Can We Trust the Gospels?

Recent Posts

Past Posts Archived by Date

Search this site


Search this site


« Vacation Fun at the Beach | Home | Chet Edwards: Potential Vice-President and Poster Child for Denominationalism in America »

What’s Good About Denominations? Revisited

By Mark D. Roberts | Friday, August 22, 2008

Part 14 of series: The End of the Presbyterian Church USA? Revisited
Permalink for this post / Permalink for this series

Two years ago, in the aftermath of the debacle of the 2006 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA, I wrote a blog series on the topic: What’s Good About Denominations? In this series I listed several benefits of denominations, including:

• Denominations establish hospitals and schools.

Denominations plant churches.

Denominations provide accountability for churches and church leaders.

Denominations provide guidance for congregational worship.

Denominations provide a context for submission.

Since I wrote this series, I experienced some of the rich benefits of being part of denomination. It came as I was considering a new call to Laity Lodge, and then as I made my transition from being Senior Pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church to Senior Director of Laity Lodge. The benefits to which I’m referring came in the form of personal wisdom and support from members of Los Ranchos Presbytery in Southern California. I was in a covenant group with several other pastors from this presbytery, and they were a great help to me as I wrestled with God’s will for my life. Moreover, Steve Yamaguchi, the Executive Presbyter of Los Ranchos helped me as I sought to discern God’s call, and then offered valuable wisdom as I finished up my tenure at Irvine Presbyterian. Steve helped me avoid many of the traps that snare pastors on their way out of a church, even as he helped me do many things to ensure that my leaving the church would be a positive experience both for me and for the church.

The fact that Irvine Presbyterian Church is part of a denomination has also helped that church thrive after my departure. The presbytery helped the church secure the services of an outstanding interim pastor. It has also encouraged the church in its extensive mission study, a precursor to calling a new pastor. The corporate wisdom offered by the presbytery can be a tremendous help to a church in transition. This sort of thing would not be as readily available to an independent church.

So, one of the things that’s good about denominations is that they help churches, or at least that should be the case. In my experience, sometimes denominations and denominational officials get it backwards. They see the work of the denomination as primary, with churches providing support for the denominational mission. To be sure, there are certain denominational efforts that are worthy of help from individual churches. But denominations and denominational bodies (presbyteries, synods, judicatories, assemblies, councils, etc.) exist primarily to help churches. Mostly, they exist to help churches do their mission more effectively and faithfully.

Los Ranchos Presbytery got this right. The presbytery saw its primary purpose as supporting churches in their mission. Everything else was secondary. Here are the Vision and Mission statements of the Presbytery:

Presbytery of Los Ranchos VISION Statement

Responding to a rapidly changing and complex cultural environment, the Presbytery will empower our congregations:

• To experience spiritual renewal,

• To grow in their passion for Jesus Christ,

• To become missional churches within their local communities, and

• To join in Christ’s mission throughout the world.

Presbytery of Los Ranchos MISSION Statement:

The Presbytery works in partnership with local congregations, the primary agents of ministry and evangelism, empowering them to fulfill the mission of Jesus Christ by:

• Encouraging congregations to make disciples who are sent,

• Nurturing reconciliation, communication, cooperation and connectionalism,

• Supporting congregations in development, revitalization and mission as together, we prayerfully receive empowerment from the Holy Spirit, instruction from the Scriptures and guidance from the Book of Confessions and the Book of Order.

Notice in the Vision Statement that the Presbytery “empowers” congregations. Congregational health and mission is the point. Similarly, in the Mission Statement, the presbytery “works in partnership with local congregations, the primary agents of ministry and evangelism, empower them to fulfill the mission of Jesus Christ.” There you have it. The churches are primary; the Presbytery is secondary. Its mission is to support the primary mission of the churches.

If the main value of a denomination is to support and encourage the mission of individual churches, then this gives us a way to evaluate a denomination’s job performance: Is the denomination actually helping its churches to do their mission better? How? Such things should be demonstrable, even measurable. Moreover, if a denomination exists primarily to undergird the mission of its churches, then this would allow individual churches to evaluate the usefulness of their denominational connection. Every denominational church might ask: Is our involvement in our denomination supporting and strengthening our mission? If I had been asked this question when I was Pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church, my answer would have been: “Yes, through our partnership with our Presbytery.” What we received from our denomination as a whole, apart from our Book of Confessions and Book of Order, was rather minimal. But we were richly blessed to be part of Los Ranchos Presbytery.

Of course one might object that I haven’t really offered a rationale for denominations so much as for regional bodies of churches united in faith and mission. That’s true, to an extent. If the Presbytery of Los Ranchos were to separate from the PCUSA, the Presbytery would still be able to do its basic mission. Yet, the Presbytery draws wisdom and guidance from the larger denomination of which it is a part, especially through the creeds, confessions, and established church order. And there are some denominational missions that exceed the scope of a regional body (such as starting seminaries). Still, I sometimes wonder if national (or international) denominations will, before too long, be eclipsed by smaller, local bodies.

What does all of this mean for the PCUSA? I’ll offer a few thoughts in my next post in this series.

Topics: PCUSA: End of? |

12 Responses to “What’s Good About Denominations? Revisited”

  1. Matt Ferguson Says:
    August 22nd, 2008 at 9:00 am


    I would hope you don’t spend too much time on the topic of “What good about denominations?” as new structures rising up are pretty much a given and the passing of denominational structures as we know them as something of the past. Now, writing about the great need for connectionalism and some form of governing system would be great. I am amazed how many churches who want to be seen as being Biblical while being “independent” cannot answer how they fit with the early church’s connectedness that allowed for the first two Jerusalem Councils found in Acts, let alone the other early church councils. This rapid growth of “independent” churches is a crisis moment of our time.

    I am just back from a mission trip and vacation time. I am saddened by your lack of follow through on “what do we do now?” part in our recent series. Your clarity in presenting how we got to where we are will be a big help for many of many of us as we present your material to elders and members.

    But you lack of follow through reminds me of my favorite Presbyterian joke. The one about some people lost in a fog as they ride in a hot air balloon. They descend and get a break in the fog and see two men on a putting green. Calling out to them for help in knowing where they are, one of men responds, “You are over the 9th green.” With that, the fog again envelops them. One man in the hot air balloon says, “They must have been Presbyterian.” “Why,” asks the other, “because they were playing golf?” “No, because what he said was absolutely true but of not use whatsoever.”

    You, and those who have risen to leadership in the renewal groups, can define the problem we face with great clarity but seem baffled on what we need to do. Have you ever read Dr. Suess’ Zoad In the Road? I find it an apt descrption of man orthodox evangelical leaders in our denomination.

    So what must we do? “Come out from among them” in some way. It could be a type of two Synod system, a committed covenantal community with clear boundaries within (for those who believe they must remain in the PCUSA) or move to join another Reformed part of the Body of Christ. After 25 years of debate I don’t know of another way forward.

  2. Debbie Says:
    August 22nd, 2008 at 11:53 am

    To Mr. Ferguson, (who I hope is not a Reverend), What a nasty comment! You should be ashamed of yourself. Please pray for patience for things to unfold for you and your denomination. Even pray for your own enlightenment in the absence of Reverend Roberts on vacation. Chill! Just who is Sovereign here?

  3. Mark Roberts Says:
    August 22nd, 2008 at 1:13 pm

    Matt: If you had checked my recent blog posts, you’d have realized that I was on vacation, and had taken a break from blogging. Sorry to disappoint you. Please be patient.

  4. Matt Ferguson Says:
    August 22nd, 2008 at 1:17 pm


    What offended?

    The passing of denominational structures is spoken of widely, including many leaders within the PCUSA, and this has been true for a few years now. Thus, I wonder why one would spend time praising denominational structures. Yes, there have been and are good things one can gain from them (which is why I brought up the crisis of the growing number of independent churches) but how does praising denominationalism do us any good with what we are now facing?

    Did the joke offend? I have heard this told in presbytery meetings, at a GA committee meeting, etc. It is related to the saying, “When all is said and done there is a lot more said than done.” If you can’t laugh at oneself (as Presbyterians) then I feel sorry for you. Have you heard how many Presbyterians it takes to change a light bulb? Just let me know if you want the answer.

    Was it my use of Dr. Suess? Surely it isn’t my referencing such a great theologian!

    Is it my suggested solution? I have been involved in this debate for 25 years so I think “chilin’ time” is done and I would say “good job” to all my orthodox evangelicals brothers and sisters who have hung in there this long and not left. I would think suggesting a two Synod model for a faithful way within in the denomination (and not leaving) would be seen as a rather reasonable alternative. Peter Barnes at First Church Boulder (I believe) is the first I heard mention this two Synod model—and I didn’t like it for a long time.

    Again, I praise Mark for his great work up to the “fork in the road” point. He ended that part of his series with a promise to get back to it with some suggestions and many of us eagerly waited. Mark then came back with not much to suggest and even noted that some would likely blast away at him for it. I don’t think my note is “blasting away” as much as challenging him to do the hard part—a part that I think, and I could be wrong, most know in their heart of hearts but don’t want to take that step.

    And sorry to disappoint you—I am a pastor (hate that Rev. stuff). And God being sovereign is not an excuse for inaction or making the tough call on something. That reminds me of the guy caught on his roof during a flood and praying for God to rescue him—I would tell you that one but you may not like such humorous stories.

  5. Mark Roberts Says:
    August 22nd, 2008 at 1:24 pm

    Matt: In the conversation about the passing of denominations, it seems wise to pay close attention to what’s good about them. Too often people seeking change cast off the past without hanging on to the benefits of the past. If you read my post on what’s good about denominations, you’d see in the end my raising a question that’s not unlike your own. To say there is good in denominations is not necessarily saying that denominations, per se, should be continued. It may well be that new structures will allow for the continuation of what’s good in denominations without the obvious downsides. My post on what’s good about denominations wasn’t really pointed at someone like you, but at those who see non-denominationalism and independence as by far the best option.

  6. David Says:
    August 22nd, 2008 at 2:51 pm

    One of the benefits of being in a denomination is supposed to be that you are “branded”. This is similar to being branded in a MacDonalds franchise, where the organization makes sure that all of their restaurants around the world look alike, the food tastes the same, and the food is prepared and facilities are maintained within a certain level of quality specified by the central organization. Part of the reason MacDonalds is so popular, especially to travellers, is that when you walk into a MacDonalds you know what you will be getting.

    When it comes to churches, while there is certainly room for different looks and styles of worship, and we may not all “look” the same, unfortunately the differences go deeper than this. When you walk into a Presbyterian church, unless you read the fine print, you won’t know if it is a Confessing church, a More Light church, or something in between. You won’t even know if the pastor will be preaching Jesus Christ and reformed theology, a vague “God is good” theology, or even some type of “all faiths point to God” Unitarian thing.

    As a result, many Presbyterian churches are “unbranding” themselves by removing Presbyterian from their names, and in some cases leaving the denomination and maybe “rebranding” themselves with another denomination.

    The cause, of course, is the lack of enforcement of adherence to the Confessions and abiding by the Constitution. So while MacDonalds is chanting “Two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions, on a sesame seed bun” - we Presbyterians are still pondering over what really are our Essential Tenets and arguing whether or not to enforce clearly defined provisions of our Book of Order.

  7. Debbie Says:
    August 22nd, 2008 at 9:00 pm

    Pastor Ferguson, I had a strong reaction to the angry tone of your comment. I was not offended. I guess that God does work in the midst of such deep anger and hostility. I guess as a person who is not a pastor nor a theologian I have no right to comment. Put taking potshots at people does not feel right to me.

  8. John C Key Says:
    August 22nd, 2008 at 10:22 pm

    Matt and Debbie, everybody can take a chill pill. With a sackful of Ivy League degrees and almost two decades in the pastorate, I’m sure Mark has both a thick skin and a well developed ability to handle vigorous debate of varying quality and emotion.

    Mark, I do confess to begrudging you your vacation time and missing your daily writing…I am very thankful for your excellent deep and searchable archive!

    Welcome back, I always enjoy and learn from your commentary however delayed it may be!

  9. Jesse Says:
    August 23rd, 2008 at 11:00 am

    I agree with Pastor Ferguson - I’d really hoped Mark would’ve solved all the world’s problems by now. Guess I’ll have to wait until next week…

  10. Paul Schmdit Says:
    August 25th, 2008 at 10:58 am


    I look at your list, and, my experience may be different than yours, but came to different conclusions. Here is your list:

    • Denominations establish hospitals and schools.

    Non-denominational hospitals and schools may actually be preferable to denominational. The argument that I see for non-denominational is that they will have an independent board that is accountable to the donors and investors. A denomination that sets up an entity may do so with funding out of a budget. The owner of that budget will not have as much of an incentive to watch the money spent. Also, an independent organization will not suffer if the denomination suffers.

    • Denominations plant churches.

    A church can plant other churches. A denomination may have more resources for the plant, though.

    • Denominations provide accountability for churches and church leaders.

    If a church needs to be held accountable, and the denomination is operating well, then this is an advantage. If a church and denomination both need to be held accountable, then it is unlikely to happen. A church that is operating well in a denomination that needs to be held accountable can suffer, as it is forced to be yoked with unaccountable churches and an unaccountable denomination.

    • Denominations provide guidance for congregational worship.

    Non-denominational churches can seek guidance, also. I would think that the denominational churches would need to seek this guidance, also, but may be disappointed with the lack of choices.

    • Denominations provide a context for submission.

    I agree with this.

  11. Becka Says:
    August 26th, 2008 at 1:39 pm

    25 years??? lol @ Presbyterians! By the way, how many light bulbs have been changed in the past 25 years? How many souls lost to the cultural shift of tolerance and misrepresenting biblical absolutes? A pox on the Presbyterian leadership.

  12. Marvin Wadlow Jr Says:
    August 28th, 2008 at 12:04 pm

    Wow, I wish I would have read this while on the PNC, it would have been very helpful.

    What FPCH didn’t realize is that for some of us the PCUSA of the Pacific in terms of when Alan left, or was removed, was not a good experience for some of us who just can’t stand procedure because there seems to be no real “human heart” to it.

    And, frankly it felt like deception as I sat on the floor of the Presbytery that I thought would do all the things you mention above but seemed to be this clock and dagger routine of testimonies (which divided our church…literally) backed up by, “ok Alan was wrong but he’s voted in, followed by a last minute decision by a group that was formed before voting started that basically had the power to over ride the vote, which by the way was done by all the pastors in the Presbytery.

    And at the midnight hour…he was gone. I did not see grace, I did not see humbleness, I did not see anyway, shape, or form that being connected to this Presbyterian body that was supposed to help a situation did anything but cause more pain, animosity, and down right division in our congregation.

    I believe you felt it when you spoke at Forest Home, I believe the speakers the following year felt it as well but in a way that did not let their message sink in of community, healing, and service. Interesting how those two speakers helped us do our mission study which I thought was awesome! One of the best things I’ve been apart of since I came to FPCH, but if you ask most on the PNC, they think it’s a waste of time.

    And what was revealed, it’s public knowledge now since it’s been released. That we don’t reach outside the walls of our church, we don’t facilitate conversations between groups at our church, and we seem to be unable to have grace, compassion, or a lack their of at our church.

    Now for some, like your amazing mom, that comes as a shock because in the past that is exactly what they preached. But for this new generation that can’t stand the PCUSA, four hundred of them to be exact, they split from the body!

    Sin in closing, it seems it’s division of PCUSA gets inconsistent help in different ways, yours was a great experience, your former church home was not. We are still suffering right now as they form a new PNC because the current one due to a lot of the issues mentioned above could not go on. Please pray for us, I believe this is all part of God’s plan and because I am strange and different I will submit to it humbly with grace and forgiveness as I love the Lord with all my heart and mind. And I will continue to read your blogs as my daily devotional.


    Marvin Wadlow Jr


Thanks for your willingness to make a comment. Note: I do not moderate comments before they are posted, though they are automatically screened for profanities, spam, etc., and sometimes the screening program holds comments for moderation even though they're not offensive. I encourage open dialogue and serious disagreement, and am always willing to learn from my mistakes. I will not delete comments unless they are extraordinarily rude or irrelevant to the topic at hand. You do need to login in order to make a comment, because this cuts down on spam. You are free to use a nickname if you wish. Finally, I will eventually read all comments, but I don't have the time to respond to them on a consistent basis because I've got a few other demands on my time, like my "day job," my family, sleep, etc.

You must be logged in to post a comment.