Is there still a way forward for evangelicals in the PC(USA)?
[Update] I want to be clear that this post is not a call for evangelicals to leave the denomination. For one thing, my calling for something seems pretty silly since I’m just small-time pastor-writer–would anyone listen!? At the same time, I do want to make clear my belief that things are not getting any better for evangelicals. I think we need to name that reality and to recognize that it poses some dilemmas for us. -Jeff
Since joining the Presbyterian Church (USA) in 2005 I have maintained that there is a faithful way forward for evangelical Christians who call the denomination home. I still believe this, mostly because of the younger evangelical ministers I have come to know through the Fellowship of Presbyterians.
Like many, I have watched as year by year the church wrestles to solve theological dilemmas using polity means. The result has not been pretty–nothing short of a train wreck.
Human sexuality is certainly an issue. However, there are deeper issues that we seem unable to address constructively.
I have never expected–or wanted–the Presbyterian Church (USA) to be an evangelical church–that would be foolish. However, in entering the denomination I believed it to be defined by something other than a negation (i.e., “we’re the people who refuse to have any doctrinal standards”). I read the Confessions and the Book of Order and found in them something that connected with my own sense of identity. Negations don’t work very well as definitions and I’ve since come to discover that while I assumed a “plain meaning” of these texts others have interpreted them in ways radically different from my own, or ignored them altogether.
A recent decision by the Permanent Judicial Commission of the Synod of Southern California & Hawaii illustrates the untenable position in which our denomination finds itself–we have a problem of meaning. The written documents that shape and guide our shared life have virtually no meaning.
To some extent, then, it calls into question whether evangelicals can continue to exist in the Presbyterian Church (USA) in any way other than in name alone.
First, a little about the decision.
With the passage of the new Form of Government–a part of the Constitution of the PCUSA–it became possibly for presbyteries to enter into a “union” with judicatories of another denomination. In others words, a presbytery could be joined with, say, an American Baptist association.
Evangelicals hoped that this could provide an opportunity for presbyteries with a robustly evangelical theological identity to join with a presbytery of ECO: A Covenant Order of Presbyterians.This would allow the presbytery to have the support and mutual reliance of other evangelical presbyterians.
The Presbytery of Santa Barbara attempted to form a union relationship with the Presbytery of the West (ECO). A minority within the presbytery objected that the vote did not go their way and appealed to the Synod Permanent Judicial Commission (SPJC). The SPJC ruled in favor of the dissenters and barred the union.
The decision itself has some merits. It makes some apt points about the process that the presbytery followed in pursuing the union. It makes some polity points about how certain clergy would lose the right to vote under the ECO form of government. Fair enough.
However, where it decides the big questions it is a disaster. These findings demonstrate precisely the nature of the problem in the PCUSA. I’ll highlight several of the worst findings:
- That ECO: A Covenant Order of Presbyterians is not a “Reformed body.” Shockingly the rationale for this finding is that ECO requires its ministers to affirm “essential tenets” of the Reformed faith. According to the SPJC requiring anyone to affirm anything other than the Lordship of Christ makes that body not-Reformed. “…[T]he current understanding [is] that the Reformed Tradition rests on a clear understanding that Jesus Christ is alone Lord of the conscience…” which preludes (per the decision) asking a minister to believe anything.
- “Councils do not have the right to bind the conscience of either pastors or members to a pro-forma set of essentials.” This sounds nice on paper, but in reality candidate’s consciences are bound all the time. If you come before the presbytery for examination and assert that you personally believe women ought not be ordained to church office, your conscience will be quickly bound or you will be shown the door. If you openly state that the Bible is inerrant your ears will soon hear something metaphorically akin to Jacob Marley’s chains as your conscience is bound. In reality there is a pro-forma set of beliefs that almost all presbyteries affirm–it’s just not an evangelical set.
- “Defiance of the church’s discernment that categorical exclusion of gay and lesbian Presbyterians is improper.” In other words, it is now not acceptable for a presbytery to state that it will not accept gay/lesbian clergy/candidates publicly. Presbyteries cannot have a collective opinion on this, rather they must vote on a case-by-case basis. As a result, any attempt at union with a body that is to the “right” of the PCUSA is impossible. Under this rationale it would be impossible to form a union with a Methodist district, for example.
- Violation of presbytery’s duty to pursue ministry, and to establish ecumenical relationships, within its bounds. Note the words of the decision: “by aligning with a non-geographical presbytery…the Santa Barbara Presbytery has put theological affinity ahead of doing ministry in a geographical location and to work to develop and strengthen ecumenical relationships with believers of other denominations….” Seriously? It’s wrong to place a higher value on sharing a common theology with mission partners than in making sure your partners are in the same county? Incidentally, it is patently false to assert that ECO’s presbytery of the West is not “geographic.” Of course its geographical, it’s just not geographically identical to or coterminous with the boundary of the Santa Barbara and why should it be? This makes no sense.
- Denial of our commitment to remain open to God’s continuing reformation of the church. Popular renditions of this now trite phrase fail to include that this reformation is said to be on the basis of the Word of God. Folks in the PCUSA tend to use this phrase in to mean: “God’s continuing reformation of the church into the image and likeness of modern liberal democracy as exemplified by the political left.” The majority decision expresses dismay at the thought of a presbytery of the “likeminded.” The horror! Imagine life and ministry with a diverse group of people who theology is rooted in common essentials–that would suck. I disagree. I think a significant degree of common theology would allow the presbytery to be what it is supposed to be: a theological community of teaching and ruling elders shepherding, leading, and holding one another accountable in the Gospel.
This decision raises some questions for churches and ministers:
- What do you think about laboring in a denomination where the only essential belief is that no beliefs are essential? There’s almost a pervasive hermeneutical agnosticism in the PCUSA, a reticence to make interpretive decisions about Scripture. This has led to polity (governance) being tasked with shaping the contours of the church’s theology–a task doomed to fail.
- What is the point of a presbytery if not to guard the purity of the church and advance the preaching of the Gospel? As I mentioned above, presbyteries already bind the consciences of elders on certain issues–it’s the nature of their work. There’s an unwillingness, however, to be open and explicit about what these tacit essential issues are.
- What is the nature of the continuing reformation of the church? Is it rooted in the witness of Scripture or in some nebulous appeal to progress? I don’t expect the PC(USA) to be an evangelical church. I do wish it to be a confessional church that values the theological integrity of its ministers.