Sunday, October 01, 2006

Is the Global Presbyterian Fellowship Schismatic?

The Global Presbyterian Fellowship is a new project by some of the leading congregations of the Presbyterian Church (USA) to get beyond the endless internecine struggle, and get on with the business of spreading the gospel. They had an initial gathering in Atlanta this past summer that generated a major buzz. Something good might be coming, a way forward out of the old mess.

However, the GPF also raises a disquieting parallel. In the 1930s disgruntled conservatives, led by J. Gresham Machen, created an Independent Board of Presbyterian Foreign Missions. In its brief life, the Independent Board was aggressively critical of the existing church leadership. They asked congregations to give their mission money to the Independent Board instead of to the official mission agency of the church. The denomination ruled that the Independent Board was schismatic, and ordered all officers of the church to quit it. Machen and the other board members had, in my judgment, created the Independent Board in order to create a schism. Naturally, none of them quit the Independent Board when ordered to. They were tried, convicted, and, in 1936, removed from the ministry of the Presbyterian Church. By prior arrangement, they immediately created a new denomination, now known as the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

When the call for the Global Presbyterian Fellowship was issued, it raised a red flag for me and others who know this history. We were relieved, therefore, to see that the first point of the initial invitation proclaims:

We choose to remain within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and we encourage congregations to continue to relate to their own presbyteries in the manner that they deem best. This is not an effort to start a new denomination or to write a new constitution.

At the Atlanta meeting, the GPF adopted a covenant. The language of the covenant is a little less reassuring than was the initial invitation. Gone is any explicit assurance that they choose to remain within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Instead, we find this more ambiguous proposal:

To invest our financial resources only in those local and global mission efforts that we believe are biblically faithful and accountable, within the Presbyterian family and through other partnerships into which the Lord calls us.

That is not a call to schism, but it is not a proclamation of loyalty, either.

On the whole, I do not think the Global Presbyterian Fellowship is, or will be, schismatic. I say this partly out of trust for the initial impulse that created the GPF. I also believe, as I have written earlier, that the New Wineskins initiative has been the magnet for the schismatic forces in the church.

There is plenty of discontent in the Global Presbyterian Fellowship. So far, though, it is trying to build up the church from within.


Denis Hancock said...

I see that the PGF is in contact with the GAC and other groups within the PC(USA) and this seems to be a major difference between Machen's parallel Missions board attempted and end run around the denomination.

Also, GAC has chosen to work within the new reality that people are designating a significant majority of their giving, rather than permitting the PC(USA) to make the choices as to how it is spent.

Times have changed, trust has been lost, and it seems that PGF and GAC are going to at least try to work together rather than engage in a scorched earth policy that will leave the "winners" with little to show for their efforts.

It seems that there is a lot of theological overlap between PGF and NW (and me, for that matter), but I agree with your assessment that one appears schismatic and the other appears not to be schismatic.

Quotidian Grace said...

I agree that the PGF appears not to be schismatic. The group is offering a welcome alternative to the inward focus of the NW and some other groups (both conservative and "progressive")by focusing outward on mission. We'll just have to see how the group develops.

Tyler Ward said...

You insinuate that the Presbyterian Global Fellowship should make some kind of loyalty statement to the PCUSA. I find this troublesome. No individual nor group of like minded Presbyterians should have to declare their loyalty to the PCUSA! From an institutional standpoint, this is assumed unless a person or a group of people seeks to renounce the jurisdiction of the PCUSA. Just because some chose to spend their benevolences in a certain manner does not mean that they aren't loyal! That's not to mention that the ONLY place our loyalty should lie is with Jesus Christ who is Head of the Church!

Tyler Ward said...

Another observation I would like to add here is that voluntary membership organizations do not have coercive power. I'm not saying that an organized church is a voluntary member of a presbytery; what I am saying is that people in the pews are voluntary members of their congregations. It is widely recognized that people across the country are not as denominationally as loyal as they were in the past. Presbyteries should be very careful when exercising their coersive powers over a church. They may take the property, but they may also end up with an empty building and a loss of lots of resources.

Tyler Ward said...

Stats on churches who attended the PGF Conference:
(stats on 285 of the 312 that attended)

These 285 churches represent 10% of the total membership of the PCUSA, and 11% of the total giving to PCUSA churches.

The average membership is 811, and annual contributions were nearly $1.1 million.

The majority of the churches had an increase in membership. The smallest church had 15 members and the largest over 8,000.

For more detailed informaiton see my blog post at:

Gruntled said...

I do not think that all church-related bodies need to pledge their loyalty. I would like to take that for granted. I note, though, that this organization DID proclaim its loyalty in its first document, but pointedly, I think, did not in its second document, its "covenant." That is a little worrisome, though on the whole I am trusting.

Clay Allard said...

Please listen to Richard Mouw's sermon from the Saturday worship service at the conclusion of the PGF Conference in Atlanta. He addresses this exact issue, with a pointed rebuttal to your concern about Machen and history.
The entire purpose of PGF is to help evangelicals reclaim the ability to disagree without having to tear apart the church.