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

By Mark D. Roberts | Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Part 5 of series: Why Not Just Leave the PC(USA)?
Permalink for this post / Permalink for this series

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. (Photo: The High Sierra in California from Kaiser Wilderness.)

Topics: PCUSA: Why Not Leave |

13 Responses to “Why Not Just Leave the PC(USA)? Part 5”

  1. Bill Young Says:
    September 10th, 2008 at 8:17 am

    Very interesting, Mark. Ralph Winter and many others have pointed out that the Catholic Church has dealt with a similar dynamic in a different context by having orders. Each focuses on its own mission, each is accepted as valid by the structures of the church, but they are not controlled by the parish-based structures–in our context Presbytery or General Assembly staff. Granted that this is an over-simplified statement, it speaks to the proliferation of organizations in the PC(USA) like Presbyterian Frontier Fellowship, The Outreach Foundation, The Antioch Partners, Medical Benevolence Foundation, The Witherspoon Society, Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, etc., etc.

    Your comments about mission’s being hamstrung by the attempts to maintain theological diversity are, I believe, being played out in our denomination at the national level. I worked there for seven years, and I highly respect many friends who are there now. But efforts to do everything that everyone in the church wants to do have stymied mission precisely because of the different understandings they have. Any statement of mission that is adopted must always include everything so everyone will feel included. I do believe that the gospel and our mission are holistic. I don’t believe we can work well when we can’t agree on a Biblical understanding of evangelism and social justice. I have seen many evangelicals embrace issues of social justice. I don’t see many “liberals” endorsing my understanding of evangelism. I don’t say that to say I’m right and they are wrong–just to agree with your point that lack of agreement stymies mission. Thanks for the comments and the whole series.

  2. Matt Ferguson Says:
    September 10th, 2008 at 8:55 am


    Great post. I have heard those very statements (”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.”) many times, most recently at a presbytery transition team meeting.

    I didn’t feel we had time to address the topic at the time and I wouldn’t have done it nearly as well as you have in this post. I am sending a link to this post to others on the committee who want to read a good presentation on this topic.

  3. Evan Says:
    September 10th, 2008 at 9:11 am

    You are doing a careful job of laying out all of the factors regarding the PCUSA. It is not a simple topic.

    As you have noted, the Episcopalians especially are having the same struggle. And the two salient points are that “postmodern” liberals are in control of the hierarchy and thus lay claim to the physical properties of the denomination, saying to the “traditional” folks, “If you don’t like it, LEAVE, but WE keep the buildings.”

    It strikes me that it was always going to come down to one group or the other having to depart. Now that the “postmodern” crowd has power, at least with the Episcopal church, they go to secular court to seize lands and properties when “traditional” folks depart.

    It also seems to me if one wants a religion where you are free to contravene the New Testament’s teachings on sexual morality and ultimately, the authority and deity of Jesus, that is fine in pluralistic America, but start up your own. Don’t claim that you are carrying out what was laid down by Jesus, because you are not. Yet that is where many denominations find themselves. Many “postmodern” folks can read John 10 and immediately thereafter assert, “There are many way to the top of the mountain (ie, eternal salvation). If your concept of God is Buddha, then embrace him,” which is simply apostacy. The “postmodern” folks that may still assert the Lordship and Deity of Jesus as traditionally understood are on a collision course with their own logic, and I would predict that they ultimately will be “nonjudgmental” about salvation as well.

    My question would be: How could this situation have been prevented? Should the “traditional” folks have told the “postmodern” folks to leave their denominations as they cropped up and were few in number? I ask as a serious question, because as your series has demonstrated, it is not simple. Sure, Christ and Baal have no fellowship, but there are many shades of being wrong on a biblical issue well short of denying Jesus— we are all sinners and all can be “wrong” on a Biblical issue to some extent as a result. (Hopefully, we get and stay right.) Further, how it is often difficult to ferret out someone ultimately hostile to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. My atheistic Presbyterian professors dressed up their denial of Jesus in very Christian-sounding doublespeak. Some of them were simply wrong-headed and not particularly harmful as such, and some of them bragged in class that they would destroy the Christian faith of students who took their courses. We certainly don’t want the latter around. Yet how could that be done while staying true to Jesus’ entire teaching? A very tricky proposition! Perhaps not even possible.

    There is also the notion expressed in 2 Chr 19: “Should you help the wicked and love those who hate the LORD and so {bring} wrath on yourself from the LORD?” At what point does hanging with the “postmodern” crew assist them in spreading their influence and ultimately their message that moral directives in the Bible can be ignored? They benefit from the finances they get to control and the numbers they purport to represent. But again, the issue currently is not as black and white as it was for Jehosophat, but it is still a factor.

    I am not young enough to know everything, and I hope the notion of how this situation SHOULD have been handled can be addressed as you progress along.

  4. RevK Says:
    September 10th, 2008 at 5:10 pm

    Evan! Powerful!

    You’re not too young to know about Machen!?

    Try a study of the ARP who swerved back into orthodoxy!

  5. J. Falconer Says:
    September 10th, 2008 at 5:32 pm

    Rev. Roberts, Thanks for your latest post. We were very encouraged by your acceptance of the diversity of Life & peoples. Thanks for being
    accepting & liberal minded of God’s creation.Its easy to accept people, but sometimes not their actions. It’s hard to imagine heaven & the afterlife as perfect with the present challenges here & now on this planet-earth! Thanks again for a very engaging thoughtful post & series. God Bless-the Falconers’ P.S. You were our favorite minister & church in Irvine, California. We’re so pleased, happy, & excited
    that you & your family are so happy in Texas! Blessings!!

  6. Jesse Says:
    September 10th, 2008 at 10:46 pm

    Evan, I share your questions and concerns.

    Unfortunately, I think most moderate Presbyterians just view church government as a source of embarrassment, but one that always seems to go away after the presbyteries vote. I hope that continues to be true, but am concerned (1) about the damage resulting from GA votes, regardless of the final outcome, and (2) that the two sides now seem to be speaking entirely different languages.

    As we move forward I’m curious as to the role moderates will play. I’m defining “moderates” as those who aren’t interested in theological squabbling (who can blame them?), who can’t see beyond their own church doors, who mainly go to church because “it’s what they’ve always done,” or those who have simply taken the “this too shall pass” approach.

    How long can we take the “this too shall pass” approach before we find ourselves in the position of condoning or even encouraging sinful, destructive behaviors, or abandoning the lost to universalist heresies? It seems to me that most of the moderates I describe are asleep at the wheel. How to awaken them? Should they be awakened? I am very sympathetic to this concern; I certainly don’t want to be a rabble rouser, or worse, a schismatic! But I think the thing moderates need to realize is that if they DON’T pay attention, most of the “conservatives” will LEAVE; thus today’s moderates will find that they’re tomorrow’s conservatives. What happens then? My hunch is that membership losses will accelerate and a lot of beautiful, useful old property will go on the market to be used for night clubs, conversion condos, and coffee shops.

    I think the “stick it out” approach many, including myself, have taken in the PC(USA) is admirable…but I wonder how long we should stick with it. And what happens to the moderates if “we” leave? My hunch is that if most of them didn’t agree, on some level, with the orthodox position, they wouldn’t still be in the pews.

  7. Ray Says:
    September 11th, 2008 at 8:50 am

    Here’s a question. To what degree is our honorable attempt to maintain unity based on the biblical principles you outlined, and to what degree is it based on an idolatrous sentimental attachment to the denomination itself? At some point, aren’t we trying to achieve peace by imposing unity at the expense of purity? What kind of unity, peace or purity is that?

    When (in recognition of our diversity of opinion) we redefine “standards” to mean “the subjective whim of a majority at any given time and place” haven’t we effectively erased even the concept of standards? I thought the purpose of our Presbyterian ordination standards was to protect our Presbyterian identity against the whims of majority votes by various governing bodies, and to uphold a single, unifying set of objective criteria.

    I think you are dead-on correct when it comes to the issue of theological diversity. We are dangerously close to abandoning all of the defining characteristics that identify us as Presbyterian - even Christian - and we are fast becoming the culture rather than Christ’s witnesses to the culture.

    I read with great interest your posts regarding denominations. If we look back on church history I think we will find that denominations evolved in the wake of the Protestant Reformation, and flourished as western civilization gave individuals greater degrees of political and religious freedom. The Church has probably always contained various schools of thought about theology and doctrine, but as long as there was a single authoritative church these camps existed quietly within the established structure (or they were repressed into compliance). When theocracies began to decline, and the church was no longer able to rule with the power of the state, these groups found themselves free to follow their consciences - and they did, thus we have denominations. As such, denominations are human institutions, born in religious freedom and in the pursuit of mission. Christians are free to assemble, disassemble, and generally configure themselves in whatever way best serves their pursuit of the Church’s mission in the world. In fact, groups of Christians have reconfigured themselves countless times throughout post-reformation history (just look at our own Presbyterian history!). Denominations, as human organizational structures, should not be confused with “the Church” (Christ’s body on earth)any more than we would define our buildings as our churches as opposed to our people.

    I wish the PC(USA) could accept the fact that our tent has become much too broad to carry up the mountain. Then we could expend our energy on figuring out a way to create two tents from the PC(USA) cloth that could be managed by separate groups (who still love each other, by the way) - and we could both climb the mountain rather than remain stranded on a ledge.

    At this point denominational unity is a noble, but flawed, objective. Of course, being a layperson rather than clergy, maybe I can be a bit more critical. My livelihood and retirement aren’t wrapped up in the denomination.

    Thanks for your great work, Mark!


  8. Pfarrer Dave Says:
    September 11th, 2008 at 2:22 pm

    I believe the ongoing situation with the PC (USA) is an example of a family system gone haywire. Anyone who has read Bowen Theory and/or Rabbi Friedman’s application of Bowen Theory to ecclesiastical organizations can see the dysfunction of the PC (USA). Family Systems thought deals with how a family/an organization handles anxiety. And I think all sides can agree that the PC (USA) is immersed in anxiety: Which “side” will win? How many churches will eventually leave? The answers are found in how much anxiety someone/a church can tolerate and what they need to do to reduce the anxiety. I don’t know the outcome of our anxiety-producing situation, but I am reminded of the family systems “motto” (for lack of a better term) for a functional and healthy life: define yourself and stay in touch. It appears to me that the PC (USA) denomination is trying to define itself by appealing to a theology that is not well defined (at least Biblically). In trying to appeal to everyone in the big tent, it actually ends up appealing to few. And sadly too many on both sides break off contact with those with whom they disagree (called an emotional cutoff). How to do both–to define yourself and stay in touch with others–is going to play a significant role in the path back to our theological sanity and relational health.

  9. Chicago Elder Says:
    September 11th, 2008 at 6:08 pm

    Our issue is slightly different than you’ve addressed. We aren’t to the point of “do we leave” but are actively considering “do we invest and how much”? We’re in a liberal presbytery in a building that needs renovation. So while we aren’t to the point of leaving, the need and desire to invest has left us a bit of a quandry - do we ask our members to pour resources into a building that most might not be attending in 5 years?

  10. Paul Says:
    September 11th, 2008 at 9:26 pm

    Hi Dr. Roberts,

    Thank you, again, for your continued leadership on this issue.

    Thanks, too, to Ray, Evan and Jesse et al. for some very thoughtful interactions. How wonderful it is to see such thoughtful men glorify God with their hearts and minds!

    Perhaps I may add a little grist for God’s mill. First of all, I would observe that Paul’s letter, from which Dr. Roberts quotes, was written to the “saints” at Ephesus, not to all inhabitants of that city. So the unity to which Paul exhorts us is with believers, those who are “in the Spirit”, and not necessarily everyone of any earthly group. Are all members of any earthly group (i.e. PCUSA), believers? And are we to have unity with all?

    Secondly, in Acts 20, Paul warned us that “savage wolves” would come into the church and that apostates would arise from within. Is that what we are witnessing now?

    Thirdly, John records God’s own congratulations to the Ephesians for their ability to discern and discipline “wicked men” in Revelation 2:2. How can/should we do this?

    Maybe Dr. Roberts can tie these all together and answer Evans question about how we might, under God’s direction, prevent this attack on His church.

    And lastly, I offer some encouragement to you from our Westminster Confession:
    Section XXV, V. The purest Churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error; and some have so degenerated, as to become no Churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan. Nevertheless, there shall be always a Church on earth to worship God according to His will.


    Peace to all.

  11. Ray Says:
    September 11th, 2008 at 10:22 pm

    Hmmm…synagogues of Satan. Gotta love the boldness of those seventeenth century theologians. No political correctness to worry about back in the day, huh?

    Could we ever get away with offending people with the truth like that today?

  12. James Quillin Says:
    September 12th, 2008 at 11:18 pm

    Dear Mark,

    Forgive me you have already answered the following reason to leave: The PC(USA) now, in defiance of Scripture as interpreted by our Confessions, has removed the constitutional impediment to the ordination of people living in flagrant, open immoral sexual relationships.

    A person might say, “We have not ammended the BOO.” That is immaterial. All constitutional documents MUST be interpreted and applied. In our denomination, the ONLY entity qualified to do so for the whole church is the GA.

    The constitution only says what the GA says that it says. The 2 AIs of the 218th GA authoritatively (get it?) construe the Constitution in such a way as to allow the ordination of sexually active gay persons.

    We live and serve in a CONNECTIONAL church. The action of one part of the church is the action of all of the church. When gay ministers are restored, YOU AND I DID IT. Can you live with that? If so, for how long?

    Thanks for giving me a place to rant.


  13. Jean Says:
    January 1st, 2011 at 8:53 am

    I agree that the PCUSA has become so liberal that it more closely resembles a community social group than a church that worships Jesus Christ the Savior. The straw that broke the camel’s back and made me decide to leave my Cincinnati PSUSA once and for all (I have been contemplating it for many years)was this recent event: on World Communion Sunday, the moderator of the Presbytery of Cincinnati gave a horrific sermon during which he read the lyrics of a beloved “old fashioned” hymn( HIS words) entitled “In the Garden.” He said the church needs to move from a vision of an “outdated” nineteenth century model of individuals having a personal relationship with God to 21st century model of serving the community. He then proceeded to pray for the country of “PALESTINE”, insulting some Jewish husbands in the congregation who attend with their Christian wives. My church has become increasingly intolerant towards Israel. The problem is, I cannot find a home in any denomination, but this has become preferable to the pain I suffer in the PCUSA. In the meantime, I have begun reading my bible every night, and feel a lot better than I did attending a political church in which I rarely heard the words “Jesus, Grace, Salvation, Redemption.”


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