Mark D. Roberts

Mark D. Roberts

Why Not Just Leave the PC(USA)?

Part 1 of series: Why Not Just Leave the PC(USA)?
Permalink for this post / Permalink for this series
This series is an extension of my recent series, The End of the Presbyterian Church USA? Revisited. That series took a brief detour into a related topic, Presbyterian Exegesis Exam Changed. Now I want to finish up my thoughts about the crisis in the PC(USA), and to do so in a personal way.
I finished The End of the Presbyterian Church USA? Revisited with the question: Where do we go from here? I began to answer that question by urging us to move thoughtfully and prayerfully, yet with full awareness of the deep problems we evangelical Presbyterians face in a denomination that has been moving further and further from its biblical roots. This movement shows no signs of abating, and, in fact, it seems to be accelerating. The recent changes in the PC(USA) exegesis exam provide a striking illustration of this acceleration, and one that has nothing to do with homosexuality, our usual flash point.
Throughout my discussion of the PC(USA) crisis, I have tried to be as honest as I can be about the problems we face in this denomination, as I see them. For a long time, my evangelical colleagues and I have had a tendency to look on the bright side, to focus on mission, and to believe that things in the PC(USA) will, by God’s grace, improve. But in light of events at the 2006 General Assembly, and even moreso at the 2008 General Assembly, such a positive approach seems unduly pollyanaish. We can’t live in denial anymore about the deep theological fissures in our denomination and the negative trends we are facing. We can’t simply focus on the mission of our churches and ignore denominational issues because our mission is becoming increasingly impacted, one might even say hampered, by our denominational connections.
My effort to be blunt but fair about where I think we are in the PC(USA) has been distressing to some of my readers. A few have expressed frustration that I’m hanging in there. They think it’s well past time to leave, and believe I’m dragging my heels. Other readers have seen in my candid criticisms of the PC(USA) clear signs of my imminent departure from the denomination. “Mark’s on his way out,” they say with a sigh. They believe that I have moved too hastily, without giving internal reform, or even the Holy Spirit, a chance to make things better. I expect I have other readers (or former readers!) who are tired of this issue and hope I’ll leave it alone one way or another. As one person said to me: Why not just leave the PC(USA)?
That’s a good question, one I intend to chew on for the next few days. I’m going to answer this question, not as some sort of representative of the evangelical members of the PC(USA), but personally, as an individual who has wrestled with this question for several years. I’m going to try and explain why, as of this moment, I have not left the PC(USA), and why, in fact, I don’t have plans to do so, though my plans could change in the future.
Ironically, I’m in a position now where I’m much freer to leave the PC(USA) than I have been for many years. From June 1991 through September 2007, I was the Senior Pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church. If I had chosen to leave the PC(USA) during that stretch of time, I would have had to resign my pastorate. Or I would have found myself in the messy position of leading a church out of the denomination. In either case, my personal decision would have impacted more than 1,000 people, not to mention my own family. Today, however, I could leave the PC(USA) with minimal impact on others. My ministry at Laity Lodge requires me to be an ordained pastor, but I expect that, without too much trouble, I could find another denomination or church that would endorse my ordination. I could even continue to be part of the fellowship at my PC(USA) church, though I’d no longer be an official parish associate. So, my current situation gives me a freedom to leave the PC(USA) that most of my pastoral colleagues do not share. This fact is perplexing to some, who still want to know: Why don’t you just leave the PC(USA)?
Here begins my answer to that question.
1. I’m not leaving the PC(USA) because my church is part of the PC(USA).
Yes, I know it sounds like I just contradicted myself. I could leave the PC(USA) and still worship at St. Mark Presbyterian Church in Boerne, where I live. I’m quite sure nobody in the church would kick me out. But, even though, as an ordained pastor, I’m not technically a member of St. Mark, but a member of Mission Presbytery, I consider this church to be my home church. My wife is a member there. My children are actively involved there. I’m enjoying getting to know the people there. They have warmly welcomed me and my family. The pastor at St. Mark is a man of admirable integrity and biblical commitment, as are his staff colleagues. I appreciate the theological solidness of preaching and worship at St. Mark. So, if anything, I want to strengthen my ties with this congregation, not weaken them. If things with the PC(USA) get worse, as I fear they will, I want to wrestle through these challenges with my fellow believers at St. Mark, because they are my church family. (Photo: The chancel of St. Mark Presbyterian Church in Boerne).
I realize that it may seem odd to some of my readers that my first reason for staying in a denomination has to do with my personal relationship with a particular church. Why not just stay with this church but cut ties with the PC(USA) as a whole? The reason is that my relationship with the PC(USA) as a whole has never been primarily a matter of denominational affiliation so much as a personal relationship with a particular church and its people. I became a pastor in the PC(USA), not mainly because I affirmed denominational beliefs and practices, but because I was actively involved in a PC(USA) congregation, the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood. I am a Presbyterian today mostly because of relationships I have had and continue to have with other Presbyterians. Because these relationships matter greatly to me, I am not inclined to break or injure or threaten them. If I’m ever in a place where I must leave the PC(USA), I hope I’ll be doing so with many others of like conviction, and not as a solo venture. This isn’t just about feeling connected. It’s a matter of theological conviction about the importance of corporate discernment and fellowship.
I’ll have more to say about why I’m not leaving the PC(USA) next time.

  • Casey

    Hi Mark,
    Just wanted to say that I’ve appreciated the series, as it’s helping me reflect/articulate my stance as well. Even though I’m troubled by what’s happening, I’ve found nothing but greatness at the 3 churches I’ve been involved with (FPC Berkeley, MandarinPC in Jacksonville, and UPC in Seattle) I’m a PCUSA Candidate that is about to move from Seattle down to the Mission Presbytery (my husband is going to be stationed in Corpus Christi). I’m currently looking for opportunities to serve down there. We hope to come to Laity Lodge some time, so hopefully we’ll meet you. Blessings.

  • Thomas Buck

    Dear Mark:
    Your comment about making a decision with “many others of like conviction” makes sense.
    While it was a personal decision, when I left my last church perhaps 50 others moved on at the same time. Others have been leaving in dribs and drabs since then. The problems were obvious, and the best solution seemed obvious to us.
    I still miss a number of the folks in the old church.
    May the Lord be with you.

  • Kozak

    Pastor Roberts-
    I’m an ELCA member, and your series has been enlightening, since we all face the same issues. We, too, find our church to be biblical and a good church home, and so we remain in a denomination that is veering off into a scriptural ditch.

  • Bruce Reyes-Chow

    Mark – As always, very thoughtful and I suspect will generate some good feedback. As i continue to listen to the church, I very much appreciate the voice you bring as well as the reactions you provoke and inspire. – Bruce

  • James

    What is the reaction from the pew at St. Mark to the direction the PC(USA) has been headed? Based on what you’ve said about the theological teaching from the staff at St. Mark, I would think you are not alone there in your discernment of how to react and your discomfort and disappointment with the actions of the PC(USA). Why do you feel you are potentially alone in your desire to move to a more biblically sound denomination? If the St. Mark Session and congregation are not aware of what the PC(USA) denomination is doing, why not?
    Perhaps you could give some thought to whether you should assist in educating St. Mark and make your investigations and convictions known to the body you have come to love. You may find the “many others of like conviction” are sitting with you every Sunday morning.

  • Jim

    Seems like your theological perspective is very close to what is held by the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. Have enjoyed your discussions over the years and the increasing difficulty of balancing biblical truth (theology) and cultural beliefs within our denominations and local churches. God guide and bless you and give you discernment

  • Robert Campbell

    You may get to this but I already have a theological and, I hope, faithful reason to stay in the PCUSA. God called me into this covenant. God has not called me out of this covenant. Indeed I’m not sure that God does so. Therefore as long as I am allowed to preach the true Gospel and am not required to do things that go against my conscience as guided by the Word of God, this is my place. I suspect I will not be a pleasant place in the future but here I am.
    There are many more than 7,000 who have not bowed the knee to Baal.

  • J. Falconer

    Rev Roberts, Thanks for one of your best, most thoughtful posts yet. Follow your heart! Your peace of heart & mind & happiness is most important in these challenging times & issues. I wonder how many other thousands & millions of people have wrestled with these same concepts & issues. It sounds like your family is extremely happy with the home church & that is a huge blessing. Please keep us posted on your thoughts & feelings regarding the current series. Have a blessed week-end & thanxs Again!

  • john shuck

    What you wrote resonates with me. I often wrestle with the same internal struggle, from perhaps a different place. The PC(USA) seems so darn conservative, socially and theologically, that I wonder why I am here. But, you said it well:
    The reason is that my relationship with the PC(USA) as a whole has never been primarily a matter of denominational affiliation so much as a personal relationship with a particular church and its people. I became a pastor in the PC(USA), not mainly because I affirmed denominational beliefs and practices, but because I was actively involved in a PC(USA) congregation….I am a Presbyterian today mostly because of relationships I have had and continue to have with other Presbyterians. Because these relationships matter greatly to me, I am not inclined to break or injure or threaten them.
    I could have written that same paragraph. Thanks.

  • Steven D Kurtz

    The PCA and EPC are on the same grounds we in the PCUSA are hermeneutically – but this is not acknowledged. I’ve just written about it on my blog if you’re interested.

  • Jan Edmiston

    Thanks for this discussion. You are a blessing to the PCUSA.

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