Part 13 of series: The End of the Presbyterian Church USA? Revisited
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The recent focus of this blog series has been the biblical and theological issues associated with the ordination of sexually-active gays and lesbians. I have tried to explain what Presbyterians believe and why, and why our divisions over this issue are deep and intractable. Apart from some dramatic work of the Spirit, I do not expect the PCUSA ever to come to a place of agreement on the question of gay ordination (unless one side splits from the denomination, leaving only those who agree on the issue). Moreover, I do not expect folks on the different sides of the debate to give up the fight. The issue of gay ordination will continue to plague our denomination, to drag us down, to debilitate us, and to divide us until we come to some sort of institutional change that allows us to stop fighting . . . or until we kill off the PCUSA. Who was it that said something about a kingdom divided against itself . . . ?
For some, the scenario I have just sketched immediately suggests that individual churches should leave the PCUSA. For others, the solution involves a more coordinated and complicated division within the denomination. For others, the only answer will be a mass exodus by likeminded churches. And for others, we should remain “as is” institutionally, and keep on fighting as we have done for the last thirty years.
I am going to weigh in on these options. Some of my readers will be disappointed to learn that I will not advocate immediate departure from the PCUSA of churches, pastors, and individuals who disagree with recent pro-gay General Assembly actions. My commenters who have accused me inaction will, no doubt, have a field day once again. Others who have feared that my line of argumentation will lead me to advocate leaving the PCUSA will be relieved, perhaps. And those who, like me, are still seeking God’s direction in the matter, will find a fellow seeker. I hope I’ll offer something more than the blind leading the blind.
Those of us who oppose gay ordination as unbiblical face a variety of possible actions. As we evaluate our options, we must continue to let Scripture guide us. It would be sadly ironic if, after fighting for biblical truth concerning homosexuality, we abandoned biblical truth in our response to PCUSA practicalities. Some on my side of the issue, for example, seem to have forgotten the biblical call to speak the truth in love. It’s hard to find speaking the truth with bitterness and meanness is Scripture, even though some of my fellows do this very thing.
Moreover, before we decide how we’re going to relate to our denomination, we need to become clear on the theological character of denominations. If you listen to the rhetoric in this debate, you’ll often hear people on the conservative side say something like this:
“I am an evangelical, and proud of it. But I don’t want to be in a denomination of people who think just like I do. I need to be stretched and challenged by others who see things differently. I need to have [name of valued liberal Presbyterian] in my church!”
As an evangelical who attended Harvard Divinity School and who has taught at San Francisco Theological Seminary (a PCUSA seminary with plenty of liberal Christians in addition to evangelicals), I agree completely about the value of being challenged by Christians whose theology is different from my own. In some cases, I have things to learn from these folks. In other cases, respectful interaction with them helps me clarify my own views. So I agree with those who say “I need to have [name of valued liberal Presbyterian] in my church!”
But I don’t agree with what their statements implies. Their language suggests that the PCUSA is “my church.” It virtually equates our denomination with the church of Jesus Christ. And this, I’d suggest, is a biblical and theological mistake. As I read the Bible, it’s hard to find any support for the idea that a denomination is a church, much less the Church of Jesus Christ. It is either a collection of churches or a part of the one Church. But a denomination is not a church.
At least that’s true for Protestants. Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox folk, though they eschew the denominational label, could at least defend the equation of their church with the Church. I don’t agree with this, obviously enough. But I respect it. I’m often amazed by how some Presbyterians argue for remaining in the PCUSA, without realizing that their arguments actually point to reunion with Rome.
So, if I were to decide at some point to leave the PCUSA, I would still have [name of valued liberal Presbyterian] in my church. Just like I have millions of Lutherans, Episcopalians, Catholics, Pentecostals, and Independents in “my church.” My church, after all, isn’t mine. It’s the church of Jesus Christ, in which all who confess him as Lord and Savior are members.
The PCUSA is not my church. It is my denomination. It’s been my denomination for forty years, ever since I joined the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood in 1968. In the last twenty years I’ve been a member of three presbyteries in the PCUSA: Pacific, Los Ranchos, and Mission. I have received many gifts from my denomination, and I hope I have contributed to it as well. (Photo: PCUSA logo)
In many ways, the PCUSA is more like my extended family than it is like my church. I’m thinking of my relatives, some of whom I dearly love, some of whom I rarely see, some of whom see life as I see it, and some of whom see and live their lives in very different ways from me. I’d hate to imagine what it would be like if my extended family and I tried to get together in some common cause. Our values are so diverse that I doubt we could focus on some common mission. My denomination, on the contrary, should find mission as a central aspect of its communion. I’ll have more to say about this in my next post.?