Part 1 of series: Why Not Just Leave the PC(USA)?
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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.