Wednesday, June 08, 2011

My Thirty Years of "Presbyterian Pluralism" - Vindicated

In college I became very interested in the problem of pluralism. How can an organization both believe in truth, and believe that different understandings of truth can coexist in the same institution?

This led me to study the Presbyterian Church, which has both an official confession of what it believes, and an established practice of accepting a fairly broad range of views within the church. My dissertation was published as Presbyterian Pluralism: Competition in a Protestant House. I came to see that the one confession that all officers of the church adhere to was balanced by a practice of allowing the presbyteries - the regional governing bodies at the heart of the Presbyterian Church - some leeway in judging how strictly any given officer had to adhere to that one confession. Liberal presbyteries tolerated more diversity, conservative presbyteries tolerated less diversity. When ministers moved from one presbytery to another they could be in for some sharp questioning, and even be denied permission to "preach within the bounds" of the new presbytery.

Over time, this balanced system broke down. The authority of the one confession was watered down by adding many other confessions. Liberal political correctness limited leeway on some issues, which led to conservative political correctness limiting leeway on other issues. The fights in the denomination shifted from the confessional standards to the administrative rules of the church. The fights got bigger, more regular, and exhausting. The church started a decline that has only sped up in recent years.

A few years ago the wiser heads in the church proposed a new Form of Government (nFOG), which would restore the leeway that presbyteries used to have in judging their own officers. Instead of providing detailed rules on what all officers must and must not do, the church's constitution would lay out the general principles of the whole church. The presbyteries could follow model manuals and rules provided by the denomination, or adapt them to local circumstances.

This week the new Form of Government was adopted by a majority of presbyteries. As of July 10, 2011, it will become the constitutional rule of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

Now if we can get back to having one confession that we actually believe in, I will feel fully vindicated.


Reformed Catholic said...


in the PC(USA) now, that will NEVER happen.

OK .. let me modify that never, when all the evangelicals leave, I suspect that anything in the BOC that is not progressive will be removed.

That won't leave much, even the creeds may not survive since they talk of the Father and Son.

Anonymous said...

I hope that you are proven right. The fine print of FoG seems to tell another story.

Mark R. Patterson, PhD said...

Sadly, I don't think that is how it will work. nFog is so full of contradictions it is very difficult to grasp how they will actually be harmonized. There is no way the church will move back to a single credal statement and even if it did it has become obvious that we are no longer in fact a credal church. Local option, subjectivism, skepticism of any and all standards have become the defining standards rendering your suggested outcome very unlikely.