Why Not Just Leave the PC(USA)?




Why Not Just Leave the PC(USA)?

by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts

Copyright © 2008 by Mark D. Roberts

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Why Not Just Leave the PC(USA)?

I finished The End of the Presbyterian Church USA? Revisited with the question: Where do we go from here? I began to answer that question by urging us to move thoughtfully and prayerfully, yet with full awareness of the deep problems we evangelical Presbyterians face in a denomination that has been moving further and further from its biblical roots. This movement shows no signs of abating, and, in fact, it seems to be accelerating. The recent changes in the PC(USA) exegesis exam provide a striking illustration of this acceleration, and one that has nothing to do with homosexuality, our usual flash point.

Throughout my discussion of the PC(USA) crisis, I have tried to be as honest as I can be about the problems we face in this denomination, as I see them. For a long time, my evangelical colleagues and I have had a tendency to look on the bright side, to focus on mission, and to believe that things in the PC(USA) will, by God’s grace, improve. But in light of events at the 2006 General Assembly, and even moreso at the 2008 General Assembly, such a positive approach seems unduly pollyanaish. We can’t live in denial anymore about the deep theological fissures in our denomination and the negative trends we are facing. We can’t simply focus on the mission of our churches and ignore denominational issues because our mission is becoming increasingly impacted, one might even say hampered, by our denominational connections.

My effort to be blunt but fair about where I think we are in the PC(USA) has been distressing to some of my readers. A few have expressed frustration that I’m hanging in there. They think it’s well past time to leave, and believe I’m dragging my heels. Other readers have seen in my candid criticisms of the PC(USA) clear signs of my imminent departure from the denomination. “Mark’s on his way out,” they say with a sigh. They believe that I have moved too hastily, without giving internal reform, or even the Holy Spirit, a chance to make things better. I expect I have other readers (or former readers!) who are tired of this issue and hope I’ll leave it alone one way or another. As one person said to me: Why not just leave the PC(USA)?

That’s a good question, one I intend to chew on for the next few days. I’m going to answer this question, not as some sort of representative of the evangelical members of the PC(USA), but personally, as an individual who has wrestled with this question for several years. I’m going to try and explain why, as of this moment, I have not left the PC(USA), and why, in fact, I don’t have plans to do so, though my plans could change in the future.

Ironically, I’m in a position now where I’m much freer to leave the PC(USA) than I have been for many years. From June 1991 through September 2007, I was the Senior Pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church. If I had chosen to leave the PC(USA) during that stretch of time, I would have had to resign my pastorate. Or I would have found myself in the messy position of leading a church out of the denomination. In either case, my personal decision would have impacted more than 1,000 people, not to mention my own family. Today, however, I could leave the PC(USA) with minimal impact on others. My ministry at Laity Lodge requires me to be an ordained pastor, but I expect that, without too much trouble, I could find another denomination or church that would endorse my ordination. I could even continue to be part of the fellowship at my PC(USA) church, though I’d no longer be an official parish associate. So, my current situation gives me a freedom to leave the PC(USA) that most of my pastoral colleagues do not share. This fact is perplexing to some, who still want to know: Why don’t you just leave the PC(USA)?

Here begins my answer to that question.

1. I’m not leaving the PC(USA) because my church is part of the PC(USA).

Yes, I know it sounds like I just contradicted myself. I could leave the PC(USA) and still worship at St. Mark Presbyterian Church in Boerne, where I live. I’m quite sure nobody in the church would kick me out. But, even though, as an ordained pastor, I’m not technically a member of St. Mark, but a member of Mission Presbytery, I consider this church to be my home church. My wife is a member there. My children are actively involved there. I’m enjoying getting to know the people there. They have warmly welcomed me and my family. The pastor at St. Mark is a man of admirable integrity and biblical commitment, as are his staff colleagues. I appreciate the theological solidness of preaching and worship at St. Mark. So, if anything, I want to strengthen my ties with this congregation, not weaken them. If things with the PC(USA) get worse, as I fear they will, I want to wrestle through these challenges with my fellow believers at St. Mark, because they are my church family.

I realize that it may seem odd to some of my readers that my first reason for staying in a denomination has to do with my personal relationship with a particular church. Why not just stay with this church but cut ties with the PC(USA) as a whole? The reason is that my relationship with the PC(USA) as a whole has never been primarily a matter of denominational affiliation so much as a personal relationship with a particular church and its people. I became a pastor in the PC(USA), not mainly because I affirmed denominational beliefs and practices, but because I was actively involved in a PC(USA) congregation, the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood. I am a Presbyterian today mostly because of relationships I have had and continue to have with other Presbyterians. Because these relationships matter greatly to me, I am not inclined to break or injure or threaten them. If I’m ever in a place where I must leave the PC(USA), I hope I’ll be doing so with many others of like conviction, and not as a solo venture. This isn’t just about feeling connected. It’s a matter of theological conviction about the importance of corporate discernment and fellowship.

I’ll have more to say about why I’m not leaving the PC(USA) next time.

Why Not Just Leave the PC(USA)? Part 2

Yesterday I began to answer the question: Why don’t you just leave the PC(USA)? My first reason was:

I’m not leaving the PC(USA) because my church is part of the PC(USA).

Today I’ll add a couple more reasons.

2. I’m not leaving the PC(USA) because I have dear friends and partners in ministry in this denomination.

My second reason for staying put, at least for now, is like the first. It’s a matter of relationship and partnership in ministry. This answer points to a network of relationships that is broader than my local church. I’ve been a member of the PC(USA) for about 40 years, and an ordained pastor in this denomination for about half that time. Over the years I’ve built close friendships with many outstanding Christians in the PC(USA). Many are fellow pastors with whom I have shared in fellowship and mission. Most of these folk are in Los Ranchos Presbytery (Orange County and part of Los Angeles County, California), where I was a member for sixteen years. Since I moved to Texas, I joined Mission Presbytery, where I’m getting to know some fine folk.

Now I should mention that many of my brothers and sisters in the PC(USA) share my deep concerns about what’s happening in the denomination. We are not just sitting around enjoying each other’s company, that’s for sure. It’s possible that the day will come when many of us will feel compelled to leave the PC(USA). Or it’s possible that we will be involved in some sort of major restructuring of the denomination. Or it’s possible that we will feel called to remain in the PC(USA), standing for biblical truth and authority even though we might be in the minority. Or . . . well, God only knows. But, as I said with respect to my church, I hope that whatever happens between me and the PC(USA), it happens not just with me, but with those who share my commitments and vision for the church.

3. I’m not leaving the PC(USA) because, as of this moment, I have not been required by the denomination to do something that is contrary to my conscience.

Let’s take the most obvious example. As a Minister of Word and Sacrament in the PC(USA), I have always been free to act according to my conscience in all matters, and with regard to gay and lesbian ordination, in particular. Even though the General Assembly of the PC(USA) (our bi-annual national meeting) has voted three times to change our Book of Order to allow for the ordination of actively gay people, so far the church as a whole has not supported this change. We’ll see what happens in 2009, as the presbyteries vote on the latest recommendations from the 2008 General Assembly. But, as of September 5, 2008, I am not required to support the ordination of gays or to condone their lifestyle choices.

If, in 2009, the presbyteries vote to change the Book of Order so as to allow the ordination of active gays and lesbians, then my situation will be different. I have promised to uphold the polity of the PC(USA). If that polity allows for gay ordination, I will be expected to support this practice. I’ve heard people say that perhaps an allowance will be made for people to remain faithful to their convictions if they believe gay ordination is wrong. But, given our history when it comes to ordination, and given the very nature of our connectional polity, it’s hard for me to imagine that the PC(USA) would allow for gays to be ordained, but somehow also allow those of us who think this is wrong not to recognize their ordination.

If the presbyteries vote in 2009 to allow for the ordination of active gays and lesbians, I may feel led to leave the PC(USA). But, before I do this, I would need to pray long and hard about whether God wanted me to remain in the denomination as an advocate of biblical truth. I know quite a few Episcopal pastors who disagree with their denomination’s current position on homosexuality, yet who feel called to remain in the Episcopal Church and to bear witness to biblical teaching. This may be my calling as well in the PC(USA). Then again, it may not be. Time will tell.

I have friends who left the PC(USA) because they believed that they had been required to do that which was contrary to their conscience. The most obvious example has to do with money. A small portion of the offerings we give to PC(USA) churches ends up in the coffers of the denomination as a whole. (Some churches withhold all support for the denomination, but this is unusual, at least right now.) This means that whenever the denomination does something I find offensive, whether it has to do with changing the exegesis exam or making outlandish statements about Palestine and Israel or any number of other things, I am in a tiny way providing financial support for such actions. Yet I this has not led me to leave the PC(USA) because I still believe that much of what we do as a network of churches is consistent with the mission of Christ, and because the actual amount of my contribution to things I don’t support is miniscule. I don’t always like what my government does either, but I haven’t felt the need to leave the U.S. in search of a country that would never offend me. I just can’t imagine living in Antarctica.

Why Not Just Leave the PC(USA)? Part 3

So far I’ve offered three answers to the question: Why don’t you just leave the PC(USA)? They are:

1. I’m not leaving the PC(USA) because my church is part of the PC(USA).

2. I’m not leaving the PC(USA) because I have dear friends and partners in ministry in this denomination.

3. I’m not leaving the PC(USA) because, as of this moment, I have not been required by the denomination to do something that is contrary to my conscience.

Here’s another reason:

4. I’m not leaving the PC(USA) because there is no perfect denomination or church.

The PC(USA) has problems, plenty of them. But it’s not as if other denominations and churches are hassle-free. The Southern Baptists aren’t exactly having a happy church picnic. Neither are the Episcopalians. Nor the Methodists. In fact, every denomination of which I am aware has its share of problems. So if I were to switch from the PC(USA) to a denomination what was theologically and missionally more in line with my own convictions, before long I’d realize that the grass really wasn’t too much greener on the other side of the fence after all.

I have learned this lesson indirectly from several friends who have left the PC(USA). For example, about ten years ago, a friend I’ll call Greg decided that he’d had enough of the PC(USA)’s theological “all-over-the-mapness.” He wanted to be in a denomination that was theologically conservative and clear. So, though he as a PC(USA) pastor and had graduated from Princeton Seminary, a PC(USA) flagship, he determined to leave the denomination. Before long he was called to be the pastor of a PCA church. The Presbyterian Church in America is a conservative denomination, which, in 1973, broke off from the denomination that became the PC(USA) over issues of biblical authority, theological clarity, and the ordination of women. In the last few years, the PCA has been growing steadily, unlike the shrinking PC(USA), though it continues to be considerably smaller than the PC(USA). There are many outstanding PCA churches, notably Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, where Tim Keller is the senior pastor.

Anyway, back to my story about Greg. He and I remained friends after he left the PC(USA), though we didn’t have much contact for a while. A couple of years after he had joined the PCA, Greg and I had lunch. I asked him how it was going in his new denomination, expecting to hear how much happier he was now than before. “I’ve got to be honest,” he said, “though I’m in much greater in agreement with the PCA theology, I’m getting tired of debates about whether the days in Genesis 1 are literal or not. Sometimes I wish I were back in the PC(USA), where I could be a conservative standing up for biblical truth, rather than someone whose conservative credentials are suspect. Plus, we have plenty of churches with lots of problems. I’m glad I’m pastoring the church I’m in, but sometimes I regret leaving the PC(USA), in spite of all of its issues.”

There isn’t a prefect denomination. Were I to switch to something else, I’d leave behind one set of problems but take on another set.

I expect that, at this point, some of my readers might want to shout: “Then why not join an independent, non-denominational church? You wouldn’t have denominational hassles to worry about.” Indeed. Sometimes non-denominationalism seems to offer much greener grass. I know of some fantastic non-denominational churches, like RockHarbor Church in Costa Mesa, California, near where I used to live. This is a dynamic, growing, theologically-solid church. I know several of the pastors there, and hold them in high regard.

But even RockHarbor has its problems. Moreover, I’ve watched lots of independent churches struggle mightily in ways denominational churches often avoid. Because they’re free to make it up as they go along, rather than follow denominational wisdom and be held accountable by denominational bodies, non-denominational churches sometimes get into huge messes. For example, I know of one megachurch in which the board of elders was unhappy with its Senior Pastor. So the board got together and fired the pastor, hiring a brand new pastor in the same meeting. When people arrived at the worship service on the next Sunday morning, they were informed that they had a brand new Senior Pastor. You can imagine the reaction from the people, most of whom had no idea there were problems with the former pastor. The lack of any sort of pastoral transition contributed to the ultimate demise of this once thriving church.

I’ve also had friends who have been summarily fired without due process by their independent churches. In one case, a pastor who thought he was doing a good job was terminated, given only two weeks notice and compensation. The fact that he was supporting a family of four children didn’t seem to matter to the board. This man had no recourse other than to sue his church, which he refused to do on biblical grounds. So he and his family entered an extended season of grief, anger, and financial hardship.

Now I expect some of my readers are wondering why we should bother with the church at all. I can understand such wondering. Sometimes I’ve thought the same myself. But I believe that the church is, in addition to being a human institution with plenty of problems, the body of Christ and the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit. Yes, the church in general and churches in particular have lots of problems. That’s the way it is this side of the new creation. But churches also do lots and lots and lots of good, often representing Christ quite faithfully. Moreover, there are strong theological reasons to be committed to the church, and even to hang with a denomination in crisis. I’ll touch upon some of these reasons in my next post.

Why Not Just Leave the PC(USA)? Part 4

To this point I’ve given four answers to the question: Why don’t you just leave the PC(USA)? They are:

1. I’m not leaving the PC(USA) because my church is part of the PC(USA).

2. I’m not leaving the PC(USA) because I have dear friends and partners in ministry in this denomination.

3. I’m not leaving the PC(USA) because, as of this moment, I have not been required by the denomination to do something that is contrary to my conscience.

4. I’m not leaving the PC(USA) because there is no perfect denomination or church.

My next reason is biblical and theological.

5. Scripture calls us to make “every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4:3).

The New Testament letter known as Ephesians begins by revealing God’s grand plan for the cosmos: “to gather up all things in [Christ], things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph 1:10). This bringing together of all things happens through Christ, whose death leads not only to individual salvation, but also to the unifying of divided people (Eph 2:1-22). The church, through its unity, becomes a demonstration to the cosmos that God’s plan has been implemented and has begun to work (Eph 3:7-13). Thus, when Ephesians gets to practical matters of how to live out this theological vision, it’s no surprise to read Paul’s appeal:

I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all (Eph 4:1-6).

Since the unity of the church is grounded, not only in the gospel, but also in the very nature of God, it is essential that Christians make every effort to maintain that unity. The English phrase “making every effort” translates the Greek participle spoudazontes, which means “being eager or zealous, exerting great effort, or acting with haste.” Unity is not something to be taken for granted or ignored. It is to be sought with eagerness and effort.

One of the main reasons I remain a member of the PC(USA) in spite of years of unhappiness with many of our decisions and actions is that I believe I need to “make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” I will confess that I am not always eager to preserve Presbyterian unity. But even when my zeal lags, I still exert effort in the cause of unity.

The NRSV translation “making every effort” seems to imply that there would never be a time to step back from unity, since there would be no end to possible efforts on could make. This implication, however, does not capture the precise sense of the Greek verb spoudazein. Paul is not saying that there never is a time to back away from Christian unity. But such a time should be very unusual, and should come only after a significant effort to preserve unity.

One of Paul’s letters to the Corinthians provides an example of a time when unity in Christ should be broken, at least for a season. In 1 Corinthians 5, we learn of a believer who is engaging in sexual relations with his stepmother (5:1). The Corinthians, probably misconstruing what freedom in Christ is all about, have been boasting about this man’s actions. Paul is incensed: “Should you not rather have mourned, so that he who has done this would have been removed from among you?” (5:2). The Corinthians are not to maintain the appearance of unity by tolerating the sinful behavior of the fornicating man. His persistent sin and unwillingness to repent has, in fact, fractured the unity of the Spirit. Breaking fellowship with the man is required, though with the hope that, in the end, he will be saved (5:5).

The second letter of John provides another scenario in which Christians are not to remain in fellowship together. The context is one of false teaching. Specifically, “many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh” (v. 7). John counsels his church to respond in this way:

Everyone who does not abide in the teaching of Christ, but goes beyond it, does not have God; whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son.  Do not receive into the house or welcome anyone who comes to you and does not bring this teaching; for to welcome is to participate in the evil deeds of such a person (vv. 9-11).

So, if a supposedly Christian teacher denies the incarnation of Christ, this person is not to be welcomed or received into the house (church). The church is not to tolerate heretical teaching on the central issues of faith. Heresy can lead to the breaking of tangible unity because, in a way, heresy itself shatters the unity of the Spirit.

So how does all of this relate to the PC(USA)? There have been a few in the PC(USA) who have denied such basics as the deity of Christ. I heard one pastor do this very thing in a Presbytery meeting where he was involved in examining a candidate for ordination. This pastor was upset that the candidate has said so plainly that Jesus was God incarnate. At the time, I thought the examination was going in the wrong direction, and the candidate should have been examining the pastor! But the vast majority of Presbyterians, including those who are more liberal in their theology, profess such central doctrines as the deity and humanity of Christ and salvation through him alone. Moreover, the PC(USA)’s Constitution is very clear about the basic doctrines of the Christian faith, and these are not being denied or debated by most people in the denomination. Thus, the “making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit” command prevails over the “do not receive into the house command” at this time, at least in my opinion.

If, however, the PC(USA) were to vote in the next year to approve of the ordination of active gays and lesbians, or if our top judicial body endorses that which allow for such ordinations even without a change in the Book of Order, then we who are seeking to be faithful to Scripture may find ourselves in situation analogous to 1 Corinthians 5. We may end up in a church that approves of what Scripture identifies as sin. And if the denomination fails to exercise appropriate discipline with a person who sins and intends to continue, then we’ll have to consider whether it’s right for us to remain the denomination. In this case, the call to make every effort to maintain unity is in tension with the call to uphold biblical standards of righteousness. We’re caught between our commitment to unity and our commitment to purity.

Some have argued that if the PC(USA) officially endorses what Scripture reveals as sinful, then the PC(USA) itself has broken the unity of the Spirit. There is no more unity to be maintained, or so the argument goes. I’m not quite sure I buy this argument, though I do believe that it’s possible for the denomination to do that which effectively severs our covenantal bonds. Some have argued that the actions of the 2008 General Assembly did, in fact, severely damage or even break our covenantal unity. (See, for example, a declaration that is being presented to the Beaver-Butler Presbytery for a vote later this month. Thanks to Presbyweb for publishing this declaration.)

Returning to Ephesians 4, we see that part of preserving the unity of the Spirit involves “bearing with one another in love” (Eph 4:2). One might just as well translate the original Greek as “putting up with one another in love.” This “putting up” does not have to do with our response to those who sin against us. This requires the response of forgiveness. Rather, we put up with each other when they do things that bother us, things that get on our nerves, things that make us want to run in the other direction.

One of the recent commentators on my blog made a helpful distinction, one he learned from Richard Lovelace. It’s the distinction between “tolerable stupidities” and “intolerable stupidities.” (Thanks, Paul.) I rather like that difference. Much of what has bugged me about the PC(USA) over the years has fallen into the “tolerable stupidities” category. But, increasingly, the tolerable seems to be morphing into the intolerable. So when a General Assembly votes to allow for the ordination of active gays, and when it votes to endorse lawsuits against a sister denomination, and when it encourages us to worship alongside Muslims as if our theological differences were minor, and when it votes to approve of those who reject our accepted church rules, I begin to wonder whether I should continue to “bear with the PC(USA) in love.” I wonder if the unity of the Spirit I am seeking to preserve still exists.

Why Not Just Leave the PC(USA)? Part 5

So far in this series I’ve given five answers to the question: Why don’t you just leave the PC(USA)? They are:

1. I’m not leaving the PC(USA) because my church is part of the PC(USA).

2. I’m not leaving the PC(USA) because I have dear friends and partners in ministry in this denomination.

3. I’m not leaving the PC(USA) because, as of this moment, I have not been required by the denomination to do something that is contrary to my conscience.

4. I’m not leaving the PC(USA) because there is no perfect denomination or church.

5. Scripture calls us to make “every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4:3).

Today I want to mention a reason that is not keeping me in the PC(USA). This is a reason I sometimes hear, but do not find persuasive.

I am not staying in the PC(USA) because I believe the theological diversity in the denomination is good for me. I’ve heard this sort of thing from my friends, both evangelicals and progressives. An evangelical will say, “I need to be in a church with [supply name of your favorite liberal] because she challenges me and helps me to think more clearly and truly and not to get into an evangelical rut.” A liberal will say, “I need to be in a church with [supply name of your favorite evangelical] because he challenges me and helps me to think more clearly and truly and not to get into a liberal rut.”

I’m not persuaded by this argument. I have plenty of friends who are more conservative than I am theologically, and plenty of friends who are more liberal than I am theologically. These friends challenge me and help to keep me honest in my theology and discipleship. I appreciate these friends and I am glad they’re in my life. But they are not members of the PC(USA). In fact, given their views on various issues, it would be difficult, if not impossible, for us to be in the same denomination. Yet we can be friends. We can join together in certain kinds of short-term ministry. We can talk theology and challenge each other. We can love each other with the love of Christ. We can be in the church of Jesus Christ together. But our differences are such that we’d have a very hard time being in the same particular church or denomination. If we tried to be a denomination together, we’d exhaust ourselves trying to manage our differences, leaving very little time for mission.

When folks say, “I need so-and-so in my denomination to challenge me and keep me honest,” it almost sounds as if they’re limiting their Christian relationships to people of the same denomination. Yet if this is not true, won’t they be challenged and kept honest by Christian brothers and sisters from other denominations?

Admittedly, I’m making certain assumptions about what a denomination ought to be. A denomination, it seems to me, exists primarily to further the mission of Jesus Christ through supporting, building upon, and expanding the mission of individual churches. If churches are to be united in mission, they need to agree on many basic things, like, for example, the nature of Christian mission. If they don’t agree on this, then their efforts to join in mission together will be hampered. To be sure, liberals and conservatives can come together for certain projects, like hurricane relief. But they have a much harder time doing mission together when, for example, they don’t agree on what evangelism is, or on how Christians ought to be involved in politics, or on sexual ethics, etc.

In my opinion, one of the main reasons the PC(USA) is failing in its mission and losing members at such a rapid rate is the ineffectiveness that comes from untenable theological diversity. We have been trying so hard to stay together in spite of our differences that we don’t have the energy and focus needed for effective mission. For example, years ago I served on the Evangelism Committee of Los Ranchos Presbytery. We were a relatively strong and effective committee, partly because committee members all agreed on a few basics, like what evangelism was. But then a woman joined our committee who saw evangelism as something other than sharing the good news of Christ in order to help people become his disciples. For her, evangelism meant doing good works, working for justice, and not saying anything about Jesus. For one year this woman made our committee work extremely difficult, not because she was hard to work with, but because we were all making such a giant effort to include her and not hurt her feelings. We wanted to be a “big tent” committee. We were a big tent, I suppose, but didn’t get much done. Our mission of helping the churches in Los Ranchos Presbytery to do evangelism effectively was stymied by our theological diversity.

Now I’m all in favor of contexts in which those who are committed to evangelism are challenged to consider the biblical call to social justice. And I’m equally open to conversations that challenge the justice folk to consider how their efforts should be a reflection of the Christian gospel. But I believe that efforts of people actually to do evangelism and efforts of people actually to do justice can be hampered if they can’t agree on what evangelism is or what justice is. A certain measure of theological diversity will strengthen a denomination or a church or a committee. But too much diversity will weaken them and make it almost impossible for them to fulfill their mission.

Again, let me emphasize once again that I’m not saying theological diversity is always to be avoided. In fact, I work now at Laity Lodge, a ministry with strong evangelical convictions that has, nevertheless, a wide ecumenical reach. We have at Laity Lodge both conservative Southern Baptists and progressive Episcopalians, not to mention all sorts of different Methodists, Lutherans, Roman Catholics, Pentecostals, Church of Christ folk, and independents. I enjoy our fellowship in Christ and conversations about our theological differences. But if we all tried to start a church together or form one denomination, we’d have quite a mess in our hands because our theological and practical diversities are too broad for this kind of institutional and missional unity.

I should add, by the way, that I think certain kinds of diversities are crucial beyond just theological ones. In fact, it may be more important for Christians to have significant relationships with other believers who are diverse in non-theological ways than for us to have lots of friends with different theologies. For example, as a middle-aged, Anglo-upper-middle-class-American-male-intellectual, I need to have fellowship with Christians who are other than I am, including: people who are older and younger than I am, persons of color, persons both wealthier than I am and poorer than I am, people who are not Americans, women, people who are freer in expression and more in touch with their emotions than I am, etc. etc. etc. Denominations can help to foster relationships of this sort, though often they bring together people who are more or less the same, even if they have theological differences.

So, in sum, I’m not staying in the PC(USA) because I need to be in fellowship with people who have different theologies than I have. I have plenty of non-PC(USA) friends who fill this bill, and could always find more if needed. I do believe that a certain amount of theological diversity is healthy in a church or denomination. But, in my opinion, what we have in the PC(USA) is too diverse to support effective mission. We PC(USA) folk are like a team of backpackers who are carrying such a giant tent on our backs that we can’t make it up the mountain we’re supposed to climb. As a result, we’re unable to fulfill our mission. At some point we’ll have to choose, I expect, whether we want to keep hanging on to our big tent and remain missionally stuck, or whether it’s time to carry smaller tents that will enable us to start moving up the mountain.

Why Not Just Leave the PC(USA)? Part 6

This post is Part 6 of the series Why Not Just Leave the PC(USA)? It is also Part 1 of a new series called The PC(USA) and Church Property.

So far in this series I have given five reasons why I am not currently planning to leave the PC(USA). In my last post I explained one reason frequently given for not leaving that is not persuasive to me. In today’s post I want to explore one of the stronger reasons for not leaving the PC(USA), a reason that is fraught with complication and controversy.

If you are committed to your local Presbyterian church, whether as the church’s pastor or a member, then you’d tend not to want to leave the PC(USA) unless your church leaves with you. But, in many cases, it’s a very difficult and painful thing for a church to leave the PC(USA). There are two main reasons for this.

First, when churches vote to leave the PC(USA), they rarely do by a vote of 100% for leaving and 0% for staying. (In June of this year, Lancaster Presbyterian Church in New York did vote 243-0 to leave the denomination, but this sort of unanimity is unusual.) This means that when a congregation votes to leave the PC(USA), it is also voting to split itself into two different congregations. People who have worshipped together, prayed together, and served together will now be in separate churches. Friends may very well end up on different sides of the vote and therefore in different churches. From a relational and emotional perspective, therefore, it’s hard for a church to leave the denomination.

Second, when a church votes to leave the PC(USA), it is not entitled to keep its property. Unlike the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, which allows congregations to leave the denomination with its property if two-thirds of the members vote to leave, the PC(USA) claims to own the church property even if 100% of the members vote to leave. This claim is ensconced in the PC(USA) Book of Order, which reads:

G-8.0201 Property Is Held in Trust

All property held by or for a particular church, a presbytery, a synod, the General Assembly, or the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), whether legal title is lodged in a corporation, a trustee or trustees, or an unincorporated association, and whether the property is used in programs of a particular church or of a more inclusive governing body or retained for the production of income, is held in trust nevertheless for the use and benefit of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

This means, in effect, that a particular church does not really own its own property. If it leaves the denomination, it leaves its property, or at least it surrenders the right to keep its property. This is true, in principle, even if, as is almost always the case, the property was purchased and developed by the members of the church, with relatively little assistance from denominational bodies.

The Book of Order does not address directly a situation when a church votes 100% to leave the PC(USA). It does speak of what should happen when a congregation has a split vote to leave.

G-8.0601 Property of Church in Schism

The relationship to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) of a particular church can be severed only by constitutional action on the part of the presbytery. (G-11.0103i) If there is a schism within the membership of a particular church and the presbytery is unable to effect a reconciliation or a division into separate churches within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the presbytery shall determine if one of the factions is entitled to the property because it is identified by the presbytery as the true church within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). This determination does not depend upon which faction received the majority vote within the particular church at the time of the schism.

What this means is that, in theory, the presbytery of which a church is a member has the right to dismiss that church to another denomination. (I say “in theory” because presbyteries that have voted to let churches leave with their property are being challenged by their synods.) In most cases, however, the presbytery will decide that the faction that has voted to remain in the PC(USA) is “the true church” within the PC(USA), and therefore entitled to the property. This has nothing to do with the percentage of the vote. Even if 95% of a church voted to leave the denomination, the presbytery could decide that the “true church” was the remaining 5%.

In fact, as more and more churches are voting to leave the PC(USA), presbyteries are responding quite diversely. Some have allowed churches to leave with their property without any payment. Other presbyteries have required churches to pay some relatively small amount of money to keep their property. Other presbyteries have required departing congregations to leave without their property. When congregations have refused, these presbyteries have taken them to court. So you end up with a situation where a presbytery and a former congregation of that presbytery are suing each other in civil court.

In my next post I’ll have a few things to say about this regrettable situation. For now I simply want to note, by way of summary, that it is not an easy thing for a church to leave the PC(USA). I’m not suggesting, by the way, that it should be easy. But sometimes you’ll hear people recommend that evangelical churches leave the denomination as if it was a simple and painless thing to do. In fact, it is neither simple nor painful.

This discussion will be continued in the series: The PC(USA) and Church Property.


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