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Part 14 of series: The End of the Presbyterian Church USA? Revisited
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So far in this series on The End of the Presbyterian Church USA? Revisited I have argued that we members of the PCUSA cannot get along as a unified denomination because of our deep theological divisions about many issues, most pointedly the issue of gay ordination. I have also argued that a denomination is not “the church” or even “a church,” but rather an organization of churches that share enough in common to be committed to each other. This “in common” part should surely include core theology and sense of mission. If my two main arguments are true, then it’s not out of bounds for Presbyterian individuals and churches who are at odds with the PCUSA’s affirmations and practices to consider leaving the PCUSA. Every option is on the table as far as I’m concerned.
Before I begin to answer this question, I want to make a couple of preliminary comments. First, I direct your attention to an outstanding discussion of this very question that appears on the Presbyterians for Renewal website. This newly-revamped website is full of helpful material for Presbyterians. I highly recommend it in general. But, specifically, I want to point you to Part One of a three-part series entitled: What Way Ahead? It is written by Michael Walker, Theologian-in-Residence at Highland Park Presbyterian Church, and former Executive Director of PFR. Michael’s approach to this issue is outstanding: thoughtful, careful, fair, measured. In fact, I had considered simply copying his piece and putting it up on my site. It’s a must read. (While I’m recommending websites, let me once again draw your attention to Presbyweb, which is by far the best place to keep up with what’s going on in the PCUSA, as well as in the religious world in general.)
So, then: Where do we go from here?
Wherever we go, I believe there’s no need to rush. Or, I might better say, we should not rush. It’s not as if the PCUSA suddenly, as if out of nowhere, voted to ordain gays and lesbians. This issue, and a host of related theological issues, have been with us for a long time. Haste is neither required nor wise because, as Michael Walker explained after the 2006 General Assembly, we are still “free to be faithful.” At this very moment, nobody is telling me I have to affirm something I don’t believe or do something I think is wrong. If this were to happen, I would promptly leave the PCUSA rather than deny my conscience before the Lord. But at this time I am free to believe and act according to my sense of biblical righteousness and truth. (I’m aware that this time might be coming to an end in the PCUSA, however.)
Moreover, there’s no need to rush because the issues of grave concern are still filled with uncertainty. Yes, the GA voted to change the Book of Order to allow for the ordination of gays and lesbians. But this has happened before, and so far the presbyteries have voted to reject such GA votes. It’s quite possible that the presbyteries will do this again in 2009, leaving the Book of Order intact. Furthermore, though the intention of the 2008 GA was to install a new “Authoritative Interpretation” that allows local governing bodies to act contrary to the Book of Order’s current prohibition of gay ordination, it’s questionable whether this GA vote was consistent with the PCUSA Constitution. It may well be thrown out by church courts. Therefore, it’s quite possible that, in spite of the actions of the 2008 GA, the PCUSA will not end up approving of the ordinations of active gay and lesbian people. If, at the end of next year, the presbyteries have voted to allow gay ordination and the PCUSA courts have agreed, there will still be strong arguments made by some evangelicals for staying in the denomination, but many will be unconvinced by them, I think.
I should qualify my view that there’s no need to rush, however. I’m aware that some Presbyterian churches find themselves in presbyteries that are both liberal and hostile. I have heard stories about how some evangelical churches have been harassed and hampered by their presbyteries. Such churches are not “free to be faithful.” Thus, for these churches, it may well be the right time to leave the denomination. Yet, even for these, I would recommend against rushing. A careful, thoughtful, prayerful process is always best, and rarely happens quickly.
As an aside, I want to note, once again, that the real substance of a denominational connection is not the relationship of members and churches to the national body, but rather the relationship to the local body, which in the case of the PCUSA is the presbytery. The local, tangible, face-to-face relationships are what really matter in practice. Larger denominational connections are mostly irrelevant to most churches most of the time.
Yet, even if at the end of 2009 the PCUSA, by votes of presbyteries and church courts, has upheld our longstanding prohibition of gay ordination, it would be naïve to think that we’re back to business as usual. The last GA has revealed just how divided our denomination is, and not just about homosexuality. We differ on many matters of basic theology, including the authority of Scripture, how to interpret Scripture, how to relate to the culture, and even the substance of the good news. Evangelical PCUSA must not put our heads in the sand and assume that we can go on just as we have in the past. Pay attention to these wise words from Michael Walker:
Though the technical implications of the Assembly’s decisions on sexuality remain unclear, the number and consistent character of those decisions speak with a clear voice. When the misguided statement on interfaith relations is added to the mix, not to mention the embarrassing lack of attention to Christian faith exhibited in the discussions leading up to these decisions, this GA has successfully pulled back the veil, so to speak, enabling us to see more clearly the situation we’ve been facing for quite some time.
And what is this situation? Here’s how Michael describes it:
What we experienced at this last GA was an advancement of a trajectory that shows no sign of abating. It’s not about the “liberal groups,” whose true effectiveness is, honestly, unknown. Rather, the actions of the San Jose Assembly reflect the power of western culture generally to shape the ethos of a denomination that does not have a clear sense of its mission to the culture. Unchecked and unchallenged, the “default” pattern of the PC(USA) will be to continue moving along with the prevailing spirituality of western culture (“moralistic therapeutic deism,” as it has been dubbed recently), and with its embrace of the culture’s obsession with variant forms of sexual expression.
I have described certain aspects of this “default” pattern in some detail in this series, pointing to the way it has divided our denomination. The PCUSA is profoundly divided on many things, centrally the issue of gay ordination. These divisions mean that we simply can’t get along peacefully as a denomination, not to mention engage in common mission. We can stay together institutionally. But we will continue to fight over many things, not only the ordination issues. We will use our dwindling resources as a denomination in internal squabbles, proving that Jesus was right all along when he said that a “house divided against itself will not stand” (Matt 12:25). If the PCUSA stays together with the same structures that are currently in place, we will look like a boxing match between Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed. One boxer might end up winning the match, but both boxers will pummel each other nearly to death. That might make for good drama in a film, but it cripples the mission of the PCUSA churches, and therefore of the PCUSA as a whole.
I believe that the health and mission of the churches of the PCUSA require us to rethink the nature of our relationship so that we might alter that relationship in a way that is theologically-sound, practically-wise, and, perhaps, even God-honoring. If this is going to happen, several things are needed. I’ll spell these out in my next post in this series.