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Where Do We Go From Here? Section 1

By Mark D. Roberts | Monday, August 25, 2008

Part 14 of series: The End of the Presbyterian Church USA? Revisited
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So far in this series on The End of the Presbyterian Church USA? Revisited I have argued that we members of the PCUSA cannot get along as a unified denomination because of our deep theological divisions about many issues, most pointedly the issue of gay ordination. I have also argued that a denomination is not “the church” or even “a church,” but rather an organization of churches that share enough in common to be committed to each other. This “in common” part should surely include core theology and sense of mission. If my two main arguments are true, then it’s not out of bounds for Presbyterian individuals and churches who are at odds with the PCUSA’s affirmations and practices to consider leaving the PCUSA. Every option is on the table as far as I’m concerned.

So, then: Where do we go from here?

Before I begin to answer this question, I want to make a couple of preliminary comments. First, I direct your attention to an outstanding discussion of this very question that appears on the Presbyterians for Renewal website. This newly-revamped website is full of helpful material for Presbyterians. I highly recommend it in general. But, specifically, I want to point you to Part One of a three-part series entitled: What Way Ahead? It is written by Michael Walker, Theologian-in-Residence at Highland Park Presbyterian Church, and former Executive Director of PFR. Michael’s approach to this issue is outstanding: thoughtful, careful, fair, measured. In fact, I had considered simply copying his piece and putting it up on my site. It’s a must read. (While I’m recommending websites, let me once again draw your attention to Presbyweb, which is by far the best place to keep up with what’s going on in the PCUSA, as well as in the religious world in general.)

Second, I want to define “we” in the question “Where do we go from here?” For me, “we” means “members of the PCUSA who are deeply concerned about and in disagreement with many of the recent actions of the 2008 General Assembly, including but not limited votes related to gay ordination.” For the most part, “we” includes evangelical Presbyterians who are committed to the full authority of Scripture. (There are a few in this category who are not opposed to the GA actions, however.) So, I am not asking “Where should the PCUSA go from here?” as if I were a part of the national denominational leadership. I’m speaking from my own perspective within the denomination.

So, then: Where do we go from here?

Wherever we go, I believe there’s no need to rush. Or, I might better say, we should not rush. It’s not as if the PCUSA suddenly, as if out of nowhere, voted to ordain gays and lesbians. This issue, and a host of related theological issues, have been with us for a long time. Haste is neither required nor wise because, as Michael Walker explained after the 2006 General Assembly, we are still “free to be faithful.” At this very moment, nobody is telling me I have to affirm something I don’t believe or do something I think is wrong. If this were to happen, I would promptly leave the PCUSA rather than deny my conscience before the Lord. But at this time I am free to believe and act according to my sense of biblical righteousness and truth. (I’m aware that this time might be coming to an end in the PCUSA, however.)

Moreover, there’s no need to rush because the issues of grave concern are still filled with uncertainty. Yes, the GA voted to change the Book of Order to allow for the ordination of gays and lesbians. But this has happened before, and so far the presbyteries have voted to reject such GA votes. It’s quite possible that the presbyteries will do this again in 2009, leaving the Book of Order intact. Furthermore, though the intention of the 2008 GA was to install a new “Authoritative Interpretation” that allows local governing bodies to act contrary to the Book of Order’s current prohibition of gay ordination, it’s questionable whether this GA vote was consistent with the PCUSA Constitution. It may well be thrown out by church courts. Therefore, it’s quite possible that, in spite of the actions of the 2008 GA, the PCUSA will not end up approving of the ordinations of active gay and lesbian people. If, at the end of next year, the presbyteries have voted to allow gay ordination and the PCUSA courts have agreed, there will still be strong arguments made by some evangelicals for staying in the denomination, but many will be unconvinced by them, I think.

I should qualify my view that there’s no need to rush, however. I’m aware that some Presbyterian churches find themselves in presbyteries that are both liberal and hostile. I have heard stories about how some evangelical churches have been harassed and hampered by their presbyteries. Such churches are not “free to be faithful.” Thus, for these churches, it may well be the right time to leave the denomination. Yet, even for these, I would recommend against rushing. A careful, thoughtful, prayerful process is always best, and rarely happens quickly.

As an aside, I want to note, once again, that the real substance of a denominational connection is not the relationship of members and churches to the national body, but rather the relationship to the local body, which in the case of the PCUSA is the presbytery. The local, tangible, face-to-face relationships are what really matter in practice. Larger denominational connections are mostly irrelevant to most churches most of the time.

Yet, even if at the end of 2009 the PCUSA, by votes of presbyteries and church courts, has upheld our longstanding prohibition of gay ordination, it would be naïve to think that we’re back to business as usual. The last GA has revealed just how divided our denomination is, and not just about homosexuality. We differ on many matters of basic theology, including the authority of Scripture, how to interpret Scripture, how to relate to the culture, and even the substance of the good news. Evangelical PCUSA must not put our heads in the sand and assume that we can go on just as we have in the past. Pay attention to these wise words from Michael Walker:

Though the technical implications of the Assembly’s decisions on sexuality remain unclear, the number and consistent character of those decisions speak with a clear voice. When the misguided statement on interfaith relations is added to the mix, not to mention the embarrassing lack of attention to Christian faith exhibited in the discussions leading up to these decisions, this GA has successfully pulled back the veil, so to speak, enabling us to see more clearly the situation we’ve been facing for quite some time.

And what is this situation? Here’s how Michael describes it:

What we experienced at this last GA was an advancement of a trajectory that shows no sign of abating. It’s not about the “liberal groups,” whose true effectiveness is, honestly, unknown. Rather, the actions of the San Jose Assembly reflect the power of western culture generally to shape the ethos of a denomination that does not have a clear sense of its mission to the culture. Unchecked and unchallenged, the “default” pattern of the PC(USA) will be to continue moving along with the prevailing spirituality of western culture (“moralistic therapeutic deism,” as it has been dubbed recently), and with its embrace of the culture’s obsession with variant forms of sexual expression.

I have described certain aspects of this “default” pattern in some detail in this series, pointing to the way it has divided our denomination. The PCUSA is profoundly divided on many things, centrally the issue of gay ordination. These divisions mean that we simply can’t get along peacefully as a denomination, not to mention engage in common mission. We can stay together institutionally. But we will continue to fight over many things, not only the ordination issues. We will use our dwindling resources as a denomination in internal squabbles, proving that Jesus was right all along when he said that a “house divided against itself will not stand” (Matt 12:25). If the PCUSA stays together with the same structures that are currently in place, we will look like a boxing match between Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed. One boxer might end up winning the match, but both boxers will pummel each other nearly to death. That might make for good drama in a film, but it cripples the mission of the PCUSA churches, and therefore of the PCUSA as a whole.

I believe that the health and mission of the churches of the PCUSA require us to rethink the nature of our relationship so that we might alter that relationship in a way that is theologically-sound, practically-wise, and, perhaps, even God-honoring. If this is going to happen, several things are needed. I’ll spell these out in my next post in this series.

Topics: PCUSA: End of? |

4 Responses to “Where Do We Go From Here? Section 1”

  1. Matt Ferguson Says:
    August 25th, 2008 at 9:11 am


    Great post. A housekeeping item: two of the last 3 paragraphs are nearly identical, if not identical.

    While the presenting issue in the PCUSA is homosexuality and a biblical view on that topic, your mention of it so often in your post makes it seem as if that is the core problem. I don’t believe you think so, but I have found that when someone deals so much with the presenting issue it opens up the charge that they are just anti-gays, homophobic, etc.

    We (orthodox evangelicals) have many other issues that are in the mix. For me, our abortion stance is still very problematic and I have had many friends leave over that in past years. For 25 years my wife and I have struggled to stay over that issue alone.

    My view is that Biblical authority and proper (acceptable) methods of interpretation that opens us to hear God to speak to us instead of making it easier for the interpreter to twist God’s Word to say what she/he will is a more foundational issue, though harder to address.

    This is part of the reason I think having a short statement of essential Reformed beliefs to which every ordained leader must subscribe is most helpful, though so many orthodox evangelicals act as if you are terrible if you argue for it. (Just look at how the New Wineskins Association of Churches is treated (ignored) by PFR and PGF types—even though they know a huge majority of New Wineskins folks are staying, not leaving, and have been working to form a faithful way within, exactly what it seems PGF and PFR are leaning to do.)

  2. Jim L Says:
    August 25th, 2008 at 9:43 am

    Disclosure: I belong to a church that left (Kirk).
    A consideration for a congregation (and its leadership) needs to be how they will spend their time, energy, focus, dollars, resources, etc. over the next several years. Will it be focused on internal denomination fighting? Is that the mission the congregation believes to be its calling? Is the congregation essentially called to be a Hosea - married to a prostitute? Even if the votes are won and the AI is turned over, it will all be back and bigger than before. Just look at the pattern over the years. Victory was gained on paper, but the spiritual condition had not changed.

  3. David Lenz Says:
    August 25th, 2008 at 1:10 pm

    Mark, it is to good to have you writing again.

    I wonder if you, and others across the nation, have been following the Presbytery of the Twin Cities’ restoration of Dr. Paul Capetz to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament?

    We are not in a hypothetical stage about the approbation of openly gay clergy in the PC(USA). It has already taken place, decently and in order, on January 26, 2008, utilizing exactly what PUP Recommendation 5 intended: a departure (”scruple”)from a portion of The Book of Order, namely 6-6.0106b.

    In other words, retention of the current language of G-6.0106b is not the issue. It can be departed from. That is a matter of record. Furthermore, the Synod of Lakes and Prairies PJC has dismissed (without a hearing) a remedial case brought by three complainants who objected to this action as unconstitutional.

    You counsel us not to rush, and that is good advice. But let’s all be clear about the facts on the ground. My concern is that many evangelicals may not grasp the gravity of the situation we are already in, regardless of upcoming votes and rulings about the actions of the 2008 General Assembly.

    I struggle to be as sanguine as you.

  4. Becka Says:
    August 26th, 2008 at 1:31 pm

    Where do we go from here? How about as far away from “Presbyterian” as possible? Where is Jesus in all of this? Where is respect for the inerrant word of God in all of this? I am very tired of hearing about Presbyterians. I am leaving on a jet plane, finding my way far away from San Jose, hasta la vista baby, etc, etc, etc.


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