the Spirit at Pentecost and beyond (see, for example, Ephesians 2, Acts 2, 1 Corinthians 12). Even more profoundly, the theological foundation for church unity is the very unity of the triune God.
Jesus Himself made it clear how important church unity is in His prayer in John 17:
“I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:20-23).
Of course Jesus was not thinking about denominations here. But His concern for unity certainly gives us every reason to seek to be one in Him no matter what level of church life we’re considering (a small group within a church, a local church, a denomination, the worldwide church). Unity should always be a high priority for us.
Unfortunately, this is not often true in today’s Christian world. So many Christians today, especially of the American evangelical variety, seem to have forgotten Jesus’s prayer in John 17. They leave churches for trivial or ill-considered reasons. They split churches as if God didn’t care about keeping them together. More shocking still, sometimes they even strive to hurt the churches they have left. These are profound tragedies, not to mention profound sins.
I have often been asked why I’ve stayed in the PCUSA for so long, given the many crazy and unhelpful things the denomination has done over the years, especially through General Assembly votes. My answer has different components. Partly I’ve stayed because I believe that God has called me to the PCUSA. Partly I’ve stayed because I’ve hoped that I could make a difference for good in the denomination. And partly I’ve stayed because of a firm belief that since God cares so much about the unity of the church, so should I.
It seems to me that, in light of a biblical theology of salvation, Spirit, church, and Trinity, Christians should strive energetically for church unity. Unity is both a result of what Christ has done on the cross and a testimony to the world of this accomplishment. Thus one should leave a church, or split a church, only in extraordinary circumstances, and only when there are solid biblical reasons for doing so, and only after an extended season of prayerful, scriptural, and communal discernment.
Are we Presbyterians facing such an extraordinary set of circumstances today? Would we have solid biblical reasons for leaving or dividing the PCUSA? Have we engaged in an extended season of discernment?
Should Biblically-Committed Christians Leave the PCUSA? (Section B)
In my last post I showed how deeply God cares about the unity of His church. This would suggest that leaving a denomination, or dividing that denomination into new groups, should only be done thoughtfully, carefully, and for very good reasons. All Christians, I believe, should be strongly committed to the unity of the church, and should actively seek to defend and contribute to that unity. But there are times when division, either through personal departure or through corporate realignment (e.g. schism) is better than maintaining institutional unity. As I said yesterday, this should happen only in extraordinary circumstances, and only when there are solid biblical reasons, and only after an extended season of prayerful, scriptural, and communal discernment.
Do these criteria fit the situation of the PCUSA today?
No doubt what has happened in the PCUSA is extraordinary in several dimensions. In the past, General Assemblies have voted to allow the ordination of people who engage in sex outside of marriage, but these votes have been in response to motions to change the church constitution. Since constitutional change requires the concurrence of the Presbyteries (regional bodies), every one of these General Assembly votes has been rejected by the whole PCUSA. Last time the vote of Presbyteries was almost 3-1 in favor of the constitutional commitment to fidelity and chastity.
Yet now, for the first time, a General Assembly has voted to allow Presbyterian governing bodies to decide not to be governed by a part of our Constitution. This is truly extraordinary, and, in my opinion, extraordinarily wrong. Putting aside for a moment the issue of sexuality, when a church establishes rules but then allows groups to disregard the rules, that church is on the ropes (or worse). Institutional fragmentation is at hand. One might well say that the PCUSA is already in schism, even though the details haven’t been worked out yet.
I’m no expert in church law, but I wonder if this vote by the General Assembly is even constitutional within the PCUSA polity. How can a mere General Assembly pass a measure that effectively changes the constitution, without having the whole church vote on such a change? This seems to me fundamentally wrong. It would be like the U.S. Congress voting to allow states to decide for themselves whether or not to allow freedom of speech – and obviously unconstitutional move.
The extraordinary nature of the circumstances surrounding this year’s General Assembly makes the question of leaving or splitting the PCUSA especially tricky. If the Assembly had done the constitutionally correct, and in my view, the honorable thing, and voted to change the constitution, and if the Presbyteries went along with that vote, then the question of leaving or splitting would be more easily answered, at least by me. After all, as a Presbyterian pastor I have vowed to “be instructed and led” by the confessions of the church, and to be “governed by our church’s polity” (G-14.0405b). If our polity required that I personally support the ordination of people who engage in sex outside of marriage, then I could not fulfill my pastoral vows. I could not be governed by this polity. The only right thing for me to do in this situation would be to withdraw from the denomination. (I know that sometimes pastors in the PCUSA have decided to stay in the denomination and not be governed by its polity, but this seems to me fundamentally dishonest and dishonorable. It’s a clear violation of one’s ordination vows.)
Constitutional confusion is part of what makes the recent action of the General Assembly so perplexing, if not devious. The Assembly did not vote to change the Constitution with respect to our understanding of homosexuality and our prohibition of the ordination of people who engage in sex outside of marriage. In fact, the Assembly voted overwhelmingly to leave in the Book of Order the passage that calls for ordained officers in the church “to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman (W-4.9001), or chastity in singleness” (G-6.0106b). Thus, that to which I have committed myself as a Presbyterian minister hasn’t changed one iota. I have not been asked to renounce any of my convictions or to do anything I believe to be wrong. I have been asked, however, to remain in institutional fellowship with people who will do what I believe to be wrong. Now I have to decide whether this something God wants me to do or not.
Some have argued that the passage of the PUP Report will lead, in time, to a situation where I would be forced to affirm something or to do something I believe to be wrong. If this should happen, then my decision to leave the PCUSA would be an easy one (in principle, not in heart). I will not ever say or do that which I believe to be contrary to Scripture and dishonoring to God. But, at least as of this moment, the essence of the PCUSA’s polity, our Constitution, remains as it was a week ago. And I can heartily endorse this Constitution just as I did a week ago, or 18 years ago when I was ordained.
So the extraordinary circumstances in which we find ourselves are, among other things, extraordinarily complicated. The PCUSA continues to uphold biblical values in our Constitution. One General Assembly vote has given freedom to some to dismiss one of these values. This is a real problem, to be sure. But, in my opinion, this does not require immediate withdrawal from the denomination. It’s not a “trip wire” issue, so to speak. (HT to Albert Mohler for the “trip wire” analogy.)
In fact, it may well be that the vote of this year’s General Assembly will be overturned by the Permanent Judicial Commission of the Presbyterian Church (our Supreme Court, if you will), or by a vote of the 2008 General Assembly (if there still is enough of a PCUSA left in 2008 to have a General Assembly). I can easily imagine a scenario in which the impact of this year’s vote is extremely negative, almost disastrous for the PCUSA. It’s not hard to envision the majority of Korean Presbyterian churches, which are usually theologically conservative, leaving the denomination. I can almost taste record losses of individual members as well as many fine local churches. I can imagine a severe shortage of funds for the PCUSA national ministry. And so I can visualize the next General Assembly in 2008 looking at what happened in 2006, deciding that the vote of this year’s Assembly was a huge mistake, and voting to overturn the action of the 2006 Assembly. Sadly, this may be too little too late to save the PCUSA.
All of this may be wishful thinking on my part, of course. But something very much like this just happened. The 2004 General Assembly voted to approve “phased selective divestment in multinational corporations operating in Israel,” believing that Israel’s mistreatment of the Palestinians warranted such a strong move. But the response to this vote from thousands of Presbyterians and from thousands of Jews was severely negative. So this year’s General Assembly voted by a 483-28 margin (!) to remove the divestment language and to replace it with much more balanced language that favors neither Israel nor the Palestinians.
Of course my imaginative scenario assumes that, in two years, there will still be plenty of evangelical PCUSA folk around to help reverse the vote of this year’s Assembly. Yet many conservatives believe that they mustn’t remain in the denomination for biblical reasons. In my next post I’ll examine in greater detail what Scripture teaches about occasions when Christians must break fellowship with each other, and I’ll suggest some implications for the PCUSA crisis.
Are There Biblical Reasons for Breaking Fellowship with Other Christians?
Two posts ago I suggested that people should leave a church (or a denomination) only under extraordinary circumstances, and only for strong biblical reasons, and only after a season of prayerful discernment. In yesterday’s post I showed that the current circumstances in the PCUSA are extraordinary, but also extraordinarily complicated. The General Assembly vote, however distressing to me, didn’t go so far as to require me to withdraw from the denomination, since it left intact the church’s constitution, that which I am required to submit to as an ordained minister, and that which I heartily support.
But I know many members of the PCUSA who believe that, on biblical grounds, it’s time (or past time) to leave the denomination. I want to explore these grounds in this post, and then make some applications to the current PCUSA crisis.
Biblical Reasons for Breaking Fellowship
Given the fact that Scripture calls us to unity as a church, what biblical reasons do we have that would trump this call to unity? When is it acceptable, or even correct, for Christians to break fellowship with other Christians?
Note: This is not a topic I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about before this week. Thus I expect to miss salient points. I look forward to sharpening my reasoning in light of the responses I get from my blog readers.
1. Breaking Fellowship When Christians Persist in Sinful Behavior
Scripture teaches that there are times when Christians should break fellowship, at least for a season. Jesus’s saying that “if your right hand causes you to sin, cut if off and throw it away” may well have been intended for the church as a body (Matthew 5:30). In 1 Corinthians, the Apostle Paul instructs the Corinthians to remove a unrepentant sinner from their fellowship, at least until he repents. Fittingly, the sin that led to this required separation was sexual immorality (1 Corinthians 5:1-5). Paul goes on to tell the Corinthians not to associate with fellow Christians who persist in a variety of sins, including sexual immorality, drunkenness, and robbery (5:9-11).
If the PCUSA accepts as ordained leaders those who intend to commit what Scripture identifies as sexual immorality, then those of us who uphold biblical values may need to separate ourselves from those leaders, or even from the denomination that ordains those leaders, on the grounds of 1 Corinthians 5.
2. Breaking Fellowship in the Case of Theological Disagreement About Essential Doctrine
Christians should also break fellowship over essential theological disagreement (2 John 1:9-11). This does not mean we break up every time we disagree about theology, however. Only major issues, like Christology or the nature of God, warrant such an extreme separation.
On the surface, a denominational disagreement over sexual ethics does not appear to be that essential, though it’s important. The vast majority of PCUSA members who support the ordination of gays and lesbians do also confess Jesus as Lord and Savior. Yet our disagreement over sexuality is just the tip of the iceberg. It reflects a much deeper and already present theological schism within the PCUSA, a division having to do with diverse understandings of biblical authority and interpretation.
For example, although a few proponents of gay ordination continue to base their arguments on Scripture, the majority of these advocates now counterbalance biblical authority with some other equivalent authority, like “modern psychology” or “personal experience.” They believe the Spirit has given new revelation that updates and replaces what was taught in Scripture. This is not only wrong from a theological point of view, but it is also inconsistent with centuries of Presbyterian commitment to biblical authority. And it is a major theological disagreement, one that may be important enough to warrant the breaking of institutional fellowship. How can we Presbyterians continue to “do church” together if we cannot agree on the basics that guide us?
By the way, if you’re interested in my understanding of homosexuality and Christianity, see my blog post entitled: Christian Inclusiveness.
3. Breaking Fellowship for the Sake of Mission
The Book of Acts tells a story that many Christians can relate to, unfortunately. Barnabas and Paul were partners in ministry. As they were about to set out on a missionary trip, they experienced a sharp disagreement about whether or not to take along a man named John Mark. He was Barnabas’s cousin, and Barnabas thought he’d be useful. But in the past John Mark had been unreliable, so Paul didn’t want him to join them. In the end, Paul and Barnabas could not agree, so they went their separate ways, Barnabas taking John Mark, and Paul taking a man named Silas (see Acts 15:36-41).
Although this must have been a painful experience for Paul and Barnabas, we have no reason to believe that it involved a permanent separation, such as would result from profound theological disagreement. Scripture does not tell us if Paul and Barnabas ever came together again as brothers in Christ, though it’s unlikely that they worked together as missionary partners.
It would be wrong to conclude that Christians should feel free to break fellowship, to leave churches/denominations, or to divide churches/denominations simply on the basis of the story of Paul and Barnabas in Acts 15. But this story does show that sometimes missional strategy leads to Christians going in different directions, still united in Christ, but separate in their ministry strategies and alliances.
I experience this sort of thing all the time with my non-Presbyterian brothers and sisters in Christ. For example, two weeks ago I had lunch with one of my dearest friends, a man who happens to be a Southern Baptist minister. We are deeply bonded in Christ and in mutual love. But it would be hard for us to be in the same denomination right now, since our denominations differ on key issues such as baptism and church government. These practical matters aren’t essential to Christian orthodoxy, but they are important enough in practice to keep us from denominational unity. Nevertheless, we can still experience deep, Christ-centered fellowship. We could also share in ministry and mission together, as long as it didn’t involve denominational unity.
There are times when Christians need to recognize that they cannot be in the same denomination, even though they can be one in Christ and in much of what matters in the Christian life. They can still love one another, challenge one another, fellowship together, worship together, and serve together. But their differences make it difficult for them to have the kind of institutional connectedness required for denominations to be effective.
Sometimes I hear Presbyterians argue that the PCUSA must be very diverse because “having people in the denomination with whom I disgree challenges me and keeps me honest.” This is surely true. But it almost seems to assume that we won’t have deep relationships with people outside of the PCUSA, which seems odd to me. I have friends who are Southern Baptists, “Vineyardians,” liberal Episcopalians, conservative Anglicans, and Mennonites. They challenge me on a wide variety of issues. But I don’t think we’d make a very effective denomination because our differences, though not essential to faith, are essential with respect to institutional and missional functioning. My point is that I don’t need to be in the same denomination with people in order to have deep relationship with them, to be challenged by them, and to share in Christian love with them.
Are There Biblical Reasons for Breaking Fellowship with Other Christians? (Section B)
In Saturday’s post I began to examine biblical reasons for Christians to break fellowship with each other. They included:
1. Breaking Fellowship When Christians Persist in Sinful Behavior
2. Breaking Fellowship in the Case of Theological Disagreement About Essential
3. Breaking Fellowship for the Sake of Mission
The biblical ground for #3 came from the story of Paul and Barnabas in Acts 15, where these former mission partners split up over a practical disagreement. In light of this example, I suggested that sometimes Christians who are truly one in Christ simply cannot be institutional partners. I illustrated this by talking about my close friendship with a Southern Baptist minister.
Yet breaking fellowship for the sake of mission is also something that I have to consider in my PCUSA relationships. For example, I have Presbyterian pastor friends who believe that gays and lesbians should be ordained if they are in lifelong, monogamous relationships. I disagree with these friends about this, even though we share the essentials of Christian faith in common. Now, if in light of the recent General Assembly action, my friends start ordaining gay and lesbian elders in their churches, I’m not sure we could maintain institutional connectedness, since I would not be able to accept these elders as co-leaders in our common denomination. Yes, this issue has theological implications. But it also has very practical ones as well.
At this point my friends and I would face a choice: Spend the next thirty years as we have the last thirty, fighting with each other over the issue of gay ordination, draining our energy and distracting our attention from the gospel ministry. Or we could decide to separate institutionally, so that we might be free to lead our churches according to our differing convictions. We could still get together to build a Habitat for Humanity house, or to join in corporate prayer, or whatever. My friends and I could still enjoy deep fellowship in Christ. But we would not be continually duking it out to preserve a tenuous and unhelpful institutional unity.
A denomination is not the body of Christ. It’s not the church of Jesus Christ. Scripture refers to the church in local terms and in global terms, but not in denominational terms. A denomination is a practical, functional institution, one that is meant to support and to augment the ministries of its churches. When a denomination accomplishes this goal, it has clear value. But what if a denomination begins to get in the way of ministry and mission? What if denominational connections hinder rather than help us fulfill the Great Commission? Is it time for new denominational wineskins?
My relationship with the PCUSA has been both a help and a hindrance. So far, the pluses have outweighed the minuses. I’ve received strong support from my local Presbytery (regional body), and I’m in a great covenant group with several PCUSA pastors. The PCUSA has been the denomination that ordained me and in which I’ve served two churches.
Yet I’ve found that, increasingly, my PCUSA connection often hampers my ministry. I’ve spent literally hundreds of hours in the past 20 years dealing with unfortunate actions of our General Assemblies and other gatherings (pro-gay ordination votes, Re-imagining Conference, Israel divestment vote, etc.) The countless hours that I and my fellow leaders at Irvine Presbyterian Church have put into cleaning up PCUSA messes have been, quite frankly, a big waste of time.
Moreover, I’ve found that the “Presbyterian” label is sometimes more of a minus than a plus for outreach. People “out there” tend to think of the Presbyterian church as confused, liberal, and dying, largely because we make headlines that confirm these perceptions. Why would anybody want to come to Irvine Presbyterian Church if it’s confused, liberal, and dying? So I find myself in the position of having to explain that thought we might be confused sometimes, we aren’t liberal and we’re in fact growing.
Furthermore, in the last ten years I’ve had to deal with dozens of people who believed that the PCUSA endorses homosexuality, and for whom this is a reason not to get involved in the PCUSA church. When I’ve explained that we do not approve of gay ordination, some of these folks have been willing to give us a try. Others have remained hesitant because they’ve seen too many negative news stories. Now I’m going to have to tell people that our constitution calls for fidelity and chastity, and that Irvine Presbyterian Church affirms this completely, but that our denomination allows some people to do what our constitution forbids. This isn’t exactly going to make people want to join a PCUSA church.
If churches exist to do the mission of Jesus Christ, which I believe on biblical grounds, and if denominations exist chiefly to support and extend that mission, which I believe on theological and historical grounds, then when denominational help is outweighed by denominational hindrance, it may be time for a church to disengage from a particular denomination, and to seek out more edifying connections. This should never be done impetuously, however, since God’s concern for unity must be given due weight. But God is also concerned for mission. When denominational unity, something that is not directly addressed in Scripture, gets in the way of mission, something that pervades Scripture, it may be time for new denominational wineskins.
But if this is such a time for biblically-committed Presbyterians, then we must engage in careful, prayerful, corporate discernment of God’s will. I’ll say more about this in my next post in this series.
Does God Want Us to Leave the PCUSA?
So far in this series I’ve argued that, given God’s concern for church unity, people should only leave (or divide) a denomination in extraordinary circumstances, for strong biblical reasons, and only after an extended season of prayerful, scriptural, and communal discernment. I’ve shown that the current circumstances in the PCUSA are extraordinary, but also extraordinarily complicated. I’ve explained several biblical reasons why some sort of separation from the PCUSA may in fact be God’s will. So now we come to where the rubber meets the road. Does God want biblically-committed Christians to leave the PCUSA?
My answer, to be quite honest, is: I’m not sure. Now I realize this might sound like I’m being wishy-washy, and perhaps I am. But my lack of certainty has to do, on the one hand, with the complexity of the circumstances and biblical arguments involved. On the other hand, it was to do with the fact that I have not engaged in an extended season of prayerful, scriptural, and communal discernment about whether or not to part ways with the PCUSA.
“Why not?” you might wonder. “Didn’t I see this coming?” Well, I did think some about what I’d do if the General Assembly passed the fifth recommendation of the PUP Report, the one that allows governing bodies to ordain people who are sexually active outside of marriage, in contradiction to the clear statement of our church constitution. But, quite frankly, I did not think that the General Assembly would vote affirmatively. To me, the wrongness of Recommendation #5 was so obvious, and the implications of passing this recommendations so obviously dire, that I fully expected the General Assembly to reject it. So much for my ability to predict how a General Assembly will vote.
Because the General Assembly actions did not change the constitution in a way that requires me to withdraw my membership in the PCUSA, I have the time, and, indeed, the responsibility to engage in the kind of prayerful, scriptural, and communal discernment required in this situation.
On a personal level, I’m bringing these questions before God in prayer on a regular basis. I’m trying to surrender my agendas and preferences, so I can be open to God’s call. If God wants me to remain in the PCUSA, I will. If God wants me to leave, I will. But in order to obey, I need to get clearer on God’s guidance for my life. I should add, by the way, that I’m not a free agent here, but a member of a family. My wife’s wisdom in this matter will be crucial to me.
Moreover, I’m pastor of a church, and am blessed with many wise colleagues, both on staff and on the Session (Board of Elders). Discernment of God’s will is something we will do together. I would never leave the PCUSA without extensive conversation and prayer with my fellow leaders at Irvine Presbyerian Church.
I’m also greatly blessed to be part of a strong, Christ-centered Presbytery (regional body). I have partners in ministry, both pastors and elders, who are struggling with all of this much as I am. Moreover, my Presbytery Executive, rather like a bishop without any power, is a godly man whose wisdom I trust.
Beyond the personal partnerships that will provide a context for communal discernment, I’m also looking to my fellow evangelical Presbyterians for their wisdom and guidance. In particular, the Presbyterian Renewal Network, an alliance of 14 evangelical PCUSA organizations, will be source of vision and insight. Whatever I do personally, and whatever my church does corporately in response to the General Assembly vote, I want this to be done in fellowship with like-minded Presbyterians.
Let me close this post by quoting from two responses to the General Assembly action. The first is from the New Wineskins folk, some PCUSA leaders who have been working hard on the question of denominational renewal and reconfiguration. The second is the official statement of the Presbyterian Renewal Network. These will be long quotations, but I think they’re worth citing and reading.
In the past twenty-four hours, everything has changed. Tuesday’s actions of the General Assembly of the P.C.U.S.A. has turned presbyterianism on its head.
By adopting recommendation five of the Theological Task Force report, the 217th assembly of the P.C.U.S.A. has forsaken its constitutional covenant., abandoned its Presbyterian heritage and opened the door to the blatant disregard of biblical standards, paving the way for a climate in which, “each does what is right in his own eyes.”
The actions of this assembly have thrown our denomination into a crisis. Yet the God who delights to bring new creation out of chaos remains sovereign over our life as presbyterians. We recognize in this moment of crisis and profound disappointment a God given opportunity. This world longs to see us give faithful expression to our covenantal life. Now is the time. For five years men and women in the New Wineskins Initiative have worked to articulate a vision for a life together as Presbyterians that is marked by theological and ethical integrity, missional faithfulness and structural effectiveness. We believe that the action of this assembly confirms the need for a new wineskin.
How shall we respond? Together. These are days that require of us that we stand with those who are one in spirit. We rejoice at the sense of common purpose that increasingly characterizes our mutual efforts as organizations seeking renewal and reform, and believe that now more than ever we must seek and serve God together, affirming one another’s work wherever possible as side-by-side we work to preserve a biblically faithful presbyterian fellowship.
On July 19, in Tulsa, the second annual convocation of the New Wineskin Initiative begins. At that event we will seek and enjoy God, actively explore ways to live out our vision, and wrestle with how God may wish to move us together towards his preferred future. All who share our concerns and our hope are enthusiastically invited to attend the convocation and learn more of the vision to which we believe God may be calling us.
The decision of the assembly to forsake our presbyterian heritage for the sake of structural unity has left many shaken, disheartened, and deeply concerned, but with God there is always hope. We are confident that God will be faithful to use this crisis to surface the need for, to awaken our desire for, the new work God wishes to do among us. In God’s hands, and with our humble and prayerful cooperation, these events can serve to move us closer to becoming the faithful community of Presbyterians for which God and we long together.
Today, in a single vote by 298 commissioners, the constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) effectively was changed. The mandated requirements of ordination, rooted in Scripture and our Confessions, have been made optional. Sessions and presbyteries have been allowed to treat the Seventh Commandment as “not essential.” These ordaining bodies have been told that they need not obey the explicit instruction of the apostles: that all Christian believers should “abstain from … sexual immorality” (Acts 15:29).
The consequences of the decision of this General Assembly throw our denomination into crisis. Many individuals and congregations will conclude from this decision that the PC(USA) has abandoned the historic faith of the Church. The decision will be regarded by others in the worldwide body of Christ as profoundly offensive.
Yet we do not believe that God has abandoned the members of the PCUSA. We do believe that God’s Word, by the power of God’s Spirit, is able to convict, transform, and restore. We are thankful for the many Presbyterian congregations and members who testify so boldly to that power—even this week in Birmingham. Faithful commissioners and advisory delegates have stood valiantly and effectively for doctrines such as the Trinity and the sanctity of human life.
We will redouble our efforts to bear witness to the Gospel in this troubled time and place. We reaffirm our ordination vows at the very time when those vows are being cheapened. This recent decision marks a profound deviation from biblical requirements, and we cannot accept, support, or tolerate it. We will take the steps necessary to be faithful to God and to those God calls us to serve.
Let us all be guided by the passage from which comes, providentially, the theme of this 217th General Assembly:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.
Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood….
Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed.
Pursue peace with everyone, and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble, and through it many become defiled.
Hebrews 12: 1-4, 12-15 (NRSV)
I’m going to conclude this series on the PCUSA for now. I’m sure I’ll get back to it before too long. If you’ve read this far, I’d ask for your prayers, both for me and for all in our divided denomination.