Mark D. Roberts

Part 1 of series: The End of the Presbyterian Church USA? Revisited
Permalink for this post / Permalink for this series

Two years ago I wrote a blog series in which I asked: Has the Presbyterian Church USA (my own denomination) come to an end? My answer was: “Well, maybe. It doesn’t look good.”

Today I want to begin to revisit the question of whether the PCUSA is in its own end times, so to speak. Let me explain why I’m raising this tired topic yet again.
2006: The End of the PCUSA?
In 2006, following the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA, I wrote a blog series entitled The End of the Presbyterian Church USA? In that series, I described recent actions of that General Assembly with respect to the issue that Presbyterians have debated for over thirty years . . . human sexuality. That Assembly reaffirmed the section of the Book of Order (the PCUSA guidebook for the church) that requires candidates for ordination to practice “fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness” (G-6.0106b). But then, in a move that perplexed and distressed many Presbyterians, including me, the Assembly approved a report (the so-called PUP Report, for “Peace, Unity, and Purity”), that allowed the governing bodies that ordain church officers to decide for themselves whether a candidate for ordination needed to obey the stated rule or not. No longer would a candidate be required, according to this new guidance, to practice fidelity in marriage or chastity in singleness. Any governing body was free to determine its own conclusion in the matter, thus opening up the door to the ordination of people who were sexually active outside of marriage, whether in straight or gay relationships.
In my 2006 blog series, I spoke of how the action of the Assembly broke trust with those of us who have been committed to the PCUSA. I considered whether or not this was adequate reason to leave the PCUSA, given biblical teaching on the nature of Christian community. My conclusion was tentative. I was not prepared to leave the PCUSA, but was not ruling out the possibility. It did seem to me that the actions of the 2006 General Assembly hastened the end of the PCUSA as we knew it.
Today: The End of the PCUSA? Revisited
The 2008 General Assembly, held in San Jose, California, recently wrapped up. Much of what happened at the Assembly and many of the votes taken were find and dandy. But several actions of the 2008 Assembly make what happened in 2006 look like the minor leagues. We PCUSA types are now in the big leagues of church crises. (Photo: San Jose, California)
This would be true even if the General Assembly had done nothing controversial, by the way. Shortly before the Assembly convened, the denomination released its statistics for 2007. Overall, the PCUSA lost 57,572 members, or 2.6% of its total membership. At this rate, the membership of the PCUSA will hit zero in less than forty years. I suppose the issue of gay ordination will be finally and definitively settled by the last person standing in 2046.
But I doubt the PCUSA will make it to 2046 intact. What happened in the last General Assembly has caused an unprecedented crisis in the denomination. I knew we were in trouble when, during my recent trip to San Jose to speak at a breakfast associated with the Assembly, I ran into a good friend who has been for many years one of the most enthusiastic supporters of the PCUSA, even though he has solid evangelical credentials. Even before the Assembly convened, my friend was deeply concerned. He spoke more negatively about the denomination than I had ever heard before. Something monumentally bad was about to happen, or so it seemed as I listened to him.
In the aftermath of the General Assembly, the comments of dyed-in-the-wool Presbyterians confirmed my friend’s prediction of doom and gloom. Here is an assortment of comments by biblically-committed and highly-respected leaders in the PCUSA:

The actions of the 218th General Assembly have made it clear that the PC(USA)’s compromise of the Gospel of Jesus Christ has reached an unprecedented level. It is clear that the PC(USA)’s confession of the Lordship of Jesus Christ and commitment to our Reformed confessions has weakened to the point that we can no longer assume a common framework of conversation.

Presbyterians for Renewal

I am shocked and dismayed. . . . [T]he General Assembly of the PCUSA has taken a number of actions which are at odds with Scripture and threaten to unravel any vestige of purity, peace, and unity that may still exist within the denomination. . . . [T]he PCUSA is clearly on a path of self-destruction in cutting herself off from the larger, global church. These actions are the product of bad theology. Bad theology always hurts people. The word “heresy” means “to choose.” With the actions of this General Assembly, the PCUSA has chosen to walk a different path than the path God has revealed to the Church in His Word.

Ronald W. Scates, pastor of Highland Park Presbyterian Church, one of the largest and most influential churches in the PCUSA

With the most recent General Assembly in San Jose, the smoke seems at last to have cleared, and the steaming debris of the PC(USA) has settled into place. ?It’s not a pretty sight. One thing for sure: this Humpty won’t be getting back together again for a long time, if ever.

Vic Pentz, pastor of Peachtree Presbyterian Church, the largest church in the PCUSA

Today the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) lies gravely wounded, by the hand of its own General Assembly. This Assembly has struck multiple blows, threatening to sever the sinews that hold us together as a Christian body and as a part of the larger body of Christ. This is a day for grieving. . . . We grieve for the Assembly’s terrible loss of faith. We grieve for the thousands of churches in our denomination who receive this news with shock and dismay. And we grieve for all those who are encouraged by this action to engage in sinful behaviors that God does not bless.

Presbyterian Renewal Network, a group of biblically-committed PCUSA organizations

Of course not all Presbyterians were upset by the actions of the Assembly. Consider, for example, the following comments:

This is an amazing moment in history. I give thanks to God for all of you who have been praying, believing and working for the Presbyterian Church (USA) to end discrimination against its own lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender daughters and sons, sisters and brothers in Christ. . . . There is clearly a sea-change in our Church, society and world as more people are letting go of the old beliefs and prejudice about homosexuality, same-gender loving persons and embracing what it means to recognize Christ and the divine image within all of God children. . . . For this moment, on this day, we rejoice in the fact that this Assembly has provided a way forward for our beloved Church. Together we are building a Church for all God’s people!

Michael Adee, Executive Director of More Light Presbyterians

We give thanks for the decision of the 218th General Assembly to send to the presbyteries a thoughtful revision of the standards for ordination. The Authoritative Interpretation that was also approved immediately removes the specific references that have proved most hurtful to GLBT persons who are otherwise called and prepared to serve the church. This is a day that has been thirty years in coming and we give thanks for the hope that it offers to so many in the church who have been and still are excluded from ordained office. . . .

Leaders of the Covenant Network

With gratitude to God, the board, staff, and community of That All May Freely Serve rejoice in the vote by the 218th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) to open the door to the gifts and callings of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer members by removing its institutional barriers to ordination.

That All My Freely Serve

What an astounding diversity of responses to the General Assembly actions! If nothing else, these various statements illustrate the extraordinary lack of visionary and theological unity in the PCUSA. What some people folks see as heresy and tragedy, others receive as liberation and hope. What some see as cause for grief and repentance, others experience as a reason for thanks and celebration. It’s hard to imagine a Christian group less unified than the PCUSA at this time. We’re pretty much tied with the Anglicans, as far as I can tell.
If you haven’t been following this story closely, you may wonder what the General Assembly did to elicit such passionate and contradictory responses from its leaders. I’ll explain the Assembly’s actions in my next post.

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus