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THOUGHTS ON LEAVING THE DENOMINATION
From the Special Commission to Study Unrest in the Church, 1926 Report
There are some who hold that there have always been two types or schools of Presbyterianism, merging together at the center, and in the main body of the Church, but more or less discernibly different at the extremes. There are some who hold that the Westminster Confession shows traces of two types of thought and that the Old and New Schools are self-perpetuating forms of Presbyterianism. The present so-called conservative and liberal elements in the Church, it is held by some, represent in a sense these old divisions. Neither element is willing to accept the reproach of departure from the historic position of the Church. Both are convinced of their loyal evangelical character. But one cause of unrest is found in the fear, on one hand, that the liberal element embraces some who have been too much influenced by the naturalistic tendencies of to-day, and the fear, on the other hand, that the conservative element embraces some who would abridge the just liberties guaranteed by the Constitution of the Church. There is distrust between those who believe that they stand for proper freedom and flexibility, and those who believe that they stand for the true authority of the Church and the integrity of its faith. Some feel that the differences here are not too great to be comprehended in our Church. Others feel that they represent irreconcilable divergences.
The Rhetoric of Dismissal
It is said that one party cannot enter into a cogent conversation with another until they have indicated they have understood the other by being able to articulate the other position’s arguments. To this end, the first section represents an attempt to frame the major arguments being made by congregations in Los Ranchos Presbytery for seeking dismissal from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). In most cases, the arguments have been well thought out, are persuasively argued, and represent solid rhetorical propositions. In some cases, the language drifted into inflammatory diatribes that violated the rules of logic and argument, and do not serve to advance the conversation. I will do my best to present what I believe is the core arguments presented by the former and allow the latter to try to stand on their own.
1. The denomination/national church/national leadership has moved/drifted/ shifted so far leftward/radical/liberal/humanism in theology/social issues we can no longer remain in communion with it. The denomination reflects social and moral shifts rather than addressing them.
2. It has become a denomination that promotes pluralism and theological diversity—e.g. believing there are many equally valid paths to God and Jesus is but one among many. (“Salvation through Christ alone.” Denial of the Lordship of Jesus Christ.) A broad spectrum of acceptable approaches to scripture. This is in contrast to #3.
3. The denomination will not state the Essential Tenets. The consequence is a wide variety of theological positions, some bordering on heresy. Emphasis on theological pluralism breaks down a clear sense of identity and creates “cognitive dissonance” that many members and churches cannot live with. The lack of consistency of beliefs hinders presentation of a clear and unified message. See Barry Ensign George paper cited by several churches.
4. The national denomination encourages sexual license and perversion. Unrepentant practicing homosexuals can now be ordained. Homosexual behavior is no longer clearly identified as a biblical sin. This moral collapse combined with support for taking of innocent human life by means of abortion is abhorrent to us. [These arguments are often coupled with assertions of bad biblical interpretation.] The consequence is a breakdown in behavioral standards—especially for leaders.
5. . The role of Biblical Authority and Biblical Interpretation. The PCUSA has adopted such a broad degree of acceptable interpretations that there are no longer any sure and certain affirmations and thus the authority of scripture is undermined.
6. Politics. The entire denomination is consumed at every level by attempts to persuade and convince people to vote in a particular way on particular issues of concern to specific interest groups. Substantive internal divisions. These have consumed time, energy, and finances better spent on advancing God’s Kingdom. Irreconcilable divergences.
7. The “trust clause” is an attempt at “despotic and tyrannical control over faithful evangelical congregations.”
8. Denominational bad press is not good for local church life or outreach. Loss of members.
9. Lack of trust in denomination. Failure to use resources wisely. Statements by GA staff with which we disagree. GA takes actions with which we strongly disagree.
10. Lack of pro-life position on abortion.
Responses to These Rationales for Seeking Dimissal
This writer, having been part of the (United) Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) for 67 years [yes, I’m one of those baptized into the denomination], has witnessed first-hand much of the history described in the rationales being presented by congregations seeking dismissal. This includes ministries in 5 different states; 7 presbyteries, and 4 Synods; seeing things from the perspective of member, candidate, pastor, and presbytery staff; and having served at all levels of the denomination’s life. My responses reflect this “seasoning by fire”—or biases if that be the case.
A couple of general, over-arching observations.
1) For those seeking dismissal, the above rationales are “true” for them. No manner of debate will convince them otherwise—and efforts to dissuade people will not be productive. From their vantage points, the criticisms reflect their training, experience, Biblical orientation, spiritual formation and understandings of this denomination. It has been shaped by the pastors, professors, institutions, magazines, and special interest groups that are core mentors to their faith. They are faithful Christians who have reached a particular set of understandings and beliefs that they cherish and value.
2) This writer is an outsider to the perspective of those seeking dismissal. My training, vantage point, formation, and understandings were shaped in the context of the interior of the US with colleagues in ministry who were graduates of all of the seminaries directly related to the PUCSA (Princeton, Louisville, Austin, McCormick, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Dubuque, Union and Johnson C Smith)—as well as from Gordon Conwell, Yale, and Harvard. It did not know Fuller existed until I was 26. Where my faith was shaped, Union, NYC has the same respected status as Fuller does on the West Coast.
3) As a consequence I would suggest an alternative narrative to the requests for dismissal: namely, that the “evangelical” churches seeking dismissal are from the same family of the church that split in 1930 (Orthodox and Bible Presbyterian), 1970 (Evangelical Presbyterian) and 1980 (PCA). Each of these groups framed their arguments and actions in essentially the same language that appears in the rationales of the PLR congregations seeking dismissal at this time—orthodoxy, Christology, essential tenets, standards, salvation, subscription, social liberalism, and authority of scripture. The Swearingen Report of 1926-1927 is a key to articulating this narrative. It is simply to argue that these divisions are part of our denominational DNA—and every few decades the tensions require a schism to restore a tolerable balance to the dynamics of denominational life.
4) This might be compared to a divorce in which both parties understand the necessity for it, one party wishes it were not so, and both parties are acutely aware of a prenuptial agreement that entitles one party to all of the assets. That is the starting point for conversations on dismissal.
Prelude to Addressing Specific Arguments
To understand how this writer gets to his responses to specific issues, certain “meta” concepts must be addressed. They reflect the author’s bias.
The arguments related to the PCUSA somehow moving away from the congregations seeking dismissal is a “red herring”—it betrays an ethnocentric viewpoint that is not helpful to conversations. As the Swearingen Report and work by Beau Weston indicate, there has been an essential division in the Presbyterian Church from its earliest days. It is not to deny the division, but to make clear this is not something new, that somehow the denomination is guilty of “betraying” the evangelical wing of the church. In 1927, the denomination approved moving away from a “fundamentalist/subscriptionist” approach to faith and scriptures and toward an appreciation of modern biblical scholarship, the consequences of that position for its polity, and the historical (foundational) position that GA may establish standards, but the local presbytery and congregation interpret and apply them. This movement continued with the ordination of women, the expansion of the Book of Confessions, and most recently, a 30 year struggle to shape a response to the challenges of homosexual behavior. Since the late 1800’s, there has not been a 100% consensus in the church for any one particular theology or interpretation of scripture. For some, such diversity has been and is unacceptable and intolerable. That is to be appreciated and understood. But it is not to grant permission to try to rewrite history by claiming the denomination has suddenly shifted leftward. The present Presbyterian Church is the one set in place 90 years ago. The only question of consequence is why certain “evangelical” churches did not split off in one of the earlier realignments? [While those founded since 1925 surely knew the denomination with which they were aligning themselves.]
It is therefore sufficient for seeking dismissal to state that a church disagrees with the PCUSA over the type and degree of authority it gives scripture and the degree it believes salvation is only possible through Jesus Christ and its decision to allow presbyteries and congregations to ordain gays and lesbians. It does not need some rationale that “blames” the denomination for some recent abandonment of one definition of orthodoxy.
I would next note that most of these arguments are not new—they are restatements of countless editorials and articles generated by The Layman over the past 50 years. This level of visceral disappointment with the PCUSA has been fostered over decades so that while there are some elements of truth in the arguments—there is a much greater level of unchallenged half-truth and assumptions presented as if they were made true by repeating a particular anecdote a hundred times. (e.g. our membership loss is the result of liberal theology—or phantom ministers who do not accept Jesus as their personal Savior.).
Finally, I would draw upon another term from sociology, “the outside enemy”. It has long been known by students of groups, movements, and nations, that one of the fastest and most effective ways of creating cohesion and a sense of belonging is to have an “outside enemy”—real or imagined. Groups coalesce around their opposition to this enemy. The perception of someone opposed to your values and needs and health and welfare (or “soul) is a powerful motive to unite to defeat this threat. If the threat is too powerful to be defeated, the option is usually to withdraw into a righteous remnant. Outside enemies are terribly energizing—and also terribly draining. The sociological question is always what happens when the “outside enemy” ceases to exist?
SPECIFIC ISSUES RAISED BY CONGREGATIONS SEEKING DISMISSAL
1) The denomination/national church/national leadership has moved/drifted/shifted so far leftward/radical/liberal/humanism in theology/social issues we can no longer remain in communion with it. It reflects social and moral shifts rather than addressing them.
The current language is “progressive”/”evangelical” split. No one argues that such a split does not exist—though many would argue for a nuanced narrative that acknowledges that many “progressives” are “evangelical” on certain matters—and many “evangelicals” are “progressive” on certain matters. It is clear those seeking dismissal believe the chasm has grown too large to be bridged—and that it is no longer possible to live with the internal and external conflicts this creates for them. When such a conclusion has been reached it is impossible to counter with logic or reasoning. “Cognitive Dissonance” is to be resolved by seeking separation from those creating the dissonance. Whatever the “rationale”, it’s now simply a matter that those who want to leave can find more and stronger reasons for leaving than for staying.
2) It has become a denomination that promotes pluralism and theological diversity—believing there are many equally valid paths to God and Jesus is but one among many. E.g. “Salvation through Christ alone.” Denial of the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
This has been a conflicted area for the church since the inclusion of the “Declaratory Statement” inserted in the Westminster Confession in 1903 regarding “those who have been saved in Christ” being in perfect harmony with the doctrine of God’s love for all mankind, and that of those who perish, the doctrines of God’s eternal decree is held in harmony with the doctrine that God does not desire the death of any sinner but has provided in Christ salvation sufficient for all.” And it makes clear regarding children who die in infancy that they will be “regenerated and saved by Christ who works when and where and how he pleases.”
With the introduction of this “waffle” (to provide a means of reconciliation with Cumberland Presbyterians), the denomination began to provide for those who believe Jesus is the only way to salvation—and those who believe a person’s eternal soul is a matter for God to decide.
Also, as the denomination moved in the 1800’s and early 1900’s into worldwide mission, it began to be confronted with an ethnocentric understanding of our faith that abridged the truth encountered in other faith traditions. Without abandoning our core affirmation of “Jesus as Lord” the denomination began to question a total denial of the wisdom embedded in other faiths. For many in the church, it was not a question of losing faith in our Reformed theology and faith traditions, but an expansion of our understanding of God who may well be at work in ways our human condition is not able to comprehend. This ongoing struggle between hubris and humility becomes part of this conversation.
3) The denomination will not state the Essential Tenets. The consequence is a wide variety of theological positions, some bordering on heresy. Emphasis on theological pluralism breaks down a clear sense of identity and creates “cognitive dissonance” many members and churches cannot live with. The lack of consistency of beliefs hinders presentation of a clear and unified message. See Barry Ensign George paper cited by several churches.
The issue of defining essential tenets actually goes back to 1725 and the original Adopting Act. It remerges at several points involving historical schisms regarding the requirements of examination for candidates. (Were you aware that in the 1800’s, it was not unusual for a candidate to be examined of the floor of presbytery for several hours—or days?) It most recently manifested itself in the “subscription controversies” of the 1910’s and 1920’s--which resulted in both the Auburn Declaration and the Commission of 1925 (Swearingen Report). Presbyterians have always lived in tension between our roots as a confessional church—and the desire to articulate the core doctrines of our confessions. Some are more comfortable spelling out as many “essentials” as possible; others chaff at trying to narrow down “essentials”—or to arbitrarily mandate them as a requirement for serving Christ.
4) The national denomination encourages sexual license and perversion. Unrepentant practicing homosexuals can now be ordained. Homosexual behavior is no longer clearly identified as a biblical sin. This moral collapse combined with support for taking of innocent human life by means of abortion is abhorrent to us. [These arguments are often coupled with assertions of bad biblical interpretation.] The consequence is a breakdown in behavioral standards—especially for leaders.
No issue has so defined the strains on the unity of the PCUSA over the past three decades as has the debate over ordination of self affirmed, active gay and lesbian individuals. No issue has so defined the energy and talents of the church siphoned off in the pursuit of one outcome or another. No issue has so defined the theological divisions inherent in the life of the denomination. As has often been the case in such divisions, a question pondered by outsiders is why the group that was the minority for so long did not leave despite decades of defeat—and why the majority that became a minority sought to leave as soon as they became the minority? There is clearly a theological underpinning to this schism—but there is also clearly other factors not so obvious or well-articulated.
This is clearly the issue upon which no one would disagree that there is an irreconcilable difference of worldview, culture, and faith.
5) The role of Biblical Authority and Biblical Interpretation. The PCUSA has adopted such a broad degree of acceptable interpretations that there are no longer any sure and certain affirmations.
This debate simmered for a couple of decades in both the Southern and United streams as one of the central issues in the splits of the EPC and the PCA. In the mid-1980’s, both denominations appointed blue ribbon study groups to address the issues of Biblical Authority and Interpretation. Both reports came just prior to reunion—and both were adopted by the reunited Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)—to a large extent because the scholarship and conclusions of the two reports was internally consistent and sufficient similar to provide a unified understanding of our denomination’s approach to scripture.
These documents—now 25 years old--were not sufficient for those who sought a more position closer to inerrancy of scripture--and a more clear articulation of the role of scripture in the life of faith. For the majority of the church, these documents affirmed the long held understanding of the hierarchy of authority for Presbyterians: Jesus Christ, Scripture, the Confessions, the Book of Order.
6) Politics. The entire denomination is consumed at every level by attempts to persuade and convince people to vote in a particular way on particular issues of concern to specific interest groups. Substantive internal divisions. These have consumed time, energy, and finances better spent on advancing God’s Kingdom. Irreconcilable divergences
Often cited as one of the truly debilitating outcomes of the ongoing debates, it is always the “other side” that engages in “politics” while what “we do” is to defend the “truth”. Again, all groups tend to form an ethnocentric interpretation of—and explanation for—events. Not wrong—just a reminder that what you see depends on where you stand. For several decades prior to the mid 1980’s, the denomination had codified such politics in to Chapter XXVIII entities—special interest groups property registered with the denomination and free to go about the business of influencing and attempting to sway voters.
No one has ever said that anyone else needs to engage in any of this behavior or be distracted from what they define as their primary mission or that they must conform to someone else’s definitions of what is important. Thousands of congregations have been going about the business of being faithful to the gospel without spending any time discussing denominational issue or changes (i.e. “politics”.) Every overture, every petition, every action by a session to state a particular position, every effort to get a particular person elected (or not elected) to a specific office or position, is a “political” act.
Unfortunately, the typical outcome has been the 20-30% at each end of the spectrum have kept trying to hijack the middle. In the end, it will most likely be what it has been in the past—10-20% will split off from the middle, form another denomination that represents the “true faith”, and the majority that is left will find equilibrium again for another 30-50 years.
7) The “trust clause” is an attempt at “despotic and tyrannical control over faithful evangelical congregations.”
As inheritors of English Civil Law, the Presbyterian Church from its earliest beginnings, understood that for our denomination, property was held in trust for the use and benefit of the denomination. There was no conflict over this understanding for the first two centuries of our existence. The civil courts consistently affirmed the “implied trust” nature of a “hierarchical” (non congretaional) denomination.
It became an issue with the schisms of the 20th century, eventually moving into adversarial disputes in the civil courts, pitting the laws of one state against laws in another state. In an effort to avoid First Amendment conflicts, the Supreme Court affirmed a legal concept known as “neutral principles of Law”; if the courts can make a ruling without entangling the state in the doctrines and beliefs of religious groups, it may make a decision accordingly. Thus, the Supreme Court in the 70’s counseled “hierarchical” denominationa that the easiest solution to the question of “implied trust” was to insert such language in to the national constitution of the denomination. All major “hierarchical” denominations—including the United Presbyterian Church and the PCUS, did exactly that—they took the language of “implied trust” and inserted into a “trust” clause. The “trust clause” of all “hierarchical” denomination is remarkably similar. There has never been any intent other than to codify a 300 year old understanding of the relationship between congregations, property, and the denomination.
8) Denominational bad press is not good for local church life or outreach. Loss of members.
Every congregation seeking dismissal has stories of members who have left their congregation because of the actions of the denomination. That this has happened is not contested. What is contested is to engage in inductive reasoning—expanding from this observation to the conclusion that most (if not all) losses in the denomination are for this reason. It provides an excuse for not addressing the multiple reasons people leave: they die, they move away and join churches of another denomination; they don’t like the pastor; they don’t like the music; they don’t like the constant politics and bickering in the leadership; they don’t think benevolences are being wisely spent; they don’t like the theology being espoused; they want a church with more children and strong youth program. It also fails to address the issue of people who did not join a Presbyterian congregation because the PCUSA’s social and theological positions were too conservative or too narrow.
If you are a conservative, evangelical congregation, the positions of the denomination are often embarrassing and impossible to defend, especially if no effort is made to balance these concerns with narratives about the positive ministries and mission of the denomination.
9) Lack of trust in denomination. Failure to use resources wisely. Statements by GA staff with which we disagree. GA takes actions with which we strongly disagree.
Lack of trust is a generic complaint; the reality of the feeling cannot be challenged because the source(s) of it are rarely clearly identified. Use of resources is subjective—since all expenses by the denomination are authorized by the General Assembly or the designating contributor. GA Staff comments are another generic complaint rarely attached to specific comments. It also ignores that many national staff, especially the Stated Clerk, can comment only when what they have to say is consistent with established positions of the church. Hence the disagreement is more likely with a specific position taken by the commissioners to General Assembly. (e.g. on Israel/Palestine, gun control, medical care.) It is a reminder that the General Assembly is not a disembodied group of individuals; they are commissioners elected by presbyteries across the country to represent their best understanding of the leading of the Holy Spirit. Strongly disagreeing is a Presbyterian privilege—and a reminder that GA speaks TO the denomination and not FOR the denomination.
10. Lack of pro-life position on abortion.
Not mentioned with any regularity, it is an issue that has also provided conflict in the church for almost 40 years. Every General Assembly sees between 2-6 overtures to change one aspect or another of our denomination’s position on abortion—which essentially is that the need to preserve legal access to the procedure is essential while the right to make a decision regarding the procedure is a matter for the woman, her spiritual counselor, medical doctor, and family.
At every General Assembly, there is a strong contingent of people present and attempting to get commissioners to vote against abortion (what some might call politicking.) In 30 years, the various General Assembly’s (each one made up of 90% of people who have never attended one before) have never moved much off of a 2/3rds for the existing policies versus 1/3 for a strong anti-abortion position.
Again, the disagreement is clearly presented and represents a strong conflict of internal values. What is not the case is that it is new—nor has no attempt been made to make changes. It’s simply that those opposed to abortion are in a minority in this denomination, have been, and most likely would continue to be so if they remain.
In closing, I would once again affirm the integrity, Christian faith, and deep love of God that is characteristic of those who would seek to be dismissed to another denomination. They do not deserve attempts to demonize them—or to somehow construe their belief system as second rate. There is simply a parting of the ways over pivotal issues and values—a parting which we now realize has little or no hope of being reconciled. It would be best for all parties to find a mutually acceptable avenue to going separate ways with integrity and character intact. Jesus weeps over our inability to find a way to live together as brothers and sisters in Christ—but He is no stranger to our proclivity for division and thus simply shakes his head in sorrow at yet another division in His body. But Jesus has no time to linger over such human failure; there is too much to be done for the sake of the Kingdom and so He is once more, way out in front of us seeking to reconcile the world to the loving God of all history and all humanity. May the parting of the ways free all parties to become better servants of the One who we follow and adore.
Rev. Dr. W. Keith Geckeler, Teaching Elder
Rev. Dr. Keith Geckeler is the former Stated Clerk of the Presbytry of Los Ranchos. The current Stated Clerk is Rev. Forrest Claassen.
Rev. Dr. Keith Geckeler is the former Stated Clerk of the Presbytry of Los Ranchos. The current Stated Clerk is Rev. Forrest Claassen.