Part 5 of series: Why Not Just Leave the PC(USA)?
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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.)