Part 3 of series: Why Not Just Leave the PC(USA)?
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So far I’ve offered three 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.
Here’s another reason:
4. I’m not leaving the PC(USA) because there is no perfect denomination or church.
The PC(USA) has problems, plenty of them. But it’s not as if other denominations and churches are hassle-free. The Southern Baptists aren’t exactly having a happy church picnic. Neither are the Episcopalians. Nor the Methodists. In fact, every denomination of which I am aware has its share of problems. So if I were to switch from the PC(USA) to a denomination what was theologically and missionally more in line with my own convictions, before long I’d realize that the grass really wasn’t too much greener on the other side of the fence after all.
I have learned this lesson indirectly from several friends who have left the PC(USA). For example, about ten years ago, a friend I’ll call Greg decided that he’d had enough of the PC(USA)’s theological “all-over-the-mapness.” He wanted to be in a denomination that was theologically conservative and clear. So, though he as a PC(USA) pastor and had graduated from Princeton Seminary, a PC(USA) flagship, he determined to leave the denomination. Before long he was called to be the pastor of a PCA church. The Presbyterian Church in America is a conservative denomination, which, in 1973, broke off from the denomination that became the PC(USA) over issues of biblical authority, theological clarity, and the ordination of women. In the last few years, the PCA has been growing steadily, unlike the shrinking PC(USA), though it continues to be considerably smaller than the PC(USA). There are many outstanding PCA churches, notably Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, where Tim Keller is the senior pastor.
Anyway, back to my story about Greg. He and I remained friends after he left the PC(USA), though we didn’t have much contact for a while. A couple of years after he had joined the PCA, Greg and I had lunch. I asked him how it was going in his new denomination, expecting to hear how much happier he was now than before. “I’ve got to be honest,” he said, “though I’m in much greater in agreement with the PCA theology, I’m getting tired of debates about whether the days in Genesis 1 are literal or not. Sometimes I wish I were back in the PC(USA), where I could be a conservative standing up for biblical truth, rather than someone whose conservative credentials are suspect. Plus, we have plenty of churches with lots of problems. I’m glad I’m pastoring the church I’m in, but sometimes I regret leaving the PC(USA), in spite of all of its issues.”
There isn’t a prefect denomination. Were I to switch to something else, I’d leave behind one set of problems but take on another set.
I expect that, at this point, some of my readers might want to shout: “Then why not join an independent, non-denominational church? You wouldn’t have denominational hassles to worry about.” Indeed. Sometimes non-denominationalism seems to offer much greener grass. I know of some fantastic non-denominational churches, like RockHarbor Church in Costa Mesa, California, near where I used to live. This is a dynamic, growing, theologically-solid church. I know several of the pastors there, and hold them in high regard. (Photo: Todd Proctor is the Lead Pastor [i.e. Senior Pastor] of RockHarbor. Curiously enough, he’s not the primary teacher/preacher. Todd is an accomplished worship leader and composer who has strong leadership gifts.)
But even RockHarbor has its problems. Moreover, I’ve watched lots of independent churches struggle mightily in ways denominational churches often avoid. Because they’re free to make it up as they go along, rather than follow denominational wisdom and be held accountable by denominational bodies, non-denominational churches sometimes get into huge messes. For example, I know of one megachurch in which the board of elders was unhappy with its Senior Pastor. So the board got together and fired the pastor, hiring a brand new pastor in the same meeting. When people arrived at the worship service on the next Sunday morning, they were informed that they had a brand new Senior Pastor. You can imagine the reaction from the people, most of whom had no idea there were problems with the former pastor. The lack of any sort of pastoral transition contributed to the ultimate demise of this once thriving church.
I’ve also had friends who have been summarily fired without due process by their independent churches. In one case, a pastor who thought he was doing a good job was terminated, given only two weeks notice and compensation. The fact that he was supporting a family of four children didn’t seem to matter to the board. This man had no recourse other than to sue his church, which he refused to do on biblical grounds. So he and his family entered an extended season of grief, anger, and financial hardship.
Now I expect some of my readers are wondering why we should bother with the church at all. I can understand such wondering. Sometimes I’ve thought the same myself. But I believe that the church is, in addition to being a human institution with plenty of problems, the body of Christ and the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit. Yes, the church in general and churches in particular have lots of problems. That’s the way it is this side of the new creation. But churches also do lots and lots and lots of good, often representing Christ quite faithfully. Moreover, there are strong theological reasons to be committed to the church, and even to hang with a denomination in crisis. I’ll touch upon some of these reasons in my next post.