Sunday, December 18, 2005

A Church of Millions Will Never Be Pure

The Presbyterian Church (USA), like all the mainline denominations, is torn by an ideological and theological competition. A small left and a larger right compete with each other for the hearts and minds of the center. The center is more amorphous. They are mostly conservative, like the conservatives, but they also are mostly tolerant of extremes, unlike the conservatives (and also unlike most of the liberals). What the center folks are most committed to is preserving the church. They are loyalists to the actual church, not to the hypothetical church of either the left or the right.

The issue of the moment dividing the Presbyterian Church is the ordination of homosexuals. To the left, this is about equality and civil liberties. To the right this is about staying faithful to the Bible. To the loyalists, the overriding issue is preserving the church with minimal injustice to everyone.

The history of the Presbyterian Church has always been divided by competitions like this. The issues change; the structure of the competition does not. For more details about this history, see my books Presbyterian Pluralism and Leading From the Center. Moreover, I think the Presbyterian Church always will be divided by competitions like this, until Jesus returns and ends history as we know it. And this is true of every large church. And always has been, and always will be.

After decades of fighting, the church created a Task Force on the Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church in 2001. The Task Force made its report a few months ago, and will be voted on at the General Assembly next June. The Task Force took a loyalist line: they kept the traditional views already embodied in the church’s constitution, but called on everyone to trust the local ordaining bodies to apply those standards correctly. The local ordaining bodies -- the regional presbyteries in the case of ministers, the local congregations (session) in the case of lay elders – have been trusted with this authority, with a few exceptions, since the Presbyterian Church codified the rule in 1729. This means that different ordaining bodies will apply those standards a little differently.

Liberals have rejected the Task Force report because it keeps the current constitutional standards. Conservatives have rejected it because it allows some leeway in applying those standards. Loyalists will now have to choose.

When liberals were in the saddle in the 1970s, they ended the church’s longstanding practice of trusting the local ordaining bodies, in order to insist that every church body, at every level, ordain and hire women. It was the liberals who ended what is called “local option” – or more properly, local application – of the constitutional standards. Now that the shoe is on the other foot, it is the liberals who want local application, and the conservatives who don’t. Conservatives have rejected the Task Force report because it sacrifices the purity of the church in the interests of peace and, in an attenuated sense, unity. Just as the liberals would have done if they had been faced with a similar report thirty years ago.

The attempt to make every congregation and every presbytery follow the same standard will fail. And if it does not fail, it would produce a schism in which pure (or purer) congregations pull out to form a new sect. Yet the history of such sects is that they are soon split again and again to try to make them really pure, and then really, really pure. And the schisms are always much smaller than their proponents think they will be. One of the pro-schism organization in the Presbyterian Church, newPCUS, which wants to revive the old Southern Presbyterian Church, has been having a debate about what would happen if 500 or 1000 out of the 11,000 congregations in the PC(USA) withdrew. But this is not what would happen if the Task Force report is adopted. I think that if there were a schism, it would be closer to 50 congregations that would actually withdraw. Sure, most Presbyterians are conservative. But most of them are loyalists. They aren’t liberal, but they are willing to live in a mixed, impure church, with liberals.

A church of millions will never be pure.


SPorcupine said...

The reason to stay is that we belong together. It's a substantive value about the shared traditions across congregations and the lasting relationships within congregations. It is not just about liking to be large or being willing to tolerate each other: it's about truly valuing genuine commonalities.

I generally wish Presbyterians would worry a lot more about money and a good bit less about sex. If we did, I'd be annoyed at some on the right edge who seem to me indifferent to social justice and some on the left edge who seem indifferent to how productivity happens. But I'd still want all of them in the discussion.

The same on the ordination issue. Both ends of the spectrum can make me weary, but they're part of US, and the wrestling is part of belonging together.

Gruntled said...

I find it helpful to see the fight that we are in as part of a permanent competition, not a temporary conflict. It is wearying to know that it is permanent, but helpful to see that all three parties to the competition will be permanently necessary. And if today's left or right leave, a new one will be created.

LET'S TALK said...

I'm getting ready to write about, The Wider Mercy Doctrine and during my study for the topic. I read an article about Bishop Carlton Pearson and how he lost 90 percent of his congregation. I know that this has nothing to do with Presbyterians, but to a degree it does.
Julia Howe, in 1893, brought up the word Religion and what the word means. I remember she said that "Nothing is Religion which puts one individual absolutely above others, and surely nothing is religion that puts one sex above another. Religion is primarily our relation to the Supreme, to God himself. It is for him to judge; it is for him to say where we belong, who is highest and who is not; of that we know nothing. And any Religion which will sacrifice a certain set of human beings for the enjoyment or aggrandizement or advantage of another is no religion. Any religion which sacrifice women to the brutality of men is no religion".
I plan to use this in my next post, but I think that it applies to what you are speaking of.

Gruntled said...

I agree with Julia Ward Howe that God does not authorize us to "sacrifice a certain set of human beings for the enjoyment or aggrandizement or advantage of another." On the other hand, she was certainly not against defining boundaries for organizations or whole societies; she did, after all, write "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."

The Parson said...

On religion: It seems to me that true religion consists of the caretaking of widows and orphans.

On the original post: This is surely the most perceptive and honest writing on the topic to date.

Apostle John said...

A lot of interesting stuff here.

We can't be pure, and we can't have peace. I pray that at least we can have unity and work together for the other two.

Unknown said...

Is there ANYTHING on which we can reasonably expect unaminity?

The two requirements for active membership in the PC(USA) are baptism and profession of Jesus as Lord and Savior.

I would like to think that we could claim unity on the basis of "One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism."

Gruntled said...

I was impressed with how warmly the members of the Task Force, who cover much of the church's spectrum, praised one another's love for Jesus. Indeed, the report says clearly that the ordination standards remain standards, and they are theologically rich documents. The presenting issue in 1925 was belief in the virgin birth; this time it is whether Romans 1:26-27 is to be taken seriously. In both cases, I think, the underlying issue is how much authority the Bible really has. But there is alot that nearly all of us can agree on.

Anonymous said...

As far as I can tell you have correctly identified the recent history of liberals and conservatives in the PCUS(A). But I have a different spin on the analysis.

I don't see it having much to do with left theology versus right theology, but rather mostly to do with process vs product. Liberals are all about product. New. Now. Cultural relevance. And so in the church we have the mandated outcome of women pastors decades sooner than we otherwise would have had women pastors.

Liberals in politics outside the church work the same way. If liberals think it is good enough for themselves then (by God or around George(W), it is good enough for EVERYBODY. And so we've had outcomes like Roe v. Wade and its ironic progeny--widespread abortion decades before we would otherwise have had the varying outcomes of states acting lawfully under both their own state constitutions. But the social cost of both these decisions --"constitutionalizing" the duty to ordain women and the right to abort--has a terrible externality uncounted by the liberal advocates of these positions.

Conservatives believe Chesterton nailed it when he observed that the dead have a vote; traditionists inherently understand that the way things are is likely to be a product of time and thought and corporate action reflecting time and thought. Always right? Never. But worthy of understanding that history is not "bunk", and didn't begin on your own birthday. The result of these behaviors of liberals and conservatives is conservative opposition to liberals mandating the ordination of women pastors and their like opposition to permissive ordination of those whose sexual practices are not blessed by God's Word as understood througout the history of the Church.

Your Blue State Brother in Christ,
Derek Simmons

Gruntled said...

I think both extremes are committed to a "product," even at the cost of a good process. Chesterton here speaks more like the loyalists. The Task Force itself was divided, at first, between those who wanted to get right to the product or content of what divided the church, and those who emphasized a long and inclusive process. I read the process-oriented people as liberals, who thought that if the two sides just got to know one another, they would be more willing to tolerate both/all positions in the church.

Anonymous said...

These debates have been going on for at least 90 years (or more). The problem with the "Loyalists" is that they their loyalty is misplaced. The continuity & unity of the denomination is more important than orthodoxy & church discipline. This was the same problem that Machen faced years ago. When he opposed liberalism & described it in stark terms other evangelicals recoiled because unity was more important than confronting unbelief. The "loyalists" view the church as one big happy family each committed to a the the denomination. But the problem as Machen pointed out is that liberal theology is not historic Christianity but a different religion alltogether. How can you recoginize someone as a brother or sister in faith when they deny the very tenants that make someone a Christian? Someone who denies that the deity of Jesus, who denies the physical resurection of Jesus, who puts an existenial spin on the Christ of faith & the Christ of history is not a real Christian. Any attempt to hold on to a denomination(a man made organization) that glosses over these realities is not only kidding itself but is no different than a social club or country club.

Anonymous said...

the previous anonymous quote is mine. sorry for the confusion.

SPorcupine said...

When Machen announced that there were liberals in Presbyterian missions, he should have named them, and named them immediately.

Outside, you claim that someone in my denomination is glossing over the difference between affirming Jesus's divinity and resurrection and denying them. Who's denying? Who's glossing over?

Anonymous said...

There have been individuals in the PCUSA that have been denying orthodoxy since before Machen. The Auburn Affirmation was all about not having to believe in those doctrines. Are you saying tht the liberal wing is orthodox? That they hold to the key doctrines of the Church? (divinity of the historic Jesus, Resurection, virgin birth, inspiration of Scripture, etc.) As far as personel knowledge there was a PCUSA pastor in my hometown who regularly denied orthodoxy in a column in the newspaper. He said the Resurection was spritual not physical. Are you saying that if a person did deny the Resurection that he would come under church discpline? Are you also saying tht the judgement that tossed Machen out was just?

Gruntled said...

There are members, even officers, of the Presbyterian Church who do not believe some core Christian doctrines. This is true of every denomination. I suspect it is true of Outside's, as well.

The Task Force on the Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church had some famous liberals and conservatives on it. They unanimously affirmed that God is sovereign, that the bodily resurrected Jesus is the Christ, and he is the only way to salvation.

The signers of the Auburn Affirmation, who represented a bit over ten percent of the church in the 1920s, ALL AFFIRMED the doctrines of the "five fundamentals." They contested the particular theories that some fundamentalists had proposed to explain those orthodox doctrines, but they accepted the doctrines. What the loyalists objected to then was the irregular and unconstitutional way in which Machen and his wing of the church had attempted to impose the five fundamentals. If they had put the doctrine to a regular vote of the General Assembly and the presbyteries, the loyalists would have supported the five fundamentals.

Machen liked to rail against the Auburn Affirmationists, but he never brought charges against them, despite repeated requests that he do so by church officials eager to clear up the controversy. It is clear from his correspondence that he yearned for schism, and wanted to be a martyr, which is why he made speeches but never named names.

Anonymous said...

So you are saying tht if an elder in the PCUSA publically denies the historicity of the Resurection or the divinity of the historic Jesus that he/she is then disciplined? Church discipline does exisit in the PCUSA?

SPorcupine said...


Okay, you've identified one unnamed pastor, in an unnamed church, in an unnamed town. It sounds like you've also learned of some second-hand or published reports, and you found them credible. Can you share what those were?

Anonymous said...

Pastor of one of the PCUSA churches in Macon GA wrote a column essentilly saying tha the Resurection was spritual & that it was not important if it was physical. (abt 15 years ago). Not there any more & was never charged by his presbytery. Answer my question. If an elder does deny a key doctrine (Resurection, virgin birth, diety of Jesus, Trinity) is it usual for he/she to be disciplined?

Anonymous said...

Yes I can't name names b/e I'm not in the PCUSA. But one of my first impressions of it were columns wrtten by a liberal pastor in Macon. Since then it has been mostly impressions based on what I've read or heard. Not being in the PCUSA I don't have the experience of having a pastor or conference speaker who denys doctrine in the pulpit. My impression has been that the confessional elements of the PCUS left years ago for the PCA, ARP,OPC,EPC,etc. Now the conservatives in the denomination are confessional light or at least evangelical. The broad middle & then the liberal wing. The liberal being made up of social liberals & theological liberals.(that overlap but do are not necessarily the same) Now if you are telling me that my impressions are mistaken(that the liberal wing of the PCUSA is made up of social liberals who do affirm orthodox Christianity & that the theological liberals are a rarity) then I will be happy to be corrected.

SPorcupine said...

As an active member of the PC(USA) I have never heard an elder profess the heresies you name. Please do not accuse my brothes and sisters in Christ of serious wrong doing without serious evidence. They are your brothes and sisters, too.

Anonymous said...

The pastor in Macon did profess such hereisies but perhaps he was an aberation. Perhaps theological liberalism is a rarity in the PCUSA & when it occurs I guess you are telling me that discipline is used. If so then great.

SPorcupine said...

I think you are stalking me and other Christians as though you were a wolf and we were rabbits. You're leaving little phrases like "liberalism" around to see if we'll nibble. If we do, you'll bite our heads off and run off in triumph to tell the other wolves.

Gruntled said...

Public discipline for unorthodox views is rare in the PC(USA) -- as it is in any church. Just now we have a series of disciplinary cases involving those who deny that the Bible calls homosexual practice a sin, or that the Bible should be followed even if it does say that.

More commonly, those who publically disagree with the church's teachings, on the left and on the right, are dealt with privately. Many choose to leave quietly, according to the disciplinary standard of 1758.

Most common of all is that those who hold unorthodox views, of the left and the right, keep quiet about it.

And these standards only apply to officers. Members who are not officers are required only to profess faith in Jesus Christ.

If you know the names of any officers of the Presbyterian Church (USA) who have publically proclaimed doctrines contrary to our confessions, such as the former pastor in Macon, please send them to me and I will follow up. You may send them off-line, if you like -- my email is attached to my profile.

Anonymous said...

That was almost 20 years ago. If the presbytery didn't deal w/it then it prob won't ever be delt with. But no one answered my question about the liberal wing of the PCUSA. Is it orthodox(holding to deity of Jesus, virgin birth, resurection, Trinity, etc.) but differing in social issues like homosexuality

Gruntled said...

The survey research indicates that all but the five percent or so who call themselves extremely liberal believe the traditional orthodox doctrines of the church. For further details, see the chapter "What is Normal in the Presbyterian Church?" in my Leading From the Center.

Antonio J. Sales Fonte Filho, rev. said...

Firstly, I should say that Purity certainly got to be that eternal target of any denomination, any Protestant Christian Church.
For me it's terrible to get informed that PCUSA long ago made an option of diminishing the Vital and Essential role of Scripture.
I'm from a Church, IPB, fruit of a missionary work from PCUSA and PCUS missionaries in 1859.
And the FLAGRANT APOSTASY that PCUSA has made its home it's really said, unpleasant.
Some of you may call me a fundamentalist, but this is for me simply uncomprehensible how far this situation has gone. Since 1970's. A true Christian, who was born again, who has seeking God's presence day by day, cannot sign down such a thing. I honestly pray that by God's Grace Such Apostasy Time may come to and end! For the good of the Christianism in North America and Europe, that for many non christians has become something old fashioned and meaningless due to apostasy this kind plus liberalism and other satanical attempts to prevail against the Real Christian Church, which is made up by all of born again christians.